Wednesday, 31 December 2014

WW: Winter emu


(This giant bird has lived behind a local housing estate, beside a well-travelled bike path, for many years. You'd think a creature of the hot dusty austral plain would be miserable in our cold wet boreal forest, but this one seems healthy and happy, routinely greeting gawkers with an otherworldly, grunting growl. No-one seems to know how he ended up here -- not a top-ten pet here on the North Coast -- but he's a fair dinkum landmark hereabouts. As in, "Let's take a walk. Not far; just to the emu.")

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

Christmas 1976

Here's a quick source of good cheer for Christmas Day:

Google "Christmas" and a year, i.e.: "Christmas 1972" (without quotes)

At the top of the search results page, click on "Images".

Your computer screen will fill with photographs of people from the past, surrounded by love and light.

People you used to know.

People you used to be.

Then try 1964. Or 1991. Or 1930. Or 2004.

I could surf this stuff all day. And I may.

From all of us here at Rusty Ring, Happy Holidays to all.


(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer)

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

WW: Festive Christmas snake



(I have no idea why this garter snake is afoot -- so to speak -- on 23 December, in the midst of a typical cold, wet, and grey North Coast Christmas. Seen him "sunning" by the trail [in the complete absence of sun] two days in a row. Perhaps he's too excited to sleep.

Happy Holidays to all my Wordless Wednesday droogies.)

Thursday, 18 December 2014

1973: The Dark Christmas

LOOKING DOWN SOUTHWEST BROADWAY IN PORTLAND, DURING THE ENERGY CRISIS SHOWS LIMITED LIGHTING ON A MISTY EVENING - NARA - 555446
This Christmas I'm remembering a December 41 years ago, when the one-two punch of an OPEC oil embargo and a dry summer in my hydro-powered state caused electric rates to soar. That winter President Nixon extended Daylight Savings Time in a bid to conserve energy reserves. It didn't, but it did make all us kids get yards of reflective tape sewn to our coats and carry flashlights to our half-lit and -heated schools, because the morning commute was pitch black.

That crisis, which set the tone for the entire decade, swims in shadows in my memory: the dim classrooms, the wet, coal-black streets, the miners' headlamps my parents bought us for the walk to the bus stop. And especially, that drab, apocalyptic Christmas.

That year, Americans were enjoined by patriotic duty to eschew all festive lights, outside and in. (The power bill alone would have beaten any renegades unconscious, but they'd likely not have survived that long; citizenry that winter gave themselves wholeheartedly to rousing rounds of Finger-The-Slacker, Siphon-The-Gas-Tank, Flush-The-Hoarder, and other Serlingesque sport normally reserved for wartime.) Some jurisdictions went even further; neighbouring – and equally dam-dependentOregon straight-up outlawed electrical expressions of good cheer, and in fact, lighted displays of any kind.

That year my family forwent our traditional single string of outside lights that didn't even span the front of the house, and instead of lighting the Christmas tree, we strung garlands of cranberries and popcorn with needle and thread. In this way, I learned three important life lessons:

1. It takes forever to string popcorn and cranberries with a needle and thread.

2. You'd think the birds would be all over that when you hang the garlands in the yard on New Year's Day, but in reality they could give a crap.

And…

3. Garlands of any kind are in no sense or capacity, by any law of morality or aesthetics, anywhere in the Universe, a substitute for Christmas tree lights.

I've mentioned before that it takes such penury – properly lived – to give the ordinary its due shine and worth. Fact is, I've remained a huge Christmas lights fan ever since, and never miss an opportunity to darken the room and bask in the glow of a fully-decorated, suitably illuminated tree.

I don't know why these recollections are so acute this year, but to honour them, I believe this Christmas I'll stand in my front yard and shake my cane at passing teenagers, shouting, "YOU SPOILED-ROTTEN BRATS!!! JUST WAIT TILL SOME ARAB TURNS THE GAS OFF ON YOUR DAMNED CHRISTMAS!!! WE'LL SEE HOW YOU SMART-MOUTHED NAMBY-PAMBIES GET BY!!!

Call it old-man carolling.


(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of downtown Portland -- famous for its luminous holiday city-centre -- in the 1973 dark, courtesy of David Falconer, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

WW: Faintly macabre


(Encountered this on the beach after a wild storm. Very likely flotsam from the Japanese tsunami. Chilling sight in that dark desolate place.)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Parted Stays

By the time I reached Alan's apartment -- six hours of rainy interstate blockaded by accidents -- I was exhausted, disgusted, and keen to leave freeways behind for a very long time. My glasses were embedded in the bridge of my nose, the bows biting into my ears.

But how good to find Al at the end! He smiled broadly as he opened the door, and I was heartened to see that the break-up hadn't taken the glint from his porcelain-blue eyes. He laughed his "H-e-e-ey, man!", clamped my hand, and suddenly we were college kids again, as if Al could make it so simply by combing his thick blond hair the same way.

There was nothing for it but to return to the scene of the crime, and so we drove across town to Fairhaven and our favourite restaurant. As I savoured a mushroom burger and frosty porter, Al regaled me with tales of his tour in the Air Force, his current job fixing helicopters, and a bar fight he'd recently witnessed, his large hands evoking the knife-whirling Canadians as he mugged and gesticulated, eyes wide with an enthusiasm that fell away from the rest of us with our hair.

We picked up frozen yogurt on the way home and spooned it out across Al's breakfast counter -- I in the living room, he in the kitchen. Missing furniture and blank spaces on the wall told a story that lost none of its poignancy for remaining unspoken. When at last Lake Whatcom blacked out of the sliding glass door, he said that Michelle had been with abusive men before they met, that she treated him like a child, and at last came to consider him the enemy. I understood, and said nothing. That Al's relationship had failed at the same time as mine only deepened the anguish: another stay parted on a sea grown surly. But there was exhilaration in facing the storm together, damming it up in silence, and so defeating it.

