Hip Pocket Press is pleased to announce the Winter/Spring 2017 release of Sisyphus 4.1 The American Identity Issue. We are exited about the re-invigoration of our brand and hope for it to have broad play in the literary community and we ask you to take part: read the issue, pass on the links to your friends, and subscribe at sisyphuslitmag.org. Please let me know your personal comments and I encourage you to comment on individual contributors. If you are inspired to contribute yourself, HPP welcomes your submission for Sisyphus 4.2 The Mindfulness OS Issue.
I feel that it’s incumbent on me, especially me, to talk about what I am grateful for this Thanksgiving. In view of the election of President-Elect Donald Trump, I find myself deeply grateful for the State of California, for our pragmatic Governor Jerry Brown, and for its people: their openness, their kindness, their compassion, their inventiveness. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where I learned that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
Alabama is beautiful. It is a gorgeous state filled with rivers and streams and woods, flora and fauna of amazing variety. It is where I used to go hunting as a boy with my favorite uncle, taciturn Uncle Bud. He would take me deep into the forest. And he could explain to me what hunting was all about. For him, it was listening to his dogs.
“Listen to them,” he would say about the cacophony of barking voices echoing through the distant pines. “The whole pack, lost. They are confused. They don’t know if they are coming or going.”
There are barks in the distance. One voice off by itself. “Listen to Maggie [his favorite beagle]. She’s got the scent. She knows what to do. Listen to her call to the rest of them, saying ‘Hear me. Follow me.’” And I could hear her clear, confident voice resonating through the trees.
“Now listen to their voices as they realize she is right and follow her lead. Now they are on the trail.” And suddenly it all makes sense.
He puts away his pipe. “Come with me. Quick!” And he rushes over to a grove with a break in the trees and takes out his pistol. “The rabbit will cross here.”
And when it does, running, he shoots it with one single shot. And that night, he skins it and guts it and prepares it for eating. But we can’t eat it. The meat is riddled with worms. His tracking, his shot, was a feat so unbelievable and yet horrifying, it amazed me. But it is spoiled.
The beauty of the skill is hard to reconcile with the horror, outcomes that are unforeseen. There is always the possibility of worms.
What I didn’t recognize during those formative years was the understood, prevailing cultural prohibitions and biases; the amazing restrictions on public speaking, and attitude of what was right and what was wrong. One thing I knew was that one could walk into any neighborhood, knock on a door, carefully ask a political question, and get the same answer. There was a uniformity of cultural mores and truths that did not brook any differences.
When I first arrived in California in 1968, the Free Speech Movement was still underway and I realized that people were not afraid to speak their mind. I discovered a warmth and friendliness that allowed free discussion, argumentation, and a wealth of differing ideas and I told everybody who would listen that I knew that I had found my people.
This is where protests against the Vietnam War could take root, where new music could be born, where poetry and painting and printing and potting and publishing were all thriving in this heady mix of freedom and the excitement of what it meant to “find yourself.” Where free love suddenly took on a meaning other than what the media made of it. It meant loving your neighbor, caring for each other and, yes, it meant engaging in physical copulation, but it was more than that. It was all free. It was not about money or material success. It was a spiritual awakening that made life in California seem thrilling and I was amazed. This was the place that the Information Age would happen because people were free thinkers and could share ideas.
But today, it feels like Alabama has come to the shores of California. I watch the news and discover that Jeff Sessions, the Alabama state senator whose racist speech cost him a judgeship, now has been selected to be appointed Attorney General. I must say, that causes me to suddenly pause. That thought awakens my memories of “whites only” water fountains, of church bombings, the murder of four black children—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair— in the name of segregation. And it comes to me that the restrictions on public speech that were so prevalent in the South covered over a host of repressive, subjugating ways of living. “If-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all.”
I am so grateful that California remains a bulwark against the bullying, racist world presented by Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump. I believe that we will not bend under this assault on our freedom and we will not give in to a past that is not worthy of respect or dignity.
