By Paul

Usually, my partner and I are in agreement about the plays we see. In fact, we go to quite a number of them up in Los Angeles, but the one we saw this past Saturday at the Mark Taper Forum was something of an exception.

What was on view was Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man play starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame). It’s a fantasy, based on the idea that this gay guy, a struggling actor played by the energetic and talented Urie, can’t find much work these days, and even gets fired for a misstep while playing a character in Disneyland. As any such down-on-his-luck actor might do, he grabs at a job that comes his way playing a fake salesman in Barbra Streisand’s make-believe mall-in-a-cellar. Alex, the erstwhile actor cum salesman cum actor again, “sells” stuff to Ms. Streisand that she already owns and has accumulated over years of inconspicuous consumption (this stuff is, after all, actually hidden away in the basement “mall” of the barn house on her Malibu estate). The fantasy Streisand comes to the cellar periodically, looking to pick up a bargain, and in the process lots of things happen between salesman Alex and buyer Barbra. The idea is that we are supposed to get a glimpse into the humanity and vulnerability, as well as the occasional manipulative craziness, of the lady of the house.

I have to admit that the audience howled at all of the one-liners between Urie/Alex and Urie/Streisand, as well as between Alex and Urie/Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, who admits to being something of a Streisand addict (like so many other gay men, supposedly). So, I was definitely the odd-man-out in this bunch, since I hardly snickered at all of this stuff, which I found a little over the top and, in the end, not all that interesting.

So, why did my partner like the play, and I didn’t? After all, he has training in theater in the form of a bachelor’s degree in the subject from UC Irvine, as well as having acted himself, designed sets and lighting for a number of plays, his knowledge of theater history is far greater than mine, and his judgment of both drama and comedy is usually impeccable. So, why the disagreement, I had to ask myself? I’m still not exactly sure, but here are a few random thoughts.

The whole play seemed to me a little overdone in a kind of clichéd gay way. Alex was a likeable enough kind of guy and, I have to admit, in the past I’ve known people not too dissimilar from him. At the beginning of the play, he even admits to not being much of a Streisand fan, a thing that I can very much identify with. I’m not trying to deny that she has a lot of talent, mind you, and she was of course wonderful in “Funny Girl,” but let’s just say that her voice – I don’t know how else to put it – somehow doesn’t register with my register. However, it’s clear that during the course of the play, Alex begins to buy into it, and gets swept up in the worship of Ms. Streisand, to the point that he begins to go a little gaga whenever the bell attached to the “shop door” rings at the top of the stairs, announcing her descent into the unconscious realm of the dreamland-mall-in-a cellar. In addition, Urie-as-Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, does occasionally come across as, well, a little too much in a stereotypic, flaming sort of way, prompting me to wonder what, in fact, it was exactly that Alex saw in Barry. Nothing that I found very attractive, anyway.

Still, as my partner has pointed out to me, I seem to have no trouble watching the British sit-com “Vicious” (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, playing an equally overdone, clichéd old gay couple, who speak to each other in the most vicious way, although, underneath it all, they do still care for each other). I even laugh at some of the antics portrayed therein, although not so much at the really nasty turns the dialog sometimes takes. And I can’t fully explain why I accept one, but reject the other. I’ve been told it’s because I’m an Anglophile, and that I like anything and anybody with a fancy British accent, but I don’t think that’s the case (and my Irish ancestors would be rolling over in their collective graves, if it were).

The bigger question as to what I found objectionable in “Buyer & Cellar” has to do with the adulation we in this country have for celebrities. Does that mean that I’m just envious of them? Do we, that is, those of us who are not rich and famous, simply want to have the experience of that kind of stardom? I really don’t think so. I have to wonder why anyone would ever want thousands, maybe even millions, of people to be able to recognize who they are in the street, or in a grocery store. And do celebrities even go grocery shopping? Probably not, I suppose. As much as there are those who insist that this is all just sour grapes, I actually do like the anonymity I have of nobody knowing who I am. We spent almost three weeks in Europe a few months ago, for example, and not a single person there recognized us. Who would want every other passerby on the street stopping you and asking if you’re that famous so-and-so whom they saw in whatever movie that was out last year? That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

And ought we to dig even deeper? Are there other reasons why so many in this country, and throughout the world, almost worship stars, whether they be actors, athletes, or whoever’s face has appeared endless times, “bigger than life,” on countless movie screens? Maybe it has something to do with a kind of emptiness people feel within, an unspoken dread that who they are is somehow “not enough”? I’m not suggesting that most people think this consciously. Probably very few people go about saying to themselves: “Well, I’m just not enough!” But at an unconscious level, that may be exactly what we think. We feel as though there is a hole, a lacking, a looming lacuna somewhere within, and we want, we need, to fill it. And how better to fill it safely (that is, without drugs or alcohol) than somehow imagining ourselves in the role of a fantasy movie star, to whom we attribute a “dream life” of untold fame, endless riches, the adulation of the world, and the fulfillment of every desire we have ever imagined for ourselves? The unspoken message, subtle but enormously powerful, is a simple one: “If I were he/she, if I had his/her wealth, talent, and fame, then everyone would love me, and I would be happy forever in a world without woe.” That said, one thing I did find interesting about “Buyer & Cellar” was the suggestion that even this great “lady of the house” does not experience such material and cultural success as truly enough.

