Zen Garden Mind

The largest gypsum dune field on Earth is located in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico. It’s been around for 7,000 to 10,000 years, and humans these days call it White Sands. These dunes are composed of gypsum crystals, from gypsum that washes down from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento mountains.


I recently visited White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Or as I like to call it, the world’s largest Zen garden.

Within Zen Buddhism there are two main traditions, Rinzai and Soto. They’re kind of rivals.

Most sand dunes are composed of quartz crystals, not gypsum. Gypsum dunes are very rare, because gypsum is highly water soluble, and rarely has a chance to crystallize. But this gypsum is carried by rains into lake beds that have no outlet to the sea. And so it remains in situ, desiccating and forming large selenite crystals up to three feet long. These crystals are broken down by weathering into fine white sand crystals.

Rinzai Zen is a little strange, due to its recondite nature. It advocates achieving enlightenment through meditating on koans, and supposedly solving them. Koans are mystical riddles such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Who the hell cares?” is my mystical answer.

You’ll get third degree burns on the soles of your feet if you try to walk upon quartz-based sand dunes in the summertime. But gypsum sand is inefficient at absorbing solar heat, making it possible to stroll barefoot on the sand on the hottest summer day. These are my bare feet on the first day of summer, with the outdoor temperature at 100 degrees.

Soto Zen is odd due to its simplicity. Soto Zenners think they can get enlightened just by sitting cross-legged on a zafu, letting go of their thoughts, and following their breath. For them it’s a gradual journey to enlightenment. It takes a long time, and can’t be stumbled upon suddenly by solving some occult riddle.

I prefer Soto Zen and kind of practice it, though I threw out my zafu years ago. And I wouldn’t dare sit cross-legged ever again. It’s bad for the knees. And it’s very hard to nap meditate when your knees are throbbing.

I like Soto Zen for its simplicity, just as I like White Sands National Monument for its plain whiteness. The simplicity appeals to my laziness.

All kinds of critters live on these dunes. These are the tracks of the Pogo-Hopping Desert Gerbil, a small rodent that hops about on a stick to avoid being eaten by sand crabs hiding just below the surface.

But for me, meditating successfully is difficult. Because I cheat a lot at it. I lay supine. I snooze. I scratch my nose. I shift my restless legs. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. I don’t always follow my breath, but instead follow more interesting things. Sometimes I try to solve problems instead of letting them go. And on and on I go, breaking one rule after another.

This gigantic Zen garden in southern New Mexico reminds me of all the tricks my mind plays upon me while meditating Soto style, both when I follow the rules and when I cheat.

There was a time when I followed the rules rigorously. Back in my less lazy days I could create stretches of sterile wordless peace within my meditative mind, just like the dry lake beds that break up the dunes of White Sands. But those lake beds are what actually produce the dunes. And so my mind would rebound, producing a gigantic array of words, just like the billions of gypsum crystals within a sand dune.

Lake beds like these catch the gypsum runoff from the mountains, and convert it into sand crystals. These alkali lake beds were first visited by Europeans in the 1500s, when Spanish miners drove ox carts here to collect salt. They used the salt to process silver ore extracted from mines in central Mexico.

These days, when I cheat, thoughts, strong emotions, and belly-burning motivations steal upon my mind like the white dunes that swallow up cottonwood groves. I forget that I’m meditating, and become lost in various fantasies. And then I remember that I’m supposed to be meditating and let go again. And the thoughts recede like so much swirling sand.

In this area of White Sands, the dunes have swallowed a grove of Rio Grande cottonwoods, that weren’t able to run away fast enough.

Or maybe I’m bragging. In fact, my mind is often like one of those unfortunate cottonwood trees at White Sands, that’s completely buried in the dunes. My mind is so distracted by all the cares and delights of the world, that attempting to meditate is futile. Just the same, I attempt anyway. Why? I attempt in order to attempt. Besides, cheating makes attempting easy.

Sometimes the cottonwoods are completely buried, and stand no chance of survival.

Other times a little mindfulness keeps me barely aware of my swirling thoughts. This is when my mind is like those cottonwood treetops of White Sands that poke out just above the drifting sand.

These cottonwoods gasp for life, with just their treetops able to reach above the surface of the sand.

And believe it or not, there are times when my meditative metacognition is stronger. And then my mind is like one of those White Sands’ cottonwoods that are half above the sand and half below. At these times I well know that I’m daydreaming even while I continue to daydream. My meditation is both lucid and lapsing. Disciplined and wild. Aloof and befouled.

This cottonwood has managed to free itself from much of the dunes’ suffocating grip.

And there are those rare times when I fool the gods and get away entirely with cheating. My mind is completely free, with all wandering thoughts swept away by the wind of my breath. Just like a fully freed cottonwood in all its verdant glory, shimmering in the breeze, having conquered the dunes of White Sands. At least for a little while.