We were waiting in a stand of pines. The hounds announced themselves. Yes, he said, yes, they’ll cross over there. And he began to run.
I remember catching up, my uncle taking the pistol from his clothes as he knelt on the road. It had rained earlier that morning and the smoke stayed close to the ground, the sound burning in my ears.
Yes, he said, fine rabbit if he doesn’t have worms, and he smiled, his hand once again disappearing beneath his coat.
And the rabbit was so small, shot through the head, and I was amazed and puzzled, a child knowing that shot was a feat of perfection somehow. So small and he had shot it from so far away.
So small, and yes, he had stood there holding it by the ears, the wind bending around us, the trees singing the song of what could be remembered, but never again touched.
Berkeley Poets Co-op #14 (1978)
1. Something showy but worthless.
2. Nonsense or rubbish.
3. Deceit; fraud; trickery.
From French tromper (to deceive). Earliest documented use: 1481.
It’s been a while since I wrote a blog entry. There is a lot going on. The election has been on my mind and I felt the need to express my own opinion. The above definition is just a word, but it inspires arguments and vitriol because of Donald Trump. I posted the definition as a tongue-in-cheek Facebook entry, but it generated some thoughts.
Donald Trump is not real. He’s a cipher. A cipher is a code standing in for something else. He is also a symbol, something that points beyond itself. He is a symbol of the rage and frustration of the American poor and disenfranchised. He’s a symbol for everyone who has lost a job, who has lost a home, whose children are unable to find work, whose middle-class future is now compromised and unattainable. He is a symbol of everyone who wants to stick a finger in the eye of the government, the American government which allowed all this to come to pass.
He is in some ways like a Shakespearean character: there is a kind of comedy and tragedy mixed together in this character we call Donald Trump. He stands before us, proclaiming to live up to the responsibility placed on his shoulders by his bid for the presidency, to represent all the dispossessed and disenfranchised. And he fails. Televised.
But let’s not be mistaken: what he represents is real. And the Democratic and Republican Parties do not recognize this reality. They are not listening to the voices of the American public, the cry against the injustice in our economy, the inequality that has been baked into the system since Ronald Reagan. The crippling of the unions, the shifting of the tax burden from the rich to the poor, and the failure of “trickle-down” economics has coalesced into a symbol. Unfortunately, that symbol is the caricature we know as Donald Trump.
I urge everyone to take a moment and think about what this election is all about, because it is much larger than the failure of The Donald. It is bigger than all the votes will represent, because Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into a force that is like a river headed over the banks towards the destruction of the floodplain of Democracy.
Recently, the inequality of wealth in America has been on my mind. Ever since the Occupy movement established the notion that 1% of the people control more wealth than the other 99%, it has become clear that there is a huge disparity between the rich and everybody else. The question for me becomes, “How did we get here? How did this happen?”
Clearly, it happened over a long period of time. Some people date it from the advent of Friedrich Von Hayek’s “trickle down” theory—adopted by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—and the very nature of Capitalism itself, but I find the story more complex than that. In this theory, now referred to as neo-liberalism, corporations are set free from governmental regulations. Wealth is supposed to return to the private sector, an attempt to return the country to the Gilded Age before the New Deal. How did the corporations get free of the government to assert their power over regulations?
I recently heard an interview in which the definition of Nazism was made clear: it is when corporations are merged with the government, so that the government protects the interests of the corporations and not the common good. With that thought in mind, it makes the recent Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United, quite interesting—corporations have the rights of people and corporations, therefore, can contribute unlimited sums of money to get the kinds of elected government officials who will vote their interests. So now we are in an interesting situation where corporations, as one politician recently put it, regulate Congress rather than Congress regulating corporations. The whole thing has stood out in my mind as a mystery until I recently read two books: The Brothers by Stephen Kinzler and The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot. So let’s go back in time, starting with my own personal experience.
