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Posts from — August 2009

The Diamond Sangha, Robert Aitken, and Elizabeth Bishop

In 1987 my husband and I moved to Honolulu.  I’d lived there as a child, so living in that intense and fluid beauty was like reliving a marvelous dream.  The ever-changing clouds over the Koolau Mountains, the lush, ever-present gardens rich with the haunting scent of plumeria,memories of driving over the Pali on the old highway, all merged powerfully with the present.  I visited Punchbowl, where my best friend James, our next-door-neighbor in Ohana Nui III, who died of kidney failure soon after we moved–his mother’s kidney didn’t help–is buried.  I never wondered why this nice half-Japanese boy was interested in playing Monopoly with an eight-year-old girl day after day, but it was because he was sick.  The old road down to Haleiwa on the North Shore was the same, rural and friendly.  I’d always imagined that it was named after my loved grandmother, Eva, as it is pronounced “Holly-Eva.”  Every weekend we would drive around the island, stopping to picnic and play along the way, often at Kaaava Beach Park, with its reef-protected flat water; my sisters were three and four years old.  When I say “drive around the island” I really mean it.  You could drive out to Kaena Point on the Farrington Highway on the northwest shore.  That part was pretty flat.  But once you round the point, you’re on a cliff.  Back then, the road from the point to Makaha was still intact enough to travel on.  My sisters and I would look out the car window at huge waves smashing against the cliff twenty or thirty feet below the potholed dirt road, which ended inches from our tires, and see the rusted carcasses of cars, which we imagined had crashed there, full of families like ours, who became food for sharks, but Dad told us that most likely they had been stolen for joy-riding and then pushed over the cliff.  We didn’t believe him.  We preferred to relish our terror, and scream.

In 1987,  I walked out to the end of the point to relive this–the salt smell, the crashing waves, the small reef-pools ebbing and flowing–took pictures, wrote a piece about the railroad that ran out there, for a short time, from Honolulu, and published it in the Aloha Airlines magazine.  All of the lovely photographs that I took in Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong that year are on slides.  Used to be, you’d send several plastic-pocket pages of slides along with your travel pieces.  I sold many articles and photographs back then.  Now, of course, I will have to, at some point, get around to scanning all those slides.  I’d like to see them again.   

Those of you who have met me in the past fifteen years might be surprised, but back then I got up before the sun came up–around 5:30, perhaps–to sit.  Or meditate, as they say. To be honest, because Hawaii is six hours earlier than on the east coast, it was not difficult, and anyway, I was used to getting up at six in Knoxville to open my school.

One morning a week I walked downhill a block to sit with some truly old Japanese Zen monks, who spoke only Japanese.  I had to find an interpreter to ask permission to sit with them.  They never seemed to notice me, and they probably didn’t, actually, being deep in zazen.  Some mornings, I drove over to Manoa, near the University of Hawaii, and sat at the Koko An Zendo.  I had read several of Robert Aitken’s books, and he was the Roshi there.  The Diamond Sangha was mostly students, and they all revered Aitken.  He was then in his seventies, and they took care of him.  They spent weekends caring for his house and yard, and so on. 

Finally, I asked for an audience.  If you read a lot of Zen texts, the concepts of transmission (of the Dharma), enlightenment, and so on, come up often, and usually take the form of a solved koan. 

Well, Aitken’s koan for me was:  “You’re an English major.  Have you read Elizabeth Bishop?”  Aitken’s undergraduate degree is in English; his MA is in Japanese Studies. 

“No,” I said.

His eyes twinkled.  Really, they did.  He is a good-humored man.  “You should.”

Twenty-um years later, I am.  I have two copies of Bishop’s ONE ART, her letters, a Collected Poems, and, just lately, I bought LIFE and the Memory of it, a biography by Brett C. Miller. 

I have discovered several things.  Her poems, which appear to be artless to my relatively uneducated eye, are not.  She worked on most of them for months; sometimes years.  She had deep formal training and was befriended by all the major poets of her time–Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, to name two.  Her first book of poetry was not published until she had been writing poetry, and had been a professional poet and almost nothing else, for twenty years or so.  She suffered from severe asthma, depression, and alcoholism.  Her father died when she was young of Bright’s Disease, and soon thereafter her mother was committed to a mental institution and was institutionalized until she died, so, essentially, Bishop was an orphan from then on.  I am about two-thirds of the way through the book.  I am reading her poems, many of which I have read before, in a new light.  I’m not a newcomer to poetry by any means; most of my college education was in English Literature from the Middle Ages until the early Nineteenth Century.  Bishop would have been decidedly too contemporary to be studied at Virginia Tech in the early seventies.  It  seems that most of her breakthroughs came after she won the Pulitzer, for her first book of poems, and came about precisely because she was then able to break the rules, knowing what she was doing, which increases the tension as well as the impact–even if the reader is not really aware of what is going on beneath the surface. 

