Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pirsig's Wisdom

From   Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

“The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

“Sounds like art,” the instructor says.

“Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Necessary Evil

I think of government as a necessary evil. It is both necessary and evil. Without it there is usually anarchy, chaos and rampant evil as the strong rule over the week. With a carefully measured amount of it there is a chance for justice, peace and prosperity. Government is evil because it’s only action is one of force. When the amount of government grows beyond what is necessary to achieve this balance of justice, the element of necessity recedes leaving the other element to dominate – that being evil. With excessively powerful government, whether by dictatorship or democratic majority, the strong are again found to rule over the weak. Only at the balance point of necessity do we avoid the concentration of evil at either end.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What is Torture?

The definition of torture is in the news these days. The United Nations has a fairly loose definition that includes this key phrase: “…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted…” Mental pain could easily include a wide universe of emotional and psychological effects. Personally, I imagine that being sent to a maximum-security prison, where I would be very much in fear of being beaten, raped or killed by fellow inmates, would be a kind of “severe” mental pain. Can we safely say that inflicting such fear in a person is humane while other forms of mental pain, such as sleep deprivation, are not? Is mental pain acceptable if it is less extreme but spread over a longer period of time? In my profession I have had occasion to receive many accidental electrical shocks. The pain is quite severe but very short in duration. I much prefer this kind of momentary pain to the extended emotional pain experienced during family strife or in anticipation of a government audit.

When I was young and first exposed to stories of medieval torture techniques, I saw the deliberate mutilation of the victim’s body as being the unconscionable core element of torture. The infamous Thumbscrews, Rack and Iron Maiden seemed horrific beyond my curiosity to even imagine the suffering. But it is not the initial pain alone that makes me shudder; it is the lasting agony of damaged flesh and bones should one be allowed to live on. This is definitely torture.

Watching the controversy unfold over interrogation techniques used on terrorists in an attempt to save more lives from being lost in the future attacks likely to come, I have attempted to arrive at my own definition of torture. For now I am satisfied with the notion that inflicting lasting physical damage to a person’s body for the purposes of coercion or punishment is torture. Making a person fear for their life does not seem to qualify. If it did we would not be able to incarcerate criminals into the general prison population. Inflicting mental anguish, in most cases that I can imagine, would not qualify for the same reason. If the treatment went on to the extent of causing a person to be permanently mentally debilitated, then I would say the line has been crossed. I have recently learned that we have waterboarded thousands of our own agents and soldiers as part of their training! It sounds extremely unpleasant but in such extreme situations as we have found ourselves in following the 9/11 attacks, I wouldn’t call it unconscionable or torture. Now, if it’s driving sticks under the fingernails, then yes.

When news broke of prisoners being taken to our base on Cuba, my immediate thought was that this was a big mistake. These kinds of ideological warriors cannot be rehabilitated and released to their homes. I thought it would have been much better if they had died in a firefight -- that we should have made sure that they did. Now I am aware of the vitally important information we were able to obtain from some of these prisoners. Getting this information has likely saved many lives but I can’t help but believe there was a better way to handle the whole situation as the resulting quagmire is far from being resolved.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration Day

They say we are swearing in our first "black" president today. Obama is black because his father is African? What if Africans had settled America and for a time enslaved captured Europeans? Would we be calling Obama our first white president? Africans have brown skin and Europeans have an odd light tan color. Calling us black and white seems like a bizarre exaggeration designed to perpetuate racism. When I look at Obama on TV he appears to have a slightly darker shade of tan than many of the people around him. So what? When will this preoccupation with skin color and ethnic origin end so we can talk about things that really matter? We often hear that Obama is the most leftward leaning member of the Senate and I never hear anybody disagree with that. Where he will lead this nation is vitally important. His skin is not.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Sinister Signpost

Our governor Gregoire was on national TV tonight. She has allowed a sign listing a vitriolic atheist manifesto against religion to be placed next to a nativity display in our state capital. This in the name of what? Equal time/space? I think we can see where this kind of silliness will lead. In a nation made up largely of Christians we have a long tradition under attack. Should the Nativities have been allowed in the first place? I'm not going to define separation of church and state here. I have to wonder though, why the teachings of Jesus do not have a legitimate place in our national consciousness alongside those of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. We have a paid holiday in Jesus' honor. We don't need to accept the miracles to recognize the immensity of his contribution to our heritage of brotherly love and mutual respect. One could argue that much of what makes America great is due in no small part to Jesus. Why should the government not sponsor a display depicting this important birth? Are the atheists really so offended by his teachings? Should the Neo Nazis be offered space in our capital to explain what offends them? I might like to put up a board myself.


California's vote on Proposition 8 was essentially a test to see if homosexual "marriage" is politically correct. The answer is no, it is not politically correct. Not in California. Not at this time. The body politic has spoken. A bit of a twist.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Faces

I’ve come to believe that as we age, the muscles and fleshy structure of our faces take on a shape that portrays the most prevalent thoughts and feelings that occupy our minds. The word for this is derived from Old French: contenir – to contain. Countenance is the picture we see on a person’s face and the premise is that a face can be read like the pages of a book. Some faces are difficult to read and others quite easy. My own ability to read a face is not formally trained or scientific. I rely on my instincts, subliminal processes and experience with people. My hope is for a telling discernment.

The two most prominent women in American politics today are Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. When Palin walked onto the stage with McCain for the first time I knew nothing whatsoever about her. This condition within my own brain lasted only milliseconds. I was immediately struck by the difference I saw in her face as compared to what I usually see in the face of a seasoned politician. In place of the hardened and fortified expression of those who have spent years battling to advance their political agenda, I saw a freshness and an almost child-like innocence. If the eyes are the window to the soul, who could help but notice that Sarah’s eyes are wide open, accessible and transparent. They exude a cheerful optimism and peacefulness not often seen in the dour circus of political figures.

In contrast, there are few persons that have affected me the way Ms. Clinton has. Rightly or wrongly, I have powerful impressions when I read her face. Her countenance gushes forth with volumes of descriptive information. There is a hardened seriousness to achieve her goals, possibly at any cost. Cold and calculating to near the point of absolute zero, I wonder if any cost is too high. Any expressions of pleasantness seem slightly unnatural, if not forced. I see a clever person, but without the skill to completely veil the inner self. I feel a chill in the air.

Time will tell if Palin can survive the onslaught of political scrutiny or the pressures to conform to the will of other, more powerful, figures and yet retain any semblance of innocence. The coming decade will reveal if Hillary’s massive ambition will go unrequited and leave even more lines and bulges of bitterness on her face.

In fairness, I must acknowledge that Sarah was blessed at birth with the genetics of a pretty face. Still, I have seen that beauty can be either cultivated or scared-over by the thoughts we entertain. The eyes and the mouth are particularly susceptible to the impulses unconsciously transmitted from the brain. I sincerely hope that Sarah’s eyes remain transparent and charitable. As Charles Gibson interviewed her recently, I thought I saw in her eyes a temporary emotional fortification, as defense against the massing forces of political animosity. I hope it’s temporary, and I hope I’m right about what lies behind those eyes. For Hillary’s sake, I hope I’m wrong about hers.