This Rio Grande cottonwood has completely escaped the dunefield. It stands tall and free, at least until the next dune comes along.

A day will come when I’m no longer hagridden by the cares and delights of this world. Perhaps I’ll stop cheating and slip into an honest meditation as I float away. And all that I let go of will never return.

Perhaps then my mind will be like the cottonwood that stands free and clear from dunes of sand, but has lost its last leaf.

Rio Grande cottonwoods are very hardy. But nothing lasts forever except change.

Its only remaining cotton being a few ethereal white clouds, caught in its branches, only to slip free to dissipate in the sky.

How a Book Killed a Poet

A Picture of Oscar Wilde

Well, it began with a book. The only novel that the poet, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, when Oscar was 36 years old.

Until that time Wilde had been a renowned poet and playwright. But he was also controversial. He liked to party and indulge in vices, and make a show of his iniquities. This led critics to view him as immoral and hedonistic. And they accused him of doing the provocative things he did, all for publicity.

But after The Picture was published, a new “picture” of Oscar Wilde began to emerge. This novel contained many off-handed, subtle references to homosexual behavior. And while it did not overtly portray or promote anything homosexual, it averred to it strongly enough to raise the suspicion of critics and moralists throughout England.

Homosexual acts were very illegal in that Victorian era. They could earn a perpetrator prison time with hard labor.

Wilde remained popular with his reading audience, but even they couldn’t help but suspect he might be a dreaded homosexual, after reading his book. In fact, anyone and everyone in the know began to suspect it.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1891 Wilde began hanging out with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 20-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess was a brute of a man, who had taken credit for creating the modern rules of boxing, known as the Queensberry Rules (although the actual writer of the rules was a man named John Graham Chambers). The Marquess feared that Wilde might be seducing his young son into a homosexual relationship.

He confronted Wilde several times over the next few years, and their relationship grew more and more tense. In 1894, a sort of war was declared between them, when he apprehended Wilde in a restaurant. He declared his suspicions about Wilde’s sexual orientation, and issued an ultimatum with the following words: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you!”

The ever-clever Wilde riposted: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

In a sense, it was Lord Douglas who was seducing Wilde, and not the other way around. Alfred introduced Oscar to the underground world of male prostitution. And Oscar relished in it. It felt exciting and dangerous. Just Wilde’s wild style.

A few months later, in February, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card for the poet that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” It’s actually spelled “sodomite”, but brutes aren’t well known for their writing skills.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been feuding with his father, and he wanted to hurt him bad. So he persuaded Oscar to prosecute his dad for criminal libel. After all, calling someone a sodomite was an insult. And insulting someone was against the law in England. Unless, of course, the insult was true.

Wilde’s friends cautioned against it, because they knew the insult really was true. But how do you convince the love-struck? Wilde enjoyed indulging his young lover, so he granted Douglas’ wish and went ahead and filed charges.

John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and credit usurper of boxing’s Queensberry Rules.

Soon the Queensberry Rules man found himself on the ropes and facing trial. If convicted he faced two years in prison. His only defense was to prove that what he wrote on the calling card was an accurate fact.

The Marquess of Queensberry knew how to fight. Hell, he stole the rules on fighting. And he delivered a sockdolager punch. He hired detectives to look into Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle, and they uncovered his activities in London’s gay brothels.

Two months after the calling card incident the trial began. It was a circus, with Wilde’s prosecution unraveling in the face of a mountain of evidence amassed against him. And the defense attorney cross-examined Wilde about the moral content of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s witty retorts won him laughs but left him looking more and more like the true guilty party.

Then the turn came for the defense to present its case. In his opening statement, the defense attorney announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were going to testify that they had sex with Wilde. Wilde sensed great danger and knew he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the libel charges.

But it was too late. The court ruled that the words on the Marquesses’ calling card were “true in substance and fact”. And under the law, Queensberry’s acquittal left Wilde liable for Queensberry’s legal expenses, and the cost of his detectives. It was a lot of money, and it bankrupted the poet.

But Queensberry wasn’t finished punching, even while Oscar lay still on the mat. He immediately gave Scotland Yard the evidence his detectives had uncovered on Wilde.

The next day Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. And on May 25,1895, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

In prison he was forced to walk a treadmill, and separate oakum fibers from old navy ropes. His bed was hard, and the food was of poor nutritional quality. Within six months his health was destroyed. He managed to stagger into the prison chapel one day, where he collapsed from illness and hunger. He hit his head when he fell, and broke his eardrum.

A prison reformer visited him and had him transferred to a new jail, where his treatment might be better. But during the transfer a crowd jeered and spat at him at a train station. This was when Wilde fully realized he had become one of the most reviled men in England, now that everyone knew for sure he was homosexual. He felt devastated.

In May, 1897, after two years of torture, he was released from prison, with his health in tatters, his finances ruined, and his fame reduced to obloquy. He immediately sailed for France and never returned to England.

