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Following the Guru into New Mexico

Another in my series of annual reports from retreats my wife and I attend with her guru Amma.

We arrived Tuesday afternoon, checked in the Marriott Pyramid North after a brief shuttle ride from the Sunport airport, along the only freeway I've ever seen that is consistently bathed in decorator colors with a southwestern motif.

We checked in, and received out seva assignments as well as our orange wristbands, which will be our constant companions for the next three days. I got 8pm dining hall cleanup on Wednesday and 11pm dish washing on Thursday.

There are some aspects of this experience that are beyond my writing skills to describe. Since I can't take notes from a 90-minute talk by either the guru or the chief swami, I end up remembering only the funny stories. This is, of course, what makes storytelling such a powerful teaching tool, as long as the story is closely grounded to the point you're trying to make, which Amma's stories are.

One metaphor (regulars tell me she has used it before) is to compare proximity to the guru to tuning in to a radio station. If you are tuned properly, you can be quite a way from the guru and still participate in her vibrations. On the other hand you can be next to the tower, and if you have not tuned properly, you will get nothing. The moral of the story: proximity is nice, but not necessary for spiritual advancement.

As a former radio engineer, I feel obliged to extend her metaphor one step further: if you're right next to the transmitting tower, you can blow out your radio because the signal is too strong. I am not suggesting avoiding the physical presence of the guru, merely noting that being in her presence can sometimes be unnerving.

Amma is not above using the internet for a good idea; she wanted to talk about the need for empathy, and told this story:
A wife was making a breakfast of fried eggs for her husband.
Suddenly her husband burst into the kitchen and started saying: "Careful .. CAREFUL! Put in some more butter! Oh Good Grief! You're cooking too many at once. TOO MANY! Turn them! TURN THEM NOW! They need more butter. Oh Good Grief ! WHERE are we going to get MORE BUTTER? They're going to STICK! Careful ... CAREFUL! I said BE CAREFUL!! You NEVER listen to me when you're cooking! Never! Turn them! Hurry up! Are you CRAZY? Have you LOST your mind? Don't forget to salt them. You know you always forget to salt them. Use the salt. USE THE SALT! THE SALT!"

The wife stared at him. "What on earth is wrong with you? You think I don't know how to fry a couple of eggs?

The husband calmly replied, " Well...I just wanted to show you what I feel like when I'm driving with you in the car!"
Wednesday morning we took a beautiful walk through the lushly landscaped office park across the street from the hotel. It was 70 degrees at 6:30am when we started and 75 degrees by 7:30am when we finished. They served us oatmeal (not, I suspect, a very Indian breakfast, thank goodness) in the dining hall. The darshan line was quite short, and a number of people standing in it were not anxious to be among the first to receive darshan from Amma. We knew of no reason why not, so we took a place in the front row, where we sat less than 10 feet from swami for an hour and from Amma during the half-hour meditation.

Swami was the warm up act, and stopped in mid-sentence when he got word that Amma was on her way. He was discussing the need not to become attached to objects, and mentioned the exception that it was OK to be attached to objects that have been touched by the guru. But first, he told a story of a physicist from Los Alamos he had met the night before. The physicist conceded that science doesn't know much about what preceded the big bang, and swami said Amma does. Swami also mentioned that Amma frequently talks about the universe being a web, and how a vibration in one part of the web is felt all over the web. This reminded me of quantum communications, the idea that two paired molecules can communicate across the galaxy instantly, such that if you change the state of one, the other changes. I tried to look this phenomenon up on the Internet, including on the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia, but ended up just giving myself a headache, so I stopped. Still, I am fascinated that Amma and physicists are thinking along the same lines.

After the meditation, we were among the first 20 people to have darshan, once again joining the millions of people who've had a hug from the hugging saint. If you are there with your significant other, you can get a dual hug. My wife was in front of me; I felt sure she'd get to go first. Instead, like every other time, they had me go first, then she joined me.Tradition, I guess.

Being hugged by a saint is a beautiful, if somewhat unnerving experience.
Beautiful because, well, she's a saint. Unnerving because the mechanics are quite precise, and even if you do your best, you're liable to get something wrong and, in the words of one of my daughters, be "airlifted out" by the people running the line. Tuesday went more smoothly than usual, I must say.

The main activity of the afternoon was a Q&A with Amma, outside in the pavilion behind the hotel.  She sits on a small raised stage. The swami translates the questions and her answers. In 90 minutes, she took three questions. No disrespect to my fellow devotees intended, but I believe it could be said they all suffered from Congressional Questioning Syndrome, which is to say each short question was proceeded by a long speech. In any case, all three of Amma's answers were made with love, and were about love. Just like the Beatles! Another phenomenon which I am at a loss to describe is the peals of laughter during Amma's presentations. I think most of it comes from the love of knowing insiders, primed to see Amma's impish side, and goaded by Swami's well-developed sense of humor. As they say in television, it is mostly character humor, rather than gag humor, and is thus hard to describe.

