“The Host” 아니죠. “괴물” 맞습니다!

Since at this point in this election cycle I am sick to death of politics – the whole “Hillary vs. Bernie” thing has gotten me into a seemingly endless pissy mood, so I don’t have anything humorous to offer, either – and since I am not feeling especially philosophical, I will write today briefly about one of my favorite movies, the 2006 Korean monster film “The Host,” directed by Bong Joon-Ho.

I like this film for a variety of reasons, and perhaps the most significant reason is simple nostalgia. I was living in Gimpo, South Korea in 2006 when this movie was released, and I think I watched it in the theater, but if not I at least watched it while I was living in Korea.

The majority of the film is set in or near Yeouido, an area in Seoul on the northern side of the Han River. From Gimpo, it was about a 20-30 minute bus ride (depending on traffic) to Songjeong Station on the purple subway line. From there, Yeouido is just a few subway stops away. I went there quite a few times during my time in Korea, and it’s a pretty peaceful place to visit.

The main characters in the film are Pak Hee-bong, an older Korean man who owns a snack stand in Yeouido, and his family: his oldest son Gang-du, who helps him at the snack stand, his daughter Nam-joo, who is a competitive archer, his younger son Nam-il, who is an unemployed college graduate and budding alcoholic, and his granddaughter (Gang-du’s daughter) Hyun-seo, a seventh grader.

I have purchased snacks and beer from stands like the one Hee-bong owns. Yeouido is a really nice place to hang out with your friends, or to go on a cheap date, or for that matter to go by yourself to relax or to read. Those steps you see in the movie, the ones that go down from the mostly flat, grassy park area down to the Han River? I have walked down those steps, or at least I have walked down steps like that in Yeouido. There are many sets of those steps that run along the riverbank. And anyways, I have sat at the bottom of these steps, down by the river, and read. I believe the book I read most of down by the Han River was “The Te of Piglet,” by Benjamin Hoff, a sequel to his more well-known book “The Tao of Pooh.”

But I am digressing, as usual.

What I want the reader to take away from my digression is that Yeouido is a very peaceful, relaxed sort of place. Families go there for picnics and that sort of thing. Sitting in the park in Yeouido and looking across the Han River, it’s easy to forget that roughly half of metropolitan Seoul is directly behind you. The bustling streets and subway stations you just went through to get here seem far away, something that you might run into way over there on the southern side of the Han River, but nothing that would ever bother you here in Yeouido. (As long as you don’t turn around, ha ha.)

But this idyllic area is the setting for most of “The Host.” And before I get too far into who and what “The Host” is, I first want to note that the Korean title of this movie is “Gwoemul” (괴물), and despite what the English subtitles on the DVD may try to tell you, “괴물”does not literally translate to “The Host,” it literally translates to “monster.”

The “monster” in the film is a gigantic (big enough to swallow a fully grown human whole) mutant fish monster thing that looks suspiciously like a big version of some sort of canned oyster or something that Gang-du eats about halfway through the film. If anyone knows what those things are called, I would appreciate it if they told me; I had to return “The Host” to the video store before I started writing this, so I can’t go back and look now.

This giant, multi-tailed, frog-footed, people-eating fish monster thing appears one day in Yeouido, first hanging bat-like from the underside of a bridge, then dropping down into the Han River, then rampaging around Yeouido eating people.

Where did this monster come from? The film’s opening scene gives the viewer an idea:

The film opens in a laboratory in Yongsan Garrison. Yongsan is the American military base in Seoul, in case you didn’t know. There are two scientists, one Korean, one American, and the American scientist outranks the Korean scientist. The American scientist laments that the lab is quite dusty, smearing dust on a bottle with his gloved finger. The American instructs the Korean (who, I think importantly, is not especially fluent in English) to dump all the contents of all the bottles down the drain. How this is supposed to get rid of the dust in the lab is a mystery; nonetheless the Korean scientist objects, in broken English, because dumping chemicals down the drain would cause the Han River to be polluted. The American scientist tells the Korean scientist “The Han River is very broad. Let’s be broad-minded about this.” After that, the American scientist leaves, and the Korean scientist is shown wearing a gas mask, dumping bottle after bottle of toxic chemicals down the drain, as a white fume cloud rises up out of the sink. If I’m not mistaken, the Korean scientist smudges the dust on the bottle he’s pouring, perhaps thinking “this lab is still gonna be pretty flipping dusty after I dump all these bottles out,” and a panning shot shows a couple hundred empty bottles on a table behind him.

The film then cuts to two Korean fishermen standing about knee-deep in the Han River, fishing. One of them captures a strange-looking fish of some sort which is never shown up close to the viewer. The man catches it in a little cup, shows it to his friend, then drops it, cup and all, after the thing he caught tried to bite his finger. He scrambles in the water for a second, upset, but he recovers the cup. It initially seems like maybe he was scrambling to catch the strange creature again, but he’s just scrambling for the cup: it was a gift from his daughter.

The next scene is of two younger Korean businessmen running toward an older Korean businessman who is about to commit suicide by jumping off of a bridge spanning the Han River. Why he is committing suicide is never mentioned, but he does manage to jump off of the bridge to his death before they reach him.

This man’s suicide is mentioned on television, inside the Pak family snack stand. Hyun-seo has just gotten home from school, and she and her father are watching her aunt Nam-joo in an archery competition. A news blurb mentions that the businessman’s body was found in the river…but that it had been bitten in half. Neither Hyun-seo nor Gang-du seem to pay any mind to this detail.

Gang-du is called away by his father because of a complaint from a customer: it seems that this customer was sold a dried o-jing-eo (squid) by Gang-du, one that had nine legs instead of the usual ten. An earlier scene showed Gang-du heating up an o-jing-eo on a burner, pulling off one of its legs and sticking it in his mouth as he did so. Hee-bong tells Gang-du that the legs are the most delicious part of an o-jing-eo, and that customers expect to get what they pay for, and stop eating the customers’ food. He hands Gang-du another o-jing-eo on a tray with three cans of beer and tells him to take it to the customers who ordered the o-jing-eo Gang-du ate part of, and to give all of it to them “service,” which in a Korean snack stand/restaurant sense means “free.”

That’s right, “free.” This is something else that makes me nostalgic for Korea: restaurants will often give customers little freebies now and then, especially regulars. I and the party I was in were often the recipient of a free bottle of Coke, or Pepsi, or Chilsung Cider (kinda like 7-Up), or beer…or maybe a bowl of rice, or an extra helping of something. And get this: tipping is not allowed. Don’t get me wrong, I tip my waiter or waitress here. I am not a cheap-ass, despite being (seemingly) perpetually broke-ass. And I usually round up with my tips. Fifteen percent is usually my minimum. But I can’t help but miss the “service.” And yeah, that’s what they say when they bring you an extra Pepsi or whatever, “service.” It’s written in Korean “서비스,” which reads “seo-bi-suh” phonetically.

Also, since I am waxing nostalgic, I would like to say that my mouth is watering for some good dried o-jing-eo right now. In all honesty, when I first got to Korea, walking past stands and carts and whatnot on the sidewalk selling o-jing-eo was kind of unpleasant. It has a very fishy sort of smell, and unless you’ve smelled it, you don’t really know what it smells like, and there’s no way for me to describe it to you. It’s a very strong smell, especially if you’re not used to it. And I don’t mean to denigrate Korea or Koreans or anything like that by saying so (admittedly I am a bit of a Korea-phile), but the smell actually made me gag before I got used to it. I had to hold my breath when I would walk past carts or whatever that sold it. But after a while, I found that wasn’t the case, and a while after that, some Korean friends got me to try some of it…and I have to say, it’s really good stuff. Of course there are variations in quality, but good o-jing-eo is just about the best thing in the world to nibble on when you’re drinking beer, or for that matter whenever you want to snack on something. It’s sort of like a fishier version of beef jerky, and it’s really good stuff, despite the aroma.

Where was I? Oh yeah: Gang-du takes the tray to the customers, who don’t pay any attention to him. They are looking at something hanging from the bridge, something that drops down into the river and swims underwater toward them. Gang-du tosses a can of beer at it, and which gets swallowed whole, and several other people (there’s one Pakistani guy I think in the crowd, but the rest are Korean) throw trash into the Han River, hoping to get the attention of the thing underwater.

Despite my being an anti-litterbug sort of person, I really like this scene. I think it sort of ties in to the opening scene where the American scientist tells the Korean scientist to dump all the toxic chemicals down the drain. The film seems to be saying “sure, Americans have helped to pollute the Han River, but we Koreans have done our fair share, also.”

I forgot to mention that the opening scene was based off of something that actually happened in 2000: a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul dumped a whole bunch of formaldehyde down the drain. Maybe the “scientists” in the opening scene were supposed to be morticians, I dunno. At any rate something like that did actually happen.

The reason I think it was significant that the Korean scientist/mortician/whatever in the opening scene couldn’t speak English all that well is because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity in where the blame lay: maybe the Korean scientist in the film misunderstood the American one.

And I don’t mean to appeal to any authority I may or may not have on the subject, but despite what anyone may think, there are in fact many Korean people who speak Korean as their native language and also speak English as fluently (or even more fluently) than many native English speakers. My characterization of this particular Korean scientist not speaking English well is based in my interactions with countless Korean folks of varied English ability. Most Korean folks I knew – even elementary-aged students – spoke English better than this fellow. And maybe that’s significant, maybe it isn’t; at any rate there’s another English-speaking Korean scientist who translates for Gang-du and another American scientist, and the other Korean scientist is perfectly fluent in English. I know it’s only speculation, nonetheless I think there was a reason the particular actor in the opening scene was cast, and also why he enunciated his lines the way he did: to throw a little ambiguity into the mix. Maybe I am all wet, I dunno.

At any rate, following the scene down by the river, where Koreans toss trash into it to taunt the weird fish monster thing under the water, the weird fish monster thing jumps out and starts running around Yeouido eating people.

This particular victim was oblivious to what was happening, because she was listening to classical music on her headphones. It’s a shame GIFs don’t have sound…the effect in the film was quite effective: one second there’s cacophony, the next there’s peaceful music, the next…

I think it’s also significant that during this mayhem, there are only two people who seem to have any interest in anything other than running like hell: our Gang-du, and also a blonde American man. The two of them challenge the monster, but to no avail. The American – the viewer is shown later that he’s a member of the U.S. military – gets his arm ripped off and dies later in the film.

So an American scientist told a Korean scientist who didn’t speak English well to dump toxic chemicals down the drain, which led to a mutated monster jumping out of the Han River several years later and eating people, and one of the heroes that fights the monster is an American. Tell me the ambiguity of blame wasn’t intentional.

There are other scenes later that portray American military people as uncaring toward Koreans, such as the one featuring the Korean scientist who is fluent in English. The American scientist he is translating for acts concerned about Gang-du (who is in custody, about to have several painful tests done on him) when he interviews him, then almost immediately changes his tune to hostile and indifferent, saying Gang-du is delusional, and that the “virus” has infected his brain.

This “virus” is indirectly where the English title “The Host” came from: the river monster is thought to be “the host” of an unknown virus, one that has infected everyone who came in contact with the monster. This virus is mentioned on news reports as the cause of a mysterious rash that many people have started to get.

This rash also has (or at least had at the time the movie came out) a real-life analog in Korea: a rash of unknown origin called “atopi” that affected quite a few people, mostly children. I had students who had it from time to time. Nobody really knew what caused it, but chemicals in processed food like ramyeon (which kids ate tons of, including crunched up and uncooked, which is actually not as gross as it sounds) were thought to be a possible culprit.

That’s a detail of the film that would go right past anyone who has never heard of “atopi.” But it’s another real-life sort of detail that was put in, like the formaldehyde-down-the-drain event, and also something much more easily recognizable that happens toward the end of the film: the U.S. military decides to fight the monster using something called “Agent Yellow.”

Which, yeah, if that doesn’t ring any bells, you obviously don’t know much about the Vietnam War.

Director Bong Joon-ho said that calling the film “anti-American” would be a stretch, and I would agree with him. But it does play off of tensions between American military personnel and Korean people. I don’t think Bong would deny that.

Regrettably, the DVD I watched last night was scratched, so I didn’t get to see the ending of the movie again. I only got about an hour and a half through the approximately two hours of the movie, and I don’t remember exactly how it ends.

Hyun-seo, I forgot to mention, is swallowed by the monster and taken away in the monster’s first appearance. She survives being swallowed and spat back up in the sewer, and she manages to make a call to her father Gang-du to confirm she is still alive. The majority of the film centers around her family trying to find and rescue her. Her family is thwarted by American military as well as Korean people (government and civilian; one of Nam-il’s friends tries to capture him to get reward money) in their rescue attempts, but finally they find out where she is.

But like I said, I don’t remember exactly how the movie ends.

It’s worth watching, at any rate.

 

 

 

THE GREATEST TV SERIES OF ALL TIME, ACCORDING TO ME

One of my earliest memories — one that I may have altered significantly in the 34 years or so since it happened — is of me sitting on the floor of the living room in the trailer house I shared with my mom, my face probably a little too close to the TV, attempting to read the credits of an episode of “M*A*S*H.” I couldn’t really read at that point, but I had been read to a lot, and I could sort of halfway “read” fairy tales and whatnot that my mom and grandparents had already read to me several times.

This is what I have been told, that I surprised the people who read to me by reading ahead in stories I already had heard before. I don’t actually know if that happened before that one day I sat in front of the TV trying to read the credits of M*A*S*H. As I mentioned, I am not a hundred percent sure that this memory even happened the way I remember it happening.

But I am pretty sure I remember trying to read the M*A*S*H credits, what with the yellow Army stenciled lettering and whatnot, and not really being able to decipher anything.

I was only about two, in my defense.

But anyways, getting on with it, the memory I may have manufactured many years later had to do with my biological father. He and my mom had just recently split up.

Before I go any further, I would like for the reader to know that I am not embellishing anything here. I am relating things my mom and others have told me about myself as a toddler, and you are free to believe or disbelieve them as you choose.

But in addition to “reading ahead” at quite an early age, some time around the time I was two or so, I began speaking in more or less complete sentences. Everyone was sort of worried about me, I have been told, because I didn’t really speak at all for the longest time, and then one day I just more or less began conversing in more or less complete sentences.

