Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pascagoula

Here's a picture of the hotel that I had been staying at in Pascagoula, near I-10 about ten or so miles inland, from the hotel's web site.
Here's how the hotel looked last Monday. The picture's from a Mississippi newspaper's site.
This Burger King was near the hotel; again about ten or so miles inland.
And here's a picture of a chemical plant in Pascagoula after the storm.
In Mobile, an oil rig ran up against a bridge over Mobile Bay.
Finally, here's a monkey water skiing (included just so that this blog entry isn't all doom and gloom).

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Bad Day in Pascagoula

This is the scene from near Exit 69 off I-10 where I had been staying near Pascagoula, an area I had described as a "fast-food hell," now totally inundated with floodwaters.

These poor folks lost their home near the Pascagoula shore on Mississippi Sound. This is one of the most poignant pictures I've seen of the devastation to human and property values.


What's left of the houses above and below are near the trail along the shore that I used to occasionally run along.


It was a bad day today in Pascagoula. I'm safe and dry and, surprisingly, with electricity back home in Atlanta, but I have a profound sense of sorrow for all those who weren't as lucky as me and have another place to go home to. And the situation in New Orleans is even worse, from everything I've read.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Katrina

Real transcript of actual over-the-air interview from Hurricane Katrina coverage:

SHEPARD SMITH: You're live on FOX News Channel, what are you doing?

MAN: Walking my dogs.

SMITH: Why are you still here? I'm just curious.

MAN: None of your fucking business.

SMITH: Oh that was a good answer wasn't it? That was live on international television. Thanks so much for that. You know we apologize.

[snip]

SMITH: I'm watching two dogs drink out of a glass of ice water, and it's none of my business why they are still here.
Update: It's now almost 7 p.m., and the rain of Katrina is coming down hard upon the City of Atlanta. I'm expecting the electricity to go out at any minute, possibly even while I'm typing this entry.

Some kind souls called me from the Zen Center earlier and said that they were hunkered down there for the night, and I didn't need to feel that I had to come by and open tonight. No one is likely to show up, given the weather.

Speaking of kindness, my broke-down television bestowed an act of kindness on me last night. I was resigned to it being out for a while, but even though "Six Feet Under" is no longer on, I had been hoping to catch the premier of the new HBO series, "Rome," last night. Plus the new episode of "Entourage" (HBO on Sunday nights is becoming what NBC once was on Thursday nights - "must-see t.v."). So, I gave the remote a tentative click at around quarter to nine, even though it hadn't worked the previous 20 times I had tried it, but this time, lo and behold, the picture came on! And I was able to watch my shows. The set worked fine . . . for about two hours, and then the picture went all out of whack. Now, the set seems completely dead. The technician's coming over Wednesday morning to check it out, but at least last night, it worked just long enough to allow me to watch my shows.

Thank you, inanimate electronic appliance.

Tonight, I don't really care whether the t.v. works or not - I will be thrilled if the lights just stay on long enough to let me finish this blog, make my supper, maybe read a little Faulkner and go to bed.

That's not really asking much.

Now I'm walking on sunshine (whoa oh)
I'm walking on sunshine (whoa oh)
I'm walking on sunshine (whoa oh)
And don't it feel good, hey!, all right now,
And don't it feel good, hey!, yeah!

- "Walking On Sunshine," Katrina And The Waves

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Broken Televisions, Edmund Wilson, Faulkner, Oprah and Katrina

"Wilson hated American chauvinism and gentility, and everything he associated with them - prudery, pedantry, commercialism, and militarism. That hatred was the starch in his prose."
- Louis Menand on Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, August 8, 2005

Last night, my friends Nick and Andrea came over for a visit. While we were watching a DVD, my television, a 50-inch projection Mitsubishi, suddenly turned itself off. No apparent reason. One moment, "The Family Guy," the next moment, nothing.

I thought my remote might have accidentally sent an "off" message, so I used it to click the television back on. The little green indicator light came on, but before the picture came on, the television turned itself back off again. We tried this again many times with the same results, we tried turning on the television with the power button on the set itself, we tried plugging the power cord into different outlets, we tried unhooking the DVD player and the cable in case they were sending the "off" message, but nothing worked. It would click on, and within three seconds, shut back down.

My television's busted. Or on strike.