This is the night when Amma serves dinner to the devotees. It is an amazing production. She hands out 1200 meals, prepared by the rows of servers behind her. My seva was to supervise the placement of cups, plates, bowls and silverware in the appropriate containers for transport to the dishwashing crew. Doesn't sound like much, but let me tell you, it was among the most difficult seva I have ever performed, especially when the crowds lined up, people put things in the wrong boxes, and we ran out of boxes, and... well, stressful. I guess no one said it was going to be easy. That's why it's seva.

Thurday morning began with another swami talk. He began with a little self-deprecating humor, citing verses from the Bhagavad-gita about the way a devotee should behave before a guru. He said he wasn't going to go into any detail because, if he did, we would all see him fail to meet the standard set out. The crowd chuckled.

He spent most of his hour commenting on two verses of the Bhagavad-gita:
BG 2.62: While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.

BG 2.63: From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.

He would periodically mumble the Sanskrit to himself, so he could remember the order of the stages. Bottom line: don't get attached to material things. I think I've heard it before.

He told us, "The seeker of truth must first eliminate all that is not true; then they can channel Amma's grace"

The day ended with a public program (which tripled the attendance): Devi Bhava, a special program that begins with the Atma Puja ceremony for world peace. While giving darshan, Amma wears a special outfit to represent her being in Krishna Bhava, the divine mood of Krishna, in which Amma experiences that she is one with the Lord.

The Story of the P.B.

I lost three hours last week to a man I am going to call the PB, for petty bureaucrat. I am telling this story not for revenge, not to dwell in the past, but to illustrate and fulfill two spiritual lessons I was taught during the retreat.

I hope you'll forgive my maddening imprecision. There is a part of me that wants to use his name and address, but that would lower me to his level of pettiness, and I don't want to go there. My imprecision is going to extend to not describing my exact shift or duties. That way, only the 12 people in the room with us, and the seva supervisor, will know who he is. The odds of any of them reading this are so small as to asymptotically approach zero. But I am writing this  because writing about an experience is how a writer processes it. And as I lay awake for an hour, shaking with frustration, I promised myself to record the incident. I am posting this (rather than sticking it in a drawer), because the story serves as a real-life example of the lessons.
The lessons both came from Amma on Thursday. In common with all gurus, she advises that we let go of the past and the future and try to live in the present. She also quoted a famous Rumi  poem, to illustrate her point that everyone who comes into our life does so for a reason, and that the way we deal with them affects our karma and theirs.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-- Jelaluddin Rumi,

(Of course, the poem isn't literally about human visitors, thank you)
Seva is the concept of selfless service. You do things for others without expectation of thanks or reward. I expected neither. What I did not expect was verbal abuse and bullying.

PB, I was told, wasn't even the official staff supervisor of my seva shift. But he was one of a handful of staff members and. as such, knew what needed to be done and where things went. Alas, he wasn't the only staff member, and there were a lot of sevites, which meant confusion, which he turned to anger, directed at me.

I have been in his position, a long time ago. When I was editor of The Tech in 1973-74, I supervised a number of volunteers. You need a gentle touch and a grateful heart to cajole work from people who aren't  being paid or trained to do it. I did such a good job that, 40 years later, people I don't even remember come up to me or email me to say how nice I was and how wonderful was their experience of the newspaper, thanks to me.

PB is in no danger of such an expression. He acted as if he had read the manual on how to supervise volunteers, but didn't understand it because it wasn't in his native language. He was cheerful, and asked my name, which he promptly forgot, calling me sir for the rest of my shift (that's OK, for a while I forgot his name as well). He smiled, and always said please. During seva, you don't expect a thank you.

The problem was his affect, which was at least one layer removed from that of an appropriate supervisor of volunteers. It may well have been partly a language problem. He mentioned he was born in another country, which shall remain nameless.

There were excuses for his behavior, of course. There always are. He had not slept in three days. one sevite told me. There was enormous stress, as the tour was ending and things had to be packed onto trucks for shipment to the next venue. This is what the other sevites and staff said to me as he walked away after delivering another savaging.

