Four Generations of Pain

My mother grew-up in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, a working class town bordering Springfield. 

Both her parents were, essentially, the sole survivors in thier families of the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey. When my grandmother was 14, in 1913, her entire family was butchered. She was rescued by Canadian missionaries who smuggled her, over 8 days by donkey, from Marash to the coast city of Mercin and onto a ship to Alexandria, Egypt. My grandfather, who would not meet my grandmother until eight years later in the US, escaped with his parents and sister to Alexandria. After a few months in Alexandria my grandfather emigrated to the US, and his parents, having heard that Turkey was now safe for Armenians, returned to their hometown: Marash. 

A few days after their return home, while my grandfather’s sister was in the market, my grandfather’s parents, my great grandparents, were disemboweled in their home. When my grandfather’s sister, my great aunt, returned home two soldiers tasked with murdering Armenian families were waiting. At the last moment a neighbor bribed the soldiers to spare my great aunt’s life. And that day, with nothing but the clothes on her back, she walked out of town. She walked south to Syria; across the Syrian desert to Lebanon; and eventually to Beirut, where she settled and raised a family. She never saw her brother, my grandfather, again.

In 1936, about 20 years after my grandparent’s escape from Turkey, my mother was born in Ludlow, a tiny town adjoining Indian Orchard. She was the fourth of 6 sisters.

Her mother, my grandmother, was a homemaker. Her father was a shoemaker and the first man to put a zipper in a shoe. He tried to patent his invention but never made a penny from it because he didn’t trust attorneys. The details of that sad saga is another story.

In the 1940s Armenian girls from Indian Orchard did not go to college. This was partly because this was the general fate of America’s first generation immigrants; but also because many Armenian men at the time, including my grandfather, believed that women should not get higher educations. My mother quoted him as saying: “women are long on hair, short on brains.”

But my mother was not short on brains. She was brilliant. And she wanted to go to college.

Just after World War II Springfield, Massachsettes launched the “Springfield Plan.” The Springfield Plan established four high schools: Trade, Commerce, Tech and Classical. Students, at the end of ninth grade, chose a high school and, if they had the prerequisites and grades, they went where they wished. My mother chose and was admitted to Classical, the college preparatory high school.

One day at dinner, towards the end of the school year, my mother announced that she was going to Classical the following September. Her father said: “No. You are going to Commerce and will become a bookkeeper.” To which my mother replied: “I’m going to Classical and I’m going to be a doctor.”

A struggle ensued. My grandfather drank his homebrew arak and got madder as he got drunker. And after dinner he beat her. This is how my mother spent her entire summer between junior high school and high school: with an argument at dinner followed by a beating.

The first day of public school classes in September of 1949 my mother got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and went to Classical.

At the end of her tenth grade year my mother secured a job assembling fan motors at a nearby Westinghouse factory. The work week was fifty hours: five ten-hour days. In order to secure overtime pay, one and a half times the regular pay, my mother worked six twelve hour days, seventy two hours. She saved her pay for college tuition.

The following summer, between eleventh grade and twelfth grade, she did the same.

In her twelfth grade year my mother applied to and was accepted to the University of Massachusetts main campus. And, during her summer between high school and college, she again worked seventy two hour weeks in the Westinghouse factory.

By the end of the summer she knew her assigned dorm room and her roommate’s name. My mother and her soon-to-be roommate exchanged letters in anticipation of meeting and sharing a room.

Two weeks before classes started my grandfather, my mother’s father, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had no insurance so my mother went to the bank, took out all of her savings, and paid for her father’s surgeries. My mother cancelled her college matriculation.

My mother went back to work but, I understood many years later, her spirit had been broken and she stopped dreaming of becoming a doctor.

*****

In 1952, at a Greek-Armenian picnic in an Indian Orchard park, my parents met and, for lack of a better term, recognized each other. 

My father, a first generation Greek whose parents had come to the US to escape grinding poverty on Crete, was working on his PhD at Yale.

How it happened that my two parents, both children of uneducated peasant immigrants, had such different trajectories, is yet another story. But behind their different trajectories was a profound sameness: each of their families came to the US at about the same time. Each father had a little storefront business and each had founded a church for their community. Neither family spoke English at home. And the two family’s foods were very similar: the Greeks ate dolmades and baklava; the Armenians ate dolma and paklava. 

On December 26, 1955 my mother and father were married. 

A year and a half later, in June of 1957, my father successfully defended his dissertation. When he came home my mother had made a special plate of appetizers and had purchased a bottle wine. In the days that followed my mother told my father: “Phil, it’s my turn. I want to go to college.” My father brushed-off the notion and said, I learned many years later: “My role is to make money for the family; yours is to raise the kids and keep the house.” My mother seethed inside, but never said anything until she told me the story when I was in college.

In March of 1957, in New Haven, I was my parent’s first born.  Two years later my sister was born. And six months after that we moved to California where my father had secured a tenure track job as a professor of Spanish at Mills College in Oakland, California.

How it happened that a son of Cretan immigrants became a professor of Spanish literature is yet another story for another day. But how my father paid for Dartmouth is a story that needs telling.

My father was that most sought-after Ivy League ideal: the student athlete. He was a top student at Classical High school (he graduated the year before my mother began) and also the captain of the football team. So my father had his choice of football scholarships to the Ivy League. The Dartmouth coach went to my grandfather’s store and shook my grandfather’s hand. My father, very impressed with this show of respect, decided to attend Dartmouth.

In my father’s freshman year, before the season had even begun, in a scrimmage against Army, my father was cheap-shotted by a cadet. The injury was devastating: torn ligaments, torn cartilage, bone chips off of the femur. My father was carried off of the field with a career-ending injury.

My dad’s blown knee was also a scholarship-ending injury. 

When Dartmouth cancelled my father’s scholarship my grandfather said to my father: “Phil, I can’t afford an Ivy League tuition, but you will go. I will keep my store open later on Friday and Saturday, and I will open on Sunday and skip church, except on Easter. You will eat breakfast and dinner. Skip lunch. Eat a big breakfast. Put a doughnut in your pocket. Between me working more hours, and you eating twice a day, we’ll get you through Dartmouth.”

Of course my father could not afford the surgeries he needed to rebuild his knee. So he limped and did not complain.

At the end of his first semester teaching at Mills my father had the knee surgery he needed, eight years after his devastating injury. Some of my earliest memories are of lying next to my father while he did leg-lifts in bed post surgery.

*****

At Mills my father was an up-and-coming professor, and an “infant terrible.” 

My mother, meanwhile, had managed to escape Indian Orchard, but found herself bereft of the education she longed for. She was deeply pained and suffering. I did not, as a young boy, understand this, but I felt–how to put this?–that she was somehow disconnected. She never did anything overtly cruel to me, but I didn’t trust her.

When I was in the earliest grades of elementary school I would play a kind of Russian roulette whenever I took a glass from the cupboard. Instead of just grabbing the glass most at hand I imagined that my mother had set a booby trap. I imagined that she had put poison in a couple of the glasses so that she could get rid of me. So, when I needed a glass, I would tell myself silently: “mom won’t get me today” and I would pick through the glasses and select one a few rows back. Then, to be sure I was safe, I’d rinse out the glass. 

When my sister was in first grade she came home with a drawing she had made in school. The picture was of a large woman with crazy red hair and a broom. Next to her was a second but smaller female figure. The caption read “My mother hitting me with a broom.”

My mother occasionally slapped us and spanked us, but she never used an implement. When she saw the drawing my mother, to use a common turn of phrase, “flipped-out.” She excoriated my sister and told her that now her teacher would think her an abuser. The next day my mother called the teacher and told her that she had no idea how my sister could have ever imagined such a horror.

Years later I understood where that horror came from. When my sister and I appeared we were the final nails in the coffin that held my mother’s dreams of attaining a formal education. My mother, for decades, carried gnawing resentments: against her father, against my father, and against her children who, by coming into the world against her wishes, forever enjoined her dream of acquiring a formal education. 

My mother kept her silence but her frustrations and anger and resentments, I realized years later, were like a cancer in her. The unease and fear I felt as a child was not imagined, it was the result of my mother’s so-to-say discordant vibrations: motherly love mixed with the resentment of her children’s existence.

In November of 2006 my son Luke was born in New York City. Eleven months before, in a hospice on Cape Cod, my mother died with my father, my partner Ruth and me at her bedside. When Luke was born many commented that my mother died only two months before her grandson Luke was conceived, with the result that my mother died not knowing that I would become a father, and she a grandmother, by both of her two children.

For a long time, somewhere buried, I carried the question: “How did it happen that Ruth and I began trying to conceive a baby just after my mom died? When an answer first appeared I turned away from it. But the same answer kept appearing, again and again, like a light getting brighter as a dimmer is turned up. And the answer, I admit and now reduce to writing, is this: as long as my mother lived I had no impulse to father a child.

*****

Mathematical analysis requires parentheses. The parentheses indicate which terms act on which terms, and how the results of the parenthetical operations relate with the whole. And as I write this story I’m confronted with the question of where to put the parentheses.