I would tell my mother, using passable grammar, that my diaper needed to be changed, for example. I don’t really know how common this sort of thing is; I merely mention it to point out that I was speaking at a somewhat advanced level for my age.

This is what I have been told. I obviously have next to no memory of this period in my life. But anyways, this memory has to do with a conversation my mother and I may or may not have gotten into about my father. He worked at a local television station at the time, quite possibly the one I was watching M*A*S*H on that particular day.

And like I said, I don’t really remember clearly, but I think I was trying to convince my mother that my father’s name would appear in the M*A*S*H credits. Which, of course, it didn’t.

I “remembered” this episode many years after the day that it may or may not have actually happened. I had moved back home after spending two years as an ESL teacher in South Korea. At the time, TV Land was showing M*A*S*H reruns most every evening. And due to the fact that it was set in Korea, and that I had all sorts of reasons to think about Korea that I had been putting off thinking about, I became somewhat obsessed with the show. Especially considering that my mom had told me many times growing up that I used to love watching it as a kid.

My liking the show as a kid may or may not be due to the fact that Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce had the same hair color and hair-do that my dad had.

But I am not sure about that. I do know that the “memory” I had about trying to read M*A*S*H credits to find my dad’s name stuck in my head for quite a while after I first “remembered” it. Maybe it really happened the way I remember it happening, maybe it didn’t. I really can’t say for sure.

At any rate, I incorporated the “memory” into a song I wrote, or at least into one lyric.

(Also, Norah Jones is my favorite singer, on the off-chance anyone listens to that song and wonders who I was talking about.)

At any rate, as long as TV Land played M*A*S*H reruns, I kept watching them. I think I saw every episode at least once, and a few episodes more than a few times. All sentimental attachments I have to the show aside, it’s a great show. The dialogue was witty, it managed to be lewd without being vulgar, it had a well-developed cast that viewers actually cared about, and above and beyond all that, it was a perfect illustration of the absurdity of war.

A recurring theme on the show had to do with another absurdity of modern life, one we humans just can’t seem to get past: racism. There was the episode where the racist white soldier Sergeant Condon asked not to be given any “colored blood” in a transfusion. Hawkeye and Trapper resolve to teach this fellow a lesson: while he is sedated, they swab his skin with tincture of iodine, which darkens his skin. The soldier is congratulated by Lieutenant Ginger Bayliss, an African-American nurse who is in on the joke, when she says “They got you down as white…way to go, baby!”

Granted, the show sort of stuck its foot in its mouth with regard to racism a few times. The story told near the end of the aforementioned episode about Dr. Charles Drew has been widely disputed. It is true that Drew was African American, it is true that he improved techniques for blood storage and blood transfusions, and it is also true that he protested the practice of racially segregated blood transfusions, but the story of him actually dying because of segregated hospitals is disputed. At any rate, M*A*S*H addressed an actual historical issue regarding blood transfusions: they were racially segregated by the Red Cross until 1950, despite there being no scientific rationale whatsoever for doing so, and they called attention to Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer in the field.

It’s also been argued that the character Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones is an illustration of racism in the show — not as in “M*A*S*H was against racism” as I am trying to illustrate, but as in “M*A*S*H is itself racist” — and I have to say based on that ugly racial slur of a nickname, I can’t really argue with that point. Jones’ character was, however, an accomplished neurosurgeon, and in the first season, at least, one of the central characters. The show wrote him out, allegedly, because they wanted to focus on Hawkeye and Trapper. I suppose I have to take the internet at its word on that.

It could also be said that many of the Korean characters on the show lacked depth. But there were notable exceptions, such as Sam Pak and Charlie Lee. It’s worth noting, however, that both of the actors who played these characters were actually Japanese, as were a great many other “Korean” characters that appeared on the show.

I don’t know if that represents anything “racist” about the show or not. Most likely, there were more Japanese-American than Korean-American actors available for casting at the time M*A*S*H was being produced. But that’s just a theory I haven’t actually researched at all.

It could definitely be said that M*A*S*H was an illustration of Orientalism, which you can read about from the link provided. I would not argue with anybody who made that case.

As a matter of fact, to insert myself into the narrative again, when I decided to go teach ESL in South Korea, I had no idea whatsoever what to expect. In my mind’s eye, when I was trying to imagine what my apartment would be like, I pictured something roughly equivalent to the inside of one of the tents at the 4077th. I was pleasantly surprised to find that South Korea was much more advanced than what I had been shown as a kid in M*A*S*H, and was actually a good bit more advanced than where I grew up or where I was living before I went there.

I won’t deny the “Orientalism” charge, should anyone make it. That’s there in plain sight, for anyone to see. But I would like to state that I don’t really think it’s possible for a white westerner to write about or make a movie or TV show about any quote-unquote “Oriental” culture (I use that term only to be linguistically consistent) without there being an element of “Orientalism” involved. But in M*A*S*H’s defense, I would argue that the “Orientalism” that arguably exists in M*A*S*H at least attempts to minimize differences and humanize the people being portrayed.

Before I get into examples of that, I would also like to proffer the idea that something similar to the concept of “Orientalism” occurs whenever any culture examines and writes about (or makes movies or TV shows about) any other culture. For example, there is a world of difference between actual culture and society in the UK and the way culture and society in the UK is portrayed on American TV. And vice-versa. When one culture attempts to portray another, there is always going to be a disconnect between reality and what is being portrayed.

And to be sure, when there is not only a language barrier but also a significant cultural difference, well, the disconnect is going to be much wider. At any rate yes, the case could be made that M*A*S*H is an example of “Orientalism,” but I would venture that for what it’s worth, it meant well.

There are several instances of American soldiers using racial slurs against Koreans, and central characters (usually Hawkeye) chiding or otherwise belittling the American soldiers who use those slurs. There are several instances of North Korean and Chinese troops needing medical care at the 4077th, and certain doctors (usually Major Frank Burns) objecting to treating them. And Hawkeye usually sets them right.

And it could be argued that Hawkeye is presented as a “White Savior” in such instances. But I don’t think that accusation really holds much water: Hawkeye doesn’t “lead” any nonwhite people, he simply treats their injuries, just like he would treat anyone else’s. The overall theme of M*A*S*H is that all people are people, war is stupid, and whatever differences there are between cultures can be solved by simply behaving well toward each other.

And getting good and drunk. Remember the episode where all the Greek soldiers celebrated Easter at the 4077th, and everybody got hammered on ouzo and danced all night? Most of the Greek soldiers didn’t speak any English. That was a good episode…

But moving on, and inserting myself back into the narrative again, prior to my re-introduction to M*A*S*H a few years back by way of TV Land, I had remembered hearing and reading many things about how Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character was something of a “feminist icon.” That he was an example of a “sensitive male” if there ever was one. And frankly, it took me quite a while to understand what I think was the rationale behind those characterizations.

I mean, Hawkeye Pierce isn’t exactly a “gentleman” or anything. He is constantly hitting on nurses, chasing after a different one each week, and he gets his face slapped on a pretty regular basis.

I mean, look at the guy:

To be sure, this aspect of the “Hawkeye” character became less and less prevalent as the seasons progressed. He didn’t mention Geisha houses nearly as often, for example, after Trapper left the show. Whether this was a conscious decision to soften Hawkeye’s image, or just a natural reaction by the writers to the introduction of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt to the show is uncertain. Nonetheless Hawkeye kept on propositioning nurses left and right, and getting slapped in the face on a semi-regular basis.

What I didn’t quite understand, as I sat there watching Hawkeye get slapped again and again in episode after episode, is that “feminist” and “sensitive” do not equate to “neutered.” Here’s why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero: it wasn’t because he chased nurses around, it wasn’t because he occasionally said something inappropriate, and it wasn’t because they slapped him.

Why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero is the way he reacted to being slapped. He didn’t slap back (he generally acknowledged that he had the slap coming), and he didn’t hold anything against any nurse who rejected him. He simply took his slap and moved on.

And to be sure, Hawkeye got infatuated with some nurses more than others. And despite his being quite a bit of a cad, he was a cad with principles.

Such as in the episode where Hawkeye spends most of the episode courting Lieutenant Regina Hoffman, but is forced to be late to the date he finally convinced her to have with him because he was helping an American soldier get his marriage to a Korean woman approved. Lieutenant Hoffman is upset, reveals herself to be a bit of a racist…and Hawkeye splits.

I dunno. It’s my favorite TV show of all time. What can I say?

I could sit here and write about it all night, and I may very well come back to it at some point…but the season premiere of “Better Call Saul” is about to come on.

So anyways…thanks for reading!

***

So I decided when I read back over this blog post that it didn’t appear to be finished. It wasn’t what I set out to do when I began writing it, it’s only part of that.

I didn’t get far enough into my own personal impressions regarding the show. In addition to discussing various criticisms of the show – valid criticisms – I wanted to just kinda ramble on about how much I liked this or that episode, or character, or whatever. But at the same time, I don’t want to start a whole series of blog posts about M*A*S*H, and I’d like to leave all the stuff up above regarding racism, Orientalism, etc. just so my personal impressions of various episodes and characters and whatnot can be read as impressions that are aware of the show’s many faults.

Plus, my most recent (and only) viewing of the show that has been more or less in its original broadcast order has only advanced to the beginning of season 4.

I have owned seasons 1 and 2 for a few years now. For whatever reason, my interest in M*A*S*H was renewed a few months ago, and I rewatched all (or maybe most, I can’t remember) of seasons 1 and 2, and I ordered season 3 after that. I watched all of season 3, some episodes more than once, and then I wrote the first part of this blog post.

Now I have season 4 on DVD, and I have watched the first two episodes, the ones that deal with replacement characters coming to the 4077th at the beginning of this season.

In the final episode of season 3, as many M*A*S*H fans are undoubtedly aware, Colonel Henry Blake receives his orders to go home. Henry is of course ecstatic to finally be able to go back home to his wife and daughter, and everyone at the 4077th is simultaneously happy for Henry and sort of sad: he’s a great guy, a great surgeon, and a crappy excuse for a Colonel…at any rate Col. Blake’s departure from the 4077th is bittersweet.

So Col. Blake says goodbye to everyone, everyone says how much they’ll miss him, and he leaves.

Later in the operating room, while everyone is busy doing meatball surgery, Radar receives a call bearing some really bad news, and he informs everyone in the OR that Col. Henry Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan (he was flying to Tokyo to connect with a longer flight home; as a sidenote Koreans generally refer to the “Sea of Japan” as the “East Sea”), that it had spun in, and that there were no survivors.

Everyone is shocked, but they don’t have any time to be shocked: they have patients to tend to.

I think I read somewhere that the cast wasn’t told about Henry’s fate until they shot the scene where they found out about it. I think I read that, at least…

And this is where season 4 picks up. The beloved Col. Blake is dead, and it’s not clear who will take his place. In the meantime, Major Frank Burns has taken command, and attempted to make the 4077th into more of a “regular Army” sort of unit, with drills and salutes and regulations an whatnot, all of which result in various slapstick jokes and whatnot, jokes that are actually a lot funnier if you turn the laugh track off.

Anyways, at the beginning of the first episode, Hawkeye returns from a drunken Geisha-fest in Tokyo. He went there alone for some reason – I forget if the episode explicitly says why – and his usual partner in crime Trapper stayed back at the 4077th. When Hawkeye returns, Radar tells him that while he was in Tokyo, Trapper also got his orders to go home. Trapper and Radar had tried to call Hawkeye in Tokyo, to tell him the good news, and so Hawkeye and Trapper could meet up or whatever one last time before Trapper left, but Hawkeye had been ignoring phone calls.

Meanwhile, news comes of Trapper’s replacement, Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, and Burns sends Radar off to Kimpo in a jeep to pick him up. In the hopes of catching his best friend Trapper before he leaves, so he can say goodbye, Hawkeye (against Burns’ orders) goes with Radar to Kimpo. Hawkeye drives, and after several misadventures along the way, he and Radar arrive in Kimpo just about ten minutes after Trapper’s plane left. Hawkeye is really upset that he was unable to tell his best friend Trapper goodbye, but just about the time he starts feeling sorry for himself, Captain Hunnicutt appears.

Hawkeye decides they all need a drink, so long story short they go get one (Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, at Hawkeye’s insistence, wears one of B.J.’s sets of Captain’s bars to get into the Officer’s Club in Kimpo), or maybe more than one, and when they leave their jeep has been stolen.

So, they steal another one, and after an eventful ride home where B.J. is introduced to the wonderful world of mortar fire and war in general, they make it back safely to the 4077th.

And Frank gets blamed for the stolen jeep. It was a general’s jeep.

At the end, as Radar sits outside his office working on his tan, Col. Sherman Potter arrives and announces he will be the new commanding officer of the 4077th.

Now I had seen this hour-long episode before, on TV Land, at least a couple of times. I like it for a number of reasons. One reason is that it gives Hot Lips and Ferret Face a few extra minutes on screen – love them or hate them (hint: you’re supposed to hate them) they’re an integral part of the show, and the writers of  M*A*S*H did well in this episode, with regard to making the best of what was kind of a bad situation, cast-wise: two of the shows main characters, Henry and Trapper, two fan favorites, were now gone. Another reason I like it is the way it introduces B.J. and gives ample reason for he and Hawkeye to be new best buds, essentially replacing Trapper.

It’s a good episode, at any rate, despite Henry and Trapper’s absence. And after I finally got around to reading why they were no longer on the show, this episode and the next one got a little more interesting.

As it turns out, McLean Stevenson (Henry) and Wayne Rogers (Trapper) both felt that the series was focusing too much on Hawkeye and not on them. And to be fair, it did make some changes from the novel and film to the various characters in such a way that favored Hawkeye. For example, in the novel and film, Trapper was a thoracic surgeon, the only one at the 4077th. This expertise gave Trapper the spotlight, so to speak, in situations that called for that expertise in the novel and film.

In the series, Hawkeye was made the thoracic surgeon. In episodes that dealt with that expertise, Hawkeye was made the center of attention, not Trapper.

