Thursday, 17 August 2017

Just Because You Don't Exist Doesn't Mean You Can't Have Integrity

Last week a reader posted a provocative question under Everything Doesn't Happen For a Reason:

"If one is not seeking to avoid pain [under Zen]," he asked, "should one look both ways before crossing the street?"

I confess to a weakness for this kind of Jesuitical repartee, though Zen teachers are famous for screaming "Katz!" at, slapping, or throwing hot tea on those who attempt it. The impulse is honest; since such queries arise in the discursive mind – whose self-centred, dualistic viewpoint is suited only to housekeeping – indulging them can block insight. Anglophones call the result "can't see the forest for the trees".

However, this case addresses a pitfall common to spiritual pursuits – the tendency to confuse theoretical truth with operational – and I think it's well worth exploring.

First, a point of order: Zen students are not taught not to avoid pain; we're taught to accept pain as inevitable. But notwithstanding Zen monasteries manufacture it on an industrial scale, the Buddha did say that enduring avoidable suffering is worthless to enlightenment practice.

However, the underlying issue here goes much deeper than practice forms; it's nothing less than the nature of existence. And I'm pleased to report that science has finally caught up with Buddhism in one essential detail:

Nothing exists.

The Buddha of course knew nothing about particle physics. He drew his conclusions from simple observation of his surroundings, albeit with delusion-corrected eyes. Now, two and a half millennia later, physicists can explain why stuff appears to exist, while in fact not existing.

Since I'm not one of them, I'll just cleave to their hypothesis here: most, possibly all, of what we consider "matter" is actually a cloud of electrical charges in transitory association. This is basically the same insight the Buddha handed down (though again, he had no notion of electricity), but science has extended it infinitely: molecules are tiny solar systems of atoms, which are tiny solar systems of subatomic particles, which are tiny solar systems of smaller particles, and so on.

To bring this all home, here's a scientific assertion I recently encountered online:

If you removed all of the empty space from every person on earth, the amassed matter of our entire species would amount to the volume of a sugar cube. (And if your discursive mind is well-oiled, it's now asking: "How do you know even that matter exists?" Exactly.)

Right. So that's all spacey n'all, but what does it mean? Well, to perhaps no-one's surprise at this point…

Nothing.

Seriously. OK, so you're a cloud and so is your piano. Go run through it.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

With any good luck, no-one will have tried. Because even though neither you nor your piano exist, there are other rules in play. Such as the one that says your particles can't trespass in the electrical fields of piano particles, even though all the particles are mostly the same, and you and your furniture are mostly empty space anyway.

In other words, just because you don't exist doesn't mean you can't have integrity. (And if I had any business sense I'd be selling t-shirts with that on.)

The koanic literature contains a few parables on the dilemma of simultaneously existing and not existing. My favourite involves a monk who goes out on his begging rounds after learning that nothing he sees is really there. When a rampaging elephant comes stomping down the road (and really, who among us hasn't been there?) the loyal young student, fresh from dokusan, focuses his mind on the elephant's non-existence.

And is immediately trampled. He limps back to his teacher and complains loudly that the teaching is false.

The teacher sighs, and says:
Alright. Here is the whole truth:

Nothing you see is really there.

And when a stampeding elephant is bearing down on you, get out of its way.
The monk confused theoretical truth (everything you see is a squirming splotch of promiscuously recombining particles, so whatever you think is there, isn't there) with operational truth (regardless of how temporary you and the elephant are, it hurts when one steps on you.)

And so, to accept my honoured reader's dharma challenge, I am bold to say:

Yes. One should look both ways before stepping into the street, unless one does not mind being creamed by a briefly-manifesting moving van.

At this point, some will ask: "What good is theoretical truth if it won't save you from being creamed by a slowly-dispersing moving van?"

Now that's a question.


(Photo of Namibian road sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer. You gotta respect the nation that posts "Mind the Paradox of Non-Existence" warnings along its highways.)

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

WW: Meditating Christians


(Was walking by the church I grew up in when I saw this sandwich board on the sidewalk outside. Centering Prayer is one of several Christian contemplation movements that are quietly but consistently gaining adherents. For my experiences in another, see this.)

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Right Religion

The lonely walk (4278047231)

Faith is quiet.
Doubt is loud.

Faith is supple.
Doubt is stern.

Faith is calm.
Doubt is angry.

Faith faults self.
Doubt faults other.

You must have faith to understand this.

Everyone says they have faith, but few do.

Skilful discipleship means distinguishing the faithful from the fearful.


(Photo courtesy of Vinoth Chandar and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

WW: Self portrait 3


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason

화각장 A few weeks ago a friend directed me to Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason, by Tim Lawrence. It's attracted an enthusiastic following online, and since August has become the traditional time for Rusty Ring to address such topics, I figure this is my opening.

Tim's central hypothesis – you gotta love writers who state their thesis right in the title – is also a primary Zen principal, but his objective trends rather more to the negative than affirmative.

Specifically, he's that tired of grieving people being told they're "suffering for a reason", that it's all part of some great compassionate plan, that "God never gives you more than you can handle."

"That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives," he says. "And it is categorically untrue."

Preach, brother. The problem with the "everything happens for a reason" crowd, aside from their faulty analysis, is that they lay a giant trip on the injured, just when their resistance is low. Now they're dumb, weak – hell, even ungrateful – as well.

Tim goes on to finger the origin of this nonsense:
...our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that […] you're surrounded by platitudes.
…In so doing, we deny [sufferers] the right to be human. [My emphasis.]
It's a hallmark of some worldviews to meet dukkha with weapons-grade denial. If you insist the Universe is ruled by a benevolent force, or that a given socio-political system is self-correcting, you'll immediately bang your skull on the titanium grille of the ever-oncoming First Noble Truth. Then you'll have to abandon all positive ends and exhaust your remaining intellectual capital on explaining why bad things keep happening in your Dictatorship of Infinite Good.

Therefore, for the benefit of all sentient beings, Ima say it right out loud:

Life is pain.

This is a direct result of the inescapable nature of existence. (Seriously. Don't try to escape it. That's a major source of pain. Second Noble Truth, for those of you playing at home.)

All of that is orthodox Buddhism – though Tim is an Anglican monastic. There is, however, one aspect of his programme that flirts with unskilfulness.

