So, tell me boy, what'd you wanna burn the woods down for? Did them squirrels do something to piss you off?

“Nothing lasts; therefore nothing means anything.”

I found this sentiment in the blog of a sixteen year old. I couldn’t have written it when I was her age because I still believed, despite serious doubts about the Bible, that life had an ordained meaning. I also lacked her insight into how quickly it is over. The years I had already lived seemed like a long, long time, and I anticipated living several times longer. I still felt as lost as she, but lost in a way that I didn’t know how to articulate—not that anyone ever asked. My best guess about how to deal with my lostness was to set the woods on fire. It seemed like such a crazy idea that I thought it would get me committed to a cozy mental institution where a fatherly psychiatrist could fix me.

Why this faith in shrinks? Did you know any?

No, I had never laid eyes on a first year psychology major much less a bona fide psychiatrist, but I had read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which a psychiatrist helped one of the condemned killers come to terms with his execution. I figured that, if a shrink could make a fellow feel okay about being hung before dawn in a Kansas prison, he could make him feel okay about anything.

I didn’t burn the woods down, partly because I didn’t want to burn the woods down, and partly because I worried that I would be sent to a reform school instead of a mental institution. For years, I continued to feel alone. Other people didn’t seem to share my angst, and my ever deeper and ever more raging questions about ultimate reality made me feel like a freak. I imagined that everyone else must have already found the answers I was seeking, and that their lack of apparent depth simply meant they were miles ahead of me, as if the rest of the world knew something that I didn’t. But, if this were true, I wondered, why wouldn’t they share the answers, and why did most of them seem so unintelligent?

I still feel alone, but it has moved beyond what I had thought was a remediable defect and into what I regard as the human condition. If you’re congenitally cheerful or believe in Jehovah, you might not feel it. Otherwise…

I wrote at length to the teenage blogger, pointing out that impermanence need not imply futility, although it does, in my mind, lead to sadness. All that I treasure, all that I protect, will be lost in a mere two or three decades. My photos, my writings, and the other artifacts of my life will, likely as not, end up in a landfill. Peggy will die, either a few years before or a few years after me, and in a few more years, all that we were and all that we did will be forgotten. These things will occur in roughly half the time we have already lived. If you can remain unerringly cheerful in the face of such a future, I envy you. I also suspect that you have embraced answers that are as groundless as they are comforting.

Abandoned and naked with only a schnauzer for solace

A letter by a follower from Slidell, Louisiana, reminded me of the following true story.

In 1983, I got a pilot’s license and bought an airplane because I felt hemmed-in by the provincialism of southern Mississippi, and thought that flying would broaden my social and intellectual horizons while expanding my spatial ones. This did not prove to be the case because of the slow cruising speed of my plane (85 mph) and the influence of Mississippi’s frequent thunderstorms. Even so, Peggy and I took trips to Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. We had two engine failures and one electrical fire along the way, but I’ll save those stories for another time.

Ever on the lookout for stimulating places to visit, I read about a nudist camp called Indian Hills (an odd name in an area in which the highest peaks are I-12 overpasses) near Slidell, I proposed to Peggy that we fly down. When she expressed somewhat less than zero interest in going, I went by myself. I had imagined that nudists would be of a liberal and educated bent, but this was not the case. I had hardly been there an hour before a large, drunk, and completely naked redneck challenged me to a fight. His wrath had erupted when I said something about him being gay based upon my observation that he was wearing a single earring.

He vociferously informed me that merchant seaman—of which he was one—also wore single earrings, but in the opposite ear to that favored by gay men, a group that he held in extremely low esteem. I apologized profusely, not because I felt badly about my error, but because I would have apologized profusely no matter what I had said. For example, if I had called him a human, and he had preferred to think of himself as a three-toed frog from Mars, I would have apologized just as profusely. Maybe I'm vain, but if I’m to be beaten to death, I want it to be over something that matters.

I stayed the night, and flew home the next day with no plans for another trip. Several months later, I was telling my friend Woozy Toosh (not his real name believe it or not) about the camp. I had known Woozy Toosh for much of my life, and was well aware that he was an excessively timid person, so I was surprised when he asked me to go there with him. I said I would be glad to, and we agreed to take his car. He made me vow secrecy about the trip because he worried that he would lose his job as a school guidance counselor and that his fundamentalist Christian wife would leave him. These were realistic fears.

