November 16, 2007

The Wanderer steps forth

The other night I was reading "The History of Tom Thumb" to my children out of Joseph Jacobs's English Fairy Tales (1890), which begins:

"In the days of the great Prince Arthur, there lived a mighty magician,called Merlin, the most learned and skilful enchanter the world has ever seen.

This famous magician, who could take any form he pleased, was travelling about as a poor beggar, and being very tired, he stopped at the cottage of a ploughman to rest himself, and asked for some food."

The moment I read those words, I was thunderstruck. The realization hit me: Merlin is Odin.

I almost wanted to stop reading just to let this, and its implications sink in, but I didn't, because there are few sins greater than to interrupt a child's fairy tale.

Now, I know I could probably find this notion in any number of dusty tomes by scholars of literature, mythology or folklore. But I don't recall ever having read this. No, I don't even feel like looking it up. In that one moment, the energy of the archetype reached through several levels of being and zapped me right where I sat among my pajama-clad children.

And from that moment forward, I will always be certain: Merlin is Odin.

November 15, 2007

I wasn't expecting THAT!

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then parodying the hell out of someone must be the greatest form of... love? I hope so.

Once I got over the "Oh my God!" reaction, I couldn't stop chuckling about this posting on a friend's blog.

I consider myself well roasted, or should I say toasted?

November 9, 2007

Goin' to the dogs - 2nd interlude

When anyone mentions the negative effects the "Tibetans" might have, back pain is usually at the top of the list. As I mentioned in a previous posting, this is most likely due to two factors. The first is that the exercises quickly strengthen the abdominal muscles without balancing this out by strengthening the back (especially the lower-back) muscles. The second factor is that our contemporary lifestyle, with all those hours seated in front of a computer, gives us weak back muscles to begin with.

To counteract this tendency of the "Tibetans", I have incorporated the following exercise into my morning routine. I learned it from my chiropractor (who occasionally needs to give my head a swift jerk to pop my neck back into place; old aikido injury, don'tcha know).

My chiropractor demonstrated it on a table with his legs hanging over the edge from the hips down, but in a house with four children, I never seem to find an uncluttered table with enough leg clearance on one end, so I started doing the exercise with a simple chair. It works.

So... you start by lying across the chair on your stomach, and grasping the bottoms of two chair legs, like so:

Keeping your trunk and head as parallel to the ground as possible, raise your legs as slowly as you can while you inhale, until your legs are parallel to the ground, like so:
Then slowly let your legs back down to the floor as you exhale (still holding them out straight), until your toes touch the floor.

I recommend doing as many repetitions of this exercise as you do of the five "rites", so that your lower back gets as strong as your abdomen and chest.

Even if you don't do the "Tibetans", it might be a good idea to start doing this exercise if you spend lots of time staring at computer screens. Like you're doing at this very moment.

November 4, 2007

Puttin' on the feed bag

(RSS feed, that is)

There are times I can be downright geeky. For several years, I was the one people came to at the Hungarian Press Agency's Econews when they had a problem with Microsoft Windows. But there are times I can be nearly Luddite in my resistance to adopting new technologies, especially if I suspect there's some evil, hidden capitalist agenda behind it. Only fools try something just because it's new.

And that's the way it was between me and RSS technology. For years now I've seen links on pages offering "feeds" of various content. "Sure," I thought, "like I need more stuff cluttering up my life. It probably involves getting lots of spam and getting placed on lists of idiots who do things like send in Reader's Digest contest entries."

I also knew it had something to do with what, in the golden era of Netscape (long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...) was referred to as "push technology." Wow, was that ever a flop. Another idea the world and the Scribbler just weren't ready for. "No thank you," I proudly said, "I can go looking for the stuff I want. I don't need to have it delivered to me."

And then I became a blogger.

When you configure your blog, among the settings are the settings for your feeds. I got to wondering what this was all about. Then I noticed the links on my blog for feeds. Hmmm. How does this work? I kept wondering what a reader would see and experience if they subscribed to a feed of my blog. For that matter, if it would even work.

And besides that, part of the blogging game (and I'm sure I'm not telling most of you anything new) involves reading other blogs. It makes sense. Novelists read novels. Journalists read newpapers and magazines, and bloggers read other blogs. It's just part of learning how to do it. And, of course, one needs to understand that blogging is a social activity, not just a solitary craft.

The long and the short of it: bloggers read (or should read) blogs.

So I went to a friend's blog and subscribed. Due to the fact that I've been a Google person ever since I got my first invitation to G-mail three years ago (I'm a Google whore: I use G-mail, Blogger, Page Creator, Analytics, Google Documents, Google Talk...), setting up the feed with Google Reader was absurdly easy. Hmmm. The research I'd read about RSS said it can save time for people who regularly check certain websites to see if there's new information. Hmmm.

So I subscribed to all the blogs I read. And you know what? I, er, have to admit. It's saving me time. I just open my feed reader, and it shows me which blogs have new postings, and I can read them right there. If I want to comment, one keystroke takes me to their blog. Amazing. No more clicking around on links and waiting for blogs to load, only to find out there's nothing new.

Now I still think you'd have to be crazy to subscribe to a feed of something like CNN. Your reader would be full-to-groaning with new stuff all the time. But for the conscientious blogger, I have to admit this is a good tool.

Not to say that it isn't a good thing to be a bit Luddite sometimes.

October 29, 2007

Goin' to the dogs - interlude

It's been a month since I started doing the "rites", and I'm up to 11 reps of each (though I have done 25 spins since the very start, because I learned that exercise from another source).

The question was raised in the comments whether I am noticing any other effects. Well...

I'm still amazed at how much easier jogging is, and keep in mind that I jog at 5 a.m. It just doesn't seem like the effort it used to be. I have on occasion noticed an improvement of my eyesight, but not dramatic, and not always. I'll keep you posted on that. Lung capacity is definitely up. And, well, I feel better. Getting up in the morning seems to be easier, too. Sleep pattern has changed, though I'd be hard pressed to say exactly how. I tend to wake up about an hour or two before the alarm is set for, and I'm surprised that I feel like I could get up right then.

It was also raised in a comment that some people complain of back pain from doing the Tibetans, and it was suggested that it could be incipient kundalini energy. I wouldn't jump for metaphysical explanations. Fact is that one of the real "burners" in this set is the leg and neck lifts. You end up strengthening your abdominal muscles way out of proportion to your lower back muscles. Your average sedentary contemporary already has weak lower back muscles. Start pumping up the muscles on the front of the trunk and it's bound to cause an imbalance. I compensate with a lower back exercise my chiropractor taught me. I'll keep you posted about how that works out.

I don't want to get ahead of myself in responding to some of the comments, because I plan to discuss the effects of the exercises (physical and metaphysical) in part IV.

October 27, 2007

A ritual magician friend of mine can get non-physical beings to appear in smoke (you'll need to scroll down to see her image). But when this loaf of bread spontaneously emerged from our bread baking machine, yesterday, my wife quipped, "SDS can make spirits appear in smoke, but do faces appear in her bread?"

Take that!

Might this be anyone you know, SDS?

I swear we didn't manipulate the dough at all!

October 21, 2007

Goin' to the dogs - Part III

So The Scribbler posed lots of unanswered questions in the last "dogs" posting. And he's been digging to find the answers. As a matter of fact, he has even employed the formidable talents of Hellibrarian (hereinafter referred to affectionately as "Hell"), to help him dig.

This whole adventure presents much food for thought on the nature and reliability of information in the Internet age. For a while it seemed this posting would end up being a cautionary tale about the dangers of believing what you read on the Internet, and the virtues of checking facts in more "traditional media" such as newspapers, respectable journals, and long-established reference works. You see, I thought I'd found "the truth" in a newspaper article written by a plucky investigative reporter. But after checking her "facts", the twist is that this posting may as well have been entitled "Snarky journalist repeatedly shoots self in foot in major Axel Springer newspaper."