He's big into "letting people go".

Not that this isn't often an excellent idea. Good people tend to allow themselves to be abused, on the belief, inbred or inculcated, that they somehow deserve it, or that they owe it to others. Like other decent folks, I've suffered at the hands of those who took advantage of my patience and good will. I should have let those people go right off. Ideally before I picked them up.

However, like all weapons, this one is apt to wound its wielder, especially if overused. Thus Tim:
If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.
Seems a tad trigger-happy to me. I've often said useless things, maybe even hurtful ones, to people I authentically wanted to support. Problem was I didn't know what to say.

(Free tip from our Hard-Earned Insight Department: Sometimes you can't help. Sadly, the world is still awaiting the self-improvement book How to Help When You Can't Help.)

So let's not lose our humanity, here. When I've been in the worst possible shape, my capacity to remain human in the face of inhumanity has been tremendously gratifying.

Tim also loses me when he suggests that grief won't make you a better person. It damn well will, if you're determined that it will. As self-centred as I am now, I'm a buddha compared to what I was before. If recent politics prove anything, it's our moral obligation to suffer intelligently.

But of course it's not skilful to say that to someone in the throes of heartache. Instead, I try to offer tested survival tips from my own laboratory. And, since guilt and regret are key components of grief, I also bear witness to their decency. Psychopaths don't suffer.

Still, advising others is fraught. Often the best tack is just to accompany the sufferer in shared silence, accepting the person and the pain. Especially, to remember him or her actively. Call and text (that strange word again: "and"), visit, invite him or her out, break the isolation that's the warhead of both shame and grief.

Tim makes all these points, and others as well, in his timely essay. There's a reason it's been so well-received. Whether you're in pain yourself, or accompanying someone who is, give it a read.

(Photo of artist drawing Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

WW: Northern kelp crab


(Pugettia producta, in situ. This one is about two inches across. See a specimen in clearer context here.)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Street Level Zen: Don't Know Mind

Nelumbo nucifera 001
"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be an answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

Gertrude Stein


(Photo courtesy of H. Zell and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

WW: Mottled starfish



(Evasterias troscheli. These were among the worst-hit in the recent virus strike that decimated starfish here on the North Coast. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find this beach littered with them on a recent minus tide. All were small – hand-size, like this one – and many were deformed or missing rays. Whether any survive remains to be seen. The virus, which is believed to have been triggered and intensified by the rising water temperatures, has wiped out the once-ubiquitous sunflower star [Pycnopodia helianthoides], which preyed on this and the leather star. Some researchers are now using the word "extinct" to describe formerly robust Pycnopodia populations here.)

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gunfire Meditation


I've lived in the middle of many nowheres: France, Scotland, Latin America, Canada. Guns are common to all of them. Mostly shotguns in Europe; rifles in Canada, automatic weapons in Central America. You hear them occasionally. But the American bush crackles like No Man's Land.

On the Acres I often heard target practice, to put it charitably, across the river. Mid-range shoulder arms for the most part, .308 and .30-30 cowboy rifles. Practical weapons, deliberate and steady; I could almost hear the measured kachik-kachak of their lever actions. Los pistoleros, on the other hand, son muy locos; they spat out their little slugs in spastic swarms, like matinee idols.

Americans harbour a great superstition about handguns, a medieval fetish linking them, somehow, to national survival. I've been around guns and their owners all my life. Pistol people make me nervous.

But it wasn't a pistolero that shot my neighbour in the head. Some years before, Jim told me, the fellow on the east parcel had been shot clean off his tractor while mowing. He'd survived, but no arrest was ever made. The gunfire in the hills took a different echo when I knew that.

One sunny evening, while I meditated beneath the Tyvek, an AR15 (another crowd my gun-collector father taught me to misdoubt) opened up on Stripped Hill. A precise, military .223, tapped out as fast as the shooter could trigger. Thirty tight, symmetrical reports; a full clip.

"Dweeb," I grumbled. "Real revolutionaries carry AKs."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

WW: White foxgloves


(Digitalis purpurea. Digitalis is a weed here, and comes in
many colours, but the white is both recessive and striking.)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Rock Groups 2017

Well, it's July again, and you know what that means: another random blast of speculative rock groups. As I first explained five years ago, I have a gift for naming musical ensembles – one that goes entirely uncapitalised-upon, given the utter lack of a venue for such genius.

Therefore I routinely dump the cream of the harvest on the world right here in the Seventh Month. The usual caveats apply:

1.)  These names are entirely free for the taking, public domain, unregistered, homeless, motherless, and legally usurpable by anyone who wants them. Should you adopt one, you owe me no money, credit, thanks, or apologies. (But see Caveat #4, below.)

2.)  That said, be aware that I can't guarantee others haven't already named themselves something similar, or even exactly the same thing. So do a thorough Google search before taking the plunge.

3.)  Any suggestions I make about possible genres is just me talkin'. You can use these names for anything you want.

4.)  Any group that takes one of these names is entitled to tell fans they were named by a Zen hermit monk. Because nobody else has such a cool origin story. (Not even Nirvana.)

So don't be a clown; bump that frown and scroll on down. Because The Wolfman comes just once year.

Rock Groups 2017

Don't Tell Dad
DDT (thrash metal)
Scythe (funeral doom)
The Akkadians
Linchpin
Miri and the Grups
Northern Soul (Yukon, NWT, or Nunavut group)
Polydactyl
The Denisovans
JPEG
Rock Bass (that's bass as in fish; country rock, maybe)
Kapz-Loc (political rap)
The Red Paint People
Real Meat
Narrow Sparrow
Jude
Tin Foil Cat
Willie Wiki and the Socks
Les Chats Libres de Marseille
The Banned Italians
Whooping for Christ (non-Christian group)
The Organic Cavalry
Coldcock
Rotifer
Architect of the Capital
Wankel (industrial punk)
Bullhead (Southern rock)
The Divorced Presidents
Maitrank
Archaeopterix
Gang of Four
Catfish Walker and the Invasive Species (warning: apparently there is, or was, a blues singer named Catfish Walker)
Love Spoon
Harrow (British folk rock)
Soldierfly
Handschüe
Truncheon
Snakehead
Contraband
Igneous Music (record company)
Iceberg Let Us
The Walking Onions
Buddha Bowl
Auntie Christ
2-Ply (quirky rap)
Plywood (alt country)
Ten Foot Pole
Home To Roost (political country rock)
Schöttgun
The Mangerdogs
Isosceles
Aardvaark
Critical Mass (in High Gothic script, with Catholic imagery on the album cover)
Rhoticity
PissRipper
Los Hongos Serios
Early X
Redeye
Blackstrap

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

WW: Marine railway


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Good Song, Good Movie: Sabhyata and Sita Sings the Blues



Here's a neat convergence of genius, for a little customary Rusty Ring summer fun.