If I put parentheses around the relationship of my grandfather and mother, I see monstrous violence and abuse. But, if include in that parentheses, my grandfather’s escape from Turkey, his parents brutal murders, his sister’s narrow escape and 400 kilometer trek across the Syrian desert, and that my grandfather never saw his sister after he departed Egypt in 1914, I see a yet larger horror. I see in my grandfather an unfathomable suffering and scaring, and see his violence toward my mother as a mechanical result of his having endured unspeakable violence and pain. If you drop a bomb in the ocean you don’t just kill the proximate fish, the resultant wave kills children on a beach miles away. 

If I put parentheses around my father’s dismissal of my mother’s dreams I see terrible insensitivity, egomania, and stupidity. But, if I include in those parentheses that fact my father’s parents had second-grade educations; accepted gender roles as natural absolutes; and note that my father was the product of Dartmouth and Yale–schools that did not admit women–I can see how in 1960 my father never imagined that his wife had need of a college education. And then, if I note that in 1960 my father had begun teaching at the most respected all women’s college on the west coast, the picture gets grayer. 

And, if I put parentheses around the untold number of microaggressions that I now see my mother directed at me for decades, I could pronounce her a monster. But if I include in the parentheses the suffering that my mother endured as she worked so hard to achieve dreams that were wrenched from her, I see her abuse as waves propagating through her from a bomb she did not drop.

*****

Is my family’s sad story the rule or the exception?

Open any history book and we have the answer: in the main human history is a chronology of crime and violence and horror. In fact, we can say without exaggeration, that human history is mainly the chronology of war and the convalescences that follow. Generations removed from any war can, and have, discovered in their family histories what I have found in mine. All of us carry, if we have eyes brave enough to see, the accumulated pain of our ancestors in our souls.

Would seven year old Philip Metzidakis have worried that his mother was trying to poison him if his grandparents, 50 years before, had not escaped the massacres that obliterated most of their generation: my great grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, cousins and others whose names are lost to time? I think not.

Mankind, I am quite certain, will not get more civilized: wars and violence and corruption and abuse will remain humanity’s center of gravity and, taken together, the one constant.

Nevertheless, I believe in individual transformation. A man or woman is not obliged to trust their basest impulses and thus pass-on, like a virus, their anger and suffering to their children specifically and the world generally. We can be large enough not to ascribe blame without consideration of context. I affirm that individuals can, with consciousness, interrupt in themselves the waves of horror that propagate through the world’s peoples, collectively and individually. 

My son Luke has never been afraid to drink from a glass in our family’s kitchen cupboard.

Eight Days in November

In September of 1976 I was scheduled to begin my sophomore year at Swarthmore College. Instead, I decided to take the semester off and travel aimlessly, mostly by thumb, around North America.

By mid December I was lounging on Playa Langosta, a lovely beach a couple of kilometers north of the center of Acapulco.

Two months before arriving in Acapulco I was sleeping, with hobos, in a compartmentalized cargo box, perched on top of a stack of loading pallets in New Orleans’ freight rail yard.

When you sleep in a cargo box the one thing you miss above all else is a shower. In 1976 a shower could be had for fifty cents in the New Orleans Amtrak station. Also in the station were two overstuffed black chairs placed, I have no idea why, on the main concourse.

So, every few days, I would get a shower and then sit in one of the chairs. Road life has few creature comforts, so sitting freshly bathed, in a comfortable chair and with a front-row seat to the comings and goings of a major train station, felt luxurious.

One day, while sitting and watching the crowds wax and wane as trains arrived and departed, a very pretty woman, about my age and carrying a knapsack, walked across the concourse, maybe 25 yards from me. I got-up, walked to her, and began a conversation.

She had, a few days before in Michigan, purchased a 30-day train ticket and had just arrived on an overnight train. She was headed to a youth hostel in the French Quarter. I told her that I’d stop-in that evening to say hello and see how she was doing.

About 7:00 I found Judy, I remember her name, in the hostel. She had on a tank top and her upper arm had three or four deep red scratches that ran from just below her shoulder to her elbow.

“Judy, what the hell happened?”

“Some guy tried to drag me into an ally. I got away.”

It was mid November and I had been “on the road” for nearly three months. I offered to hang-out with her and show her how not to attract trouble. She accepted my offer and I moved from the railyard to the youth hostel. 

Judy was exceptionally beautiful. She had a lovely shape, moved gracefully, had long flowing honey brown hair, an open pretty face and a tendency to smile. And somehow, although I was far from a virgin and we zipped our sleeping bags together at night, I didn’t have the impulse to have sex with her. She seemed–how to put this?–innocent and lost and not yet ready for sex.

We became inseparable and spent three or four days together. We listened to jazz, we took walks, we talked. And then, on the fourth day, she announced that that afternoon she would take a train to Tucson, about 1,400 miles west.

I walked Judy to the train station and hugged her goodbye. Then I went and sat on one of the big black overstuffed chairs. And I began to think. And as I sat there I could not believe that Judy and I had not had sex. I decided to catch-up to her in Tucson and, at dusk, walked to Interstate 10 and stuck-out my thumb.

I had an excellent hitchhiking kit: a tent and a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a collapsible bow saw, flashlight and extra bulbs and batteries, rope, ground cloth, canteen, a cheap plastic raincoat coat that stuffed into a pouch just a little larger than my fist and an aluminum tube holding fishing rods tied to my pack’s frame. Passersby joked that my knapsack had a smokestack.

I also carried a cafeteria tray that I had stolen from Swarthmore’s cafeteria as well as a roll of black tape. I used the tape and tray as my hitchhiking sign. I also used the tray as my table when I made one of my staples: open face peanut butter sandwiches. 

My tray read WEST, ARIZONA and when I held it at a certain angle I could hear, reflected off of the sign, the echo of the trucks that had past me.

Two hours later I was standing on the shoulder of Interstate 10 about 50 miles west of New Orleans. The temperature had dropped and a hard rain had begun. My raincoat was in poor shape. The seam that held the right sleeve to the shoulder was splitting apart further each time I raised my arm to show my sign to an approaching car or truck. 

It was cold, I’m guessing around 40 degrees. The rain was driving and the wind was howling and there was no shelter in sight. I was in a miserable spot.

Then, as if to punctuate my situation, the right sleeve of my plastic raincoat caught the wind and blew off of my arm. I watched it blow west down the interstate until I lost sight of it in the dark. It almost felt as if that tumbling end-over-end piece of plastic, vanishing into the dark, was an omen.

A few minutes later a large white van flashed its lights and honked its horn as it passed eastbound on the other side of the Interstate.

If you have never hitchhiked maybe you cannot imagine how scary a moment like this is. The van’s driver, who is driving in the opposite direction, is letting you know that he or she sees you and is thinking about you. Any you, cold and alone on the side of the road in the dark driving rain are utterly exposed and helpless. There is nothing to do but try to stay vigilant. 

A few minutes later the van was stopping for me. 

The sliding door opened and a guy with rotten teeth said: “We couldn’t leave you here in the rain. We’ll take you to Houston and let you out under a bridge.”

I was on guard but, for some reason, not afraid. I got in the van.

The same guy continued. “I’m Mark. This is my partner Pete. We’ve been on the road together for 11 years. We just couldn’t leave you there.”

Houston was one hundred miles west. I had no idea what to make of this generosity and I was grateful, incredulous and apprehensive.

Conversation came easily. We talked about the road. About itinerant work. About which state has the nastiest police.

After about an hour I looked up and, to my surprise and concern, saw that we were no longer on Interstate 10 but on US 90, the highway that Interstate 10 parallels and replaced as the main east-west artery across the deep south. I asked what was up and one of my hosts said: “We need gas.”

We stopped in a gas station. Pete got out, walked to the back of the van, opened the rear door, and took-out an armload of miscellaneous things. I had no idea what was happening.

Pete returned, put gas in the van, and we headed west again.

“What was that about? Why did you grab that stuff?”

Pete answered as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened: “We sold some stuff to buy gas.”

“Wait, what? You sold stuff to buy gas to take me one hundred miles west? I can chip-in.”

“No ya can’t. You are our guest. Just help someone else out when you can. Road people gotta stick together.”

Two hours after Pete and Mark picked me up they did exactly what they said they were going to do: they dropped me off under a bridge just outside of Houston.

The next day, a few hours after dawn and somewhere in central Texas, I got picked-up by a couple of poets. We got off the road, went to the driver’s house, and read each other our poems. I felt compelled to keep moving and asked for a lift back to the highway. We got back in the car. As one of the two lifted my knapsack out of his trunk my copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling fell out. 

“Jesus Christ” he said. “You pick-up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere Texas and he’s reading fucking Kierkegaard.” We shook hands and I made my way up the ramp to the highway.

A few hours later I had made it almost to the New Mexico border, 950 miles west of Louisiana. It was raining hard and my ride, I no longer remember the particulars, had left me off under a bridge.

