May There Always Be a Dialog

Excerpts from a letter to a friend:

Our best minds have pondered the question of individual responsibility and group accountability for millennia.

The Buddhist approach is partly to remove one’s self, metaphorically or physically, from the artifice of the daily stress cycle to contemplate what is really important and what can be done to achieve it. Happiness or contentedness is part of that equation …

The socio-political approach is to categorize and classify everything and all the players into neat little artificial groups, and assign goals to each. This has the advantage of presupposing the experiment-designers have some knowledge of which values can properly give rise to those goals, and the safety of insulating us from having to account for the pesky, unpredictable individual. As I once wrote in an essay I called “Black Elk Speaks” (yes, concerning Niehardt’s book):

“The thought occurs that it would be a bad thing to try to needlessly integrate the vision of Black Elk with my own, or into our present circumstances in the United States. There is a certain value and dignity in keeping these things separate from each other in understanding, for they are different experiences and have their meaning in different worlds. The Western rush to explain everything in terms of other things which are also not truly grasped leaves a vacuum, the filling of which is only approximated by art.”

Tribalism and elitism seem to go hand in hand with each other, and with the racial, ethnic, economic and other minority divides you observe. We have done a better job of breaking down elitism, in an average decade, than most other countries did over their centuries. We all just have a long way to go.

The answer will never come from one individual like you or me, nor even from some great future prophet. Humanity needs to evolve, and our particular “in” with evolution is education, as it has been for 100,000 years, and I don’t just mean science and math, either. ūüôā That will make us or break us, particularly the ūüôā part. It is not the sound of just the one right butterfly, it is the sound of them all taking off by the hundreds of thousands into the wind.

If you remember the TV commercial about cowboys driving huge herds of cats, ponder for a moment how one herds a cloud of butterflies, and you’ll have our answer.

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I found this difficult moment in time scribbled at the bottom of an old notepad on the dining room table, which I have not used for dining in years. It seemed worth preserving.


Well and properly I sit here by my lonely dinner, somebody assessing the miniature violet daisies and field flowers aglow in their vase; I keep that filled with fresh flowers for you. The houseplants grow perceptibly and vigorously green, day by day; some we nursed to health as little things when we first met. The sounding board of classical piano fills the room, our radio bringing the room alive, as we always did.

And reflections of interior lighting and illuminated walls, these overlay the exterior panes with a layer of light and color that we loved.

But through all this I see the piercing blackness of a cold winter night. I can sense all this and there is no one to tell. Your place at the table is empty, and I am free to reflect in my own time and place on an abstract beauty that has no specific concrete value to me now. I, the neutral spectator, watch myself watch the world, and it watches me to see, I suppose, whether I shall still wash the dishes because they are there to be done as I always do them, or whether, perhaps, I shall just leave them for a different me to do another day.

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Memo to the Kid on the Skateboard

It was nothing, really. I exited the market cautiously – I saw you and your buddies cruising my way on the sidewalk. Nothing breakneck. And then I was gone, and you were again on your way to the next great adventure.

Even though you stopped to let me pass, and I thank you for that, I could see you were annoyed. I was amused, because it was almost like me bumping into me, 55 years ago.

You see, I DO remember the inviolable sense of self that comes of attaining the great age of 10 or so. “Look out, people, can’t you see it’s me coming?” Continue reading

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Letters: Alex and the Creator

I myself do not actually believe in some sort of universal mind.

As I may have written before, if there is some Creator, however abstract, he oversees a domain as great as all the billions of galaxies, i.e. trillions of stars, and as small as neutrinos and quarks, and has been so occupied for billions of years. I expect he would be far too preoccupied with choreographing the great pending merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, five billion years in the future, to worry about the further education of Alex – who was born (and will die) in an infinitesimally small blink of cosmological time, like one of those ghost particles that pop in and out of existence in a flash.

But if he had that infinite bandwidth to care for this one in 6.7 billion souls, I have always supposed he would fully expect me to land on my feet and figure things out for myself. If he asked anything of me at all, I should think that would be, add to Creation if you know what you are doing, but don’t muck up what has already been created.

Letter to a friend, January 14

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Mysterious Barricades

Back in the 1950’s younger brother Nickie would play harpsichord records from dawn to dusk if he could get away with it. Our childhood household had all the keyboard masters of that recording genre and era: Wanda Landowska, Sylvia Marlowe. Everyone in the family except he and our mother hated it. We made fun of it. I, a loud-mouth vociferous teen, was embarrassed by it.

Here today I sit listening to a Couperin CD – Mysterieuses Barricades, and other Pieces de clavecin. Technically a far superior recording than anything available in 1958, the artist is Blandine Verlet, French, maybe well known in France but I have never heard of this person. The playing style is a little gilded, with frills and gratuitously extended trills where Marlowe would have just let the light shine through the traditional Couperin score, and where stern, metronomic traditionalist Landowska would have turned it into a funereal dirge.