I slept fitfully on the sofa that night, and woke to muffled morning-jock banter from Al's clock radio. We gulped tea as he readied for work, the anticipated stress of our respective days twanging between us in monosyllables. At the door we hesitated, I in the hall, he on the mat, reluctant to desert the other in the presence of danger. But there were aircraft to repair, roads to run. We clasped hands again, muttered "See ya, man," and the door swung shut.

I showered and dressed, but the sadness didn't break till the Ram's engine roared to life.


(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

WW: Spawned out


(Remember, young people: SEX KILLS.)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Koan: Liberation

READING AND STUDYING BY KEROSENE LAMPS BECAME MORE COMMON AS PEOPLE TRIED TO CONSERVE ELECTRICITY. THIS PERSON IS... - NARA - 555428

One day a man found a battered lamp by the roadside. As he polished away the grime, a genii came streaming out of the burner in a pillar of flame.

"For liberating me from that prison, I will grant you any wish!" he cried.

"Make me the richest man in the world!" said the man.

And POOF! The genii took away his desire.





(From an old Russian story. Photo courtesy of David Falconer, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

WW: Solar prescription


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Good Song: Was It Ever Really Mine

I collect Authentic Christian Pop artists, that is, devout Christians whose lyrics centre on practical application of Christ's values, rather than skin-deep commercials. They're damn thin (so to speak) on the ground, but every one I've found so far is brilliant. Inspired by fundamental truth, their work has universal appeal, and practitioners of this tiny genre work mindfully to keep it that way. Is it an effective strategy? Well, Zen Buddhist hermits love their stuff. So you tell me.

Jon Troast is a great example. Check out, by way of appropriate Thanksgiving meditation, his Was It Ever Really Mine:


This charming footage was shot at one of Jon's famous living room concerts. (He travels the US, Basho-like, and performs for any private citizen who comes up with the pittance he charges. Yes, I'm serious: book him here.) The sound quality suffers from impromptu technology, but the album cut is crystal-clear and professionally mixed and can be streamed in the "Launch Music" device in the upper left corner of his website. Alternatively, you can GET THE ENTIRE ALBUM FREE simply by joining Jon's email list. (A $10 US value, by the way.) I have no idea how this guy stays in business, or why he's not on the charts, but perhaps we can contribute to both.

One way or another, it's one more thing to be thankful for.

WAS IT EVER REALLY MINE
By Jon Troast

I brought a dollar to the store today
Wanted to buy something new
I put the dollar in my front pocket
And brought it back home to you

‘Cause I don’t want to buy what I don’t need
And I don’t want to own what I can’t keep
And if I’m gonna have to leave it all behind
Was it ever really mine?

I made a dollar at my job today
I show up every week
I guess I really didn’t make it
They gave it to me

‘Cause I don’t want to buy what I don’t need
And I don’t want to own what I can’t keep
And if I’m gonna have to leave it all behind
Was it ever really mine?

There are mansions waiting in the sky
Where the rivers run but never run dry
There are highways of gold, room for this soul
I don’t think Jesus would lie

I put a dollar in the mail today
I hope it gets there in time
They look so hungry on my TV
I hope they’ll be alright

‘Cause the store’s full of things that I don’t need
And the world’s full of mouths that I can’t feed
And if I’m gonna have to leave it all behind
Was it ever really mine?

And I don’t want to buy what I don’t need
And I don’t want to own what I can’t keep
And if I’m gonna have to leave it all behind
Was it ever really mine?



WW: Nine meditation candles


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Refuge

Neak Pean, Angkor, Camboya, 2013-08-17, DD 01

Zen is all about refuge. To this end, monastery monks daily intone the Three Refuge (or Three Jewel) Chant:

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.

(In theory, the first and third "refuges" are only a means to the second, which is the ultimate point of Buddhist practice. As a famous Zen teaching advises, even the Buddha himself is only toilet paper: really valuable when used, really objectionable after.)

In my practice, I find that this issue of refuge – specifically, where I seek it – comes up every minute. Every experience I've ever had has led me to the conclusion that the Buddha's teaching – that the Dharma is the only shelter, and all else a trap – is scientific fact.

So I'm enlightened. Schedule me to address the UN; I'll straighten those people out.

On second thought, maybe you better hold off, just yet.

Turns out "knowing" is not the same as "doing". Even "learning over and over and over again", for some reason, is still not attaining.

I keep seeking refuge in other stuff. Especially people. People suck as refuge. That's not misanthropy; it's just that all of us are so busy screaming our lungs out in our pitch-dark cells that we're not reliable refuge for others. Even those who don't want to, are going to fail you. (And most aren't even trying.) I know this, but somehow I can't shake the notion that – for example – female companionship would make me happy. Reams of research have proven that well dry, and I've even stopped drilling there. (Is it just me, or did it suddenly get Freudian in here…) But still that voice whispers, "That's where it all went wrong. If you'd found a loving woman, you'd be fine."

No I wouldn't. I'd be fretting about something else. Like jobs. Yeah, I know this culture teaches that a "productive" life (which bears a remarkable resemblance to slavery) is the key to happiness, but my success at finding an enlightened, non-exploitative employer is a precise mirror of my love life. Score: zero.

And I've been blessed with a pretty good family, when I look around at what others drew, but that's no source of enduring happiness either. I also have excellent friends, but they have their own lives, worries, and issues.

In sum, no-one I've ever met is any more perfect than me. And boy, is that bad news.

I've tried other things, too. Pretty much all of them, in fact: nationalism, religion, ideology, advocacy of this and that, marketing my skills and talents, competing, coöperating, obeying, rebelling, serving others, serving myself. None of it is worth a crock of warm spit.

The only thing that works is the Dharma. I call it keeping your eyes on the horizon. When things get really bad, I literally lift my eyes to the sky. It's big. Bigger than me. Bigger than you. Bigger than big, in fact.