Which was fine last night. We amused ourselves by talking about Zen and metaphysics for the balance of the evening. But it's still not working today. Nick, being helpful, sent me some suggestions he had found on line, but none of the diagnostic tests recommended work when there's no power to the set. I'll have to call a repairman during the week.

It's no big deal - I'm not a big t.v. watcher anyway, and last Sunday was the series finale of "Six Feet Under," the only show that I followed. Okay, that and "Entourage." And FX's "Starved" and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." And the Sci Fi channel's "Tripping the Rift." And, of course, "The Daily Show."

God, I hope that the repairman can make it here on Monday.

In the absence of television, I amused myself today with some much-needed housecleaning (I probably should have done it before Nick and Andrea's visit), and catching up on my reading, including articles on Edmund Wilson in both The New Yorker and The Economist. Since I've been spending so much time lately in southern Mississippi, I decided to finally get around to reading Faulkner, instead of just talking like I had, and bought Oprah's Book of the Month Club's recommendations of "As I Lay Dying," "The Sound and the Fury," and "Light in August." I was actually looking for "Absalom, Absalom" on a recommendation I received while killing time in Mobile one night last week, but the local Border's didn't have it in stock and who am I to question Oprah's recommendation?

But with or without a television, I get to be the guy who spends next week at home here in Atlanta, due to now-Category-5-strength Hurricane Katrina, which seems to be bearing down on New Orleans. While I appreciate the storm's giving me a break, I pray that the people of New Orleans escape serious harm and loss of life from the winds and flooding about to descend upon them. Frankly, I'd rather be back in Pascagoula than to see any of them suffer.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

I Make the Newspaper

Construction the talk of Collier Hills Civic Association meeting

by Tiffany Turner
The Story, v. IV, n. 21
Thurs, Aug. 25, 2005

At the annual meeting of the Collier Hills Civic Association, members received numerous updates on developments and projects in their area. Representatives from Piedmont Hospital were on hand to discuss construction of a new building on the campus. In addition, S[hokai], a member of the board, gave a presentation on the Belt Line and the effects it would have on the neighborhood. . .

S[hokai] discussed the Belt Line and its implications for Collier Hills. He said, “Collier Hills is going to be one of the most impacted neighborhoods along the Belt Line.” The transit, park and trail loop would make use of existing railroad tracks for transportation. Collier Hills is one neighborhood in which railroad tracks are currently in use by CSX. Neighbors were concerned about the narrow topography of their area and the possibility that new transit pathways would need to be constructed near local parks and waterways.

Moreover, the subject of a Tax Allocation District was broached. The TAD proposed by Mayor Shirley Franklin would freeze taxes along the Belt Line for 25 years, so that money could be funneled to pay infrastructure costs of the project.

[Shokai] voiced his belief that the city should explore multiple options for financing the Belt Line. He questioned, “What about the city using municipal bonds for the Belt Line?” [Shokai] urged the neighborhood to get involved in the planning process for the Belt Line and proposed that Collier Hills align itself with the BeltLine Neighbors Coalition to protect its interests.

The Story is a local newspaper that does a very good job covering local issues - it has much more editorial and news content than most other free newspapers, which are usually just forums for advertising. When I got home from Mobile, I found my usual Thursday copy on my driveway (it's distributed free in the neighborhood), and with the edited story above included. For some reason, though, they kept using this other name in place of "Shokai."

Anyway, the story edited above covered last Sunday's community civic association meeting. I got involved with the civic association shortly after moving in here, and just recently joined the Board as the Minister of Environmental and BeltLine. Since I make my living by environmental consulting, I thought that this would be a good way to contribute to the neighborhood and give back some of the rewards consulting has brought to me.

So it was in this light that I found myself downtown this morning for a three-hour course at City Hall called "An Introduction to Georgia's Tax Allocation District Law." Parts of it were a little hard to stay alert through, but I did get a better understanding of the issue to better represent the neighborhood in this matter.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Katrina

Looks like I won't be flying back to Mississippi on Monday . . . . Also, how long do you think it will take the media to start playing Katrina and the Waves ("Walking on Sunshine") behind the inevitable footage of newscasters at the shore as the storm hits?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Myth of Descartes

So if every belief is based on another belief, this all can be reduced to the belief that you are the one believing in all of this bullshit. "I think, therefore . . . " But the Myth of the Given is like a sword that cuts through all delusion.

