When Things
Fall Apart

Heart Advice for
Difficult Times

Pema Chödrön
All Buddhist discipline flows from breathing, watching the breath. Chödrön studied extensively under the master Trungpa Rinpoche, and reports that his repeated instructions were to concentrate on the out-breath, or, better, "touch the out-breath and let it go." Thoughts? Try not to think, except to ask why you are thinking.

    We'd be sitting there with the out-breath, and before we knew what had happened, we were gone --- planning, worrying, fantasizing --- completely in another world, a world totally made of thoughts. At the point when we realized we'd gone off, we were instructed to say to ourselves, "thinking," and without making it a big deal, to simply return again to the out-breath.

While instructing us to do this, Chödrön doesn't offer much hope for contentment, or relief from the burdens of the monkey-mind. "Samsara" (the old used-to-be, our day-to-day hopes and fears) will give us agony, so we seek liberation. What they don't tell us is that the process of getting unstuck is as much a pain. Why? Because "we are changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA..."

    To the degree that we've been avoiding uncertainty, we're naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms --- withdrawal from always thinking that there's a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.

In other words, not only do we want to do something about the continuing circle of agony --- caused, as the Buddhists have it, by the old round of desire and fear --- but once we begin to get away from it, we're going to have even more pain. It's enough to make you give up and head out to the Happy Times Tavern down the street and get zonked on a dozen or so Bloody Marys and then come home and light up a joint or two.

§     §     §

Thus the road that Chödrön offers us is not an easy one. For example --- let's begin on the path, but how do we deal with loneliness? Well, she says --- just do it. Do what? Just sit there and be lonely. Instead of fighting it with books or movies or a visit to the Happy Times or smoking dope, we should create something new, something she calls cool loneliness. How?

  • Forget desire --- be willing to be lonely with no hope of resolution;
  • Be content --- give up "believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength;"
  • Relax with loneliness --- don't run out to dig up some buddies to help you forget that your are feeling bad just about being alone;
  • Be disciplined, willing to "come back, just gently come back to the present moment...[be] willing to sit still, just be there, alone."
  • Stay away from the world of desire --- food, drink, people. "The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay;"
  • Avoid the false security of our "discursive thoughts:"

    With cool loneliness we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That's why we are instructed to label it "thinking." It has no objective reality. It is transparent and ungraspable. We're encouraged to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing.

Ah, she makes it sound so simple. But how do you and I hush up the madness which is the Merry-Go-Round of our brain, going on and on and on. We came of age in a Cartesian world. We were instructed again and again to "concentrate," to "put on your thinking-cap," "don't just sit there day-dreaming." We have had these commands drummed into our skulls for thirty or forty or fifty years. We were rewarded for doing our homework, rewarded for thinking about problems --- thinking hard --- rewarded for coming up with solutions.

For us now to try to hush up the mind-babble (while sitting like a folded-up ironing board, legs squashed under us) seem an impossibility. I've been working on this for years now. I finally get the brain squawk-box to shut the hell up for a few minutes, and there I am, drifting off to sleep. It's a mad-house in there.

Yet, Chödrön offers hope; and she offers specific ways of accessing that hope. In the process, she shows herself to be a good phrasemaker: Fear of death, she tells us, "is actually fear of life." Why?

    To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that's life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.

She has stories to tell; she has a world view; she sees the needs and unrealizable hopes and the aggression that you and I have as a cumulative and destructive force, one that makes the world so miserable for so many people. The journey she has outlined for us is a tough one, and it's extra hard with the old man coming home tonight to yell at me and beat up on the kids. We've barely had enough to eat this week, what with his drinking it all up, staying up all hours, almost losing his job again, and the landlord coming by every evening, banging at the front door, demanding the rent, and when there is no money, trying to hit up on me, trying to get me to go out to the bars with him, and if I say no, wanting to know why not. And, just to cinch it, in the morning Mom comes over and says, "I told you not to marry that drunk."

We're expected, at this particular juncture, to sit down, return to "the basic wisdom mind," become part of the flow?

Well, we'll try.

But we ain't making any promises.

--- Leslie Seamans

Canyons of
The Southwest

A Tour of the Great Canyon
Country from Colorado
To Northern Mexico

John Annerino
(University of Arizona)
The author identifies eleven canyon systems of the American southwest and northern Mexico which he feels are special in some way. He tells us that "Here are found the narrowest canyons on earth, the largest, the most spectacular." Included are Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, Rainbow Bridge, Paria Canyon, Big Bend National Park and, in Mexico, San Pedro Mártir and Las Barrancas del Cobre.

Canyons of the Southwest contains over eighty color photographs which are as stunning as you would expect, with waterfalls, fall foliage, brooding redrock, the sheer drop at Angel's Gate, and pictures of the native Seris and Tarahumara --- the latter photographed in the full glory of their Easter Week celebrations.

However the writing contains page after page of an instantly forgettable outgushing of tedious facts and even worse prosody:

    The Sierra Menor runs along the west side of this Sonoran desert island and forms a rugged coast that mirrors the setting sun, while to the east the Sierra Kunkaak erupts out of the bajadas (lowlands) of the Valle de Tecomote. Of the two, the 2,871-foot Sierra Kunkaak, "Mountains of the Seri People," is the highest, and its steep east-facing barrancas the most storied.