I arrived. He assigned me a task. I was just underway when two other staff members came along and sweetly said, "Please don't do that yet. We aren't ready for it." I went back to PB, who assigned me another task. No real description of the job, a vague wave of the hand. Another staff member came along and told me where to put some things that needed to be packed. PB came and asked what I thought I was doing. I told him. He erupted, muttered impercations, then walked away. I continued to do my job, then tried to show some initiative. I was 45 minutes into a two-hour shift. He told me to leave, turning to another staff member to tell them I was making more work not less. My failure was his failure; imprecise instructions, hastily given. I told him I was not leaving, and went back to mechanical repetition of my precise task.

The cycle repeated a half dozen more times during the shift. Near the end, he waved his hand at a large pile and said it should be taken care of. Ten minutes later he came back and said I was doing it wrong, followed by more precise instructions. Almost as soon as he left, another staff member came by and said, "Please do this first." I was complying with her request. PB came, took it out of my hands, and asked if I had failed to comprehend his instructions. I started to explain that another staffer had asked me to do it. Then I glanced at my watch, realized my shift was over, and left.

He had ruined a two-hour shift, turning the normal joy of seva into torture.

L'esprit d'escalier came to me as I lost another hour, quaking over the experience as I tried to fall asleep. Seriously, I wished I had said, "I am a volunteer sevite, you can't talk to me like that. You instructions are imprecise, and I am following contradictory instructions from another staff member." Less seriously, I wish I had said, "OK, your pr**k is bigger than mine, can we move on?"

I don't know whose karma got a bigger hit last night. Had I said what I should have said, it might have improved his, if he had taken it to heart. He doesn't strike me as someone who takes criticism well. As it was, perhaps I learned enough to stand up for myself, clearly and calmly and without anger, the next time I am bullied. Because sometimes when you do that, the bully is discouraged from repeating his behavior.

I made a mental note not to serve seva with him in the future. The coda to the story is that he and I went up in the same elevator Friday morning, and got off on the same floor. I doubt he recognized me (the torturer never recognizes the victim), and I realized it would be both un-Christian and un-Hindu to call him out for his behavior of the day before. We rode in silence, with no acknowledgment of each other's presence, or our experience.

Which was the right thing to do, I have learned. Accept your lessons. Everyone is here to teach you a lesson.  Let go of the past.

Verizon's McAdam pretends US leads in broadband: Fun with Statistics

The moment I saw the headline, How the US Got Broadband Right, I assumed it was written by someone from the Heritage Foundation or some other right-wing think tank. I underestimated capitalism's hypocrisy reserves, which is always a mistake.  In fact, it was written by (or under the name of, in any case) Verizon president Lowell McAdam. He's certainly got no skin in the game, huh? Doesn't matter to him how the FCC comes down on Internet issues. In any case, I immediately began monitoring the Internet for an intelligent, expert response that would, I was sure, point out the numerous statistical manipulations he used to disguise the fact that, as Harry Shearer likes to say "We're not number one."

I was not disappointed. An advocacy group for Open Internet called Public Knowledge (with Internet pioneer Brewster Kahle on the board and former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt as a director emeritus), quickly posted this deconstruction of just one of the clever almost-lies, distortions and half-truths which the New York Times allowed this huckster to palm off on America's thinking class. It is depressing to me that intelligent people will now mistake our last place status among the world's Internet users as first place. And hey, don't forget McAdam's public plan to abandon copper everywhere, including rural areas. In my distant suburb of Orinda (20 miles from SF), our landline server is AT&T (which also wants to get out of the landline business). There is, basically, no cell service at my home because of our town's NIMBY planning process. Oops! Oh well, I guess McAdams wants me and several million other people to move somewhere with more cellphone service, or take VOIP from the cable company, whether I like it or not.

Here's hoping that the new FCC chairman stands up for the people, and isn't a dupe who will spout McAdams' garbage and carry his water.

In the meantime, I will keep hoping for a point-by-point rebuttal, and will share the link if/when I find it. In the meantime, if you'd like to bring your blood to a boil, check out this analysis. Of course, my protests, and yours, and pointless and hopeless. Money talks and civilians bend over and grease up. I can afford whatever expensive alternative I will soon need. Can you? Can your grandmother?

Political Briefs


In the details (paragraph 7), the WashPost reports that about 10,300 of the 14,500 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) outside Afghanistan are not needed (whether they should have been purchased at a cost of $10.3B of tax dollars has yet to be determined). Combining the $7B of equipment being destroyed with the $10.3B of unneeded MRAPs elsewhere indicates a total waste on just these items of about $17.3B (which could have paid for a lot of education).


Fathers' Day

Since 1981, I have been both a son and a father on Fathers' Day. Since 1970, I have celebrated that holiday somewhere other than my parents' home. Since, oh, about 1958, I have been old enough to realize it was a special day on which to honor my father. Consistently, every year since then, I have made it a point to tell my father how much he means to me.

