Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner. “Drop the A-Bomb on meeeeeeeeeeee!”

Sit Down and Shut UpI only have one irrational fear: boredom. After many years of getting to know myself, I admit I have a fear of boredom. I go to great lengths planning for new things to happen so that I will be spared a moment of boredom. What’s so bad about boredom? It can be relaxing. I did say it was irrational. Boredom feels a little like death because nothing is happening; maybe that is it. But apart from boredom, I do not have any irrational fears. Well, except maybe of really high heights, but that is rational, a fall would kill me. And then there’s claustrophobia. The idea of being awake in a closed coffin really spooks me, but wouldn’t it spook you? Wait a minute, are all these fears rooted in a fear of death, in the end of me?

In Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner provides a fresh take on the Buddhist view that “self” is at the root of our troubles. The notion of self as a permanent thing is an understandable mistake. Our self is a constant through our many changing experiences, so we mistake it for a permanent thing. “When a man is sailing along in a boat and he moves his eyes to the shore, he misapprehends that the shore is moving” says Dogen, an ancient Buddhist teacher. Dogen’s book, Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, is the subject of Warner’s dialog. It taught him many of the insights on his path from a bassist for the hardcore punk band Zero Defects to becoming a Zen priest.

While many books on Buddhism cause my eyes to glaze over (in boredom?), Warner’s perspective on punk brings extra punch. Take anger, the mantle of every punker. “Drop the A-Bomb on meeeeeeeeeeee!” According to Warner, angry music is different than an angry musician. When they were writing or playing music, there wasn’t any anger involved. Angry music was intended to say something true, and playing it shifted him out of his petty self. Anger is about me being right, and you being wrong. If you dispense with self, it is tough to remain angry.

This shift is the essence of Zazen, a meditation practice. Zazen is quite simple. Find a quiet spot, sit on a pillow in full or half lotus, keep your spine straight and your eyes open, and cease the “ten thousand things” that your mind gets distracted by. Turn off the chattering mind, and just sit there. Yeah, pretty boring. But according to Zen Buddhists, ordinary reality is the essence of enlightenment. Sitting in Zazen, we gain a clear perception of the present moment, and unhinge from the self and its complicated yearnings for the past or its plans for happiness in the future if only such and such occurs. “Real happiness comes when you are truly living this moment, no matter what it is.”

Warner admits the story of Buddha is a boring one. Nothing like the life of Jesus, with miracles and betrayal and all. Buddha was a young prince who lived the first part of his life indulging the pleasures of the body, and the next part denying them in ascetic rituals. In the end, he rejected both, sat under a tree, and was enlightened. He stopped being distracted and beheld reality as it eternally is, right in front of his nose. Yipee. Now what? I’ve heard it said that the only cure for boredom is curiousity, but look what happened to the cat. There’s that death thing again. Maybe my fear of boredom is less a fear of physical death and more a fear for the permanence of self. Dropping the illusion of self feels kind of liberating. Next time I’m stuck waiting for a train, or in line at the grocery checkout, I’ll think about it, or better still, I’ll stop thinking about it and practice a little Zazen.

Hardcore Zen blog by Brad Warner

The City of Words by Alberto Manguel. Stories are the first clue to the existence of others.

The city of wordsEmpathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Sympathy is about loving your neighbour; empathy is about loving your enemy. Nice idea, but is it possible? In the City of Words, Alberto Manguel shows how stories are the first clue to the existence of others, and how the creative use of language allows us to understand those quite different than ourselves, so that we may together build a civilized society.

According to legend, Cassandra had both the gift of prophecy and a curse that no one would believe her. No one heeded her prediction of the fall of Troy. Such is the state of storytellers across time. Their language suggests ideas that do not conform to the current Zeitgeist. So the poets were excluded from Plato’s republic, and the literate were persecuted in Nazi Germany. Outsiders. But we need these stories; they serve a vital purpose in unfixing inapt labels, and animating lifeless dogma.