According to Zen, "don't know mind" is the road to that refuge, and all my research to date endorses that. How else you gonna learn what you already know? One way or the other, it's crucial to remember that time is long, space is big, and people are stupid. Don't get attached to being one. This is only temporary.

May we all find a warm and lasting refuge.


(Photo courtesy of Diego Delso and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

WW: Mystery of the footless shoes


(These shoes -- and accompanying child's thongs -- remained at the foot of the beach path for several weeks. Footwear left briefly in this place is not unusual; that it never be recovered is unheard-of.

What happened to the beachwalkers?)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Street Level Zen: Putting It Down

Cinemaaustralia






"You can't spend your life crying. It annoys people in the movies."

Neil Simon









(Photo courtesy of Fernando de Sousa and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

WW: Protective custody



(Or: How To Get a Catnap With a Puppy Around.)

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Hermitcraft: Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

Shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) are ubiquitous now where I live. These very common and almost globally-available wild mushrooms are a favourite of mine, because in spite of their omnipresence, and the breathtaking quantities you can sometimes pick, they have an extremely narrow field-to-table window. Basically, they begin liquefying into black goo the instant they're cut. Which means two things:

1). Unlike chanterelles, oysters, and certain boletes, they haven't been commercialised, and so are only available to foragers. And...

2) They're a blessing you have to take advantage of the instant you see them, and so are an excuse to lay other things aside and celebrate.

Because of their ephemeral nature, I have many more memories of having to pass up brilliant sets of shaggy manes due to bad timing, than I have of delicious shaggy mane feasts. But when the stars were aligned, fabulous lunches and dinners have suddenly replaced the humdrum dish I'd planned.

Growing in profusion along trails, sidewalks, and roadsides, in parks and yards, and even in dirt-floored buildings, this savoury delicacy is harder to avoid than to find. And with its frilly, delicate torpedo cap, splitting easily when pinched and bruising pink; its hollow, brittle white stem; and the frequent presence of gooey overripe individuals nearby (see photo right), it's hard to misidentify. Any confusion is likely to be with other coprines (such as C. sterquilinus) that are edible and delicious in their own right.

The trick to mushrooms of this genus is to keep them cold and cook as soon as possible. Really fresh ones, refrigerated immediately after picking, may keep 24 hours with only minimal blackening around the gills; any longer, and you've got a bitter, sticky mess. For best results, eat your collections as soon as you get them home, even if it's just in an omelette. (It'll be an omelette you won't soon forget.)

If you can't use your shaggy manes immediately, cook them quickly and freeze (or refrigerate to use in a few days). Some steam them in a saucepan with a little water, but I prefer to rinse them first, then slice the caps and stems coarsely and pop the pieces into a skillet with just the water that's left on them. I add a bit of cracked pepper, chopped onion, and minced garlic, cover tightly, and mijote over low heat till the alliums are translucent. This way the mushrooms produce their own liquor, concentrating flavour and resulting in a meaty-smelling mixture (see photo below) that can be added to other recipes or used by itself as a sauce base. The whole process takes only a few minutes.

So keep a sharp eye to the margins this autumn, and you may end up with a year's supply of choice, unbuyable mushrooms, one panful at a time.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

WW: Earthstars


(Geastrum saccatum; looks remarkably like a green olive
toothpicked to a small roll, but it's really a mushroom.)

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Not-So-Fast Kyôsaku

Celadon Seated Arhat with Underglaze White Slip

"Arhats, who have reached their last birth and think they are done with it all, are unable to raise their thoughts to supreme enlightenment."

-- Paraphrased from The Prajna Paramita Sutra on the Buddha-Mother's Producing the Three Dharma Treasures, or The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, Chapter 2, Preamble.





(Photo of celadon arhat figurine courtesy of the Korean Copyright Commission and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

WW: Strange bedfellows


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Dharma Combat

Chùa Hoa Yên Hermits are sometimes accused of cowering in the woods, hiding from reality. Cloistered monks too, of huddling behind their walls. These are the delusions of a snotnosed civilian; both are battlefields, every minute of every day, and no foxhole for atheists.

Thus I've discovered what all forest monks know: that most of what we call "getting over" grief and hurt is just distraction. On the mountain it all comes back: the jagged jobs, the ruined relationships, the opportunities missed and messed. Harm I did others, harm they did me. And all the times I've been left for dead. Old wounds reopen, raw as recoil. And there is no morphine: no television, no radio, no music or books. You have to sit with it.

Sit with it, stand with it, sing with it, sleep with it.


(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of Chùa Hoa Yên in Quảng Ninh, Việt Nam, courtesy of Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

WW: Pacific staghorn sculpin


(Leptocottus armatus [I think].)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Everyone

Everyone has a room to air.
Everyone has a soul to bare.
Everyone has a horn to blare.
Everyone has a cause to care.
Everyone has a task to chair.
Everyone has a doubt to dare.
Everyone has a bent to err.
Everyone has a hull to fair.
Everyone has a flame to flare.
Everyone has a growl to glare.
Everyone has a hound to hare.
Everyone has a glove to pair.
Everyone has a call to prayer.
Everyone has a chance too rare.
Everyone has a crow to scare.
Everyone has a song to share.
Everyone has a snipe to snare.
Everyone has a coin to spare.
Everyone has a debt to square.
Everyone has a scowl to stare.
Everyone has an oath to swear.
Everyone has a page to tear.
Everyone has a road to there.
Everyone has a robe to wear.


Komuso Buddhist monk beggar Kita-kamakura


















(Photo of Fuke Zen monk courtesy of Urashima Taro and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

WW: Mysterious sand castle


(Every October this team of wheelbarrow-pushing men appears on the beach in front of my house and proceeds to spend the entire day building an immense, elaborate sand castle. They mould the bastions with buckets, garbage cans, and pre-made plywood forms, and surround them with a deep, precisely-engineered moat. Then they abandon their work to the waves, which are usually at the gate by this time. Six hours later, the whole project is nothing but a shapeless puddle with a few islands in the middle.

