“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Three

I came home one evening last week and, as I settled in, emptied my pockets and put my wallet and cash (counted and considered thoughtfully for a moment) in the top dresser drawer; my keys in a small bowl on the window sill; and my phone on the desk, plugged into the charger.  I turned on my television and began to adjust the antennae so as to pick up a signal from the local PBS station.  After dozens of small adjustments, and moving a lamp from the bedside table to the floor, I got good reception.

On the screen appeared a busy sidewalk in a city which I judged, by the architecture of the storefronts and the faces of the crowd, to be in eastern Europe.  A man carrying a cello in one hand and a folding chair in the other walked along the street.  The program had my attention, and I stood in the middle of my room watching as he unfolded the chair, sat down in it, and began to play the cello.  A woman’s voice was talking about being in Sarajevo in the midst of the civil war there, and seeing this man offering this beautiful music to the strangers around him who shared his city in the midst of war.  Then a woman, evidently the narrator, walked up to the cellist and dropped to her knees, her palms pressed together before her chest and her head bowed to him in blessing and in thanks.  She was Joan Baez, and the program turned out to be a portrait of her life and career, part of the American Masters series on PBS.

I thought, “There she is, walking into the middle of a war again.”  I remembered all the times I had seen images of her placing herself between warring factions, or protestors and police, being arrested, released, and then walking right back to stand in the line of fire, as it were, to stand for peace.  When the cellist acknowledged her thanks and stood up to walk on Baez suddenly sat in his chair and on that crowded street in Sarajevo began to sing, that gorgeous and powerful voice rising out of her to wash over the harried pedestrians as they passed.  “Amazing grace,” she sang, “How sweet the sound, that saved one like me!”

As a rule, I am not interested in celebrities.  I do not even pay attention to the private lives of artists whom I respect.  I figure that what matters is the song, book, image, or performance that they create, and the less I know about the artist the more my attention stays focused on the work and does not get confused or led astray.  But I have never been able to turn my eyes away from this woman.

In the final few minutes of the program, Baez said two things of importance to me.  She said that she now loves touring, whereas she did not in her youth, largely because she has now surrounded herself with the right people.  “It took me until I was in my sixties,” she said, “but I have finally surrounded myself with the right people.”  And a little later, in the closing words of the film, she said, “The spirit is still there, and that’s all you need really, that’s all you need to prove that life is worth living.”

The comfort afforded by the first remark to one who turned sixty just a few months back should be obvious.  I occasionally understand some simple truth about living well, usually a bit of common wisdom that I have utterly failed to apply to my own life up until that time, and I ask myself aloud, “Why the hell did it take you until you were (fill in my age at the time) to figure that one out?”  The importance of the company one keeps is one such bit of common knowledge.  Hasn’t everybody’s grandma told them to be careful not to fall in with the wrong crowd?  To hear Joan Baez, for whom I have had nothing but admiration -- nay, reverence -- all my adult life, admit that even she has had to stumble along through life, making mistakes and learning the hard way, cheered me considerably.  Her remark, especially in connection with her mention of “the spirit” in her closing comment, also got me thinking about the theme that I have begun to work my way through here, that “our minds are not our own.”

We experience ourselves differently, and we are different, in the company of others.  To pray, even silently, in a church, surrounded by others whose minds are focused in the same way, to the same end, and in the same silence, is different from praying alone.  Watching a movie on DVD at home is a vastly different experience from watching it as part of an audience in a theater.  And to expand on that point, have you ever loved a movie so much that you took a friend or two to see it with you and found that you had an entirely different experience of the movie than when you had seen it originally?

Every good preacher will say that as hard as you may work on your sermon, as carefully as you memorize and rehearse its delivery, the one essential thing when you step into the pulpit is “to let it all go, stand back, and allow the spirit to come through.”  The theological genius Calvin himself based the entire structure of Presbyterian polity on the assumption that, although individual people are flawed and prone to error, groups of people working together as a congregation will find their thoughts and actions guided by the Holy Spirit, the divinity which lives with us in this world.

I will continue with these musings in a moment, but before leaving Ms. Baez, let me say that I find her angelic -- most obviously in her voice, which can only be described as heavenly; also in her moral and political life; and finally in her physical beauty, which just keeps revealing itself more and more deeply as the years go by.

