Monday, November 03, 2003

Yesterday was the New York Marathon. For days, the City had been filling with strangers in their designer jog gear and you could hear even more foreign languages than usual. It gives the city a festive air which mere tourists never do. There is a difference in attitude, when one has come to a place with a purpose, it springs from this inner motivation, no doubt, that avoids flat feet. The Marathon runners injected a dynamic mood to the city, a bouncing joyfulness and youth. I wonder if the famous jogger from No. 10 participated?

It was a glorious day for the race. I went out to Temple in Flushing, however, and missed the fun because the first three days of each month, that is, the first weekend, we chant for world peace, along with other believers around the world. Actually, all around the world except New York, they do it only on Sunday, but we do it on Saturday too, because we also have a small Temple in Manhattan. And we also do it every Friday night, but in Manhattan only, just because it needs to be done, and we want to do it because we enjoy being the clean-up crew! So, I only saw the tail end of the Marathon, its winding down, with men and women walking home, mostly by themselves, wrapped in their mylar blankets.

The headline today is "SACRIFICE", the downed helicopter in Baghdad. Young men on their way out for a few days' rest somewhere else, before they would be coming back to complete their tour of duty.

The sacrifice is never the same for everyone. Berlusconi, the Italian leader, pointed it out a few months ago, when he referred to the burden of leadership, "his" burden, using those very words: "How long can this sacrifice continue?"

Today, Ariel Sharon and his sons are "sacrificing" to the fraud squads of Israel, as did Ehud Barak, Netanyahu and Rabin in their time. I used to think Yasser Arafat was some kind of a heroic figure in his own right, until I found out the truth about his corruption, the tremendous defrauding of the Palestinian funds attributable to him, enough possibly to give each Palestinian his very own waterhole. The Chalabi, meanwhile, is free to do whatever he wants because it's his word against the Jordanian court's, and he has said: "It's all lies, I tell you, all lies!", and we believe him. Because he has an honest face? Well my advice to him is better he stick to being a US sponsored leader in Iraq than try to earn himself a living as a bookie in England, with that smarmy smile of his. He wouldn't stand a chance.

Recently, I listened to an interview of Femi Kuti, Fela Kuti's son. Fela Kuti was the Nigerian musician who died of Aids some time back in 1997.

Fela Kuti was quite a character. He married 27 women once, not sequentially, all at once in a grandiose traditional wedding ceremony. He was always larger than life, he was always on the out with the Nigerian authorities, against police, army, establishment and neo-colonialism. One fine day, in 1974, the Nigerian authorities surrounded his home, Alagbon Close, and razed it to the ground. He put out an album about it, making fun of them. He then built himself an even bigger compound for his family, although I think "tribe" would be a more fitting definition, and named it Kalakuta Republic, and he declared its independence from the State of Nigeria. In 1977, some 1,000 fully armed military forces invaded Kuti's republic, fracturing his skull, arm and leg, almost killing him, and throwing his 82-year old mother out of a first floor window. They torched the place and held back the fire trucks and destroyed the whole place, arresting anyone who could eventually act as a witness. Although he went into exile for a while, they couldn't clamp him down, they didn't shut him up, he continued to speak up (or rather, "sing" up), he continued his brilliant career.

Well, he lived a long life under the circumstances, he died just before his 59th birthday. He was probably the most influential musician in Africa, probably the most influential in the whole world.

The interviewer asked his son, Femi Kuti, himself a musician of renown and a political activist, "What do you think of President Obasanjo?" He laughed softly: "Of course, he is corrupt..." The interviewer pursued his questioning: "Does it surprise you that he is doing such good business with American businesses under President Bush?" He kept on laughing softly: "Why should I be surprised that he remains in power?" he asked, "And why should you be? Take a look at Bush... They all get along well because they are all the same! They understand each other, because they are birds of a feather, they are all corrupt!"

The only "ism" which does not get reviled very much is not an "ism", funnily enough. That is why it hits everybody's blind spot. We are staring at it every day without recognizing it: it is hypocrisy.

If the three major religions practiced in the world today are agaisnt same-sex carnal relations, how can you condone a same-sex marriage and elect a gay bishop?

If all the religions in the world, almost without exception, are for the sanctity of life, how can you ever justify a war, pre-emptive or preventive?

What am I missing?