He was penniless from his bankruptcy. In France he wrote a poem under a nom de plume that was an instant success and earned him a little money. But it was not enough to lift him out of poverty.

For the next three years Oscar Wilde haunted the boulevards of Paris. He continued to write a little, here and there, but finally became so depressed about his fate that he quit writing altogether. He turned to alcohol, which only worsened his health and left him more deeply impoverished.

The eardrum he broke while in prison continued to bother him. A surgeon performed a mastoidectomy, and soon after he developed meningitis. On November 30, 1900, this brilliant poet who had delighted millions, only to become the object of their homophobia and cruelty, passed away in a dingy hotel room in Paris.

He died at age 46. But it was at age 36 that he published the book that eventually killed him, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this book, Dorian Gray remains constantly young and innocent-looking, while engaged in a pleasurable lifestyle of debauchery. However a portrait of him grows older and uglier from dissipation, with every hedonistic act indulged in by Gray. Literary scholars teach that the picture is symbolic of Dorian’s true inner self, growing increasingly evil and corrupt as he delved deeper into hedonism.

That may be, but I wonder if Wilde also intended another meaning.

Perhaps it had been a fantasy for Wilde that he could get away with coming out and subtly revealing the truth about his sexual orientation. And maybe Dorian Gray’s picture was meant to be symbolic of Wilde’s ever-deteriorating, seedy reputation.

Oscar’s career had already thrived for many years, in spite of what morality critics thought and wrote about him. So he wasn’t afraid of a bad reputation, and maybe he felt tempted to push the envelope further. Perhaps he calculated that his writing career could be like Dorian Gray, continuing to thrive successfully in spite of his reputation (the picture) looking worse and worse every day.

If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation. He could handle a besmirched reputation. But he didn’t count on the people of England destroying him.

After Dorian Gray dies, his portrait returns overnight to its original unsullied image. But such transformation wasn’t so fast for the reputation of Oscar Wilde. For a long time after his death he remained a pariah in the minds of the masses.

It has taken many years for society to accept homosexual people and embrace gay rights. And in fact there is still much more progress to be made.

But the poet’s reputation and popularity did eventually recover. Today Oscar Wilde is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

And the book that killed him also recovered. Several films have been made, based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. And it has inspired plots for quite a few other works of didactic fiction. These days, The Picture is regarded as a great literary classic.

In 2017 the British Parliament passed the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned an estimated 50,000 men who had been convicted of criminal homosexual acts.

Oscar Wilde was among those pardoned. Like Dorian Gray’s picture, his reputation was finally restored.

Preparing for the Afterlife

Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize a good trail to the Afterlife.

It’s a question that had bugged him since childhood. “How do I prepare for the afterlife?” There he lay on his deathbed after more than 80 years of entertaining this question and never finding an adequate answer. He felt frustrated. He felt resigned. He felt hopeless. He realized it was too late. He knew the answer would never come to him, and even if it did he would not have time act on it.

The darkling fingers of death snatched his soul away the very next morning. Through labyrinthian tunnels, voids, and lights, this manqué spirit was whisked. Off to the unknown. Off and away to somewhere he had never been. Off without his toothbrush, or any other form of preparation. He felt exhilaration, mixed with dread.

And then the afterlife opened up before him. A magnificent world of glowing colors, teeming with sylphs, wights, and wraiths. Love resonated through the atmosphere like the thrum of a harp. Benisons blessed the air. And a music of harmonious activity excited his soul. He felt warm. He felt welcome. And his heart filled with joy and peace.

Spirits swept by to greet him. Most were strangers, but he recognized some. His mother. His father. Grandparents. Siblings. Old friends. Old pets. He felt thrilled with this reunion, but even so he could not hide a piece of sadness from these greeters. Communication and understanding was instant. And they discovered that he felt sad due to not having properly prepared for arrival to such a beautiful place as this.

“But you did prepare,” they urged. “And you prepared well. You lived the difficult, painful life of a physical being. Yet you never hardened your heart toward others. You spent your challenging physical life loving people, animals, and all other living beings. You were kind when you could, and cruel only when necessary. So you lived your life basically the same way we lived ours. And for that reason you will feel comfortable and at home with us here in this place. Otherwise you would have wanted to go to some other place.

“We are evidence of your preparation. For we would not be greeting you so cheerily, nor would you want anything to do with us, if you had not prepared.”

He had not been a saint. He had never championed a cause or engaged in heroic action. He had never been very religious or civic-minded. He’d just lived an ordinary life, with ordinary character. A basically good citizen with a healthy mix of love and wariness for his neighbor.

So don’t fret over preparing for the afterlife. Just try to be kind to others, and avoid cruelty as much as possible. Follow your natural instincts. Respect all living beings. And do your best to understand and live harmoniously with both friend and foe.

If there is a hereafter, I suspect there is no better way to prepare for it than just this.

