February 07, 2009

To Spring

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down
Through the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The hills tell one another, and the listening
Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turn’d
Up to thy bright pavilions: issue forth
And let thy holy feet visit our clime!

Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumèd garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our lovesick land that mourns for thee.

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour
Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put
Thy golden crown upon her languish’d head,
Whose modest tresses are bound up for thee.

William Blake


February 06, 2009


Zen master Suzuki Roshi made the concept "beginner's mind" a common phrase in the US. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

There are a lot of great Japanese words that don't translate well directly into English. One that I like a lot is "shoshin," which literally kind of means "first mind" but is usually translated as "beginner's mind."

The word was made famous by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki's book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, where he said

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

The importance of shoshin is another lesson that got drummed into my head and other body parts over decades of practicing the martial arts and of sparring.

In training, some of the toughest and most dangerous people to spar with are not experienced martial artists--they are new people who walk in off the street. You kind of know what to expect from people who have been training a while--there are conventions everywhere, after all. But some of these new people would do wild and crazy things that would never have occurred to me. They can really catch you by surprise--thanks to having a beginner's mind.

I've often found that I actually fought better after I'd stopped training for a while and then went back. This was because the ties of old habits got weaker in the meantime and I wasn't as stuck in old ruts. Beginner's mind again.

Sometimes the Spousal Unit, La Cabra, will attack me with totally random kicks, punches and throws that look so bizarre that I can't defend against them because I don't recognize them as legitimate techniques. Ditto beginner's mind.

It's really easier to fight somebody when you know what they're going to do because they are creatures of habit. And it's easier for you to lose if you always fight the same way. The advantage of sparring with lots of good fighters is that they will continually force you to adapt and improve, provided you don't give up.

I think people who work for social justice could benefit from trying to keep a beginner's mind and approach each situation with a fresh start, even if it's just another chapter in a long drawn-out struggle. It's easy to defeat, dismiss, and label people and groups that get stuck in the same old rut.

As Henry David Thoreau put it in Walden,

It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves….The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

A GOOD DEED FOR TODAY. Call your senators toll-free at 1-800-473-6711 and urge them to support President Obama's economic recovery proposal and not to make substantial cuts in programs that could help put the country back to work. The number is provided by the American Friends Service Committee.

WHAT HE SAID. Here's Paul Krugman talking sense on the economic recovery package.

THE RECESSION AND THE ELDERLY. It's hitting pretty hard, according to his issue brief from the Economic Policy Institute.

THE CHANGING FACE OF GREEN. Here's an interview with Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy.


February 05, 2009


Beware of blue.

I started out the week at Goat Rope by suggesting that people who want to make the world a better place could do worse than take up martial arts, especially the ones that involve some kind of serious sparring, as a hobby. There are plenty of lessons there.

All week, I've been remembering various episodes from my long and inglorious career in the martial arts. It's funny, but I have a much better memory of the fights I lost than the fights I won. For one thing, there were way more of the former than the latter. For another, when you're really in the zone, there's no self-awareness and you may not even remember what you did. When I've asked my daughter specific questions about how she won tournament fights, she didn't know how to answer.

But you always remember the ones that went really bad.

I think my worst thumping came about due to the universe's sense of humor and the fatal flaw of underestimating an opponent. Years back, I was coaching kids at a tournament and told the main instructor not to give me an entry card under any circumstances, no matter what I said or did. I hadn't trained seriously in ages.

But after a while I started looking at the talent. I kept thinking "I can take these people!" There was one guy there in a blue gi (karate uniform) who I really wanted to fight. I'm a traditionalist and there was something vaguely offensive about a blue gi. I took it as axiomatic that I could, by definition, beat anyone in a blue gi.

I asked for the entry card...

When the black belts lined up, I asked God to please give the Mr. Blue Gi. Alas for me, God was taking calls that day and I got what I asked for.

I don't think I've ever been kicked or hit harder by anything before or since. He plated a solid front kick so deep in my solar plexus that I felt like I was picking his toenails out of my back for the next week or so. I went down. Then he did it again with the same result.