You just wouldn't believe how many websites there are out there dedicated to those five exercises originally called "the rites of rejuvenation" in the Kelder books, but which have eventually come to be known as "The Five Tibetans." Hours of Internet searches established that there are many dozens of them out there. It would be difficult to say exactly how many.

"Five Tibetan" sites mostly fall into two categories: what we'll call fan sites or propaganda sites, and commercial sites.

The propaganda sites are altruistic in spirit. They're put up by people who are so convinced the five "rites" are incredibly beneficial to anyone who will do them these inspired souls feel they must spread the word, and copyright be damned. Anything this important to mankind as a whole, they seem to think, can't possibly be proprietary. Many of the images are- and much of the text is plagiarized. And after browsing through a certain number of them, it becomes apparent that almost all of them reproduce the same diagrams, instructions and background material, and claims of miraculous effects; at times shamelessly cut and paste from one another.

And it also becomes obvious that site after site repeats the same "information" as fact and truth, when it is apparent their authority is another website, which may also have merely parroted another website.

The commercial sites are just as numerous as the propaganda sites. The amazing thing is that they also mostly just repeat the same things you can find on the propaganda sites, but they're using it to sell something (an e-book, a video, a training course). It's pretty amazing that anyone can create supplemental materials for something as simple and easy as five basic exercises to be performed every morning. And they really are basic. But where good health and longevity are being promised, you are bound to find some snake-oil salesmen hanging about.

That brings us to the article I mentioned earlier. The German version of the Wikipedia article on The Five Tibetans lists a link to a 1999 newspaper article that appeared in Die Welt, entitled "Suche nach dem Buch aus dem Nichts" (translation: Search for the book out of nowhere), by Susanna Schwager (article: part I, part II).

From the very first word of Ms Schwager's article, you can see that her viewpoint goes far beyond healthy skepticism. She has a chip on her shoulder. Admittedly, some of her targets are deserving. However one feels about the efficacy of the exercises themselves (she clearly doubts it), the publishing and promotional phenomenon that has come in the book's wake brings new meaning to the word exploitation. She takes Scherz-Verlag, the publisher of the German translation, to task for publishing a children's Tibetans, and a Five Tibetans cookbook for gourmets. But beyond the excesses of the Scherz-Verlag, among the exploiters of the phenomenon the real topper is the training course to become a "certified" teacher of the Five Tibetans for (hold your breath!) 700 Euros. Certified teacher of something anyone can learn in five minutes?

But Ms Schwager's venom is not just for these money changers in the temple, she's out to ridicule anything she perceives as New Age-y, and she's going to start by proving the book is a fraud. She goes to the Zurich Central library with the hypothesis that the book was all an invention of some clever conman in 1985, who falsely claimed to have found a miraculous book published earlier in the 20th century. She and the reference librarian dug (in real hardbound references) to find the 1939 and 1947 editions of this book.

They started with the National Union Catalogue of the Library of Congress. They could find neither a Peter Kelder nor a book called The Eye of Revelation up to 1975. They also looked in the bibliography of France's Bibliotheque Nationale. No dice. When the journalist asked the chief librarian, a Dr. Kohler, what it meant if you can't find a book in any bibliography, he answered, "It always means something isn't quite right (Etwas stimmt nicht). It's a very strong indication that the book was never published. Naturally there are rare cases in which a book just wasn't registered (in the bibliographies), but every book resurfaces sooner or later, especially if there's a new edition." The journalist reports that Dr. Kohler took an interest in the case and did his own research. After two days he gave up. He said he couldn't even find it in esoteric collections, which usually don't have any gaps in them. Nor could he find either Harry R. Gardener or the Midday Press in old listings of publishers. The first record of the book is the 1985 edition by Harbor Press.

By the end of the article, Schwager asserts: there was no Peter Kelder; there was no Colonel, there was no 1939 edition, and no expanded 1947 edition (on which the 1985 edition claims to be based), and the was no Mid-Day Press. The whole thing was an invented con. She also pokes fun at the idea that the 1945 edition was "lost" until 1985.

After reading this, The Scribbler was itching to publish this information for the first time in the English-speaking world, but then I thought perhaps he should do a bit of fact checking himself before relating data from a single source as fact. It's a good thing he did.

Shortly after contacting Hell, she said she found evidence that there really had been a Mid-Day Press in Los Angeles, because she found other books published by them. And then she found (why didn't I think of looking there?) a rare book seller on e-Bay -- Jerry's Rare Books -- selling what he purports to be the only exisiting copy of a 1946 edition of Peter Kelder's The Eye of Revelation.

Here's where the story get real juicy! If you look at the e-Bay offering, you'll see that he's asking (hold your breath again!) $97,500. He doesn't intend to sell it to the average punter, though, he's looking to sell it to an ambitious publisher! In the description, he says:
"As far as is known for certain, this is the only surviving copy of the 1946 edition of the Eye of Revelation! The first four sections of the 1946 edition are largely similar to the 1939 edition; however, section five is entirely new and contains information about:

* Tibetan Mind Magic
* Mantrams
* The Magic Quality of "Aum"
* and more.

The 1939 editions of the Eye of Revelation have earned millions for their publishers. This 1946 edition can do the same for whomever purchases it. It has been long, long sought after and--with the new, authentic, information--has every chance to outsell any previous edition many times over."
The pictures in his offering (pictures: 1, 2, 3) seem to be convincing evidence of it's authenticity. But I'd still take a documents expert and a lawyer with me before I coughed up $97,500!

He also mentions that the only known copy of the 1939 original is in the New York City Public Library. That was pretty easy to verify.

So, the very premise of the article in die Welt is in error. Ironically, it took Internet resources to check the facts from a traditional medium (a respected newspaper) which is supposed to be more reliable due to the presence of professional journalists and editors. And her facts came from what should be considered a reliable source: a senior librarian at a well-established major library.

But we still don't know who Peter Kelder was, who the English Colonel was, where these exercises come from, or how they really work (or do they?).

All of that is yet to come in "Dogs" - Part IV.

October 16, 2007

Moving in the old furniture

The Firm is in a state-of-the-art office building. With identical data outlet sockets in every room, modular office furniture, and an efficient office administration department supplied with plenty of hand trucks and burly workers, they can move a person's working space (including desk, files, computer, lamps, cabinets) from one room to another inside an hour. I recall the dizzy feeling of working in one room at nine in the morning, and being moved, and working somewhere else by eleven; phone working, computer on the network, cabinets and files set up. I'd never worked for a huge multi-national company before I came to The Firm, so I was unprepared for the psychological effects of being moved four times within my first year. At first I put up a fight and tried to ultimately personalize my space with art prints and interesting objects. Then each time I moved it took longer to unpack the boxes and get out "aesthetic" stuff. I've adopted a much plainer style of decorating my office.

Same goes for staking claim to a patch of cyberspace. I recall all the effort I went to creating my first websites: writing them in html, uploading them to my ISP's server with an FTP client, rewriting and uploading every time I wanted to make a change. Things are so much easier nowadays with Google and other on-line hosts. And there are other reasons I created pages. I was a very hands-on forum administrator for a few years, and I created pages of references for the members. And each time I changed ISPs or had to abandon a server for some reason, it would take a long time to motivate myself to upload my old pages and get them to work right again.

Blogging is a new medium to me. It took me some time to warm up to it. There were a few weeks I didn't think I wanted to keep doing it. There's a feeling associated with it that very much reminds me of the pressure of writing a weekly newspaper column. But there's a positive side to that pressure (which I realize nobody else but me is putting on myself), and that's the impetus to create.

