Boxes In The Attic

It’s 1961 and Joan Baez is coming to the University of Minnesota for a concert. At a time when folk music was at its most popular around this land of ours, and every college student worth talking to knew what you meant when you called out a tune as “Child 88.” (You were, of course, showing off your folk purity by referring to the Child Ballads.)

And Miss Baez was one of the folk movement’s princesses, so I coughed up the price of a ticket to Northrop Auditorium and sat myself down on a summer evening to listen to her voice, which was described as “an achingly pure soprano.”

She came on stage wearing a simple ankle-length peasant dress, with long dark hair, a flashing smile, and barefoot. Just this beautiful woman standing on the stage and holding a guitar. Perfect. Before she’d even opened her mouth I was smitten.

It’s here that I must add that I was an impressionable young man, and at a time in my life when smiting me was not all that difficult. In fact, there were years when I was almost constantly in that state. It could be a famous entertainer like Miss Baez, a girl at the checkout stand at the Red Owl grocery store, a girl walking by as I sat on a bench in the park pretending to read a book of poetry, the studious-looking young woman in my biology class … the list of smiters goes on and on.

In fact, I might have been one of the most smite-able young men in Hennepin County at the time.

But even if I’d been a harder nut to crack, Joan would have gotten through to me that night. Because it was not just me but the whole audience that was in her hand from start to finish, to do with whatever she wished. Among the songs she sang were those listed below. Although there was a large audience, somehow I felt that she was singing just for me. It was a cosmic thing.

Once I Had A Sweetheart
Manha de Carnival
Plaisir d’Amour

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I have finished the book The Greening of America, and it did not move me as it did the first time I read it, when I was thirty and the Vietnam War was still in full swing. What I found on re-reading was a passionate manifesto for the counterculture movement of the 70s. Enthusiastic but thinly researched.

Interesting was that the author predicted that there would be a fascist countermovement that would arise, a movement which has been in full view on our front pages now for more than five years.

Many of the ideas espoused in the book have not vanished into some tie-dyed archive, but have been incorporated into the political and social air we breathe today. The “war” is never really over, but at this point I think the hippies are way ahead.

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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This week I was also listening to Phil Ochs, whose album I Ain’t Marching Anymore was one of the better examples of what was called “protest music,” back in another day. All you had to do to get my late friend Rich Kaplan’s blood running hot was to put that album on the turntable and fire it up. Rich never suffered a shortage of injustices to rail against, and the perfect anthems for each of his bouts of apoplexy could be found in music written in the sixties and seventies.

(I learned to curse properly from Rich, who almost daily provided colorful and creative examples of the genre.

I am proud to have once been called an “ignorant f**kstick” by him, which I took as a term of endearment and a badge of honor. It may not have been meant as either of these, but there you are.)

I Ain’t Marching Anymore

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To me, the graphic below from The New Yorker is almost an entire novel.

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My readings over the past couple of weeks have reminded me of something I tend to repeatedly forget. As much vicious fun as it is to call somebody (who soundly deserves it) a dimwit, that does nothing to create a bridge between that person and myself and create a space in which we can work together. Quite the opposite, actually. And if there is one thing that has become abundantly evident over the past few years is how large that population of dimwits really is and how much we do need to work together.

So I will try to be more constructive in the future, and whenever my gorge rises, endeavor to attack the idea rather than the person. Instead I will refer to these individuals as Easily Confused Citizens. That’s fair, surely.

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In response to a recent request, I am posting the following song. To protect her reputation I am not disclosing this person’s identity.

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At a Buddhist retreat a few years ago, Robin and I heard Thich Nhat Hanh tell several parables to support whatever theme he was discussing at each session. At a session on why we should not fear death, he told this story illustrating what he believed to be the case, that we were never born and will never die.

Once upon a time, there was a little wave. The wave loved being a wave going up and down and playing all day and night. The wave was surrounded by lots of other waves and it had fun watching them, too.Then one day, the little wave noticed that something seemed to be happening to the waves in front of it. It noticed that it, along with all the other waves, was coming up to something big… the end of the ocean.

The little wave saw a wave in front of it going up, higher and higher. That wave was filled with light and it was as high as it could possibly go (which was the best part of being a wave)… and then it came crashing down and smashed into bits. The little wave saw another wave in front of it do the same thing… go way up high and then come crashing down. The little wave saw this and became very afraid. But, what the little wave didn’t realize yet was that it was water.

The wave was completely made of water! And as water, the wave was never born and it never died. As water, it didn’t smash to bits it simply changed its form, trickled onto the beach, and then rolled right back into the ocean.

Soon, the little wave began going up and up, higher and higher. As it finally rose to the tip-top, about to come crashing down, it saw that the other waves were simply changing form! They changed from waves into spray and drops of water and rolled back into the great ocean, but the whole time, they were still made of water. The little wave realized that it was really water … and it wasn’t afraid anymore.

One of the formative books that I read when first introduced to Buddhism was Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Jack Kornfeld. Basically Kornfeld discussed the notion that one could be a perfectly good member of that communion without subscribing to all of its tenets. Like karma and rebirth, for instance. At that time for me it was just the right thing to hear. I was attracted to the rationality of its central teachings, and not having to go to the “faith” cupboard made it possible to stick with a program that involved further reading, attending retreats, watching/listening to videos and podcasts, etc.

Where I am right at this moment is that I completely buy the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism. They are:

  • There is suffering in life
  • The cause of suffering is craving
  • The end of suffering comes with an end to craving
  • There is a path which leads one away from craving and suffering

(Suffering in this sense is the anguish and pain that we cause ourselves, rather than the pain of say … breaking a leg or losing a loved one. And I don’t know about you, but most of the suffering I have done to date was self-created)

After that, I am afraid that I pick and choose. The scientist in me is comfortable with what I can see and hold. That doesn’t mean that I am closed off to the possibility that there are spiritual or magical elements in life, but that since by their nature there is no way that I can verify them, I put them in the category of … could be, but I’ll wait … and watch … and see.

That’s where death comes in, for me, today. Whatever it is that I am, all that I have seen and touched and remember and think about is being carried around by a body that obviously is changing, and will eventually wear out. At the moment when it does completely … what I know is that I know that I don’t know.

There was that scariest of nights long ago when I was a child and saying a nighttime prayer my mother taught me and actually thought about for the first time what was coming out of my mouth …

  • Now I lay me down to sleep
  • I pray the Lord my soul to keep
  • If I should die before I wake
  • I pray the Lord my soul to take

Wait just a moment, that child said to himself. If I should die before I wake could that happen? Holy Crap! So I stayed awake.

Tens of thousands of nights have come and gone since then and the ideas that kept me awake that night no longer terrorize me, but I realize that each time I close my eyes and drift off to sleep I am, as they say, dead to the world.

If there is another chapter to come when this body I now occupy has quit on me, I will be eager to see what it is. If not, I will probably still get the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

The little wave hitting the beach, you know.

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