So after season 3, after getting tired of playing second and third fiddle to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, Stevenson and Rogers picked up their ball and went home, so to speak.

Not that I can say I blame them. At any rate, I think it’s interesting that in the opening episode of season 4, the plot is centered around how much Hawkeye is going to miss his friend Trapper. Trapper’s departure is used to once again thrust Hawkeye to the forefront.

Not that I can say I blame the writers for writing it that way. The shows other two main stars were gone, what else could they do? And to be fair, it gave Trapper’s character a pretty long farewell, approximately as long as the half-hour episode at the end of season 3.

At any rate they made the best out of a bad situation. And it turned out pretty well, whether Hawkeye lamenting Trapper’s departure was meant to be ironic or not.

And the second episode in season 4, the first one to prominently feature Harry Morgan as Col. Potter (Morgan played a Section 8 general in a season 3 episode, as many M*A*S*H fans probably know), well, I’ll just remind you that two of the show’s stars had complained about not being the center of attention and quit the show before the season started and then tell you about it:

Frank Burns, who has been relishing his newfound authority over the 4077th and has big plans for the unit, is quite upset to learn that he will be replaced as commanding officer. He plays it cool when he is first informed, then in the privacy of Major Houlihan’s tent, he throws a full-on childish temper tantrum, even holding his breath, because he can’t have his way.

After that, and for most of the rest of the episode, Burns is missing.

I can’t presume to know if that was a jab at the actors who left the show…but it kinda seems like it might have been.

I dunno. What do you think?

***

I originally planned on periodically updating this blog post upon the completion of viewing each individual season. If memory serves (I did not review the previous portion of this post before I began typing this afternoon) I was somewhere around season four or five when I last updated this blog post, and I was discussing how the characters Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret Houlihan were presented very well by the actors who portrayed them. “You’re supposed to hate them,” I think I wrote before, following a description of Burns throwing a childish temper tantrum over a plot issue that I don’t quite remember off the top of my head. But as it turned out, I found I would rather continue watching more episodes of M*A*S*H instead of pausing to reflect upon what I had already seen.

As even the most casual M*A*S*H fan knows, Burns left the 4077th (following season five) and was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a wealthy, upper-class, well, snob from Boston who, at least at first, considered his being assigned to a MASH unit to be, well, beneath him.

Burns being sent home to the states was explained, at the beginning of season 6, to be a result of Burns having sort of a nervous breakdown following the marriage of his one-time mistress (Burns was married to a wealthy woman back home the whole time they were consorting together) Major Houlihan to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot. Burns went to Tokyo in an attempt to regain the affections of his former mistress, and not only did he fail to do so, but he also managed to offend a high-ranking Army officer by jumping into a bath this man was sharing with his wife at a Tokyo bathhouse. Somehow or other, Burns ended up getting sent home following this off-camera episode, and as Colonel Potter was making calls looking for a replacement, one of the people he called in Tokyo just happened to find himself indebted to one Major Charles Emerson Winchester III to the amount of over $600 for losses at cribbage.

(By the way, if my prose seems to be somewhat reserved or stilted or whatever, blame it on the fact that since completing my months-long “project” of viewing all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H in broadcast order, I have begun re-viewing another of my all-time favorite TV series, albeit one I have no sentimental childhood attachment to: the BBC programme “Jeeves and Wooster,” based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Wooster. There will likely be a blog post regarding esoteric minutae of this show at some point in future, and yes, my use of “programme” instead of “program” and “in future” instead of “in the future” was quite intentional, thanks for noticing.)

So Burns left the 4077th, and he was replaced by Winchester. This seems simple enough – replace one easily dislike-able character with another – but as the show progressed, the change brought about when Winchester arrived was much more profound.

Winchester was a much more well-rounded and, well, realistic sort of character than Burns was. Burns – as much as I loved to hate him – was pretty darn one-dimensional. And as a result of her being almost constantly associated with Burns, Major Houlihan was, at least while Ferret Face was in the picture, quite a one-dimensional character herself.

To be completely fair, Burns and Houlihan being more or less cast as “villains” in the first five seasons also contributed to their rivals – Trapper and his replacement B.J., and of course Hawkeye – as well as their superior officers – Colonel Blake and his replacement Colonel Potter – being, themselves, somewhat one-dimensional.

Winchester – while at times being a shallow, whiny, social climbing boor, much like the character he replaced – was not only those things. Winchester was also shown to have some quite admirable qualities: he was charitable from time to time toward the ever-present orphanage Father Francis Mulcahey volunteered at, and when given an opportunity to return to his posh job at Tokyo General if only he’d betray his colleague Major Houlihan, he chose the honorable path and defended her good reputation.

It’s possible for any M*A*S*H fan, no matter how casual, to feel about Winchester much the same way they felt about Burns. But it isn’t nearly as easy to “hate” Winchester as it is to hate Ferret Face. Sure, Winchester possessed many of the very same traits – greed, selfishness, snobbishness, a tendency to brown-nose – that Burns had, but in addition to those undesirable traits, he also possessed other much more admirable traits, and if any M*A*S*H fan out there never noticed these traits before, I would insist that they review the series at their earliest convenience.

And yes, I do own all eleven seasons on DVD, all featuring the “olive drab” cover design…but no, sorry, you can’t borrow them from me. 😉

Winchester’s being simultaneously “easy to hate” as well as “not difficult to begrudgingly like” opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities for all the other characters. If there’s no easily identifiable “villain” any more, and if the person who replaced the “villain” (please bear in mind that I actually like the Frank Burns character quite a bit from a storytelling sort of perspective, and that my description of him as “villain” amounts to nothing other than laziness and/or limited vocabulary on my part) is actually a pretty sympathetic character, then from whence will conflict arise? If there’s no conflict in any given episode, I mean, then what’s the point?

The answer to this dilemma is, to my view, perhaps the single most relevant reason why M*A*S*H stayed on the air for eleven seasons, why its appeal was not limited to any one demographic, and why the final episode set ratings records, out-performing even the Super Bowl:

The “good guys,” at times, became the “bad guys.”

Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce is the most easily recognizable example of this. Pierce, in the first few seasons, was presented as the hero, as both the show’s comic relief and the show’s moral compass. As mentioned earlier, Pierce’s “morals” regarding nurses and the fairer sex in general were at best questionable, nonetheless it was never assumed – at least not by this viewer – that he was anything but a “good guy.”

But as the seasons wore on, Pierce’s character began to degenerate. To unravel. To become less of a lovable sort of cad, and to become more of – at least at times – a loathsome pest at best, and an unforgivably self-centered and egotistical asshole sonofabitch at worst.

As I have watched somewhere around 150 episodes of M*A*S*H since I last updated this blog post, and as these episodes are at the moment a sort of olive drab blur in my mind, the reader will have to forgive me for not including specific examples of Pierce’s assholery here. But at the same time, the reader should understand that I view this degeneration from “hero” to “something else entirely” as a good thing, at least from a dramatic/storytelling/etc. point of view.

Our heroes, at the end of the day, take their pants off one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Sometimes they lay down in their beds – or on their standard issue Army cots – and have trouble sleeping, just like the rest of us. Sometimes the pressures they face on a day to day basis prove to be more than they can handle, heroic figures though they are.
Had M*A*S*H continued with the simplistic “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy it employed for the first few seasons, it quite simply would not have been The Greatest TV Series Of All Time, According To Me, or to anyone else. Its shift from this dichotomy to a much more muddled – and therefore much more human – style of character and plot development is, to my view, what makes it so memorable.

Pierce wasn’t the only “good guy” who had asshole moments. Colonel Potter sometimes behaved abominably, as did Captain Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt was, in the majority of episodes he appeared in (a number which constitutes a majority with regard to the entire series) presented as a calm, collected, compassionate, caring family man, someone who sincerely missed his wife and daughter back home in San Francisco. And though he did actually have one dalliance with a nurse, unlike his predecessor Trapper John McIntyre, Hunnicutt felt guilty about that dalliance. And he was never unfaithful to his wife again, despite the lovely and talented journalist and artist Aggie O’Shea doing her level best to entice him into doing so.

To be sure, Hunnicutt was an admirable character, not only because of his skills as a surgeon, not only because of his usual level-headedness and wit, not only because of his unwavering compassion, but also because at times he was the opposite of these things, such as when his wife Peg wrote to tell him that she had taken a job at a restaurant to help pay the bills, and Hunnicutt felt not only embarrassment that his wife had to lower her social status slightly to get by but also helpless agony because he simply was not able to be there with her and their daughter Erin. Hunnicutt’s performance in this particular episode was at least as assholish as Pierce often behaved, and possibly more unforgivable than even Burns (or Winchester) at their worst.

But this performance did not make Hunnicutt a “villain” or for that matter diminish his status as a sympathetic character one iota. Far from it: this performance served to present Hunnicutt not only as a warm, caring, talented surgeon that nobody with any sense of decency could possibly have a bad word to say about but also as a human being, a flawed human being, a human being subject to the same frailties and insecurities and slips into general assholery that the rest of us struggle with.

This is, to my view, the genius of M*A*S*H: its humanity. This is the basic premise of the show, even in the early seasons, when there were clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”: humanity.

Imagine yourself – assuming you are not a medical professional who has served in the military; if you are, I salute you, and I hope you’ll comment – as someone who has devoted your life to healing the sick and treating the injured. Imagine that you are passionate about this profession, that all your life you’ve known that this was your calling, and that you have devoted many years to studying this profession and becoming the best medical professional you could possibly be.

Now imagine that you’ve been drafted into military service during wartime. Your skills as a medical professional will be of great practical use on the one hand, and you will have ample opportunity to heal people who have been wounded in combat, or as an indirect result of combat or bombing campaigns or what have you.

But on the other hand, this horrible and inhuman abomination called “war” is for all intents and purposes the polar opposite of everything that motivated you to become a medical professional in the first place: you want to help the injured; the single solitary purpose of war is to inflict injury.

Your purpose as a medical professional is to sustain life on an interpersonal basis, to do everything you can to help whichever individuals you are presented with to stay alive; the inevitable result of war is injury and death on a massive, wholly impersonal scale.

I have never been a soldier, nor am I a medical professional of any sort. And my ruminations upon this subject are purely speculative and spectator-ly, nonetheless I have to imagine that this sort of internal conflict would be hell to try and deal with.

Which may or may not have been a contributing factor toward Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce spending roughly half of the two-hour M*A*S*H finale in a mental hospital, under the care of psychiatrist (and recurring character) Sidney Friedman.

The proximate cause of Hawkeye’s loss of control was a Korean woman on a bus. Most of the main staff of the 4077th, several Korean people, and a dead American soldier were on a bus in a combat zone, and the aforementioned Korean woman at the back of the bus was holding a chicken in her lap. Everyone was told to remain quiet, so as to prevent the bus from being shot at or shelled or bombed or what have you, but the chicken kept clucking. Hawkeye yelled at the woman to make that chicken be quiet, and she put a blanket over its face and inadvertently smothered it.

The bus wasn’t shot at, or shelled, or bombed, or what have you, and everybody (except the dead soldier and the chicken) made it back to the 4077th unscathed.

Which was good…except for the inescapable fact that the chicken wasn’t clucking, it was crying…

…and that it wasn’t a chicken at all, it was a baby.

This by itself – accidentally prompting a mother to accidentally smother her baby – would be enough to send any decent person into a downward spiral of guilt and madness. But in Hawkeye’s case, the madness began many episodes before that.

THE DIRTIEST JOKE IN THE WORLD

(Note: the joke I am about to tell was told to me in I am gonna guess about 1990 or so. I wrote this rendition of it approximately 20 years later, in 2010 or 2011 or some time around then. I wrote it on a laptop that got fried when I spilled homemade wine on it, and I thought that the only copy of this was on that laptop, which has been fried for a few years now, and I still haven’t attempted to salvage the hard drive. Anyways I found this yesterday on a flash drive, and I decided to share it. Enjoy…or whatever. — MNW)

This story was first told to me and a group of kids in the “GT” program at school when I was in the third grade, I think. It was told by one of my fellow students.

I think I was in the third grade then, or maybe the fourth. While I have embellished certain parts of the story here, I have done my best to keep its original spirit intact. Everything in this preface is true, at least to the best of my memory.

“GT” stood for “Gifted and Talented,” and it was like an advanced reading class, for the most part. I can’t remember a whole lot about it, but I know that on the day “Purple Velvet” was told, our teacher, the elementary school principal, was not present. Her duties as principal had called her elsewhere in the school that day, or something, at any rate we were left alone and told to read quietly. A few in our class did just that, clutching their paperback Tom Sawyers and glaring fiercely at anyone who did anything other than read quietly, never saying anything directly, just glaring fiercely, and occasionally reminding everyone “we’re s’posed t’be readin’, dang it” or just coughing loudly or clearing their throat. And of course not reading, actually, just holding the book open, breaking their fixed stare upon whomever was talking only when looked at directly. And then, after a measured pause, turning the page. For effect, you understand.

The rest of us, the ones who had tried to read quietly but later found ourselves unable to, were telling dirty jokes. After two or three jokes, shocking though they were at the time, even without any actual “cuss words,” a girl who was a year ahead of me in school (the GT class had kids from different grades in it) asked if we had ever heard the “dirtiest joke in the world”. She was giggling when she asked, she was giggling when somebody asked “What joke is that?” and she was giggling when she replied “Purple Velvet”. She giggled when somebody said “Purple Velvet?” and she giggled the entire time she was telling it.

So anyways, without any further ado, here is “the dirtiest joke in the world”. As I mentioned before, I have embellished certain parts, but the basic details are the same. The back story (from above) is true…at any rate, here’s “Purple Velvet”.