In the fall of 1960, I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to serve six months’ active duty for the Alabama National Guard. I was 17. I was under the impression that I was going to have six weeks of basic training and then go to clerk/typist school, but the Army had other plans. They put me in advanced infantry training for the duration of my stay. Toward the end of that training, my company was put on high alert and I was told to pack my bags and get ready to ship out on a wartime mission. We were told that we could not tell anybody that we were on high alert. The whole operation was top secret and I was terrified. I had not intended to go to war. I was very upset and confused about my future. But a few days later (at least that’s how I remember it—as days—it may have been longer) the order was cancelled and we were released from the “high alert” status. So I was not going to war, my future was restored, and I was discharged six months later, as I had intended. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our operation was to invade Cuba. But that didn’t happen. I never knew why. Rumor had it that new President John F. Kennedy had refused to authorize the invasion. Part of the explanation of that invasion of Cuba goes a long way to explaining how America got to where we are today. So let’s return to those two books. In these two books, I have come to understand not only what happened to me in 1960-61, but also what was happening to the country with respect to the rise of the corporations.
In a review of one of them in The New York Times, Adam LeBor writes, “Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book. The Brothers is a riveting chronicle of government-sanctioned murder, casual elimination of ‘inconvenient’ regimes, relentless prioritization of American corporate interests and cynical arrogance on the part of two men who were once among the most powerful in the world.”
The more one looks into the history of the United States under the powerful guidance of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, the more one begins to realize that we, as a country, thought we were living through a peaceful epoch of wealth. What we didn’t realize is that “we the people” were asleep and that there were secret wars being conducted in our name that would have long-lasting blowback implications for the rest of the millennium and even into the twenty-first century.
“With John Foster as Secretary of State, this ‘fraternity of the successful’ enforced a Pax Americana by terror and intimidation, always invoking national security and often blatantly disobeying policy guidelines,” says Kirkus Reviews, referencing Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard.
This change in American policy began at the end of World War II. In 1942, though, Allen Dulles worked under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During his tenure, the Dulles brothers had a very tight relationship with many Nazi businesses.
“…when Allen Dulles was in Switzerland, supposedly working for our side, the OSS, during the war, he was actually using that to meet with a lot of Nazis and to cut separate deals with them,” says David Talbot in a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman. “He did indeed finally cut a separate peace deal with the Nazi forces in Italy against FDR’s wishes. FDR had a policy of unconditional surrender. This was Operation Sunrise … And then he set up these rat-lines, so-called, where Nazis, leading Nazi war criminals, escaped after the war through the Alps in Switzerland, down into Italy and then overseas to Latin America and even in the United States. One of the key Nazis he saved was Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s former chief of intelligence, who he installed… as head of West German intelligence after the war, a man who should have stood trial at Nuremberg.”
The question in my mind was why was Allen Dulles making deals with the Nazis? Why did he appoint a high-level Nazi to be one of his station agents? The question keeps coming back because the Dulles brothers did not believe the Nazis to be the real problem. They were in business with the Nazis, as were many American corporations. Fred C. Koch, father to the Koch brothers, built the third largest refinery in the Third Reich and had it personally approved by Adolf Hitler (see Jane Mayer’s Dark Money). The Nazi’s used census records tallied with IBM punch cards. General Motors- and Ford-built tanks. Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles were avid supporters of their clients’ business interests. Both brothers were lawyers for Sullivan and Cromwell, whose major clients were elite American corporations.