Pinch yourself to see if you're awake. You can feel that, right? But isn't the belief that you can feel that based on the belief that what you felt was the pinch? And wasn't that belief based on the belief that you are the one feeling the pinch? and so on.

Descartes, bless his French soul, didn't look deep enough. "I think, therefore I am" is a gross simplification. You only think that you think, and you only believe that you are the thinker. Descartes' maxim was only an expression of a certain mindset - it comes no where close to approaching the real.

"The Diamond Sutra" was so named because it was said that its teaching cut through all delusion like a diamond cuts through all other matter. It so said that upon hearing a single line from the sutra, the uneducated laborer Hui-neng became enlightened, and went on to become the Sixth Patriarch. That single line was "the mind that sticks to nothing . . . "

The sutra is a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. It ends with the famous stanza:
For what it's worth, I'm back in Pascagoula. Acting according to conditions, I work through my day and return to the hotel. When I find my mind day dreaming or fantasizing or complaining or wandering in any way, I just try to return it to whatever task I'm at, no matter how mundane - driving my rented Corolla, eating at Cracker Barrel, typing my blog, washing. I'm not always successful, but I don't let that daunt me - I just go back to trying to focus my attention again, and smile at myself for my little digressions.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Myth of the Given

Our knowledge of the world, it seems reasonable to suppose, is founded on causal interactions between us and the things in it. The molecules and photons impinging on our bodies produce sensations; these sensations give rise to basic beliefs - like "I am seeing red now" - which serve as evidence for higher-order propositions about the world. The tricky part of this scheme is the connection between sensation and belief. As William James wrote, "A sensation is rather like a client who has given his case to a lawyer and then has passively to listen in the court-room to whatever account of his affairs, pleasant or unpleasant, the lawyer finds it most expedient to give." The idea that a sensation can enter directly into the process of reasoning has become known as the Myth of the Given. The late philosopher Donald Davidson, whose influence in the Anglophone philosophical world was unsurpassed, put the point succiently: "Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief."
- Jim Holt, in The New Yorker

Mr. Holt wrote the above in a review of several recently-published books on the subject of bullshit. I will admit that while I have not read the most prominent of these books, Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, I have read several reviews and articles on the book, but more importantly, I saw Jon Stewart interview Prof. Frankfurt on The Daily Show. I've even blogged about Frankfurt already.

The Myth of the Given, Holt continues, threatens to cut off all contact between knowledge and the world. If beliefs can be checked only against other beliefs, then the sole criterion for a set of beliefs' being true is that they form a coherent web: a picture of knowledge known as holism. And different people interacting with the causal flux that is the world might well find themselves with distinct but equally coherent webs of belief - a possibility known as incommensurability. In such circumstances, who is to say what is true and what is bullshit?

However, the argument can be made that Davidson's statement "Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief" can't be right. After all, if John comes in and gets a good doggy whiff, doesn't he acquire a reason for believing that Rover is in the house?

Not necessarily. Sensations do not come labelled as "doggy whiffs;" such descriptions imply a good deal of prior concept formation. What gives John a reason to believe that Rover is in the house is indeed another belief: that what he is smelling falls under the category of "doggy whiff." Such beliefs arise from causal interaction with the world and not just from voices in our heads, but justifying those beliefs can be only a matter of squaring them with other beliefs.

"There are no facts, only interpretations," Nietzsche said. The Buddha saw a direct causal link between sensation and belief, primarily the belief in the self, which he considered to be conception. Sensation gives rise to craving, he taught, and craving to clinging, and clinging to the creation of an ego-self.

So in the Buddha's view, the delusion was not that John thought what he smelled was a "doggy whiff," but that John thought that he was a separate individual self apart from everything else, and could experience a sensation of some "other." And how did he come to this conclusion?, the Buddha asks. From sensation giving rise to conception.

From this perspective, there is no "John" and there is no "doggy whiff," there is only sensation.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Practice the Dharma

Practicing the Dharma is to perceive the truth of pure nature, the truth that the myriad forms are empty.

There is neither "defilement" not "attachment," neither "this" nor "other." The Dharma does not have myriad beings, and thus remains untainted by the myriad beings. The Dharma has no self, and thus remains untainted by self.