One of our oldest stories, that of Gilgamesh, tells of the discovery of “other”. Gilgamesh is a tyrant king who discovers a wild man, Enkidu, outside the city walls. Gilgamesh brings him into the city, and they become brothers, together more powerful and wonderful than before. We see our evil twin, or doppelganger in many things, including the technology which we fear will supplant us. If we can imagine a way to integrate these perceived evils, we can create a better society.

In the story of Babel, a plan to build a tower to heaven was thwarted by God when he confused the tongues of the builders. Language began as a tool to identify things and keep stock, and without a common language it is difficult to work together; ask the foreigners who come to our cities. But words are not simply our tools; they often take us places we did not expect. It is imagination that gives a sense of hope, progress and the future. Writers create stories in which readers find a hopeful reflection; their interest in turn creates writers to tell more stories. The presence of many tongues can be a blessing, bringing new stories. It may be better to think of the future as an unending stream of stories than a single project or conclusion. Don Quixote is a tale of a hero who does not necessarily win his battle, but moves us with his aspiration.

The theme of the evil foreigner who must be destroyed plays itself out in other stories, often with a chilling outcome. In Jack London’s The Assassin’s Bureau, the assassin’s own rules eventually force him to kill himself. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey 2001, the computer Hal is forced to see the spaceship’s occupants as obstacles that must be killed. In our society, advertising is the new storytelling, the book industry has become business not culture, and the consequences are becoming clearer. The machines of our economics are zeroing in on us. Manguel warns that literature is essential to disrupting this narrow path, to allowing other futures to be imagined, and a better society to be built.

The Runes of the Earth, by Stephen Donaldson. Despair is a persistent foe.

The runes of the earthThe Runes of the Earth begins the third and last chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. My passion for reading was forged as a teenager with fantasy books by the likes of Lewis, Tolkien and Donaldson. When my eyes first fell upon Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the first chronicles published in 1977, I saw that it was another story about a ring of power craved by an evil lord, and thought that it must be another Lord of the Rings knockoff. Wow, was I wrong. Donaldson is a master of psychological adventure, taking readers deep into the interior of complex characters such as the anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, who disbelieves in the Land to preserve his health and sanity in our world. The fantasy genre uses symbols literally, and often crudely. Symbols are the language of the unconscious, and only a few like Donaldson can use them effectively.

Lord Foul is back after being twice defeated in his attempts to use Covenant’s white gold ring to destroy the Arch of Time. Covenant was slain at the end of the second chronicles, but the manner of his death promises a return in some form. Linden Avery reappears from the second chronicles as a worthy protagonist, equally tortured in her circumstances and decisions. Her son, Jeremiah, has been taken by Foul to manipulate her use of Covenant’s ring: “Tell her that I have her son.” Covenant’s family has been twisted into the service of Foul. The Staff of Law was lost a generation after Linden’s last victory over Foul, permitting new evils, including a smog called Kevin’s Dirt, and distortions of time called Falls or caesures. In the absence of any other leadership, the Haruchai have turned from servants of the Land to Masters, forbidding the use of Earthpower (health incarnate) to fight Foul. Linden’s only friends seem to be mad old Anele, who clings to her for protection, and young Liand, an untried Stonedowner.

Like any psychological journey, the action is more internal than external. The reader is treated to pages of deliberation, garnered in unfettered use of uncommon English (words like thetic and threnody), and dialog stretching over paragraphs at a time. Metaphysical questions are pondered deeply: can good come of evil? Readers travel leagues with Linden with only skirmishes for action. But when the moments of truth arrive, Donaldson delivers with fireworks. I recall that the conclusion to the second chronicles had me uttering aloud, “Oh my God!” These books are Old Testament fire and brimstone.

Thirty years after the first work was published, I wondered again if anything original could happen here. How many times can Foul return? I was not disappointed. This story had to be told. Consider that the villain has many names — Lord Foul, the Despiser, Despair. Despair is by nature a persistent foe. Donaldson is psychological novelist. Perhaps despair seldom wins, but can any of us truly vanquish despair for good? A major theme is this book is that of reckonings. When Stave the Haruchai is persuaded to assist Linden, he promises there will be a reckoning. What reckoning will be required to finally settle things with Foul? My hope is that by the end of this last chronicle, Donaldson will resolve the cycle in a new way, finding some kind of balance or synthesis in the Land between hope and despair.