I have no idea who these men are, where they come from, or why they observe their annual rite at this cold and blustery time of year, but I choose to see their art as a comment on defence spending.)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Happy Las Casas Day!

This week I'm seconding a motion by The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman to see Columbus Day repurposed as Bartolomé de las Casas Day. Las Casas, originally a conquistador, repented of his horrific sins, became a Dominican friar, and evangelised Mesoamerican First Nations during the period of contact. Unfortunately for Power, he turned out to be a Christian Claude Anshin Thomas, decrying the mind-numbing brutality and utter lack of respect for human life that characterised the European invasion of the Americas. Worse yet he documented them, first in Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (also available in English) and then the more comprehensive Historia de Las Indias.

In the sordid history of colonialism, Las Casas stands out as one of the few Christians who practiced what he preached. (Literally.) He's a favourite of mine because he experienced (and again, documented) personal spiritual growth over his lifetime; convictions he adopted early on – such as supporting the African slave trade by way of avoiding the enslavement of his own flock – he soundly and publicly rejected after further meditation. I've found that this capacity to delve and change, even if it means admitting transgression, is the highest morality, and those who practice it are the most trustworthy of people.

Rather than repeat Matthew's case here, I'll just link to his own excellent and highly readable proposition. As a history nerd I can tell you that his characterisations of Christopher Columbus, the other conquistadores, and the good friar himself are historically accurate, as is his description of how Columbus Day became a thing in the United States and many Latin American countries. (Thanksgiving immunised us against it in Canada; one of the things I give thanks for on this day.)

Therefore, in emulation of Seattle and Minneapolis (though I don't much care for "Indigenous Peoples Day"; Las Casas Day is short, inclusive, and to the point), I encourage all jurisdictions to convert this holiday into a tribute to the courage and conviction of a man who stood against the tide and practiced his true religion in the face of overwhelming opposition.

May we follow in his footsteps.


(Photo of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, by Felix Parra, courtesy of Alejandro Linares Garcia and the Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City.)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

WW: Rowan berries



(Sorbus americana; technically called "sorbs".)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Autumn Haiku









the troops of autumn
touch down in a blitzkrieg of
small helicopters




(No maple seeds where you live? Make your own.)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

WW: Swainson's thrush

(Catharus ustulatus)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Good Book: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

I'm not sure he'd appreciate the label, but Claude AnShin Thomas is the most prominent hermit of our generation. Though an ordained priest in Bernie Glassman's Zen Peacemaker lineage, his practice is in the tradition of Basho. In his own words:
"I made the decision to take the vows of a mendicant monk primarily because I wanted to live more directly as the Buddha had. […] Also, in witnessing the evolution of Zen Buddhist orders in the United States, I wanted to evoke the more ancient traditions of those who embarked on this spiritual path and to live my commitment more visibly."
AnShin specialises in walking ango – long voyages on foot, without money, living off the Dharma and the compassion of others. He calls them peace pilgrimages, and to date he's walked from Auschwitz to Vietnam; across the US and Europe; in Latin America; and even the Middle East. He also leads street retreats, a unique Peacemaker practice wherein Zen students take the Buddha at his word and become Homeless Brothers in the urban core of a large city for a specified period of time.

Where, you wonder, does a guy get gravel like that? Well…

In At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace, AnShin describes his military service in Vietnam, where he clocked 625 combat hours in US Army helicopters, many behind an M60 machine gun. By his own recollection, he was in combat virtually every day from September 1966 to November 1967. He was, in short, the classic "badass American fighting man" so beloved of Hollywood.

Except it wasn't as fun.

He came home, like all war veterans, to a society desperate never to hear about those not-fun parts, or to pay for the care he now required for life. The tale that ensues has been told a hundred times, and each time is the first.

Re-reading At Hell's Gate (one of my all-time favourite Zen books) I was struck again by the sense that the author would rather not be writing it at all. There's a reticence in AnShin's prose, a tone of compelled confession, that suggests modesty, circumspection, and discomfort with the writer's art, at which he clearly doesn't feel proficient. Which is exactly why he is. You're not reading a writer; you're reading a veteran, in much more than just the military sense.

Interspersed among terse, almost telegraphic accounts of his past is some of the best how-to on practical meditation I've found. His themes are universally relevant: depression and despair; atonement and redemption; suffering and transcendence. All from a guy who speaks with thunderous authority.

His eremitical bona fides are equally evident. He writes:
"Anyone can come with me on a pilgrimage. It's not necessary for a person to become a student of mine or to spend time with me to learn this practice. It is open."
In these angos – which he defines as "just walking" – he's revived a practice largely abandoned in the era of institutional Zen:
"There is no escape from the nature of your suffering in this practice. When you walk, you are constantly confronted with your self, your attachments, your resistance. You are confronted with what you cling to for the illusion of security."
Should anyone require more evidence of AnShin's hermitude, his Further Reading section includes Zen at War, The Cloud of Unknowing (a classic of Christian contemplation), and the Gnostic Gospels, though none of them are cited in the text.

My lone criticism of At Hell's Gate is its light treatment of those incredible pilgrimages. In fact, I wish AnShin would write a whole 'nother book just about them. I appreciate his desire to avoid the odour of self-glorification; first-person journalism is a hard beat for a non-narcissist. And as a mendicant, he likely doesn't have time or space to sit down and write. But it's badly needed. I hope AnShin's sangha convince him someday to transmit and preserve these vital experiences, for the benefit of future generations. After all, where would we be if Basho had remained silent?

Nevertheless, the book we already have is all by itself a repository of rare and hard-earned wisdom, a chronicle of unusual violence and damage, leading to unusual insight. The man himself puts it best:
"Everyone has their Vietnam. Everyone has their war. May we embark together on a pilgrimage of ending these wars and truly live in peace."
If you're suffering – whether firearms were involved or just plain-old heartbreak – read this book.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

WW: Quick time-out


Friday, 19 September 2014

There's a River Crossed

Inverness Ness Footbridge 15760.JPG

Well, it's happened.