So... I've decided I'm gonna be in this space for a while. I may as well unpack my boxes and decorate a little. You'll notice a new sidebar on the right containing links to some of the old html pages I mentioned above.

The first one, Resources for Dreamers, I created for a short-lived dreamwork forum I ran two years back. There's good stuff on that list. It took some digging on the Internet to find a lot of it. I actually have found more since I made that list, so I plan to update it sometime soon. Stay tuned!

The next one down, The Secret Archives, is one of the first websites I ever created, back in 2000. It's corny, and has that retro look to it. But I've decided to leave it as it is. It's a repository of my writing from the 1990s.

And the third link, Mystical and Occult Libraries and Text Archives, was something I created for a mysticism forum I moderated for several years. Those links also took some digging to collect. I've also found more to add to this list since I created it, so keep your eyes open for an update of that, too.

Phew! Unpacking and setting up house is hard work. But before I call it a day and crack open a beer, could somebody help me get this chest of drawers over to that corner over there?

October 10, 2007

Goin' to the dogs - Part II

What do Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, the Golden Dawn's Cipher Manuscripts, and Peter Kelder's The Ancient Secret of the Fountain of Youth (the book on which the "Five Tibetans" phenomenon is based) have in common? They have all had a major impact on the lives of many people, and they have all been attacked by their detractors -- not without reason -- as being frauds.

Yours Truly has been wandering the highways and byways of the Internet, whacking around in the underbrush with several search engines, and he has discovered some interesting things. Interesting, indeed! All is not as it seems! Are you surprised?

Who was Peter Kelder?

What were the mysterious circumstances of "his" book's publication in 1939? The revision in 1947? 1975? The "updated" version of 1985?

Where the heck do these exercises actually come from?

All these questions will be explored in "Goin' to the dogs - Part III." Coming soon.

(Note: I am, however, still faithfully doing the exercises every morning. I'm up to nine reps of each rite every morning. And feeling great!)

October 7, 2007

A ritual is what it means to us

I was asked to write the following article for A Rózsakeresztes Tükör (The Rosicrucian Mirror), the official newsletter of the Rákoczy Atrium Group of Budapest, an affiliated body of the Hungarian Administration of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC. It was translated into Hungarian for publication, but I thought a few English-speaking readers of this blog might be interested in reading it as well.

Since it was written with members of the Order in mind, it makes a few assumptions about previous knowledge of the readers that necessitate a brief introduction for the context of this blog.

First of all, AMORC has only existed in Hungary since 1994, since such non-socialist, international organizations were forbidden before 1990, and all forms of spiritual practice were discouraged (to put it lightly). AMORC has had its hands full with translating the vast volumes of correspondence lessons and with all the other administrative tasks involved in trying to establish and grow a large and sophisticated organization. Translating and organizing some of the more "minor" rituals and activities have been on the back burner for a long while.

Szilvi and I knew the Appelation Rite existed and was performed in other jurisdictions, and we asked if it would be possible to perform it for our youngest child. It took the better part of a year to arrange it.

The references to all the AMORC rituals I have seen is relevant in this country, where the overwhelming majority have not seen many of these rituals. It would be no big deal in North America, or even in Francophone Africa, where the order has been operating for a long time, and twenty-five-year-plus members are not a rarity.

Tata is a little city where the AMORC administration is located, and the only working temple in Hungary.

And with that introduction, let us proceed to the article.

A child, a family, a community is initiated

By Theo Huffman

With the exception of a Rosicrucian funeral -- and naturally all the initiations I haven't received yet -- I've seen just about every ritual performed by AMORC. I've helped perform the pyramid ceremony. I've seen installations of officers. I've seen the sanctifying of a temple. I've even seen a Rosicrucian wedding. But I'd never seen the appellation rite. I'd often wondered what it would be like.

I'll confess that I was just a little skeptical. Let me see if I can explain why.

The first thing you need to know is that I was raised a devout Catholic, and every Catholic knows there are seven sacraments (baptism, communion, confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and last rights).

The second is that The Rosicrucian Order AMORC hasn't always had the stable, highly-developed form it has today. When H. Spencer Lewis[1] accepted the task of creating a visible Order in the physical world to embody the work of an invisible fraternity which has existed for thousands of years, it was the ultimate creative challenge. Carrying out this work in a world totally transformed by mankind's technologies since the days of the Fama Fraternitatis was only possible for someone who had the courage to experiment with new ways of bringing esoteric knowledge to those who wanted and needed it.

And H. S. Lewis was a real experimenter. Many of those experiments developed into the teachings and ritual we know today as our traditional Order. But many of the experimental projects, such as the creation of a "universal Rosicrucian language" (sort of like Esperanto) were found to be unworkable, and consequently abandoned. And among these abandoned projects was the creation, in the late 1920s, of a Rosicrucian church, called "The Pristine Church of the Rose Cross." Dr. Lewis served as the bishop of this church. The church only lasted a few years, the Order's first years at Rosicrucian park. After this, it was decided that the energies spent on the church would be better invested on other aspects of the Order.

So, I suspected the appellation rite might be a legacy of the early AMORC's experimentation of trying to create a church, which necessitated it to have its versions of the seven sacraments. I have to smile a little when I think of one of our Rosicrucian friends calling it a "Rozsakeresztelo~"[2].

But I was pleasantly surprised.

When we arrived at the administration in Tata, and as the enthusiastic members arrived, as well as our two invited guests, Timothy was quite shy, and clung to me. I think he was well aware that all this commotion centered on him. And the energy was especially intense, since this was the first time the ritual would ever be performed in Hungary.

Szilvi and I were asked to wait alone in a room with our son Timothy while everyone else entered the temple and prepared for the ritual. When the door opened and the Outer Guardian[3] asked us to come with him, I got my first hint that this was an initiation.

Although the appellation rite is open to non-members who are invited by the parents, (unlike most other AMORC rituals) I still feel it would not be right to describe something that happens in the temple in too much detail. It is something to be experienced in the temple, not something to be described to people in the mundane world, or "the outer darkness" as we call it when we are in the temple.

Timothy continued to be very apprehensive as we entered the temple and took our seats. I'll confine my remarks about the ritual to a few observations. It bears no resemblance to a baptism at all. It is truly a Rosicrucian initiation. The child is initiated by means of a symbolic journey through three stations of the temple, which to my mind is an allegory of birth. Timothy cried at the first station, since we had to put him down to sit on his own. And this seems appropriate. There is always crying at birth, isn't there? At the second station, among other wonderful events, the child gets a kiss on the cheek from the Colombe.[4] Timothy was so surprised, and so delighted, his eyes lit up like candles as he watched her walk away. Is there anything sweeter than an encounter with the Inner Self?

Finally, it really emphasizes the point that this is an initiation when, at the third station, the parents are asked to take an oath. What did we promise? You'll have to come to the next appellation rite to find out!

The mood afterwards was very joyous and light. Timothy was suddenly more open and social, and like everyone else, he was very happy to be able to indulge in cake and cookies. And perhaps this was a moment that was somewhat "church-like." The community had gathered to observe a milestone in the lives of one of its families. That's a point I shouldn't miss. This ritual was very important to our other three children. To see Timothy acknowledged by the Rosicrucian community, and to see their parents take a vow regarding Timothy, was surely an important spiritual experience for them, too.

Szilvi and I were both convinced that Timothy was "different" after the ritual; somehow more aware, more present in the world. And this I take as one more confirmation that the appellation rite is not just a pseudo-baptism. It is a true Rosicrucian initiation.

1. H. Spencer Lewis (1883–1939) was the founder and first Imperator (supreme officer) of AMORC.

2. A subtle play on words in Hungarian. Keresztelő in Hungarian means baptism. Rózsakereszt means rosy cross. Put them together and you have a "rosy baptisim".