Woozy Toosh, my little dog Wendy, and I drove down one August afternoon and stayed in a Slidell motel before going to the nudist camp the next morning. I was a little—but not a lot—surprised that night when he brought up the possibility of him and me having sex. I politely declined.

The next morning, Woozy Toosh, Wendy (you can tell from her haunted eyes that she had seen things a dog was never meant to see), and I drove to the camp. He was reluctant to take his clothes off (he had mostly wanted to see other men without their clothes), and he asked me if it was strictly necessary. I said I didn’t think so, but that he might feel even more awkward if he kept them on.

Woozy Toosh finally did undress, but he used a newspaper to cover his privates as he made a beeline for a chaise lounge. I thought he looked like Inspector Clouseau who found himself in similar circumstances in one of the Pink Panther movies, but I didn’t say anything. After we had sat down, he lost no time in covering himself from mid-thigh to mid-waist with the same newspaper. Only then did I notice that it was in reality a National Enquirer. I could tolerate homosexuality, but learning that I had a friend who read the Enquirer was a bit much.

After an awkward half hour, Woozy Toosh asked if I was ready to go home. I had anticipated such an outcome before we left, and had exacted his promise that we would stay at least six hours. By the time another half hour passed, he had asked me twice more. When I became testy, he developed the sudden urge to spend the day window-shopping at the Slidell Mall. We agreed that he would pick me up around 3:00, and he left with my clothes in his car.

Just before Woozy Toosh was to return, two men got into a fight near the entrance to the camp, and the police were called. I worried that when Woozy Toosh saw them, he would think it was a raid, and not slow down until he was across the state line. Just in case this should happen, I thought it behooved me to make alternate plans for my return home. Okay, I thought, it’s a two-hour drive, and I’m butt naked with no clothes, no friends, and no money. Of course, I did have a schnauzer, but she hardly seemed like an asset. All I could think to do with her was to hold her over my privates while I hitchhiked, but that didn’t seem like really workable solution, even after dark. Besides, Woozy Toosh had left his National Enquirer in the changing room, and if worse came to worse, I figured I could take some string and improvise a skirt.

3:00 was long gone before the cops looked like they might even be thinking about the possibility of starting to think about leaving. It was my firm belief that they were actually a great deal more interested in looking at the women they weren’t arresting than in the men they were. In fact, they didn’t appear to be making much headway in arresting anyone. Their tardiness gave me a great deal more time to come up with a workable plan, but none was forthcoming. I could have called Peggy, of course, but she would have regarded the trip as an imposition and have undertaken it primarily for the dog.

Woozy Toosh returned a half hour after the cops left. I have never at any time wished that the trip had ended otherwise even if it would have made a better story.

I’ll tell you what I want out of life

I attended a Zen service Sunday. The temple is nearby, and I had long been curious about it though discouraged by the requirement that new people arrive at 8:00 a.m. for orientation. This Sunday I was up anyway because Peggy had to work, and I’ve become motivated by more than curiosity about Buddhism because of the pain that is ever with me.

I sat in a chair (most people were on cushions) in the geezers’ row, and was completely lost despite the orientation. We would sit, then stand, then bow from the waist, then sit, then stand, then bow with our faces to the floor. Meanwhile, there was a gong banging outside, bells ringing up front, bells ringing in the back, various hollow objects being struck, chanting in English, and chanting in Japanese. I had a chant book, but everyone else knew the chants by heart, and I had no idea where to find them. I was finally able to locate one of the Japanese ones for all the good it did me. I couldn’t talk fast enough to say the strange words, and there wasn’t even a translation with which I might console myself.

After everything else was completed, we sat perfectly still for forty minutes with our chairs (me) or cushions (most of them) facing the wall. The other thirty people were barefoot, but it was 50º F (10º C) outside, the room was unheated, and a window was open. Everyone else knew enough to wear jackets, but I was in short sleeves and would have gone home before I would have gone sockless.