PURPLE VELVET

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I guess maybe sometime after Nintendo but before Super Nintendo, there was a medium-sized town in a medium-sized state in the Midwest. Right in the middle of Middle Street in this town, right on the corner of Middle and Center actually, where if you turn one way you’re walking down East Middle and if you turn the other way you’re walking up West Middle, up towards Hagerton; right there on the corner, right in the middle of a manicured, medium-sized yard was a modest, medium-sized house. In the house lived a middle class family; the father, while far from being rich, enjoyed moderate success at his chosen vocation (he was in middle management at a mid-sized manufacturing megaplex), enough success at least to allow his wife to stay home in order to follow her passion: helping underprivlidged orphans fill out tax returns and providing legal advice to dumb animals down at the shelter who were scheduled to be “put to sleep.” Hers wasn’t a profitable business in the monetary sense, but she felt that the moderate amount of personal satisfaction she received through her efforts was enough, and her husband, a kind, gentle, humane man who looked upon anything his wife did with a calm, adoring detachment; he smiled and said “that’s fine, that’s fine” when she would prattle on for what seemed like hours about how it wasn’t right to execute an animal if the animal didn’t understand why it was being executed, or how those “little bastards” would stick every penny they owed Uncle Sam in their grubby little pockets if you let them.

These two average middle Americans had a son. As you may have already guessed, their son was of medium height, medium build, and medium intelligence. He was in the third grade in his elementary school, and he made average grades and never got in trouble. His parents loved him, and did their best to raise him right, and were proud of him when he tried his best, whether he succeeded or not, and carried pictures of him around with them to show people, and spent time with him and taught him things, and did all the things good parents are supposed to do for their children.

This boy, who was in the third grade, his elementary school was right next door to a middle school. One day at recess, the boy was playing kickball with some of his friends. The ball bounced out of control, and the boy, good sport that he was, went after it.

The ball came to a rest next to the chain link fence that separated the playground from the outdoor area next door where the middle schoolers ate lunch. The bell rang, ending recess. The boy turned around and saw his friends turn and run towards the school building. He turned back around and saw that several middle schoolers on the other side of the fence were coming out to eat lunch. The boy ducked his head and ran towards the kickball.

He made it to the fence and picked the ball up. Without ever looking directly into the schoolyard on the other side of the fence, he started to run back to his school building.

“Hey kid!”

The boy could feel his face turning red as he stopped and turned around. There were three middle-schoolers, two boys and a girl. The taller of the two middle school boys repeated, “Hey, kid!”

The boy said nothing. The shorter of the middle-school boys said, “Hey dumbass, are you deaf or something?” The girl punched him in the ribs and said, “Leave him alone!”

The boy said, “No.”

The taller boy ran towards the fence and grabbed it with both hands, shaking it and making a crazy face. He said, “What did you say, kid? I thought I heard you say something.”

The boy hesitated, then spoke: “I said no.”

“No? No what?”

The boy was nervous, and he could feel his voice trembling. “No, I’m, I’m not deaf.”

“Oh, good then,” the taller middle school kid said. “Come here, I want to tell you something.”

“I have to go back inside–”

“I want to tell you a secret. Just come here a second.”

“You’ll get me.” The boy’s eyes began to fill with water.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, dammit, just come over here a little closer.”

“You’ll get me.”

“Alright, then, don’t come close enough so I can get you. I just want to tell you something, anyways, I don’t want to hurt you, little man.” The tall kid smiled.

The boy stepped closer to the fence. He stopped about three feet away.

“Alright, kid, now don’t repeat this to anyone,” the taller middle school kid said. He turned around to the shorter middle school kid and nodded.

The shorter kid, who was still standing next to the girl who punched him in the ribs, put his hands over the girl’s ears. She struggled, punching and kicking. “Hurry the hell up, man!” the shorter kid said.

The taller kid looked around, making sure no one was watching, then turned to the boy and said, “Purple velvet.”

“Purp–?” the boy started.

“Shhh!” the tall kid interrupted. “Don’t ever say it or tell anybody about it!” The tall kid laughed, and the boy ran back into the elementary school building. He got a quick sip of water and went into his classroom. After putting the kickball away, he trotted to his desk.

He sat down at his desk as the bell was ringing. His teacher, a moderately pretty medium-sized woman of usually mild temperament, strolled into the room and announced that it was geography time. The boy got out his geography book and listened intently to his teacher.

About twenty minutes later, the teacher wrote a few questions on the board and told the students they could work in pairs to answer the questions.

As a result of a recently-enacted disciplinary measure, the seating arrangement in the class was “boy, girl, boy, girl,” so the boy was always (for two weeks now) paired with the bashful blonde-haired girl who sat in front of him. She was a nice girl, he thought, and he tried to be civil with her most of the time, at least when his friends weren’t watching. Actually, the two of them had secretly been “going together” for about a week.

They agreed that she would look for the answer to number one, and he would look for the answer to number two, then they’d look for the answer to number three together. When they were finished with number three, but before they copied each other’s answers for the first two questions, the girl looked at him.

He looked back at her. She was looking at him with sort of a dumb grin on her face. It was a bit disturbing, really.

“What?” the boy said.

“You are brave, talking to those middle schoolers like that.”

“Pff. Let me see number one. Here’s two.”

“They always say mean things to me,” the girl said. “I’m ascared of them.”

“Ascared?” the boy asked. He had never heard somebody say “ascared” in real life before.

“One of them said something to you, like a secret.”

“Phh.”

“What did he say? Tell me!”

“It was nothing, really, but he told me not to tell anyone.”

“Tell me.”

“No.”

“Tell me!”

“NO!”

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll tell everybody we’re going together.”

The boy looked at her. She wasn’t kidding.

“Fine. Purple velvet. The tall kid said, ‘purple velvet.'” The boy resumed copying the girl’s answer to question 1.

The girl said nothing. She continued to gaze wide-eyed at the boy, but a subtle change came over her face; there was a troubled look in her eyebrows, and her bottom lip was trembling. Her eyes appeared to be welling with tears. “W-what?” she asked.

The boy, busy copying her answer to question 1, was oblivious to her initial reaction. He repeated, “Purple velvet. The tall middle school kid said ‘purple velvet’ and told me not to tell anybody. I don’t see what the big deal is, really. What’s so bad about purple velvet? He must’ve been trying to trick me. Purple velvet. Ha! Purple velvet!”

A low moan came from the girl, and the boy looked up as tears spilled down her cheeks. “Don’t say that, don’t ever say that,” she sobbed. “Don’t say it, don’t never say it,” she started mumbling, over and over. She fell out of her desk backwards, scrambling to get away from the boy, then started scooting herself backwards across the floor, away from the boy. “Don’t never don’t ever never never–” She was genuinely horrified, too horrified to stand up or even to scream.
The boy watched, bewildered, as the horrified girl scooted backwards into a coat rack and knocked it over. She gained some sense of herself again and tried to stand up among the coats. She fell down on the pile of coats and began wailing loudly.

The boy looked away from his horrified geography partner and saw his teacher looking at the girl, trying to figure out what had happened and looking like she wasn’t sure of how to deal with the wailing little blonde girl who had just unexpectedly knocked over the coat rack and seemed to be having some sort of epileptic fit. The teacher looked at the boy, and he looked down at his desk. He kept his eyes down but scanned the room around him. All the children, boys and girls, who sat near enough to hear what he had said were gazing at him with the same look of abject terror that was on the face of the blonde girl. He resumed copying the answer to number one as the clipped footsteps advanced on him, and he only put his pencil down after he felt his ear twist.

He was led into the hall by his teacher, who apparently was very angry with him. She knelt in front of him, at his eye level, and asked, “Why is that little girl in there so upset? What did you do to her to make her so upset?”

The boy, confused, said, “I didn’t do anything to her, Miss–”

“You obviously did SOMETHING, now, didn’t you?”

“I just said ‘purple velvet’ was all. I was on the playground and some middle school kids said ‘hey kid, come here’ and–”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the teacher boomed. She was shaking with rage.

The boy remained silent. His lower lip was trembling now.

“That’s what I thought you said.” The teacher grabbed the boy by the collar and dragged him to the principal’s office. She dragged the boy right past the receptionist and sat him down in a rolling chair right in front of the principal’s desk. The principal was just finishing his morning coffee and honey bun, and was seated behind his desk in a rolling chair.

The principal stood up. “What’s all this?” he asked. “Is this boy in trouble?”

The teacher, flustered, began “H-h-he, h-h-he s-s-said, h-he s-s-s-s–” and burst into tears. The principal, a kind, gentle, humane man who looked upon anything his teachers (mostly pert, young things) did with a calm, adoring detachment, placed what was left of a his iced honey bun on a napkin on his desk, rose, and went to comfort the sobbing, pert young teacher. He led her out of his office and into the waiting area, near the receptionist’s desk.

“You just wait out here, and I’ll go talk to the student, ok?” the boy heard him say.

The principal returned to his desk and sat down. He took a sip of his coffee, picked up the piece of iced honey bun and asked, “So, why is Miss Rottentree so upset out there?”

The boy remained silent.

The principal chewed his honey bun, staring at the boy intently, but not menacingly, and said, “Miss Rottentree, I believe, said that you might’ve, possibly, said a swear word or something?”

The boy remained silent.

“You know, son, I’ve heard a lot of nasty talk in my day, and I’ll tell you something.” He licked icing from his fingers.

The boy remained silent.

“Nasty talk like that, the A-word, the D-word, the S-word, and even the–” the principal paused, then said, disgustedly, “the F-word, people who use words like these only use them because they are too uneducated to express themselves properly.”

The boy remained silent.

“They are not used by decent, upstanding people, son,” the principal said, “and their use is certainly not tolerated in my school.”

The boy remained silent.

“What cuss word did you say, my boy?”

“I didn’t say a cuss word. I know I ain’t supposed to say cuss words.”

“Well, son,” the principal’s tone became more stern, “you obviously said something to upset Miss Rottentree out there.” He stuffed the remainder of his honey bun into his mouth and stared directly into the boy’s face.

“A-a-a m-middle school kid said…”

“Said what?” He chewed the honey bun.

“Purple velvet.”

The principal, shocked, spat honey bun into the boy’s face and jumped backwards out of his rolling chair, knocking a framed diploma off the wall. The principal was choking on the honey bun, but seemed to be ok, though quite enraged.

“GET OUT! GET OUT OF HERE!” he screamed, and opened the door. He rolled the boy, chair and all, out into the waiting area. Miss Rottentree and the receptionist were outside, clutching each other, sobbing wildly. “DON’T COME BACK IN THE MORNING! WE DON’T WANT PEOPLE LIKE YOU IN OUR SCHOOL! I’M CALLING YOUR MOTHER RIGHT NOW!”

The bell rang, ending the school day. The boy went straight from the principal’s office to the school bus. No one on the bus would talk to him, and since he sat near the front of the bus, the bus driver, a kindly old woman who was especially fond of children, since she never had any of her own, noticed the boy had been cast out by his peers and inquired as to why. After some prodding, after the driver smiled into the big mirror at him and assured him everything was fine and she wouldn’t get mad, he told her what happened, how the middle school kid said “purple velvet” and–

The bus screeched to a halt and the old woman flung the door open. The bus happened to be crossing a bridge over a shallow creek when it was abruptly stopped, and the driver, in an adrenaline-fueled burst of rage, manually removed the boy from his seat near the front of the bus and hurled him out the door. He hit the grass beside the road and rolled down into the creek. The bus sped away.

The boy crawled up out of the creek and out of the ditch and began walking home. He had about half a mile to go.

He had been walking for about 5 minutes when he saw his school bus coming back down the road. “She’s come back to get me,” the boy thought. He stopped walking and the bus kept coming. Was it speeding up–?

The boy jumped back into the ditch and narrowly missed getting run over. The bus stopped right past him and began to back up. He ran as fast as he could to the woods and found a shortcut home.

When he got home, his mother was waiting on him. She had talked to the principal, and she knew that her son was suspended from school indefinitely but she didn’t know why, because the principal wouldn’t tell her. She was upset, but she assured her son that no matter what happened, she would still be his mother and she would still love him. She calmly asked him what had happened.

“I, I–” he started.

“Go on, now, you can tell me.” She handed him a glass of milk and put a plate of cookies in front of him.

He started crying. He told her that he had been playing kickball, and the ball bounced away, and he went to get it, and a middle school kid by the fence said something to him and told him not to tell anybody, and then his geography partner asked what the middle school kid said, and he didn’t want to tell her but she made him tell her, and then she got all upset and the teacher dragged him off and asked what he said and she said she wouldn’t get mad but then he told her and she got mad and took him to the principal, who also said he wasn’t gonna get mad but got real mad, and then how the bus driver threw him off the bus and tried to run him over.

“Oh my goodness,” his mom said, “my poor baby!” She hugged him and asked, “What did you say? What did the middle school boy say to you?”

The boy, quietly, said, “Purple velvet.”

His mother’s reaction made the others look tame. She cursed the day he was born, destroyed most of the living room and kitchen, and sent him to his room to wait for his father to get home.

His father came up into his room an hour or so later. While the door was open, the boy could hear his mother screaming and crying and thrashing through the house, which seemed to be partially on fire. After his father shut the bedroom door again, his mother beat on the door, cursing wildly.

His father looked confused “Just what in the hell is going on here?”

The boy told the story again, not saying what the middle school kid said. He got to the end, and said, “Dad, I really don’t even know what it means…I’m so confused.”

His father looked at him. “What..what did you say, son?

The boy said, “purple velvet.”

Rage. In the eyes.

“Get out.”

“But Dad…”

“I SAID GET OUT, NOW GET OUT! I WON’T HAVE ANYBODY TALK TO ME LIKE THAT, MUCH LESS MY OWN SON!”

“But..D-D-D–”

“THAT’S IT, I HAVE NO SON!” his father screamed. He grabbed the boy and threw him through the window. The boy fell ten feet or so and landed in some bushes, unharmed. The front door of his house opened, and his father came out, firing a handgun into the air. “I’LL SHOOT YOU, BY GOD, IF YOU COME BACK!”

The boy ran up the road. He ran and ran and ran, and then he ran some more.

A few hours later, he found an abandoned building to sleep in.

The next morning, he saw that he was not the only person sleeping in the abandoned building. There were several homeless people in here, and the boy was scared. But, since he was more scared of trying to go back home or to school, he worked up his courage and asked a friendly-looking older fellow if he knew where to get something to eat.

The old man wheezed and said, “Hagerton soup kitchen’s right around the corner. They’ll feed ya.”

The boy found the soup kitchen and was ushered to the front of the line by a nun, and he got presented with an extra-big bowl of bone soup, and he got to sit with the priests at the big table in front of everybody.