[I had hoped to be able to include the video footage described above, but I could not find it on the web.  Instead I offer this footage of Baez at the International House at U.C. Berkeley, and this essay by the film maker who made the American Masters program.]


To continue . . .

If indeed we swim in a stream of consciousness, and our mental activity takes place not sealed up in our skulls but in the very air all around us, much that seems mysterious -- even, to the strict empiricist, delusional -- loses its other-worldly aura (what we in California call the “Woo-Woo Factor”) and appears to be simple and obvious fact.

Some examples:

1.  There is no such thing as “ESP.”  Picking up the phone to call Mom just as it begins to ring in your hand because Mom is calling you; or suddenly realizing that your friend on another continent is in trouble and reaching out to provide help in the nick of time; or even being able to “see” the image that a person in another room is looking at on some psychic-researcher‘s deck of cards -- all of these need not be viewed as anything special unless we make the mistake of thinking that they are instances of two discrete monads somehow sending and receiving information in some mysterious violation of the Laws of Nature.  Rather we should think of these as instances of thoughts that exist in two minds at the same time, as a single object considered by quantum mechanics can exist in two places, even galaxies apart, at the same time.

2.  Hey kids -- ever wonder how Mom can always tell when you’re lying?

3.  Everybody else -- admit it:  secrets are impossible to keep.  They always get out.

4.  I am afraid that you will have to stop marveling at grand “coincidences” -- calculus was a thought that visited both Leibniz and Spinoza at the same time, nothing more and nothing less.

5.  Writers often say that the characters in their novel or play came to them with the story, rather than saying that they made it up.  I certainly had that experience with my (as yet unpublished) novel.  I articulate the difference by using the word “fantasize” to designate an activity over which I feel that I have control and “imagine” to designate that which comes to me more as a perception of something outside of myself, certainly outside of my control.  A story that one imagines is no more in one’s control than is a dream.  And you know how impossible it is to change anything in a dream -- even though you often desperately want to.

Our minds are not our own.

Another HABA# Hint for those who are Traveling Light:
(This one is for men, and it comes in two parts.)

1.  Stop buying shaving cream in aerosol cans.  The propellants and the can itself are anything but eco-friendly.  Use shave cream that comes in a tube.  It won’t make an air-filled bubbly lather, but it will soften your whiskers and keep your razor blade moving smoothly over the surface of your skin.  In fact you will probably find that it keeps your beard moister and your skin softer than the canned variety because it is richer to begin with, not full of water and the aforementioned air.  It is no more expensive and may even save you a little.  And if you are on the street, the tube has the advantage of getting smaller every time you use it, unlike a can.

2.  Once you have accustomed yourself to the smooth, rich feel of the non-aerosol shave cream, you can take another step and save yourself a bundle by using hair conditioner as your shaving cream.
A few months back, I bought hair conditioner by mistake, thinking it was shampoo.  Since I buzz my hair off and have never used conditioner in my life, I kicked myself for wasting money every time I stepped in the shower and saw that full bottle of conditioner sitting there.  But then the day came when I was out of shaving cream and had to look spiffy for work.  I smeared the conditioner on my face and dragged the razor through it.  Voila!  Clean shaven for a couple months now and still only half way through the $1.00 bottle!

(I recommend Suave shampoo, by the way -- $1.00 for 12 ounces at Walgreens.  Until this summer, it was $1.00 for 16 ounces -- oh but don’t worry:  the Feds say there’s no inflation.  That’s why you don’t need any cost-of-living increase to speak of.) 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Two: Miss Manners

I grew up in a white suburb, raised by parents who taught me that prejudice against individuals based on their race or their religion was an inexcusable wrong.  My parents described themselves politically as “Eisenhower Republicans.”  Religiously, they were mainstream Protestants, Presbyterians to be exact.  When a new minister came to our church and began preaching fundamentalist, exclusionary, and judgmental sermons, my parents moved our memberships to a congregation in a neighboring town where a more liberal, forgiving, and inclusionary message prevailed.  When a Jewish family moved in next door, and some of the old neighbors muttered behind their backs, we were given an object lesson in welcoming people of other faiths and accepting their religion as equally valid with ours.  So too, since I was growing up in the early to middle sixties, the nightly news gave my parents ample opportunities to express their disgust with racial bias and their admiration for the righteousness and courage of civil rights leaders.