When the bell rang to end the sitting meditation, about a third of us filed out while the remainder did a walking meditation. We were supposed to reassemble afterwards for a dharma talk by the resident priest. During the whole time I had been there, I had been cold, lost, and ignored by everyone but the lady who showed me around. None of this inspired me to want to know more, and hanging around to see whether the whole shebang was as bad as what I had already experienced just didn’t seem like enough of a reason to stay. It was only 10:15, so I went over to First Christian for its second Sunday school. There, I found a warm room, friendly people, comfortable furniture, pastries, and coffee.

I’ve been asked why I go to church when I don’t believe in Jesus. I’ve addressed this at some length, but the bottom line is that I value a shared spiritual dimension to my life, and I enjoy studying the Bible. I had actually rather go someplace other than a church, someplace where I could fully belong, but there simply are no such places. For several months (this was ten years ago), I attended the Self-Realization Fellowship, and liked it very well, but the more people accepted me, the more they talked about different things that their leader (Paramahansa Yogananda) was doing for them. Since he was DEAD, this weirded me out a little. Sure, a lot of people at First Christian believe that Jesus is present in their lives, but they don’t usually claim that he takes care of such minutiae as arranging bus faire to California.

There is also a Bahá’í group here. I visited it years ago and might go again someday, but in all candor I don’t fit in there either. The main difference between Bahá’í and Christianity is that most Christians believe God has already said pretty much everything he wants us to know (despite the fact that we’re killing one another because he failed to make it clear), whereas Bahá’ís think he’s still saying it. I differ from both in that I don’t believe God can help us out with our little problems because God doesn’t even know we exist. There are no perks to worshipping the god of pantheism aside from the worship itself.

I’ve also been to Sufi and Hare Krishna groups. You might say I’ve gone to damn near everything I was ever close enough to go to. Even when I lived in Mississippi, I attended fifty Christian denominations and a synagogue (the synagogue and the rabbi's home had been firebombed by the Klan a few years previously). To my surprise and delight, the people at Beth Israel just thought I was another Jew.

My lily-white Buddhist orienteer said that the priest had renamed her Yoetsu (pronounced Yo-Et-Sue). I thought it sounded like a sexual reference in Spanglish, but concluded that it probably had something to do with cranes or lotus blossoms. I used to tell myself, “Snow, you’ve got to start honoring this diversity crap,” but I never did. I look at it this way. When people take on foreign names, use foreign words, eat foreign foods, and wear foreign clothes as part of their religion; they can talk all they want about openness and inclusiveness, but are you going to believe their words or their actions? If you believe their actions, their goal is the rejection of their own culture in favor of someone else’s culture that is presumably more spiritual. They are, as it were, pointing their middle finger at the rest of us poor schmucks who don’t even know enough to pretend we’re from the Orient.

Sunday’s Buddhist group wasn’t that extreme. They had their funny names, and they dressed in clothes the color of leaf mold (this distinguishes them from Tibetan Buddhists who wear bright colors—god forbid you should get the two mixed up). These things separated them from most of America somewhat, but they were also separated within their own group by the black bibs that hung around the necks of the more advanced. Bigot that I am, I interpret such advertisements as plain old run-of-the-mill pride. There were other things too. For example, one man seemed infatuated with a piece of white cloth that he solemnly laid atop his head for awhile, but I had no idea what it meant. Again, bigot that I am, I just thought he looked rather stupid standing in the middle of the floor worshipping a handkerchief.

I’ll tell you what I want out of life. It’s simple. I want to be completely present. That’s it. How hard could that be? Well, I find it a little like trying to maintain good posture. Peggy sometimes tells me that I need to straighten up, so, I straighten up—for about two minutes. Then I forget about it, and I slouch again. Sometimes, I think that what I really need to do is to devote my every waking hour simply to staying straight until it becomes second nature.

Being present is like staying straight only a lot harder, because there’s nothing about good posture that precludes steely self-absorption, whereas being present means being truly open to what’s inside and what’s outside, and this requires that I relax my defensiveness. If I were less defensive, maybe I would feel compassion rather than contempt for the more outlandish religious groups I’ve visited.