Rate My Rant

Have you noticed lately that every time you do business with someone, they ask you to complete a customer satisfaction survey, or write some sort of review? At one time, not too long ago, I encountered this only occasionally. Once in a while I’d get a survey in the mail to rate my family physician. Or I’d be asked to write a review of a product I bought online. But only once in a while.

Now it seems to happen every friggin’ time.

It seems survey mania has crept over us, and now the solicitation of a survey after every transaction or interaction has become standard business practice.

Back in the day, when this only happened once in a while, I had no problem completing surveys. In fact I felt delighted at the chance to rate someone like my doctor. Until he sent me a letter begging me to always rate him with 10’s on every category.

That’s when I became cynical about surveys. It seems that if you give someone anything less than a 10, even if it’s a nice generous 9, it jeopardizes their job security, and puts them under heavy scrutiny from their superiors.

So I just stopped doing them. I chuck them in the trash. I close their pop-up boxes online. Fuck all those bastards who expect their employees to be perfect.

Besides, I just don’t have time to fill out all the goddamned surveys everyone wants me to complete.

Now that I’m finished with this rant, I need your feedback. How good was this rant? Did I express my complaint clearly? Did you feel my passion? Were my writing skills up to par? Please rate me on a scale of 1 to 10 in the following categories. But remember, any rating less than a 10 could result in my suspension from WordPress and banishment from social media altogether. And you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?

Overall ranting effectiveness (1-10):
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Rating Equivalents:

1=Completely insincere or incompetent.
2=I’ve got better things to do than read this crap.
3=Such feeble effort. You sound like Don Knotts.
4=You whine like my 3-year-old grandchild.
5=Okay, so you’ve made your point. Yawn.
6=I’m gonna write my Congressman! Just as soon as I . . . zzzzzz.
7=Wow, you rant like a grumpy old man!
8=Where’s a straitjacket? You insane, man!
9=You’re Hitler incarnate!
10=You’re a Trump-Tweeting Tyrant!

Thank you for taking the time to complete this godawful long survey.

Thanks, Canada

Recently the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, stated that Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada were “kind of insulting” and that Canada would not be pushed around.

Trump responded with vituperant vilipending, and has called Trudeau all kinds of names, and has said Trudeau’s statement will cost him a lot of money.

Wow, what a war of words we have brewing here.

Now social media has jumped into this imbroglio with Americans launching a #ThankCanada and #ThanksCanada Twitter campaign.

Americans love Canada, and we don’t want anyone messing with our favorite country to the north. Not even our own president. Hands off, Trump!

But I have some words of caution for PM Trudeau. I believe he’s on a losing path. From my observation no politician, domestic or foreign, has ever bested Trump in a war of words. He could very well be the worst president we’ve ever had, but he’s absolutely the best at one thing. He’s a master of the ad hominem attack.

Any trade deficit we have with Canada will be quickly overcome with a surplus of well-crafted insults from our Commander-in-Chief. You can’t beat him this way, Justin. Sadly, you just can’t.

But there is one way to beat him. You have to go after Trump’s big weakness. His kryptonite. It stops this guy in his tracks every time. It’s called “facts”. Nothing is more cryptic to Trump than facts.

Trump simply cannot handle facts. Justin, don’t go about saying vague things like Canada will not be pushed around and blah, blah, blah. Trump will blow you out of the water with his ripostes. No, just stick to the facts, and this bully in our White House will run for cover.

For instance, Justin, you could point out that while the U.S. has indeed had a trade deficit with Canada of about $15 billion per year since 2015, that’s about a fifth what the deficit was in 2008. You could also point out that our deficit with China has been running about $350 billion per year since 2015, which is nearly $100 billion more than 2008.

If you would just say something like that, Trump would squawk and yelp and shout “Fake news! Fake news!” (unaware of the fact that these figures come from our own Census Bureau) and then quickly try to change the subject.

Just the facts, Justin, just the facts. Stick with the facts, while avoiding vague language, and you will win every time.

I don’t have a Twitter account, so I can’t participate in Twitter’s #ThankCanada campaign. So instead I’d like to finish this blog by saying my thank you’s here:

First, a big thank you to my Canadian blogging buddies. For example, Gibber Jabberin’ always comes through with hilarious comments to spice up my posts. And Joanne Sisco, I love your photography and fun little write-ups about Toronto.

Thank you Canada for offering us Americans a place of refuge from time to time. For instance in the 1960s and 1970s, when you welcomed young American men who opposed fighting in the Vietnam War, to escape to your country. And also thank you for the affordable prescription drugs ailing Americans have been able to obtain across your borders. You have saved many American lives.

Thanks Canada for Dr. James Naismith, who created the game of basketball.

