Saturday, November 01, 2003

The week is gone, and the once-a-month bills are in the mailbox again, and so we are in November already, and once more I am left with very little money until after the weekend. Thank heavens for rice and beans!

I should really be more careful with how I allocate my money and take a good look at the calendar to check what day of the week the next month starts. I should make sure there's a $20 bill somewhere in the house to give me the illusion of financial freedom.

It reminds me a little of a woman I know, who refers to her financial planning, or lack thereof, in terms of "saving". She will announce proudly to whoever is willing to listen that she was able to do such and such because she had "saved" the money. What she is actually referring to, however, is that she has come across money in a coat pocket in her closet that she doesn't remember putting there.

"Oh," I say to her, "That's not saving. Saving is keeping money in the bank for a specific purpose, in a savings account."

"Yes, it is saving," she insists, "I've saved the money, it's there for me to spend."

"Not really," I counter, "You've just mislaid it, you didn't even know it was there for you."

We agree to disagree, and she continues to rummage through coat pockets in her closet whenever she runs short.

I suppose you could consider people's relationship to money is part of their "financial Karma", certainly how one feels and behaves towards money is very idiosyncratic.

When I was growing up, my father would sometimes indicate to me such facts as "We cannot afford that", but somehow I never felt poor, although in the slightly different environment in which my brother Alain was growing up, he reported feeling like a beggar. Not surprising, when you consider he was educated side by side with the sons of oil barons and other captains of industry. Very few of my own friends were rich, however, and I never felt poor. Funnily enough it was my better-off friends who complained of feeling poor.

I suppose my relationship to money goes back to my childhood, and it is this background that is the foundation of my philosophy about money, which is this:

If all you want in life is money, you will never, ever have enough, because money doesn't actually exist, it is a means of exchange for something else, and you also get it in exchange for something you contributed.

If you want money, you must ask yourself what for, because that is actually what you really want.

So, if you want money to have power, power is what you really want.

If you want money to buy security, security is what you really want.

If you want money to obtain an education, an education is what you really want.
And so on.

If you analyze it carefully, you will come to the conclusion that you can actually have whatever it is you really want if you are wholehearted about it and don't go off cockeyed trying to have it all, including so many things that you don't actually care a hoot about. For instance, if you want a big swimming pool, you can probably get it, even if it means you might have to live in a really small shack right beside it, where you also store the chemicals and maintenance gear you need for its upkeep, and the tools for clipping the hedge.

Nichiren Daishonin in one of his letters of encouragement to a follower had this to say about money: In times of famine, when food is scarce and therefore expensive, it is a tragedy to starve to death for lack of money to buy enough to eat, but a worse tragedy would be to have a fortune set aside and no food available to be bought, and thus die of starvation.

He also referred to the gift of rice as the gift of life.

That is a little bit of food for thought, in a world of exploding populations, the migration of the rural poor to urban slums, the disregard of "civilized" city people for the agricultural workers who feed them, the growing reluctance of generations coming up through mandatory education with the desire and expectation of an easier livelihood than that afforded by farming, not to mention the reduction of lands under cultivation because of increasing "urban sprawl". We should also take into account the growing number of countries where the land is desecrated by war, civil and otherwise, where climate change and natural catastrophes regularly wreak havoc on regular harvesting.

I was a kid in boarding school in England when the Korean war broke out, and we were all aghast. We were very young teenagers then and not too aware of what it might really mean for us, in spite of the fact we had just come through World War II. We just thought, naturally, that it would last for years and years, that we would have to become involved personally, that we would have to serve our country. Being girls, what else would you expect, the uniforms were what concerned us most, and so we broke up into those who wanted to be Wrens, or Wacs, or whatever, based entirely on our personal preference, determined almost exclusively on the style of the uniforms. I wrote my father at the time that I wanted none of it: I was not going to go anywhere and fight. If I was going to be involved, I was going to be a Land Girl. No matter what happened, people were going to need to eat, and that's all I wanted to do, grow food. I wanted none of the heroics, I wanted none of the uniforms.

Eventually, my world settled into one of a factitious, fictional peace, with wars always in progress, if that should be the proper word for it, somewhere else on the other side of the world. Wars involving my people by proxy. Wars involving less and less personal involvement, going ever more from one-on-one single combat to laser-guided, radio-controlled, unmanned combat, where complete dissociation could be achieved, where a caring human being could be unaware of the pain and suffering he was inflicting, where he never saw the damage he caused, where each soldier could hold onto the fantasy that his hands were clean, enabling him to scarf down his ready-to-eat meal without guilt, without losing his appetite.

There are thousands upon thousands of people who earn their daily bread, who make their living, their money, which they exchange for the "things of peace", their daily necessities for their families, wives and children, by killing other human beings and destroying everybody's environment, including their own. They can do this only because they have to a certain extent been brainwashed (or shown only one side of the picture) by various ideologies (religious denominational "isms", nationalism, idealism, fascism, communism, nazism, terrorism, name all the "isms" you can think of), into believing they are doing the right thing, and even when they have managed, somehow, to remain, somewhat, in charge of their own minds, and have managed to hold on to the thought that good cannot come out of evil, still they manage to be fooled into continuing doing what they disapprove of, what they know does not and cannot work.