First off you've got Sabhyata, by Indian/Algerian group Karmix. That all by itself is awesome, but a YouTube artist had the good sense to double down on its awesomeness by creating this compelling video for it, by sampling animation from Sita Sings the Blues.

Which is undangerously legal, because that excellent film is public domain, by unambiguous declaration of Nina Paley, its author. (If you missed the whole ridiculous attempt at corporate piracy against Paley, read about it here.)

And that move begat an opening for the luminous work embedded here. So screw you, rights-scalpers.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Sita as well. It's a really entertaining riff on a tale from Hindu scripture; the hip, wisecracking shadow puppets alone are worth the price of admission.

Roger Ebert loved it. So do I. Free o' charge and at full resolution, right here.

Watch both at full screen on your computer, bare minimum. Television is even better. Good speakers will also greatly enhance the experience.

Happy July to all, from all of us here at Rusty Ring.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

WW: Red rock crab


(Cancer productus)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Critical Mass

NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise


The difference between one and zero is the whole world.



(Photo courtesy of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, NASA, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

WW: Leather starfish


(Dermasterias imbricata)

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Cul-de-Sac of Science

This week a Zen droogie slipped me The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists, a terrific graphic essay by Existential Comics. In this gripping tale of superhero1 derring-do, five ferocious female filosophers confront three uniformly male [c.f. “unsupported hypotheses”] cavaliers of positivist complacency.

They’re annoying, those guys. Furthermore, their boorish self-congratulation gains no evidentiary weight by their peremptory tone. (Incidentally, one of them does not bear a striking resemblance to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So stop saying he does.)

All of which fired my interest, because Scientism is the third wheel, alongside Taoism and Buddhism, of an up-and-coming Western school of Zen that is highly influential here. It’s called “Secular Buddhism” and/or “Atheist Zen”. In it, Scientism replaces the traditional Confucianism, an equally ad hoc, if older and Asian, retrofit I’ve already lambasted elsewhere.

I’ll leave a full workup for another time, but for now I’d like to suggest that evidence-based religion makes as much sense as revealed science. Which we tried for centuries, and some – such as creationists – are still trying to make happen.

To borrow an argument The Philosophy Force Five literally kick down their adversaries' throats: “Science can only tell us how to effectively [sic] pursue a goal, but no experiment has ever told us what we should value.”

What they do not point out is that the latter is also much harder to discover, and requires a great deal more intellect, to say nothing of perseverance, self-control, and courage. Science is in fact not the most difficult brainwork we do, and our compulsion for herding our best and brightest into it may yet prove maladaptive. (Which is Scientismist for "suicidal".)

By my reckoning, intellect, perseverance, self-control, and courage are also the foundation blocks of Zen. Aren't they prerequisite to our much-ballyhooed "don't know mind"? This is one reason I’m suspicious of the anti-religious zealotry of many Western Zenners. Atheist Zen seems about as doable to me as Atheist Christianity.

Please note that I wish my Secular Buddhist brothers and sisters health and success, have no intention of obstructing their teachings or practice, and learn a great deal from the insight they share. My argument is purely theoretical. And theory has no objective existence. See? I told you I was listening.

But as I grow older I’m learning that the market value of the scientific method is greatly diminished by the moral and intellectual laziness of many who claim it – particularly the sarcasm they’ve made a tribal language. In clinical terms, science seems to have died the same death as religion: strangled by the undisciplined ego of its adherents.

I believe we’re now suffering the consequences of this global catastrophe – the simultaneous extinction of insight and inquiry. In the end, it may well lead to our own.

But while you're waiting, be sure to read The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists. It's either brilliantly hilarious, or hilariously brilliant.

Discuss.

1"Superhero" is a registered trademark of Marvel Comics and DC Comics. God I wish I were joking.

(Graphic from the linked web comic by Existential Comics.)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

WW: North Coast homeport

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Koan: The Dead Man's Answer

Daisen-in2







When Mamiya, who later became a well-known preacher, went to a teacher for personal guidance, he was asked to explain the sound of one hand.

Mamiya concentrated upon what the sound of one hand might be. “You are not working hard enough,” his teacher told him. “You are too attached to food, wealth, things, and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.”

The next time Mamiya appeared before his teacher he was again asked what he had to show regarding the sound of one hand. Mamiya at once fell over as if he were dead.

“You are dead all right,” observed the teacher, “But how about that sound?”

“I haven’t solved that yet,” replied Mamiya, looking up.

“Dead men do not speak,” said the teacher. “Get out!”


(Case 42 from Collection of Stone and Sand. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

WW: The Blockhouse Wars


(On this site stood one of the first homesteads in the neck of Thurston County, Washington, where I grew up. During the Blockhouse Wars of the 1850s – a string of skirmishes touched off by settler abuse of First Nations treaties – the Eaton place hosted one of the tiny wooden stockades for which the era is named. I'm told the ruins of "Fort Eaton" endured well into the 20th century.

The marker was placed, not by any government organism, but by the Freedom Community, a Christian commune established nearby later in the l9th century. It too succumbed to entropy, but persisted as an ordinary village for decades thereafter.

When I was a kid this monument was all but lost under Scotch broom, baldhip rose, and Garry oak, beside a county highway that began life as the main wagon road between Oregon and Puget Sound. While reading history at university I found the plaque by the ancient oak beside it, which I was told was the local hangin' tree. [Oaks are rare on the North Coast; their presence on the Salish Prairie in great number was and remains much remarked.]

In the decades since someone has cleared a respectable little rest stop around the marker, rendering it much easier to find.)