I’m also reading what I think of as books related to one another–THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY, THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF ANIMALS, THE ELEPHANT’S SECRET SENSE, which have to do with my studies in neurology/behavior/brain development.  And in human development, and how Montessori education relates to and enhances it. 

And one more book, THE JAZZ EAR, by Ben Ratcliff, interviews with lots of jazz musicians.  Very good. 

Aitken’s communities have set up a page for him at http://aitkenroshi.org/about.html to help with his ongoing medical expenses.  At age ninety-one, you have a lot of them.

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August 27, 2009   3 Comments

Migraine, or, “I know you’re in pain!”

Several years ago,  I sat on the bare oak floor of what was soon to be my former living room, exhausted from a week of packing, watching movers hauling the last cartons of books out to join our furniture in their boxy moving truck. 

Late-afternoon sunlight washed across the polished boards, caught the swirling ridges of the stuccoed walls, and stood on the threshold of the beautiful green-tiled porcelain kitchen counter, the brave flying flowers of the wallpaper I’d chosen, and the ice-cream-parlor tiled floor.  I had worked as a packer for a moving company in my twenties, and since then have approached my many moves head-on (even after the time, during college, when a friend with a pick-up declared that it was the last time he’d help me move, as I had way too many books), packing and sorting and readying for whatever new adventure beckoned. 

But now, as I sat on the floor, aching all over, listening to the phone ring in another room, I realized that those days were long gone.  I saw my husband’s feet approaching.  He said, holding out the phone, a puzzled look on his face, “This woman thinks you’re in pain.”

I took the phone, laughing, wondering who in the world would be asking for money with such a ploy.  Evidently, she’d gotten past my skeptical husband.  “Hello?”

The woman said that she hoped she wasn’t bothering me, but that she had called because she knew I was in pain, and wanted me to write about it.  I laughed even more, telling her that I was, indeed, in terrific pain.  I’d been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, had osteoperosis, chronic bursitis, and who knows what all, which had been exacerbated by my recent extreme exertion, though I didn’t mention any of that.  She continued, serious.

Her name was Lenore Dunsing, and she said that she was the editor of THE PAIN PRACTITIONER, a quarterly put out by the American Association of Pain Practitioners.  What really hooked me was that she said that she knew that I was in pain because she read my novels, and that she wanted me to write about it for the journal. 

“I know you have migraines because you write about them so accurately,” she told me. 

Indeed, several of my characters in CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY and LIGHT MUSIC have severe migraines, which begin when they are children.  The migraines are a symptom of greater changes in the environment, as well as of the exact time of their conception, but that is fictional.   I’d never said anything about myself, personally, but she saw through the fan dance and realized I couldn’t be making the up the descriptions.

That was the very last phone call we ever recieved in the house.  Fifteen minutes later, we unplugged the phones, went to a nice hotel for our last night in town, and I, for one, became extremely irritated when they would not serve us dinner in their dining room because we did not have the proper attire with us, despite my telling them that most of our clothes were fifty miles down the road, en route to our next abode.   

I continued to correspond with Lenore, who was fascinating, by phone and email, and finally produced the piece for her, which appeared in THE PAIN PRACTITIONER, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2006.  The journal is an artistically beautiful magazine, and Lenore chose some of Cara Weston’s beautiful black and white photographs to illustrate “The Headache, My Unwanted Companion.” 

You can read “The Headache, My Unwanted Companion” by clicking on http://www.aapainmanage.org/literature/PainPrac.php and then on the cover of the Fall 2006 issue, HEAD PAIN, and scrolling till you come to my piece.  You can see more of Cara Weston’s stunning photographs at http://carawestonphotography.com/ .  Lennie Densing is now the Executive Director of AAPM. 

A very pleasant postscript to this is that about a year ago the headaches that had plagued me for ten years suddenly vanished.  I no longer worry, when I step out of the house, whether I have some medication with me.  Don’t know why, but I am happy.

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August 21, 2009   1 Comment

Money-Driven Medicine

Bill Moyer’s show next week (August 28th) is going to excerpt parts of this documentary.  I have not seen it, nor have I read Maggie Mahar’s book, MONEY-DRIVEN MEDICINE.  http://www.moneydrivenmedicine.org/ has links to her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, and other interesting links.  I’m going to get the book, and I’ll report back.

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August 21, 2009   No Comments

Don’t Back Down!

