Previous month:
May 2011
Next month:
July 2011

Hugging The Guru In New Mexico

The funny thing about this blog is that I can go weeks with nothing much happening, and then everything seems to happen at once. That, of course, is the difference between being at home, which tends towards status quo ante, and traveling, which tends towards the novel.

So, last Saturday morning we took off for Albuquerque, New Mexico (and there is one city for which the state is well and truly redundant; I don't believe there is another Albuquerque in the world, nonetheless the United States). We checked in at the Marriott Pyramid North along with thousands of other devotes of Amma, the hugging saint, for a weekend retreat.

The first public session started at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Amma arrived and spoke for about 45 minutes, as did her interpreter, the swami. The talk was about love. She compared love to a swimming pool, and said we all start in the shallow end, but as we learn and grow, we can gradually move to the deep end. She also told a story of a man who owned a business and was looking for a successor. He gave everyone seeds and told them to plant them. This can be told at great length, and was, but a year later, he had everyone bring in their plants. Most were lavish. One man came in with an empty pot, and everyone laughed, until the owner named him the new boss. Turns out the owner had given everyone sterile seeds, and all but one of his employees cheated and planted their own seeds. The moral of this story was about being honest.

Sunday morning, we got in line for Darshan at 8am; they started giving out tickets at 9am. We were in the A1 group. The Swami started talking at 9:30, Amma arrived at 10 and began Darshan. The swami, as always, told several stories. He was talking about thinking, and everything coming from nothing, and how we really don't control important parts of our lives.

Life, he said, is a bridge we build between two shores, birth and death, over which we have no control, knowledge or ownership. Everything comes from nothing and returns to nothing. "Reality" is what we see around us; truth is eternal and invisible.

A rabbit observed a centipede. He asked, "How do you figure out which foot to put after another with 100 feet." The centipede responded, "I have been walking just fine my whole life until you asked." After that, he stumbled over himself. The moral, as best I could tell, was not to overthink things, or you'll just stumble all over yourself.

Three men sat at lunch. The first said, "Club sandwich. Every day. If I get another tomorrow, I'm going to kill myself." (As told by the swami this was a five minute shaggy dog story; I have cut it way down). The second opened his lunch and said, "If I get another hot dog tomorrow, I'm going to kill myself." The third opened his lunch and said, "One more onion bagel with lox and I'm going to kill myself." The next day, they gathered again, and found a club sandwich, a hot dog, and a bagel. They jumped from the 20th floor. At their joint funeral, the first wife said, "If only I'd known he hated club sandwiches!" The second wife said, "If only I'd known he hated hot dogs." The third wife said, "I'm surprised, he packed his own lunch." This time the swami made the moral explicit: in this life, we are all packing our own sandwiches. If this life is hell on earth, you made it for yourself."

He also talked for a while about how, if you ask Amma a question and all she does is smile, that's an answer: the answer is, "please think for yourself."

Another story: a guru who gave chickens to two men. He told them to take the chicken somewhere where no one could see and kill it. The first man took the chicken to a cave, killed it, and brought the body back. The second man left and came back with a live chicken. "What happened," he was asked. "Well, I got to the cave, and realized there was someone who could see me killing it; me." The moral, as I understood it, was that our conscience is always watching.

First story: there were three stonecutters doing the same job. Asked what they were doing, one said, "I am working to support my family." The second said, "I want to be the best stonecutter in the world." The third said, "I want to build the best temple in the world." All three were doing the same job; they way they viewed it was different.

A butterfly is a caterpillar, then a larva, then a butterfly. It leads three lives which all look very different. We mature as well, but the difference between a butterfly and us is the butterfly is not conscious and has no control over the process, whereas we can advance through various states of enlightenment using our will.

A man went to the doctor and got drops for his eye and medicine for his indigestion. He dropped the indigestion medicine into his eye and swallowed the eye medicine. Similarly, we treat our body as if it were more important the our brain, when we should really be applying the treatment the other way around.

A very agitated man came to Amma and said, "How can you be so peaceful." "Why are you so agitated," she asked. "It just comes on me," he said. "It just comes on me too," she answered.