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Economics

Mechanical egg timer internals
(The following is a passage from Rough Around the Edges, a manuscript I began 20 years ago. Though my Zen practice was still about six years in the future, it's interesting to me today to read a fundamentally exact description of what the Buddha called "world weariness" – the mainspring of enlightenment practice – written in my own pre-monastic hand. Like the man said, we come by it honestly.)

The problem, the problem. What is the problem?

You're born. Somewhere, someone sets an egg timer. For a quarter-hour you rave like a rich man in a burning mansion, snatching at a vase, a string of pearls, anything to show you lived there.

The timer dings; you're unborn. The necklace falls to the ground.

We get it about wealth. The prophets have all warned us. But there are other treasures just as fleeting.

I hunger for love, to share life, and not to be alone. Except it won't do. Even if you find love, the timer still goes ding. The necklace falls to the ground.

What's the problem? I'm afraid to die alone. But I live alone. I work alone, and most of the time, I love alone.

The seconds tick. The words echo in my mind. A thought occurs:

Perhaps the most valuable thing in that house is the fire.




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

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

WW: Limit of mussels


(My friend Ajai weighs his catch.)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Hymn to the Red Moon

I see the morning star
Bow low above the plain
And from behind the ridge
The rising sun exclaims:
"I got a new day here!
Any takers?
Go and get your mule, boy.
Here's forty acres."






(Photo of sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park by Rennett Stowe. Red moon over Arkhangelsk by a generous photographer. Both courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

WW: Hawthorn blossoms

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Facing the Wall

Sitting area by office (Tassajara).jpg
My brother Fletcher – formerly an ordained Zen monk, now an ongoing seeker after insight on another path – recently described to me his initiation as a novice at Tassajara. (That would be the largest Soto monastery in the States – possibly largest in the whole West – and a dependent house of San Francisco Zen Center.)

His story was typical: the ranking monks shut him in a room with other boots and made them meditate for five days straight. Is that OK? Maybe. Maybe not. Feel free to undertake the koan.

But the part of Fletcher's tale that most seized me was his coping strategy: he began chanting "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" in his head, and continued doing so throughout the ordeal. In fact, he says, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" remained a go-to mantra through the course of his considerable monastic career.

I like this on several levels. First, as juvenile as its lyrics may sound, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" is basically what the Ancestors instructed us to do when we sit. My technique is theirs: I count my breaths from 1 to 10, then start again, until I'm done. All Fletcher changed was the number of reps.

His approach is also refreshingly free of twee chinoiserie. You know what else is free of twee chinoiserie? Zen. Or it was, until it acquired "Ancestors". Once upon a time we were famous – scorned, actually – for our coarse working-class pragmatism, and also our impatience with Confucian obsequium. "Get it done," Bodhidharma said (more or less).

And Fletcher did. By his account, the old summer camp ditty (was this ever a real drinking song? don't drinking songs end every so often so the singers can drink?) got the job done: it kept his discursive mind occupied so it couldn't stuff every silence with worry, regret, and drama, and it afforded the rest of his consciousness an opening to engage the Great Matter.

Sounds like enlightenment practice to me.


(Photograph of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

WW: Homemade composter


(My mom needed a compact composter at her new house, where she doesn't have room for the sort of full-service compost bin system I built her 20 years ago. I looked into the storebought versions, and found they cost 75+ dollars. This offended my sensibilities, so I searched a bit online and found that people were making substantially the same article out of simple trash bins.

This one cost $25 and an hour's work. There are smaller holes in the bottom for drainage.)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Hermit Practice Kyôsaku

Walking on rail tracks



"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."

Claude AnShin Thomas









(Photo courtesy of Leah Love and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Don't Know Mind

A Couple Stars From the Hood (15181691902) As you get older, you call every change in your views and attitudes an improvement. But it only is if it is; change can be growth or decay. And "experience" is a lazy man's plea: "My experience has cultured and corrected me!"

Fact is, shallow logic is contagious. Chances are, if you're appealing to your past for justification, you caught some along the way.

So many of my friends from the day espouse facile extremism, now that we're old. Right wing, for the most part, though some went the other way.

What we all have in common is that none of us have lived long enough to pull that off.



(Photo of an Earthling pondering one tiny arm of our small, unremarkable galaxy courtesy of Zach Dischner and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

WW: Иконостас

Thursday, 4 May 2017

How To Be Perfectly Unhappy


This week I'm deferring to Matthew Inman, the Seattle bodhisattva who stands against evil and pointless suffering under the nom de guerre The Oatmeal. You may remember him from our 2014 nod, Happy Las Casas Day!

In How To Be Perfectly Unhappy, Inman takes on the Happiness Mafia, and he does so brilliantly and analytically, as is his MO. No Zen master (that is, no shingle-hanging Zen master) ever laid it out more cogently and succinctly.

At any rate, not more entertainingly.

Therefore, as part of my on-going outreach to fellow depression sufferers – and to our non-depressed brothers and sisters, who are equally responsible for it – this time around I'm directing you off-site to Matthew's nefarious lair.

Nefarious, I say, because once you step inside you'll never get out again. Clear your calendars, Zen droogies. I'm convinced it's called The Oatmeal because it's gluey and inescapable and "Quicksand" or "Spider Web" or "Satan's House of Infernal Temptation" would have been too on-the-nose.

You'll find the current example at How To Be Perfectly Unhappy.

And happy reading. (See what I did there?)

(Cartoon panel from The Oatmeal teaching linked above. Because the first hit's free.)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

WW: Busy beavers

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Hermitcraft: Tea Hacks

Teepause Tea is an integral part of Zen practice, and, for those of us with old-school British or Japanese roots, life. It can also become an attachment in the negative sense when you can't get any, or the stuff you've got is uninspiring. Over the years I've learned a few tricks to smooth out these bumps, and this week I'm sharing them in the hopes they'll do good for others, however trifling.

Accidental treasure

I'll start with one I discovered by accident: if you seal a sachet of robust green tea, such as Dragonwell, in the same container with another of lapsang souchong, and leave them there for a while, the green acquires the other's smoky character, resulting in a brew that's good both hot and iced. Doesn't seem to damage the lapsang souchong, either.

Upgrading bad tea

Sometimes you have tea – black or green – but it's not very good. Though Not Very Good Tea can be depressing, you can amend it into Passable Tea (or even Enjoyable Tea) with other herbs.