I didn’t wait long before a guy, he must have been in his mid 70s, stopped to give me a lift. He had a brand new pick-up truck and said, in a heavy Texas drawl, “Careful with the upholstery with that bag ya got there.” I immediately noticed his face. He had deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, deep creases in his grey cheeks, and he was smoking a non-filter cigarette.

As he pulled the truck into the right lane he said: “I don’t norm’ly pick-up hitch-hikers, but you look like a drowned rat. What the hell you doin’ under a bridge in a west Texas rain sturm fer?”

I started to tell him about Judy. That she had a train ticket. That I couldn’t afford one…

He held up his hand to stop me. Then he let-out a huge puff of smoke, crushed his cigarette and said: “Son, never do something like this for a pussy. Every gal’s got one.”

That evening I got picked-up by a guy doing 90 MPH. In Deming, New Mexico he got too tired to drive and got a hotel room. He invited me into his room to get a few hours of sleep. At dawn we were off.

Around 2:00 that afternoon I walked down an exit ramp from Interstate 10 into Tucson. At the bottom of the ramp, to my disbelief, was the youth hostel to which Judy had been headed.

I stopped walking and looked at the hostel, 30 yards away and across a street. As I stood there I realized that my time with Judy was over. I turned and walked to the University of Arizona campus, found the student center, and ordered a quesadilla.

Coda:

Six months later I was back at Swarthmore College. One Saturday I picked-up my phone, called directory assistance and asked for the numbers of all the Andersons in the little town in Michigan that I knew Judy was from. In under a half hour I was talking to Judy’s mother. She told me that Judy was in San Francisco and was working at a bakery. I told her to tell Judy that Phil had called, was delighted that she was fine and wished her well.

Note: I’ve changed the names of the people in this story.

Ruminations on the Devolution of Feminism

On July 9, 1978 I rode a bus from Philadelphia to Washington DC to participate in the march in favor of adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the constitution.

I was surprised and disheartened to see that only 3-5% of the marchers were men.

In the years since I have lost none of my outrage that the Equal Rights Amendment has not been adopted.

But at the same time I have found the trajectory of modern feminism deeply disturbing.

There is a term in English: “An ah-ha moment,” when all of a sudden something or things that until that moment had been unexplained become clear based on insight. I’ve had several moments like this in my life.

Here are a few:

I grew-up in an academic family and lived in college housing until I went to college. I was steeped in liberal politics, big vocabularies, literary references, multilingualism, and world travel.

I was taught that, when it comes to US politics, there are democrats and evil people.

When I was eleven I joined a Boy Scout troop.

The leaders were all businessmen of one sort or another. The weekly scout meeting was held in the community room of a church whose property bordered the college campus where my father taught. There were no college people associated with the troop’s leadership. In fact, I was the only “faculty brat” in the troop.

The troop leaders, who mostly worked long hours and had two weeks of vacation a year, attended every weekly meeting and spent one week of their annual vacation camping with the scouts.

The leaders loved the boys and did their damndest to help them (us).

I came to love my scout leaders.

Then I learned that they were all Republicans.

This was difficult to digest because my scout leaders were fine men and I had learned growing-up that Republicans are evil.

At eleven I learned that it is impossible to measure people by grouping them into simple categories. This is a lesson I’ve learned again and again in my life.

When I turned sixteen I joined the volunteer fire company in my small town. I thought that, since I was able-bodied, it was the “right thing” to do.

The first bad fire I fought was in a modest three-bedroom home that housed a family. When we arrived at the “fire-ground” flames were coming out of a second-floor window.

Some jackass, not the owner, was standing on the sidewalk and screaming at us: “put water on it, put water on it…”

I was in the “jump-seat” on the attack pumper which meant that I had an air-pack on before we arrived at the fire, and that I was the closest firefighter to the two inch-and-a half-“pre-connects.” I grabbed one and dragged it to the front door. Other guys behind me pulled the rest of the hose from its bed. A second guy backed me up on the hose, the engineer charged our line, and the two of us, once we saw that the ground floor was “not involved,” went upstairs and fought the fire. The inch and a half hose was inadequate and we fought in vain until other guys brought in a two and half inch hose.

I had no idea who owned that house but I busted my ass to save it. At one point the ceiling just above and in front of me was orange.

When I ran out of air I went out of the house and back to the truck to get another air tank.

The chief told me to take a breather and get a cup of coffee. Some women from the neighborhood had set up a table for the firemen: coffee, juice, milk, some snacks; whatever they could pull together fast.

At the next monthly meeting the chief engineer announced some research: the guy who had been screaming “to put water on it” owned a home down the block and had never donated to the fire company. The women who set-up the coffee table had all donated. “It’s always like that” he said, “the people who yell the most never help.”

A few years ago I was in my country home awaiting the arrival of a friend. The phone rang. She had crashed about 3 miles away, and was hurt. I told her to call 911 and that I was on my way. (I couldn’t call 911 because if I had used the house phone the call would have slowed me down. I couldn’t use my cell because I had no cell service at my home.)

My partner and I grabbed a couple of sheets, scissors and tape and I drove like hell.

When we got to the crash site a volunteer paramedic was already there. His pick-up truck had a big NRA decal in the rear window and, on the bumper, a sticker that said: “Man’s humanity to man: a fire truck.”

When I was in college, once a semester, there was an event to raise money for Oxfam, an organization that feeds the starving.

To participate in the event undergraduates would agree to forgo dinner. The on-campus food contractor would donate $0.90 to Oxfam for every student who signed-up to skip dinner.

I did some research. The food contractor billed $1.15 for ever dinner served. $0.25 profit for not serving a meal was their most lucrative day of the semester.

And students, anxious to “be in solidarity with the starving,” felt very self-righteous not eating for an evening.

I was appalled. I donated $2.00 to Oxfam and went to dinner.

I was attacked by my fellow undergraduates. I explained the economics. They were unmoved, even though I had actively donated $2.00 and they had passively donated $0.90 of their parent’s money.

When I said that skipping one dinner at Swarthmore to “be in solidarity with the starving” was an obscene mockery of millions of starving human beings I lost friends.

The night of the “fast” I noticed that pizza delivery men were swarming the dorms.

A few days later I went to the most popular local pizza delivery joint and asked about the rush on Oxfam night. “Oh,” they said “the Oxfam fast is our biggest night. We hire extra delivery men for that night.”

So I was vilified by a parade of undergraduates for eating and donating $2.00. These guys skipped dinner, their parents “donated” $0.90 to Oxfam, and these same kids, in “solidarity with the starving,” spent $6-10 on pizza and grinders. Oxfam night was not about helping the hungry, it was a fashion statement. And, like all fashion statements, it was a cheap way to rat-pack the unfashionable.

In spite of the fact that I am atheist, or maybe because of it, I have a deep interest in things so-to-say “spiritual.” Besides acquiring a degree in comparative religion I have spent time in both Buddhist and Christian monasteries. I was never called to be a monk, but I saw that while some monks become quite completely nuts, others acquire a rare kind of ability to see. If you have not spent time among nuns and monks, you cannot possibly understand this, so take my word for it, or not.

In any event, as a result of repeated trips, I have made several friends among the monks on Mount Athos in northern Greece.

The first time I went to Athos I was deeply struck that, because there were no women in the monastery, there was no freely-circulating sex energy. In contrast with my experience “in the world,” where sex-energy is woven into everything, this was a great relief. In this artificial environment, free of the dynamics associated with the interactions of men and women, I found a deep relaxation and a sharpened ability to focus.

But the second time I went to Athos I felt a lack in the life there and also in the understanding of the monks. I saw that by excluding women the monks had effectively amputated half of human intelligence from their lives.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment there is a socialist character who rails about worldly injustice, but is shiftless and idle. The narrator, which is Dostoevsky’s voice, describes the socialist as follows:

“He was one of that innumerable motley legion of half-baked vulgarians and meddling know-it-alls who immediately attach themselves to the most fashionable idea current, only to vulgarize it and immediately caricature everything they serve, often with the greatest sincerity.” (Sidney Monas translation)

When I read that passage I had a huge ah-ha moment. Just as I read that passage the co-eds at Swarthmore, a school that was founded as a co-educational institution with equal numbers of male and female students and whose faculty is approximately 50% female, were in the middle of a tirade about “gender-specific language.” I found the theme stupid. I pointed-out that sentences like: “the jockey demonstrated excellent horsepersonship,” and “the oblivious pedestrian fell into an open personhole” are as stupid as they are awkward.

The notion that the female students at Swarthmore College were somehow oppressed was not only ridiculous, the suggestion insulted the untold millions of women who are, and who have been, oppressed.

I made this point and was anathematized. But I had read Dostoevsky and therefore knew who these young women were: they were part of “that innumerable motley legion of half-baked vulgarians and meddling know-it-alls who immediately attach themselves to the most fashionable idea current, only to vulgarize it and immediately caricature everything they serve, often with the greatest sincerity.”

Their screams of “oppression under patriarchy” were as hollow as the contention of their fellows that, as they stuffed themselves with pizza, they were in “solidarity with the world’s starving.”