The wise, if they grasp this truth, are in accord with the Dharma and live by this understanding. The Dharma-body lacks nothing, so the wise forsake and renounce their bodies, lives and wealth without regret. They abandon the empty world and, relying on nothing, without attachment, they give up all impurities. They are in accord with evolving life without grasping form. This is their personal practice, which benefits all others.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Stop Seeking

People is this world are always deluded and everywhere covetous. This is known as seeking. The wise awaken to this truth and go against the trend. Pacifying their mind, they do nothing.

The myriad forms of the world stir and swirl, all of them empty. But without any desires and joy, the virtuous remain where forms arise abiding within the three worlds (the past, present and future) although they are like a burning house.

To have a body is to suffer. Who can arrive at such a state as to bear this with tranquility? They are the ones who have forsaken all things, stopped discursive thinking, and stopped seeking.

To seek is but bitterness. Nonseeking is joy.

To know this and to end seeking is truly practicing the Way.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Act According to Conditions

Those who remain unmoved by the winds of pleasure are in accord with the Way.

All beings possess the same true nature, though it is obscured and not apparent due to worldly attachments and delusion.

Everything arises from conditions, and all beings, not having independent existence, evolve through time according to conditions. Bitterness and happiness both arise from conditions. Gain and loss arise due to conditions.

If we attain great achievements and acclaim, it is only due to past conditions. And though we may have it now, if the conditions that brought it to us are exhausted, then it will be gone. Why should one take joy in it?

Recognition of conditions and acting according to those conditions is a gate for entering the Way.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Endure the Results of Past Actions

"So how," you may ask yourself, "does one endure the results of past actions?"

It's all about taking responsibility for our own lives. In our litigious society, we are so quick to blame others for any difficulty that falls on us. We want to blame anyone but ourselves.

Upon encountering difficult times, those who practice the Way take responsibility for their own actions. Realizing that in the past they have forgotten what is essential and pursued what is frivolous, they acknowledge their own misdeeds and recognize the fruit of their actions.

This is not the same as compulsive guilt. The wise recognize both the extent as well as the limits of their own responsibility.

Tossed by currents and waves, committing sins and transgressions, one accumulates misdeeds which bear fruit later in life, even if one is no longer committing transgressions. Although no one can see from where this store of evil karma arises, the wise just accept it without rancor or recrimination.

So upon meeting hardship, don't grieve, just recognize your own responsibility.

When you can do that, the body's suffering can become a gate to enter the Way.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Following the Way is neither easy nor hard, but if you abide by these four practices, you will surely attain the Way:

  1. Endure the results of past actions
  2. Act according to conditions
  3. Seek nothing
  4. Practice the Dharma

- Bodhidharma

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Somalian German Cannibal

Here's a little known fact: If you type the words "Somalian German Cannibal" in to Google, this blog comes out at the top of the list. Interesting . . .

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Announcement

From now on, you can just call me "Shokai." I'm dropping the "P." I feel that the "P." was getting between me and my fans.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dear Shokai

I was wondering if I could run a few questions by you. The more I practice, the more I get confused. When I first started sitting, it was just sitting. I had thoughts (pictures, memories, etc.) that flashed around in my mind, but I could let them go and come back to my breath. The result of my "just sitting" was that I became more focused and relaxed. Now, I am starting to feel as though I am missing something (insight). Does practice bring answers/insight into daily living? How does this work? How will I know I have had an insightful experience?

I believe that practice of zazen does bring insight into daily living. In fact, a non-Zen form of Buddhist meditation (that is, not in the Japanese tradition) refers to itself as "insight meditation," and their techniques are very much like ours: sitting quietly, counting the breath, etc. Anyway, during our "active" lives, that is while not sitting, our mind is constantly translating our experiences to us. We're always talking to ourselves, putting our thoughts into words, putting our experiences into words, and this process actually inhibits and reduces the direct experience of our lives. Just like my computer works more slowly while it's printing, so my mind slows down while I'm trying to break every thought down into language.

As I sit and observe my mind, I've realized that full-blown ideas actually pop into my head virtually instanteously and complete, and that my mind then tries to translate those ideas into words, which only slows the thoughts down. Thoughts are like slippery fish, and the tighter I try to hold them, the more likely they are to slip from my grasp.