The list of candidates is inexhaustible, but a few are so useful, and so common, that they deserve special mention.

Mint (Mentha) is common in most parts of the world, typically growing in drainage ditches and near any body of fresh water, to say nothing of residential areas where it's escaped cultivation. Throw in assertive, pleasant flavour, and mint may be the most useful tea-mixing herb there is. I especially prize the endless spectrum of flavours brought out by mint's promiscuous lifestyle. As varieties freely cross-pollinate, no two patches taste the same. Some are peppery, others icy, still others citrusy… the discoveries are endless. And of course, mint anchors a fine herbal mix all by itself if you have no real tea at all.

Several mint relatives are also handy. Catnip (Nepeta) is especially tasty, and frequently found feral. Lemon balm (Melissa), easily identified by its very mint-like appearance but strong Lemon Pledge odour, is too harsh to anchor a mix but welcome in restrained quantities in others. And bee balm (Monarda), a popular garden flower that was used as a tea substitute in colonial times, also mixes well with green or black tea.

Common non-mint tea stocks that
Bee balm (Monarda).
can enliven an uninspired cup include sweet white clover blossoms (Trifolium repens), lemony sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or wood sorrel (Oxalis; see photo below), and orange peel or zest. Both of these last tend to be fairly bitter, especially whole peel, so proceed mindfully.

No tea at all

When you're flat out of Camellia sinensis, a few substitutes can put you back in the game.

Blackberry or raspberry (Rubus ssp) leaves, dried and crumbled, are a defensible green tea surrogate. I've found that the red winter leaves of our local native trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) work best, having a rosy flavour and less tannic bite, but I've had good luck with other species as well. Add amendments, and you have a worthwhile mix

Many people don't think of conifers when preparing food and drink, but at the risk of ripping off Euell Gibbons, many parts are useful.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) is a famous beverage stock, for its comparatively sweet bouquet. (Bearing in mind that all conifers taste like turpentine. They're an acquired taste, but once acquired, nothing else will do.)

The soft new pale-green tips of many others can also be tasty and nutritious. (Loads of Vitamin C, for starters.) Among my favourites are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga) and Sitka spruce (P. sitchenensis). Hemlock (Tsuga) is another standby, but because it's fairly tannic, I prefer to use mix it with weaker herbs to give them a real-tea edge, rather than use it as an anchor.

Roasted rice is another good stop-gap. Just spread a handful of brown rice in the bottom of a dry skillet and toss it over medium heat until the grains become dark brown and smoky. Some may even pop like popcorn.

The toasted grains can be infused as-is, but make a much better beverage if ground first. A mortar and pestle is adequate for this. Grind only as needed to preserve freshness and potency. Useful amendments include milk, baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg…), toasted fucus, or orange peel. Some like a few grains of salt in it.

Civilisation in a cup

Tea-mixing is a huge topic, the possible ingredients literally endless. These are some the most easily- and universally-accessible, and all of them support my practice on a regular basis.

Here's hoping they enrich yours as well.


Wood sorrel (Oxalis).



(Top photo courtesy of Kristina Walter and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

WW: Drum log


(A hemlock recently fell across the trail and was cleared by someone with a chainsaw. Seeing the sections on the shoulder I felt a distinct uptick in heart rate; my dad taught me to call this a drum log, for the simple reason that you make a drum from it. This is a good one, too: two feet in diameter, well-rotted within and perfectly sound without. You thin this shell out with a chisel and even it up, then lace rawhide heads across both ends, and Bob's your uncle.

The remains of a large yellow jacket nest that occupied the cavity were also strewn about.)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Street Level Zen: Awakening

Insomnia (4316137831)





















"Until the sleeper is aroused from his slumber, everything that transpires inside the dream makes perfect sense."

Joe Queenan


(Photo courtesy of Faisal Akram and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Pale Green Pants With Anatta Inside

When my brother and I were four and five, we were obsessed with the Dr. Suess poem What Was I Scared Of?, better known to adherents as "Pale Green Pants With Nobody Inside".

This gothic thriller, in which a disembodied pair of cabbage-coloured dungarees relentlessly creeps out Our Protagonist, is ripped from the pages of The Sneetches and Other Stories. (Not literally, unless you want serious grup trouble.) These days you can also read it online, though the text is accompanied by only two of the original Lovecraftian illustrations. Suffice it to say the experience pal… I mean, underwhelms, by comparison.

For reasons I can no longer fathom, over a period of months this story completely possessed our young imaginations. At one point we actually stuffed a pair of green denim jeans with wadded newspaper and stood it in the corner of our shared bedroom, to serve as icon to our prostrations. Then we would cower on the far side of the bed, peek out at it, and scream "Pale green pants!" before diving to the floor.

Needless to say, the book itself became liturgy, to be read aloud (yet again) by any adult we could talk into it. The most memorable kokyo was my grandmother, who, having intoned the poem's macabre refrain ("Pale green pants…. WITH NOBODY INSIDE!"), remarked, "I think the pale green pants are scary enough." Commentary worthy of Mumon.

These days I judiciously abstain from looking deeply into this whole adventure, for fear of stumbling on uncomfortable truths about religion in general. But having recently recovered these memories – or recovered from them – I plunged down the Internet rabbit hole to find out if others were similarly enthralled to this scrap of Seussgeist.

tldr: Yes. Yes they were.

Far from falling into obscurity, it appears PGP is so popular today you can buy just that, stripped of epistolary padding. What's more, its illustrations – o feat of nefarious genius – now glow in the dark. Which has led one believing dad to read it to his kids under a black light. Or he did, until he was picked up by Child Welfare.

Nor are my brother and I alone in making idols unto the Chartreuse One. Another fellow stuffed a pair of pale green pants (!) and stood it in the corner of his preschooler's bedroom (!!) because the kid was afraid of the dark (!!!). OK, that guy may really be evil, but another – professional artist, this one – taxidermed some chromatically-correct britches in a relaxed yet empty posture and gave them to his (25-year-old) sister for Christmas.

Upshot: ours is not the only family to find Deep If Somewhat Disturbing Significance in this tale of tailored terror.