Today no one but a pedant uses, as an impersonal pronoun, the tortured s/he.

I have come to distrust and, frankly, openly mock, all isms: socialism, feminism, vegetarianism when political, fascism, communism, Catholicism, Judaism, libertarianism, etc.

I mock feminism at the same time that I embrace the suffragette’s struggle to get women the vote. I embrace the fact that it is now, among the enlightened, a universally accepted premise that women’s thoughts are as valuable as men’s. I applaud the increase in the number of women in the highest echelons of our society at the same time that I lament the slowness of the change. I reject, in every aspect, the notion that women are somehow less valuable than men. I celebrate as positive the integration of the sexes in our society. I view all this as part of a larger movement towards enlightenment and understanding.

I celebrate all of this because, obviously, there are terrible injustices directed at women both historically and, more importantly, in the present. The fact that women are paid $0.78 for every $1.00 a man is paid in the same position is an outrage. Our society is filled with these outrages. The fact that men get more jail time than women for the same crime is an outrage. And the fact that black men get 20% more jail time than white men for the same crime is an outrage.

Feminism is now into its “fourth wave,” and some feminist writers are talking about the emerging “fifth wave.” To me nothing spells “lost and looking for footing” more than a movement, a few decades old, reinventing itself into four or five “waves.” Every time I hear talk about which wave of feminism is which, I think of the now defunct Soviet Union and its famous “five-year plans.”

I’ve lost track of which wave is which, but there are tenured feminist professors of “gender studies,” teaching in venerated institutions, who have floated the question: “absent sperm, are men really necessary?” This is utterly bankrupt, and as debilitating a notion as the Athonite monk’s rejection of all things female; as small-minded as my father’s “intellectual” colleagues who thought all Republicans vile; and as ridiculous as the liberal’s notion that any member of the NRA must be a sociopath.

But this kind of small and corrosive thinking is ubiquitous. Stephen Marche, a writer of books about the sexes and their interactions wrote this in the NYT on September 25, 2017:

“…male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal.”

He argued that: “the nature of men in general…” is that beyond ideology or class or profession men are “bound together, solely, by the grotesquerie of their sexuality.”

Of course Marche is not the first to suggest that somehow the male is baser than the female.

Andrea Dworkin, the famous radical feminist, argued in 1976 that heterosexual sex is, of its nature, violent; and that accordingly “men will have to give-up their precious erections.”

Forget that Dworkin and Marche are obviously idiots. The deeper observation is that their classification of maleness as brutish and violent and in need of subjugation is in no way different from Alexander Steven’s argument in his famous “Cornerstone Speech” given in Savanna, Georgia in 1861.

Stevens wrote about the new society he foresaw: “Our new government is founded… its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Feminism, which began as the unassailably just insistence that women are, in every respect, as fully human as men, has devolved into something as base and as socially destructive as racism.

The very undergraduates who cut their teeth railing against “gender-specific language” in the 1970s are today railing against “micro-aggressions” and “mansplaining.” It’s really hard not to laugh, except that under the silly jargon is a very corrosive current.

And that current is that the ills of the planet, from war to social injustice, to the wholesale plunder of natural resources, to election-fixing is the work of men.

The danger with this sort of thinking is that it’s half-true. Yes, wars are fought mostly by men. And yes, the social structures that favor the wealthy few are jealously protected, most often by powerful men. The majority of the CEOs of aggressive polluters are men. And the techies who are hired to hack elections, if Russia’s efforts are any indication, are men.

Is this because men are evil, or because women have not yet achieved parity? Or are there other much more subtle factors?

You don’t see the wives and daughters of warriors protesting the war their husbands and fathers make. On the contrary you see them venerating their “brave” husbands and fathers and doing obeisance to warriors “for their service.”

You rarely see anyone who is enriched by the firms that abuse the planet—men or women—complain.

You don’t hear the rich and comfortable—men or women–in their suburban homes complaining that the law exists mostly to protect their uber-comfortable lives. “Black Lives Matter” is a result of this.

The very people, men and women, who complain the loudest about all the evils that men do are the very men and women who go quiet when they are on the gravy train that those evils bestow. This is how people are always and everywhere. Not just men; not just women…

The fact is human kind thinks dualistically, and is therefore stupid. Ridiculous comments like “men have the power, therefore they promote patriarchy,” illustrate this. Actually the powerful are loath to cede power because they like their power. It has nothing to do with “patriarchy” or “chauvinism” or “gender oppression” or any other buzz-word that reduces a complex system to a single cause or feature.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that men are sacrificed for women. Men take about 98% of US war casualties. Men suffer about 95% of workplace deaths. And if a ship is sinking “women and children” are rescued first. This is all worth thinking about.

But the larger fact is that feminism, as it is often promoted today, leads women, especially young women, inexorably to vilifying men. This leads, naturally, to fermenting anger which in turn becomes a baseline, a default setting, of anger and outrage. All men in the educated classes, even if they are deeply sympathetic to the long and rightful struggle of women for parity, have been down-stream of the vituperation of feminists and their practiced outrage. What started as a demand for rightful equality has decayed, in time, into a lexicon of buzzwords and, worse, the transformation of a great struggle into a tedious caricature of itself.

Recently a woman asked me: “I wonder if you are thinking that there is a war on men going on?”

I answered: “I do, and there is.”

A particularly awful result of feminism is that maleness is itself now derided. The manly virtues of self-reliance, protection of the weaker, providing for the family, competing relentlessly, and self-sacrifice are reduced in the feminist lexicon to sociopathy, territoriality, aggression and nihilism.

This is a disaster for our culture, not only because it devalues the basis on which so much has been built. It is a disaster because boys today are taught that their essential nature, their boyness, is unacceptable. If a boy persists in climbing trees and hunting frogs and taking apart engines to see how they work that kid will be medicated.

It is not an exaggeration to say that millions and millions of boys are today filled with Ritalin because of feminism. The long term effects of this crime are not yet known, but the suicide rate among boys has skyrocketed. Boys under 13 are about ten times more likely to kill themselves than girls. Perhaps this is not too surprising in a culture that teaches boys self-loathing.

There is no doubt that women have gotten a raw deal for centuries. This is not the result of an insidious patriarchy designed to oppress women. It is the result of centuries of cultural evolution driven by many, many forces. The explanation is not in the dualistic explanation that men oppress women, but in a deeper understanding of human nature and history. And the resolution is certainly not in the dualistic anger of one side (the women) against the other side, (the men). This approach leads to the absurd situation we have now.Another insidious result of feminism is that it is embraced, as all isms are, as being a unifying theory of everything existing.

When Hillary Clinton lost many feminists said that the reason was “misogyny.” When it was pointed-out that Clinton lost white women by more than 10 points, these same feminists argued that because of “the culture of patriarchy” many women are “unconsciously misogynists.”

This sort of “thinking” derives from being attached to an all-embracing “ism.” When evangelicals blame hurricane Katrina on a “culture of sodomy” in New Orleans, or the 9-11 attacks on the “godlessness of New Yorkers,” they are being every bit as stupid and in the thrall off of their ism as the feminists are when they say that Hillary lost women because women are unconsciously misogynists.

In short, I abhor all movements of the day. And I especially abhor the dualistic and debased thinking that movements, of their nature, propagate. I hate the guys who, when someone else’s house is burning, stand on the corner and scream for someone else to put water on it. Women of the Ivy League, screaming about patriarchy, are no different than the jackass on the sidewalk outside the burning building. Yes, the house is burning. No, you are not helping.

The Oxfam “fasters” are not in solidarity with the starving but are instead making a mockery of the hungry with their fashion statement. In exactly this way the patchwork of buzzwords that comprise the current rhetoric of feminism—“patriarchy,” “micro-aggression,” “man-spreading” “toxic masculinity”—is just fashion babble and, unintentionally but actually, a mockery of real oppression. If anyone points-out the moral bankruptcy of this situation, they will be rat-packed by the fashionably righteous.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of feminism is that it has infected the educated class. We can all roll our eyes when the evangelicals suggest that sodomy caused Katrina. But when a man innocently suggests that some women is unqualified for a position, or lacks judgment, he is told that he cannot see the situation clearly because he is either consciously or unconsciously a misogynist. This kind of baloney strikes at the heart of our society. It propagates the absurd notion that men, because they are men, cannot comment with any authority on matters that touch upon women. The inverse, that women cannot comment with authority on matters that touch upon men, is summarily rejected. Ironically and insidiously, our culture has come to believe that women, and feminists particularly, have understood that men as a sex are at the core of all that is bad in the world. Should a man, God forbid, express how absurd this is, there is a ready dismissal: “He is just mansplaining.”

Three Miracles in the Sinai

In December of 1978, on a lonely stretch of the Sharm al Sheck to Suez highway, the driver of a passing car attacked the van I was in. An object came through the windshield, slammed into the rear door and ricocheted around the floor. I thought it was a grenade. I said: “we are dead.”