I’m afraid that I have always thought of Republicans as bullies.  I voted the first time in 1972, for McGovern, from New Hampshire with a not-easy-to-get absentee ballot from Virginia.  Actually, I thought of Nixon as being Evil.  Kind of weird, I suppose.  He was just human, and continued the war, resigned in shame (after his Vice-President, Agnew, also got the boot for being a crook).  Republicans, especially recently, seem to embrace the tactics of lying, exaggerating, ridiculing, and other bullying behaviors.  I realize that old-time Republicans think of their party as merely being fiscally conservative, but they have gone far beyond that in the past forty years. 

Now they are employing the same tactics to bring down a popular President and all of the Democrat members of Congress.  I’ve written to the President and to my Congresspeople about the need to stand firm on a public option for health care. 

An apropos piece in the Washington Post today:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/19/AR2009081901773_2.html?wpisrc=newsletter  Howard Dean is a physician; he knows about health issues, and is aware of the ridiculously high amount of money that hospital corporations, physician provider corporations, HMO’s, and pharmaceutical companies drain from our health care economy.  The amount is staggering.  These companies have plenty of lobbying money to toss around.  As for the public, all we have is our vote, and our big mouths.

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August 20, 2009   No Comments

Time to wake up!

This from Robert Kuttner at the Washington Post:

“It is private insurance companies that ration care by deciding what is covered and what is not. Private plans limit which doctor and hospital you can use, define “preexisting conditions” and make insurance unaffordable for tens of millions. For many, all this can cause suffering and sometimes even death. Our one oasis of socialized medicine, Medicare, has the most choice and the least exclusion.”

I haven’t a clue as to why people believe the opposite.  Haven’t they been dealing with HMO’s for years, wrangling about which meds, docs, hospitals, etc. they are “allowed” (after paying their high premiums) to use? 

In the 1980’s, when I provided very good health, dental, and eye insurance for my employees, one of them asked if we could not join an HMO, which, she believed, would be so much better.  It would provide “preventative medicine.”  At the time, I looked into it, and found the opposite to be true.  People who had and who have no choice, since they either cannot afford health insurance or must take whatever their employer dishes out, have little choice, in most HMO (“Health Maintenance Organizations,” rather an oxymoron–often they are LDO’s–life-denying organizations) about whether or not a certain option is “approved.”  As a patient in dire trouble gets worse by the minute in emergency rooms, paid intermediaries, often the doctor, must haggle with the medically untrained bean-counter at the insurance company who has no idea of the stakes or what they are or are not approving.  And none of what the bean-counters are doing is in the interest of the patient.  It is completely and absolutely in the interest of the CEO’s of the HMO.  It all comes down to whether or not the CEO will be able to buy a timeshare in a more upscale “personal jet,” or especially cool and impressive six-thousand-dollar shower curtains. 

Remember all those labor issues in the United States–or worldwide, for that matter–in the thirties, when mine owners and factory owners worked their employees to death in unsafe conditions while they feasted in top-of-the-hill mansions?  Well, maybe you don’t.  Neither do I, actually, but I have learned about them second-hand, by reading history and seeing films and listening to records.  Look it up.  Listen to a few Pete Seeger or Woodie Guthrie tunes.  Read some nineteenth century English Literature.  Or a little bit about the worldwide Communist revolutions, and, on their heels, the Fascist alternatives the fearful moneyed class–including our own Kennedys, a whole lot of Upper Crust Brits, and Industry Magnates in Germany supported wholeheartedly–or, should I say, without any hearts at all.   Some of you–even Sarah Palin–might have heard about the two World Wars that used up a lot of lives, time, and energy during the last century.  What was all that ruckus about, anyway? 

Oh.  To get back to health care.  I’ve actually never left it.  Why shouldn’t our abundant tax dollars go instead to helping ourselves, with stellar health care and stellar education, rather than used to develop meaner weapons and send young people to their death?  Hmmm.  That’s a hard one, isn’t it?  Even though it seems so obvious.   

To read the rest of Kuttner’s opinion piece, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/17/AR2009081702363.html?wpisrc=newsletter

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August 18, 2009   No Comments

The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert, or, Spindle Cells and TSD in Mammals

Or, Are There Autistic Whales?

Last week, I finished reading THE WAUCHULA WOODS ACCORD by Charles Siebert.   It is an essay-type book that revolves around Roger, a chimp recovering from his life with Ringling Brothers at the Center for Great Apes near Wauchula, Florida.  The Center is a state-of-the-art facility designed for Great Apes who have been traumatized by humans in one way or another.  Siebert drops in references to many other such sojourns in Africa and other parts of the world where he has observed other animals in the same situation.  He is interested in Roger because Roger prefers to live alone, unlike any of the other apes in the center, and because he seemed to recognize Siebert. 