And I’m enjoying it immensely, almost over-emotionally: “you were right”, I would say, but these days there’s no one left to phone.

There’s more, I realize. I’m beginning to fathom how many decades of distance have crept between me and that old oversize sun-flooded living room of the old days. This could be scary. I could be at risk of turning into one of those fragile oldsters who can no longer reconnect to the past without bursting into tears.

Exactly as it happened to my mother in 1989:

By that year my mother was no longer able to drive, but my youngest brother bundled her into the car and they drove over to visit me where I was staying in San Lorenzo. It was a wonderful sunny Saturday afternoon, and shafts of late morning sun were filtering through the living room window plants, almost like our living room of old. I decided to treat my mother to some classical music I thought she wouldn’t have heard in a long time. I had a nice stereo system and enormous Klipsch theater speakers that could flood a home with intensely rich music even at very low volume.

The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto wafted out of those speakers – the notes everybody remembers if they remember nothing else of Rachmaninoff. The speakers made the piano sound like it was in the living room. And Mum burst into tears.

My brother and I looked at each other in alarm: what could be happening? I hurriedly turned the music off. “What is it? What’s the matter?” we asked.

It turns out that, long before she’d met my father or her first husband before Dad, she used to date a Russian named Sergei. This is the piece he used to play for her, and she’d loved it. She never listened to it again after she and Sergei stopped seeing each other – which explains its absence from the vast musical library she amassed for her children in the old house on the hill.

So I guess it’s OK for me to reconnect. I never “stopped” listening to most of the old family music, because I carefully built my musical collection around it. I didn’t play Bach of almost any sort until about 1989 (as it happened). I started listening to the Goldberg Variations and 3-part Inventions about a year ago. It was only by chance I missed orderingMysterious Barricades” (Francois Couperin, 1668-1733) until just last week. A very short piece, it was always my one unabashed favorite. So, look at it as self-denial or penance or what have you, I am so glad to be hearing it once again.

But I waited too long. There’s nobody left to call who would remember.

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Viva Jerry Jeff

I was playing Solitaire and monitoring an old CD released by Jerry Jeff Walker, “Hill Country Rain” (1992). One take on the album might be that¬†it’s partly¬† a¬†rehash of favorites from 30 years ago: “Curly & Lil” and “Hill Country Rain”. Gone are the hard-drivin’, rowdy whiskey-throated lyrics belted out to an insanely toasted crowd. Nothing here¬†that could hold a candle to “Pissin’ In The Wind”, my personal favorite of those years.

If the name Jerry Jeff Walker doesn’t quite ring a bell, and you’re old enough to remember “Mr. Bojangles”, Walker wrote it in 1968. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took¬†the song to #9 on the charts in 1971.¬†However, Walker was most popular in Country Western circles for his takes on songs like “Hairy Ass Hillbillys”.

What struck me: “Hill Country Rain” is still Jerry Jeff, and a very good mellow Jerry Jeff. Like the real Mr. Bojangles after whom the song was penned, Jerry Jeff sounds like, somewhere along the line, he had the stuffings beaten out of him. From what I’ve read of his personal history, he did, but he’s done very well for himself since. You can read a short Walker bio on Wikipedia.

On this CD, the song “The Man He Used to Be” reflects – somewhat autobiographically – on the old days. Walker asks the question “what was I trying to prove?” Looking back, as I myself catch myself doing these days, Walker’s refrain summarizes it this way:

There’s no man stranger to himself
Than the man he used to be.

I couldn’t agree more. When I look back on all the fool stunts I pulled,¬†I can feel a little gratitude for being¬†here at all.

Originally, based on a conversation earlier today,¬†I¬†had thought of writing¬†a short piece¬†called “Top 10 Dumb Things I’ve Done”. I changed my mind. To limit it to 10 dumb stunts would hardly do justice to my youth. And that doesn’t even count the mean things, thoughtless neglect of good friends, the cheap shots, and all those legendary embarrassing personal¬†failures¬†that never should have been¬†spread all over town. Of course, there are also the good things I’ve done. I could write a “Top 10” list for those, but I do have days when I wonder if I could actually get to 10.

It’s been a hell of a ride. And it sure as hell ain’t over yet. Carry on, Jerry Jeff.

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Reflection on Magenta

A shaft of sunlight hits the cut crystal of the chandelier. It refracts into a rainbow of dots of color around the room: red, magenta, orange, yellow, and so on through the far end of the deep violets: thousands of little shards of the spectrum flood the floor, walls and ceiling.
“Look at me!” said the magenta. “Here I am, the sunlight!”

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