Four months before I had flown from New York to London. I didn’t have an itinerary, but had the idea to visit Jerusalem and the Sinai. I made my way through eleven European countries, then east across Turkey, south through Syria and Jordan, west across the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank and into Israel, and then south to the Sinai, then under Israeli occupation.

In my knapsack I had a letter from the chairman of the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College. The letter, addressed to no one in particular, said that I was a student enrolled in the department and to please extend all curtesy to me. I had asked the chairman to write the letter because I had thought I might visit Mount Athos in Greece, Santa Caterina in the Sinai or some other place of worship I came across.

I kept the letter in an envelope in a plastic bag in an interior pocket of my knapsack. By the time I got to the Sinai, after over 5,000 miles of trains and busses and ferries and hitchhiking the letter was intact and in good condition.

That I got to the Sinai at all was a miracle. I had hitchhiked south from Jerusalem wearing Israeli army fatigues given me by a rabbinical student who was dismayed by the rags my two changes of clothing had become in 3 plus months and 5,000 miles on the road.

An unarmed Israeli soldier, hitchhiking alone on desolate stretches of the Dead Sea highway at the time was, and undoubtedly still is, a sitting target for abduction or death. I had no issues and found the hitchhiking so reliable that, when the road passed a pretty spot next to the Dead Sea, I asked the driver to stop so that I could take a swim.

The fact that my attire made me a target had occurred to me as I stood on the side of the highway so, after my swim, I flagged a bus and took it to the terminal in Ber Sheba. From there I caught a bus to Eilat.

Two weeks out of Jerusalem I was living in my pup tent on the beach in Dahab, a tiny town on the east side of the Sinai peninsula across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The beach had several hundred young travelers from all over the world living in rented huts. I spent my days snorkeling the coral reef and my nights with women I invited to share my tent.

A spot like Dahab attracts a steady flow of vacationing kids who appear for a few days or a week and then leave, as well as a contingent of road people who settle-in for a few months of easy living.

Among the road people who had settled-in were two members of an outlaw European motorcycle club who were jumping bail.

These fellows had a van which made them a notable anomaly. Everyone else on the beach had arrived by bus and carrying a knapsack.

The snack bar in Dahab had very little on offer: yogurt, coffee, falafel. There was a small market in a town some miles away, and the guys with the van made runs to it for supplies. They did this simply and generously not as a business. They only asked for some help with the gas money. Their generosity won them notoriety and friendship on the beach.

In time the guys with the van began a small business. They shuttled some beach people, including me, back and forth to various sites including a whaddi–a dry river bed–that led to a hidden and remote oasis 4 miles from a dirt track barely passable by car. The walk over the river bed back and forth to the oasis was breathtakingly beautiful and, for me, other worldly.

We had agreed to finish the hike at nightfall, and so watched the time and got to the dirt road at the appointed time.

The van was late and so we had to wait. In the desert, once the sun sets, the temperature drops quickly. That night in late November or early December the temperature went from pleasant to shivering-cold in less than half an hour.

First Miracle: Insight

All around us there were leafless spherically-shaped bushes filled with needle-sharp thorns about an inch long.

The branches of these bushes were thin and densely packed, but the thorns made any attempt to break them into firewood unthinkable.

One fellow in our hiking party knelt down and lit a bush near its root.

The bush was like a ball of kindling, and in a few moments the entire bush was engulfed in flames that reached maybe 7 feet into the air. We gathered around the fire to warm ourselves but, as quickly as the fire had engulfed the bush, it had consumed the fuel and was out, leaving only a scorched root.

We moved on to the next bush, lit it, and warmed ourselves for a couple of minutes. In about twenty minutes we had burned five or six bushes, leaving a trail of black stumps.

And then someone said: “I wish these bushes wouldn’t go out.” I froze where I was standing. “Oh my God,” I said. Then, “Guys, I just realized something: this is the origin of the story of Moses and the burning bush.” Most ignored me, but a few gave me quizzical looks. “People have been freezing in this desert for thousands of years. And for thousands of years the only available wood has been these bushes. What would a miracle be here in this desert? A miracle would be a bush that burns but is not consumed by burning. Everybody who has spent time in this desert–the wilderness of Moab–has wished for a bush that burns but is not consumed.

A few days after the hike to the oasis I asked the guys with the van if they would be game to drive across the Sinai to The Monastery of Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai. Their reply was immediate: “Sure, if you can fill the van.”

A few days later 10 of us piled into the van and headed to Mount Sinai.

We headed south to Sharma-al Shiek and from there north on the Sharm to Suez highway. Our idea was to turn onto a rutted dirt road across the desert to Mount Sinai that teed into the coast road about 50 kilometers north of Sharm-al-Shek.

Second Miracle: Survival

About 30 kilometers north of Sharm we were cruising at 120 km per hour (70 MPH). I was sitting in the back on a pile of knapsacks and watching the road through the windshield. In the distance I saw a Mercedes approach in the opposite lane. I had never seen a car approach so fast and consequently I focused on it. With my experiences since I now know the approaching car was going at least 100 MPH (160 km/h).

As it approached a hand reached-out the driver’s window and flipped something in front of us. The driver’s aim was perfect, the object smashed through the windshield and slammed into the back door of the van. The object was going so fast relative to the van that I do not remember separate sounds from the twin impacts, I remember just one big smashing sound.

I saw the fist-size object whizzing around the floor of the van like a supercharged pool ball. I thought it was a grenade and said: “we’re dead.”

It was a rock.

The relative speed of the rock to the van, and the people in it, was at least 170 MPH. Had it hit anyone’s head squarely they would have been killed.

There were three people sitting in the front seat and seven scattered about the back and sitting on knapsacks.

Somehow the rock went between the driver and the person next to him, slammed the rear door–destroying the latch we learned later–and spent its energy whizzing around the floor. Aside from a few superficial cuts on one if the driver’s hands, no one was hurt. Had the rock hit the driver he certainly would have lost control at high speed and would have likely rolled the van. The seven people in the back including me, together with the luggage tossed in willy-nilly, would have bounced around like ping pong balls. Some us would have been killed or maimed and the survivors would have waited hours for medical help, or the bullets of the rock-thrower, on that lonely stretch of highway.

The driver slowed the van and stopped. But, before we could all get out, the driver’s partner and I came to the same thought. “Don’t let that son of a bitch get a second shot at us. Keep going. Fast.”

We pulled back on to the road and continued north to the dirt road that crosses the desert and leads to Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai.

The road was a deeply rutted washboard and we made very slow going. We stopped at a village and purchased food. The owner of the van removed the remaining shards of glass from the windshield.

We camped a few miles east of the village and arrived at Santa Caterina the some time the next day and made camp a few hundred yards from the Monastery’s walls.

The next day I took my letter and walked to the monastery built, legend has it, on the spot where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

Third Miracle: New Understanding

I went directly to the monastery’s office and presented myself to the Abbot who, it turned-out, spoke excellent English.

I gave him the letter. He read it, looked at me directly, and asked: “what do you want?”

I explained that I was a student of religion and wanted to see more than what the tourists see on their tours of the ossuary and library which features a framed letter written and signed by the prophet Mohammed himself stating that the Monastery of Santa Caterina is a holy place and that no Muslim shall ever raise his hand against it.

He told me to take the tour and return.

In the courtyard I had an unforgettable encounter with a monk. I can’t say exactly why the encounter was extraordinary, but I can describe my impression. A monk, in his late twenties or early thirties, and I walked past each other in the courtyard. I felt–how to describe this?–a quality of presence in this man. I said “good morning” in Greek, and in Greek he responded “good morning.” That was the entire exchange but, as I write these words almost 40 years later, I can almost see this monk’s face in my mind and feel his energy.

I toured the monastery and returned to the abbot’s office.

The abbot was not at his desk but was sitting in a chair next to a small end table. On the table was a large bowl of olives, a small dish for pits and the letter. The abbot sat deathly still. He ate one olive after another, moving only his arm and mouth.

I stood in front of him, waiting for him to speak. He said nothing and just ate olive after olive.

Many years later I realized that he had been weighing me; but at that moment I had no idea why he was silent nor why he didn’t offer me an olive.

Unable to bear the silence I finally said: “well?”

He looked at me and said: “When you meet Philip Metzidakis give him my regards.”

I responded immediately “I am Philip Metzidakis.”

“Oh?” He said. Then, after a pause, “You don’t speak Greek?”

“No. My father is Greek. My mother is Armenian. I grew-up in the United States. We spoke English in my home.”

“You were baptized?”

“Yes. Greek Orthodox.

“Come back when you speak Greek. I am a monk. I will say nothing.” He handed me the letter. I took it and left.

I walked back to our camp unable to make sense of what had happened. As I turned the encounter over in my memory many thoughts and emotions came-up. I had the sense that I was trying on reactions as you would try on a new coat. Anger? Should I get angry? No, anger didn’t seem to fit. Dismissal? Deem the abbot–was he in fact the abbot–to be a pompous jerk? No, that didn’t fit either. Frustration? Sure, I was frustrated, but that amounted to nothing. The fact was I had been given a task–learn Greek and return–by a man I didn’t know but whose presence and self-possession even then I knew was rare. And, beyond his presence, this man spoke excellent English. This was an educated man. I found the entire exchange utterly inscrutable and impossible to label.