The funny thing is I know how the sentences I'm thinking are going to end, and yet I finish those sentences anyway. Why? For whose benefit? I already know the next word I'm going to think. However, during zazen, in deep samadhi, the mind can be freed from this grasping process of always slowing down to articulate what it is thinking about, and can actually get something done for once. When fully-blown ideas or thoughts pop into our heads during our "active" life, that is, when they somehow get around the roadblocks created by articulation, we call these sudden flashes "intuition," or "inspiration," or "insight." But they're always there - it's just that our busy minds don't often allow them the chance to surface. However, during zazen, the barriers are down and we can allow full-blown "insights" to appear.

This will happen to you as you continue your practice, and in fact, I'm willing to bet it has already happened. Somehow, the idea popped into your head to email me and ask these questions. How did these questions appear? Where did they come from? I'm not saying that we acquire magical powers to know all and to be infallible, just that we can finally unharness our consciousness from the yoke of words, and that fresh ideas will just naturally bubble up without inhibition or restraint. And you will know when this has happened by the little light bulb that flashes in your mind, and you realize "Oh, I can do this" or "I should try that."

However the surest way for it not to happen is to anticipate it or try to make it happen. Then our mind is looking at every thought, thinking "Here comes one now," and tries to seize it and pin it down, grasping at that slippery fish, which is exactly the process we're trying to avoid. It can only happen when we're not thinking about it, when we're least expecting it.

I have a hard time understanding emptiness. I don't see how anything can be truly empty. For example, an empty room contains air (molecules, gases, etc. we can't see). Therefore how can it be empty?

Emptiness had long been a tricky concept for me, as well. Personally, I think the term is a little misleading, but I cannot think of another word that would do better. We don't necessarily mean "empty" as in "hollow" or "without content," but "empty" as in "empty of any independent existence." Everything, at some level, is a part of everything else if we examine it closely enough, and nothing can be separated completely from everything else. A teacup can be defined as much by its form as it can by all of the space that it's not occupying, just like those black-and-white pictures of a vase that, when looked at differently, can be seen as two profiles facing each other. The form (the white vase) is defined by the emptiness (the black profiles), just as the emptiness is defined by the form.

So it is with our selves. I am the one who is not others. Others are the ones who are not me. If there were no "me," then there would be no "others" (at least from my perspective), just as if there were no "others," there would be no "me." My concept of "me" relies on there being others - the concept has no independent existence. In fact, I cannot say who I am without referencing others - I am either "so-and-so's son," "an employee of such-and-such company," "a friend of X," etc. - or without referencing some other thing or verb - I am "the one sitting on this chair," "the one wearing these clothes," "the one breathing," or even "the one thinking" ("I think, therefore am I?").

So every time you hear the term "empty," just think of it as shorthand for "empty of any independence existence" and that should work . . . most of the time. However, everything really is just empty space as well, and more rarely the term "emptiness" is used in this sense. Look closer at the room you described. Yes, it's full of gas molecules, but what are those molecules made of? Atoms. And what are those atoms made of? Well, mostly empty space, but with tiny, tiny bits of subatomic particles spinning about at incredible speeds. And what are those particles made of? According to science . . . nothing. They're more energy, like light, than matter. So the room, at the deepest level, is made up of mostly empty space with nothing of any real substance or matter. It is profoundly empty after all.

The Buddha, without any knowledge of modern physics, grasped this emptiness intuitively, through direct experience. Nothing is substantial or "real," nothing has independent existence, it is all just thus, and we call this "emptiness." It takes a little while to get your head around it.

I think of merit as good Karma in the sense that when we say "may this merit extend universally to all" we are asking/invoking/hoping for good Karma for all beings. I'm still fuzzy about how the merit comes about in the first place. Where does it begin?

I think you are correct in that "merit" and "karma," or at least "good" karma, are the same thing. When we wish this merit to extend universally to all, we're trying to pass on the good karma we've accumulated.

That's the easy part. Now, where does the merit come from? Here comes one of those Zen answers that people hate: you have to decide for yourself. Is there really even such a thing as karma? Sure, if I become angry and act out of anger, I will experience the repercussions of that anger (the person I'm angry at may resent me, my blood pressure may rise, etc.), but is this repercussion stored away in some sort of metaphyiscal warehouse? Is it a transferable commodity that I can wish on to others? Does it follow me after death, or for that matter, does it even last beyond my own existence?