Thanks Canada for your beautiful scenery that we Americans drink in by the millions when we vacation in your lands. I’ll never forget the time my wife and I got off a cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska. We rented a car and drove through the northwest corner of British Columbia, and into the Yukon. We had to stop at a border checkpoint along the way, but the Canadian officers were very polite and even gave us helpful advice. We always felt safe on this motor trip, and were treated decently by every Canadian we met.

Bennett Lake at Carcross, Yukon. Thanks Canada, for amazing scenery like this!

Thanks Canada for cars, oil, food, computers, gold, diamonds, and so much more. And thank you for helping us with our conscience. When we buy Canadian we can always rest assured that nobody was enslaved or horribly exploited in the making of the product.

Thanks Canada for setting a good example with your healthcare system. If only we had the guts to follow it.

Thanks for Horseshoe Falls. I’ve never been there, but I’ve always heard it’s the best part of Niagara Falls.

Thanks for these things, and so much more.

Thank you, Canada.

Swallowing Capistrano

Votive offerings before the goddess Mary, at Serra’s Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? President Ulysses S. Grant, of course. Where is Mission San Juan Capistrano located? Why, in San Juan Capistrano, California, of course.

Which is where my wife and I headed a few months ago, on our mission to visit all of California’s historic Catholic missions. This was our eighth, of 21 missions visited. We began this quest back in the 1990’s, so please be patient with our progress.

The gilded altar of Serra’s Chapel.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. That year he built Serra’s Chapel, a small church that is still in use today, and is the oldest church in California.

Ahem, let me correct that factoid. Father Serra did not build the chapel. The Native Americans he enslaved did the actual labor. He just supervised and made sure they did a good job, while edifying themselves with good old fashioned godly hard work.

Serra’s Chapel is very long and narrow. That’s my wife standing near the back. Ain’t she purty?

And they did do a good job. So good that this autochthonous tribe was conscripted into the construction of a far larger, Great Stone Church. Their backbreaking, salvation-earning moil and toil began in 1797. Nine long years of sweat, struggle, and hernias later, the magnificent cathedral was completed.

A wall of the Great Stone Church.

Finally the exhausted slaves christians could rest. No more hoicking heavy stones. No more long, agonizing hours beneath the burning sun. And no more beatings and whippings for the slow slackers.

This mighty monument to the mercy of the Lord stood 180 feet long and 40 feet wide, and came equipped with a 120 foot bell tower that could be seen for many miles. It was something to be proud of for the Spanish, and even for the natives who built it.

Worship within the walls of this wonder began in 1806. But just six years later, on December 8th, 1812, the San Andreas fault erupted with 7.2 magnitudes of jolting, destructive power. The cathedral’s stone arch roof had been constructed poorly and could not withstand the shaking of a major earthquake. This grand structure that took nine hard years to build, was wiped out in a matter of seconds.

Ruins of the Great Stone Church. The altar seems to have been the only safe spot during the shaking.

If the purpose of this cathedral was to bring Native Americans close to God, it succeeded wildly. When the earth began to move, Mass was being held. Forty native worshipers perished beneath the falling stones of the collapsing roof. And two boys in the toppled bell tower were also killed. I suppose they got as close to God as anyone can possibly get.

Ancient mission bells, with ruins of the Great Stone Church in the background.

The Great Stone Church was never rebuilt, but worship continued in Serra’s Chapel, eventually converting more than 4,000 native souls to christianity.

A campanario (bell wall) was built a year after the 1812 earthquake, that connected the ruins of the Great Stone Church to Serra’s Chapel.

After Mexico’s independence, and the United States’ thievery of California from Mexico, Mission San Juan Capistrano fell into labefaction. Then, in 1910, Father John O’Sullivan took over the mission and began its restoration.

These brick ovens were employed for feeding the multitude of christian slaves immured at the mission.

Father O’Sullivan is credited (or rather, he credits himself) for a singular miracle that has made this site world famous. He claims to have brought the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

During his tutelage of this mission, people began to notice that thousands of swallows were building their nests on the mission walls. Every Spring, these birds would migrate 6,000 miles, from Goya, Argentina, just to make the mission their home.

And then in 1940, the Ink Spots put San Juan Capistrano on the map with their hit recording of the song, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.

Why did the swallows start coming to Mission San Juan Capistrano? According to Father O’Sullivan, it all began one day when he was walking about the town outside the mission.

He noticed a shopkeeper flailing about with a broomstick, knocking down mud nests from under the eaves of his shop, while panicked birds zoomed all around him, shrieking madly.

“What in the hell is going on?!” shouted Father O’Sullivan. Well maybe he didn’t quite use those particular words. Here’s the actual dialogue, according to the good Father, from his book Capistrano Nights:

“What in the world are you doing?” O’Sullivan asked.

“Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded.

“But where can they go?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”

O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”

The very next morning, Father O’Sullivan discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside Father Junipero Serra’s Church.

In the early 1920s Father O’Sullivan began a tradition of celebrating the return of the swallows to the mission every March 19th (Saint Joseph’s Day). This tradition now draws thousands of tourists every year to join the celebration.