After my surgery in March, I went through a period of feeling terribly hurt that people hadn’t been there for me in the way I thought they should be. Then, for some reason that I don’t remember, my heart opened. If you’ve ever taken the drug ecstasy, you know how I felt. It was like the lightness I used to feel as a boy when I set someone down after carrying them piggy-back for a few minutes—like I was walking on the moon. I didn’t think I had arrived exactly, but that I had made a quantum leap in that direction. I actually thought the feeling might last, or that I could at least remember my way back to it. Then, poof, it was gone. Again, it was like the drug ecstasy; you think you can hold onto your new enlightenment, but you can’t.

When I’m with people, I feel tense. It’s not that I anticipate them disliking me. It’s that I anticipate them (a) not really listening to anything I have to say, and (b) not really caring if I live or die. At best, I anticipate them seeing me as a rather uninteresting diversion. I also anticipate being annoyed by them, because I feel bored by most people. You might say that I feel about them the exact same way that I don’t want them to feel about me, but think they will.

I try to counter this by facing them full-on, looking into their eyes, and listening to what they’re saying instead of waiting for my turn to talk. None of this works very well though, and it’s not even that rewarding when it does. Like with good posture, I don’t really have it; I’m just faking it in the hope that someday I will really have it. But I lack the discipline to even be a good fake, and I’m not sure that discipline is the answer anyway. I suspect that what I need is a change in attitude rather than a change in resolve, but I’m at point A, and my new-and-improved attitude is at point B, and point B might as well be on the top of Mt. Everest.

Oh well, the good news is that I’ll die before too many more decades and won’t have to worry about all this anymore. And you thought I was a pessimist. Silly you.

I pet my blogging peeves and even think of a few nice things to say

Nice things first so as to throw you off guard…

1) Instead of a few words, people often respond to my posts with a few paragraphs. I ADORE knowing that I’ve inspired them to think and feel, and vice versa.

2) Blogging has brought me into personal contact with people from all parts of the English-speaking world. Britain, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia, have become as one, and except for an occasional place name, no one could tell where any of us are from.

3) I like it when people challenge my opinions, but I also like it that no one has ever trashed me. The only off-the-wall comment I’ve gotten was posted anonymously on my blog in the mistaken belief that I would forward it to another blogger who didn’t accept anonymous comments!

4) I like having the opportunity to share my writing—and even my photographs—with a world-wide audience, and to have them preserved in cyberspace.

5) I like it that I never have to edit my words to please a publisher.

6) I enjoy finding great blogs that almost no one knows about.

Peeves and more peeves…

1) Bloggers who have more followers than I.

2) Bloggers who post graphics without labels (like the accompanying map of the Internet) because they don’t know how to make labels.

3) Bloggers who go by no name but the name of their blog, which is usually long. Ideally, people’s names (even when made up) and the names of their blogs would be the same, because it would help me to sort everyone out. It would also make it easier to respond to comments. For example, if your blog is entitled She Who Likes to Eat Cantaloupes in the Nude, and I don’t have anything else to call you, I have to come up with an abbreviation. Cantaloupy? Nudie Tahoodie?

4) Bloggers whose latest entry says they don’t have anything to say, so they won’t say anything. I spend three to twelve hours (sometimes more) on my every entry trying my damnedest to make it worthwhile, and I just hate being summoned to someone’s blog (by notice of a new entry) only to be told that they don’t feel like writing.

5) The fact that I spend so much time trying to perfect an entry only to see errors as soon as I publish it. Sometimes, I have to edit and republish repeatedly to get everything right, and I worry that people will think I just keep republishing to get their attention, as if I’m screaming, “Hey, look at me!” Believe me, I’m not.

6) Cryptic bloggers who say things like, “If I do it, it might not turn out well, but if I don’t do it, it might turn out worse.” Do what?! Why write something that no one understands?

7) Bloggers who say, “It’s my blog, and I’ll write anything I want to.” I interpret this as pugnacity or, at best, defensiveness. Our readers are our guests, and they deserve our respect and consideration even when they disagree with us. Yes, I know, some bloggers say this kind of thing because they feel attacked. Like I said, it’s at best defensiveness. I mean, they’re stating the obvious—assuming, of course, that they don’t live in some free speech hellhole like Iran or China.