In his blog post, “Harnessing the Growth of Corporate Capitalism: Sullivan & Cromwell and its Influence on Late Nineteenth-Century American Business,” Jason Weixelbaum writes, “Cromwell eventually hired John Foster Dulles in 1911. Fifteen years later, Dulles would become Cromwell’s successor. Just like Cromwell before him, Dulles showed tremendous ambition and drive for both business and diplomacy. John Foster Dulles’ younger brother Allen would become a partner as well. In the proceeding three decades, the Dulles brothers would make clients of the world’s most powerful corporations and financial institutions, including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, International Business Machines, Chase Bank, International Telephone and Telegraph, Brown Brothers Harriman, IG Farben, Standard Oil, and the Bank for International Settlements. The reach of these businesses into the realm of U.S. foreign policy would have a significant global impact during World War II and beyond under Sullivan & Cromwell’s stewardship. After World War II, John Foster Dulles would hold a forceful position in the Eisenhower administration as the Secretary of State, while his brother Allen would become the longest serving director of the Central Intelligence Agency, respectively. The Dulles brothers’ tremendous influence on twentieth-century U.S. diplomacy and geopolitical strategy further blurred the line between the corporate policy of Sullivan & Cromwell, its clients, and U.S. foreign policy itself. In a sense, William Nelson Cromwell’s dream of working to serve the interests of the most dominant corporations while expanding Sullivan & Cromwell’s influence to the highest offices in America was fulfilled.”
In college, I had often heard people say that Nazism was not the problem but communism was. A lot of people theorized that America should align with the Nazis against communist ideologies. The Dulles brothers thought the real problem was the communist Revolution in Russia, because the peasants wanted to return the power from the Tsars to the Bolsheviks. The brothers felt the very concept of socialist ideas were a threat. But I didn’t realize, at the time I was hearing this, how fervent and hysterical anti-communist rhetoric had gotten. It became the mantra of U.S. foreign policy. As far back as the late 1940s, we were beginning to be influenced by the C.I.A.’s anti-communist propaganda in the American press machine.
“CBS, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, they were all in the palm of the C.I.A.’s hands. They all lived together in Georgetown. They had cocktail parties together. It was a very cozy set,” says Talbot.
So it would appear all the major press were in the pockets of the Dulles brothers, who fed them stories and courted the media relentlessly.
The C.I.A. got its start under Truman, who signed the National Security Act of 1947. Its original mission was to gather military intelligence. But under Eisenhower (President from 1953-61), the role of the C.I.A. was expanded to conduct covert actions. War weary, General Eisenhower apparently decided that covert action was superior to overt military actions and he supported a plan whereby the C.I.A. could act independently of Congress and engage in regime changes. Eisenhower was looking for a way to exert influence without going to war. He appointed Allen Dulles to run the C.I.A. and —ignoring the warnings about placing two brothers in such influential positions —appointed brother John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State. These two brothers could now represent Sullivan and Cromwell’s clients’ interests while serving as government agents and executing plans “to protect American business interests abroad.”
“That was the key period when the national security state was constructed in this country, and where it begins to overshadow American democracy,” says Mother Jones.
Neo-liberalism—again, the theory that corporations have less regulation and thus theoretically more wealth to put back into the economy—was beginning to be supported by the press and propaganda from the C.I.A. America began conducting wars on behalf of American business interests and not the American people.
It was John Foster Dulles’ opinion that the, “United States of America does not have friends; it has interests.”
And those interests were business interests.
According to the New York Times, in his book, “Kinzer lists what he calls the ‘six monsters’ that the Dulles brothers believed had to be brought down: Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Sukarno in Indonesia, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Only two of these, Ho Chi Minh and Castro, were hard-core communists. The rest were nationalist leaders seeking independence for their countries and a measure of control over their natural resources.”
The C.I.A. had constructed an enemies list: the people the Dulles brothers had decided were ideologically opposed to their clients’ business interests. Never mind that these were fledgling, newly-elected democracies. It mattered not. Árbenz had begun land reforms, giving farmland to peasants against the wishes of United Fruit Company. Mossadegh was nationalizing oil resources. United Fruit wanted their control back. Oil companies wanted their profits. So the C.I.A. engaged in regime change with terrible consequences for everyone but the United States corporations’ bottom line.