Halfway through the meal, the priest sitting in the middle, the one with the fanciest robe, dinged on his water glass with his spoon and stood up.

“We have among us one of the most unfortunate souls on the planet, my friends.”

(General rumble of conversation. Someone coughs.)

“This young one, this orphan, who just came to our humble soup kitchen this morning, hungry and beaten down by a world who never wanted him…”

“Sir…” the boy started.

“Whose parents, probably drug addicts or perverts or worse…”

“Wrap it up, would you, Leopold?” the head nun said. Some of the homeless guys chuckled.

“My parents aren’t drug perverts,” the boy said, standing up. “Up until yesterday, they were the best parents ever, but then I got in trouble at school, and then on the bus, and then my mom got mad and sent me to my room, and then my dad came home and threw me out the window and shot his gun at me.”

“What did you do, my son?” the head priest asked.

“A middle school kid said something to me and told me not to tell anybody, but then I told a girl in my class and she got scared, then I told my teacher and she started crying, then I told the principal and he spat honey bun in my face and got mad and rolled me out of his office, and then I told the bus driver, and she threw me off the bus and tried to run me over.”

“You are lucky to be alive, my son.”

“And the worst part of it all is, what I said, I don’t even know what it means.”

“What…did you say, my son?”

The boy looked up at the priest, then around the room at all the homeless people, then down at his soup bowl. He lifted the bowl to his face and drank what was left. He wiped his mouth with a paper towel and said, “Purple velvet.”

He was on the street in seconds. That night, he slept in a cardboard box outside the soup kitchen/shelter, in which there were several empty beds.

The next morning when he woke up, a man in a pin-striped suit was standing next to his box. “Hey, kid,” the man said. He had a funny accent, like he was Russian or something, he had a goatee, and his hair was slicked back. “Get up. GET up.”

The boy mumbled, “Leave me alone, mister,” and rolled over.

The man in the suit said something in Russian and bent down. A few seconds later the boy smelled smoke and his leg felt hot. The Russian had set his box on fire! The boy got up and made sure he wasn’t on fire and the man grabbed him. The man said, in his Russian accent, “You have been asking wrong question, my small friend. You would do well to shoot your pie hold.”

“What?” the boy asked.

The man pulled out a tazer gun and held it to the boy’s neck. “Your face is ask question for nothing, and bacon like fry your small face!”

From behind the man, a cackling laughter arose. Then it said, “Purple velvet! Purple velvet! PURRR PULLL VELLL VETTTT!” It was one of the homeless guys from the soup kitchen.

The man in the pin-striped suit released his hold on the boy and turned around. He tazed the homeless guy. The homeless guy was laughing like mad, shouting the forbidden words when he was able to, through the waves of electricity coursing through his body. The boy watched as the man in the pin-striped suit tazed the homeless man until the battery in his tazer gun was dead. Then the man holding the dead tazer turned to the boy and said, “You watch mouth.” He walked away. The boy thought he could hear him sobbing, softly.

The homeless man, hyperventilating with laughter and, now more than before, reeking of his own stink, was muttering, “P-p-purple v-v-v-velv-v-vet. He hee hee hee!”

The boy walked over to him. “Thanks, mister. That guy was gonna get me, but then he got you instead.”

The homeless man reeled with laughter and rolled on the ground.

The boy asked, “Mister, what is purple velvet?”

More insane laughter.

“I mean, I know what purple is, like a grape’s color.”

Laughter, coughing, laughter.

“And velvet’s like a smooth material, right?”

“P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-PURPLE! Hahahahhahahahhaaaa! HOO HOOHOO HAAA HAHAHHAHAHHAAHAHAHHAHA!”

“Never mind.” The boy sat down and began to cry.

The homeless man continued to literally piss himself laughing for another ten minutes or so. Then he stood up and walked over to the boy, who was still sobbing. “Do you want to know what purple velvet is, sonny boy?”

The boy looked up. “Y-yes. I w-would.”

“Ok, then. You see that window in that building across the way there, that big window, up on the sixth floor, the one with the purple curtains?”

The boy looked. “Yeah, I s-see it.”

“Ok, then. You just go right across the street to that building over there, and go up to the sixth floor. All of your questions will be answered there.”

“Really?” the boy asked, exited.

“Where do you think I found out what it was?”

“You mean you know what it means?” the boy asked. “Why can’t you just tell me?”

The homeless man cackled. “You’re a clever one, sonny boy!” He coughed noisily for several seconds. “But it don’t work like that. I can’t just tell you, you gotta see for yourself.”

“Oh,” the boy said.

“Well, go on ahead over there, sonny! It don’t cost nothing!”

“Ok, thanks,” the boy said. The boy looked up at the purple curtains and started across the street. He got hit by a bus and died instantly.

THE END

THEY DON’T WANT YOU IN THEIR SAFE SPACE? YOU POOR BABY!


There’s a lot of talk about “safe spaces” nowadays on the internet. A “safe space” is somewhere that a person can go without fear of being harassed, essentially.

To be sure, some attempts at creating “safe spaces” are inappropriate. There have been a few examples of college students trying to make classes into “safe spaces” because the subject matter of the class itself makes them uncomfortable.

And to be sure, I am against this sort of “safe space” in a classroom. If the subject being studied makes a person uncomfortable, their being uncomfortable shouldn’t prevent other students from studying the subject. Most people agree on this, I am reasonably certain.

I would also venture that most people would also agree that a classroom should be free of harassment. Argumentation, yes, challenging of views, of course…but harassment really has no place in a classroom. And if a student can’t differentiate between having their views challenged and being harassed, they should leave the class.

This works both ways, however: if a person can’t challenge another person’s views without resorting to personal insults and harassment, they don’t belong in the classroom, either.

There was a fairly recent episode of South Park that dealt with the subject of “safe spaces.” It’s been cited many times by people who believe that the very concept of a “safe space” is a threat to freedom of speech, or something like that.

I saw that episode — which featured a musical number — and I laughed at it. I found it hilarious. But here’s the thing: that episode dealt with *online* “safe spaces.” Several celebrities hired one of the South Park kids (Butters, I think) to edit all criticism of them from their social media accounts, hide all negative press, etc. They wanted their online experience itself to be a “safe space.”

Which, in case you guys haven’t noticed, pretty much every social media platform has a “blocking” function. If someone is harassing you on social media, you can block them.

And, for that matter, if someone simply says something you don’t like, you can block them. Believe it or not — and I am talking mainly to the anti-“safe space” crowd here — some people actually use social media solely for socializing.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy. Why everyone doesn’t use websites designed for sharing pictures with your friends to promote political agendas and whatnot is truly a mystery. Nonetheless, some people simply want to look at pictures of their friends, read jokes, things like that.

My sarcasm in that last paragraph is also aimed at myself, definitely. I have been unfriended many times for posting too much political stuff, or blocked for saying something someone found offensive, or whatever.

But let me tell you something I have never done, something I wouldn’t do even if everyone on my friends list blocked me: I wouldn’t accuse anyone of stifling my right to free speech because they didn’t want to read my rants any more. I’d probably be aggravated, sure, but I would still be free to rant and rave about any subject I wanted to. Just because someone else doesn’t want to read it doesn’t mean my speech has been hindered.

If someone wants an online “safe space” that’s free of Michael Walker’s personal opinions, that’s their business. Personally, I prefer reading a wide variety of different opinions on things. I have a natural tendency to be argumentative, so that variety in opinion gives rise to many occasions to argue.

That’s just me, though. And if someone stops arguing the point and starts attacking me personally, I reserve the right to block them. I have only resorted to this a couple of times, and I most often unblock them after I have cooled off a little.

I don’t really view that as “creating a safe space,” I view that as removing someone from the conversation who has stopped bringing anything of value to the conversation. Any idea or opinion I publish on my Facebook page or elsewhere is up for debate. If you disagree with me on something, by all means say so.

But keep it clean, eh?

Back to the South Park episode about “safe spaces”: the “safe spaces” they were making fun of were *online* safe spaces. They weren’t really talking about “safe spaces” in real life, places people create where harassment — most often race or gender-based harassment — isn’t allowed.

I think it’s kinda silly when people talk about how these places are “attacking free speech.” I mean, prior to whichever group creating a “safe space” for themselves, the anti-“safe space” crowd didn’t have an opinion on that group at all. This group experiences harassment, they create a harassment-free environment for themselves, and all of a sudden, people who hadn’t given them a second thought are screaming “ERMAHGERD, MUH FREEDOM UH SPEECH IZ BEEIN TRAMPULLED!”

People who have no actual relation to this group at all, people who have no legitimate reason to interact with this group at all, now imagine that this small group of people who were trying to avoid being harassed are attacking their freedom of speech!

And they get online and talk about how these people are destroying freedom of speech, and they make impassioned arguments about how their freedom of speech is being stifled…

And they post articles from pundits decrying the death of free speech…

And they share offensive things just because they’re offensive, just to prove that nothing offends them, true champeens of free speech that they are…

And never once does anyone stop them.

Never once are they actually denied the right to express themselves.

Yet a small group of people — people who have been legitimately harassed and even threatened, not just online but in real life — want to make a place for themselves that is free from harassment.

Who is this actually a threat to?

Whose speech is actually being stifled?

A person shouting racial epithets?

A person making sexist comments?

A person making actual physical threats?

For reasonable people — which, in most instances, the anti-“safe space” crowd are reasonable — a group creating a real-life harassment-free “safe space” has no effect whatsoever.

None.

Nada.

Zilch.

The only way this sort of “safe space” affects you is if you were one of the people shouting racial epithets or threats or sexist comments, or whatever.

And if you were or are one of these people, guess what?

You weren’t bringing anything of value to the conversation anyway.

And now you’re “playing the victim” by pretending your freedom of speech has been stifled.

Yes, you are.

Poor you! The mean people in the safe space don’t want you to call them names anymore! Those meanies! They got sick of you threatening to hurt them because you don’t like them, and they banned you from their club!

You poor baby!

How dare they treat special little ‘ol you differently, just because you were being an asshole to them!

Poor you! All you did was shout insults and threats at them whenever they expressed an opinion! All you did was drown out their voice with ridicule and threats of physical harm!

And they don’t want you in their safe space!

They must hate free speech!

You love free speech! That’s why you were shouting insults and threats at them, stifling their free speech! Because freedom of speech is important!

Clearly you are the victim here.

Even though no tangible hindrance to your actual “freedom of speech” has been put in place…

Even though you didn’t really have an opinion on any group that created a “safe space” before they created the “safe space”…

Even though you’re still free to say whatever you want…

Clearly *you* are the victim here, O Noble Maker Funner Of Safe Spacers.

You poor thing!

 

CLINTON/SANDERS ’16

MANY DEMOCRATIC VOTERS, SIX MONTHS AGO:

“No matter what happens, guys, whoever gets nominated, we have to support them. Bashing Democrats is not productive. We shouldn’t make personal attacks on either Hillary or Bernie, and especially not on their supporters. If we do that, it pretty much guarantees that a Republican will get elected.”

 

MANY DEMOCRATIC VOTERS TODAY:

“I don’t trust Hillary! She’s in bed with Wall Street and big business!”

“Bernie is out of his mind! Look at him! That ‘wealth redistribution’ nonsense sounds good on paper, but he’s delusional if he thinks it’ll actually work!”

“Hillary is a hypocrite! She talks a good game about criminal justice reform, but her husband’s escalation of the ‘War On Drugs’ is a big reason why we need criminal justice reform in the first place! A person would have to be STUPID to think she’s changed her mind on any of that stuff!”

“Bernie simply does not have the experience to run for President. Hillary is WAY more experienced with international politics, and only an IDIOT would want Bernie Sanders representing our nation abroad!”

“HILLARY SUCKS!”

“BERNIE SUCKS!”

“HILLARY SUPPORTERS ARE PLAYING ‘IDENTITY POLITICS’!”

“BERNIE SUPPORTERS ARE BIGOTS!”

Etc., etc., etc.

 

MICHAEL NATHAN WALKER, SIX MONTHS AGO:

“It’s probably not gonna happen, but I would like to see Hillary and Bernie on the same ticket. They do have quite a few views that are pretty far apart from each other, but that sort of ideological tension would be good for the office of President and for our country in general. The GOP is obsolete, in terms of actual constructive policies, and they should be treated as such. Hillary and Bernie have differences, and they butt heads over these differences, but at least the issues they butt heads over are important issues, not like the personal attacks and reactionary nonsense the GOP butts heads with itself over.

Let’s argue over this stuff after they’re both in the White House, guys.

CLINTON/SANDERS ’16!”

 

MICHAEL NATHAN WALKER TODAY:

“It’s probably not gonna happen, but I would like to see Hillary and Bernie on the same ticket. They do have quite a few views that are pretty far apart from each other, but that sort of ideological tension would be good for the office of President and for our country in general. The GOP is obsolete, in terms of actual constructive policies, and they should be treated as such. Hillary and Bernie have differences, and they butt heads over these differences, but at least the issues they butt heads over are important issues, not like the personal attacks and reactionary nonsense the GOP butts heads with itself over.

Let’s argue over this stuff after they’re both in the White House, guys.

CLINTON/SANDERS ’16!”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, ET CETERA

Today, January 22, 2016, I turn 36. I don’t pretend to be anything close to a “math whiz,” but “36” is the sixth square age I have been in my life (following 1, 4, 9, 16, and 25), and I won’t see another one until I am 49, assuming I make it to that age.

I am not trying to be morbid, for the record, I am just being realistic. I remember hearing in church years ago something like “we are only guaranteed the last breath we took” or something like that, and regardless as to whether anyone literally believes the things in the Bible or any other religious text, well, that statement is true. Life is a very fragile thing, and while I wouldn’t mind living a few thousand years or so, well, there is no guarantee that I (or anyone reading this) will still be here tomorrow. Or an hour from now, for that matter.

And again, that’s not me being morbid, that’s me simply stating a fact.

But to be sure, this sentiment has been echoed in at least a couple religious traditions over the years. In my own, as mentioned, and also in the Buddhist tradition. And not only in religious traditions, but in anti-religious movements as well.