I imagine, but don’t know, that there are turning points in everyone’s life. For me being told by a monk in a remote monastery that I had not met myself was a life-changing event. I can say without any fear of exaggeration that my spiritual search–real already for over a decade–took a new direction that day. I learned that self-study, not the study of a teaching or the passion of others, is where spiritual search moves from theory to practice.

Not many years later I understood what the abbot had said. I realized that he had seen that I was not actually related to myself, that in fact I was a young man without a self.

In time I came to understand the truth of the abbot’s measure of me as a man, not as a theory, but as an experienced fact. I’ve since come to understand that this realization of having no self is the first step in all serious spiritual search; and that this realization comes only after a long preparation.

Somehow the abbot, in an audience that lasted fewer than 5 minutes, redirected my spiritual search from an outward pursuit for objective answers and a glimpse of universal meaning to an inward search to meet myself. I see this redirection of my attention and orientation as a kind of miracle.

Coda

Twenty years after my visit to Santa Caterina I visited Mount Athos. Through a series of odd coincidences I was led to, met and made friends with an extraordinary and near solitary monk who lives in a very modest house in a remote high valley on the Athonite peninsula.

Our friendship blossomed and over the next fifteen years I made several trips trips to visit him. In time I learned that he had been at Santa Caterina when I had visited in 1978. On my fourth trip to Mount Athos, while sipping coffee with my friend, I realized he was the monk with whom I had crossed paths in the courtyard of the monastery of Santa Caterina and with whom I had exchanged “good mornings” more than thirty years prior.

Food

This essay was first published under the title “Food” in the Summer 2014 journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in each of his dojo’s two premier issues.

In “Fed-Up,” the 2014 movie about the American diet, Katie Couric reports that American supermarkets sell over 600,000 separate food items. If you consider for a second that American supermarkets sell only a few hundred kinds of fruits and vegetables, meat from only a handful of animals, and a very limited selection of seafood, it becomes clear that only a very small percentage—probably a percentage in the single digits—of these 600,000 items are actually food. The American diet consists, in very large part, of processed items that, while they contain calories and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, are in my opinion not food at all.

This is not a benign problem. These faux foods are directly implicated in the deteriorating health of the American population. In fact, for the first time since statistics have been kept, American children born today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Doctor Robert Lustig MD, a childhood endocrinologist and an expert on obesity, argues that refined sugar is not just a convenient sweetener, but a chronic hepatotoxin. His 90-minute lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” is to my mind a must-see video. As of May 2014 it has been viewed 4.7 million times on You Tube. The bottom line of his argument? Sugar is toxic and it is the smoking gun behind the epidemic of obesity and its sequelae and related disorders like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, hyper tension and on and on. If current trends continue one in three American children born today will develop Type II Diabetes as a direct consequence of the sugar added to processed foods.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest 9% of the total caloric intake in the US is from soft drinks, and for teenagers the percentage is 13%. And, compounding the nightmare of sugar consumption, a quick Google search will reveal that there is now very compelling research that suggests that daily soft drink consumption, even three-times-a-week consumption, increases the likelihood of developing pancreatic and prostate cancers.

In 1911, about 20 years after the invention of hydrogenated vegetable oil, Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco vegetable shortening in grocery stores. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, as its name implies, is formulated by attaching hydrogen atoms onto the long chains of carbon atoms that are the molecular backbone of naturally occurring vegetable oils. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, or trans-fat as it is commonly called, has the advantage of being solid at room temperature, an attribute that makes it less messy, especially in commercial cooking operations. It also has a long shelf life, making it convenient for ordinary consumers who might use a can of it over a few months. Its long shelf life, combined with the fact that it stays solid at room temperature, makes it an ideal fat to use in the production of mass-market foods such as pastry. As a consequence of these advantages trans-fats became, and unfortunately still are, ubiquitous in the American diet.

Trans-fats, like sugar, are toxic. Consumption of trans-fats has been proven to increase the risk—that is cause—coronary artery disease. Heart disease is now the number one cause of death for Americans.

These facts, of course, are in open circulation and by themselves are not an appropriate subject for the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai.

But these facts are part of a larger landscape of facts that tell us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, that as a culture we are so disconnected from the earth and from ourselves that we have lost a great part of our instinctive discernment. Any idiot knows that you cannot make a sandwich from a slab of concrete nor substitute gravel for rice. But Coca Cola, Cheez Whiz and Kellogg’s Fruit Loops are no more food than concrete or gravel. Ironically, a bowl of gravel and milk is probably less toxic than a bowl of Fruit Loops and milk.

How can it be that anyone can experience Coca Cola and mistake it for food? And if we cannot discern that Coca Cola is toxic, or at least not a food, what else in our daily lives do we misidentify? Perhaps just about everything.

We are all very familiar with Jesus’ response to the devil in the Gospel of Mathew: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” But few of us are familiar with the entire statement, which reads: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (KJV, Mathew 4-4) The idea, I suggest, is that man is fed by the truth. In the Gospel the lie is represented by the devil. In this essay the lie is represented by Coca Cola. There really is not much difference between the devil and Coca Cola: each is a metaphor, a paradigm, for taking the false for the real or, more precisely and worse, presenting the false as the real.

The devil tempts Jesus with the notion that the temporal trumps the eternal; the Coca Cola Company tempts with the notion that its sweet poison is food. There really is not much difference between the two.

Is it too big a step to suggest, as some mystics do, that we are fed—for better and for worse—by all the impressions that we receive, both vivifying and deleterious? If so we have to ask is the Coca Cola Company only feeding us physical poison, or is it feeding us lies as well? This is a question worth thinking about because how we answer it may impact how we choose to live our lives.

As children we are “fed” many notions, for example that we are citizens of a certain country and therefore must be patriotic. Somehow the natural consequence of this is that the vast majority in the world come to believe that building or purchasing airplanes that drop bombs on people far away is not obviously depraved and criminal on its face, but a manifestation of the virtue of strength and accordingly worthy of patriotic celebration.

We live bombarded by a constant stream of impressions—from advertisers, from politicians, from religious leaders, from teachers, from entertainers, from buffoons and scoundrels, from the half-informed, and from the enlightened—that feed us notions that become part of our psyches just as organically as the protein we eat is transformed into our bodies.

Today clean food is all the rage. I myself am a partner in an organic farm. Many years ago my mother, a woman who served no processed food in our home, put her finger on the underlying motivation behind the movement toward organic food: “Yours is the generation” she said, “that was raised on Hostess Twinkies, discovered they were junk, and felt betrayed.”

As Michael Pollan points-out, if you wish to eat wholesome food the answer is very simple: eat nothing that your great grandmother would not recognize. Your great grandmother, obviously, would not recognize Coca Cola, but she would also not recognize bread that includes among its ingredients preservatives, numbered colors, xanthium gum, trans-fat or high fructose corn syrup. Pollan’s approach to food shopping would probably eliminate 599,000 of the 600,000 items that are sold as food in the US.

Alas there is no similarly simple trick for switching our spiritual diet to the food of fine impressions, although many have tried. Indeed, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the impulse among seekers of many traditions to gather—in monasteries, or in ashrams, or in dojos, or in communes or in colonies or in intentional communities of various sorts—issues, ultimately, from the desire to switch the daily diet of impressions from the heterogeneous flood of coarse and fine impressions “in the world” to a controlled flow of finer impressions in a setting removed from the world. The efficacy of leaving the world in order to find a finer life is, unfortunately, highly problematic. Many sincere seekers have suffered terribly when they have pulled back the veil at a monastery to find a swamp of political intrigue, sexual abuse, petty power struggles and pillaging of the treasury. But some seekers who have sought what Theodore Roethke called “the unquenchable quiet at the heart of form” have found their way in the brotherhood or sisterhood of a monastery or similar institution.

The rather obvious but somehow elusive fact is that no one can eat our food for us. We can choose, meal by meal, both what we put in our bellies and also the food we offer to our neighbor, provided of course that we are present enough to actually notice.

Similarly, we can choose what sort of impressions we wish to eat and share. Do we listen to spewing buffoon or do we turn off the radio? Do we spend our time with others who devote their lives to scheming about money, or do we engage in pursuits whose rewards cannot be quantized in the trivially simple arithmetic of dollars? Just as at any minute we can choose the apple over the candy bar, or offer our neighbor the apple over the candy bar, we can also choose to offer our neighbor a compassionate response or a sarcastic remark.

In this way we are always and everywhere interrelated, just as we are at a dinner table.
I suggest that just as it takes a developed discernment know what foods nourish our bodies, it takes a moment-to-moment work of discernment to live so that the impressions we receive and generate refine us and our neighbors rather than coarsen us and our neighbors.