“Allen Dulles, working for Eisenhower as C.I.A. director, portrays Jacobo Árbenz as a dangerous communist—he wasn’t—and prepares to overthrow him in a military coup, which does occur,” says Talbot. “[T]he C.I.A. and Allen Dulles told Eisenhower after the Guatemala coup, ‘Oh, it was a clean coup. You know, hardly anyone died.’ But the fact is, tens of thousands of people died in the killing fields of Guatemala as a result of that coup, and that violence continues today.”
The people of Guatemala continue to flee to America to escape the violence resulting from the regimes that were left behind after the overthrow of Árbenz.
“[E]mboldened by how easy it was to do a regime change in Guatemala,” continues Talbot, “when Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba, he again antagonizes the same corporate interests that the Dulles brothers represent—oil companies, like the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil, and others, agribusiness firms. So they believe that Fidel has to be eliminated, and they begin plotting, under the Eisenhower administration, with Eisenhower’s approval, to assassinate Fidel Castro.”
Fidel Castro was beloved in Cuba because he had overthrown Mafia-supported, ruthless dictator Fulgencio Batista. People in the United States thought he was glamorous and exciting, like Che Guevera, but the Eisenhower-Dulles-C.I.A. connection was already demonizing him. Fidel couldn’t get a hotel in New York for his delegation to attend a United Nations meeting and ended up at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He managed to embarrass Eisenhower-Dulles contingent by meeting with influential politicos Nikita Khrushchev, President Gamal Nassar from Egypt and Malcolm X in Harlem while the C.I.A. was at the nearby Plaza Hotel plotting his assassination.
So for the first time, one can see the beginning of what was going to happen with the Cuban invasion that I was called up for in 1960-61. It had larger implications than I could have imagined. Why I got to return to my life as a student is something else. The Dulles brothers and Eisenhower tried to make the C.I.A. above the law, but President Kennedy pushed back.
According to Talbot,“Kennedy stood his ground, and he didn’t [go along with Allen Dulles’ plan]. And that was the beginning of his break, at the Bay of Pigs, between the C.I.A. and Cuba—and President Kennedy. And then, yes, that became even more severe with the Cuban missile crisis the following year. President Kennedy basically, I think, saved my life—I was 12 years old at the time—saved a lot of our lives, because he did stand his ground. He took a hard line against the national security people and said, ‘No, we’re going to peacefully resolve the Cuban missile crisis.’”
Kennedy probably saved my life, too.
Kennedy was a real game-changer. When he was campaigning for President, Kennedy visited the Hotel Theresa for a campaign speech because it was revolutionary ground and he thought that America should welcome the winds of change and embrace the future. Talbot says that his speech contained references about race and equality that are still relevant in today’s commentary.
So these two books outline a picture of a C.I.A. operating as a secret organization that was promoting business over the welfare of the people and they were engaged in propaganda to support their efforts.
“President Johnson privately complained that the C.I.A. had been running ‘a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,’ an entirely accurate assessment — except the beneficiaries were American corporations rather than organized crime,” says Adam LeBor. “The 1953 C.I.A.-sponsored coup that brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power was seared into Iran’s national consciousness, fueling a reservoir of fury that was released with the Islamic revolution of 1979.”
The area has been enflamed ever since.
The relationship between government entities like the C.I.A., corporations, and privately-owned press continues. The news has become no longer “fair and balanced,” but is controlled by business and corporations whose interests are not necessarily aligned with the common good. So the answer, for me, about “How did we get where we are?” with this dangerous inequality situation resolves down to a history of C.I.A. manipulation and corporate entanglements to the deficit of the 99%. And the argument against communism was a beautiful scheme to conceal an evolution from democracy to fascism. Today, with Citizens United and the corporate media “news-as-entertainment” business keeping us ill-informed, we are still in the grip of the influence of the Dulles brothers.
“I think Dulles would have been delighted by how technology and other developments have allowed the American security state to go much further than he went,” Talbot believes. “The surveillance state that Snowden and others have exposed is very much a legacy of the Dulles past.”