The outcome was exactly as I guessed, though it doesn't bring me any satisfaction. As a Canadian, I'm too familiar with separation referenda. It's difficult to get folk to secede from what they've known, unless they're being rousted out of bed by soldiers, imprisoned, and tortured. (Hello, Ireland!) But it's like the Scots to be game for a go on pure conviction; the fact that the nation was up to it speaks volumes. Too bad I couldn't be there; as I understand it, Canadian residents were invited to vote.

I'm impressed by the lack of newsreader second-guessing, constant updates on "who's winning", exit interviews, and the whole democracy-negating circus we North Americans put up with. Scottish voters were left in peace to make their choice. "Envy" doesn't begin to cover it.

Nor has the Scottish initiative been as cruel and hateful as Québec's was in 1995, an experience that left both sides so traumatised, still twenty years later, that the PQ have never been able to muster the political will to try it again. The SNP have promised they won't hold the nation and Union hostage to endless rematches in the coming years, and I heartily recommend that Yes cleave to this pledge. Trust me, it's brought nothing but damage and stagnation to Québec. (And I say this as a Québec nationalist.)

I was particularly struck, while avidly following the news from home via livestreamed radio, by the Yes movement's welter of voices: Irish; Australian; Canadian; English of many stripes; and a Babel of accents from non-English-speaking countries. One Yes organiser I heard on Radio Scotland was a Pakistani Muslim; another on the Scottish Independence Podcast was American. So proud am I of my father's people, that I've been irritating my Facebook friends with it even more than usual. (By the way, the most in-depth coverage I found consistently came from BBC 4; better than any Scottish station, in fact. Somewhere in there is reason to be thankful this happened in the UK, and not somewhere else.)

Any road. As we launch into the next phase of our history, let's get something straight: the Yes loss is a giant win for the Union, which stood to lose not merely a large part of its people, but the best one. The Scots are a people of the future, who can't be trammelled by broken-down notions of nationhood and justice. This train is steaming forward. It's get on or get left.

Indeed, any who may gloat at the SNP defeat may have cause to wish we'd gone after all by the time we're done. As my father said forty years ago: "The world isn't ready for an independent Scotland." Nor, I suspect, are many within the Union ready for the renewed, activist nation that Scotland has become. Show me another nationalist movement, anywhere, that speaks in so many accents, and I'll recant.

Aye, UKIP. I'm talking to you.

So, best to Scotland for the future, near and far. And all those promises we heard before the referendum, all the things Westminster was going to do, if only Scots voted No? Well, it's happened now, hasn't it?

So it's time for a reckoning. Or raise hell if they don't.


(Photo of Ness Footbridge, in my old hometown of Inverness, courtesy of Hartmut Josi Bennöhr and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

WW: Scotland rocks!

(No politics here; just my blanket wish for the entire
country, win who may.)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

For Fudo and Dr. Suess(-roshi)

Samanera_(sculpture).jpg Today I will sit
In this place, unmoving,
Until I have transcended all suffering
Or until my legs begin to hurt
In which case, I will stand
But I will sit while I stand
Then I'll walk about a bit
And sit while I walk
And then sit again
Really, this time
Until I have transcended all suffering

Should suffering hold out until lunchtime
I will sit while I eat
Then I will sit while I vacuum
Later I'll sit while I cook dinner, and then again while I eat
And then while I read
Finally, I will sit while I sleep

If by tomorrow I still have not transcended suffering
I will sit again
I'll sit in the bath, and I'll sit on the path
I'll sit on the grass and I'll sit on my, uh... cushion
I'll sit in the house, the garage, and the yard
I'll sit with the carrots, nasturtiums, and chard
I'll sit in a chair if I'm feeling conservative
I'll sit with a bagel, if it has no preservatives

I'm determined to sit for the rest of my life
In the midst of all happiness, boredom, and strife
I'll sit before dawn and I'll sit 'way past noon
I'll sit in September, December, and June
I'll sit while I sing and I'll sit while I cry
I'll sit in Vancouver, Algiers, and Shanghai
I'll sit while I play and I'll sit while I pray
Don't know if I'll sit while I poop, but I may

See, I'm no longer young, but I'm not just yet old
So I sit to remember and keep off the mould
When at last my bones fail, then I'll sit while I lie
And when my heart follows, I will sit while I die

After that I don't know what will happen
But it'll involve sitting.


(Photo of Thai child monk sculpture courtesy of Tevaprapas Makklay and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

WW: To picnics long past


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Street Level Zen: Needs

Tamme-Lauri tamm suvepäeval

"What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade."

Sterling Hayden


(Photo of the Tamme-Lauri Oak, Estonia's oldest tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

WW: Official flower of summer


(Monarda [bee balm]; aside from being beautiful,
it also makes good tea.)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Update on Christopher Knight, "The North Pond Hermit"

Loon Island, Forest Lake, Gray, Maine It's been a busy few weeks for the backlist. First, the passing of Robin Williams led to a run on my review of The Zen Path Through Depression. Then my article on Christopher Knight – "The North Pond Hermit" – trended as well. A quick Google search revealed that GQ had recently published an in-depth story about him.