Breathing isn't all that interesting until you can't do it. Then it becomes fascinating. I think Dylan said it best: the moral of this story/the moral of this song/is simply that one should never be where one does not belong.

Any struggle or campaign is unpredictable. One should never assume it's going to be a cakewalk. Even if it wears a blue gi.

Experiences like that have taught me a lesson in gratitude. I've known some activists who get angry or frustrated when they don't get everything they want or only make small progress towards a goal. I always want to ask such people the following question: haven't you ever gotten your ass totally kicked? I'm happy any time that doesn't happen.

A LITTLE GOOD NEWS. President Obama signed a bill expanding access to the Children's Health Insurance Program to around four million new children. The bill also covers legal immigrants and allows states to offer dental health care to some eligible children who don't receive their main insurance through CHIP. Some of us have been working for this for a long time.

RECOVERY NOW. Here's an analysis of the job impact in every state of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.

NOT THE BEST WEEK for coal. On the flip side, several groups filed amicus briefs on behalf of Massey Energy in the pending US Supreme Court case.

AMERICAN HUNGER. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Americans, according to this item.

URGENT FOSSIL WHALE UPDATE. Early ones apparently hunted in the water but gave birth on land.



February 04, 2009

Reversion to mean

Don't try this at home. Or anywhere else. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Sometime back in the 1990s, Jim Carrey was in a Saturday Night Live skit where he played an office worker who once got cheers from co-workers for telling someone "I'll see you in hell!" Because that worked so well one time, he said it over and over for the rest of his life in the most inappropriate situations.

It was a funny skit but that kind of thing happens a lot in real life. Sometimes we keep trying the same thing because it worked once or because it's the only thing we know how to do.

This was another life/strategy lesson that was drummed into my head and other body parts by sparring in the martial arts, which is kind of a theme this week. Here's how...

Senior students in a fighting dojo are a source of inspiration and terror. They provide encouragement and example, but they also routinely and without malice thrash junior students. This is regarded as something like a Christian duty, the theory being that they do it so other people won't be able to.

When I was a lowly green belt or so, one of the terrors of our dojo was a guy named Brooks. He was a nice guy but a fighting demon. Once when we were sparring I got really lucky and managed to throw a fast spinning back kick to his face. I'm not sure which one of us was more surprised. Luckily for me, he was mostly amused.

(It's a totally impractical kick that could get you killed in some situations, but it looks really cool if you can get away with it.)

After that, for a while I was just like the guy in the SNL skit if you substitute spinning back kick to the head for "I'll see you in hell."

As it happened, there was a tournament coming up. I thought I'd breeze through it with the kick. It worked once, right? You can probably predict the outcome. Let's just say that no trophies followed me home that day.

It never worked on Brooks again either...

Lighting does not often strike twice in the same place. And just because you get lucky once, it does not follow that you will again if you do the same thing. In statistics they call this reversion to the mean. A basketball player who routinely scores 20 points a game may sometimes go on a streak of high or low scores, but over time it averages out.

Enjoy life's spinning back kicks when you can get away with them--but don't count on them. It's better to stick to basics anyway.

DESPITE WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD there's strong public support for an economic stimulus package.

REALITY CHECK. With all the noise about economic policy emanating from and about Washington these days, I highly recommend regularly visiting the site of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. I admit to being a policy wonk, but you don't have to be one to go there and look at the impact of existing and proposed legislation on ordinary people.

HEALTH CARE. Many struggling small businesses are cutting health insurance benefits as the economy sours.


THIS SHOULD HAVE GONE IN YESTERDAY. WV Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin has decided to recuse himself from cases involving Massey Energy until the US Supreme Court rules on the situation. Benjamin was elected in 2004 with over $3 million from Massey CEO Don Blankenship. On more than one occasion, he was the deciding vote in cases favorable to Massey.


February 03, 2009

Sparring as a spiritual practice

As I mentioned yesterday, I think people who want to make the world a less nasty place could do worse things than study some martial arts, especially those that practice realistic sparring with skillful opponents.

After all, most efforts to change or preserve things involve some kind of struggle, however nonviolent, with powerful people and institutions who are not there to grant one's every wish.