I would like to conclude this on an upbeat note. It seems like some Americans are awakening to the spell cast by the political machine left behind by the Dulles brothers.
“Particularly in the reaction to the Syria bombing, I’m beginning to wonder if something profound isn’t changing in the minds of at least some Americans,” says Stephen Kinzer in 2013. “People are looking at each other and saying, ‘I can’t get a job and my leaders are telling me I should be focusing on fixing Syria.’ I think the disconnect that that represents is slowly dawning on some Americans. Maybe we finally are burying John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.”
A footnote: I did want to end this post in an uplifting manner, but a recent article and interview with Jeffrey Sachs is testament to the C.I.A.’s involvement in propaganda and regime change. He discusses–among other topics–the disastrous cost that the C.I.A.’s tactics have caused the for current Syrian crisis. You can find the link here:
The Big Short was an entertaining (and depressing) movie but, for me, it was also a chance to remember what went on in the early days of the housing bubble when my brothers and I tried to start a small company in Alabama to buy houses that were in default and then put them back on the market. At the time (2003-2005), one of my brothers had a lot of free time on his hands and all the necessary skills and licenses to do all the repair work—the fix up work—and one of my other brothers had just gotten a broker’s license and could help us with the buying and selling of homes that were in default.
At first, this seemed a good idea and a money-making proposition, but very quickly, after we got into a few deals, we all became concerned at what was happening in the banking department. Some of the deals that we were about to engage in made no sense. The more questions we asked, the more the prospects of being caught up in a fraudulent scheme being driven by bank loan officers and real estate agents sounded downright scary. Now, having seen The Big Short, it has become clear to me what, back then, was confusing.
As Robert Reich says in his recent blog entry Why Sanders’ Plan to Bust Up the Big Banks Is So Much Better than Clinton’s (The Big Short gets it essentially right.): “Traders on the Street pushed highly-risky mortgage loans, bundled them together into investments that hid the risks, got the major credit-rating agencies to give the bundles Triple-A ratings, and then sold them to unwary investors…The boom in subprime mortgages was concentrated in the private market, not in government. Wall Street itself created the risky mortgage market. It sliced and diced junk mortgages into bundles that hid how bad they were. And it invented the derivatives and CDOs that financed them.”
The market was red hot. The banks were unconcerned with the risk in the mortgages because, with their fraudulent schemes, they could hide the risks by bundling the mortgages together as commodity investments. So in the movie, the real estate agents are bragging about how they could sell these properties like hotcakes. They didn’t need qualified buyers. Anyone could buy under this scheme. They could get rich.
So it was clear to us that bank loans were being made to purchase homes by people who weren’t qualified. In fact, the banks were forgoing the down payment to buy the houses. So the people who were getting the loans not only had no down payment, but no credit rating. It made no sense.
In the movie, some real estate agent convinced a strip tease artist that she could buy multiple homes and have multiple loans on each. The question in my mind is, “Why did these real estate agents feel they could persuade a nightclub dancer that she could?” This is certainly beyond her skill level and it sounds like she was simply a pawn in a game played by real estate brokers and the banks. Makes you wonder how many people thought they could get rich by lies and misinformation. The real estate agents in this portrayal strike me as snake oil salesmen who found victims with startling unsophistication. One more story of how greed works at all levels, but the real problem is beyond greed: it is the fraud and the lack of legal repercussions for such flagrant disregard of ethics and legal restraints.
By 2005, my brothers and I closed our company down. It felt morally wrong and probably criminally liable to be involved in this kind of enterprise. In 2005, we couldn’t see exactly what was happening. We just felt that it was wrong and we didn’t want to get caught up in a criminal scheme as unwitting participants. The Big Short lays it out.
The media is now defending the banking industry, saying that the real culprits were the fraudulent buyers that were taking advantage of easy terms and trying to flip houses. My question to this issue is, “Who is paying to have these articles written?” Could it be that once again the banks are involved in manipulating public opinion and are trying to obscure the criminal intent that is so evidently visible in the movies’ portrayal of The Big Short?