This story is mine:

As I listen to the swami, sometimes I despair of the use of language to describe very abstract concepts. It reminds me of a story I heard once; a painter was asked to provide words for a catalog to describe his picture. "If I could say what I wanted to say in words, I would have written an essay; the only way I can express it is with the picture." I suspect, sometimes, that some of these Amma concepts are not easily susceptible to explanation using language; they may involve faith and belief.

Tuesday morning, we drove to Santa Fe. We stayed in a condo we found through the website Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO). Beautifully decorated, clean, neat, tidy, and with high-speed Internet.

We shopped at Whole Foods and its new competition, Sunflower. We add salads at home, and went out to dinner at La Casa Sensa, where I had the antelope rib steak (tastes like chicken :-) We walked around downtown Santa Fe. Actually, we walk each morning, around the federal courthouse, then down by the river. We went to see a French film called Incidieras (I won't give away the plot; suffice it to say it is convoluted and artsy). We had froyo at the same place I went last year, Yoberri.

Thursday we drove to Ojo Caliente, a spa and resort an hour north of Santa Fe. We hiked the grounds for two hours, but were disappointed that the pueblo "ruins" were more "former site of pueblos," and that it was a very steep climb to get to the disappointing spot.

The resort has numerous pools filled with the hot spring water that bubbles up there. Supposed to be good for just about everything that ails you. I had an herbal wrap and a foot reflexology massage, and both were quite pleasant. A quiet evening at home, lots of reading, and music in the background from Radio Nederlands commercial-free classical channels.

Friday, we visited art galleries. As an animation fan, my favorite was the Chuck Jones gallery (Warner Brothers animator, father of the Roadrunner cartoons, director of "What's Opera Doc"). We went to Fedex to ship home some extra stuff we won't need on the next leg of our journey. Speaking of Fedex, their lost and found department called me because there was a box full of things with my name on them that had lost its waybill and ended up in Sacramento. They are forwarding it on to me. We had lunch at Pasqual's, and, once again, had the world's most amazing mole enchiladas (Vicki had the veggie, I had the chicken). There is cineplex five minutes from our condo, so we went to see Tree of Life, reviewed (briefly, with a reference to Neal's astute review) below.

On the soft-serve frozen yogurt (froyo) front, Santa Fe now has a second: DeDo's Froyo, just off the plaza at 101 W. Marcy St. Unlike Yoberri, DeDo's is self-serve.

Political Briefs


3 stars out of 5
I would have given it 3.5, but it was 130 minutes long, which is just too long. It is a French-Canadian production, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad. It is opened up so cleverly that, for a change, you can't instantly tell it started life as a play. Until, in retrospect, you realize how intricately plotted it is. No one works that hard plotting a movie. There are twists galore, and one thing you can say about this film, which meditates on life, death, love, hate and the Middle East is that, for the most part, you don't see what's coming next. I enjoy that  in a film, so hats off  to directory and screenplay writer Denis Villeneuve. Here's a tip; don't bother trying to figure out which Middle East country it is. Its kind of like Lebanon, but the place names are made up and the politics are scrambled. I probably missed several plot points and I know I gave myself a headache trying to make the Christians, muslims, north, south, refugees and civil war line up with my (admittedly) limited knowledge of the area.

Tree of Life (redux)

I second most of what Neal Vitale wrote in his review. There is a thin line between profundity and pretentiousness, and this film lands on the wrong side. I would give it 2.5 stars instead of Neal's 2, but only because I appreciate a film that challenges me to think now and then. About what, I'm not sure.

Weird Al, Dan Grobstein File

Regular readers may recall I am a fanatic Weird Al fan; I literally own everything he has ever produced. A friend notes that Rolling Stone recently presented 25 things you didn't know about Weird Al. Oh, and he has a new CD coming out.

Dan Grobstein File

Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is with the Peace Corps in Mali. She has access to the Internet, and had to write a long report which I have excerpted here.

My homologue (host) is great. She is very dynamic. She speaks French, Bambara and Ghanakhan. She is on the council for the commune, secretary of the women’s association and president of the mobile bank.

N’tjilla is capital of the Commune Wateni and is located 7 km off the main road. We have a primary and middle school, two boutiques, the CSCOM (community health center), and a maternity. There are several pumps, and some compounds also have wells. The road between the main road and the town is the only well paved road in the commune. All other roads may be better characterized as paths through the bush. There is a market in my village on Wednesdays. There is a market in neighboring Bougelaba on Saturdays. My market town is Niena, which has a Sunday market, and radio station. There are no permanent cars owned in the commune, but there are bush taxis that go to and from Bamako on the weekend, and a shuttle to Niena for the market.