I won’t tell you the ending of the play, although I’m guessing it wouldn’t be all that difficult for you to figure out. Suffice it to say that Alex learns something about himself, and that is a good thing. And although the journey there wasn’t one that I found all that compelling, in this case, I’m willing to admit that I may have been the one whose insight was lacking. After all, the theme of not buying into celebrity notoriety as a substitute for personal fulfillment in our own lives is a laudable one. And maybe, as he so often is, my partner was right after all. Maybe if Alex had only spoken with one of those lovely British accents, I’d have found the whole thing uproariously funny, witty beyond measure, and utterly engaging. Yes, that may well be the case. And if it is, heaven help me for that! May my ancestors back in the old sod forgive me for this kind of silly, and in the end, oh-so-unfulfilling adulation.


By Paul

“WESTCalifornia dreamin’, on such a winter’s day.”   I guess that’s how we’ll have to change the lyrics of the song to read, if Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who wants to divide the state up into six easy pieces, gets his way. And what about the literally hundreds of other songs written and sung over the decades about the state? Where exactly would we be heading, for example, when we sing “California here I come”? Although at least “it never rains in Southern California” could remain more or less the same, except you’d be talking about San Diego, or Irvine, or Riverside, or San Bernardino, but definitely not LA.

That’s because the Draper plan divides the state up into six unequal segments, supposedly because California, as it is currently configured, is ungovernable. Here are the six newly proposed states, along with several of the larger cities that would be contained in each of them (beginning from the Oregon border):

1. Jefferson (Eureka, Redding, Chino)

2. North California (basically, just Sacramento)

3. Silicon Valley (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose)

4. Central California (Stockton, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield)

5. West California (San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Long Beach)

6. South California (Irvine, Riverside, San Bernardino, Oceanside, San Diego)

Sure, maybe we can all agree that California might be a bit of a pain to govern. After all, its size, diversity, population, and GDP match, or exceed, many other countries in the world. It is not only one of the most culturally diverse states in the Union, but its varied landscape, from the deepest, driest, hottest deserts, to the highest mountain in the contiguous forty-eight, to sparkling beaches, dense forests, pristine National Parks, and the enormous expanse of its Central Valley, where much of the produce the nation consumes is grown, all contribute to its special place in the country and the world. And we haven’t even yet spoken of its vaunted entertainment industry, its enormous technological prowess, and just generally its well-deserved reputation for creativity and new ways of approaching things.

Each of the newly proposed six sub-Californias would contain a segment of what’s listed above, but in this case, the whole definitely remains greater than the sum of its parts. A few of those parts, in fact, would get mightily short changed in a six-way divorce. For example, while the state of Silicon Valley would be rich beyond measure, what would happen to literally poor Jefferson, or even poorer Central California? And even this says nothing at all about the overwhelmingly gargantuan task it would be to actually go through the process of attempting to break the state up into the proposed subdivisions.

To be fair, I suppose, Mr. Draper has done some of his homework. He has laid out a sketchy blueprint as to how resources and debt might be distributed. All of this was well described the other day (July 20, 2014) in an article in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “Chop California in six?” by Robin Abcarian. As she notes, a Board of 24 Commissioners would be appointed by the current state legislature, as well as by county supervisors. How exactly that would happen, in order to make both Democrats and Republicans happy, and what kind of a say giant LA County might have with its 10 million people, vis-à-vis tiny Alpine County with under 1200 people, is left undetermined. On top of that, the proposed Board of Commissioners would have only two years to do its work. After that, if they failed to come to some sort of mutually agreed upon split of assets and liabilities, then each new state would automatically get to keep everything it has within its new boundaries for itself. So, it ought to be asked, what exactly would be the advantage of completing the process in the time allotted? Why would fabulously rich San Francisco County, just as one example, want to share any of its wealth with the 35,000 or so residents of distant, rural Lassen County? And would the good citizens of Lassen, or many other sparsely populated counties, even have a credible voice in the redistribution debate? From these potential stumbling blocks, the list goes on at some length, in terms of exactly how and what would be shared, and at what percentage.

Here’s another example. Everyone knows that California is already in a water crisis with the continuing drought that has afflicted the region for the past three years. And water has always been a highly contentious issue under the best of circumstances, pitting the relative plenty of the northern part of the state against the parched southern regions. Given this long and controversial history, what makes us think that a new state of Silicon Valley would be any more willing to share its precious Sacramento delta water with sprawling and ever-thirsty West California?