3. A traditional ritual officer

4. A role played in ritual by a girl in white robes and headdress. Her name comes from the Latin columba, meaning: dove.

October 3, 2007

Goin' to the dogs, Tibetan style

Anyone who knows me to any extent, knows that I get up obscenely early every morning (4:30am) and engage in morning yoga. I call it yoga, because it's too complicated to tell people that it's actually a combination of exercises I've assembled over the last twenty-odd years from the different systems I've learned. My routine has continuously changed during that time, and contains elements of aikido, t'ai chi, chi kung, and hatha yoga.

It all started when I was a fanatical aikidoist in my twenties, and started each day with bokken (wooden sword) practice. I always had in mind that my routine, whatever it consisted of at any given time period of my life, was a spiritual discipline, and not just a physical workout (though my aiki weapons routines used to make me sweat very nicely), which meant that the last part of the routine was always meditation.

As life got more complex (read: having to earn a living and nurse literary ambitions) and commitments increased (read: wife and children), I always strove to create the "ultimate" series that was relatively brief, still hit most of the muscles and joints in the body, and prepared the mind for meditation.

In August, while attending the AMORC World Convention in Berlin, I roomed with a member from Hungary. Every morning, he did a short series of five exercises. What got my attention was that they started with an exercise consisting of holding one's arms out, palms down, and spinning clockwise. I was already doing this exercise as part of my morning routine, but I'd picked it up from a book by Joseph Weed that had been out of print since the 1970s; a source I thought was pretty obscure. He showed me a Hungarian translation of the book Ancient Secret of the Fountain of Youth by Peter Kelder. He offered to loan it to me, but since I don't like reading English books in foreign languages, and since I felt I already had "my" routine, I politely turned him down. But I was really intrigued that the spinning exercise was the same as the one in the Weed book, although Weed said it was part of the training of an ancient Greek seeress. (I think the Weed thing is material for a future posting).

So a little over a week ago, I was researching something on the Internet, when I started getting hits for The Five Tibetan Rites, including this video.

Have you ever considered how that element of randomness to Internet searches makes the Internet kind of "oracular"? I mean: I don't know about you, but I seem to often "stumble across" things just at the very moment I need them in my life. Well, this Five Tibetans thing was popping up pretty often, so I decided to go for it. So now I've incorporated them into my morning routine. More than that: they've become the basis of my morning routine. I use a little chi kung twist to warm up my spine, and an aikido weight shifting exercise to get the circulation going in my legs and arms, but the heart of the workout is The Five Tibetans.

It's only been five days, and I can already feel things happening in my body. Yesterday and the day before I kept getting these warm sensations in my lower back like someone was holding a hot water bottle up against it. Yesterday I used it as the warm up for my every-third-day jogging session instead of my usual warm ups. I was bouncing down the sidewalk like a rubber ball the whole way (yee-haa!). Best run I've had in months!

There are all kinds of theories about why it works, and I have some thoughts on that, but I need to get to bed so I can get up and do my exercises in the morning. ;-)

Maybe I'll have to blog about this more later.

September 28, 2007

Swing Low Sweet Cybercoach

I slumped into the back seat of the dark taxi cab, ready for a quiet and mindless ride home from the office. It's rare that I take a cab home, considering that Budapest's public transport system is so extensive and I rarely work late. But The Firm's been working on a huge project that's coming up to deadline, and I'd stayed at the office until at least 9:30 the last five workdays. And The Firm pays for taxis if you stay really late.

As the cabby and I exchanged the necessary small talk to establish where he was taking me, I noticed a little screen on his dashboard showing a music video. The music was coming from speakers behind me. For a moment I leaned my head back and luxuriated in the sensation of being able to relax and not force myself to keep working.

"I can turn the volume down if it's too loud for you," the cabby said. When he turned toward me, I noticed his short grey hair, wire-framed glasses riding down on his nose, and his meticulously trimmed white Van Dyke beard gave him a grandfatherly aspect.

At that moment Depeche Mode's Precious was playing.

"Oh, no. I like this."

He cranked it up. I was a bit confused.

"Is this TV or a DVD?"

"Neither," he said, "This is a PDA. I hooked it up to the car's hi fi. I just load gigabytes of music videos on it from various sources. Lots of my passengers like it."

Another video started.

"Should I turn it down?"

It was Enigma's Sadeness. (No, that's not a misspelling!)

"No, that's fine. I like this, too."

He looked back over his shoulder with a knowing smile. We have similar taste.

The whole scene began to strike me like a cyberpunk fantasy. This wasn't one of the increasing number of sleek Mercedes taxis or other late-model hacks plying the streets of Hungary's capital (the banks have figured out that making car loans to taxi drivers is a good investment). It was a somewhat seedy Opel Astra, and the setup for melding the PDA with the audio system included a few more cables and brackets than anyone with a less geeky aesthetic sense would put up with. And it just had that sleazy William Gisbon kind of hawking-high-tech-in-the-back-alley feeling that my host could pull this off by cobbling together 1) an off-the-shelf machine that's essentially an overgrown address book 2) an amplifier and two speakers, and 3) digital media from dubious sources. We live in the future. Time is getting warped.

I told him I really loved one song from Enigma's first album, called Callas Went Away. I didn't tell him that I actually once wrote a poem based on what that song meant to me. We had some communication problems with me trying to convey to him what the title meant in Hungarian, and that the song was a tribute to Maria Callas. Nonetheless, he was interested, and said he'd look for it.

I didn't recognize the next video.

"What? You don't know 'Fateless'?" the driver asked. "Here, let me show you his most famous song."

He reached out with his index finger, and while he negotiated traffic, he also deftly navigated menus on the PDA's touch screen. Until he'd queued up Faithless's We Come 1. OK, so I live in a cave. I'd heard or seen the name Faithless before. I just don't watch music television or go to clubs, or spend lots of time with people of the age who'd listen to it.

I found the video intriguing, and would even say poetic. Which is saying alot, if you consider my basic aversion to anything rap-like. I like the way events play out inside a room that would by nature take place in a larger outdoor space. It gives the action the sense of being a fantasy, or suggests that what we see is always only part of something larger. It makes it real "trippy", too. Riding in a taxi through Budapest, it was stirring when the words "cold war" echoed between verses. (Which I later realized I'd misheard. It's the distorted repetition of "come 1, come 1. come1").

The video handles the theme of duality and division very artfully, using images of street protests and riot police to embody the lyrics:

"I am the left eye/ you are the right/ would it not be madness to fight."

We pulled up to my apartment building, and we sat (with the meter stopped, naturally) and watched the video to the end before we got down to the business of paying and making the obligatory receipt. I tipped him well (I'm so generous with The Firm's money!), and we shook hands heartily. I got the sense that this had not been your average taxi ride for either of us.

Instead of dragging myself out of my seat, I found that despite working ridiculous amounts of overtime for days, my cyberpunk taxi ride had a put a bounce in my step again.

September 22, 2007

Surprise Consultation

The Firm had fully taken over the resort hotel by Friday night. Dance music flooded the foyer, and bodies bobbed in colored, dim lighting. The Firm is a wealthy and powerful multinational (about as multinational as they get; with offices in almost every country of the world), and when it takes its personnel out of town for all-company functions, it does it in a big way.

After these several hundred souls had been crammed into an auditorium as the captive audience of endless presentations for a large part of the day (and cursing the fiends who created Power Point), and then wined and dined at The Firm's expense, everyone was releasing their tensions (not only of the day, but accumulated over months!) in the massive party, as the free booze flowed.