However in the 1990s the mission underwent remodeling. The nests of these dirty birds got in the way and were a nuisance. So the construction workers knocked them down. And after that the swallows stopped returning to Capistrano.

Many attempts have been made to lure the swallows back, but to little avail.

It seems that even for birds, hypocrisy is a hard thing to swallow.

These artificial nests were placed in this archway to entice the swallows to return. They’ve only been modestly effective. Very few birds have swallowed the bait.

Facade

A big attraction of Joshua Tree National Park is its numerous piles of gigantic granite boulders. Who put all these boulders here, and why did they go through all that trouble?

When I was young I was sometimes accused of hiding behind a facade and not revealing my actual, inner self. And it’s true, I really was hiding behind a facade.

Well actually the boulders formed hundreds of millions of years ago when this area was part of the ocean floor. I’ll help you take a nap right now, by telling you the story . . .

I was hiding the ugly pain of an abused childhood. I was hiding suspicions of personal incompetence and the self-doubt of unproven youth. I was hiding my naivete regarding this strange new world that everyone expected me to conquer. And I was hiding my feelings for young ladies who might embarrass me with rejection, should they turn me down.

In fact, I was hiding these and many more things.

250 million years ago the North American tectonic plate slid over the heavier Pacific plate like two quarreling spouses having a dish fight. This forced seawater between the plates, which began boiling like an angry teakettle, due to heat from the friction of the sliding plates.

I built a palisade of rock impossible to penetrate. No one could discover the exotic terrain hiding behind my granite facade. And its imposing escarpment left few even willing to try.

The heat formed magma, and the steam created enormous chambers for the magma to fill.

But assaults from time and the weathering of life have changed all of that. Temblors from the chthonic depths of Earth have fractured my facade’s structural integrity. Eolian winds have hollowed out windows and notches. And downpours from the heavens have eroded gaping barrancas, washing alluvial minerals to the pediplains below.

The magma then cooled into granite. This granite then fractured from tectonic pressure, forming individual boulders.

Here, there, and in many places, my facade has crumbled more and more with the onslaughts of each passing season. Now the curious, the brave, and the careful have many opportunities to explore. Windows have appeared within rock walls, enticing the adventurous to discover more. And slots and passes have cracked apart, affording trails to the kingdom within.

It mostly stands tall and imposing, but my facade no longer serves as a completely solid wall. Rather, it is a screen. It filters out the lazy, while allowing entry to those willing to make a reasonable effort to get inside.

The granite boulders were pushed upward by the Pacific plate below. As they rose and broke the surface of the earth, rainwater percolated down and dissolved the softer granite into soil.

Behind my facade hide delicate vulnerabilities that require protection. But I’m willing to share these vulnerabilities with those who’ve taken the time to discover the decomposed granite, the joints, the splits, and the rounded corners of my stone wall. They already know I’m vulnerable, so there’s no sense in hiding anymore.

As I age I find I have less to lose and more to reveal. And so the facade continues to erode.

The soil then eroded away, revealing the mounds of large boulders that now cover the landscape.

But some of this facade must always remain. And not just my facade, but the barriers of everyone. Facades can be as beautiful as the humanity they conceal. And they serve as a superable challenge for those truly interested in exploring, while deterring the casual passerby who might only spoil or abuse.

There’s nothing wrong with a facade. Let your facade stand fast and majestic. But allow the forces of time to open you up some. At least enough to offer passage to those who will respect what they find.

Who knows, you might enjoy their company.

A bunch of homo sapiens sapiens, who only just recently evolved 30,000 years ago, came along and decided these boulders looked pretty cool. And so they honored what they found by declaring the area to be a National Park.

How to Hide on the Internet

Big Brother is watching you!

The internet seems to thrive commercially through Big Brother tactics. Everything you browse or click on is recorded and digested by commercial websites, whose sole purpose is to figure out who you are.

This leaves me feeling nervous. Hell, I myself don’t even know who I am. So how dare someone else nose into my business and try to figure me out.

But I’ve come up with a way to fool them. A way to hide my identity, and keep Big Brother off my track.

My method is based on the theory that we are all enigmas. And we are enigmas not by how we hide ourselves, but by what we show about ourselves. When I observe other people, they all seem crazy to me. And I’ll bet when others observe me, they think the same thing. So it seems we’re all crazy by everyone’s perspective.

Except for Big Brother’s perspective. With all of Big Brother’s algorithms and data-crunching programs, he’s knows us much better than we know ourselves. We’re not crazy, to Big Brother. We each fit neatly into patterns that only a computer can understand.