In addition, there are a mish-mash of quotes from other books, age-old complaints about the way the indigenous people have been treated, irritation at the damage being done by tourists in these canyons, and --- for the Mexican section --- a loud condemnation of greedy gringos and their drug habits. We are in full accord with the author on these, but, to be charitable about it, his prose style lacks something called artistry.

Annerino has thirteen books under his belt. By writing so much one would hope he would have, by now, learned how to write, to work the English language with grace. But his prose is not only depressing, it's hyperbolic. "The outpost of Phantom Ranch looks like a war zone of tourists crippled by deep, skin-ripping blisters and heat exhaustion that damn near sucked the life out of them," he says. Or, in Creel, Mexico, "Traditionally dressed Tarahumara eat chips and drink sodas,"

    while narcotraficantes work on the details of getting their product out of the sierra from the seats of heavily chromed 4WD American pickups. State and Federal Judicial Police, packing .45 automatics with the hammers already cocked, play cat and mouse with the narcos. DEA agents, and who really knows what other mix of U. S. operatives working under deep cover, try to mesh with local hombres, but the piece nested in their lizard-skin boots, or in the small of their backs, usually gives them away in the flick of an eye.

The writing has the definite feel of text whipped together to flesh out the space between the lush photographs. Phrases like "skin-ripping blisters," "to mesh with local hombres," and "a rugged coast that mirrors the setting sun" make us grit our teeth. We sometimes suspect that Mr. Annerino might be paid, as were Victorian authors, by the word.

In his chapter on "The Canyons of Big Bend," he even manages to produce prose as purple and as twisted as the river he is describing:

    Seen through the shimmering purple veil of twilight, the only form that can be made out from the summit crest of Mexico's Sierra del Carmen is a ribbon of quicksilver slithering across the dark and empty ground five thousand vertical feet below.

Our beloved eighth grade English teacher --- the redoubtable Miss Trimble --- would have a field day with such twisted structure with its interlay of clichés. And our Spanish teacher, Sra. Rodriguez, would have a wonderful time with, "people living to the south have always said it was the Río Bravo del Norte, Brave River of the North."

"Bravo," as any first-grade Mexican can tell you, means "angry." If it were "the Brave River," it would be "El Río Valiente."

--- José Luís Valdeflores

My Two Wars
Moritz Thomsen
Moritz Thomsen grew up rich in Seattle --- the grandson of the man who cornered the flour and bread-making market at the turn of the century in the Pacific Northwest. His first war was fought against his father --- and it lasted, apparently, his whole lifetime. His second was against the Germans --- he served as a bombardier in twenty-seven missions over Europe. Often, he seems to confuse the two of them.

Wars against fathers (or mothers, for that matter) are decidedly hard to get down on paper. Thomsen's paternal battle, which takes up the first seventy-five and the last twenty-five pages of My Two Wars is, to put it simply, incomprehensible. The reader is not Thomsen, and has trouble finding the old man such a drip. Boorish? Perhaps. Manipulative? Of course. But evil? Not really.

Those of us who are doomed to fight --- sometime for whole lifetimes --- with those who sired us do so because we are either too close or too distant. The disputed territory becomes the battleground. In this case, there is the added moil of money: Thomsen hopes that when he dies, the old bastard will lay a million on him. He certainly spends a great deal of time travelling to Seattle, getting in a fight with Senior the moment he arrives, then stomping off.

The best parts of this unholy war are the most ridiculous. One of the early investments of the old man was a radio station; one of his first announcers was a very young Chet Huntley. In the last years of his life, having turned into a certifiable curmudgeon, he wrote to Huntley:

    If I had known back then what I know now, that you would turn into a do-gooding, communist, ass-kissing sob sister, I would have put you into a sack and drowned you like a sick pup. Good night, Chet.

And when Mr. Thomsen reads that Robert Kennedy was vacationing on the beach at Acapulco and seen in a colorful swimsuit, he wrote,

    Dear Bobby: I think it's just too precious for words of you to wear those yummy pink swimming trunks. You must have looked just darling, and I'll bet all the men on the beach just went crazy.

The letter, the author tells us, "inspired the FBI one day to surround the house, call my father out, and interview him, hands on pistols ready to draw."

§     §     §

The war experiences are something else again. I would venture to say that these 300 pages are some of the best to come out of WWII, on the same level as James Jones and Norman Mailer. Thomsen's job was to sit in the glassed-in perch smack-dab at the front of those B-17s, and, at the opportune moment, take over from the automatic pilot, guide the plane over the target, open the bomb-bay doors, and drop the load. What we get to see is the evolution of an airman from being mildly gung-ho, somewhat interested in his task, to coming as close as one can to madness without actually having to be shipped home in a strait-jacket.

The power of the writing comes from the slow and artful and painstaking description of this change. And, so that we won't think it is just some personal quirk, Thomsen shows us that he was not alone in this descent: all the men who were his fellow pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners went through the same decay of spirit and soul.