The Strange And Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit is a remarkably sensitive and balanced account by Michael Finkel, the first journalist to win Christopher's trust… or at least enough of it to permit him to write a well-developed article. Reading it, I had the following thoughts:

o Apparently, Christopher really did live year-round in the Maine woods – in a tent, with no fire – for 27 years. I was not alone in doubting this part of his story; I've lived in Québec, and it's frankly difficult for me to imagine surviving even one night in the depths of that winter. In fairness, Christopher himself admits that even he barely did, sometimes. His greatest strength seems to be iron discipline, sticking to rigid protocols that allowed him, day after day, to meet critical challenges. My hat is off to him; I could never be so consistent for so long.

o As earlier accounts reported, Christopher possessed no firearms and offered no resistance when arrested. (Which didn't happen in his own camp, as I first believed, but at gunpoint, while burglarising a cabin.)

o I also predicted that we would soon learn troubling details about his saga, but this too has proven overly cynical. Though much of his past remains blank, everything released so far checks out. He really does seem to be nothing more than a guy who walked into the woods one day. (And who refuses to discuss his motivations for it.)

o He talks like the real thing. "More damage has been done to my sanity in jail, in [seven] months," he says, "than years, decades, in the woods." As a forest monk, I have no trouble believing that. And he has clear insight into his fate: "I stole. I was a thief. I repeatedly stole over many years. I knew it was wrong. Knew it was wrong, felt guilty about it every time, yet continued to do it." Believable perspective from a man who has been living in solitude; denial is a disease of the gregarious.

o It's interesting to note that in the woods he was always carefully groomed, but stopped shaving in jail. I also was more fastidious about my appearance on the mountain, in part to avoid attracting the attention of possible onlookers. Christopher claims his bushy, unkempt jail beard was a calendar; otherwise he had no way, in that barren, sterile environment, to gauge the passage of time. Again, credible.

o As it happens, he did meditate, but only when in danger. It worked, too: "I am alive and sane, at least I think I'm sane." But in spite of the article's title, Christopher isn't a true hermit. "When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me," he told Finkel. "Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy." (An impression that is totally accurate.) He was in fact a recluse: a person who lives in isolation for non-spiritual reasons.

o Mental health examiners suggest that Christopher may have Asperger's syndrome. Speaking as someone with close experience of this condition (think Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory), it's plausible. He was often cold, unresponsive, and impatient with Finkel; he sometimes voiced a high opinion of himself and disparaged perceived rivals – even famous confrère Henry David Thoreau – in adolescent terms. Tics not likely produced by three decades of solitude, which tends on the contrary to make difficult people (such as me) more friendly, loving, and mindful of others' worth.

o Another detail that may be counter-intuitional to the inexperienced: his camp turned out to be almost within sight of a cabin; isolation and distance are not always synonymous. He lived in a state of camouflage, just as I planned to do when I thought I'd have to sit my 100 Days on public land. The best defence is not to be seen in the first place.

o His difficulties with advancing age also ring true. He complained of the growing hardship of a lifestyle tailored to a man in his twenties, and shared my battle with failing eyesight, which he partially solved the same way: "I used my ears more than my eyes."

o Finally, and most fascinating, he did in fact gain profound existential insight out there, even though he wasn't a contemplative. "Solitude did increase my perception," he told Finkel. "But […] when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. […] To put it romantically: I was completely free." That's pretty much what happened to me, too. Interesting that Zen training apparently wasn't necessary – though it did get me there a few hundred months sooner.

Ultimately, my conviction that Christopher's story is essentially accurate as he reports it boils down to the following "Wisdom To Live By", surrendered at last to his chronicler after repeated pestering:

"Get enough sleep."

I learned the same thing, Out There.


UPDATE, 21 April 2015: The Lena Friedrich documentary on Christopher, formerly known as Hermythology, is now called The Hermit and has a Facebook page.

UPDATE, 7 July 2015: Christopher was released on parole in March. News releases quote both his attorney and the judge who decided his case as expressing confidence that he will transition smoothly back to civil life. Details here.

UPDATE, 8 March 2017: Finkel has just come out with a book about Christopher, entitled The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit. (Even though, as I've explained, Christopher was not in fact a true hermit.) I haven't read this book yet; I'll comment further when I do.

(Photo of the Maine camp country courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

WW: Okanogan sunset


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Robin Williams and Atonement

I've purposely held off posting about Robin Williams until the tidal wave of pro forma anguish washed past and left us in a place of calm. I'll give the media this: this time the coverage wasn't schlocky and over-the-top. Which is good, because the man deserves better.

But given the way he went, and the fact that August has somehow become Suicide Month here at Rusty Ring, I've got stuff to say.

First off, Robin Williams was a crucial figure to my generation. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere – not surprising, given that those of us who followed the Baby Boomers have always been studiously ignored. But Robin Williams was, to some extent, our John Lennon. The fact that he was apolitical suited us perfectly; so were we. His lightning genius was dazzling, his sword scalpel-sharp, though he never seemed to over-use it. He took down the officious and precious, but never harped or dwelled. In nearly every photograph a childlike gentleness glows in his eyes. He wasn't angry; he was self-mocking. In him we saw perhaps not ourselves, but what we wished we could be. And on a personal note, as a kid of Scottish descent growing up in the States, I'll be eternally grateful to him for finally convincing the Yanks that Robin IS TOO a boys' name. (Haven't been hassled about that since Mork.)

None of which I realised until he was gone. Sic transit gloria mindfulness practice.

With his passing, my man Robin also brought depression to international attention, resulting in myriad thoughtful, helpful articles about the relationship between creativity, damage, and loneliness. Last week my 2011 review of The Zen Path Through Depression trended worldwide, attracting hundreds of hits. So people are interested in the topic, and with luck some who need counsel are seeking it.

But one thing I haven't seen is any discussion of the collective responsibility for the condition and its consequences. Some time ago I read a study in which researchers assembled a group of depression patients and another of random others. Researchers gave each individual a series of open-ended true stories and asked them to predict the outcome. The depressed subjects consistently augured more accurately than those in the control group.

Get it? Another word for depression is insight. Often, depressed people suffer in part from the misfortune of not being as mentally incapacitated by denial as their cohorts. The implication is clear: at least some of depression isn't sickness at all; it's a tragic lack of sickness, in a world gone barking mad.

Last year I uploaded a piece partly addressing the issue of how to deal with such unfashionable insight, should you be so afflicted; suffice it to say that killing yourself because everyone else is crazy is unskilful, both for yourself and the world. But like Thich Nhat Hanh says: "Those who think they are not responsible are the most responsible." Therefore, today I'm talking especially to the non-depressed majority.