So if you want to hide on the internet, you must find a way to confuse Big Brother’s computer. Here’s what I do to accomplish that goal:

I don’t want BB to know I’m retired, so sometimes I pretend I’m a manager of a Del Taco who moonlights at Sea World cleaning shark tanks. I do this with internet searches such as, “how to hire hard workers for low pay,” and “safe ways to fire underpaid disgruntled employees.” Also, “workers comp for shark bites,” and “how to secretly free a killer whale.”

I want BB to think I’m a woman. So I sometimes search for best buys on bras. I’ve bookmarked overstock.com. And I click on ads for pregnancy test kits.

I sometimes shop on Amazon for random items I have no intention of purchasing. Then later I delight in watching ads for these unwanted items pop up on various websites I visit.

I’m skinny, but BB doesn’t need to know my body size. So I search for fat farms, and peruse dieting websites such as nutrisystem.com and jennycraig.com.

BB doesn’t need to know my real name either. So sometimes I fill out online forms using the name “Laura Knotreely.”

I’m an atheist. But as far as BB is concerned I’m a First Southern Baptist who googles Bible verses like a Sunday School teacher preparing a big lesson.

And I don’t belong to any political party. Which is why I make sure to check in with nationalreview.com at least once a week.

So as far as BB is concerned, my name is Laura Knotreely, and I manage a Del Taco while moonlighting at Sea World. I have eclectic tastes when shopping. And I’m also fat, religious, and very conservative.

Now you know none of this is true about me. But please don’t tell Big Brother.

Save Noura

Noura Hussein lives in Sudan. And that’s likely where she will die. Very soon. At 16 years old, her family forced her to marry a man she did not want to marry. She refused to consummate the marriage, and so he raped her.

The first rape occurred with the help of his family. They pinned her down while her new husband forced sex on her.

He attempted the second rape by himself. Big mistake. Noura took up a knife and stabbed him to death. But this was a big mistake for Noura, also. She was arrested and charged with premeditated murder.

Now this young, underaged child, who was forced into marriage and raped, has been sentenced to death by hanging, by a Sharia court. Self-defense is apparently no excuse for women who are raped by their husbands, under Sharia law. Her lawyers have until May 25th to save her.

The clock is ticking. Soon Noura’s fate will be sealed.

But apparently the international community is trying to put pressure on the Sudanese government to spare her life. If you have a Twitter account there is a way you can help, by signing some sort of petition. I don’t Tweet, so I have no idea how this works. But here are a few hashtags you can try:

#JusticeForNoura
#Save Noura

Dalia al Najjar brought this story to my attention in her blog. She’s from Gaza, and occasionally posts very interesting articles about her life as a Palestinian from that area. Here’s a link to her blog:

https://daliaalnjjar.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/getting-married-too-soon-or-too-late

And here are a few other links, if you want to read more about Noura:

https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/hammad-sjbn/

https://www.yahoo.com/news/sudan-teens-death-penalty-puts-spotlight-womens-rights-044018167.html

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/may/14/sudan-urged-pardon-teenager-facing-death-for-killing-husband-who-raped-her-noura-hussein

The Way of the Mayans

The High Temple “pyramid” at Lamanai, Belize. Lamanai was once a major city of the Maya civilization, and was occupied for an amazing time span of over 3,500 years, from about 1600 BC to the 20th century AD. This rivals that of the Nile River Valley and northern China. It was immune from the general collapse of Mayan civilization that occurred in the 9th Century AD. And disinterest by Spanish and British colonists spared the Mayans in this city, though their culture had changed significantly from the ways of their ancient ancestors. Today many Belizeans, and in fact many others who live in southern Mexico and Central America, identify themselves as Mayan. In that sense it can be said that the Mayan civilization has never completely died out.

Much is known about the Mayans, and much is not known. What we do know is that the Mayan civilization began more than 4,000 years ago, in areas we now call southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. After 2,000 BC, they became advanced enough to build cities, and small city-states began to dominate the geopolitical landscape.

The view from the top of the High Temple at Lamanai, Belize. Our tour guide told us that Belize is the only country that continues to allow tourists to climb Mayan “pyramids”. Most of the climb is made by ascending wooden stairs behind the temple. Tourists are only allowed to ascend the top flight of the stone steps. These steps are so high and steep, they require you to climb bent over, using both your hands and feet. They force you, I guess, to humble yourself before the Mayan gods. As you can see from the viewshed, the topography is very flat. The New River flows in the background. We reached these ruins by traveling by boat over the New River.

The Mayans were pretty smart. They became the only native Americans to develop a full writing system before the arrival of Columbus. They also got good at math, and were the first in the world to use the number zero. The Mayan calendar was complex and accurate. And their architecture lives on today in famous ruins at archaeological digs such as Chichen Itza, Yaxchilan, Lamanai, and Tulum.

The ancient walled city of Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It’s located on the Yucatan peninsula, about 80 miles south of Cancun. Occupied around 1200 AD, this was one of the last cities to be established by the Maya. It was conquered by the Spanish in the late 1500s.

