Thursday, 25 April 2013

Street Level Zen: Acceptance

"No man can walk out on his own story."

The Spirit of Clint Eastwood...
I mean, the West.

(Photo of real-life Rango courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and
a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

WW: Portland manhole

(Cell phone artist Dannon Raith strikes again.)

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Christopher Knight: The "North Pond Hermit"

(See my August 2014 update on Christopher here.)

Last week a man the press described as a "hermit" was arrested in Maine. As usual, the coverage was Swiss-cheesed with hanging references, and much of the rest played to stereotypes and sentiment. After concerted research, there are still great gaps in my picture of events.

But as far as I can tell, Christopher Knight is not a hermit (that is, a person who withdraws from society for spiritual ends). He appears instead to be a recluse. I did find, in a single article, a mention of meditation, without elaboration. Aside from that, all that's clear is that Christopher lived under a tarp in the forest, for a long time. I question whether he did so for the 27 straight years he claims; there are significant holes there, too.

He survived in the bush by stealing from shuttered summer cabins. Thus, many are furious with him. Fair enough; anyone who's been burgled will tell you the damage goes much deeper than the simple cost of the goods. But as an actual hermit, I can imagine the thought process that might lead an otherwise inoffensive solitary to such a decision, especially if he's been alone a long time. Removed from human influence, you start to be shaped by other moralities. That's why we do it.

However, if he isn't a fair-dinkum hermit, Christopher may at least lean that way. Even his victims admit he mostly stole the wherewithal of life: food, fuel, bedding, batteries. He walked right past money and valuables, damaged as little as possible, and even locked up when he left. And I found a single unsupported suggestion that he left things. Payment? Apology? Aggravatingly, no particulars.

Finally, not a single mention of weapons. Not even a knife. Hell, not even a stick. (Frankly, that begins to be a bit foolhardy.)

Tellingly, law enforcement agents speak of Christopher in solicitous tones; these are not people given to the benefit of the doubt. And the fact that there has been no description of the arrest means it was undramatic. Apparently, officers just walked into Christopher's camp, cuffed him, and led him off to a cell.

But what stung me is the unhelpful and untruthful "analysis" in some press coverage. An otherwise objective Bangor Daily News article quotes one Todd Farchione, described as "a research assistant professor in the psychology department at Boston University", as literally saying that seclusion "stunts development." I got news for you, Todd: so does society. He goes on to say that Christopher's appreciation of talk radio "falls far short of personal interaction with others." Since that's also the lion's share of social interaction for many right-wingers, I guess they must be similarly "stunted".

But far his most arrogant statement is this:

“He [Christopher] might have knowledge, but he’s not going to know what it feels like to lose his first job or lose his first love, or make a mistake or suffer the pain that comes with living. He has not been living in many respects, not in a normal, socially acceptable way.”

Gizo H. Bodhisattva, where to start? Christopher doesn't know what it's like to make a mistake? Really? He doesn't know the pain of living? Out there alone, where the central nutrient of our existence, human kindness, is completely absent? But perhaps this is no problem, since he's "not been living in many respects". Farchione suggests that makes him so "socially unacceptable", he's no longer human.

Check it out, college boy: this hermit has a stick. And he's reaching for it.

Inevitably, Farchione refers to "schizoid personality disorder", which he defines as "a condition in which people lack the desire for social relationships". Yeah. The same thing is often caused by those relationships. There are plenty of sane reasons to avoid people. And unlike cultures in other times and places, this one provides no honest, sanctioned way for such renunciates to get by.

Fortunately, in the same article, Boston College psychology professor Joseph Tecce, (after a few more premature allusions to mental illness), offers a more accurate assessment of Christopher's situation. "He has not practiced the art of interacting with people," Tecce says. He suggests Christopher have a companion to sit with him as he faces the maelstrom of officialdom. "He’ll likely feel overwhelmed, and another person’s presence at his side could offer relief." That's helpful, insightful advice.

Eventually the truth will out. There will be a trial, followed by a book, and then perhaps, God forbid, a TV movie. We'll learn that Christopher's life as a recluse wasn't quite as we imagined, and that his backstory is more complex and more ambiguous than first reported. He'll become a cautionary tale about guys who live in the forest, and the righteousness of hounding them out of it again. This civilisation brooks no abstention, spiritual or otherwise.

What will not happen is any re-evaluation of the morality that Christopher found less attractive than a grinding life in the rough. In that he reminds me of the Vietnam War vets who took to the woods outside my hometown when I was a kid. Respectable folk feared and judged them, called them hippies, maniacs, and delinquents, and sometimes sent the police to hunt them down. (The first Rambo movie, filmed here on the North Coast, was inspired by those incidents.) That experience too produced no change in public morality: of war, of exploitation, of collective guilt, of anything else. Because if there's one thing The Consensus does well, it's lambasting every selfishness but its own.

I hope Christopher gets support from decent people, and that as the public learns the full texture of his tale, he bears up against the blowback. When it's all over, the Maine winter may not be the coldest thing he's survived.