Subsistence farming is the primary form of income. Most male members of the community also hunt, fish, and do house building in the off-season for farming. During rainy season it sounds like all available land is given over to cash crops (peanuts, cotton, rice and millet). Members of the community, mainly women, also walk the 4 km to the river to pan for gold in the dry season.

One challenge I foresee for myself is the language. Although many people can speak Bambara, the default language is Ghanakan, which I have been told is either a combination of Fulfalde and Bambara or possibly more closely related to a language spoken primarily in Burkina Faso. For some members of the community, especially the uneducated, the local women, and the elderly, it is their only language.

My primary service is with the Kesu Mobili/Mobile Bank. The bank operates in three villages: N’Tjilla, Bougelaba, and Sibirila. There is currently a president, secretary, and seven collectors spread over the three villages.

I have attended meetings on Friday afternoons in N’Tjilla, and gone once each to Bougelaba (Monday) and Sibirila (Friday morning) to observe how the bank is currently working. Clients are both men and women. The only service officially available is savings. They offer group accounts to local associations. There are currently 120 bank members in N’Tjilla, around 100 in Bougelaba, and around 50 in Sibirila.

There is a radio station in Niena. When I met with the programmer he was eager to have me and another volunteer do a show. They’re willing to give us up to an hour a week for Bambara or French language formations on the topics of our choice. I am particularly interested in using the platform to discuss health and education issues.

I have some GAD related ideas, which include starting a girl’s soccer team either at the elementary or middle school level, or possibly both. I would also like to participate in a take your daughter to work day, either in Sikasso or Bougani, or by creating a more local version in Niena, where many of the kids go to high school (if they go to high school), and which may be seen as more accessible.
Water and sanitation issues are self-evident in my village, and I would like to encourage the building of more negens (latrines), so that there is less chance of contamination of the fields by human fecal matter.

Vedic Analysis

A friend of mine recently ran me through some questions that analuzed my nature. Her report:

This is the result from Deepak Chopra's Dosha Quiz app. It's the best quiz I've seen so far- there are three "prakritis" or types: Vata, Pitta, Kapha and not all quizzes are great at identifying dual-prakritis (a combo of types). You are a mixture of Vata and Pitta. Everyone is a mixture of all the three types, but you have no one dominate type- you have two types. In ayurveda, finding out your dosha is finding out your imbalances are and your job is to live your life to neutralize your imbalances.

Your results according to the Deepak Chopra App: (Of course not every single thing will apply- you're tall which is Vata, but the broadstrokes are supposed to apply) "Pitta-Vatas have medium built bodies and they are of medium strength and musculature. They are quick in their movements with good stamina and are assertive. The Pitta intensity is obvious in them, but they have a touch of Vata lightness. They have stronger digestion and regularity than Vatas or Vata-Pittas. They love challenges and tackle problems enthusiastically. When they are out of balance, this type makes them tense, hard-driven and insecure -- classic Type A behavior."

Political Briefs

On this day in history:
June 17, 2011:
39th anniversary of discovery of second break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by allegedly former Central Intelligence Agency employees acting at the request of a federal government employee serving as legal counsel to Richard Nixon, the Republican President of the United States of America, during Mr. Nixon's re-election campaign and acting under the direct on-scene supervision of an admitted allegedly ex-officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Dalton finds Journalism of the Future, Dan Grobstein File

Richard Dalton writes:

My grandniece started her freshman year at the University of Missouri's Journalism School last year and she wrote me asking what I thought the prospects were for a career in journalism at this point.  I threw away my first three glib responses and finally said I thought there was a wide-open future for journalists, especially if they weren't wedded to a traditional newspaper/magazine setting.  This may seem obvious but superannuated relatives are permitted occasional pedantries. I do maintain an active interest in how and in what forms "news" will be provided in an Internetted world.  This article examines a number of threads in this ongoing debate.  My guess is that each of us will have to become a highly sophisticated consumer of this emerging information smorgasbord or a victim of propaganda poisoning

Dan Grobstein File