These fuckers built great stone temples that are misleadingly called “pyramids”, and used them to sacrifice human beings. Sacrifices involved decapitation, heart excision, being shot with arrows, and other brutal methods for appeasing the gods and conveniently ridding rulers of potential rivals.

The temple of El Castillo, “The Castle”, Tulum, Mexico. Many a rival ruler, and a few supposed virgins, were sacrificed on this spot.

The Mayans attained the height of their glory in the 9th Century AD. And that’s when everything somehow fell all to hell. A widespread political collapse occurred at this time, with internecine warfare, and refugees spilling out of cities. Nobody knows exactly why this happened but there are many theories.

The Great Palace, Tulum, Mexico. Here is where the royal family lived. Sort of an ancient Buckingham Palace.

One theory is ecocide. At that time, the population was up to ten times the current modern-day population, in areas where the soil was poor and very difficult to cultivate. Mayan agricultural science was highly advanced. To this day, nobody knows how the Mayans figured out how to support such a large populace with such infertile soil. But somehow they managed. At least for a while.

The ecocide school of thought holds that in spite of their agricultural genius, they overused their natural resources, and mother nature finally gave out under the strain. This led to widespread famine and political destabilization.

Temple of the God of the Wind, Tulum, Mexico. This temple is situated near a high cliff that overlooks the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was a major trading hub, and archeologists speculate that a signal light was burned atop the cliff to mark the location of a break in the coral reef offshore. This guided trading canoes safely to shore.

Other theories include extended droughts, epidemic diseases, and foreign invasion. But none of these theories have been proven, and the rapid decline of Mayan civilization in the 9th century AD remains one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries.

Danze de los Voladores, or Dance of the Flyers. I just call it the Mayan Pole Dance. This is an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony for the purpose of ending droughts. In this version of the dance, the participants hanging upside down spin around the pole as they gradually descend to earth. Each dancer represents the four directions, and are depicting the recreation of the world, and the regeneration of life. This dance version is so dangerous, it has been banned by many villages in Mexico. Yep, sometimes they fall and die. And then we get no rain.

But the Mayan civilization rebounded, in a sense. Archaeological evidence indicates that after the 9th century AD, many Mayans emigrated from the lowlands of Central America to areas of southern Mexico. They expanded and built more city-states, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. But although their great civilization perdured, they never returned to their prior peak of glory.

The Cenote House, Tulum, Mexico. Below this structure lies a cenote. A cenote is an underground river. Most of the rivers in this part of Mexico flow underground, and can only be accessed through caves and sinkholes. The Mayan inhabitants of Tulum entered this cave, then descended a long rope ladder to the river below, to obtain their water. Something to remember the next time you open your tap, if you want to appreciate modern plumbing.

The arrival of the Spanish did them in for good. Their city-states were conquered one-by-one, mainly through the weapon of smallpox. The last Mayan city-state taken by force by the conquistadors was Nojpeten, in present-day Flores, Guatemala, in the year 1697. This occurred 800 years after the initial collapse that began the Mayan decline. This “officially” ended Mayan civilization, though some argue that it continues in a different form, to this day.

Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum, Mexico. This served as a solar observatory for Mayan priests. They tracked the movement of the sun, and used this information to determine the start of seasons for growing crops. A stuccoed figure of the Mayan “Diving God” can be found on this structure. And inside is a mural, though visitors are no longer allowed in to view this work of art.

A new theory is starting to emerge concerning that initial collapse. Archaeologist Rob Muller discovered thousands of small rocks containing Mayan hieroglyphics, which he calls “bleats”. These bleats apparently contain short messages inscribed by a Mayan king named Trumpamuckus, who appears to have tossed them out to the populace at random.

Muller continues to study the writing on the bleats, and has yet to issue a final report of his conclusions. But for now he claims that King Trumpamuckus rose to power around the year 816 AD. He also says that this king was highly controversial, and was accused by other Mayan leaders as having attained power with the help of the rival Aztec civilization, to the north.

The Jaguar Temple, Lamanai, Belize. Jaguars were revered by the Maya, and symbolized power and authority. Mayan rulers were often depicted wearing jaguar style attire. They also limited their travel exclusively to the use of a sports car purchased from a certain British auto manufacturer.

According to Muller, Trumpamuckus often denied some sort of alliance with the Aztecs, in his bleats. He also often proclaimed himself as the greatest king to have ever ruled anywhere on earth. And there were many stony missives that belittled warnings from Mayan scientists about impending ecological disaster.

Muller is trying to make sense of it all. It will be interesting to read his final report, and many are waiting with bated breath for the results. Perhaps it will contain lessons we can all learn.

And that would be good. So that we don’t go the way of the Mayans.

Temple of the Mask, Lamanai, Belize. Could this be a depiction of the greatest king to have ever ruled on earth? If so, it appears he is leering at a sexy Mayan celebrity lady. Because when you are that powerful, you can do anything you want.