Author’s Website

We Three Dragons by Greenwood, Ward & Grubb. Meet the dragon incarnation of Scrooge.

We Three DragonsWe Three Dragons is a collection of Christmas fantasies featuring fierce and unpredictable dragon protagonists.

In “The Knight, Before Christmas” parents read their children a traditional poem of a brave knight who challenged a dragon and the unusual deal that was struck to avoid bloodshed. The real hero is revealed only after the children are tucked in bed.

In “Christmas Dragon”, Lava the Dragon does not take kindly to being woken from a centuries long sleep by stupid manthings ringing bells of gold. Gold — the precious metal that nests his bed and feeds his power! It is time to remind these irritants of the universal law that the weak serve the powerful (if only they didn’t taste so stringy). The silly townsfolk of Ding struggle to save their hides, but none is more surprised than Lava when he responds to a small girl’s plea for help.

In “Wrathclaw’s Wyrmtide”, readers meet the dragon incarnation of the Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge, a most wicked beast even among dragons. He drives off his beloved wife when he eats the eggs of their hatchings to avoid sharing gold. He kills his only son for begging gold to warm his mother’s winter bed. No dragon gives treasure away! When the mystical AllDragon gives a Christmas gem to Wrathclaw, its reflection shows more than he cares to see.

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon. Strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness”.

The 100-Mile Diet“It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers.” (pg. 3)

The 100-Mile Diet begins in a cottage with no light, fridge, car or hot water; the kind of place I dream of when too immersed in the hectic daily business of life. Most of us would starve out there, or so we believe. After an inspired meal gathered only from the wild, Alisa and James launched a year-long diet of food only found within 100 miles of their home. They found themselves returning from their cottage not starving, but with armfuls more food than they arrived with.

Why would anyone limit themselves to eating locally? How does that help anyone? Doesn’t it deprive third-world farmers and truckers of their livelihoods? There are a number of persuasive reasons. Local foods have fewer pesticides and more nutrition. Seasonal variety is good for developing immunity. Unprocessed foods represent a real solution to the obesity problem. Distant foods are only affordable through cheap oil, arguably enforced politically. Sparing the miles reduces the carbon emissions that cause global warming. And about those third-world farmers: when the 1994 free trade agreement was signed, subsidized corn from America overwhelmed Mexico’s two million small farmers and their 5000 varieties of corn. The collapse of a local industry due to economic deals (or a train derailment spilling ten thousand gallons of caustic soda into the river and killing half a million fish) is merely one disaster in a global economy in which we can always go elsewhere. In a local economy, we are reminded that such events are a catastrophe.

Works for me. But how does one go about eating locally? And can it be done without a “depression style diet of beets, cabbage and potatoes” (pg. 24)? Alisa and James started simply, eating seasonally from the farmer’s markets. It is not tough to find these in your area, e.g., Ontario. They sensibly used up supplies like salt that were already in their cupboards, but when they ran out they improvised, e.g., refining salt from the ocean. They used honey instead of sugar; I have got to get me some of that pumpkin honey. The great revelation from local eating is the immense variety of tastes that can be found. It reminds me of my half-dozen batches of home-brewing I did a couple years ago. I started with simple recipes but then discovered real flavour by adding freshly rolled grains and hops.

I went grocery shopping when I was reading their book. I read the source of each product on its label. Local apple juice replaced California grapefruit juice, and blueberries replaced my sultan raisins from Iran. I had no idea that carbonated water came all the way from Italy or Germany; dropped that. I have not replaced coffee yet but I am thinking about herbal tea. I am sure olive oil can be exchanged for a healthy local vegetable oil. And local vegetables frozen when fresh are always a good choice.