Until now. Now, I can only do so through prayer. My father died quietly in his sleep last August, so this is the first Fathers' Day of my life without a father. I know it is whiny to complain. Many people never know their fathers. Many people lose their fathers when they are young. Most people have lost their fathers before they turn 60, as I did last September. In fact, my first three serious girlfriends lost their fathers' before they were teenagers, either due to divorce or death.

But my Dad  was only 19 when I was born, so I got to have him in my life for a long time. (Mom was only 16, but her life was cut short by cancer). And may parents never divorced, so he was always in my life. As with a lot of dads born during the Great Depression, my dad wasn't big on physical affection, and not in the habit of saying I love you (to mom much more than to my brother and I). Hi expressed his love by being a faithful husband, a hard-working breadwinner, and a role-model of honesty and integrity. These were not all easy things to do, and I appreciate the way in which he did them. My parents, between them, made possible my escape from the working class, an escape for which I am eternally grateful.

And of course, as I have been every Fathers' Day for 32 years, I am now a father myself, with two amazing adult daughters. They provided me the best possible Fathers' Day present on Sunday: their presence. Someday, it is likely one or both of them will move away, or that I will. Until then, they are living, in-person proof that I have reason to be proud of the job I have done as a father. They are intelligent, warm, funny human beings, who love me as I love them.

Someday, they won't have a living father to celebrate on Fathers' Day. I hope they still find reason to celebrate me, as I do my dad.

This is the End

4 stars out of 5
Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen  wrote and directed this cute, cheap concoction, and made it funny. It is the story of the end of the world, as seen through the eyes of a group of Hollywood stars at James Franco's house. The conceit is that everyone is "playing themselves," including Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, and. most amusingly in small cameos, Michael Cera and Emma Watson. There is "The Rapture," there are beasts, there are holes in Franco's lawn which lead all the way to the pits of hell. There is redemption and reversed redemption. There is demonic possession. May of the visual and spoken tropes are directly taken from older horror and zombie films. I do not consider it a spoiler (since the scene has been played during radio and TV interviews) to quote my favorite lines. Baruchel is doing an excorcism with a cross made of kitchen utensils. Hill is possessed by the devil. From
Jay Baruchel:   The power of Christ compels you.
Jonah Hill:   Does it Jay?
Jay Baruchel:   The power of Christ compels you.
Jonah Hill:   Is the power of Christ compelling me Jay?  Guess what?  It’s not that compelling.
If you like Seth Rogen and his sense of humor, you'll love it. If you don't, cross to the other side of the street when you get near the theater. I loved it.

Before Midnight

4 stars out of 5
Is there any moviegoer in American unaware of director Richard Linklater's grand conceit, of a trilogy of films spaced nine years apart? In 1995, in Before Sunrise, we meet Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) as he talks her off a train into an all-night walking tour of Vienna during which they do nothing but talk and walk. The original pediconference! In 2004, Jesse and Celine meet again in Paris, in Before Sunset, and, once again, they walk all over the city and talk. That's it. Now, nine years on, they meet in Greece for Before Midnight. He left his wife for her, they live together and have lovely twin daughters. So they walk around Greece for 90 minutes... and.... wait for it... talk. Well, there many not be many moviegoers who aren't aware of the project, but there also apparently aren't that many who are interested, either. Each of these films  cost around $10 million to make (how did they spend even that much?) and none of them made a dime, so hats off to Sony Pictures Classics for making them anyway. My wife and I saw the 2004 edition and Before Midnight in theaters, but had never seen the initial outing. So, we rented it from Amazon, and were impressed. It was 90 minutes of pure talk, unhindered by plot or action. Linklater created the characters with screenwriter Kim Krizan for the first film, then co-wrote the second and third outings with Hawke and Delpy, who have said in interviews that much of the dialog comes from their own lives. Hopefully not the third film's most popular line:
Jesse: "You are the mayor of Crazytown, do you know that? You are!"
Speaking of grand conceits, wait until you see the next one: the 12 year project, in which Hawke and a young actor have been filmed every year since 2001; the whole thing will premiere in 2015. I can't wait! It will be 7-Up, but with actors instead of real people.

Wolfe on Knaidel, Sullivan on funny laws, Dan Grobstein File

Long time friend of this column Marjorie Wolfe steps into the controversy over the spelling of the Yiddish word for Matzoh Ball in, You spell it 'knaidel,' I spell it 'kneydl'

Kevin Sullivan sent along this very amusing link: 11 Wacky "Laws" Named for People. I generally attribute Hanlon's law to Napoleon, which is the way I learned it, and I think Brooks' law applies to many human endeavors besides programming. Most committee work, in fact.

Dan Grobstein File