Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

If I Were On The California Supreme Court, I'd...

Meters swum today: None.
Playing in the background: Steve Roach, from "InnerZone"

A. Resign.
B. Sue the Mormon Church for emotional damages.
C. Hold a press conference for the sheer pleasure of calling everyone in the state an idiot.
D. Quit the legal field and start managing a heavy metal band, on the logic that I can certainly hang with a better class of people in the music business.
E. All of the above, plus go on a rampage up and down Huntington Beach in a station wagon, yelling "Put your shirt on!" at all the muscley bodybuilders.

My sister and I used to play "Thankless Jobs" on long car trips when we were teenagers. The goal was to come up with the worst job ever, not because it called for Mike Rowe but just by its sheer impossibility. Executive director of Planned Parenthood of Utah. Professor of religious tolerance at Baylor University. Chair of a peace conference between Libya and Scotland. Stuff like that. You can now add to our list Justice on the California Supreme Court. In the wake of Prop. 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California some 18,000 marriages (including mine) too late, the Justices are being asked to consider some challenges to the vote. Here's a quick look, from my nonlawyer nonconstitutional perspective, at what they're being asked to do.

The main petition, filed by some couples, the ACLU, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, alleges that the language of Prop. 8 is not a mere amendment to the state Constitution but breaks new ground entirely and is therefore a revision of the Constitution. This is angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it's a big pin and they're substantial angels. The difference is that a revision of the Constitution requires jumping through a lot more hoops. (Details here.) Based on the outcome of the vote in November, Prop. 8 would never have survived as a revision.

The problem with that argument? Well, the Court already had a look at that whole "revision vs. amendment" thing back in July and decided that Prop. 8 could still go on the ballot. One would like to think they wouldn't have let an amendment that should have been a revision go on the ballot. The Court also rejected a challenge on the ballot wording from some pro-Prop. 8 supporters, who argued that the ballot shouldn't read, "This initiative would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry." After all, all they were doing was defining marriage as "only between a man and a woman." I dunno, I guess "eliminate the right" sounded too mean or something.

Now here's the problem. By approving an amendment, if it wasn't illegal, the voters essentially excused the Court from hearing the case. So the fact that the Court is hearing it presents an existential argument as well as a legal one. Can you hear a case on a law that, by itself, is out of your jurisdiction? If a liberal falls in the forest and no one is around, is he still wrong? I think they can rely on a broad reading of Marbury v. Madison if they have to, but it's still an interesting question. I mean, if the Supreme Court does something illegal, who do you appeal to? she asked ungramatically. And if they decide that Prop. 8 was in fact illegal, can they really throw out a valid election result, even if it was bought with other people's money?

But the trouble is just beginning. If they hear this thing and uphold Prop. 8 as a valid amendment, they'll have to decide whether the 18,000 plus marriages are valid or not. Jerry Brown, the California AG and arguably the man you go to in a situation like this, says they are. Trouble with that, though, is that you end up with 18,000 married gay couples and lots of other gay couples who can't marry which would, of course, create two separate classes of people that are treated differently under the law. Which is against the California constitution. Here we go again. Besides, the text of Prop. 8 says that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized," which is kind of hard to argue with.

Naturally, the supporters of Prop. 8 have already demanded that the Court nullify those marriages, which will be hard to do for two reasons: Firstly, only the parties to a marriage may move to nullify a marriage. The state can't annul your marriage unless you ask it to. Secondly, all the marriage license applications were changed after the summer of 2008 to read "Party A" and "Party B" instead of "Husband" and "Wife" or "Bride" and "Groom". So how are you supposed to figure out which ones were two girls or two boys? I mean, sure, "Tiffany" and "Elizabeth" are a dead giveaway, but what if you have "Pat" and "Robin"? Or "J'kari" and "Lyric"? Even "Jen and Joan" is by no means a sure thing; "Joan" is an accepted spelling of "John" in the Pyrinees region between France and Spain. I mean, what are they going to do, throw out every marriage that happened in California between July and November? See above re: The State can't annul your marriage...

On the other hand, if they decide that the 18,000 plus marriages were not valid, then they've just put the State of California into the position of having committed massive fraud. Remember, all those marriages were legal at the time. Thousands of people coughed up a license fee, among other things, because they were legal. If they are now illegal, you've just passed the first ex post facto law in the history of the country - itself unconstitutional under Article I of some national document or other signed in 1783. The injured party in this case would be California. You'd have to hit the cosmic reset button, pretend none of this ever happened, and just watch the lawsuits roll in.

Think about it. The state would have to return scads of license fees to scads of couples, refund the fees for filing of deeds (if you're living together and you get married, you need to record a new deed on your house, if you own one), and very probably pay expenses, or, as we legal folk like to call 'em, "damages." In our case that would include the airline tickets and the cost of the DVD, and we could probably also argue for the disastrous meal in Balboa Park that followed. In short, it could be millions, in a state that's gonna run out of money in two months.

It's a clusterfuck of cosmic proportions. And you think your job sucks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead!! Bring Out Your Dead!!