Turning over a local leaf can get quite philosophical. Their diet was not vegetarian, and this raised the question of whether the animals had been fed locally. They lived near the US border; should they break the law by taking local foods across it? Inevitably, you have to ask yourself if you are doing this because you believe the world is falling apart. When Alisa and James were shucking corn in their apartment they felt like part of some apocalyptic cult. While it is hard not to wonder at times if our fast global culture can sustain itself, I have to count myself with them among the non-believers. Instead, I see progress as something that is not always linear; sometimes we have to take a few steps back to pick up something we missed. A few weeks ago I read an objection to slow food on the grounds that women would likely have to do most of the work (see comments in this Metafilter post). Both Alisa and James worked hard, but James did most of the cooking. Perhaps we had to step away from slow food for awhile to advance women’s rights, but now may be a time to return to it for our health and that of the planet.

Alisa and James are journalists by trade but they sure know how to have fun with language; they “scuffed over to the farmer’s stand” (pg. 53) and ate strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness” (pg. 54). The edge in their relationship was of no more interest to me than it appeared to be to James as they alternated narration by chapter; I wondered if Alisa was simply missing some nutrient in her diet. I much preferred the drama of their quest for wheat: the disappointment at the ruined bag, the discovery that wheat had been grown locally in 1890, and Alisa’s delight when she declared, “I found a wheat farmer” (pg. 184). With a little effort, everything was possible.


How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire. Why a “Christian Guide”? Slow reading is good for theists of all stripes, as well as atheists and agnostics.

How to read slowlyI recently chanced on James W. Sire’s book, How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. That the intended audience of this book is Christians raised an eyebrow: certainly slow reading is good for theists of all stripes, as well as atheists and agnostics. Much of the book is indeed useful for anyone wishing to know tips about how to read slowly. It advises the reader to take the time to read a book’s preface and introduction, have a dictionary handy, and read with a pen in hand for notes. But the deeper purpose of the book is to teach the reader how to pick up on the world view of the author to see if it squares with the Christianity. This raised my other eyebrow; should Christians be wary of writers with divergent belief systems? But the advice is quite practical and useful for anyone. When analyzing non-fiction, the reader can apply philosophical questions, e.g., what is the author’s view on reality. When analyzing fiction, the reader can examine how the plot, theme and characters add up to the author’s vision of life. Biographical, historical and other information can provide context to a reading. The reader is wisely advised to bring a clear self-understanding to the reading.

Two items caught my particular interest. One, it is recommended to “read at your normal rate–or more slowly” (pg. 49). Speed readers are taught how to read as fast as possible, but slow readers should not necessarily try to read as slow as possible. The essence of slow reading is to make a choice about reading rate, perhaps reading quickly over light material, and slowing down for the richer parts. The sense of choice with slow reading is contrasted with the forced quality of much business and educational reading. A feeling of freedom is one of the reasons slow reading appeals to many; it helps recapture the joy of reading. Two, Sire distinguishes reading for entertainment or information from reading for perspective, the slow reading approach that allows one to pick up on subtleties in the text and the writer’s world view. Extending his idea, the face content drops into the background, creating a figure-ground reversal that is sometimes associated in the psychological literature with altered states of consciousness — fascinating.

Sire’s title piqued my awareness of the spiritual dimension of slow reading, and I have since noticed additional references on the benefits of slow reading toward spiritual life. Eugene Peterson wrote Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: “Peterson is convinced that the way we read the Bible is as important as that we read it.”┬áIn a blog post entitled, Martin Luther: Lessons from his life and labor, John Piper admits that as a slow reader, he is encouraged by Luther’s advice: “A student who does not want his labor wasted must so read and reread some good writer that the author is changed, as it were, into his flesh and blood. For a great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere and, therefore, nowhere in particular.” Again a mystical dimension is brought out here; the subject certainly deserves deeper treatment another day.

Conceit by Mary Novik. How this one could have slipped the Giller shortlist I do not know.

ConceitConceit tells the story of Pegge, daughter of the seventeenth century poet, John Donne. The common sense of conceit is excessive pride; of that, so this telling goes, Donne was not innocent. But Donne the poet is historically known for his use of the literary conceit, the juxtaposition of unlike things to surprise and reveal. He used a open compass to depict parted lovers still joined at the soul. The story is about partedness, both parted love and duplicity, and eventual consummation.

The elderly Dr. Donne is dying, or so he hopes. The great love of his life, his wife Ann, is long dead. He is now Dean of St. Paul’s cathedral, eager to take his seat with the saints. He has already preached his funeral sermon and commissioned his effigy. But he lingers; “I am not alive, but God will not kill me”.