And there are many other examples of potential pitfalls. What would we do with the state’s world-famous higher education system? There are 9 campuses of the University of California (UC). Would these become the University of Californias, Silicon Valley, and Jefferson? Probably not the latter, at least, since no UC is currently located north of San Francisco. On the other hand, the California State University’s 23 campuses (the CSU) have the advantage of at least one or two sites being located in each of the newly proposed states. As things currently stand, the retirement systems of both the UC and the CSU are funded by state-wide contributions. The UC has its own retirement, while the CSU, and most other state workers, participates in CalPERS (the California Public Employees’ Retirement System). High school and elementary teachers have their own CalSTRS (the California State Teachers’ Retirement System). In each case, the question remains the same: would there be enough retirement funding to cover everyone in the event of a breakup? And if not, who gets to pay extra to make up for the shortfalls of the less populated new states?

There’s no doubt that all of these enormously complex questions would have to get battled out in the courts. That itself could be astronomically costly, and a process that might take decades to finally get settled. As Robin Abcarian points out in her article, it took Virginia and West Virginia, which split over the question of slavery at the time of the Civil War, over 50 years to come to final agreements. And that was with just two states. In today’s far more complicated and litigious world, how long might it take for six states to come to terms with such questions?

The lawyers would get rich, even richer than they already are. That seems certain. But would it be good for the rest of us? So far, over a million Californians have indicated that they want to at least explore the subject, and since it takes1.3 million signatures to qualify, it would seem that billionaire Draper is well on his way to getting it on the ballot for 2016

Let’s hope that calmer and more reasonable minds will prevail. The costs involved, the legal, economic, and human issues raised, and the iconic ideal of what California has always stood for in this country and in the world at large are all at stake. I for one don’t want to be dreamin’ about a West California, even if I did live there. And when I sing “California here I come,” I really would prefer to be coming home to the whole magnificent state, not just to some puny portion thereof.

It’s okay with me if California isn’t the easiest place in the world to govern. That’s what happens with big, powerful, highly diverse places. And in the end, I have to say, I’m not sure that Virginia and West Virginia have proven themselves to be all that much easier to govern as two states, rather than one, either. So, Mr. Draper, here’s my free advice to you: leave California alone. Just grow up, and deal with it!

EYE SURGERY — Improved Vision and Attitude Adjustment

by Kevin

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

Life is a school and daily events are lessons in how to live better. Some weeks serve up whole courses, employing some rather unique instructional approaches. Then there are those days when you get sent to the principal’s office. That was the case with my eye surgery last Friday. On Tuesday I visited retina specialist Dr. Roy Brod in Lancaster, PA, to evaluate the status of my macular pucker — extra epiretinal membrane tissue growing over my right retina and progressively obscuring the vision in that eye. He had told me three years ago that we would need to wait for the right time to do surgery — when the unwanted tissue was massive enough to remove, but before it was too well established.
Seven Tactics for Successful Surgery, Improved Vision, and Attitude Adjustment:
1. Motivation: Last Tuesday Dr. Brod finally said, “It’s time.” He had a cancellation in his Friday surgery schedule. We’d have to hustle through some preliminary lab tests and forms, but I could have the slot if I wanted it. I said “yes,” and three years of hypothetical dread of eye surgery became suddenly sharp and clear.
I said “yes,” because my vision was getting so bad that It was affecting my ability to work, make art, drive, negotiate stairs, and engage in daily activities. I may be 65, but I don’t feel finished yet. I’m not done working or making art or doing all sorts of normal activities. I cherish my vision as much as everyone else does, and that is sufficient motivation to sign up for surgery. But now I had to figure out how to survive the actual dreaded cut and peel procedure, especially since I would be awake for it. How was I going to hold still and be a good patient? Hell! How was I going to avoid bolting and running screaming out of the operating room?
Nobody can abide the thought of sharp objects near or in their eyes, and I am no exception. It seems to be a primal fear, like falling or being eaten by wild animals. I suppose humans have been accidentally poked in the eye by sharp sticks throughout our history, and that collective memory grosses us out — every one of us.
We have even turned this ancient fear into a childhood chant. When we want someone to make an excellent promise we require them to repeat: “Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a needle in my eye!” The threat of a sharp object in the eye is sufficient to enforce any difficult commitment. But I had signed on for the dreaded poke deliberately and voluntarily, and I knew I was going to need more than just the motivation of better vision to get me through it.
2. Trust and Confidence: It was clear to me from the start, that you have to trust the guy with the sharp stick or there’s no hope. The “eye principal,” Dr. Roy Brod, is the best of the best in his field. Everyone says so. Along with a few bona fide saints, he is one of the most respected individuals I have ever encountered in any field. And he’s an incredibly nice guy. He’s just so amazingly kind to everyone. You can’t help wishing he lived next door. He’s a prince of a man who inspires confidence and trust with every look and word. And his touch is almost magical. When he gently places a hand on your shoulder or brow, you feel instantly comforted and strangely at peace. This quality is essential in someone you are going to trust with sharp objects close to and in your eyes, believe me.
3. Great Drugs: Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that you make damn sure there is a wonderful anesthesiologist with miraculous drugs at hand, whenever you go into surgery. They hooked me up to an IV and pumped God knows what into me throughout the procedure — a sedative? — a mood elevator? I don’t know… but whatever it was it worked. AND they totally knocked me out for the two minutes it took them to administer shots directly into my eye, so I was not awake for that choice moment, thank goodness! The rest of the time I felt so calm that I had NO trouble holding still, and I was basically just fascinated by the whole process, including the visuals, like a good movie playing right inside my retina.