I don't have those answers for you, but you do. Just like "do we have a soul?" or "is there a God?," these were questions that the Buddha refused to answer. I have my own opinions on some of these matters, but they're conditioned by my own unique experiences and perspective, i.e., my karma, just as yours are for you. But the Buddha told his followers not to worry about such things, but to work instead on knowing their own minds, and once that was accomplished, all these things would be self evident. The answers, he taught, are right in front of us. We're just not seeing them right.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Gentle Day

I went to the Zen Center this morning for the first Sunday in a long while, and lead the newcomers' instruction which I hadn't done in an even longer while. I enjoy the enthusiasm and the inquisitiveness of newcomers. It was nice to be there.

Sitting, I came to a realization of just how self-inflicted all my complaining about Pascagoula has been. I suffer while on the road because I apparently choose to suffer while on the road. It will be interesting to see if I can maintain this spirit of acceptance the next time out there.

The rain held off long enough today (it didn't come down until around 8 p.m.) to allow me to finally do some raking. It was still too wet to blow the leaves, but instead I got a good solid two hours of sweaty samu (work practice) raking up the remnants of Hurricane Dennis, and the seemingly daily thunderstorms since then.

Just another day in paradise.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Anniversary

Today is the one-year anniversary of moving into this house.

A lot has happened in that one year, much of which was chronicled here in this blog, some of which wasn't. Trips to New York, Panama City Beach, Grand Cayman Island, Hilton Head Island, San Francisco and Chicago (and of course, Pascagoula, Mississippi), lessons in karate, a potential romance started and aborted, a reconciliation of sorts with an ex and the final termination of that painful affair, a lingering illness, and a cancer scare, just for a few highlights.

And I still can't sell the condo in Vinings.

The yard is a disaster area - there have been leaves and branches down since Hurricane Dennis, and every day that I've been home, it's rained, and it needs to be at least slightly dry to leafblow, even to rake. The whole yard could use a good tidying up, hopefully before the leaves start dropping in autumn.

The indoors doesn't look all that different from the week or two after I had moved in and finally unpacked everything. Except for the newly furnished living room, there are still a lot of projects left to be done - refinish the main bath, decorate the zendo, etc.

But as I've said, there's no place like home.
"An adult is one who has lost the grace, the freshness, the innocence of the child, who is on longer capable of feeling pure joy, who makes everything complicated, who spreads suffering everywhere, who is afraid of being happy, and who, becasuse it is easier to bear, has gone back to sleep. The wise man is a happy child."
- Arnaud Desjardins

Friday, August 12, 2005

Return/Escape/Liberation

Not only does it seem that my time spent in southern Mississippi makes me bitch about my life all the time, but it also seems to be dulling my personality. Making me into a dull boy. All work and no play, etc.

Speaking of Wendy's, I'm starting to live a "Supersize Me" life here on the road. The selection of restaurants in Pascagoula isn't all that great to begin with, especilly if one sticks to the Exit 69 area of I-10, and on top of that, my lifestyle had been pretty sedentary: sit at a computer pretty much all day working on the project, then get back to the hotel and sit at the computer all night trying to keep up with office email. Then flop on the bed and watch t.v. until I fall asleep.

There's a workout room in the hotel with some limited apparatus, and I've used it a few times, but there's often families of tourists in there not really working out per se, but just sort of lounging over the equipment and bogarting the joint.

There's also a running trail I found down by the Gulf - probably the nicest thing in Pascagoula - but it's been so blasted hot and humid in the afternoon that even if there aren't late afternoon thunderstorms, if it doesn't really lend itself to outdoor exertion.

So in response I've resorted to basically just skipping dinner. Two meals a day to avoid looking like Jared before he discovered Subway.

Blogging has been getting very difficult. I can't think of anything to say anymore - "I got up. Went to work. Had lunch at Wendy's. Went back to work. Went to the hotel. Went to sleep." That's about the extent of my so-called life these days. Trying making an interesting, Zen-themed post out of that. Okay, now try making another one, and then keep doing it every day.

It's hard.

I flew back home today. The flight was delayed by an hour. Instead of arriving in the ATL at 3:30, it finally got us here at about quarter to five. Just as I left the terminal and began the epic odyssey to my car deep in the bowels of Economy Parking, a thunderstorm started pouring down. I got to my car soaking wet, just to pull out into some of the worst Friday-evening traffic that I can remember. It took over 90 minutes to make the normally 15-minute drive. If the plane were on time, I would have missed the storm and the traffic. Thanks, Delta (but there I go with the bitching again - "You want some cheese with that whine, Shokai?").