In a big way: the entire cavernous hotel lobby had been redecorated and re-lit. A stage had been built on one end for the featured band. A wooden dance floor had been constructed to protect the permanent floor.

The party had a 60s theme. Lots of mini dresses and mini skirts. Multi-colored polka dots everywhere.

Wandering among the crowd with my glass of dry red, I stumbled upon the encampment of my colleagues. The lawyers in this firm tend to be clique-ish, and don't mix much with the other professionals. They had commandeered several long couches and long tables next to a large-screen TV running with the sound muted. It was showing a war movie, and no one was paying much attention. Many of the combatants were wearing those unmistakable Afghan hats.

As I approached them, he saw me and made eye contact. He (let's call him Peter) jumped up from the couch and came to meet me before I got very close to the rest of them. Peter had an urgent expression on his face.

"I want to ask you something," he said, leaning close to compensate for the loud music.

"My God! That sounds awfully serious," I half joked.

"Oh, it's not about you. It's about me."

"That still sounds serious."

You see: Peter and I aren't close in any way. We see each other at the office, and he lingers a minute or two to talk when he has to come consult with me about a document of his I'm editing, but the fact that I'm not a lawyer, and that I'm not Hungarian, and that I'm twice his age, and countless other factors, make it a distant (if friendly) relationship. I recall when he started at The Firm several years back, I noted that he was a strikingly handsome man, as far as I am a judge of masculine beauty. And his soulful eyes told me that he was likely sensitive and passionate. At any rate, it came as a surprise that he wanted to pour his heart out to me. And I could feel in my bones that's what was coming.

He looked into my eyes, almost pleadingly, and asked, "What do you do when a woman breaks your heart?"

I paused, aware of his eyes fixed on me. He really wanted an answer. Not a time to be flippant or dismissive. I thought, as well as one can in an environment of throbbing pop music, and a million LCDs depicting a night battle in rugged hills, complete with flashing explosions (certain clues told me what was being depicted was the siege of Tora Bora).

There was no doubt Peter had picked the right person to ask. My second wife shattered my heart so thoroughly, it took me years to gather all the pieces together again. And it took the flames evoked in that broken heart by my current wife and the children she bore me (not to mention being reunited with my first child) to fuse it back into one piece.

Is that why he came to me? Had someone in The Firm told him about my history? (Not likely, since I don't really talk about such things at work.) Or was it just that I'm old enough to be "fatherly" to him?

I knew what he wanted to know was how one got over it. And I didn't really have an answer for that. My experience was that the only thing that really made a difference was time.

He must have read my mind.

"I guess," he said, "It's just a matter of time."

I nodded. He nodded, sighed, looked down at the floor, his shoulders drooping.

"Who broke your heart?" I regretted the indiscretion as soon as I'd said it.

"I think you know."

"No, I don't."

Within a few seconds I reviewed memories of people I'd seen him socializing with. Two candidates came to mind. I'm not innocent enough to be shocked, but I was surprised, since one is married and the other has a very significant other.

He was about to turn and walk away when something occurred to me.

"There is one more thing," I said.

His eyes opened a bit wider.

"I know you probably don't feel like it now, but once you get over the initial hurt, you have to forgive her."

He didn't say anything. He just continued looking at me. He was trying to understand.

"If you don't forgive her, it will eat you up from inside. It can destroy you."

He was still silent; still watching. I decided I'd gone this far, I may as well go a little farther. The soldiers on the screen had gotten the signal to advance; scores of men with weapons running up the side of a mountain.

"My father never found it in himself to forgive my mother after she left him. I watched what it did to him. I think it slowly destroyed him. He never really got it together again. He never really learned to trust anyone or love anyone again."

Peter was nodding and his eyes had that distant look of internal reflection.

We stood there a bit longer, our drinks in our hands. On the screen, it was the morning after the battle. Some middle-aged soldiers with CIA written all over them (metaphorically that is) were combing a rubble-and-body-strewn cave for useful intelligence. One of them freaked out when he found a dialysis machine.

"That's about all the wisdom I can muster at this point," I said.

He smiled. "Thanks," he said.

He drifted back to his pals, and I walked over to one of the lawyers who's closer to my age, cocked my head in the direction of the dance floor and said, "Let's go dance." We left the legal eagles and the war in southern Asia behind, to lose ourselves in the rhythms of hundreds of bodies forgetting the pressures and the heartbreaks of daily life on this planet. Dance. Forgive. Learn to love again.

July 26, 2007

Out of sight, but not completely out of mind

It's the first day of a four-week vacation I've been looking forward to for months now. Time to unwind from the stress of the office, and to do a few of the things I don't get around to in the nine-to-five grind (nine to six, in my case). And although I plan to distance myself from my everyday routine, and my everyday state of mind, I don't plan to "escape."

What do I mean by that?

A few years back, when I was working somewhere else, a colleague of mine came back from a multi-week vacation. I asked him how it had been. "Wonderful," he said, "I didn't think about this place for one second." At the time, this sounded just fine to me. But now I think this typifies a psychopathology of our times.

Indeed, I plan to allow myself to let thoughts of work slide for a few days, maybe even a week or two. I'm lucky enough to have the kind of job that I don't have to stay in contact with the office even when I'm on holiday. I'm a corporate editor. I'm either there to edit or I'm not. So I don't have to think about the office. But I also don't plan to blank it out, like it's some kind of bad dream I'd rather forget.

Eventually, during some of my more reflective moments, I plan to think about my workplace. "On vacation?" you say, "Are you nuts?"

I've had a change of attitude in recent years. Most of my life I made a sharp division between my work -- the place where I made the money I need -- and my "real" life (friends, family, intellectual and artistic pursuits, mystical studies). But the job I have now was the result of intense visualization, and part of the way I got the job involved a prescient dream, and a coincidental (read: synchronistic) conversation with a casual acquaintance. This job was fate. Now I realize that most, if not all, of my previous jobs had been fate, too. Now I pay more attention to what happens at work. I do my best to apply myself to the work. Not out of ambition, but out of a sense that it is a path of growth and development. I pay more attention to the relationships I develop with people in the office. In general, I try to be as aware and conscious as possible at work, and about work.

But things go wrong, and I recognize repeated patterns that have hindered and hurt me in the past. Now I meditate on problems and challenges I have at work and visualize the things I desire to manifest in my work world. But that can be very hard when you are in the thick of it.

Now that I'm on vacation, I plan to take some time to think about work, and to visualize the solutions to problems that have plagued me. In proportion to the rest of my vacation, it will be a tiny fraction of the time. But with that little bit of investment, I will be better prepared to return to the office, and I will have set energies in motion that will aid me in mastering the situation once I've returned.

July 22, 2007

The Parliament-opening Speech You'll Never Hear a Prime Minister Give

(Though We Can Always Hope and Pray)

The Speaker of Parliament brought the gavel down on her desk with three sharp raps. The buzz of excited conversation and frenetic motion throughout the chamber subsided just a little bit. She gave three more raps of the gavel and pleaded, "Ladies and Gentlemen. Please come to order!" The commotion eased just a few more degrees, but the Speaker smiled and barely shook her head. She understood their anticipation. It had been almost two decades since the opening session of Parliament of the little republic of Yugoromanihungavania was viewed as anything other than routine, at best, or a despicable overture to an orgy of corruption and demagoguery, at worst.

But now almost every member of this chamber, every citizen who'd waited in long queues to watch from the balcony, all the powerful figures and diplomats crowded into the VIP section, and the record number of viewers watching the otherwise unpopular Parliament channel on television knew that this session would be different. And that difference was that for the first time in almost two decades, the majority of these people felt hope that something good would be achieved. And those who did not have hope at least believed that something significant would happen. And even that, in a way, was some sort of hope.