I’m so grateful for those great drugs, because I was awake and could see the entire procedure. I was watching the needle-fine instrument when its tiny jaws opened and grabbed the largest piece of my extra epiretinal membrane tissue to peel and pull it away and out of my eye. I was quite calm and intrigued, and my only thought was, “There goes my problem!” When Dr. Brod administered iodine drops I was mesmerized by the beautiful swirling magenta patterns in my field of vision. And when it was all over I realized that it had been a walk in the park.

4. Support of Friends: Oh sure… It’s a picnic when it’s all over, but what about the suspense beforehand? How do you deal with the adrenalin surges every time you realize, “Oh my God! I’m having eye surgery in two days!” How do you cope with the terror associated with eye torture when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep? I decided to tell people about my surgery, not because I needed the world to know, but because I wanted as much moral support from the positive thoughts, prayers and hopes of friends and loved ones as I could get. And it worked! I could really feel it powerfully. It helped so clearly that the day before my surgery, even without any drugs, I was already flying. My profound thanks to everyone who said a prayer or sent me a positive thought.

5. Attitude Positioning: The day before surgery I decided that this procedure was a cosmetic luxury afforded only to the rich (people with some means, Medicare and supplemental insurance like me) who happen to be living in modern times. As such, it seemed to me that it was like going to the spa for a professional massage, shampoo, haircut and facial. I adopted that attitude. I was there to be pampered, and I remained in that frame of mind throughout. When Dr. Brod entered the operating room I was blindfolded, but I raised my hand and said, “Thank you for coming to my party!” He laughed and said, “Yes! Let’s have a great party!” I really like Dr. Brod so much. He is so generous with everyone. That helped with my “spa pampering” attitude positioning. Dr. Brod was my personal masseur and spa master who was there to spoil me and make me feel special and wonderful.

6. Surrender: From that attitudinal perspective it was easy to lie back and relax. Living in the woods, I have noticed that when the animals are dying or in dire situations, they surrender and become still and quiet. They let go. I thought often in the few days prior to my surgery about specific animals I have witnessed in these kinds of situations and how deeply instructive their behavior was. I decided to imagine that my circumstances were much more dire than eye surgery — What if I were scheduled to be unfairly executed in the morning? What attitude would I want to adopt in that case? I thought of other dire cirumstances. When I returned to the reality of eye surgery, it did not seem so difficult or frightening after all.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, "Poseidon's Prophecy," in progress. I'm looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, “Poseidon’s Prophecy,” in progress. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

7. Divine Intervention: But I still had one ace up my sleeve, and the day of the surgery was the time to play it. Much of the time before, during and after the procedure, I managed to chant to the Divine Beloved, and to think of five very saintly individuals I have been so fortunate to meet or know in my lifetime. I called upon them to stand with me. This was very calming, reassuring and helpful. I was especially aware of one of them holding my right hand where the IV was inserted. Whenever I was tempted to feel afraid or stressed, I focused on The Infinite Beloved in the forms of these five saints, and  was at peace instantly. The stress left my body and I became pyscially relaxed and still.

My brother, Dr. Chris Miller, picked me up after the surgery. Dr. Brod called him to say that the procedure had gone extremely well and that I had been a perfect patient — didn’t move a muscle. Chris was very kind to me and allowed me to rest quietly in his beautiful garden or sleep in his recliner. He made us a fantastic lunch — grilled vegetable and fried egg sandwhiches on whole grain toast. Yum!

Then Chris took me back as Dr. Brod had requested for a post-op evaluation six hours after the surgery. The doctor was so excited when he analyzed the results of his own work that he was almost jumping up and down. He said, “Just for the fun of it, let’s take some more images. I won’t charge you for them. It would just be so interesting to compare the images immediately before and after surgery.” He was so pleased with the pictures that he said he might write a paper about my case.

I described my visual experience of the procedure and he was fascinated and delighted. When it was time for me to leave, Dr. Brod admonished me not to do any strenuous activity or lift anything heavier than 25 lbs, and to leave the bandage on overnight, before starting to administer drops four times daily. I asked if I could pick berries, because it is high berry season in the woods. He said “yes.”

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

I have not had one minute of discomfort through this entire experience. The doctor wrote me a prescription for a heavy duty pain killer and said that I would very likely have to use it to get through the pain that would eventually come. But there has been no pain whatsoever. Well… okay… I did have a few moments of rather exquisite pain yesterday when I was picking berries two days after the surgery. I unknowingly stepped on the home of a colony of ground-dwelling bees. They swarmed and five of them stung me on my right arm within five seconds. Now THAT hurt! It hurt infinitely more than anything I experienced during eye surgery.