UPDATE: Hermythology, a documentary about Christopher, is scheduled for release 17 July 2013. Further information is available here.

UPDATE, 15 September 2013: Christopher Knight has been sentenced under a provision that allows him to serve his time without incarceration, in a supervised programme. All things considered, a wise and sensitive decision. Details here.

UPDATE, January 2014: The Maine State Police Trooper who led the Christopher Knight investigation believes his story is accurate as told; mention of an alcohol addiction; and his reintegration is apparently going smoothly to date. Details here.

(View of the world from under a tarp courtesy of Flickr and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

WW: Corkscrew hazel

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Koan: Basho's Stick

One day, Basho called a student who was to travel to another monastery into the dokusan room.

"Have you a stick?" he asked.

"No, master," said the student.

"Then I will take it from you," said Basho.

"But I don't have a stick," said the student.

"Ah," said Basho. "In that case, carry it along."

"But…" -- the student looked about, bewildered -- "I don't have one."

"Exactly," said Basho.

"But I'm going away," said the student. "I'll need a stick."

"Indeed you will," said Basho.

"So you should give me one," said the student.

"I have," said Basho.

"But I don't have a stick!" said the student.

"Yes. Good thing I gave it to you," said Basho.

"BUT I DON'T HAVE ONE!" shouted the student.

"I see," said Basho. He considered the matter.

"Alright, you've convinced me. Give me your stick."

"Look," said the student. "I came in here without a stick, right?"


"And you didn't give me one."


"So give me a stick!" the student said.

"Hey, I know!" cried Basho. "Let's trade sticks!"

Wu Ya's commentary: "Third base!!!" 

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

WW: Bracken sprout

(Photo by Laura Ackerman.)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Key to Enlightenment

It's the not knowing that kills. Having no explanation; not knowing why it's happening, or what will happen next. Torturers know it. Interrogators know it. Abusive lovers know it. It's being left alone with your doubts. Under such circumstances it takes very little to break a heart. Or a will.

That's Fudo's greatest strength: he accepts the voices without resistance, and lets them flow out his other ear, unimpeded and unentertained. Thus he has the power to see what is there, and also what is not there.

Easy in theory, difficult in practice. But, I'm convinced, the key to Enlightenment in this life.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Walters Art Museum.)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

WW: Glass rolling pin net float

(All the way from Japan and the mid-20th Century; newly arrived on my beach.)

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Great Pacific Sock Patch

According to figures released by the Index of International Statistics, the Great Pacific Sock Patch may be one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. In this region off Australia's east coast, millions of odd socks churn, from every nation in the Pacific Rim. Some are sweat socks. Some are dress socks. Black, white, and argyle; toe socks and boot socks and nylons. And around December, a documented uptick in Christmas stockings. But they all have three things in common: they're footwear; they're unmated; and they threaten one of the world's most sensitive habitats.

The basic mechanics of the Sock Patch phenomenon have been known for centuries, but with global warming accelerating the rotation of the Pacific gyres, it has become a matter of international concern. Single socks have a well-documented tendency to drift; that's why you're likely to find fewer of them after laundering than before. Over the years there have been many attempts to explain this frustrating peculiarity. Children in my grandparents' day were told stories of the Sock Thug, a pirate who stumped into homes while the noise from the washing machine masked his footstep and snatched out single socks to sell to other pirates. Families in the 1940s were cautioned against keeping cats, after an article in Ladies' Saturday Evening Journal posited a high correlation between having a cat in the house and coming up short on stockings. And then there was the exorcism fad of the 1970s, when priests were called into homes to cast out the "dryer demons" that randomly ate socks. Because, you know: evil.

But in the mid-1990s, scientists working with superconductors finally cracked the case. Turns out all socks are either positively or negatively charged. The negative side of the pair tends to remain passive, but the positive one leans, imperceptibly, toward ground. That's why they often end up on the ground, and then, drawn by the superior conductivity of water, in lakes and streams. At last they reach the Pacific Ocean, where they swirl in the currents, slowly wending their way south, drawn apparently by the static cling generated by Australia's low average relative humidity. Sadly, before they can actually wash up on the Fatal Shore, they become snagged on the giant barbed wire fence that is the Great Barrier Reef. So insidious is this phenomenon that parts of the world's largest living structure are now all but buried in odd stockings, smothering the coral and hastening its destruction by storms, owing to greater resistance.

Solutions have so far proven elusive. Attempts to interest private industry in harvesting the garments have foundered on the expense of sorting, coupled with the lower saleability of unmatched socks. Like so many other human-generated threats, the best response may be a fundamental change of lifestyle. The California Maritime Coalition suggests pinning socks together before washing them, a time-honoured strategy that not only keeps stray stockings out of the world's water, but also produces substantial savings for large families. Others advocate a total ban on wearing socks at all, while still others are calling for legislation to require that all socks henceforward be made of hemp.

Because, you know: hemp.