But I did grow up in a white suburb.  Of the roughly 1500 students at my high school, two were black, and perhaps a half-dozen were Asian.  I grew up with liberal values and with no interactions with people of other races.

I remember that when I was about four years old, I noticed dark-skinned people for the first time.  I was sitting in the back seat of the car as my mother drove us to San Francisco.  In those days there was no freeway from the Bay Bridge to Walnut Creek.  We traveled through each town along the way, all of them connected by a two-lane highway that became “Main Street” in each little town.  In Oakland it became Broadway, which we took to MacArthur Boulevard, where we turned right and headed for the bridge.  Just as we made that turn, I noticed how dark the people on the sidewalk were.  I called them “chocolate people” when I asked my mother about them later.

While the word “chocolate” held nothing but positive connotations for my childish mind, I was nevertheless told not to use that term or to regard those people as different from us or from anyone else.  I had little occasion to have any kind of reaction to people of different races, however, as from then through my adolescence, I simply never encountered any at closer range than seeing them out the window, as I had on that drive through Oakland.


In my late thirties, I owned a penthouse apartment on the shore of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland.  I had beautiful views of the lake and of the hills beyond.  I walked along the shore going to and from work each day and again on the three or four times I walked my dogs.  I often sat on my deck enjoying the sights: the changing sunlight throughout the day and the watery reflections of the city lights at night; the water ebbing and flowing with the tides; the myriad birds (Lake Merritt was the first wildlife refuge in the world); and, of course, les gens qui passe.

Of the latter, it was especially in the afternoons, when men who had been working out at one of the near-by gyms, or a troop of athletes from Laney Community College, which sat a block from the lake, or even a dozen or so firemen training by running the circuit of the lake, would pass my building while I gazed down from my deck, that I, ensconced in a chair or the hammock, found observation of the human wildlife most rewarding.


Some fifteen or twenty years earlier, I sat at my carrel in the library at The Johns Hopkins University, where I was a graduate student in English, reading diligently for anywhere from four to seven hours a day.  I order to keep my attention fresh and my mind sharply focused without taking frequent breaks, I would switch from reading one text, say “The Cantos of Ezra Pound,” to another, such as Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.”  Two little walls along the sides of my desk space, and a blank wall in front of me, blinded me to distractions.  And since my carrel was in the middle of a long row of bookshelves, people were not walking to and fro behind me all the time.

Once in a while, however, someone would come searching the stacks for some book or other along that row.  On day I sat studying, so engrossed in what I was reading that I was not even aware of the fact that, my breathing being partially obstructed by the dryness of a nostril, my hand had lifted a finger to pick at the obstruction.  I was not bothered by picking my nose in so quiet and private a place, not even fully aware that I was doing so, until all at once I was aware that someone searching through the stacks behind me was watching me.

I quickly withdrew my hand from my face.  My face, in turn, became hot.  The tiniest capillaries under my skin had suddenly dilated, and, filling with blood, turned my face, as I knew without a mirror, red and hot.  My heartbeat sped up dramatically.  I was ashamed, and felt both physically and -- shall we say morally? -- uncomfortable.

I did not turn my head to see the person watching me.  I do not even know how it was that I became aware of his or her presence.  I only know that the mere presence of another person caused  profound changes in my body over which my conscious mind had no control.

Not only that, but the action of picking my nose was shameful only because it is defined as such by the society in which I live.  I fully expect that somewhere on earth, at some time, there have been societies which passed no judgment on nose-picking.  Indeed, I have seen men pause while walking along the sidewalk, lean forward, place a finger  on one nostril to close it, and exhale sharply through the other, discharging some obstruction from their nose onto the sidewalk, and then straighten up to walk calmly on.  Internally I denounce them, feeling offended by their behavior, but I am fairly sure that they think nothing of it at all.

I have said elsewhere (see “Inappropriate Behavior, Part One”) that shame is the glue that holds society together.  Shame reveals something so profound about our nature that, I believe, it calls most of the assumptions we have about the individuality of our consciousness into question.

Not only are our bodies  not separate from our own minds, but our bodies are not separate from the minds of others.  And if our bodies are not separate from the minds of others, is it not likely that our minds are also not separate from the minds of the people around us?