The bee strings made me realize that sometimes the pain we think we feel is imaginary. We feel it whether it really is painful or not, just because we perceive the circumstances to be hurtful — like a needle in the eye — because of how awful it looks or seems. When I analyzed the actual pain of the bee strings, as opposed to the perceived pain, that wasn’t as bad as I had thought either. In fact it was entirely gone within minutes, and a few hours later there was no sign of the very understandable assault by the poor bees against whom I had trespassed.

Today, just three days after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery, I can already see much better than I did the day before the procedure. And Dr. Brod has assured me that my vision will continue to improve for several weeks and months. I am excited to discover how much of my original visual acuity might return and to experience what that will mean when I am working, making art, driving and just living daily life. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, and aware that not so many decades ago it would not have been possible. I would have gone nearly blind in my right eye and coped as best I could with one remaining eye.

A close-up view of this summer's berries.

A close-up view of this summer’s berries.

Life is a school, and I learned some important lessons in this Course on Vision: I learned that it isn’t just Dr. Brod’s incredibly steady hands that make his practice so successful, but also his obvious joy and pleasure in his chosen vocation. That intrinsic love of his work inspires confidence in his patients and insures positive outcomes. I also learned that there are at least seven tactics that patients can adopt to help doctors perform successful surgeries, but more importantly, those same tactics can be applied for a more rewarding life in general. Well… okay… when it comes to #3, “Great Drugs,” at least in my case, this is primarily about my ongoing efforts to moderate my morning tea and evening cocktail intake… and come to think of it, that really is quite important. So all seven of these principles apply to life in general, for me anyway.

Another week… another course in the School of Life… another step closer to clear vision. By the way, in case you were wondering, attendance is compulsory in the lessons and courses offered by the School of Life, until graduation, when we shall see all things clearly. Until then our job is to be attentive students. Don’t be afraid to challenge the authorities and ask really hard questions. When the opportunity presents itself, be generous and offer to help others with their studies, especially if they are struggling or fear they may even be failing. Finally, the wise student will pause regularly to express private inner gratitude for the invaluable and rare opportunity to learn and progress in this School of Life.



By Paul

The Los Angeles Times Sunday edition, July 13, 2014, carried a front page article about the “visit” to Southern California of the holy statue of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez from Mexico. Santo Toribio was a Catholic priest who was killed, martyred as it is said, during the so-called Cristero War in Mexico. The usual dates given for this conflict are 1926-1929, but some fighting and killing continued on during the 1930’s, and even into the early 1940’s, a time of land redistribution, anti-clericalism, and civil disturbance, pitching an educated, socialist, governmental elite against an uneducated, but devoutly religious peasantry. Toribio Romo was shot in 1928 by federal soldiers because he continued to conduct Catholic religious ceremonials, which were at the time against the law. He was canonized in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

Curiously, although Santo Toribio had nothing to do with immigration northward during his lifetime, in recent times he has been venerated and celebrated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans, desperate to make the border crossing into the United States. He is even said to have appeared numerous times to some who are attempting to make the perilous and uncertain journey across the border, dressed in the same cowboy hat and boots worn by many of the migrants. The four-foot tall statue of the saint displays in a glass case in the center of the chest a part of Santo Toribio’s ankle bone, and thousands have lined up to reverently touch the glass casement, in hopes of securing special favors from the saint, either for themselves, or for loved ones contemplating making the dangerous crossing.

Modern people, even many Catholics, dismiss such acts of devotion as nothing less than the superstition of the uneducated. How can the ankle bone of a priest, who died over 85 years ago, be of any use to living, breathing human beings, facing extreme hardship and challenge? Better to rely on your own wits and resources, and to spend your money getting practical legal help, rather than chipping in, as many Southern California Latinos have done, to buy a first-class seat on an airplane from Mexico for a wooden statue and its keeper. What contemporary person can argue with this kind of reasoning? How can help of any kind, spiritual or temporal, be somehow transmitted to and bestowed on people by a dried piece of bone, no matter how holy the body of the saint it was taken from?

But here’s another question that can be asked: is it possible that the world is more mysterious than even modern, educated people can ever fully understand, using only the evidence of our senses and of the logical mind? Another way to phrase it might be: does Spirit exist, and if so, does it infuse, permeate, and manifest itself in physical form?

These are questions that have been repeatedly asked over the ages and answered in different ways by various cultures. Here is another example of how people understand and explain the manifestation of Spirit in nature, what I call the “imminence of transcendence.” The Yanomami are a loose cultural and linguistic configuration of indigenous peoples who inhabit the remote rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. There has been a great deal of destruction over the years, not only of the Yanomami culture by Christian missionaries, but later on of the rainforest itself, once gold was discovered in the region. Many Indians of the Americas have known for centuries that both religion and gold make Western peoples crazy. They will do anything for gold, including bribing, threatening, stealing, despoiling the natural environment, and even killing those who stand in their way. The Yanomami have, in fact, experienced all of these tactics, and more. Yet, large segments of their culture and of the rainforest (the two are intimately intertwined) still remain intact, in part through the assistance of some not-so-crazed Westerners (Brazilians and others), who have become their allies. But what has helped most of all is the knowledge and the “dreaming” of Yanomami shamans.