What can you do to reduce the suicide rate?

The standard Zen response is to be mindful of the seeds of violence in yourself and deny them water. Some of the best instruction in this highly effective practice is found in Claude Anshin Thomas's autobiography At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace. In the meantime, here's a short list of possible first steps:

  • If you belong to a church or other religious organisation that identifies any group of fellow mortals ("Satanists"; atheists; gays; intellectuals; competing religions) as individuals who must be "stopped"; converted by physical or social violence; or liquidated; leave it. 
  • If you belong to a political party or movement that ascribes the problems we face to some superficially-defined group of people (immigrants; gays; rich or poor people; criminals; another race; proponents of a political or economic theory; another nation); leave it. 
  • Boycott anger-tainment – shock jocks, call-in shows, intentionally biased networks, sensationalistic books and movies. Anything that's heavy on analysis and light on facts. Don't forget the red tops, too. The constant public shaming of Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse (who apparently still isn't dead enough), or whatever other none-of-your-business train-wreck is selling at the moment, dehumanises us more than you think.
  • Too ambitious? Ok, just declare peace on somebody. Your choice. Choose one group that annoys the crap out of you and say, "From now on, you have my permission to be or do that." Slow drivers? Fast drivers? Loud children? People who use bad grammar? Obscenities? Residents of big garish houses? Those who dump their shopping trolleys in the car park for someone else to round up? (Ooo, that's mine!) 

Note that none of these are solutions to any problem, suicide least of all; rather they're a way to begin clearing the ground so solutions can develop. Maybe now that those self-centred bastards who strew their carts all over the place are no longer prompting a battle response, I will see the cause and effect behind their actions and perceive an end to it. Worst case scenario: I'll stop squandering my finite human energies on unproductive suffering. (Starting with my own.)

Once you start, it becomes addictive, this business of reason, acceptance, and forgiveness.

So go ahead, brothers and sisters: take that first step. See how it goes.

Until next time, honoured reader: Nanu-nanu.

(Still of Robin being human from the Bill Forsythe film of that title.)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

WW: Sunflower in August


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Meditation Tips

(Note: readers new to zazen may find How to Meditate useful.)

"Meditation is simple," says Father Laurence Freeman, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. "That is why it so easily becomes complicated." He's right; the practice of zazen is so straightforward, so quickly mastered, that people want to fill it with something. Because if there isn't more to it, then what are you supposed to, like, do?

You want to avoid this mind. But obstacles do come up, and the benefit of others' experience can be helpful in overcoming them. So this week I'm posting some techniques that have been effective for me in those situations. None of them are "have to"; all of them are "choose to." Even: "choose not to."

o  Sometimes it's difficult to get your head on the right frequency, even after the standard beginning ritual of fixing the eyes on the horizon and three followed breaths. Early in my practice somebody suggested I add the following: hold gassho while following three more breaths, saying inwardly "May I sit" on the in-breath and "Just sit" on the out-breath.

o  Later I added "5 Ws and an H", as a means of anchoring myself in reality before entering formal zazen. So after the prayer above, I rest my hands palm down on my knees ("in-the-world" mudra), and pose the following koans – questions on the in, answers on the out:
Question: Answer:
Who is [your name]?I don't know.
What's asking? I don't know.
When is now? I don't know.
Where am I? I don't know.
How did I get here? I don't know.
Why am I here? I don't know.
Then I take dhyana mudra and commence typical 1-through-10 zazen.

o  Zenners usually meditate eyes half-open, and if we can trust our statues, the Buddha did too. But it's not a requirement, and sometimes (to centre the mind; in bright or distracting surroundings; under turbulent emotions; maybe it's just better for you) it's useful to close your eyes for part or all of the sit. Go ahead; nobody's watching.

o  Visualisations can also help usher out nagging thoughts, especially for beginners. Two that work for me:

 •Imagine dandelion fluff floating off on the wind.

 •Imagine you're sitting at the bottom of a lake and the thoughts are air bubbles, rising up and away. (I picture myself at the bottom of the ocean in front of my house, just beyond the breakers, on a sunny summer day. The roiling water mimics the whirling inside my skull.)

o  If strong emotion defeats the 1-through-10 mantra, "don't know" is often an effective replacement.

o  At the end of a sit, I hold gassho again for three breaths, saying "Thank you" (for the practice) both in and out. Then I rest my hands on my knees and go through 5-Ws-and-an-H again to finish. The response to each question is still "I don't know", but after 40 or 50 minutes of zazen the answer feels palpably different.

May these tips assist others with their practice.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

WW: August bounty


(Himalayan blackberry [Rubus armeniacus] lines most North Coast roads and bears strawberry-sized fruit by the tonne this time of year.)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ten Feet of Chutzpah: Northern Alligator Lizard

One day, as I heated laundry water on the old woodstove in the barn, I spied a lizard stretched in plain sight on a delammed sheet of veneer beside the hearth. His brown and black check blended in well with the dusty wood, but the ten-year-old I once was immediately detected the outline of his body. A stubby tail and missing rear foot bespoke close calls, and his willingness to bask by a human's fire, in full view and harm's way, betrayed a daring nature. Clearly he was as disgusted with that pseudo-summer as I was.

Like garter snakes, northern alligator lizards (Elgaria cœrulea) are classic Green Side live-bearing omnivores, if somewhat less ubiquitous owing to their love of sunny dry. In sharp contrast to their legless relatives they shun water, though strong swimmers when compelled. Theory has it the common name comes from their crocodilian lines; or maybe the namer simply knew one. For if alligator lizards top out at ten inches, their chutzpah stretches on that many feet. One may sink its seventy-odd fangs, like tiny needle-points, in a capturing hand, grinding its steel-trap jaws back and forth with real malice. As a boy I once had one ride peaceably in my grip for several minutes, only to clamp down suddenly on the web between my thumb and forefinger, chomping with a hateful fury it could apparently summon at will.