One afternoon, as I was walking alongside Lake Merritt, I saw a man approach, running at a rapid pace, his powerful legs reaching forward with each stride and grabbing the earth, propelling him forward, with the magnificent musculature of his torso, trapezius and deltoids and latissimus dorsi tapering to his impossibly narrow waist, matched in their perfection by his biceps and forearms, abdominals, and even his neck, shining with sweat under the hot sun.  I watched him pass, and as I did, I became aware of the depth of my racism.

His beauty was, to me, entirely aesthetic.  I appreciated his body as I appreciate sculpture.  And I knew that if his skin had been white, even a swarthy, Mediterranean version of white skin, I would not only have found him beautiful, but I would have found him erotic as well.  To put it bluntly, if he had been white, I would have gotten a hard-on, but because he was black, I did not.

Again, as in the library at Johns Hopkins, my body was teaching me not only the limits of my will (that pathetic sensation of intentionality that we deify and grow self-righteous about), but about the way in which the society of which I am part defines my sexuality as well as my morality.  I could no more control my sexual reaction to his body than I could control my blush when seen picking my nose.  I cannot decide to desire black men any more than I can decide to desire women -- or decide to feel no shame at picking my nose in front of others.  The social medium in which I swim controls my body and my mind in ways that more profound than any control exercised by my "will."

Our minds are not our own.


As a student, I thought of the literary strategy called ‘stream of consciousness” as a kind of internal monologue continuing by a process something like free-association.  I thought it was the rendering on the page of the ongoing thought-processes of an individual character.

When my mother died, I decided to read a passage from “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf, at the memorial service for her.  In this passage, Lilly Briscoe has set up her easel to begin work on a painting she had begun some twenty years earlier.  Mr. Carmichael, the opium-befuddled poet, reclines in  a lawn-chair nearby.

The painting shows the Ramsey’s summer house, in the window of which Mrs. Ramsey had been sitting when Lilly began work on the painting those many years ago.  Now, however, Mrs. Ramsey has died, and in returning to the painting Lilly is made painfully aware of the absence of
Mrs. Ramsey.  Indeed, she has an overpowering realization of our mortality, and she comes to understand that the dead are not absent in the sense of being negated entirely, but rather that the absence of the dead is a powerful presence in itself.  Lilly feels in that moment the anguish and the beauty of our frailty and of the love between us that survives even death.

I knew the passage well from my undergraduate days at Berkeley, but in the course of memorizing it for recitation at the service, I discovered something astounding.  Throughout the passage, you cannot tell which of the characters, Lilly or Mr. Carmichael, is thinking the thoughts that Woolf recounts.  Indeed, you begin to realize that these thoughts, that all thoughts, are not the product of any one mind and perceived by that mind only, but that we live and think as beings submerged, as it were, in a stream of consciousness.  Thought surrounds and penetrates us as does the air.

Our minds are not our own.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Inappropriate Behavior, Part Two: Poor Devils

Ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?

I have not, though I admit to being more than a bit intrigued by the idea.  But I have seen many of my neighbors engaged in just such an exercise in full daylight, day after day after day.

If I could be the Tsar of the English Language, I would expand the definition of the word “spirits” in its reference to distilled alcohol or other volatile liquors.  I would have this definition include all manner of intoxicating substances: cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, anti-depressants, etc.  For just as I know by personal experience that there is a devil in rum, so I see on every block of the Tenderloin men and women locked in forms of physical struggle -- or perhaps in dances of one kind or another -- with creatures, whether partners or antagonists, that are invisible to me.

This morning I saw a man standing on the corner of Hyde and Eddy Streets, with his knees bent in a partial squat; with his torso thrown forward horizontally, so that if his legs had been straight he would have formed a perfect right angle; and with his arms bent and flung akimbo.  He was dressed in dull grays and blues, grime covering all of his clothes.  His dirty hair hung forward over his face.  I would have guessed him to be in this thirties, but it is folly to guess the age of those who are leading lives as hard as so many my neighbors' are.

His pose was so imbalanced and so precarious that it must have required tremendous effort and muscular strength to hold it without falling over.  What is more, he stood on the very edge of the sidewalk, at the corner, where had he stepped into the street, he would have been in the crosswalk, and had he fallen, his head would have been in the center of the curb lane.  But in all the time that he was in my field of vision, about five minutes, I did not see him move a muscle.  I imagined that his legs, back, and arms, must have been screaming in silent pain inside his mind, but he was outwardly as still and silent as stone.