One lesson I will always remember came early in my karate career. I had just found a new dojo after the one I started in closed. These people LOVED to spar, in class, in tournaments and elsewhere. While control was emphasized, it could get pretty rough as consenting adults moved up in rank and experience. And, although I didn't realize it at they time, their "rules" were pretty realistic.

This was the first time I did any serious sparring with a woman black belt. At the time, I was a green belt, which is to say someone who knows just enough to be a danger to himself.

I decided to dazzle her with high kicks, my speciality at the time. While my feet were flying around at head level, one of hers landed in my nether regions. This was the closest I ever came to qualifying for the Vienna Boy's Choir. I hit the ground like a ton of bricks, but must have gotten up at some point.

This is one of the invaluable lessons you learn by sparring with people who know how to fight: you learn to think defensively. Specifically, you make it a habit to always think what a good opponent could do to you if you did this or that technique.

That's one that carries over well into organizing. It is a good practice to always think what an intelligent opponent would be able to say or do in reaction to anything you say, do or write. I've often seen groups undertake actions that make it easy for opponents to attack or dismiss them.

I learned the hard way that if you present your opponent with an opening, you shouldn't be surprised if they take it. And I'm not above returning the favor.

THE BUTCHER'S BILL. Here's an estimate of the human cost of the Iraq war.

I MEANT TO BLOG THIS YESTERDAY. Here's Krugman on bailout blunders.

CULTURAL CHANGES accompany this recession, not all of which are bad.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED. "American Pie" songwriter Don McLean discusses Buddy Holly here. So that's what the song really was about. Kind of.

TEARS AND SUCH. Here's an item on how early experience shapes our views of crying.


February 02, 2009

Eat bitter

Doh! Block print from the Bubishi, a Chinese martial arts manual. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has often thought that those who want to make the world less violent and more just could do a lot worse than study and practice the martial arts. I'll go a step further and particularly recommend those arts which entail sparring with live opponents who are not trying to make you look good or enhance your self esteem.

There's nothing like getting your clock cleaned a few dozen (or hundred in my case) times by people who are really good at it to give you a sense of realism and pragmatism.

One great lesson you get by making a habit of sparring it that the mere fact that you want something to happen or not happen by itself has absolutely no bearing whatsoever one whether you can be successful. Success happens, if it does, by paying attention to what is going on in the moment and adapting your actions to openings as they occur. And by paying your dues.

Most people who have been successful in sparring (or in lots of real life endeavors to which it is analogous) have had to take some lumps along the way. The Chinese have two great expressions for this needed step. One is that one needs to "eat bitterness" before one can eat sweet. Another calls for "investing in loss."

I've done plenty of both. I remember once very early in my karate career when my old man observed a class in which I sparred with my first instructor. I have since lost track of the teacher and wonder to this day if he was really as good as I remember him to be or if I ever got anywhere near his level in later years. His technique seemed impossibly strong and precise, his katas or forms were crisp and powerful. And he was a bad dude when it came to sparring.

On that particular occasion, we bowed as usual and he proceeded to mop the floor with me. I probably have been clobbered worse many times since then, but I can't remember when.

After it was all over, my dad said "You really had him worried in the first few minutes."

"Really?" I said, desperate for any encouragement.

"Yeah. He thought he'd killed you."

STIMULUS ACTION ALERT: the American Friends Service Committee is urging people to call their US senators and urge them to prevent the derailment of President Obama's stimulus proposal, which is facing hard opposition. AFSC is also urging that the Senate reject a flawed and error-prone anti-immigrant measure called E-verify. The toll free number is 1-800-473-6711. To find your senators, click here.

El Cabrero and amigos will be holding a public meeting in Charleston, WV tonight on the subject.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, Hooverism lives. And while the economy tanks, welfare rolls remain at or near their lowest levels in 40 years.

DYSTOPIA. Here's an abstract from an article from the Jan. 26 New Yorker about those who see gloom and doom on the horizon. It's worth tracking down the full article.

GETTING TO UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE. This article, also from the New Yorker, discusses getting there from here.

MALLED. America's love affair with shopping malls is in the post-honeymoon phase.