Surprisingly, I've yet to encounter a single Net-cruising helicopter pilot wailing, "Never let your tender darlings read this horrifying book!!!!!", or claiming that it's a thinly-veiled Wiccan conspiracy to make our children worship Satan and wear ugly pants. Closest was one mom who recommended only middle school kids be permitted to read it. Right, lady. Best get a few years under your belt before you meet The Doctor.

Or maybe that's insensitive. Perhaps the spectre of unfashionable clothing run amok has special resonance for women. I'll withdraw the statement.

In the end, it may be that the scariest thing about Pale Green Pants is its power to inspire such vague obedience in all of us who, once as children, fell under its mildly-alarming spell. It's the single thread running through every account I've collected, starting with my own: we all fear the Pants, we all cheer the Pants, we all stand ready, like an army of cereal-munching Renfields, to serve the Lime-Hued Lord. How much more exciting all of this might be if He actually wanted anything.

But now I'm back on religion. And in all candour, there may be a touch of Zen in there somewhere; a creak of the Gateless Gate in those selfless slacks. Witness this flash of Suessian insight:

I said, "I do not fear those pants
With nobody inside them."
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

Been there, lied that.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

WW: Retrogrouch

(So I'm getting ready for a ride and I happen to catch my reflection in the mirror.

Ho-lay.

A "retrogrouch" is a biker who bemoans the passing of older fashions and technologies that may not have flashed "I've got more money than I know how to spend", but also didn't look silly or fail to function.

I count myself a proud resident of that battered dustbin. If you're familiar with biking, you can't miss the symptoms: crocheted gloves; military surplus trousers; fad-proof helmet; German-made spectacle-mounted rearview mirror not made for decades; and the unforgivable Piece of Resistance:
toe clips.

Because I'm neither a racer nor Italian. Nor, for that matter, a fool.

Oh yeah, the attitude? Also regulation.

But I had no idea how deep it ran until I caught that glimpse. A few minutes on the Google, and it's diagnosis confirmed.

Either that, or transmigration is a thing after all.)




(Photo of my brother Vincenzo Milano – who was Italian, and a racer, and is probably swanning the bleeding edge – courtesy of GallerieFotografiche.)

Thursday, 6 April 2017

An Education

Asleep on my lap in bed.
Three days ago I had the sad duty of accompanying my mother's cat out of this life. A cherished family member, he's figured many times in these pages, most recently only weeks ago.

Since I was a child I've seen many pets die. It's been educational, in some ways more than human deaths. There's so little drama when an animal goes, so little desperation. Our pets seem to die as they live: with acceptance, if a little apprehension. When they become too sick to sleep well, you see this come into their eyes.

He was just ten years old, but probably had liver cancer for some time before it became debilitating, and therefore noticeable to us. Suddenly he became lethargic, lost his appetite, and started holing up in dark places. Most alarming, he refused to purr, no matter how much affection was lavished upon him. By the time we could get to the vet, I was fairly sure what I was going to hear.

That same day, before our appointment, he began crying, loudly and urgently. Mostly from fear of abandonment, it seemed. Therefore I stayed close to him, except when he was in the lab. At last the attendant brought him into the examination room, laid him on an old pink towel, and left us alone for a few minutes. He lay on his side, his breathing shallow, a dull, half-open expression in his eyes, as if in meditation. I stroked his soft, thick fur and struggled to tell him what a good kitty he was, how much I loved him, and to thank him for taking care of Mom these last years.

At last the doctor came. I fondled the kitty's ears as she searched for a vein. Her calm competence at the end of a long workday helped keep me from crying, as long as I breathed mindfully and remained silent. I did my best to remain present, and not confuse the observer (me) with the events.

It came fast when it came, with so little disturbance the vet had to tell me he was gone. I stopped petting and stepped back from the table, and she swept him up in the towel. The last I saw of him was his head and ears, disappearing through the swinging door.

You and I will be lucky to go so softly.

One of the great strengths of Buddhism is its recognition of the universality of life. I've known too many animals to believe there is some qualitative difference between sentient beings. Cats are born; they live, to the best of their ability; and they die. Scientists warn us not to be anthropomorphic about this, but I warn them back not to ignore the evidence. If it's true we can't know what's going on in an animal's head, it's also true we can't know what's going on in each other's heads, either. Yet decent people don't assume that we can't fathom the feelings of a crying stranger, just because when we do it, we're sad, scared, or in pain.

That would be stupid. And as I've often said, nothing stupid is Buddhist.

Animals may love differently from humans, but they love. And anything that loves is worthy of love.

Also: life – all life – is brief and unrenewable. So love now.

Because sooner than later, we all pass through that swinging door.

We called him Sherlock, by the way. We'll never know what his real name was.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

WW: Daffodils

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Shut Up and Drink Your Potential

Conformal Cats (8074241727) I was born on the crest of a tsunami of late-century self-help that's had a geological effect on our ability to think clearly.

The good news is that the worst is past. That was the period from the 70s to the Millennium, when such messianic gimmicks as Positive Mental Attitude (authentic 70s tip: the capital letters signal dippy fad ahead) laid waste to Western civilisation. But thirty years stoned on trademarked morality have taken their toll, and we're still dealing with the fallout from our protracted no-substance abuse.

I'm often given to reflect on this in Zen company. Western Zen draws heavily on what the 80s called "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians), a fetish of whom is rejection of consumerism, jingoism, xenophobia, homogeneity, and other questionable Western values.

All of which is fine by me. However, they may also indulge in baby-trashing, as when they spurn logic, empiricism, individualism, and circumspection. As a Wikipedia editor writes on the Positive Mental Attitude talk page:
More pernicious is the prescribed PMA [Positive Mental Attitude] in business and public governance, with consequences from a philosophy of over-confidence bordering on self-delusion along with lack of due diligence and just plain common sense.
Given that Zen circles are wont to tolerate such traps, and that they're negatively correlated with sanity (and therefore Zen), I rate it good sangha to lay down a few definitions. So-armed, the sincere meditator can navigate his or her way out of the maze.

Essentially, three terms are in play:

Strength is a synonym for resilience. Meeting a setback, strong people redouble effort; find a way around it; transform it into something useful; or decide, after sober reflection, to abandon that goal in favour of another.

Optimism is a character trait typified by strength. Faced with failure, an optimist says, "We can fix this, or do without it, or succeed at something else instead. One way or another, we'll press on." To correct a trite aphorism, an optimist sees the glass as half potential.