After indulging the crowd for just a few moments longer, she stood up and hammered out a flurry of gavel raps, before she called out. "All rise! We will now be addressed by our new head of government: The Right Honorable Prime Minister Manfred Weiser!"

A roar arose which was not confined to this chamber. Heart-felt cheering filled the plaza in front of the building, in adjoining streets, and even in pubs and restaurants where people had gathered to watch this event together.

Manfred Weiser arose from his seat in the front row of benches, and slowly made his way to the podium, shaking many hands and accepting many kisses on the cheeks as he went, and the volume of the cheering remained constant throughout. Everyone, with the exception of the nationalists on the far right of the chamber and the Bolsheviks on the far left of the chamber, were on their feet applauding.

The ascent to power of Manfred Weiser had taken all parties by surprise, even his own.

He had grown up in a tiny rural village, far from the capital, the son of two factory workers. At the time of his birth, most people in his village worked for the radio factory, which turned out products whose designs where outdated by anywhere from ten to thirty years in the West, but it provided a decent living for all of it's employees. Manfred spent many a happy summer in the factory's vacation hotel in the mountains.

The Catholic priest took notice of Manfred's precociousness, and took it upon himself to supplement his education by offering him selected books of theology, philosophy, world literature, and whatever else seemed to be seed that would take in his fertile mind. Manfred and the priest spent many hours together working in the church's gardens, and talking about the things Manfred read.

But it wasn't only his intellect that had attracted the priest's attention. Manfred had an amazingly good heart, and it was his nature to be kind to everyone. But never for the sake of his own gain. That was just the way Manfred was.

He briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a priest, to emulate his mentor, but that changed when the year of his graduation from grammar school coincided with the year the Soviet Union allowed Central Europe to slip from it's iron grasp. He told the priest that he had changed his mind, and would begin working in the factory. The priest was horrified, but Manfred assured him that he would pursue a higher education in a few years' time. "It's all part of my plan," he said. That was the first time he referred to "the plan." Indeed, he rarely mentioned it to anyone, except for his closest associates. But there was a plan.

During the two years he worked at the factory, he learned everything he could about the factory, the workers, their managers, and the relationship between the factory and the surrounding villages. He was universally liked by everyone he had contact with, including his bosses.

He left the factory when he was accepted to study at the University's law faculty. After he graduated Magna Cum Laude, he got a job working under the in-house counsel of a Japanese electronics company. His boss noted that Manfred had the rare ability to communicate with everyone, win their trust, and get them to cooperate with each other. When he finally passed his bar exam, there was another synchronicity: The radio factory in his hometown, which had been struggling along for years, was going to be privatised. The in-house council did not understand at all why Manfred turned down a promotion and a salary increase, especially since the reason was so he could return to his home town.

Manfred put himself at the service of the community, and of the people who worked at the factory. All through the privatisation negotiations he represented their interests, but in a uniquely non-confrontational manner. The new owners, who planned to manufacture computer monitors in the factory, agreed to vast retraining programs, and investment in the community's environment and cultural life. Once the factory was running under new management, Manfred became legal council to the labor union.

And that's when people began encouraging him to run for parliament. This, he said, had not been in the plan. But it soon became clear to the socialist party that he was the most popular candidate anyone could nominate. He did not think it over too long. He told his friends "it wasn't in the plan at first, but it is now."

In parliament he quickly gained a reputation for integrity, honesty, and a certain kind of charisma. On the few occasions that he spoke during his first year, he did not say much, but whatever he said often had an affect on the debate. "Whatever comes out of Manfred's mouth, " said a member from the Christian Democrats, "even if you don't agree with it, you know it comes from his heart. I can't think of one occasion on which I doubted the truth and sincerity of what he said."

Slowly his standing increased, despite the fact that his colleagues thought his candidness would get him in trouble. National polls showed he was the politician people trusted the most. At the next election, the Socialists made him their candidate for Prime Minister.

It was a nasty campaign. The opposition used red-baiting, gay baiting (Why isn't a handsome young man like Manfred married?), anti-Semitism (what kind of foreign name is Weiser, anyway?), and even nastier tactics. Manfred kept a tight rein on his campaign. "Don't attack them, and always tell the truth. If anyone disagrees with this policy, I'm ready to resign. I want to win, but not at any cost."

And the more principled he remained, the more shrill his opponents looked. And the more respect and admiration he gained.

And now he had arrived at the podium, to give his first speech as Prime Minister. The applause continued, and he humbly bowed his head. The speaker pounded the gavel, and Manfred held his hands in the air to signal he was ready to speak.

"Madam speaker, members of this house, I am grateful, I am honored, and I am humbled to be called to serve our country in this way. "

Another raucous round of applause.

"But I could never emphasize enough that governing this land is only possible with the cooperation of everyone in this chamber.

"There are any number of metaphors for what a country is, any number of metaphors for the various parts that make up an integrated unit. But let us say that a country is like a human being. And the political parties are the guiding principles this human being lives by. We all live by many guiding principles, and we must constantly weigh them and balance them against each other in the way we conduct our lives day to day.

"It is the same way with a country. There is no single guiding principle which is more true than the rest. Likewise, no single political party has a monopoly on the truth. Oh! I see my colleagues in my party shaking their heads. Manfred is speaking too boldly again. He's admitting our opponents are right. How are we going to govern that way? I can answer you that. We will govern through cooperation and mutual respect.

"And what are these guiding principles represented by the parties? What truth does each of them insist that the rest of us recognize?"

He pointed at a clique of men seated at the far right of the chamber, dressed in an all-black, stylized version of the national costume. "Let us start with the nationalists. These highly -- their detractors would say hyper -- patriotic individuals are here to remind us that the nation, just like the metaphorical human being, must remain true to it's own nature. It is a travesty to forget who you really are and to pretend to be someone else. These fellows would also remind us that we should not compromise our own national interests due to outside pressure from other countries (or in our metaphor, to be bullied by other people). Can anyone here deny that this is basically true?"

He looked straight at the leader of the nationalists, who frowned, and held his arms tightly across his chest. Manfred continued, "I acknowledge that this is true. However, it does not supersede the fact that our nation is part of a family of nations. And for any family to function, its members must occasionally sacrifice for one another. But it's mutual. If you sacrifice for your brother now, he will sacrifice for you later. Indeed, we sometimes have to insist on defending our genuine interests. But it is not up to our hot heads and our egos to decided what is vital and essential to our welfare. Those are decision for our heart and for our conscience. We all benefit from being members of a strong family. And we must be tolerant and understanding of all the members of our family."

Next he turned his gaze to a larger faction -- the Christian Democrats -- seated to the left of the nationalists. "Then we have the conservatives. They are here to ensure that in our zeal to formulate the best policies we do no throw the baby out with the bathwater. Tradition is a valuable heritage of practices that have been honed and polished over generations. Situations and institutions exist in our society because they work just the way they are. And though we may debate what constitutes the best morals and ethics, we cannot argue that morals and ethics are necessary for a functioning society.

"I acknowledge that all of this is true. But at the same time, we must admit that there are times a particular way of doing things or seeing things is outmoded, and detrimental. And we also must admit that sometimes the only reason people don't want things to change is because they wish to preserve an unfair and unearned advantage they have over others. As St Paul said, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." He didn't say hold onto everything. He said hold on to that which is good. And since Paul thought like a Greek, his idea of what is good, or The Good, was very lofty and spiritual, not just what was convenient and superficially pleasant. Again, the decision as to what is good is up to our heart and our conscience, and not up to our hot heads and our egos. "

And then he made a gesture with his upturned palm at a small faction to the right of the center aisle: the Entrepreneurs' Party. "Capital. Can anyone argue the central role played by capital in the contemporary world? It has been proven very convincingly that often the fastest and most efficient means of achieving a goal is to allow it to be pursued for a profit. The market is a dynamic power that can be used for the benefit of society. Capital has wrought some nearly miraculous accomplishments that all of us benefit from. And for that reason alone, the genuine interests of capital deserve to be represented in this body. But, ladies and gentlemen, let us never get our priorities askew. There are rights with higher priority than the rights of business to make profits. Occasionally lines must be drawn and business must be firmly informed that there are matters of culture, personal relationships, spiritual pursuits, family, and others that simply are not to be commercialized. There are plenty of ways to make money left in this world. Do not be greedy! And do not try to convince us that the market can solve all problems, because it cannot. You have your place among us, but know where that place is."