A well-respected research group (headed by John Kenneth Galbraith) found, after the war, that saturation bombing done by the English and the Americans against the Germans did little actual damage to the Nazi war effort. On the contrary, it actually stiffened the resolve of the citizens. Furthermore, of the millions of tons of bombs dropped, some 5% actually reached the appropriate targets. The rest went into wheatfields, villages, towns, cities --- and people.

Americans at home found this out after the war; Thomsen and his fellows knew this while he was actually bombing the enemy. He knew that men, women, and children were dying from his bombs --- but his emotions had become so deadened by the missions, and their concurrent terror, that he could only reflect,

    Dropping bombs on people from twenty-five thousand feet --- what could be cleaner, more purely and simply scenic, than that? From five miles up no bits of flesh or brains rebounded off your face, your limbs were not entwined in human guts, there were no dying screams, no cries for mercy; hell, you couldn't even hear your bombs. We thought at first that it was a lovely way to kill and that we would be spared remorse and the stab of conscience. But we were trapped by the lies we had been taught, for if man were sacred and a manifestation of God, how could we keep killing without going mad?

Without going mad? They do. The terror gets every one of them, so that, towards the end of their required missions, they are reduced to automatons --- pale, shaking, ghost-like; downing a bottle of liquor each evening; rousing themselves with dread --- no, with a dead and hopeless vacuity --- to climb in the airplanes each morning and set off again, to murder not only those below, but themselves.

    The truth is that on a rational level --- exhausted by combat, stretched for months in a tension which for those of us who were cursed with imagination was almost unbearable, and facing at too young an age man's essential capacity to act in bestial and despicable ways --- life was not something that any longer had much meaning.

Each of the airmen he flies with either die early on, turns into a ghost or, like him, breaks. They all hope that when they do so, that none of their fellows will know. It happens to Thomsen when he went on leave to London. It was the wrong time and place to take a vacation. It was 1944, and "buzz-bombs" (the English, he tells us, called them "doodle-bugs") were being launched by the Germans from the Dutch coast, dropping randomly in the city. He hears one, as it were, in his dreams:

    I have climbed from the bed, rushed to the window, and wrapped myself in the heavy blackout curtains. I am whispering and panting like an animal; I claw at my face and make little pig-like shrieks. Awake now, I realize that the curtains will protect me from nothing. I can see the shards of glass as sharp as daggers as they burst from the window and pin me into this shroud. Squealing with pain, on hands and knees, but at full speed, I crawl back to the bed and try to climb under it. No good; the bedframe is too low. A second later as the bomb passes over the hotel and its sound diminished toward Hyde Park, I find myself pressed into one corner of the clothes closet, with both hands, in a gesture of monumental redundancy, cupping my genitals.

And when he finds that he has flown his final mission, is his reaction one of relief, of hilarity, of "now-I-can-go-home?"

    Combat was over for me, and now what I wanted more than anything was to die, to blot out the guilt of having survived the raids that had destroyed so many of the men around me.

§     §     §

For those of us who grew up on the propaganda of WWII, with its John Wayne movies, the heroic (and bloodless) war stories in the pages of Life or The Saturday Evening Post --- what Thomsen is telling brings back a rush of memories. We collected models of the B-17 and other fighter planes. We thrilled at the stories of bombing runs over Berlin and Tokyo. We followed with progress of the war in maps in our classrooms. We killed Japs and Germans with our toy guns. It was Our War, and it was wonderful.

To read Thomsen is also to have the heroics and the symbols of that war get flipped on their heads. The B-17s up there in "the wild-blue yonder" were frail and faulty. The men in them were so terrified that many of them went 'round the bend. Most were alcoholics during their time of duty. The missions were mostly futile. And the irony of this particular phase of the "war effort" was not only was it useless, it stiffened the backbone of the enemy.

§     §     §

Thomsen's writing is craggy, eccentric, and wonderfully wrought. It not only rings true, in the midst of all that ghastliness, there are fine touches of humor that bring it all alive. One day he takes off on his bicycle, decides to visit one of the near-by estates.

    At a turning between walls an boxwood hedges I was confronted by a hideously angry woman dressed in thick tweeds the color of shit. She was short and dumpy and a cigarette hung from her mouth. Her cheeks, weird scarlet with broken veins. Wind and whiskey and riding to hounds had turned her as flaming red as a house afire. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch," she screamed. Later someone at the base told me that I had made contact with Rudyard Kipling's daughter, but I could never quite, as much as I wanted to, believe it. That shrieking fury with all the charm of a drunken whore-house madam must have been a duchess at least. There were endless generations of high and gentle breeding behind that cry which so precisely delineated the abyss between royalty and rabble.

Thomsen is the Henry Miller of WWII, with a bit of Joseph Heller thrown in. The reader would be wise to pick up My Two Wars on page 76. Do the World War, not the Oedipal one. That war, the one that engulfed Europe, terrified and brutalized (and maddened) a whole generation, long before Viet-Nam. Don't miss it.

--- Lorenzo W. Milam

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up