As I passed him I heard a rough noise from the street and looked up Eddy toward Larkin to see a woman stumbling across the street in long, irregular, broken strides.  A plastic container of food had just hit the pavement in the middle of the street, evidently having slipped from her hands.  Her arms were flailing on either side of her in order to stabilize her body as each of her steps twisted her, first right and then left, at least as much as it propelled her forward.  She sounded disappointed, even hurt, and a little angry as she spoke loudly to someone or something near her.  But her interlocutor clearly belonged only to her ken and remained unseen by me.

How many dimensions or realities, how many parallel universes, exist alongside mine in the six-block square that is the “TL”?  I see only my reality, but I see my neighbors reacting to the presences in theirs.

This evening, I saw a man who had a large pile of things massed up against the Leavenworth side of the YMCA, mid-block between Golden Gate and Turk.  As I approached, he (oblivious to my presence, I am sure) scattered a dozen or so sheets of white paper along the street-side edge of the sidewalk.  He dropped them with a wild gesture and then went on waving his hands at them while mumbling what seemed to be instructions.  It looked as though he wanted them to stay where he had placed them.  Even now I half-wonder whether he held a magic wand as he worked at this chore.

The papers, like obedient pets, settled to the ground and did not stir.  The man then wheeled around and careened toward the rest of his possessions, drawing from them what appeared to be a rope with two balls attached, one at either end (a bolo, I believe).  Holding the balls in his left hand and folding the rope in half over his right wrist, he held the double line of rope taut and straight, and pushed against the air with it, in the direction of the papers, as he stepped first toward them and then back, shifting from side to side, performing what I took to be the erection of a barrier, a kind of spirit-fence, to keep the papers away from the rest of his worldly goods.  He seemed to have made a corral of sorts for the white sheets of loose paper, keeping them easily at hand should he need them, while simultaneously keeping them from causing any mischief among the rest of his subjects.

Having passed him, I did not look back to see what other enchanted chores he, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, performed.  Besides, I had dozens more folks to weave my way through while they darted or slid back and forth across my path as I walked home, all of them doing business or battle with vigorous intent.

Today, you see, was the first of the month


And a propos of the first, I found a shiny new quarter in the street as I walked to the library this afternoon.  (See "Pennies From Heaven" )  I am getting to know these streets well.


For those of you who wonder what is wrong with the streetizens whom I have described above, I can answer in a single word:  poverty.  While it is true that not all people who are afflicted with poverty turn to drugs for relief, it is also true that using drugs is an obviously effective response to the symptoms of poverty, especially within a dominate culture that turns to drugs for relief from every kind of stress or sorrow naturally encountered in the course of human endeavor.  (See "An Excess of Black Bile")  Their choice to use drugs is not very different from my choice to eat a diet high in fat and sugars.  (See "A Difficult Day or Two" )  I eat burgers and donuts because they are less expensive and more effective in relieving poverty’s symptoms (stomach cramps, sleeplessness) than a healthier diet would be.


Sullivan’s Travels, written and directed by Preston Sturgis, tells the story of a movie director who wants to make a film about poverty during the Great Depression.  To prepare for this task he decides to dress in dirty and worn-out clothes (supplied by the studio’s costume department) and, taking no money with him, to wander the country, traveling with hobos and living among the homeless.

Within the first few minutes of the film, Sullivan’s butler takes the servant’s greatest risk:  he reprimands his master.  His speech, delivered with sincerity and conviction in a close-up shot of the butler looking straight out of the screen at us, gives me chills -- to be honest, brings me to tears -- every time I watch it.

[Like Godfrey, the “Forgotten Man” in My Man Godfrey, this is a servant who has clearly had a first-class education, most probably a gentleman who has fallen on hard times:  notice how he uses the term “positive” in the philosophical sense of a thing that exists in and of itself (as opposed to a “negative” which is a thing not existing independently but only as the absence of another thing.)]

Sullivan has just explained his intention of making a film about poverty.

Butler: The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?

Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. I believe quite properly, sir.

Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once, who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves, as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.

You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.

Sullivan: Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.

Butler: Quite unwillingly, sir. Will that be all, sir?