As is true with many other indigenous peoples, the Yanomami believe that the forest is alive. And not just the forest as a kind of abstraction, as Westerners might think, but each segment thereof, including every rock, tree, stream, and river. Overseeing all of these are a spirit-people called the “xapiri” (pronounced “sha-PEE-ree”).   Yanomami shamans go through a long and arduous apprenticeship. Partly using this tradition and training, and partly through the aid of powerful hallucinatory drugs, they contact these “xapiri, who appear in the form of tiny humanoids wearing very bright, feather-covered garments. And not only do shamans contact these spirits, they become them. It is in this spirit-form that shamans then defend and protect the forest from evil, both foreign and indigenous.

Here we see another level of belief in a spirit world. Not only do devotees of a religion get to touch the glass that covers the bone of a man believed to have attained spiritual knowledge and, in so doing, contact and attain some of his power, but through the process of chanting, and “dreaming,” and of entering into an altered state of mind, they become the very spirits they see and interact with.

The Yanomami, in fact, have a ready explanation as to why many Westerners are so crazed, so cruelly acquisitive, avaricious, and destructive. White people, according to Yanomami myth, are the offspring of Yoasi, the evil brother of Omama, their Creator God. It is believed that Yoasi gave birth to white people, who come from “the back of the sky,” and who are associated with the evil spirits of the forest. According to the myth, if not controlled, these evil spirits will bring about the end of the world through the “falling sky.” By this, the Yanomami mean the toxic invasion of the deadly smoke of metal and fuels. As Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who has co-authored a book entitled “Falling Sky,” says: “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the White people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest we say that ‘xawara’ (epidemic fumes) have seized it and it becomes ghost.”

What do Santo Toribio and Yanomami shamans have in common? Some might say only the ignorance of the uneducated, and an attempt to achieve some level of control on the part of those who otherwise feel disenfranchised and powerless. And there may be some truth in this. However, others may also point to a less logical, more innate, unconscious, chthonic, or even deeply spiritual way of seeing and understanding a world that even modern science does not claim to fully understand.

What I mean by the phrase “imminence of transcendence” is the inherent, essential, deep-born, fundamentally ingrained presence of the Great Mystery of the Universe intertwined with and imbedded in nature. Can it equally be felt in the ankle bone of a saint, or in the tree that grows in your backyard, in the great forests that still, here and there, cover parts of the earth, or in the vast oceans that struggle today with the poisons humans have dumped into them? I will leave that for you to decide for yourself.

In the end, whether we think of all this as some kind of manifested spiritual essence, or merely the ordinary, everyday ebullient effervescence of nature itself, it is our job as human beings to respect the planet. Otherwise, it may not be too far fetched a myth to think that the sky will, in a sense, someday come falling down upon our heads, and that we and our children will no longer be able to breath the very air that surrounds us. Who knows? Maybe with the help of Santo Toribio and the Yanomami shamans, and a bit of our own native wisdom, we, too, may someday learn our lessons and mend our ways. There is, at least, always that hope.


By Paul

Who gives people the right to work? Is it the employer him or herself, or is it rather the government – the collectivity of the common wisdom (we hope) of the people of the country – which oversees, manages, and administrates the laws of the nation under which the business is set up? I am not speaking here of whatever educational or employment history an individual may have to have that makes that person suitable, or not, to work in a given position. That decision clearly must rest with the employer alone to make. What I am talking about is the fundamental and inherent human right to work, irrespective of race, or gender, or physical or mental impairment, or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

This inherent right seems to be under attack these days, based largely on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Much of the problem began with and harkens back to the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United, which prohibited the government from making restrictions on corporations when it came to political donations. Corporations were seen to be “persons” in this regard, and therefore they were said to have the same rights as individuals regarding “political speech.”

This principle was invoked in the recent Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case, in which the court decided in a 5 to 4 decision that closely held corporations (i.e., “people”) are not required to follow the law and provide their female employees with no-cost access to modern forms of contraception. Instead, the 5 conservative judges said that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prevented laws “substantially burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion.”

The logic is that it is substantially burdensome to a company’s right to the free exercise of religion to be required to give women no-cost contraception as part of the organization’s normal insurance package. And, if that is the case, can we now be far from the same principle being applied to the decision not to hire, or to fire, an individual, if this “religious corporate person” finds that individual’s way of living objectionable on religious grounds. This at least is the fear that many LGBT groups have expressed in regard to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that has been languishing in Congress for some time now.

Just recently, in light of all of the above, such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center have all said it is time to jettison support for ENDA because of the inherent major loopholes in it for religious organizations.   The one dissenting voice, the Human Rights Campaign, has for the moment stuck with supporting ENDA, (as much as it has no current chance of even being brought to the floor in the Republican controlled House).