8) Awards. I’ve received four awards from three followers. I remember who sent them (Jane at Gaston Studio, Joe at My Quality Time, and Lille Diane at This Time Tomorrow), and I remember the joy and gratitude I felt upon receiving them. Truly, these people have a special place in my heart. I don’t display my awards because (a) I’m a decorative minimalist, so I prefer my own blog to be sparsely furnished; (b) I don’t want to risk distracting my readers from whatever I’m trying to communicate; and (c) each award came with the requirement that I pass it along to five (or even more) people, a number that boggles my imagination. Let me explain. Here’s how many people would have received a new award after it had been presented to ten generations of recipients if everyone who received it gave it to five new recipients.

Gen one. I create the prestigious You Just Don’t Know When to Shut-up Award, and I present it to 5 people.
Gen two. My five grateful recipients pass it along to five other recipients: 5 (originals) + 25 (new people) = 30 total
Gen three: 30 (the total from generation two) + 125 (the number the 25 new recipients sent it to) = 155 total recipients
Gen four: 155 + (125 x 5) = 780
Gen five: 780 + (625 x 5) = 3,905 recipients
Gen six: 3,905 + (3,125 x 5) = 19,530 recipients
Gen seven: 19,530 + (15,625 x 5) = 97,655 recipients
Gen eight: 97,655 + (78,125 x 5) = 488,280 recipients
Gen nine: 488,280 + (390,625 x 5) = 2,441,405 recipients
Gen ten: 2,441,405 + (1,953,125 x 5) = 12,207,030 recipients

In ten generations (three months maybe?), there would be over twelve million recipients if everyone passed it along. I am very appreciative of my awards, but I can’t see how an award can continue to be meaningful if it covers the globe faster than Swine Flu. Besides, if I deserve a merit-based award, why should I be expected to pass it along? I won’t even mention how easy it would be to simply steal an award by copying and pasting, because only a truly evil person like myself would think to do such a thing.

9) Followers. Based solely upon my own experience, it is my sad conclusion that the number of followers a blog has is primarily a function of how much time its owner spends visiting other blogs. The first time I visited a blog that had over 500 followers, I asked the owner how the hell he did it. He explained that Google had for some reason listed his as a blog of note, after which people just came out of the woodwork. Most of them, he believed, weren’t even interested in his blog; they just wanted to have their blogs listed on his blog so that people would click on their link. Thus began my disenchantment with piling up oodles of followers.

Another problem with having a lot of followers is that I feel all but obligated to follow the blogs of people who follow my blog, and I can’t adequately do that with even the 70 followers I now have.

10) Musical blogs. I had rather drink Drano. I hate musical blogs so much that I pet this peeve more than I pet all of my other peeves together. I can only give you 100% of my attention, so if someone is singing while I’m reading your words, your words get less attention. Besides, your writing has its own tempo, and I often feel as if I’m reading William Shakespeare while listening to Jimi Hendrix. It’s worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.

If you want to share your music, please create a playlist, and give me the choice of playing it. Yes, I could mute my speakers. This takes eight seconds followed by another seven seconds when I turn them back on. Rather than take the time (often with multiple blogs) and feel bummed about it, I tend to read fast, write fast, and get out of there. Yes, this IS a pain, and if I didn’t value you above health, money, and sex I wouldn’t do it.

Sometimes, I will have read a couple of paragraphs before the music starts. Because I’m deep in concentration, it just scares the hell out of me (when you drink too much coffee, you scare easily), and this pretty well ruins the rest of my visit. One reason I don’t go to bars is that I hate straining to hear people talk above the music only to miss half of what they say anyway. Music on a blog is like music in a bar.

Well, that’s about all I can think of, but before I close, I would just like to say a brief word to all those whom I have offended: FOR GOD’S SAKES DON’T LEAVE ME! I spent about a million hours piling up 70 followers, and I am too tired to look for replacements. Besides, I actually like you, even the ones with musical blogs. Surely, our friendship can include saying what we don’t appreciate as well as what we do.