My thinking is that if good comes out of evil, that is about as close as you can come to saying good and evil are the same thing. Something different could only come about when you conceived of the notion that first you stop doing evil, and then you do something good. As, for instance, when you come into a dark room, take stock of the darkness, and you decide to switch on the light. Simple, neat, effective.

As I always like to say, you do not become kind one day, while behaving in an unkind way. Kindness is not a muscle that you exercise and gradually develop; you just plain stop being unkind and that's it. It's a decision we can all make from moment to moment, any time we choose.

In my ill-spent youth in Paris I spent a lot of time at the two booksellers, W.H. Smith and Brentano's, seeking out science fiction books. Very few were translated into French in those early post-war years. I kept index cars to keep track of authors and titles, following my unfortunate experience of buying a book I already owned with another title, by a different named author, which had introduced me to the complexities of publishing, copyrights, books in or out of print, etc.

I bought everything I could get by J.C. Ballard. His books were not the most imaginative or the best written, but they had a consistency to them because he always wrote on a theme, based on a single premise, such as "What if the earth got closer to the sun and got hotter and hotter, and all the drinking water evaporated, leaving nothing but non-potable salt water, etc., etc.", to the tune of "worst possible scenario". So, he also had "What if the earth got colder and colder?", "What if a wind came up and kept blowing, stronger and stronger", "What if it started to rain and never stopped?". You get the picture.

There was always a heroic couple experiencing this end-of-world nightmare, there was never any hope, but Ballard never actually took you through to the bitter end, and the final chapter of each book inevitably dumped you somewhere along the end path, leaving it up to you to imagine the final denouement.

I stopped reading science fiction, eventually, when I realized similar real-life scenarios were actually being featured in the news.

We now have our daily dose of franken foods, spliced genes, stem-cell research, cloned animals and human beings, experimental life extension on coma patients, organ replacements (and trafficking), custom-designed killer cross-species viruses, star wars, the serious consideration and funding of human colonies on the moon... I suppose all those out-of-style science fiction writers must now be working as salaried grunts, or embedded journalists... Hum.

I saw the story a few days ago of trained pigs, who have been organized especially, under the name "The Hebrew Battalion", to patrol the separating wall between the Israeli settlements and their Palestinian hosts. Is that kosher, I wonder? Is that halal? Maybe the problem will be mitigated by some clever gene splice with, what else, a rabbinical scholar or the son of some famous imam.

Why not? There are now designer rats for clearing mine fields, trained dolphins were recently used by the Australian divers at Umm Qasr to clear the port for shipping, the Russians have trained cats patrolling for arms and drugs; in olden days, pigeons delivered secret intelligence, canaries have acted as early warning systems in mines, and from all times, dogs have been trained and used in all sorts of ways, both helpful and unhelpful to mankind (If you doubt the truth of this statement, you should take a look at the sort of experiments they run on dogs in "Hot Labs", for instance, in the name of humanity and progress, performing experiments that are often painful and totally useless because, let's face it, a dog does not have the same physiology as a human being, or the same skeletal construction).

What's more, science is always progressing, and now that the demonstration has been successfully made that monkeys, appropriately wired, can operate by remote-control, "just by thinking about it", a mechanical device, such as an artificial limb, the way is open for all sorts of new procedures. There are plenty of opportunities for developing this on man, when you consider all those limbless children from the current war zones. Just take a look at all those sites that raise money for the children of Angola, Vietnam, etc., and you will see the huge need for improved prostheses. All those organizations to which Princess Di lent her name, poor sweet thing, giving the world another opportunity to have a good laugh at her and mock her sincere desire to help lessen suffering.

Oh, brave new world!

I am not being flippant about all this. We just have to understand that a great deal of the progress made by modern medicine, surgery in particular, came to us through the terrible opportunities of the vast battlefields of the Napoleonic wars, where thousands of amputations were being done simultaneously, without anesthesia, by people who were not yet "surgeons", who were still "barbers", with riderless horses cantering aimlessly about, and the odd saber fight still in progress, here and there, among the lingering smells of gunpowder, blood and the rotting of corpses, horses and men. It is in truth a rather macabre view of history, but the fact is that a good deal of the progress we enjoy today, such as personal computers, jet air travel, good insulation, etc., came to us by way of a spinoff from military research, whose sole purpose was a more effective killing machine. It will be a great day for humanity when we finally decide to develop something whose primary purpose is to benefit mankind. And don't talk to me about the "green revolution", those food thinggies are just another way to control who eats and who does not.

Suffering is due to Karma. Yes. But we should not use it as a reason not to do our best to help relieve it. We all use that word "Karma" a little too loosely, anyway.

My friend Sonia in San Francisco told me the following story. She was complaining one day about the trouble she was having with her car, and without thinking she said: "I have such bad car Karma!" The priest, who heard her, corrected her, saying: "Stop saying you have "bad car Karma", nobody has "bad car Karma", such a thing doesn't exist, you just bought yourself a lemon!"

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