What, in fact, is meant by a religiously affiliated organization? We are not talking here only about churches themselves. Instead, what comes under this wide rubric encompasses hospitals, universities, nursing homes etc. But if private companies, “persons” under the law, such as Hobby Lobby, have the right to discriminate based on religious grounds against women and their right to no-cost modern contraceptives, will it be long before the courts say that such companies equally do not have to hire “out gay people,” or transgender persons, because this violates their sincerely held religious beliefs?

The question has been raised again of late in part because the White House has sought a way around the roadblock faced by ENDA in the House of Representatives. Pres. Obama has issued an Executive Order prohibiting companies that do business with the Federal Government from discriminating against people due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, according to an editorial piece in the July 9th, 2014 issue of the Los Angeles Times, religious organizations are already up in arms and lobbying the Administration for the right of religious organizations not to be held to this standard.

Rev. Rick Warren, for example, whom the President invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration, was the leader in sending a letter to Pres. Obama with a warning that “an order that didn’t contain a religious exemption would threaten ‘the common good, national unity and religious freedom.’ ” How exactly not allowing organizations to discriminate against particular citizens of a country threatens the common good of that country remains something of a mystery.

Let us imagine a case in point. Suppose a small construction firm contracts with the National Park Service to put up a new entry kiosk at Yellowstone National Park (the first and the oldest national park in the country). And suppose a woman applies for a carpentry job with this firm to work on the project. She is well qualified, has several years of experience, outstanding work habits, excellent references, and has just moved to Wyoming with her wife, whom she recently married in California. But the town where they have settled is a small one, and it’s not long before the wife of the owner of the construction firm hears from the man who happens to live next door to the two women that he “suspects” they are lesbians. The head of the construction company and his wife are devout evangelical Christians, or let us say devout Muslims (if that makes any difference to anyone), and he is extremely uncomfortable with having hired a “known lesbian,” even if he thinks she is performing excellently on the job. If Rick Warren gets his way, the head of this company could summarily fire this otherwise excellent worker, due solely to the fact that she is married to a woman, and because this “offends” the sincerely held religious beliefs of the head of that firm.

Although this is an entirely made-up story, many such real examples take place every day in states where there is no protection for LGBT people against employment discrimination. And even in states where there is such protection, how many teachers have we heard of recently who have been fired from long-held posts in Catholic schools, who have been doing outstanding work and who were loved by their students, solely because it became known that they had recently married their same-sex spouse?

The LA Times editorial goes on to point out that Rick Warren and others have requested that the language of the Executive Order be modeled on language which provides for such religious exceptions in ENDA (thus the objection to ENDA of many LGBT groups). Perhaps an argument can be made, indeed has been made, that a carpenter is not a teacher, who is by definition a role model to children, and so church-affiliated schools have the right to fire teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, if this is against the tenets of their religion. But what of a young man hired by Hobby Lobby, whose supervisor hears that he is gay? Should Hobby Lobby, which under the law is now considered a “person” with sincerely held religious convictions, be able to fire this young man, solely because his private “life style” (so called) offends their belief system?

These are complex questions, pitting the constitutional rights of both sides against each other. Where you come down on the answers depends not only on how you feel about the rights of organized religion, but perhaps also on your own inherent sense of fairness and justice. And let us not forget that in the case of the President’s Executive Order we are talking about spending money that comes from our collective taxes, that is, the taxes of ALL of the people, not just of those who think like Rick Warren.

Do all citizens of the country, LGBT individuals included, deserve the same rights? That, in the end, is perhaps the most fundamental question, and the one that the Rick Warrens of the world ignore to their own ultimate peril.


By Paul

Aside from picnics and fireworks, what the approach of the July 4th Independence Day holiday brings to mind more than anything is probably the notion of patriotism. Is it, as seems to be the common wisdom, merely a concept which lauds an expected, deep respect and unconditional love for country, or is that today more of an outmoded mindset, an excuse for exclusion, leading to a xenophobic mine-verses-theirs mentality that poisons the welcoming of whatever, or whoever, may be foreign or different? Or is it somewhere in between?

The word “patriotic” itself comes from the Latin “patris,” which is the genitive singular form of “pater,” meaning “of the father.” Some countries – Germany comes to mine – have traditionally referred to themselves in the masculine, as in the Fatherland, while others appear to prefer the feminine. Russians, for example, almost universally reference Mother Russia, and even in the United States, we often feminize reference to the country (see, for example, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America/Land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her etc.).   In French, ambiguously, “la patrie” is a feminine noun, although it is usually translated as Fatherland (note that it has the same masculine Latinate root as the English term).

But whether we envision the notion as of one gender or another in the end may make little difference. For most people, the impact of patriotism comes from much the same place as that of the camaraderie felt by soldiers who go into battle together. On the level of feeling, rather than of intellectual discourse, we are talking quite literally about where we come from, who is there to support us, and what that means for us now, in the moment. In time of war, while facing grave danger, with possible imminent loss of life or limb, what is most important is not the latest camouflage, or protective gear, or even weaponry; it’s whether or not you can count on “your brothers” (and in recent times, “sisters” as well), who are with you to support and protect you, as you support and protect them. “I’ve got your back” is not a term taken lightly under such circumstances. Neither is it for many people when it comes to one’s country as a whole.