After a short pause, during which the Entrepreneurs shifted uneasily as Manfred watched, he turned to face just left of the center aisle, to a group of men and women in more English-styled clothing. More course wool, and waistcoats. More facial hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Some of them looked like professors or artists, and that's because they were, or had been professors and artists. He nodded and smiled to their leader, who had once remarked, " the fact that you carry leather bound volumes of Plato and Marcus Aurelius in your briefcase tells me everything I need to know about you." To which Weiser replied, "Your deductions are absolutely on the mark."

"Our friends, the liberals. Guardians of the each man's or woman's right to make up his mind for himself, and to choose one's own course of action in life. And since each person must decide the truth for himself, the liberals are the torchbearers of tolerance. But freedom to choose is not an end in itself! You must always warn your supporters that society and authority will only grant this right as long as those it entitles do their best to cultivate a high degree of discretion and responsibility when exercising it. If we waste our freedom on frivolous and immoral passtimes, we risk losing that right, and that would be a great loss. Bear that torch with all the courage you can muster! It is not only your intellectual friends who would suffer its loss, but all of us."

With a broad smile and a little chuckle, he regarded his own party, the Social Democrats. A wave of nervous laughter went through their ranks, since they knew how unpredictable Mr Weiser could be. How would he take his own party to task? "Ah, my comrades in arms! A socialist knows that society needs to be reformed, that progressive steps must be made. Imbalances must be corrected, and the less fortunate need to be compensated. Many things must be forced through for the common good.

"But what a socialist often has difficulty with is understanding that the average person thinks government is good when it leaves him and his life alone.

Furthermore, socialist must never forget the lessons of the 20th century. It is shear arrogance to assume that any person or group can "scientifically" or empirically determine all the needs of the human race and design a program to fulfill them. God and that spark of God within us, called the Soul, makes this universe and our own natures very mysterious and profound. As Hamlet said to his friend: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Finally, Manfred turned all the way to his left to regard the handful of members from the radical Workers' Party. They wore very plain clothing, which each had accented with something scarlet red: a handkerchief, a tie, a shirt. One was even wearing a plain red armband, since the government had banned the public display of communist symbols several years before.

"The radicals are the embodiment of the youthful will to action. Sometimes we need to stop endlessly talking about what to do, and start doing something! A demonstration and some civil disobedience gets people's attention. It time to stop being polite and to make some people uncomfortable. Something needs to be done now!

"But if you use radical approaches all the time, it becomes a predictable part of the background, and people stop paying attention. And, of course, there is always the danger that the methods become seen as an end in themselves. The aim is lost in the excitement of the confrontation."

Prime Minister Weiser swept his hand in front of him to indicate the entire house. "Each and every one of these ideals has its own aspect of truth. But each idea becomes of greater or lesser importance, depending on the needs of the times."

Our nation has been drifting for a long time because it has been nearly impossible to get a consensus in these chambers. But now I ask you all to deeply consider the roles you play in these debates. I hope I have convinced you that we all deserve to be in this house. And I will only be able to govern with the help of all of you. Each party, each faction, each member has only an aspect of the whole truth. I will not only listen to the advice of my ministers and the parties of my governing coalition. I will listen to every one of you, if you feel like you need to tell me something.

Together let us lead this nation wisely!"

The applause went on for minutes.

And the government program devised by Manfred's party was a success. In a way nobody had ever seen before, he convinced members of all parties to work together to formulate policies the benefited all parties.

Two years later, Manfred Weiser was assassinated while vacationing at his mountain house in the hills. It was a national tragedy which united the country. Investigations determined his assassination was organized by a bizarre collaboration between the nationalists and the Workers' Party.

Even in death, Manfred Wiser managed to inspire cooperation between otherwise hostile parties.

July 12, 2007

Virtually Gathering Around the Digital Camp Fire

(or: What Exceedingly Strange But Wondrous Things These 21st Century Relationships Are)

I just recently read a very interesting novel by the German writer Thommie Bayer. What struck me after getting about forty or so pages into Singvogel (sorry folks, only available in German) is that the vast majority of the "action" in this novel takes place as the first-person narrator is sitting at the computer all alone in his writing studio (he's a screenwriter). We hear the narrator's internal monologue while he's reading and answering e-mails (we also get to read the e-mails), doing research on the Internet, and while he's working. One could easily imagine that reading about a guy sitting at his computer would be dull. But whats' surprising is that it isn't. An incredible number of things "happen" while he electronically communicates with friends in various cities, and with his wife who commutes to another city.

But it gets better. He gets an unsolicited e-mail from a woman who's seen a film he wrote. A lively and intimate correspondence begins. But wait! It gets even more complex: he starts getting e-mails from the woman's jealous boyfriend. And as I read about this dynamic, unpredictable, and very engaging life getting played out on the Internet, the realization hit me: Oh my God! This really is what 21st century life is like!

Well, at least for some of us. But that "some of us" is actually quite a few of us. Those legions of men and women who go to an office and work in front of the ubiquitous "one-eyed monster" all day. And even the ones who stay home have unlimited, always-on, broadband now.

If there is one thing that typifies to me the watershed that came with the dawn of the 21st century, it is the way that social interaction has been transformed by the Internet.

It used to be, going back to prehistoric times, that the way people met people was face to face. At school, in church, at work, at parties, in the neighborhood. But now a surprising number of relationships start on Internet forums, chat rooms, blogs, or some other digital format used on the Internet.

Currently, of all the women who play significant roles as friends in my wife's life, easily 9/10ths of them are women she met in mother/baby forums when she was pregnant. There is a core of them who met on one particular forum topic, realized after a time that they were a compatible group, and formed a private forum of their own. This group has been together for six years now. Since they met on a Hungarian language forum, and they're mostly from Budapest, they began arranging to meet in person. They even have a monthly "women's night" when they get together at someone's house for dinner.

And they forum together daily.

I have a group of friends I met on a forum for Rosicrucian mysticism that I was moderating. After two and a half years, the forum became unstable and politics broke it up. A core group decided it was time to form a private forum. I wonder how often this happens: a core group meets on a public forum and recognise their compatibility, so they form a new, private forum?

My friends are spread across several continents, so we can't meet personally, like my wife's pals. But we're still close. We know a lot about each other, and we've gone through many experiences together. We often mention how odd it is that we feel as close or closer to one another as we do to the people (colleagues, for instance) we see physically every day.

Watching what my wife's forum does has led me to the conclusion that forums are sort of a "feminine" mode of communication. It's all about networking and the group. Her forum doesn't even really bother with lots of topics and threads. They just write everything into the same thread and share everything with each other. It's as if they were all sitting in the same room and knitting or spinning wool and having a conversation as a group.

The implications for how the organisation of society will change are staggering. It's (at the risk of being cliche) revolutionary. The ways people have met one another since time immemorial are no longer the rule. The way relationships develop over time is also new. And the nature of the groups we organise ourselves into are new, as well. Welcome to the Aquarian age.