But I don’t really want to write about religion right now. I want to write about myself. And it’s my birthday, and on top of that it’s my sixth square birthday, so that’s what I am gonna do.

If you don’t want to read about me, on this, my sixth square birthday, I would like to remind you that the entirety of the internet is at your fingertips. Surely you can find something to soothe your ennui, if my vain ramblings do not do so. To quote my favorite band from some time between my fourth and fifth square birthdays, “boredom’s not a burden anyone should bear.”

Speaking of that period, there was one particular event that happened around that time that time that sort of, well…just let me tell you about it:

I was a student at the U of A, Fayetteville at the time. Anyways, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks was visiting the U of A. They were on some sort of university tour, or something, and anyways they set up shop (so to speak) in the student union. They were there for at least a few days.

Over the course of these few days — maybe even five days, like Monday to Friday — the monks created an intricate, multicolored, circular mandala entirely out of sand. They had bags of colored sand with little spouts on them, and one little section at a time, they added this or that little design to the sand mandala. I don’t know how many hours were spent making this sand mandala, or exactly how many monks contributed to its construction, but suffice it to say a lot of painstaking work went into it.

I (and a few other people I knew, one of which was letting the monks crash in her apartment on the edge of campus for the duration of their stay) went to see the sand mandala on that Friday, just as the monks were finishing it up. There were at least two — I don’t remember exactly — bald monks in saffron (or were they maroon?) robes, both manipulating the little sandbags with spouts, putting the final touches on the mandala, somehow creating sharp right angles and perfect curves out of flowing sand. It was truly an impressive sight to see; the level of precision was remarkable. “Remarkable” is actually quite an understatement, I just don’t know a better word to use. “Amazing” might be better.

Anyways, the monks finished up the mandala, then turned to the head monk — or abbot, or whatever the proper word would be — and he came over, inspected the mandala — which, remember, was the product of many hours of painstaking work — nodded his approval, then nonchalantly produced something like a shaving brush and smeared the mandala in one stroke from top to bottom, ruining it, mixing all the intricate multicolored designs into a crude gray swath.

The monks — the same ones who had spent the better part of a week creating this beautiful work of art — then proceeded to produce their own little brushes, which they used to sweep the remaining part of the mandala — the parts on either side of the head monk’s crude brush stroke — up into a little gray pile of sand. They then began putting small amounts of this sand into little ziploc-style baggies and distributing them to the crowd of people in attendance.

I gave my little baggie of sand to my academic advisor, I think as a Christmas present. Before I did, I wrote

“Beauty is truth, truth, beauty; but beauty is just an illusion…”

on it. When I gave it to her and told her where I got it, she referred to it as “sacred sand.” At the time, I disagreed that the sand was in any way “sacred.” The whole painstaking process of creating an intricate — and I do mean “intricate” — work of art over the course of a week and then destroying it was an illustration of impermanence, after all.

As a matter of fact, as I left the student union, and for probably a week or so after that, I contemplated how all of the buildings on campus, some of which had stood (and still stand) for over a hundred years, would one day be long gone and forgotten. Many people — architects, construction foremen, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers, interior designers, etc. — contributed to the construction and maintenance of these buildings (just as the monks made their individual contributions to the mandala), and many students and professors and others enjoyed the fruits of their labor (just as many students and professors and others enjoyed looking at the intricate designs of the mandala), but one day, all those buildings will be gone, and soon after that, no one will remember their ever being there. It’s not really a question of “if” that will happen, it’s a question of “when.”

And to be sure, I hope that doesn’t happen for a really long time. Barring World War III or something, I don’t anticipate that happening in my lifetime or even another generation or two after I am rotting in the ground.

But just as I am only guaranteed the last breath I took, well, the point is nobody knows what the future will hold.

Although, I have to admit, at various points in my life, I have experienced what the French call déjà vu, and one of those experiences happened to involve Buddhism.

Before I go on, let me unequivocally state that I do not believe “déjà vu” is anything more than an illusory sort of sensation, and that my mention of it with regard to “knowing what the future will hold” was done out of literary convenience and nothing more. I needed a transition, so I used it as such.

Nonetheless, a sensation of déjà vu accompanied another notable experience I had with Buddhism. This sensation was most likely brought on by emotional stress, and anyways without further ado I will relate it here, briefly:

This experience with Buddhism was not from the Tibetan tradition, but rather from the Korean tradition. I am not sure exactly how these traditions differ from one another, although I am fairly certain there are differences.

I had been living in South Korea for two years at that point — I had only left the country twice during that period, once for a two week trip home over Christmas and once for a week-long trip to Japan — and was about to return home in less than a week. A Korean friend of mine, someone who I had been very close to at one point — died unexpectedly. My other experience with Buddhism was a memorial service for this friend.

This ceremony was at a small temple in a fairly secluded area. I was one of maybe twenty or so people in attendance, and I was the only person there who wasn’t Korean.

We were all seated on one side of the room, on the floor on little square pillows — I don’t know the Korean word for these pillows –and on the other side of the room, two monks in robes conducted the ceremony, which consisted of one of them banging on a big gong and reading Hanja from a long scroll, and the other one was doing other things, lighting candles, bowing to the large Buddha statue on a shelf in the middle of the opposite wall…it’s been nearly eight years ago since I attended that ceremony, and I don’t remember many details, other than time seemed to be flowing at an odd rate — I honestly have no clue how long the ceremony lasted; it seemed to last both a really long time and hardly any time at all, if that makes any sense — and that I had an odd feeling of déjà vu the whole time. Which was most likely attributable to emotional stress, as I have already mentioned.

Again, for some reason I can’t quite recall the color of the robes the monks were wearing. Most Korean Buddhist monks wore gray robes, at least when they were out in public, eating ice cream at Lotteria, begging (I gave a monk 10,000 won [approximately ten dollars] once when he approached me, bowing and asking for money, and in exchange he gave me a little parchment thing with a picture of Bodhidharma on it that I hung on my bedroom wall), or doing whatever monks do, but for the life of me I can’t recall if these monks at the memorial service were wearing gray robes or saffron robes or maroon robes or what.

I do remember that the food they served us afterwards — vegetarian Korean cuisine — was fantastic.

As you may be able to intuit, my deceased Korean friend and her family were/are Buddhists.

Am I a Buddhist? No. Anthropologically speaking, I am a Christian, more specifically Protestant, more specifically than that Southern Baptist. That is the religion my family brought me up in, and as I have neither formally renounced it nor have I converted to anything else, I am still a Southern Baptist, at least in the anthropological sense.

“In the anthropological sense” means that if an anthropologist a hundred years from now were to study Lawson, Arkansas, its former inhabitants, and their culture, she or he would likely discover that there was (or maybe still is) a Southern Baptist church in the middle of Lawson, and would from that deduce that most if not all of the inhabitants of Lawson during my lifetime (and for quite a while before and presumably after my lifetime) were Southern Baptists.

Do I believe all of the teachings of the church I was raised in, literally speaking? No. Not literally. I do believe that there is a lot of value in Jesus’ teachings — especially “love thy neighbor as thyself” — and I do try to follow teachings like that one, even though I don’t literally believe all of the things taught in the Southern Baptist tradition.

But am I an “atheist”? Well, in the sense that I don’t literally believe in the things “theists” are supposed to believe in, I suppose I am. For instance, I don’t literally believe that “God” is a conscious entity sitting up in Heaven passing judgement on everyone. To my view, if that were the case, God’s “will” goes, more often than not, directly against the teachings of Jesus: if everything that goes on in the world is literally the result of a conscious entity sitting up in Heaven controlling everything, then rape, murder, child abuse, torture, hatred, racism, sexism…if “God is in control,” as many religious people like to say, then these terrible things are not the result of the actions of terrible people, they are the result of the “will of God.”

This (heretical?) line of thought is an extension of the age-old question “from whence cometh evil?” It’s not a new line of thought by any means.

And if you believe God created everyone with their own special attributes and their own purpose, do you believe God created me and my inquisitive nature?

Do you believe God would punish me for asking questions, when it was God’s will that I be born with an inquisitive nature?

Perhaps you do. I don’t, but you might. And as long as you don’t take it upon yourself to enforce what you believe God’s will to be — people have been executed for less heresy than what I have just written — I have no problem with you believing that.

I was fortunate enough to be born in a country where religion is not forced upon anyone. And out of respect for the concept of “freedom of religion,” I don’t require anyone to hold any set system of belief (or non-belief) for them to be my friend. As long as their belief (or non-belief) makes them a nicer, more humane person, I really don’t give two rotten farts what they do or don’t believe.

But before I get into that, I would like to back up and further explain my position regarding “atheism”:

In the sense that I don’t literally believe in the things mentioned above, I suppose I could be considered one. But the fact remains that I don’t quite consider myself to be one.

What do I mean by that? I will attempt to explain:

Language is only a representation of things in reality. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but people have told me from time to time that they think I am a “good writer.”

Let me tell you the secret of being a “good writer,” one I learned from Mark Twain, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others:

It is not necessary to use five-dollar words to be a “good writer.” It is not necessary to use a thesaurus to express yourself clearly through words.

And even though all of those writers used metaphors from time to time, none of them beat the reader over the head with them…if you understand my metaphor.

What you should understand about language — all language, written, spoken, grunted, whatever — is that language itself is a metaphor.

Let’s examine a sentence:

“Michael threw a rock through a window.”

Literally speaking, I did not do this (at least not today), but suppose I did.

Suppose you and I are walking down a sidewalk in any city or town anywhere in the world. Pick one.

Suddenly, I pick up a rock, throw it through a store front window, then run away, arms flailing, laughing maniacally.

You stand there, perplexed. Just a second ago, you and I were having a pleasant conversation about literally anything but throwing rocks through windows and laughing maniacally and that sort of thing.

Your phone rings. You answer:

You: “Hello?”

Your friend: “Hey. What are you up to?”

You: “…um, nothing, really.”

Your friend: “You sound weird…is something wrong?”

You: “I…I dunno, something weird just happened.”

Your friend: “What happened?”

You: “Well, Michael and I were just walking down the sidewalk, having a nice conversation, and…”

Your friend: “And what? What happened?”

You: “Michael threw a rock through a window.”

..and so on.

Your hypothetical friend in this situation is likely to be just as perplexed as you are.

But that isn’t really the point I am trying to make, though it’s in the same ballpark.

In this hypothetical situation, you saw me, with your own eyes, abruptly pick up a rock, throw it through a store front window, and run away, arms flailing, laughing maniacally. You heard the glass shattering, you saw the wild look in my eyes, you heard my insane laughter as I ran away, and you watched my arms flailing and my legs propelling me on down the sidewalk.

You can explain all of this to your friend over the phone, or you can tell your friend in person later, after you call the authorities and have me arrested, or you can write this story down for future generations to ponder.

But here is what you should realize: no matter how accurate you are in your descriptions, no matter how much detail you put into the story, no matter how open and honest you are in describing your emotions during this bizarre incident, there will always be a certain amount of difference between what you attempted to describe and how others interpret your description.

The scene you pictured in your head a few minutes ago, of me behaving like a crazy person, is not the same scene I pictured in my head as I was describing it.

It’s probably pretty close to the same, but it’s not the same.

What city were we in?

What were we talking about, before I went nuts for no reason?

On what side of us was the street, and on what side of us was the store front window I smashed?

What kind of store was it?

And so on.

Getting back to the point, I would venture that a “good writer” acknowledges that language is merely a representation of reality, and that what is important for “good writing” is that as many people as possible will understand it.

The more one ventures into the realm of five dollar words and abstract metaphors and similes and that sort of thing, the more one limits the number of people who are going to understand what you are trying to say.

But I have gone off topic somewhat. And to be sure, in continuing my point about atheism, I am delving into semantics, which is the opposite of what I have just advised “good writing” should be.

But as to the question of whether God exists…it depends on what you mean by “exists.” If you mean a literal guy in a literal Heaven and all, that’s one thing.

But what about things done in the real world in the name of God (or any other deity), or people whose lives have been turned around by religion, or people who make generous contributions to charity in the name of their own God…or for that matter people who fought wars in the name of God, or blew themselves up in the name of God, or any other deity…

My point is that despite there not being any way to scientifically prove the existence of God or Allah or any deity, these deities — even if they can only be scientifically proven to be ideas — have had and continue to have a profound effect upon our world. Both a positive effect and a negative effect.

So from this point of view, the question is not really “Does God exist?” From this point of view, the question is “What is God?”

If this line of thought is interesting to you at all, I would advise you to delve into the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche . I will leave this sort of thing up to him; he put a lot more thought into it than I care to.

There’s another conception of God that I would like to briefly outline before wrapping this up, and it has to do with both my own “Western-white-guy-studying-Eastern-religions-on-a-superficial-basis” phase I went through a while back, and also with what I have been led to believe is the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, two institutions I don’t have any personal experience with but have read a decent amount about in a novel by one of the very few authors I have read whose use of five-dollar words is entirely justified.

My touristy exploration of Eastern religions led me to a couple of texts from the Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad Gita and the
Upanishads.

(My theory that the Bhagavad Gita was written as a cultural response to the rise of Buddhism in India may or may not be expounded upon later; I just wanted to mention it here on my blog.)

I would rather mention a recurring theme in the Upanishads: the idea that “Brahmin is all, and all is Brahmin.” This idea is that all things are interconnected, and that every one of us is part of a whole, and not just every person but also every animal and every plant and every non-living thing.

This is only a metaphor, of course. I appreciate this idea as a metaphor, not as a literal description of the universe.

But I think it’s a fitting metaphor, considering that everything in the universe consists of the same set of elements. I mean, didn’t some famous astrophysicist say that we’re all made of stardust or something? I appreciate the Upanishads on that same sort of level. Call me a religious nut if you want to, but the fact that we’re all essentially made of the same stuff and “connected” to everything else in that sense, well, it reminds me of the idea of omnipresence. Maybe one could conceptualize the universe itself as being “God,” and each one of us being a set of God’s “eyes.”

One could conceptualize God that way, if one wanted to.

The other aspect of this conception has to do with the concept of a “higher power” utilized by AA and NA and other such institutions. As I understand this concept, one does not have to believe in God in the religious sense to take part in this program, one simply has to acknowledge that there is a “higher power” that exists above and beyond one’s own self.