What do you think of when you hear the word patriotism? Is it the flag, per se, or is it what that represents to any individual, the story of his or her life, a whole host of memories, of people, of events, of scenes, of sights and sounds, and smells and food, of play and contention, of life and death, and of loved ones longed for but no longer here, of war or peace, of danger or of carefree togetherness, whether all this took place in upstate New York, or California, or the American South, or France, or Russia, or Syria, or the Sudan.

Each individual has his and her own story to tell. My own started almost 70 years ago in upstate New York. Born to a father who was a factory worker and a mother employed as a saleslady in a local department store, we struggled through a life with its own degree of poverty and deprivation. Money seldom lasted all the way to the next payday, and meals approaching that day were often meager and unappealing. New clothes were a distant thought, a luxury for those with money, and doctors or dentists were professionals you saw only when the pain or discomfort was no longer bearable. And no one took what is now thought of as a vacation. In the summer, my father would get a week off, which he spent making repairs on the cold-water flat we lived in. And while I felt myself to be poor, even compared to my friends whom I went to school with, the truth is that no one I knew had any surplus money to spare.

And yet, there was family, as dysfunctional as my own often was, and friends, and other kids to play with, and the Church, Catholic in my case, that provided a kind of moral gravitational pull all its own. Later I came to see it as oppressive, repressive, and even damaging, but as a child I accepted it as a given, and for a while it provided me with a kind of empowering personal nexus.

We can all recount our own such stories which, while differing in every possible detail, carry with them the same profundity of emotional tether and draw. This is because the essentials of the story, of every story, remain the same. There is a place, a setting, a cast of characters, a drama and a plot of sorts, and even whole themes that run through a person’s life. All of the specifics add up to your own unique history, your own depiction, your own version of the greater story that happens to all of us, and it is the individual aspects of that saga that amount to the glue that holds together the idea of what we think of as patriotism.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I remember going to a 4th of July parade in the town of Poestenkill, New York.   It’s more of a rustic hamlet than a town, with barely 4,500 people in it today, and no doubt a lot fewer back in the early 50’s. It’s located some 25 to 30 miles from the state capital of Albany. My grandmother, whose husband was a French-Canadian baseball player who had abandoned her soon after my mother’s birth, had a kind of boyfriend who came from Poestenkill, and we were visiting some of his relatives there. My recollection of the parade consists mostly of the town fire truck, a few local notables walking in their Sunday best, and a marching band consisting of no more than a dozen players. Later on, there was a picnic with hotdogs and potato salad. I still remember my brother, ever the daring adventurer, throwing a stone at a bird, By some stroke of chance or ill luck, he hit the creature. It was able to limp away, but I felt terrible about it for the rest of the day, and would not speak to him. When we got home, and it had finally gotten dark that evening around 9:30, there were sparklers. I dropped mine, and it went out. In the darkness, I reached and picked up the wrong end, and in so doing burnt my hand; payback, I thought even then, as someone in the family had to atone for the injury done to an innocent bird.

These are the kinds of memories that come to mind for me when people speak of patriotism. The childhood ties that bind you to the land, to the people, and to what happened there. This, and not some concocted idea of abstract pride in a nation, is what evokes feelings for a Motherland or a Fatherland.

As adults, the notion seems somehow less compelling, less riveting, more theoretical and conceptual. Too often these days, the 4th seems like just another excuse for a party, for drinking, and making noise late into the night, when I, at least, would prefer to be in bed asleep. We were in France a few years ago on Bastille Day, the 14th of July, and it felt like much the same thing. But maybe that was because we were in a Paris, and not in “un petit patelin,” the French equivalent of Poestenkill. Crowds and loud music and drunks and fireworks bigger and better than last year’s are not my notion of what makes for patriotism.

I see no reason not to love the land you come from, so long as it never leads to disdain for or hatred of other people or places. Every land, and every people, has its uniqueness, its own special beauty. At least so long as that land, or more specifically the people living there, have treated you decently. Some, unfortunately, have horrible memories of a dangerous and degrading past, and these are the people who need new ties that bind, and hopefully they are lucky enough to escape to a place of relative safety and freedom. Those new and better experiences then become their patriotic remembrances.

But for most of us, notions of patriotism are benign enough, and we are able to distinguish it from the overly aggressive jingoism and chauvinistic flag-waving that speaks of nothing so much as a limited worldview. In the end, it’s more about family, and childhood, and loved ones, and good and bad times, trials and joys, the effort it takes to grow up and to mature, all in a specific place and time in history, in a setting that comes to mean more than merely what it looks like. Place eventually takes on an emotional value all its own, a connectivity to feeling and sentiment, to love and loss, and to hope for a better future yet to come. That’s what I’ll think of, anyway, when I hear the word this holiday. And that’s what I will mean when I wish one and all a Happy 4th of July!