Donne is prudish and vain, but cares genuinely for the welfare of his children. Of all his children, only Pegge shows the spirit of a poet. It does not suit her for marriage or for the writing of Donne’s memoir. Instead, a credulous Izaak Walton is employed to handle Donne’s notes. Walton is a beautiful young man, the object of Pegge’s desire. A secret meeting has Pegge removing her scarlet bodice to help snare a massive carp that Walton cannot quite manage. The extended overlay of fishing for mirror carp with love-making might have gone badly in the hands of a lesser writer, but Novik delivers it deliciously.

Pegge’s family awaits her first period so she can be married off, while Pegge’s tears for her “childish, reluctant womb” quicken the ghost of Ann. Ann becomes narrator, telling how the young Donne persuaded her to risk her father’s wrath and poverty by marrying him. He loved her sincerely. He promised they would lie together in life and death, even had it carved on her gravestone. But now he plans to be buried with the deans in St. Paul’s and not with her. He will not be able to abandon his vow so easily. “At the exact moment that your soul springs from your body, I will be there to trap it with a long, devouring kiss.” Donne’s dying dreams send him ravishing Ann’s ashes.

Donne dies at last. Ann and God are there, and while the claim on his soul seems decided, the most fervent part of the story is still to be told. Until now, Pegge’s life seemed overshadowed by her parents. While they knew great love and contended with God, Pegge appeared as a little girl with a crush. During her father’s life, she failed to wrest answers about love from him. In death, he still dominates her life. She marries the man Donne chose, or nearly so. William Bowles is a kind and true husband, but he does not understand the possession that takes hold of Pegge, summoning the writer in her to reveal Donne the man, freeing him from lies and sainthood. “How hard it is to have a wife who loves the smell of ink and paper!” The great fire of England that began the story ends it too, with Pegge deciding Donne’s ultimate fate.

The story is a sensual one, shaped by Donne’s poetry. It is an extended love poem with language, characters and feelings the reader will want to savour one page at a time. How this one could have slipped the Giller shortlist I do not know.

See also: Website of Mary Novik

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. A mid-life chance for a good-hearted loser to make good on life.

The Memory of RunningSmithson “Smithy” Ide is a runner, a cyclist, a reader, and one skinny kid. At least he used to be. As a boy, he ran to go fishing. He often had to run as part of his family’s efforts to find his sister, Bethany, afflicted with a voice that insists on violence and leaves her in a catatonic pose. Smithy’s searches were accelerated when his pop bought him a new maroon three-speed Raleigh bicycle, the kind we all wanted at his age. He would ride every day after school. Can you remember that feeling?

Years later, Smithy is fourty-seven; now he is running away from life. He is numb from the escalating violence of Bethany who finally disappeared and cannot be found. He is indifferent about his old neighbour girl, Norma, who used to be like one of the family, but became house-bound and was forgotten because of Bethany’s affliction. Smithy smokes and drinks; he is a 270 pound fat-ass. When Smithy is called upon to arrange the funeral of his parents, he finds a letter confirming that Bethany is dead, identified by her dental records after being found in the streets.

Smithy finds his old Raleigh in the garage. “All of a sudden I gave the Raleigh a few steps, sat ridiculously on the seat, and began to coast on the flat tire rims of my bike, down our little hill.” Thus begins a crazy journey from East Providence, Rhode Island to Venice, Los Angles where his dead sister is being kept in a funeral home. Sleeping in corn fields and later in a tent, Smithy is aided by Benny, a wayward priest trying to make amends; hit by Carl, whose illness leaves Smithy rushing him to the hospital; and disappointed by an old war-buddy who once saved Smithy’s life. As the pounds melt off, Smithy forgets his addictions. I ached in pleasure at times sharing Smithy’s rediscovery of cycling, his joy in sweet but wholesome bananas, and the company of a good book. I cheered when Smithy learned that his absence had cost him his dismal job. Visions of Bethany guide him on his trip, and phone calls from Norma promise love at the end of it all. It is a journey of remembering and redemption, a mid-life chance for a good-hearted loser to make good on life.