When I got home, there were no messages on my answering machine, nothing but spam in my inbox, nothing but bills in the mail.

(Sigh). It's still good to be home though.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Biloxi

"Down around Biloxi," Jimmy Buffet once sang, and that's all that I can remember of that song. But despite that setback, I decided to go visit Biloxi anyway.

Pascagoula, my apparently new home town, is located right on the Gulf Coast halfway between Biloxi and Mobile. Having seen everything Pascagoula has to offer, probably on my first day here, I had ventured over to Mobile a few times. Mobile was certainly bigger, but all I could find were more chain (if at least not fast-food) restaurants and shopping malls. Although still better than Pascagoula, I decided to venture in the other direction.

It may be the same distance, but Biloxi certainly felt further. Maybe it was the unfamiliarity. But I drove the 25 or so miles on I-10 to Interstate 110, which takes you south right into the heart of town.

The big business in Biloxi is gambling. There are casinos everywhere, and you can't miss them - they rise above the town in garish neon blue, sit out in the Gulf in gigantic imitations of pirate ships, crowd U.S. 90 along the coast.

I will say this for Biloxi, though - at least they had the good sense to keep 95% of the development on the landward side of the coastal road. Unlike, say, Myrtle Beach, which Biloxi resembles in other aspects, in Biloxi you can still see the sea without having to check in to a high-rise hotel. Myrtle Beach has just about completely privatized its shoreline.

Anyway, driving along U.S. 90 in Biloxi, I saw the Gulf on one side, and on the other side I saw: casinos, t-shirt shops, fast-food joints, t-shirt shops, adult bookstores, t-shirt shops, Hooters, t-shirt shops and the home of Jefferson Davis, incongruously stuck in between, well, t-shirt shops.

I probably should have gone and played in a casino for a while, just for the experience. I probably should have ate clams at Hooters. But instead, I got back on I-10 and drove back past Pascagoula, and ate supper in Mobile.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Buddhist Atrocities


When studying Buddhism, it can be very easy to identify with those cultures in which the practice is actively cultivated, and to consider those countries as the "good guys." Unfortunately, current events often get in the way of this kind of delusional romanticism.

Leaving aside the historical role of Zen in the Japanese aggression during the 20th Century, one need only consider the political situation in Myanmar. According to the 1974 Constitution, Buddhism is the official religion, and an estimated 89% of the population practices Buddhism. However, the Constitution has been suspended since September 18, 1988, when the latest junta took power, and there have been no elections since 1990. There are numerous documented human rights violations, and several million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled to seek work and asylum elsewhere. More than 160,000 Burmese live in refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, while hundreds of thousands of other Burmese work and reside illegally in other countries in the region.

Things are somewhat better in Thailand, where Theravadan Buddhism is the official religion and is practiced by about 95% of the people. However, one need only consider the tragedy at Tak Bai to realize how out of control things can get even there.

Which brings me to consider some of the heartbreak in Sri Lanka I've read recently about. The country has suffered a civil war for over 20 years, and the secessionist Tamil Tigers have been innovators in terroristic tactics. They were the first to develop the sort of explosive suicide vests favored by Palestinian terrorists, and refined the technique of using speedboats as bombs which was later employed in 2000 against the U.S.S. Cole by Al Qaeda (and which foreshadowed the use of airliners as bombs as witnessed on 9/11).

Although it can be argued that the Tigers are secular nationalists rebelling against the Buddhist establishment, it was that very Buddhist government that passed a law in 1956 proclaiming Sinhalese as the sole official language. That proclamation alienated the Tamil minority, and in the resulting unrest, Buddhist mobs beat newly restive Tamils (some of them to death), set their houses on fire and ransacked their businesses. This,of course, served only to further radicalize elements of the Tamil community, resulting in escalating cycles of violence and retaliation. By 1983, the country descended into a wave of anti-Tamil violence so extreme that observers reached back to the horrors that accompanied India's partition for a fitting comparison. As many as 2,000 Tamils were hacked, bludgeoned, torched or beaten and kicked to death by mobs. Criminals were allowed to slaughter dozens of Tamil political prisoners in their jail cells. The country has been at war with itself ever since.

Even in the presence of great enlightenment, suffering seems to be an essential human condition. Nietzsche, analyzing Buddhism's appeal to its early audience, spoke of "races grown kindly, gentle, overintellectual who feel pain too easily." Modern history seems to provide a compelling antithesis to Nietzche's analysis.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Pascagoula Redux

Can someone explain the economics of the car-rental industry to me?