In my opinion an active impulse to develop discernment in one realm, say food, brings with it a growing capacity to have discernment in other realms. And the difference between an individual worthy of the name and just another face in the crowd is succinctly and simply this: an individual has discernment. Eat accordingly.

Please Be With Me, This Is My Hard Time

Dedicated to my friend Dr. Jon Rothenberg. In his last minutes he asked me to hold a vigil for him; somehow, I heard him.

At Woodlawn I Heard the dead cry
… 
I shook the softening chalk of my bones
Saying, Snail, snail glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

-Theodore Roethke

On the evening of Friday May 7, 2010 I was riding a commuter bus from Manhattan where I work to Nyack where I live. There was nothing extraordinary about the evening. The workweek was over and I was headed home and then to dinner at a friend’s house with my wife and son.

In the town of Piermont, about 4 miles south of Nyack, just as the bus was about to pull away from a stop, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to get off the bus. For a second I resisted: “why,” I asked myself, “would I get off the bus 4 miles from my stop, and moreover when I was expected for dinner at a friend’s in 45 minutes?” Logic was useless, I felt utterly compelled, and called for the driver to wait. I gathered my things and, all-of-a-sudden discombobulated but as if watching myself from above, hurried off the bus.

It was as if I were under a spell: I needed to escape the bus. I wasn’t spooked in the sense that I feared the bus was about to crash, but I did feel that somehow I was trying to change my destiny. Or, maybe more precisely, alter the flow of events in time.

I got off the bus and walked into a restaurant just across the street from the bus stop, sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. I asked the bartender if the restaurant had fish. He said the only fish on the menu was a cod appetizer. I ordered it without opening the menu and asked for some bread.

Other than ordering from the bartender I spoke to no one, and I drank my wine and ate my fish and bread as if somehow it mattered. When I finished the wine and fish I paid my bill and walked a few hundred yards to the edge of the Hudson River. I stood strangely still and looked across the water for at least 10 minutes. I had no idea why I was doing any of this.

My cell phone rang. It was my wife wondering why I had not arrived at home. “I can’t explain it,” I said. “I felt compelled to get off the bus, drink a glass of wine, eat a fish appetizer, and look out over the river. I’m in the T & R Marina in Piermont. Come get me.”

My wife came, picked me up, and drove us to our friend’s house.

At dinner my cell phone rang. I looked at the caller ID, hesitated for a second because it seemed rude to take a call, moreover a call from someone I know well but am not particularly close to, but then I answered.

The caller told me that a man dear to me had just died. She went on to tell me that his closest friends were gathering in his hospital room to keep vigil. I was unable to focus on her words.

I hung-up the phone and sat very still. My host looked at me and asked what the call was. “My friend Jon just died.”

Twenty minutes later a close friend called.

“Jon died.”

“I know.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Nyack, at Janna’s house.” I think my friend heard something in my voice, something that told him I was paralyzed.

“We are meeting at the hospital.” He told me the name of the hospital in Manhattan and the room number and then he said: “Leave now. I’ll see you there.”

_____________________

When I pieced the timelines together I discovered that when I got off the bus my friend Jon was in extremis; he died either while I was in the restaurant or while I was looking at the water.

_____________________

In February 1978 my grandfather died. As we were making preparations for the post-funeral meal my grandmother said “the meal needs three things: fish, wine and bread.”

On Spiritual Practice

This essay was first published under the title “Expertise” in May of 2013 in the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in his dojo’s premier issue.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a precondition of expertise. He argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline. If you want to be good piano player you must practice 10,000 hours; if you want to want to be a good computer programmer you must program for 10,000 hours; if you want to be a good carpenter you must build for 10,000 hours; if you want to earn a black-belt you must be on the mat for 10,000 hours. How long is 10,000 hours? If you work a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, it is 5 years. At two hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, it takes 20 years to accumulate 10,000 hours.

The point, of course, is that (pick your term) expertise/ realization/ understanding/ insight/ proficiency/ mastery requires practice, a lot of practice.

This is no doubt true of all human enterprise, but I don’t think Gladwell’s formulation applies to spiritual matters. Or, more precisely, I don’t think there is a linear correlation between practice and realization. This statement is not at all radical. In the 19th century a Zen master named Sengai painted a now famous cartoon of smiling frog on a lily pad. The caption reads: “If by seated meditation one becomes a Buddha…” Sengai leaves it to the reader to finish the sentence: “then all frogs on lily pads are Buddhas.”

Today pictures of smiling frogs hang in meditation halls and zendos across the planet.

Clearly Sengai is telling us that besides accepting the forms left to us by generations of seekers, something else is necessary: we need to be intelligent and we need to be hungry. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under the bodhi tree for eight days any more than Paul just happened to take the road to Damascus. The Buddha and Paul paid for their realizations not in eight days under a tree nor in thirty days on a road, but by staying in front of their unknowing for years until, depending on the story, they sat or walked until they broke-through to a new understanding. The notion that realization will just come to me, in an unpaid for bolt from above, is stupid at best, spiritually decadent at worst.

The Sufis, known for aphorisms rather than paintings, have a formulation as rattling as Sengai’s:

All are doomed save those who know;

All who know are lost save those who practice;

All who practice are adrift save those who practice with right intention;

And all who practice with right intention are in grave danger.

It is of course glib to mix metaphors and ask: “Can a frog have right intention?” But it is not at all glib to ask what practice is. In fact, if I don’t ask the question: “What is practice,” and confront what I find in my life, I will live thinking I know until I die, like a smiling frog on a lily pad.

If we look we see practice—or what passes for it—all around us. We see members of various religions adopt specific costumes and diets and hair cuts as integral parts of their daily practice. We see women with yoga mats stuffed into their knapsacks on the subway and on the street. We meet vegetarians who tell us that they forsake meat in the name of world peace. We see people cross themselves before eating. We see church parking lots full on Sundays. At sunset during Ramadan we see men gathered around plates of dates. We see self-appointed true believers shave the beards of others they deem apostates. We see all manner of unspeakable violence visited on members of one religion by members of another, on the scale of individual horrors and on the scale of vast populations, all carried out in the name of practice. George Sydney, in his autobiographical novel For the Love of Dying, tells us that American chaplains deployed in the Korean War taught young soldiers struggling with having become killers that if they killed not for killing’s sake, but with knowledge of the justice of the cause, then their killing was not murder, but an act of Christian love.

No doubt these chaplains had 10,000 hours of practice. But I don’t think Mr. Jesus would have seen these chaplains as ministers of his teaching. On the contrary, I think his judgment would have been harsh: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mathew 7, 15-16 KJV

And, I don’t think it is a stretch to add: We shall know ourselves by our fruits. Our “fruits” derive from our being, from who we actually are ontologically. And our practice exists—depending on the metaphors we adopt—to transform our being, to bring us closer to God, to realize our true nature, to find the Way, to arrive at the Promised Land.

And here’s the rub: I can measure what it means to play the flute well, to program a computer well, to cook well, to dance well, to draw well. Any of these I can accomplish in 10,000 hours if I have the energy and inclination and the time before I die. But I have no idea what it means to be closer to God, to transform my being, to find my true nature, to arrive at the Promised Land. The fact is the object of my practice is my own perfection, my own evolution, my own transformation—to use the alchemical metaphor—from a man of lead into a man of gold. And I have no idea what this really means, the realization of my coarseness and my hunger for a finer life notwithstanding.

So, in the face of this fact a subtle and generally unnoticed movement takes place: the object of my practice is concretized. Put poetically: the ineffable is inexorably materialized. And put simply: since what we seek is mysterious and unknown, we seek-out instead the known and the defined and the easily grasped.  This impulse to replace the unknown with the known, the mysterious with the defined, and the magical with the mechanical is an elemental fact of how we live and make sense of the world. Analogous reductions are useful for many things, like transforming wind into electricity and the wish for justice into campaign contributions. But in the realm of spiritual practice such reductions enjoin the possibility of a deeper understanding because they move us from higher worlds to lower worlds, from the sacred to the generic.

This movement, from the ineffable to the concrete, takes many spiritually insidious forms. For example, when my body becomes still in seated meditation I quickly discover that I cannot escape what Korean Buddhists call “the chirping of cicadas,” that is the endless loop of associative and spurious inner-talking that passes for consciousness and upon which, to a large extent, I base my ego.  Faced with this fact I have a choice: on one hand I can suffer that I am mostly unconscious living meat on a meditation cushion, a realization that can be utterly undoing if I take it in. But, on the other hand, if I switch the focus from my ontology to something simple and measurable like time, I can boast to myself and others about how many hours I sit each day. And presto I am no longer a lost soul seeking a finer insight; I am instead a senior seeker with a deep practice.