I am not saying the religions are wrong; I am not saying anything one way or the other about gay relationships, are they right for you, are they right for all. What I am saying is why is it people do not follow the very tenets of the religions they claim to be so attached to? It's not as if a religion were like a menu in a restaurant, where you can select to take up what you choose, where you can follow those rules you agree to and can ignore those that you don't agree with. Why just not be honest about it, instead of throwing epithets all over the place, "the axis of evil of this", "the forces of good of that"? Most of the time, what is going on is that we are doing the exact opposite of what we say we are doing, in the words we are using to describe our actions.

Through talkingpointsmemo.com, I linked yesterday to what George Orwell said in 1946 about the use of language and its effect on thought processes (there's a nice little flurry about cause and effect there, too). www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/Orwell46.stm. (I checked this link on its own, separately, one gets a "can't find URL" message, but when you see the message "You might want to try this page with a similar name, it gets you there.)

Now, an interesting fact about the possibility of making changes is this: the movement of Solidarity in Poland managed to overthrow the oppressive Soviet regime, without bloodshed. How amazing that is, when you compare it to Hungary 1957, and Prague 1968. But the men of Solidarity did risk their lives, they jeopardized their livelihoods, they went to prison leaving their wives and children behind.

A peaceful revolution is always harder than one which involves bloodshed.

Because a change of regime doesn't always involve a change of heart, even a successful revolution can result in having exactly the same corrupt individuals remaining in control afterwards. Those who have enjoyed the privilege and comforts of power are reluctant to give it all up and will do everything they can to hold on to it. You may have changed the label on the can of worms, but not the content. It is very hard on those who sacrificed many years of their youth bringing about changes which after only a short time reveal themselves to be just a dream, still only a mirage way off in the future. This is very well described by Adam Michnik in various of his letters, speeches and essays.

It is hard to change one's heart, one's mind. It never happens by accident. It never happens because of outward coertion, either, or because of brainwashing. The core heart and mind of a human being always, always remain pure, only the individual can decide for himself what it will be, whether he will do good or whether he will do evil, whether he will buckle under the stress of temptation or hold out for what he knows is a better decision.

You disagree? There was a woman once, who blamed her husband for her feeling full: "He made me eat the pizza", she whined. But then, she thought a little bit about it and laughed and said: "Well, I guess I ate the pizza, so, based on results, I guess I meant to eat the pizza, it had nothing to do with him at all."

It's Ramadan, and I hear how some individuals are going to stop smoking, "after" Ramadan.

Excuse me, why don't you just stop smoking now, if you want to? Or, if you really feel too weak, if you are really, really hooked, why don't you stop smoking "during" Ramadan, instead of sweating and hankering and yearning for sundown, puff, puff at last, I'll stop "after" Ramadan.

There is a very vast difference between doing without something because you choose to and because you are forced to. I wouldn't mind betting that a good number of people who would go without "during" Ramadan would develop a real distaste for tobacco over the month and not want to start again. It is quite easy to develop a new habit, actually it is much easier than to break an established old bad habit.

I was raised as a Christian, I was a Roman Catholic, to be precise. We didn't have Ramadan, we had Lent, forty days of it. For grown-ups, there was a certain form of fasting, not sun-up to sun-down, but smaller, simpler portions, every day, such as no meat, no liquor, no food or drink at all on Fridays, that sort of thing.

As a child in a boarding school, a convent no less, we were encouraged to "give up something for Lent". In post-World War II England, there was precious little to give up in a Catholic convent, I can tell you. Even "sweets" were already off limits during Lent, they were rationed as it was outside Lent, there was no choice in the matter. I had to come up with something. I used to drink my tea and coffee sweetened with sugar. One year, I gave up sugar. It was a very long, hard Lent for me, I couldn't wait for Easter Sunday.

Well, you already know what happened on Easter Sunday, don't you? I hated sweet tea and coffee when I tasted it again. I have never used sugar since and I am still working my way through the original pound of sugar I bought in 1970 when I came to New York.

Ah, you say, how righteous you are!

Well, yes, but I can even top that with my very own smoking experience.

I used to smoke three packs a day, when I lived in Europe, and I went "cold turkey", some time around November 12 or 13, 1970, on my way to America.

If I could do it, anyone can!

I sailed the southern route on the Italian Line's S.S. Michelangelo, because I wanted to see for myself how big the world is.