I flew back to Pascagoula this morning, despite the fact that Delta cancelled my flight to Mobile. Since Pascagoula is located halfway between Mobile, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi, I took a slightly later (20 minutes) flight to Biloxi instead.

The catch was that I had reserved a rental car to be picked up that morning in Mobile. I called Hertz and arranged to rent a car from Biloxi, with return to Mobile. However, the cost for a one-way rental was almost $30/day more than the original round-trip rental out of Mobile for each of the five days I was to be renting.

Since the company was picking it up anyway, why did I care? Well, first of all, I did have a project budget to abide by. Also, I consider it bad client service to run up expenses that could otherwise be avoided.

So I called Hertz back and told them I would pick up the car in Biloxi in the morning, and then return it to Mobile that evening. After I returned it, I wanted another car from Mobile to rent for the next four days, which I would then return when I flew out on Friday.

That seemed to be a reasonable compromise to me. I pay the higher rate for only one day, due to the circumstances of the cancelled flight which were quite beyond my control, but the next four days were back at the normal rate. So I picked up the car, a Nissan Altima with Arizona tags, and drove from Biloxi to Pascagoula.

Well, here's where the mystery began. When I got to Mobile this evening, first I wound up arguing with the counter jockey over the price of gasoline. Specifically, she wanted to charge me $20 for refueling, even though I used less than an eighth of a tank of gas. We finally got over that impasse by compromising on the base rental rate, with the provision that the actual refueling cost will be added later.

Whatever.

So, the car picked up in Biloxi was finally turned in. Now was the time to rent a new car out of Mobile for return to Mobile. We filled in the paperwork and forms and when she handed me the keys, guess what?

It was the same car. Parked right where I left it. Still with 7/8 of a tank of gas.

Now, why does it cost me $69.99 a day to rent the car out of Biloxi with return to Mobile, when the exact same car only costs me $40/day ten minutes later? What did Mobile do with the car that made it economically unfeasible to rent it to me at $40/day when I picked it up in Biloxi, but made that rate reasonable when all that happened was that I parked it in the return lot for 10 minutes?

And who pays for that eighth of a tank of gas?

So, I'll be driving around Pascagoula this week with Arizona tags, wondering about the economics of car-fleet management.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

American Weekend

The drive home from Hilton Head resembled scenes from Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend." In this 1967 film, a supposedly idyllic trip to the countryside for an unlucky married couple, who had earlier tried to kill each other, turns into a never-ending nightmare of traffic jams, revolution, cannibalism and murder as French bourgeois society collapses under the weight of its own consumer preoccupations. A "must-see," and over-ripe for an update or a remake.

I would shoot it in America instead of France, and substitute Islamic fundamentalists for the Maoist guerrillas Godard used to terrorize the couple. Throw in an explicit sex scene, an indie soundtrack, and some Naomi Klein-style politics, and I'd be a superstar at Sundance, a Palme d'Or-candidate at Cannes.
By far the best review of Godard I know is the late Susan Sontag's essay in the Spring 1968 Partisan Review. Ms. Sontag addressed the criticisms of Godard's work ("What his detractors don't grasp, of course, is that Godard doesn't want to do what they reproach him for not doing"); then she showed that these supposed faults were actually part of Godard's method. Sontag wrote:

"Godard proposes a new conception of point of view, by staking out the possibility of making films in the first person. By this, I don't mean his films are subjective or personal . . . [He] has built up a narrative presence, that of the film-maker, who is the central structural element in the cinematic narrative. This first-person film-maker isn't an actual character in the film . . . He is the person responsible for the film who yet stands outside it as a mind beset by more complex, fluctuating concerns than any single film can represent or incarnate."

In Weekend, before the couple head out for the country, there are some minor car accidents with disproportionately furious quarrels, but as they get out of Paris, they run into a huge traffic jam and a dreadful accident that is taken quite lightly; in Godard's view of bourgeois society, cars matter - people don't. More and more bad accidents appear on the edges of the film, and begin to shift toward the center, until the couple are adrift in a world gone mad with automotive homicide.
Driving back from Hilton Head, I saw the decline of Western civilization, materialism and oil dependency colliding on the highways, and a population more concerned about mileage and schedule than compassion for their fellow travelers.