And pardon my being hippy-dippy about it, but if you happen to be reading this, whoever you are, whatever you personally believe; if I were forced to describe what my “higher power” is, well, my “higher power” is you.

And not just “you,” as in “you personally,” anyone and everyone who reads this, anyone and everyone I talk to, anyone and everyone I meet or pass on the sidewalk…

Also animals I interact with, birds singing in the trees, the snow that fell last night that is quickly melting…

The books I read, the movies I watch, the music I listen to…

All are proof that there is a universe outside of me, one that was here for a really long time before it produced me, one that will be here a really long time after I am gone.

So anyways, if you took the time to read this, thank you. For future reference, it was composed entirely on my Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone on my 36th birthday, from about 6 am to a little after noon, Central Standard Time.

Have a nice one.

 

SPORTS ANALOGY FOR POLITICS IN THE USA

(Here is the final Facebook “note” I am copy/pasting to my blog. It was written in November 2014. It’s still pretty much applicable, in my opinion. — MNW)

Hey guys…before you get yer panties in a bunch, let me state for the record that this is meant to be mildly humorous. But at the same time, hopefully, it will more or less ring true. Anyways, all comments are welcome, as usual.

Without any further ado, I will attempt to answer this burning question:

IF THE TWO MAINSTREAM POLITICAL PARTIES IN THE USA WERE PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL TEAMS, WHAT WOULD HOME GAMES BE LIKE?

Let’s start with the Democrats, shall we? Ok, great:

AT THE DEM STADIUM:

Basic tickets cost a little more than the ones at the GOP stadium. This extra money is put towards stadium maintenance and basic amenities for fans, such as complimentary rain parkas.

Sky boxes and other high-end seating are open to anyone with the money to pay for them. These seats are significantly more expensive than similar ones at the GOP stadium.

No guns are allowed in or around the stadium.

The stadium and surrounding areas are policed by a light security team who only intervenes when it is absolutely necessary. Use of force is discouraged.

 

AT THE GOP STADIUM:

Regular tickets are a little cheaper than those at the Democratic stadium. However, a ticket does not entitle its holder entry to the stadium. A ticket entitles the holder to enter the parking lot/tailgating area, where purchase of a temporary, non-refundable tailgating permit is required.

Rain parkas are available from vendors, but are in limited supply. Regulations restrict vendors from buying enough parkas for all the fans, the theory behind this being something to do with supply and demand and the free market. Prices fluctuate, but tend to average somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 per parka. Bringing your own parka from home is strictly prohibited and can result in felony convictions.

Sky boxes and other high-end seating comprise 99% of the stadium’s seats. These seats (and all amenities entitled thereto) are financed through a quasi-legal series of transactions and are rarely paid for by the people sitting in them. The remaining 1% of actual in-stadium seating is given out via lottery. Winners are repeatedly told how lucky they are throughout the game, but are only allowed to actually sit and watch the game after they are certain the high-end ticket holders have plenty of refreshments.

All ticket holders are required to carry firearms.

Stadium and surrounding areas are heavily policed, and guards are encouraged to use deadly force as they see fit. An unwritten rule states that no fewer than one and no more than seven fans should be beaten and/or tasered to death on any given game day. This rule is widely held to be a useful deterrent against mischief, despite studies that suggest otherwise.

Pre-game prayer is mandatory. Prayer is led by one of the Duck Dynasty guys. Anyone caught without his or her head bowed during the prayer gets publicly flogged; failure to audibly say “amen” at the correct moment can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.

 

DIFFERENT TYPES OF FLAGS

(This post originally appeared on my personal Facebook page as a “note,” which should be obvious to anyone who reads it, given all the references to Facebook it features. It was written in July of 2015, and it kinda sorta blurs the line between politics and philosophy, but since the subject matter was a “hot button” political issue at the time this was written, I am posting it under “politics.” — MNW)

As many of you have undoubtedly noticed, I joined a recent trend regarding my Facebook profile pic by using the rainbow gay pride flag filter thing. I’m not gay, for the record, but if anybody out there would stop being my friend if I did happen to be gay, well, guess what? You’re a shitty friend.

I applied the filter to show that I am happy about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding marriage equality. That’s why everybody who applied it to their profile pic did it.

There are several reasons I am happy about that. The main one is that I think that if two people of any gender love each other and want to commit themselves to each other through marriage they should be able to. Furthermore they should be able to without having to be secretive about it or worry about what the general public thinks about it. They should be able to be proud to walk down the street with their spouse without having to worry about being harassed by anyone. They should be able to have a nice romantic dinner at any restaurant they want to, or have a cake baked by any baker they want to, or have their picture taken by any photographer they want to.

Do you see where I am going with this? If you follow the news at all, you have undoubtedly seen several restaurateurs (well, pizza joint owners anyways) saying they wouldn’t cater gay weddings, bakers saying they wouldn’t bake cakes for gay weddings, photographers saying they wouldn’t photograph gay weddings, etc. These people justify their denial of service with a claim of “freedom of religion.” They claim that they believe it would offend the deity they worship if they were to provide these services to gay couples.

I would encourage any such person to re-examine their religious texts, and since most if not all of these people are Christians, I would encourage them to reconsider whether Jesus’ maxim of “love thy neighbor as thyself” would also apply to their LGBT neighbors. To my view it obviously does, but that’s my opinion, and ultimately that’s all any interpretation of any religious text is: opinion.

Sorry to burst your bubble.

But if that’s really and truly the religious belief of these people, I would encourage my LGBT friends and all LGBT people to simply let these people have their views. There are plenty of other business owners who don’t use religion to justify treating some people differently, and they need your business, too.

Again, that’s just my opinion. I think (hope) that that sort of bigotry will eventually die out on its own. But I may be wrong…it wouldn’t be the first time.

If you happen to support the people who want to deny service to LGBT couples based on a “religious freedom” claim, I suppose there’s nothing I can do to stop you. But I want to make something clear to you: your “freedom of religion” does not entitle you to dictate what other people do. Trying to suppress the actions of others based upon your personal religious beliefs is the opposite of “freedom of religion.” Trying to make laws based on your religion that dictate what people outside of your religion do is the opposite of “freedom of religion.” “Freedom of religion” means you get to believe anything you want, but it also means that other people get to believe anything they want. If you can’t understand that, I suggest you find a quiet spot and meditate upon it for a while.

But I went on a digression there. Another reason I am happy about the Supreme Court’s decision is that legally binding marriages ensure that when one person in the same sex couple dies, the other person will now be guaranteed to inherit the dead person’s estate. There have been cases where a gay couple lived together as a couple for years and years, then one would die, and the other would be denied all rights to the estate she or he should have rightfully inherited. I only learned about this fairly recently, when I signed a petition showing my support of marriage equality.

Anyways I am happy about that, too.

But back to flags: if anybody, straight, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, if anybody at all sees a rainbow flag hanging outside of a business, they are welcome to enter that business and patronize it. If a straight person goes in and starts preaching their hateful religious beliefs, they will likely be asked to leave, but otherwise they’re welcome.

The rainbow flag is a symbol of inclusion. As we have already noted, many businesses wish to deny services for people based on their sexual orientation. The rainbow flag means “my business doesn’t discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation.” If you’re a straight person, and you’re looking for a place to eat lunch or something, and you pass by a restaurant with a rainbow flag hanging in front of it, I encourage you to go in and have lunch. See if the people there ask you whether you’re gay or ask you to leave for not being gay. I obviously can’t speak for every business owner with a rainbow flag out front, but I can almost guarantee nobody will ask you to leave.

Now let’s back up to 1967. Prior to the Supreme Court decision made then, states could ban marriage between interracial couples. And I wasn’t alive yet in 1967, but I imagine there were quite a few restaurateurs, bakers, photographers, etc. proudly displaying their bigotry by refusing services to interracial couples. And they likely justified their bigotry using their own personal interpretations of religious texts.

I don’t know if any of these business owners flew any flags — they most likely just put out crudely scrawled signs with misspelled racial epithets on them — but if these bigoted business owners were to fly a flag to signify that they didn’t cater to interracial couples, what flag could they have possibly flown?

Can you think of one?

I can. I don’t know if that flag was ever actually flown in such a context, but it would have fit pretty well.

The Confederate flag was created to signify white supremacy. This was explicitly stated by the person who designed it, and it was flown over states that seceded from the Union based on explicitly stated (and recorded) ideas of white supremacy.

During the 150 years since the Civil War ended, it has been flown by the Ku Klux Klan and many other white supremacist groups, also as a symbol of white supremacy.

And yeah, many people in the south fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of being proud of their heritage, and not as a symbol of white supremacy. And if you’re one of those people, fine, you have free speech, you can express yourself any way you want to.

But imagine this scenario: you’re white, you live in the south, you own a restaurant, you fly the Confederate flag outside your restaurant, and it’s lunchtime.

There’s a black person walking down the street, looking for a place to eat lunch. She or he sees your restaurant, and it looks nice enough, but there’s a Confederate flag hanging in front of it.

A couple doors down, there’s a competing restaurant. Their food is essentially the same as your food, and prices are also essentially the same. There’s a rainbow flag hanging in front of this restaurant.

If you were that black person — or for that matter any nonwhite person — where would you be more likely to eat lunch?

Again, I don’t presume to speak for anybody other than myself, but I know where I would have my lunch, if I were in that situation. I’m a straight white southerner, and I’d rather eat at the place with the rainbow flag.

I’m not saying the white restaurant owner in this situation would treat any nonwhite customers differently. What I am saying is that flying that flag out front might create the perception that the white restaurant owner would. Like it or not, the Confederate flag has been used time and time again as a symbol of exclusion. Time and time and time and time again.

Nobody can control how other people interpret the language and symbols they use. I couldn’t stop two or three people from unfriending me here on Facebook recently, presumably over either the rainbow profile pic or my various rants about the Confederate flag.

Am I glad those people unfriended me? Frankly, no, I am not glad. I wish the lines of dialogue were still all the way open between us here on Facebook. I wish they had stuck around long enough to read this, at least.

But I can’t control them or you (whoever you may be) or how you interpret what I write or say, or what symbols I use. All I can do is try to be as unbiased and fair as I can be. I would encourage everyone to do the same.

Have a nice one, wherever you’re having it, whoever you’re having it with.

 

PSYCHOCONTEXTUAL STASIS…OR SOMETHING

(The following is another “note” from my personal Facebook page, one I wrote in June of 2015 after randomly coming across this article online. Suffice it to say I had been reading a good bit of David Foster Wallace at the time. — MNW)

As the woman featured in the article says, it is not unusual for a person’s appearance to change significantly between the ages of 16 and 27.

But because she was a well-known character (apparently) in a well-known movie (or series of movies; I have never seen any of the movies from the series in question, so I don’t know if she was in one or more than one of said movies), her physical appearance, at least as it appears to be to all of the fans of this movie (or series of movies) has (had?) attained a sort of psychocontextual stasis in the minds and/or collective unconscious of the fans of the movie and/or series of movies in which this woman played what I assume to be a significant role. As I mentioned I have never seen any of the movies in this series, other than a few minutes here or there when this or that (and it seems like maybe more than one at a time) cable network(s) was/were showing movies from the series in question. And I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what was going on in these few minutes I saw, but to be fair I kinda got the impression that if I had read the books this series was based on, these nonsensical few minutes I had seen might have made sense, if only in an overly contrived and (at least to me, remember what opinions are like) uninteresting sort of way.

This woman — who like all of us is a biological entity which ages and changes over time — was associated with a character from a movie (etc.) that has become ingrained into the minds and/or collective unconscious of a significant percentage of the general population. This significant percentage of the general population, however, has a static (in that their only identification with this woman is limited to however much screen time she was given in the series in question, etc.) mental image of this woman, one which is not realistic, considering that the image or visage or whatever of this woman changes not only over the period between ages 16 and 27, but also on a daily basis, often fluctuating between opposites with regard to this or that physical trait.

This fluctuation is not gender-specific or even species-specific. Men also change in appearance over intervals of time, as do all other animals, as do all other plants, as do all other living things.

So it may or may not be expected, within the conscious and/or subconscious mind of a moderately evolved and therefore self-aware organism, that a psychocontextual (I just made that word up, as far as I know) sort of “stasis” might be something to be desired.

Like how a photograph — even a duckface selfie — which captures and holds the image of a self-aware organism in a digitally encoded image file, one that can be retrieved later and looked upon as a yardstick of progress, or proof of success, or growth (in either the “physical changes that occur between the ages of 16 and 27” or “I was not as good of a person then that I am now” or vice-versa or in any other sense) is really just a representation of one temporally frozen (“static”) moment, but somehow it acquires a psychocontextual life of its own, in the form of memories associated with it.

“I was never happier than I was in this picture.”

“This picture was taken during a very dark period in my life.”

“I can’t believe I paid money for that shirt.”

Et cetera ad infinitum.

We want to hold on to things we love.

Such as the character this woman portrayed.

Why is “The Internet Going Crazy” over what this woman looks like now?

Because to the internet, this woman is not a biological organism subject to the everyday changes biological organisms undergo, to the internet, this woman is a series of images, quotes, and interviews and whatnot.

Seeing her appearance change, such as it did — even though this change is not in any way unusual for any biological organism to undergo over the course of eleven years — creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of the people who recognize (or apparently don’t recognize) this woman from her appearances in the series of movies mentioned earlier.

What do you think? Is psychocontextual stasis something to be desired, or something to be avoided?

 

A: that is something to be desired

B: that is something to be avoided

C: it may be necessary to strike a balance between “psychocontextual stasis” and its opposite, whatever you want to call it

D: I don’t understand the question

E: get out of here with that, who the hell cares?

 

“CUCKOO, CUCKOO”

(The following is another “note” I originally posted on my Facebook page in June of 2015. I do not own the copyright to the Buddhist text transcribed here, I just like it a whole lot and want other people to read it. If the copyright holder would like for me to remove this post, I will do so post-haste.  — MNW)

I posted a while back that there were only two philosophers that I had any interest in. Those two philosophers, I said, are Socrates and Nietzsche. The reason these are the only two philosophers that I am interested in, I said, was that their philosophies were not based in proclaiming what is moral and what isn’t, and that sort of thing, their philosophies are based in questioning things.