I used to smoke dark Bastos. I never liked English cigarettes, or American cigarettes, and I also didn't like the dark French Gitanes or Gauloises. It was Bastos for me, the dark, not the blond, or cigarillos, or better still, Cuban cigars, Montecristos No. 3. People would come into the office where I worked, see me in my short skirts, see-through blouses, smoking my Montecristo, and say: "Who the hell is that?"

As I was smoking a cigarette on deck at the back of the Michelangelo one afternoon, watching over the glowing end of my little ciggy that quite frankly didn't taste so good in the ocean breeze, watching carefully that hot little ember to make sure it would not get blown off and sucked into some open porthole to start a fire in someone's cabin, I started wondering what the heck I would smoke in America, where Bastos would be unavailable to me, or Cuban cigars, and I also started pondering the fact that I had tried so many times unsuccessfully to stop smoking, that it was a habit I despised, that it made my mouth smell and taste like a dirty ashtray, that practically every beautiful dress I owned had a small burn on its skirt, somewhere, that it cost me a more important part of my earnings every year as I increased my consumption, that practically the only cigarette I ever enjoyed was the very first one of the day with my morning coffee, or with coffee after lunch, or the one after sex, and that all the others were indescribably disgusting, although I continued to smoke them, and all of a sudden, I pulled my unfinished last pack out of my purse, containing just four more cigarettes, and flung it into the wake behind the Michelangelo, and then watched it bob up and down towards the horizon, until I could no longer see it clearly, and then I turned away to get on with the rest of my life. I never went back.

My friend Asaf at the time had given me a lecture, over lunch in the old part of Cannes. He had scribbled notes on the table cloth, all about the Krebs cycle enzymes, the effect of nicotine thereon, the effect of their disruption on the function of digestion and finally the condition of the heart. Forget the bit about the lung cancer, he said. Forget the bit about the bladder cancer, he said. Just stop for the sake of your heart, he said. Within three months, you will have beautiful pink lungs again, just like a baby, he said, and your food will taste much, much better.

According to Asaf, you will also be getting the benefit of it, your food that is, via the Krebs cycle enzymes, and you will thus require less vitamin supplements, because you will actually be digesting your food properly, for a change.

He should have added: You will become a reformed sinner, a righteous dude, like me, and everybody will hate you, because you will bore them to death.

Actually, it's fun, so go for it!

In fact, I believe it is easier, when one is attempting to change habits, to deal with physical items rather than spiritual issues. I think it is much easier to overcome a physical dependency, or addiction, or habitual substance abuse (food, drink, drugs, sex) than to effect a change in the spiritual field (greed, laziness, envy, jealousy, anger, selfishness, etc.). The world will never become a better place through legislation. It will only really become a peaceful place when each individual decides to overcome his own delusions and illusions, and to reform his wrong actions.

I practice the least coercive of all religions, Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, nobody ever tells you what you should do or think. The only thing is this:

"If you want to understand the circumstances that surround you today, you only have to look at the causes you made in the past; and if you want to know what the future holds, look at the causes you are making now."

Reverend Nagasaka, our Chief Priest, likes to explain religious beliefs with the following analogy.

The stove is very hot, even if it is not obvious that it is; even if there were a warning sign, not everyone can read. Whether you know how hot it is or not, the fact is that if you touch it with your bare hand, you will burn yourself.

This will happen to you whether you believe the stove is hot or not, whether you love the stove or not, whether you intend to burn yourself or not.

That is why some religions tell you simply not to touch the hot stove, without telling you why.

Others explain the hot stove, and leave it up to you whether to touch it and get burned, or avoid it so as not to get burned, whilst enjoying the benefits a hot stove can bring (heating the house, cooking dinner, making hot tea, etc.).

There is no hard and fast rule about this. Basically, if you are a mother and you have a hot stove in your house, you want to make sure your baby does not go and burn his little hands by touching it when you are not looking.

So, back to the mundane world, where we all need money to eat. One of my favorite journalists is Euan Ferguson, who writes for the UK Guardian. He has a piece this week in the Observer. It is an interview with Alasdair Gray, "Money is important to artists, especially when you haven't got it.". http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1075265,00.html.

As you can see, I'm not a full-blown blogger yet, I haven't mastered the linking process. I will, I will.
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