To quote Robert Reich again from the above article, “More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt broke up the Standard Oil Trust because it posed a danger to the U.S. economy. Today, Wall Street’s biggest banks pose an even greater danger. They’re far larger than they were before the crash of 2008… Unless they’re broken up and Glass-Steagall resurrected, we face substantial risk of another near-meltdown – once again threatening the incomes, jobs, savings, and homes of millions of Americans.”
The question is, “Will there ever be any criminal investigations into what went down during the housing bubble?” I hope so. Follow the money. It will lead back to the culprits.
I’m grateful for having come in to an appreciation of Buddhist thought, an understanding of how to be in the present (see fifth floor elevator speech in previous blog, “Buddhism and Mindfulness”). I have learned to appreciate the Buddhist philosophical insights. I was always enamored by the work of David Hume, the eighteenth-century English philosopher. He was a radical skeptic who developed a theory that we could not prove any argument based simply on cause and effect because you could never truly observe cause and effect. Emmanuel Kant, agreeing with David Hume, said that it doesn’t matter that we can’t prove cause and effect. It is not a matter of reality. We construct the concept of cause and effect to understand the world. It is built into our thinking process. It is also the manner of how we construct the self. We think that we are the result of actions and reactions that have shaped our lives, but it is a fabrication of the mind. Likewise, we could never observe the self of a person, Hume argued, there is no such thing as the “self.” Since the time of Buddha two thousand years ago, as I have learned, they put forward the same notion that there is no “self.” There are only actions and reactions. The self that we proclaim to be–who we are–is really an illusion, a fabrication, a story we tell ourselves. What I have experienced with cancer, chemotherapy, Parkinson’s, and now blindness is that the self I once thought I was is no longer meaningful. And like Borges, I do not want to be intimidated by my losses, rather find what has opened up to me. Buddhism has provided me with a practice and a path forward. What I have now is amazing and immediate and I am grateful for what I have. I’m healthy, loved by my family and friends, and I feel alive.
I am grateful for the wonderful good health I have, the physical well-being, and the daily joys that are open to me now in ways that weren’t available before because, while there were isolated moments in which I stopped to appreciate the world around me, I didn’t have, or didn’t take, the time to let go of my plans enough to immerse myself in the present moment. I remember particular instances in which I was able to enter into an unfiltered world made available to me through LSD, but which the business of life screens out. Those experiences with acid opened my eyes to a vista of a world that I realized was always there, but which I was never really seeing. So I knew there was something out there worth paying attention to, but the exigencies of daily life always reclaimed my attention and made a filter which shut down what was no longer essential to the business at hand. My plans always circumscribed what I could see, what I could touch, what I could feel. The pressure of the future was always looming over me. By virtue of necessity, the present is now open to me now in ways that it wasn’t open to me before.
I am especially grateful to my assistant, Heidi Varian, who has shown an amazing determination and ability to help me structure and record my poetry. Thus, the world of poetry remains open and viable for me. What Heidi does is help me to work on my poems with huge amounts of patience, allowing me to dictate and revise, dictate and revise, dictate and revise. And then, she builds a readable, large version of small segments of poems on a huge computer screen that works much like a teleprompter. She paces the text to the rhythm of my voice so that I can read the poems and record them. This process allows me to participate in readings. By playing back these recorded versions of my poems. This allows me to promote my work like our new book The Art of Healing, with the use of I-phone, wireless Bose speaker, and playback capability. Like Borges, as I work with Heidi, I find my way into the magic of language as a supplicant, listening to mysterious inner voices that show up in my understanding of syntax and music. I am intrigued with a quote of Oscar Wilde, brought to me both from the essay of Borges and blogger Matt Reimann, “I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth created in critical days, and serving to remind us not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.”