In just this way, by attending mass every Sunday for a year, I can earn an award from my pastor for my manifest devotion to Christ and his teaching. Or I can wear special clothing to show all those who see me that I am a reverent member of a clan-that-is-better-than-you. Or, if I am some kind of clergy, I can get a special hat, or robe, or belt or title. By adding-up my time on the way, or by wearing a costume or haircut or beard, or by changing my diet or by embracing some other concrete form I no longer have to face the mystery of metanoia; instead I “repent” by counting Hail Marys. (Footnote: A particularly interesting essay on metanoia was written by Maurice Nicoll and is included as the fifth chapter of his posthumously published book: “The Mark”)

And so, after 30 years of chanting/ sitting/ praying/ seeking in a community I can claim eldership for my long involvement that I label “practice,” my inner nullity, my “fruits,” notwithstanding. Now I can approach my death like a smiling frog, confident of my transformation conferred automatically by years on the lily pad.

Practice that defines itself by forms, I suggest, is not practice at all: it’s a balm against the terror of getting older. Such “practice” has nothing to do with the inner suffering attendant to the alchemical transformation of lead into gold; instead it is all about getting a gold crown and earning a “place.”

If the substitution of the known for the unknown is not a practice that leads to transformation, what sort of practice does?  And what is an intelligent approach?

Clearly what is intelligent is not simply the accumulation of hours and years. Nor is it enough to say that the time must be well-spent in sincere search. Practice, if it is to be liberating, must have another aspect. Practice must be in the direction of increased consciousness, which I propose derives from a new capacity of seeing.

To my mind practice cannot be separated from life itself. Life is lived only now, only moment-to-moment. I believe that if practice is to be transformative it must, like living itself, become a moment-to-moment enterprise of seeing. What use is it to me if on the cushion I find a special energy that animates me, if on standing I become again and again a venal, ordinary man?

Yes, of course, at the beginning, and for a number of years, glimpses of a finer possibility are signposts that suggest that I’m on the right path, but a practice that yields only glimpses after 30 years is neutered.

The practice on the cushion, the practice in church, the practice separated from life has meaning only if it becomes a practice in life, in the moment.

When I realize that my practice is not transformative, that I’m living only for glimpses, I realize then that my practice cannot be separated from my quotidian existence. If in the exchange of money for a bus ticket I am simply a juggler paper and metal discs I do not exist as a man.

In the face of such an impression there can be a strong impulse to retreat to the cushion in search of a moment of presence. But to my mind the stronger response to this impression is to struggle to watch, and in the watching become more than a robotic handler of paper and coins. In fact, it is the practice of watching that brings me into the present. It is the practice of watching that must become my actual practice. In a word, I must learn to “see.” And my practice must become seeing.

This is not new, in some traditions growing the capacity to see is called “developing a third eye.” Zen Buddhists teach that real living is “moment-to-moment Zen.” In the English translations of the New Testament the seeing I am describing is called “watching.”

I am not a Buddhist, I am a Christian, and so the vocabulary that I use to describe practice derives from the New Testament. Probably, given what the church has done to the teaching of Jesus, few people who describe themselves as “Christians” would ever guess that the essence of the teaching of Jesus is to find enlightenment (The Kingdom of God) through watching.

Of course the modern church does not teach “watching” as the key to enlightenment. The modern church teaches some sort of mind-numbing gibberish about taking Jesus as a “personal savior” and through that relationship gaining eternal life in heaven, or something like that. The modern church—and I lump all the denominations together—has nothing to do, or very little to do, with the teaching of Jesus. In fact, many who call themselves Christians would label me a heretic for suggesting that the Kingdom of God is enlightenment and not a concrete post-death reality where the righteous live eternally in bliss. I am not at all concerned with “Christians” of this sort and I refer them to this:

Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3, Lambdin translation.

“The Kingdom of God,” contrary to Sunday school notions, is not some external reward for being very, very nice or, in the absence of nice, a reward for those who feel very badly about not being nice and pray for forgiveness. Such notions, while they anesthetize hundreds of millions against the horror of facing a death defined by eternal obliteration, are of no spiritual value whatsoever. The Kingdom of Heaven, I submit again, is enlightenment in the here and now attained by the practice of watching in the here and now.

Similarly, the Hebrew idea of the “Promised Land” is not a geographical place on the earth but, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for enlightenment. The Israelite’s journey out of “Egypt” into the “Wilderness” and finally to the “Promised Land” is a metaphor for the spiritual search. It starts in “Egypt” which is a symbol of ordinary life devoid of meaning or, in the language of Exodus: “slavery.” Egypt, built on sand, symbolizes the instability of ordinary life. The “Wilderness” is the state of being in question, of seeking, of unknowing. Eating unleavened bread in the wilderness represents living a life only partially informed with a greater meaning. The text of Exodus states that the Israelites “went up out of Egypt.” Wandering lost in the wilderness—a metaphor immediately meaningful to anyone who has searched—is on a higher spiritual level than the instability and absurdity of ordinary life, thus “up out of Egypt.” Wandering in the “wilderness” for for thirty years, daunting as it is, is a precondition to finding the Promised Land, that is to enlightenment.

In the Gospels Jesus is very clear that seeking and finding is for very few. It is only the institutional church, founded by Paul, that teaches general salvation. Jesus states: “…for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13-14 KJV

My spiritual questions led me to the academic study of religion, to the Gurdjieff Work and to Mount Athos. On Mount Athos the monks endeavor to be present to their lives moment-to-moment while simultaneously praying ceaselessly. The practice of watching moment-to-moment they call “nipsis,” and define thus: “watching innerly and outerly simultaneously, soberly.”

George Gurdjieff made no secret of the origin of his teaching: he said that his work was “esoteric Christianity.” To my mind Gurdjieff’s genius was to strip the near-secret Athonite practice of its devotional element, and bring a teaching based on nipsis, which he called “self-observation,” to the secular west.

The academic study of religion brought me some knowledge, but no help with the questions that plagued me and brought me to the study of religion in the first place.

I think that most–after many years in search of a vivifying practice that can be lived day-to-day, moment-to-moment–will eventually hear an organic cry for help issue from their depths. This cry appears almost unexpectedly. If this cry is directed at others, it can only lead so far. But when the ache for being and understanding becomes unendurable the appeal for help becomes an action we call prayer. Practice leads to prayer. It is not the other way around, as anyone who has an existential struggle has realized.

The word “prayer,” unfortunately, is so freighted with diverse associations and evokes such strong reactions–positive and negative–that its essential meaning is obscured. The premise behind prayer, and a spiritual sensibility generally, is that we live in a hierarchical universe. The world we live in is one world. There are higher and lower worlds. Prayer is an attempt to make a connection between worlds with the aim of informing a lower world with the intelligence and energy of a higher world.

The most important Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, follows exactly this structure. It opens: “Our Father who art in Heaven” which is the acknowledgement of levels, and continues “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” which is the hope that the higher inform the lower.

The impulse to pray appears when I feel that the energy and intelligence available to me as I am is exhausted, and nothing will help except something entirely different, higher and currently unknown.

The Athonite prayer, with which the monks try to stay in contact ceaselessly, is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” I think this prayer, powerful as it is, has lost its energy for a modern man. Invoking the intercession of the dead, and maybe the never existing, is not compelling to the cultured and educated of our time.  A modern man must find a different mode of prayer.

There are no one-size-fits-all approaches or prayers. But I will share my approach.

In the Gospel of Thomas, an Essene text discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, a question is posed to Jesus: “Rabbi, what is the secret?”  And Jesus answers: “The secret is a movement and a rest.” In the Lambdin translation the saying is rendered: “If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of your father in you?’, say to them, ‘It is movement and repose.'” (Saying 50)

I have found that the wish for presence is constantly undone by the action of living. I wish to be in one instant, and become hypnotized and lost in the next. All who try to become present discover this.

The movement and a rest that Jesus teaches, like the “push and a pause” that Gurdjieff teaches, is the method I follow. I engage into the flow of life, into the current of doing. In that engagement I lose myself. Then I return, I receive the impression of what is by watching innerly and outerly. In time the movement out and the movement in become like a kind spiritual breathing: I vanish, I return; I’m dispersed, I’m collected.

This approach, this method, I find very helpful, but it is not the end of the story. The energy I need for return wanes, and an organic wish appears to connect to more potent energies with the hope that they may help. It is at this point, in my experience, that prayer has meaning.

Which prayer? I can think of no better prayer than Jesus’ last: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But it may be that the primal prayer that best expresses my longing is one word long: “Please.”

The point of practice, I submit, is not to see God. The point of practice is to see what is.

What is, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you and without you. The practice of watching reveals not only my inner life to me, it also brings a larger clarity. As I begin to see myself more clearly, I also begin to see others more clearly: their motivations, their fears, their attachments, their relationships one with another. Practice brings understanding.

But does practice lead to the growth of the soul? To immortality? To objective meaning? I don’t know. But I do know from experience that there is an ontological difference between a man with a real practice and a man without one. I have seen again and again that a man of practice gathers inner quiet and, when the situation is tense, is capable of response over reaction. Put somewhat differently, a man with a practice struggles to be. A man without practice simply assumes that he exists.

Daily practice is the work, not willy-nilly but over a lifetime, to come into being in order to participate more consciously in life. To some this last sentence is gibberish. To others who have tasted their nothingness, and are ready to pay for their transformation, it is their touchstone.