The Socratic Method is essentially asking every question you can think of, and then questioning the answers you are given, and then questioning the answers of those questions, and so on, until the person you are questioning sees that their argument isn’t as rock solid as they thought it was.

Similarly, Nietzsche’s “Philosophy of the Hammer” expounded upon in “Twilight of the Idols” set out to figuratively smash to bits every philosophy Nietzsche had ever encountered. And I don’t remember exactly how this was put in that book, but Nietzsche invited readers to figuratively smash his philosophy to bits as well.

This sort of approach is basically the approach I take toward everything. I apologize to anyone out there in Facebook land who may have been offended by that. I mean well, I promise, no matter how annoying I get.

Anyways, I am not really here to talk about that, I am here to say that my earlier claim that Socrates and Nietzsche were the only philosophers I had any interest in was not entirely true. Those two are merely the only two philosophers one is likely to encounter in a philosophy class, or at least one that focuses on western philosophers.

I like Jesus’ philosophy a whole lot, for example. If everybody – heck, if every Christian – took “Love thy neighbor as thyself” seriously and applied it in their day to day lives, the world would be a much better place. The same goes for the Sermon on the Mount…except for that bit at the end about giving a divorced woman a “certificate of divorce” while the man doesn’t have to have one. That’s sexist as hell, and reflective of either Jewish or Roman law at the time, most likely. At any rate, if you ignore that part, there’s some excellent stuff there.

I also like some Hindu philosophy. The idea “brahman is all, and all is brahman” is pretty cool, I think. I read this in the Upanishads a few years ago, and it’s basically saying that all things are connected, from the sun in the sky to the ground under your feet. It may be a stretch, but I think it’s kinda cool that here and now, a few thousand years after the Upanishads were written, we now know that everything in the known universe is in fact constructed out of the same set of elements. The Bhagavad-gita is also pretty cool, if you don’t take it too literally.

I am also a big fan of Taoist philosophy. Prior to my finding out that actual Taoists in China have a whole system of saints and sages they pray to – which is much more similar to the Catholic system of saints than you may realize – I actually considered myself a “Taoist.” (Pausing for you to get that chuckle out. Feel better? Great.) I am a huge fan of Lao Tzu, especially the Tao Te Ching. It’s like every philosophy I have ever read, distilled down to short little passages. Chuang Tzu is another Taoist philosopher I like a lot, though I haven’t read much of his writings.

I also like Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) a lot. I do my best to adhere to it…but nobody’s perfect. I don’t physically abuse anyone, but harsh words can also be a form of violence, and for a person such as myself who spends a decent amount of time discussing things and arguing online, it is sometimes hard not to just say “OH MY GOD YOU ARE STUPID YOU STUPID STUPID IDIOT” or something.

(By the way, sometimes that’s all you can say. I am not trying to act holier than thou toward anybody here, I am just blathering about my own personal philosophy and philosophers I like. Feel free to apply Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Hammer to any and all of this. Pick my philosophy to pieces, smash the idols I am presenting to you. I want you to, believe it or not.)

I also like Buddhist philosophy a lot. Anyone who peruses my “notes” should see this easily. I can’t really explain it to you, but whenever I am feeling low, reading Dogen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra” makes me feel better. It may read as absurd nonsense to you, with its talk of how dragons see water and how there are mountains in mountains, but it usually brings me out of a funk when I am in one.

Anyhoo, the reason I am writing this is to share another bit of Buddhist philosophy with you all. I first read this in a Penguin Classics book called “Buddhist Scriptures” that was given to me by my very good friend Derek Jackson. It’s all or part of something called “The Buddha’s Law Among The Birds,” or Bya Chos, but I am not sure of the language it was originally written in.

Before I post it, I would like to point out why I think “demons” are mentioned in the intro. It isn’t because reading this will turn you into a demon or anything, it is simply reflective of Buddhism’s all-inclusive nature. In other words, the dharma is for demons, too. If demons learned the dharma, Buddhists might think, demons would cease doing demon-y things. There are figures in Buddhist mythology called Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are beings that could have already achieved Buddha-hood, which is supreme enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of rebirth, but who chose to return to Samsara, the world of desire and suffering that we all live in now. The Bodhisattvas, so the myth goes, returned to Samsara in order to bring more people toward enlightenment. One Bodhisattva legend I read was about a fellow who willingly went through all the hells in Buddhist mythology, just to try and save the souls suffering there. “I will not accept Buddha-hood until all the hells are empty,” this person said, in the myth or legend or whatever you call it.

You don’t have to literally believe any of that, by the way. I don’t, and I am not asking anyone else to. But I would be lying if I said Buddhist philosophy hasn’t had a positive influence on my life. And what I am about to share had a pretty big impact on me when I first read it, make fun of me if you want to. It won’t hurt my feelings.

And one more thing: don’t read this and think it’s just being pessimistic. “Pitiful” does not necessarily imply anything negative. The point of this – at least my reading of it – is to instill compassion in the reader.

I betcha never thought a bird might pity you…it’s possible, eh?

* * *

The Lord Buddha has said:

IN THE LANGUAGE OF ANGELS, OF SERPENTS, OF FAIRIES, IN THE SPEECH OF DEMONS, THE TALK OF THE HUMANS, IN THEM ALL I’VE EXPOUNDED THE DHARMA’S DEEP TEACHINGS

AND IN ANY TONGUE

THAT A BEING MIGHT GRASP THEM.

In order to teach the Dharma unto the feathered folk, the holy Lord Avalokita, who had transformed himself into a Cuckoo, the great king of the birds, sat for many years day and night under a large sandalwood tree, immobile and in perfect trance.

One day Master Parrot came before the Great Bird, and addressed him, saying:

Greetings, O great and noble bird! For one whole year, until to-day, You’ve sat there crouching, motionless, In the cool shade of a Santal tree. So silent, dumb and speechless; Does something anger or disturb your heart? When, O Great Bird, your trance has ended, Will you accept these seeds, the fine quintessence of all food?

And thus replied the Great Bird:

Listen then, O parrot skilled in speech! I have surveyed this ocean of Samsara, And I have found nothing substantial in it. Down to the very last, I saw the generations die, They killed for food and drink – how pitiful! I saw the strongholds fall, even the newest, The work of earth and stones consumed – how pitiful! Foes will take away the hoarded spoils to the very last, Oh, to have gathered this wealth, and hidden it – how pitiful! Closest friends will be parted, down to the very last,

Oh to have formed those living thoughts of affection – how pitiful! Sons will side with the enemy – even to the youngest,

Oh to have given that care to those who were born of one’s body – how pitiful! Relatives united and intimate friends, Children reared, and riches stored, All are impermanent, like an illusion, And nothing substantial is found in them. My mind has now forsaken all activity. So that I may keep constant to my vows. Here, in the cool shade of a santal tree I dwell in solitude and silence,

In trance I meditate, from all distractions far removed. Go thou – repeat this speech of mine

To all large birds, and to all feathered creatures!

The Parrot, skilled in speech, then rose from the middle of the ranks, and, swaying like a bamboo hurdle, saluted three times and spoke as follows:

Greetings, you great and noble bird!

Though you are weary and disgusted with Samsara, We beg you, give a little thought to us! Ignorant and deluded creatures that we are; The effects of many misdeeds in our past Have tied us to this suffering, bound us, chained us. We beg of you the good Dharma freeing us from suffering, We beg the light dispelling all our ignorance,

We beg from you the Dharma – the cure of all defilements, Birds of every kind assembled here,

We beg of you the good Dharma that we may ponder on it.

The Great Bird then spoke again as follows:

Smoke a sign of fire is,

The Southern cloud a sign of rain. The little child will be a man, The foal a stallion one day.

Deep thinking about death will lead to the unique and worthy Dharma. The rejection of attachment to the wheel of Samsara, the belief in the retribution of all deeds; mindfulness of the impermanence and mortality of this life – these are signs that we approach the unique, worthy Dharma. O Birds assembled here, is there anything of this nature in your minds? Tell me then your thoughts!

Thereupon the Golden Goose rose, shook his wings three times, and said: “nan stud nan stud,” which means “that prolongs the bondage, that prolongs the bondage.”

To remain from birth to death without the Good Law – that prolongs the bondage. To desire emancipation, and still deserve a state of woe – that prolongs the bondage. To hope for miraculous blessings, and still have wrong opinions – that prolongs the bondage. To neglect those things that turn the mind towards salvation – that prolongs the bondage. To give and yet be checked by meanness – that prolongs the bondage.

To aim at lasting achievements while still exposed to this world’s distractions – that prolongs the bondage.

To try to understand one’s inner mind while still chained to hopes and fears – that prolongs the bondage.

All you who thus prolong your bondage within this ocean of suffering, Try to grasp the meaning of my words, for they will shorten your bondage.

Thereupon the Raven with his great wings rose, made a few sideways steps, and said “grogs yon grogs yon,” which means “help will come, help will come.”

When you have been true to your vows, help will come in the form of a happy life among men. When you have given gifts, help will come in the form of future wealth.

When you have performed the acts of worship, help will come from the guardian angels.

When your solemn promises are made in all good faith, help will come from the love of the fairies. When you are alert at the sacrificial festivals, help will come from the Guardians of the Dharma. When in this life you learn to enter into higher meditation, help will come from the future Buddha. Learn therefore to gain these virtues, for help comes through them.

Thereupon the Cock, the domestic bird, rose, flapped his wings three times, and said “e go e go,” which means, “do you understand that? Do you understand that?”

Whilst you live in this samsaric world, no lasting happiness can be yours – do you understand that? To the performance of worldy actions there is no end – do you understand that? In flesh and blood there is no permanence – do you understand that?

The presence, at all times, of Mara, the Lord of Death – do you understand that? Even the rich man, when he is laid low, departs alone – do you understand that? He has no strength to take the wealth he gathered – do you understand that? Our bodies, so dear to us, will feed the birds and dogs – do you understand that? Wherever the mind may go, it cannot control its fate – do you understand that? We are bound to lose those we love and trust – do you understand that? Punishment follows the evil we do – do you understand that? Wherever one looks, nothing is there substantial – do you understand that?

Then from the centre of the ranks rose the Parrot, skilled in speech, and said:

Listen, you beings of this samsaric world:

What you desire is happiness, what you find is grief.

While you inhabit a state of woe, salvation is not yet at hand. Thinking on this must make me sad.

I now recall the good, the unique Law;

Hear it, you denizens of this samsaric world, Perennial for time without beginning. Because its benefits are so immense, Let us here recall that unique Dharma: ‘These ills in our state of woe are but the fruits of evil deeds, The karmic outcome of your own accumulated acts; For you and only you could make them.’

So now strip off the veil that clouds your thoughts: This life, like dew on grass, is but impermanent, And your remaining here for ever out of question. So here and now, think on these things, and make your effort! ‘The pain from heat and cold in hell

the hunger and the thirst which Pretas feel,

All are the fruits of evil deeds.’ So has the Muni spoken. Here, from within my heart, I make the vow To shun all evil – to achieve the good. From deep within my heart I seek my refuge In the Three Treasures ever changeless, Never failing, never fading,

Our precious ally through the whole of time.

In my mind, now free from doubt, is faith established. Resolved to know the holy Dharma,

I now reject all things in this samsaric world. And so, you great and noble bird, We, this assembly, beg you grant us Your esteemed instruction, teach us to understand the nature of all life!

So he spoke, and made three salutations.

Thereupon the Cuckoo, the Great Bird, spoke as follows:

Birds, large and small assembled here, well have you understood. In all the speeches you have made not one has denied the truth. Well have you spoken, well indeed! With undistracted mind keep well these words within your hearts. And so, O birds assembled here, the large birds and also the youngsters lucky to be here, hear me with reverence and attention!

The things of this samsaric world are all illusion, like a dream. Where’er one looks, where is their substance? Palaces built of earth and stone and wood, Wealthy men endowed with food and dress and finery, Legions of retainers who throng round the mighty – These are like castles in the air, like rainbows in the sky. And how deluded those who think of this as truth! When uncles – nephews – brothers – sisters gather as kindred do, When couples and children gather as families do,

When friends and neighbours gather in good fellowship –

These are like meetings of dream friends, like travellers sharing food with strangers. And how deluded those who think of this as truth!

This phantom body grown in uterine water from a union of seed and blood – Our habitual passions springing from the bad deeds of our past, Our thoughts provoked by divers apparitions –

All are like flowers in autumn, clouds across the sky.

How deluded, O assembled birds, if you have thought of them as permanent. The splendid plumage of the peacock with its many hues,

Our melodious words in which notes high and low are mingled,

The link of causes and effects which now have brought us here together – They are like the sound of echoes, the sport of a game of illusion. Meditate on this illusion, do not seize on them as truth! Mists on a lake, clouds across a southern sky, Spray blown by wind above the sea, Lush fruits ripened by the summer sun – In permanence they cannot last; in a trice they separate and fall away. Meditate on their illusion, do not think of them as permanent!

When he finished speaking, the birds all rose with joy, danced a while through the air, and sang their songs.

“Happiness be yours and gladness too – may you prosper!” said the Great Bird, happy that he had come there. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “the light shed by the Dharma of the Birds brings me happiness. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs and may you thrive!”

“May you prosper, may you prosper,” he said, happy to be in that plentiful land. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “I am happy because the essence of the Dharma of the Birds has enriched you. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs, and may you thrive!”

“Cu ci, ci ci,” he said, glad that all these hosts of birds had come together. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “I am happy because I could give you the Dharma of the Birds. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs, and may you thrive! Sing your happy songs which carry far! Dance your greatly joyful dance! Now you have won your hearts’ desire.”

All the birds sang happy songs, leapt up and danced with gladness, and wished each other good fortune and abounding joy. They then accompanied the Great Bird for one whole day, and the great bird without mishap returned to India. On their way back, the birds of Tibet slept all together under a tree. The next day, when the sun of Jambudvipa arose, thrice they circled the tree where they had met, exchanged their hopes for another such joyful meeting, and each one, satisfied, returned on wings to his dwelling place.