(By contrast, the pessimist sees the glass as all useless. "We can't fix this, and if we could it would only break again, so let's just wait for death.")

Denial is a negative character trait often confused with optimism. Denialists reject truth that annoys or frightens them, or simply doesn't serve their interests. A hallmark of denial is misdirection, i.e., defining things according to one's wishes rather than empirical data.

Presented inconvenient facts, deniers resort to censorship, intimidation, name-calling, and appeals to dogma to enforce or restore silence. These actions may be marketed as "strength", but they are logically its opposite.

Most of the PMA Moonies I worked with in the school system back in the 80s and 90s were more properly chronic denialists, unwilling or unable to address the daunting work at hand. Tellingly, they also couldn't sort a pessimist ("Don't attempt to solve this; we'll only make things worse") from an optimist ("Let's flush our problems into the sunlight and slay the crap out of them!").

In Zen we endeavour to look deeply. Any prejudice that obstructs our vision we engage to clear away. So let's first recognise that attitude isn't an objective phenomenon. The elephant tramples positive and negative monk alike, and any insistence that a cheery outlook can change that is magical thinking. (Which is a therapy term for delusion.)

What attitude does influence is our choices. An optimist might devise a response to the charging elephant ("I know! I'll use my feet to get out of its way! Because I'm awesome like that!"), whereas a pessimist might declare the trampling inevitable, thereby guaranteeing it. But in both cases, reality is influenced by a course of action (practice), not an attitude (perception).

In Zen practice, the two perspectives manifest like this:

P: "Do not criticise the teacher, the sangha, or the Zen community. It causes people to lose faith in the practice."

O: "The Buddha and the Ancestors have provided the tools we need to correct the errors of the teacher, the sangha, and the Zen community."

P: "I'll never practice properly because there is no teacher or Zen centre nearby, and the experts all say you have to have those." (Or: "… because my teacher or Zen centre isn't doing it right." Or: "… because institutional Zen doesn't do it for me, and everybody says you can't practice alone.")

O: "I can order my practice to conform to circumstances, among which are my situation and my nature. Or I can take a page from the Ancestors and continue as-is, seeking enlightenment in things as they are."

P: "Zen is grown lazy, sensual, namby-pamby, narcissistic, Confucian, political, hippy, poser, intellectual, bourgeois, institutional, Western, something. You can't truly do it in this time and/or place. The only genuine Zen is in the past and/or Asia."

O: "Zen is the best shot I've got. Ima do it."


That last one has saved my butt more times than I can count.


(Photo of cat realising her potential courtesy of Steve Jurvetson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

WW: The ocean giveth


(Latest fudo ring, collected from the beach after a storm.)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Meditation Meditation



"You start out feeling, 'Oh Lord, I hate this' and then later on you feel 'Oh boy this is wonderful', and you're wrong both times."

Robert Pirsig


(Photo of Zen monk striking call to zazen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

WW: Evening Steller's jay



(Cyanocitta stelleri)

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Fortune Cookie Zen

Some things were harder, because I was older. As a young man I hiked for days and slept on hard ground, but on the Acres it immediately became clear I needed a bed. My glasses too were insufficient to see the stars, or identify birds and trees at a distance. I felt like Burgess Meredith in the bank vault.

When I was ten I heard tiny bells in the lake when it rained, and thought my father was being difficult when he claimed to hear no such thing. But I haven't heard the bells in years.

And then there was the energy. At 23, teaching in a rural school that demanded three concurrent fulltime jobs of me, I skipped breakfast, lunch, and sleep. If I tried that now, it would kill me.

And, perhaps most debilitating: the passion. Ardent enthusiasm, dogged opposition, throbbing heartbreak. All were inherent in me, then. I live more economically now.

Old people like to claim they're slower to spark because they've gained wisdom. The truth is we're just tired.

Some things were easier. I didn't bore as quickly. Just one of those yearlong days would have broken me at 17; then, an unfilled hour was torture. I lived in the moment at that age, but as if it were forever. No evil undefied, no windmill uncharged. And no time lost to pondering whether windmills were the problem.

Impatience wastes a lot of time.

I'm too worn out for it now. If maturity has a vice, it is this: that it is lazy. Be still, and a multitude of problems solve themselves. But mindfully done, inaction can defeat adversaries action can't. Thus the great insight of age: that any vow can be kept for a hundred days. And those days are meaningless without it. On the Acres I was free of the addictions that ruled me outside: variety, change, external diversion.

Therefore, hermitry is for the young. And for the old. Because you must have both strength and insight. But as you're only ever issued one at a time, you must either manufacture insight from strength, or strength from insight.

Which is the biggest load of fortune-cookie crap when you're out there for days on end, with nothing for company but your own shortcomings.


(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

WW: Monday, 20 March 2017, is Bodhisattva Day!

Vintage 80s 8-Bit Scottie Dogs Tacky Ugly Christmas Sweater It's that time of year again, friends. Time to get out your cardigan and represent for cool-headed compassion.

This Bodhisattva Day is more important than ever. (Somehow that keeps happening.)

So this Monday, 20 March 2017, let's see some wool out there, brothers and sisters. Click the link above for details.

And don't let the bastards make you mean.




(Photo [cropped for composition] of cool dude in weapons-grade cardigan courtesy of TheUglySweaterShop.com and Flickr.)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Shovelling Peas Into Your Pants

In 1975, British artists Brian Eno (a musician) and Peter Schmidt (a painter) developed a formal system for smashing "creative block" (i.e., writer's block, except for everyone). They called it Oblique Strategies (deck: "Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas"), and it caused quite a stir in that decade's famously vivacious art scene.

The mechanism is deceptively simple: Eno and Schmidt wrote sentences on index cards and stacked them up. Then each time they smacked into a brick wall, or found themselves churning out the same old same-old, they turned over the top card and did whatever it said.

Most bear commands, such as:
State the problem in words as clearly as possible
Cut a vital connection
Humanise something free of error

 A few ask questions (hello, Zen!):
What were you really thinking about just now?
When is it for? Who is it for?
What mistakes did you make last time?