This doesn't mean that traditional relationships are suddenly obsolete. The typewriter didn't make the pen obsolete. It's a new layer of our society. And one that permeates through old boundaries. Forums can be totally international, cutting across all sorts of boundaries of class, race, religion and education. But we will always need the people who are physically near us and will always long to physically meet some of the people we have met through the Internet.

I'll wrap up with an anecdote. My wife was contacted by a woman whom someone had recommended to read my wife's blog, because my wife writes a lot about being the parent of children who go to Waldorf school. This woman asked if she could publish some of my wife's postings as articles in the newsletter she edits for the Waldorf school her son goes to. We met (face to face) through a home-birth associated gathering (our children and their daughter were born at home) and later at a Waldorf-associated gathering. Last week we were invited to visit them at their house on the Hungarian "great plain".

We drove south of Budapest onto the puszta, the famous Hungarian great plain that separates the rest of Europe from the "Balkans". Though I've driven across the great plain many times, this was the first chance I'd ever had to stay there. We spent two nights at the farmhouse of these friends we'd met through the Internet. Saturday morning I went jogging, and it was wonderful. The soil there is almost pure sand, so jogging on the dirt roads is like jogging on the beach. Where there is forest, it's scrubby and thin, and where there is no forest, it's all tough stringy plants that can take sun and dry heat. It reminded me of California's Sacramento Valley, actually. And the stars at night! We were vast distances from any city lights. I don't remember the last time I saw the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. And the stars have colors! I'd forgotten that.

We spent time cooking and enjoying good meals together, and our children played together doing the sorts of things they don't have the opportunity to do in the city.

We've invited them to come visit us in Budapest.

It all started on the Internet, but it's developed into a real flesh-and-blood relationship between people who can look one another in the eyes, clasp one another's hands, share a satisfying meal. But I can guarantee you we never would have met one another ten years ago. And I never would have had the same opportunity to learn the bit of practical geography that came with that visit.

Amazing, this medium. And the transformation is only really beginning.

July 10, 2007

The True, the Beautiful and the Good

So, we've established that I have the itch to get serious about writing again. And we've established that I'm a bit leery of the confessional nature of blogs, having learned what it's like to talk about your life in even a very small general-circulation publication.

But if not confession, or criticism, or journalism, what do I write?


This isn't a spontaneous decision. We have to go back several years to 2003, when I decided to seriously take up the study of Rosicrucianism again. One of the odd effects of that decision was that as I became more and more immersed in the study and practice of mysticism, the less I was interested in the literary pursuits (reading and writing fiction) that had been the mainstay of my intellectual life for two decades. "But why," I asked myself, "have I spent so much of my life perfecting my ability to express myself in words?" You see, I believe that life is a series of lessons, and that the path one follows in life eventually leads somewhere, although we are not necessarily conscious of that path, and only recognise the inherent pattern (if we're lucky) in retrospect.

So, if I've cultivated the craft of the wordsmith, and I no longer have the fire in my gut to become the next J. D Salinger (or even Tom Robbins), then what do I write?

The urge to dip into philosophical writing hit me nearly a decade ago, and I produced a series of aphoristic essays called The Book of Acquired Wisdom. I enjoyed the exercise, and it whet my appetite for more such explorations.

So that will, loosely defined, be my focus in this blog. I shall explore philosophy.

To start off on solid footing, I suppose I should make clear what I mean by the word philosophy. I'll state unambiguously, that I am not a "professional" philosopher. I've read some in the pre-Socratics, and I've read some Plato. I've puzzled over how Aristotle was a logical conclusion to Plato. I've read Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius. I've pondered over Thoreau, and I've even dabbled in a bit of Nietzsche. But I know little to nothing about most of the modern European philosophers (you know: Descartes, Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Fichte, Shopenhauer, Hegel, etc.), beyond the odd quote here, the quick synopsis there.

But I don't think that's any reason why I can't philosophize. Because to me, philosophy is exactly what the word originally meant in Greek: a love of wisdom. Wisdom can only be found one way. Wisdom arises in the heart after one has honestly reflected on one's experience. External experience and internal experience. Experience with love, friendship and family. Experience with trying to make a living and pursue a calling. Experience with study and exchanging ideas with fellow scholars. Experience at trying to understand the workings of the physical world, and mastering the technologies our race has created to exploit it. Experience with living in this mortal body, and feeling and watching it change with the passage of time. Experience with trying to do good in the world, and to contribute to the greater good. Experience with the joys and difficulties of living in human society, in which we must endure the ignorance of our fellow man as often as we have the pleasure of our contemporaries' refinements. If you truly and carefully reflect on these things, wisdom will arise in your heart. You will begin to discern what is the True, what is the Beautiful, and what is the Good. And by some small measure, you may call yourself a philosopher.

July 8, 2007

A Long Time Coming

I've been resisting this for a long time. People have been telling me for years, "You're a writer. So you should be writing a blog." Well, yes, I can appreciate that this is the medium du jour nowadays for the written word. I realize this is the publishing venue that puts people out in the public eye now. And I do want to write material for publication (it's been year since I've done it), but... but...

Let's go back to the "old days" (the 1980s) when most of my writing was either scribbling my journal with a pen in a notebook, or composing letters on a typewriter. I did this for years before I ever got ambitious enough to write anything for publication. And at first what got published was very infrequent.

Then came the early nineties, and I was writing on a hand-me-down Zenith computer (double floppy drive!), and the majority of my writing was a weekly book review column for The Budapest Sun. It was an interesting experience having a weekly column in a paper with 20,000 readers. For two years most everyone in the expatriate community knew my name, and I even had the occasion to hear myself talked about at parties. People would stop me and comment on my latest column, telling me if they disagreed with my opinion, or found fault with my arguments, and occasionally praising a job well done.

I observed that one sits down to the keyboard with a distinctly different state of mind when one is just going to noodle around in one's journal, and when one is preparing to write a column. When I wrote the column, there were 20,000 invisible people in the room with me, and it had a profound effect on the way I wrote. Very profound. This was the most important lesson in voice I've ever had: how you write depends on who you think is reading it.

I also observed that the desire to be what one nowadays calls "edgy" made me wax confessional. One colleague of mine at the press agency said he'd never dare write about such personal things as I did, knowing it would be read by so many people. I said that was because he wasn't a writer. In the meantime, I feel like I've become much more private than I was in my early thirties. I'm not so much into the confessional anymore. My wife has been writing a blog for about a year and a half. It's a moderately popular blog, with regular readership of about 200, which is pretty good for a blog written in Hungarian. Our children and I get mentioned regularly. I don't even have to do confessional for myself anymore.

Since my days at The Sun, on the professional level I have written a few freelance articles and columns, but have mostly retired to the business of copy editing (ten years at the Hungarian Press Agency MTI) and in-house corporate editing (name withheld to protect against the litigious). And I've written a handful of short stories (got one published!). Before our home and my life got filled up with a bunch of kids, and before I got a full-time corporate job, I wrote a daily journal for several years. That was my second major lesson in voice: a very different sort of writing comes out when you are writing strictly for yourself.

There's one more consideration. My priorities have changed drastically. My ambitions were very literary when I used to write alot. I took a break from writing for several years, and in the meantime, the focus of my life has become spiritual again. Although I feel the compulsion to write -- and even publish -- again, much of my life centers around internal experiences, and much of what I occupy myself with is esoteric in nature. I'm a bit reluctant to write about some of this stuff. It was one thing to be confessional about more mundane sides of my life, but it's something altogether different to start getting loose-lipped about mysticism. We'll see.

And the other thing I can't get over is what I regard as the ultimate question regarding blogging and bloggers. What makes me think anyone cares?

Okay. For better or worse, I've taken the first step. I have become a blogger. God save my soul.

So, I come late to this medium. And I'm not sure how I feel about it.