I have fought a long battle with glaucoma, through many eye operations, and long, slow and only partial recoveries (I know the cancer/chemo aggravated my vision problems). And though it has now claimed most of my eyesight, leaving me with partial vision in only one eye, I do have that vision. I can walk about in the world, and I can understand aspects of the universe that I didn’t understand before because of this limit on my eyesight. I have grown to be kinder, gentler, and more forgiving. I have come to see the world in layers: more comprehensively, more in the fierce urgency of “now,” in moving from point A to point B, in negotiating shifts of shadow and light, and in listening more intently with complete focus to bird songs, to the sounds of traffic, to the tenor of people’s voices as they speak. It has been in many ways an opening up of a world that until recently felt like it was closing down. I am particularly grateful to the Lions Center for the Blind and particularly to Shaun Wargowsky, who has helped me learn how to cross busy streets with a blind cane, how to negotiate the subway system in the Bay Area, and how to use my new Iphone as a device for obtaining verbal directions to guide me as I navigate my new world.
On the heels of cancer and chemotherapy, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. I suspect the cancer/chemo was a cause, but I don’t know. But this disease remains more a shadow on my future than an interference with my life today, except for a mild tremor and a muddling of my mental machinations. I enrolled in an exercise class for Parkinson’s patients and discovered what my future held in store for me: brave people who struggled to speak, who struggled to walk, one who fell and broke her leg, another who fell down a flight of stairs, one who took a trip and returned not the same person, as if the trip had taken all his remaining energy and life force. All of them struggling to put one foot in front of the other, keep their posture straight, their head and shoulders back, a constant forced cheerfulness in their faces as they cheered each other on. After a few months of working with them, I realized my Parkinson’s was not advanced very far compared to theirs and I did not need this exercise class yet. My Parkinson’s had not progressed far enough to make it helpful. Instead, I go to the gym three to four days with Gail. I am immensely grateful for this current span of living in which the disease leaves me alone and remains like a shark circling in the distance.
My second gratitude is intrinsically related to my first gratitude. During the eighteen weeks of chemotherapy, I didn’t know if I would live or die and I felt myself retreat into my private world of dealing with the unknown with denials and fear and depression. I am immensely grateful to my wife of thirty years, poet Gail Rudd Entrekin, who, during the worst part of my chemotherapy, crawled into bed with me in the hospital–to the astonishment of the staff and other patients–and helped me watch the drip, drip, drip of the poison going into my body. Because I had a bad reaction to the drug, the process required eight hours each time. For three years afterwards, Gail was caregiver, constant companion, helpmate, closest friend, devoted lover, and loving wife. In many ways, my cancer was rougher on Gail than it was on me. As someone has said, it is harder to care for someone you love who is suffering than to be the one that is suffering and being cared for. We were able to capture some of the struggle and transformation that occurred in poetry. Gail and I recently completed a book of poems The Art of Healing that reflects our two journeys, as caregiver and survivor, from diagnosis to treatment to healing, and the coming to terms with what remains, what it means to be alive and part of a larger web of being.
It has been six years since I was operated on for large B cell lymphoma and I survived that cancer. I am grateful to Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, a brilliant oncologist with the University of California, San Francisco, for his efforts in keeping me alive. I underwent surgery for a massive tumor in my chest and intense chemotherapy. I still have CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) but it is in remission and I am currently cancer free. In fact, although it has taken the full six years to get where I am now, cancer feels far away and not anywhere involved in the “now” of my life. Before cancer, I had pursued careers in teaching at every level, including college level, and started a creative writing department at John F. Kennedy University. That was before I decided that I needed more money than a teaching profession would provide and changed course into a career path of computer technologies and entrepreneurism. But I still kept writing, and finished a novel, too. I was engaged in promoting my book and was chairman of the board of a computer software company. When cancer struck, all of that life disappeared. I had a really busy life at that point that was dramatically altered by cancer. I did not know what the future held. But my life was saved.