The book is interesting for many reasons, but one thing that jumped out at me is the mention of spindle neurons, which have so far been found in many kinds of whales, in elephants, great apes, dogs, cats, and other mammals.  (I have tried to find a comprehensive list, but haven’t succeeded so far.)

Spindle neurons appear to be at the root of the emotional life of these animals.  They (or their lack of them) have been discovered to be related to autism as well as emotional responsiveness. 

Siebert brings up many interesting facts.  For instance, in several parts of the world, young and adolescent elephants have witnessed the death of their parents by poachers.  That is traumatic enough, but adolescent male elephants deprived of models for behavior form gangs that rampage through villages (Siebert writes about this at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html?_r=1&ei=5070&en=c4fe2178b292ff78&ex=1166763600&pagewanted=all  )  and also rape and kill rhinocerosus.  A solution to this was found when mature bull elephants were introduced to the gangs; this behavior then abated. 

I like learning about how we are similar to other animals.  Short take:  I enjoyed this book, and if you are interested in human and animal intelligence and emotions, it is illuminating.  [Read more →]

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August 5, 2009   No Comments


Just read in the Washington Post, my hometown newspaper, that there is a talk radio campaign attacking health care reform from another angle:  They Are Trying To Kill They Elderly.  Not just Granny, of course, but You, in a few years.  Put simply, it pays doctors to review with people, every five years, whether or not they have end-of-life directives in place.  This will not kill granny, or you.  It will just spur you to act responsibly, so that whatever happens when you are unconscious or otherwise impaired is what you would have wanted to happen.  This is the exact opposite of Kill Granny.  It puts the responsibility on the individual, rather than on their bewildered family or on the doctor, who would ethically have to choose to spend, perhaps, a huge amount of money keeping an otherwise near-dead person who will never recover technically “alive.” 

Let’s see . . . would you like to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for your family after you are close to legally dead?  If you are ninety-five and go into a coma from which will most likely never awaken, is this what you would really want?  Conversely, no one who might benefit from your death is allowed to witness your living will.  You make it on your own, with a lawyer, sign it with notarization, lock away your original, and give your doctor and attorney a copy, and your family if you so desire. 

Oftentimes, this amounts to the very simple expedience of removing feeding tubes and breathing apparatus.  It might be hard for you to imagine, but often being alive is a burden to the very old, or to the termninally ill.   They are in pain.  They are suffering.  They are ready to die.  If you would like to have breathing apparatus removed but continue to be tube-fed and hydreated and turned to avoid bed sores, say so while you can. 

The time for you to create a living will is now, while you have the control.  You can go to the lawyer of your choice and write up a document, which you sign, have notarized, and pass out to everyone in your family, or download a free document and do the same.  If you would like to live for years as a vegetable, this is the time to make your wishes known.  Likewise, you can finely delineate various aspects of your end-of-life care and make these legally airtight.  That is all that this is about: letting you know that you have the power to do this.  Otherwise, it will not be in your hands.  It will definitely be in the hands of your next-of-kin.  They will have you declared incompetent, which you may well be, to handle your own affairs, and get durable power of attorney.  If they love you, and know your wishes, and respect them, fine.  Even if this is not the case, doctors are ethically bound to perpetuate life.  They cannot choose to “pull the plug.” 

Here is a randomly-found web site for those who live in North Carolina that goes over the issues clearly:  http://www.ncbar.org/download/planningYourEstate/living_will.html#Rights  .  Living wills vary from state to state. 

This got me thinking about how easy it must be to manipulate radio talk show hosts.  Want Rush, Crowley, Boortz, or others to support your money-sucking private hospital, pharmaceutical company, HMO?  Give them free stock, or coveted sports tickets, or a think-tank cruise on which their pov is aired.  Whatever.  Schmooze them royally.  It would not be crooked for them to accept such bribes, as it would be for politicians.   These are very smart people.  Crowley has a Ph.D., for instance.  However, one must realize that they are in the business of entertainment, as in keeping an audience stirred up and excited.  They also have a bully pulpit.  They control the comments, the agenda, the argument.  They get people to strongly identify with them–on one issue, perhaps, and then they listen more, and, often without the critical tools or energy to fully research all the punching bags, they come over to the view that their favorite ranter is an expert on everything. 

Right now, if you are in an HMO, your health care is not in your hands.  It is in the hands of the bean-counter the HMO hired to keep costs down, and they usually get a BONUS for saving the company money!  Really!  They are NOT on your side. 

Here is the Washington Post link that got me thinking: 


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August 1, 2009   1 Comment