Home Schooling by Carol Windley. Missing people overshadow the lives of young women.

Home SchoolingMissing people overshadow the lives of young women in Windley’s collection of eight short stories, nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006. Saffi notices things but thinks it a curse after she spots a missing boy in her neighbour’s basement. Annabel’s father strives to reopen his private school after a student drowns, but Annabel dreams of escaping the island with her math tutor. Nadia tries to please everyone after her mother leaves her father the woodcarver for a logging mogul. Lydia’s grandmother survives the horrible death of her family, but the suffering is passed across generations. Alex secretly wishes for all that her friend Desiree abandons: her husband, her child, and her home. Windley effectively contrasts the complex and often dark inner lives of the characters and their family struggles against the undeveloped and beautiful backdrop of rural Vancouver Island.

Balanced Libraries by Walt Crawford. “The library voice of the radical middle”.

Balanced LibrariesJust on the heels of Walt Crawford’s release of Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples, I have managed to put together a few words on Balanced Libraries. Here are a few highlights from my reading, peppered with several thoughts of my own.

Balanced Libraries is a response to the discussions surrounding Library 2.0, the movement that has tried to use Web 2.0 technologies to reinvigorate library services. Some assert that Library 2.0 is about much more than technology, with each stone in the library system being overturned and re-evaluated, hopefully leading to better service for library patrons. Inevitably, change is met with resistance. The library crowd is reasonably adept at getting at the best of the enthusiasts and the resistors, but sometimes an experienced and clear voice is needed. In his book, Crawford lives up to his blog tag-line, “The library voice of the radical middle”. It could be the bible of the Slow Library movement.

A basic premise of Web 2.0 is increased user participation; technologies such as blogs, wikis and tagging allow for it. Library 2.0 also emphasizes increased patron focus. But how far should that go? Is the customer always right? Following the often demonstrated Pareto principle, private bookstores will focus their services on the twenty percent of customers that make up eighty percent of their business. Isn’t it the role of library to look after the ones who aren’t getting their needs met by other sources? And which minority would that that be? The small group of high-end users who think that bookstores are not technologically advanced enough (the Library 2.0 enthusiasts like me) or the group of patrons who are reluctant to use technology for whatever reason? Not a hard call. It’s never as simple as that, but libraries need to be careful not to let 2.0 mislead them from their traditional mission.

A common motive for Library 2.0 is a concern that traditional library services may be stagnating, in jeopardy of being replaced by competition from the private sector: bookstores, Amazon, Google, eBooks, information brokers, etc. Another is a belief that electronic resources are becoming more important than print resources. Crawford asserts, “The great digital debate is not only boring but over” (pg. 37). Almost, anyway. It’s never been a zero sum game. Crawford observes that information brokers tend to be dedicated library users. High end users of electronic research tools also tend to be high end users of print research tools. I recall other research stating that high end users of film, television, and recorded music tend to also be heavy readers. Is this a new law of library science? Something like … “an increase in forms of information causes an increase in usage of all forms of information” … or some variant. Call it the Crawford principle. Seriously, with each passing year we understand more clearly that digital technology has only displaced a portion of print resources, creating a broader spectrum of complementary information resources.

There have been prodigious efforts to define Library 2.0. The efforts can be zealous, sometimes ostracizing those who disagree, even if not intentionally. A sensitive question is whether Library 2.0 is a technological movement versus a larger library mission movement. Crawford prudently avoids stoking that debate, but suggests the waning zeal over Web 2.0 might help cool things off. In my view, a mature movement is able to define both what it is and what it is not. To define all good change as being about Library 2.0 is to risk displacing other good movements in the library field. Also, as an old hack in the web development field, I have sometimes rolled my eyes at all the hype about Web 2.0, knowing that these ostensibly new technologies have been implicit in the web from day one. As Crawford says, take a breath, Library 2.0 is just a name.

Balance is not a sexy idea, but Crawford helps makes sense of the debate, showing how both change and stasis can be troublesome for libraries, providing a fresh take on the timeless wisdom that technology must serve the library mission, not the reverse.