For all that they had distinct personalities and active, intelligent eyes, and I enjoyed keeping them as temporary pets. I learned to pin them to the ground with the flat of my hand, rather than grabbing, which might net no more than an amputated tail. It's a more than cosmetic problem; the animal's nutrient reserves are stored there, the loss of which can endanger its life.

My new companion remained by the hearth for an hour, as I moved carefully so as not to spook him off, until the grey ruptured and he slipped back under the west wall. I later found him ensconced in a bent-up corner of the corrugated iron siding, soaking up the fresh-bloomed sun.

He visited habitually thereafter, each time I built a fire. I never saw him enter; I just looked up, and there he was. Always in the same place, always with the same cocked expression of petulant entitlement.


(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Top photo courtesy of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game; bottom courtesy of Gary Nafis and CaliforniaHerps.com.)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

WW: Lion's mane jellyfish


(Cyanea capillata. We've always seen these from time to time here in the North Pacific, but lately it's one of several species we're suddenly getting a great deal more of. And this one isn't even remarkably big.)

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Good Song: Japanese Bowl



If you don't know Peter Mayer, you should know Peter Mayer. He's one of those artists (like Sherman Alexie and Regina Spektor) who deserve much wider play than they get. Peter, whose spiritual preparation is Roman Catholic, is sometimes described as a "Christian artist". I'd call his genre (if so narrow a vein can be called that) "Authentic Christian"; his faith is strong enough to be strengthened by other traditions (including Buddhist), and his work is carefully universal, accessible to all, free of recruitment slogans. He even writes a few of that kind of song that name-brand Christian musicians most detest: those with no religious content whatsoever. Just wise, witty, and fun. Well hell, you might as well listen to Judas Priest.

By way of introduction I offer the here-above. I chose this track for two reasons: it's one of the few selections from Peter's catalogue you can find on YouTube, and it perfectly encapsulates my feelings about myself. In fact, it's my new business card. From now on I'm just sending people the YouTube address, with "Hit 'reply' if these terms are acceptable" underneath.

And if any Buddhist artist has better described the relationship between dukkha and enlightenment, just you send me the link.

(By the way, this track comes off the CD Heaven Below. There is no padding anywhere on it. Just go ahead and buy it sound-unheard. You'll feel smart you did.)


JAPANESE BOWL
by Peter Mayer

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls
That were made long ago
I have some cracks in me
They have been filled with gold

That’s what they used back then
When they had a bowl to mend
It did not hide the cracks
It made them shine instead

So now every old scar shows
From every time I broke
And anyone’s eyes can see
I’m not what I used to be

But in a collector’s mind
All of these jagged lines
Make me more beautiful
And worth a much higher price

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls
I was made long ago
I have some cracks you can see
See how they shine of gold



Wednesday, 30 July 2014

WW: Gorgeous salal berries


(Gaultheria shallon. Beautiful, almost grape-sized
specimens, growing in full sun. One of the season's
sweetest blessings.)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Koan as Vaudeville: Nasrudin

Nasreddin khodja statue in Bukhara detail Zen is famous for its koans, those quirky, inscrutable Chinese stories that make no sense but are somehow profoundly true. My own devotion to it is rooted in this classic literature: the thunderous wisdom encoded in The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Equanimity, and The Gateless Gate.

But the Sufis (Zen Muslims, more or less) may have us beat; not only do they have a prolific koanic tradition of their own, theirs are funny. All while sacrificing none of the point.

These teaching stories, collectively known as The Tales of Nasrudin (نصر الدين خواج , خواجه نصرالدین‎ , نصرالدین جحا‎ ; Nasrudeen, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasr ud-Din, Nasredin…), chronicle the continuing misadventures of an Islamic scholar of that name. Like all academics (to say nothing of religious leaders), Mullah Nasrudin can be long on theory and short on practice, but his gift for brilliant, backhanded insight always makes for a worthwhile visit.

Back in November 2012 I ran one of my favourite examples in Rusty Ring's Kyôsaku series of observations by noted teachers. Others include:

  • The host of an elegant feast required all guests to wear fine clothes. When Nasrudin arrived, he began stuffing food into his shirt and trousers. The host confronted him angrily:

    "What do you mean by this?"

  • "Since clothes are more important than people," Nasrudin answered, "they should eat first."

  • Two children arguing over a bag of marbles came to the mullah to settle the matter. "Would you like Man's justice or Allah's?" asked Nasrudin.

    "Why, Allah's, of course," replied the children.

    "Very well," said Nasrudin, and gave three marbles to one and nine to the other.

  • "Mullah," asked a townsman, "is your theology orthodox?"

    "That depends," said Nasrudin. "Which heretics are in charge today?"

  • "Nasrudin," said another, "four years ago you told me you were forty. Today you still say you're forty. How do you explain this?"

    "I am an honest man!" said Nasrudin. "Whenever you ask me a question, you shall always get the same answer."

  • One day Nasrudin was walking along a river when a man cried out to him from the far bank:

    "How can I get across?"

    "You are across!" shouted the mullah.

(Note that there's a classic koan virtually identical to this, but not the least bit funny. The Sufis took the same wisdom, employed exactly the same imagery, and added a rimshot.)

In Sufi tradition, contemplators are frequently invited to offer commentary of their own, in the form of a suggested moral. In some fora, the list of these responses can be longer than the actual story, each one subtly spinning the punch-line into new – even conflicting – teachings. (Indeed, scholars as august as Idries Shah have even mined the humour of other cultures for that nugget of sanity that all comedy contains.) What a refreshing challenge to our own tradition, where only recognised scholars are permitted to comment.

My man Nasrudin has left his tracks all over the Internet – a medium made for him if ever there was one – and that's good news for his fans. Fertile starting points include The Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, NewBuddhist.com, WrongPlanet.net, Godlike Productions, and WikiQuote. Load 'em up and laugh.

All the wisdom, half the pomposity.

(Photo of the Nasrudin statue in the Lab-i Hauz Complex, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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