And many rival the best koanic poetry:
Remember those quiet evenings
Lost in useless territory
If eating peas improves virility, shovel them into your pants

For decades the card decks were only released in limited editions, expensive at the time and stupid now. To his credit, Eno recently released a production edition (some 150 prompts), but even that costs £40.00. While it would be a cool thing to own (I much prefer real, tactile tools to digital ones) we're not all hip enough even for those prices.

Fortunately, admirers have compiled OS prompts into online "strategy generators": web pages that randomly produce a meditation each time you reload them.

The two I used to write this post are:

http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
http://www.oblicard.com/


So why am I writing about such artsy-fartsy stuff on a Zen site? Because "practice" is a synonym for "rut".

Yeah, I know: we Zenners love us our forms. We're inordinately – illogically – proud to do everything exactly as the Ancestors did.

And that's fine. But it does co-arise two dependencies:

1. It's crap. Nobody here and now is doing what they did in the mountains of China in the 13th century.

and

2. That's a good thing, because "consistent" is a synonym for "dead".

Therefore, as a guy who supervises his own practice, I find it worthwhile to shake things up from time to time. Examine my actions. Analyse my intent. (I was going to add "Vet my results", but since that word has recently become an instrument of torture, I'll "appraise" them instead.)

And – possibly the only trait we hold in common – this system is almost as effective for hermits as it is for rock stars. Fact is, even monasteries and Zen centres could stand the periodic administration of one such kyôsaku:

1. Everybody meditates in the zendo.
2. Someone (OK, a specially-ordained monk with a task-specific Sino-Japanese title) turns over the top card and reads it to the sangha
3. Everybody meditates again
4. The sangha discusses the prompt, with a view to implementing one or two of the practice adjustments it inspires.

(If this procedure is too Buddhic for your sangha, you could empower your teacher or non-profit board to impose the adjustments instead.)

Such a practice, faithfully applied, might go a long way toward busting the staleness and inertia that institutions breed by their very nature. It might also clear out some of the hierarchical congestion that generates and sustains abuses large and small.

Be advised that since OS was developed specifically for artists, some prompts may not be germane to enlightenment practice. (Or even Tito or Michael.) But I would caution fellow seekers to look deeply before discarding one.

It may be that "The tape is now the music" has a monastic application after all.


(Photo of a man performing water calligraphy in front of Beijing's Temple of Heaven courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

WW: Waiting for spring


(So we can kill it.)

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Good Book: I See By My Outfit

By dint of random good fortune I just read I See By My Outfit: Cross-Country by Scooter—an Adventure, by Peter S. Beagle. This inexplicably obscure American masterpiece is basically Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets On the Road by way of Three Men in a Boat, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who appreciated those classics. (I commend it even harder to those who couldn't get through the first two. Beagle utterly lacks the pretence of Kerouac or Pirsig.)

In 1963, Peter and his childhood best friend, artist Phil Sigunick, set out from New York City for the Bay Area on motor scooters. Yeah, that's not a typo: scooters. Weird-looking Heinkel Tourists, from the days when former Nazi aircraft manufacturers were still doghoused by punitive restrictions.

If a cute little city-boy scooter doesn't strike you as the tool for the task, welcome to the adventure. (Past tense form; in the present we call it "catastrophe".)

But Phil and Pete are 24 and invincible, and the tale that ensues is simultaneously hilarious, insightful, and nostalgic. Beagle's tart, economical prose foreshadows the power that will soon make him a cultural icon. A few years later he will write The Last Unicorn (an event subtly hindsighted by his obsession with Tolkien, whose work he has to define for 1964 readers) and become a lion of literary fantasy. But that's even farther ahead than California at this point.

In fact, lots of things are ahead of him, but he's trying not to think about that. For the moment his life is a sequence of picnic grounds and diners; fleabag hotels, pawnshops, and borrowed guitars; breakdowns and rainstorms; eerily prescient cow town parochials; and more than one Cold War cop with little clue where his authority ends – or interest.

Along the way we get pithy, almost poetic descriptions of little towns along old Route 40, some of which have hardly changed in half a century. (I checked on Google Street View.) Pop-culture call-outs recreate the ecosystem of the period. Together with bookish literary references they feed the capital Internet scavenger hunt that signals a great book.

And through it all, the simple joy of being a brash young twentysomething, smart-mouthed and game, and somehow, in Beagle's case, aware of it. His breezy, funny patter is the sort of thing you can only produce – or get away with – at that age. The fact that he and Sigunick constantly remind each other to act like smart-mouthed twentysomethings – because that's their calculated schtick – is at once endearing, and a little surrealistic.

Outfit does suffer from an excess of voice in places, particularly in the repartee between the boys, which can become tedious when it pokes too long in the inside-jokey territory of childhood friends. Fortunately, Beagle's tight pacing limits these interludes to a fleeting irritation.

Some readers have also fingered the riders' casual misogyny, amounting mostly to failure to take women seriously. Beagle himself reportedly winces at those moments now, which as a fellow old man I can well imagine. But their tone is par for young stallions in 1963, and so they are a lesson in their own right. (Full disclosure: my friends and I talked similarly – out of female earshot – twenty years later.)

For the rest, my main complaint is incompleteness. The book badly needs an epilogue, maybe two – one in-period, the other retrospective. And for a book about an artist, it's frustratingly unillustrated. Why don't we have those gouaches Phil's always executing, in parking lots and beside bridges? (Both oversights may have been corrected in subsequent editions; I read the original, with the cover above.)

One thing is certain: I See By My Outfit deserves to be much more widely read. It's a beloved classic waiting fifty years and counting to happen. If you like road stories, or Americana, or social history, or just effervescent, youthful prose, this one's for you.

I nearly cried when it was over, just because there was no more to read.


Update, 7 March 2017: I've just stumbled over this 2012 Chronogram profile of Phil and his wife Judy, in which occurs the following line: "He is also a primary character in Peter S. Beagle’s classic cross-country travelogue, I See By My Outfit, for which he is creating a soon-to-be-published series of illustrations." I hope this means that my above speculation is correct, and that a recent re-issue of Outfit now includes adequate, dare we hope generous, graphic contributions by the book's co-protoganist. I mean, c'mon. Dude shares top billing in this trip, and he's a recognised artist. Isn't this the definition of a "no-brainer"?.


Heinkel Tourist 175, Bj. 1956 1a
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