Playing in the background: An episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network
Smelling delicious in the background: Joan's Schadenfreude Pie (recipe)
Meters swum today: 1400

For some reason, my posts about child abuse don't seem to be all that popular. I can't imagine why that is. Since my blog might get axed by The Network if I'm not bringing in the ratings, let's talk about something more palatable to the general public: The Black Death. A couple of days ago, The History Channel ran a fascinating special on the only thing to kill more Europeans than Adolf Hitler. Here's the link. I stayed up way too late watching this thing. It was utterly fascinating and terrifying.

This is an electron-microscope picture of Yersinia pestis, the little bacterium that caused this big near-extinction-level event in the 1340s. If you read your history books, you know that the little bugger hitched a ride on rats by way of fleas, which infected humans by biting them. It causes three diseases, bubonic plague (30-70% mortality rate), pneumonic plague (same disease but you catch it from an infected person instead of from a flea bite; 95% mortality rate) and septicemic plague, the Black Death (100% mortality rate). The septicemic version may be the end stage of the first two, or it may be its own disease. Whatever, it kills you very fast, sometimes within a day. You probably know that half of Europe (and Asia and the Middle East) died of this thing. I knew that, too, but the implications hadn't really dawned on me.

I started thinking about that while I was watching the program. Here in Dallas we have about 1.3 million people, give or take. If even 10% of those folks dropped dead (and this would be within a matter of days, or maybe weeks on the outside), that would be 130,000 people. How in hell do you bury (or cremate or--whatever) 130,000 people? Where do you find enough gravediggers, enough fuel for the funeral pyres? That number was staggering enough, but half of Dallas? Dead within weeks? Good God, that's over half a million humans. That's just about unfathomable.

Let's try something smaller. There are about 50 people working at my law firm. 25 of them would die. Joan works at the big library downtown which has about 400 employees. 200 of them would die. You can fit roughly 3,000 passengers onto the typical cruise ship. 1500 of them would die. My typical OA meeting has around 20 people. 10 of them would die. Start crunching these numbers and you get an idea of how utterly devastating this disease must have been for the people who were alive then. Everybody lost loved ones, friends, children, parents. What's worse, they had no idea what was causing it, and if you didn't get better by yourself, there was nothing anybody could do for you. Weirder still, nobody knows if the disease finally went away because there weren't enough humans left to spread it effectively, or if it just mutated into a less virulent form. Waves of bubonic plague went through Europe roughly once a generation until the 1700s, when rat control and better sanitation put the brakes on transmission. None of them were as deadly as that first wave, and again, nobody knows why.

This got me to thinking about the stock market. (Bear with me, it'll make sense in a minute.) Like pretty much every other person who had any money in a 401k, I've lost roughly a third of its former value. At least on paper. In real life, the stock market always comes back, real property always appreciate in value, and investments always gain over time. The question is, how much time? A year? Twenty? Fifty? If you bought stock in Ford Motor Co. in the 1920s and held onto it since then, you'd be a multigajillionaire today. Unless, of course, Ford Motor Co. tanked in the meantime and its stock became worthless. This can and does happen, which is why those financial gurus are always saying to Diversify Your Investments.

What's interesting about this particular market crash, though, is that everything is losing value. Not just stocks but also commodities (plunging gas prices may be great for consumers, but they suck for petroleum futures investors), bonds and other bland, boring, supposedly-safe investments. Across the board, everybody's losing money. At least on paper. Like Europe during the plague years (aha! There's the connection!) everybody knows somebody who's lost their life savings, their job, their house or all of the above. And just like in the plague years, people are losing faith in their institutions - the banks and financial houses instead of the Church, but it's the same sort of deal. If J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch can't give us good advice during a crisis of this magnitude, then what the hell good are they? Why bother listening to 'em anymore?

Though many priests acted heroically during outbreaks, a fair number also behaved badly, refusing to help the sick or give last rites for fear of catching the disease. Likewise, many financiers are behaving badly now, committing fraud, grabbing bonuses and bailing out with what they can. The end result after the plague years was the Renaissance as people began to think in radical new ways, and, eventually, the Reformation, when the whole Church got upended in the name of different views on divinity. I dunno what the end result will be when the economic plague finally goes underground, but it would be cool if it could be a different kind of Renaissance, based on commodities that actually hold value and not mortgages that never should have been made in the first place.

Horrible as it was for the human race, the survivors of the plague picked up and moved on. In fact, in a lot of ways the plague had a happy ending. With so many folks dead, a lot of land changed hands. In Italy for the first time, there was enough food to go around, and people were able to plant luxury crops like tomatoes and olive trees, leading to what we think of as Italian food. Labor shortages led to the inventions of things like the Gutenberg press. Survivors and their ancestors also had a kind of limited immunity to a number of diseases, such as smallpox and AIDS.

I'fact that last deserves its own paragraph. Even though AIDS scared hell out of everybody in the early 80s, it's really not that easy to catch, at least, if you're of European stock. You can get it, theoretically, by sleeping with an infected person once, but in real life most people catch it through multiple encounters or by injecting it directly into a vein, ie, through a shared needle. Condoms prevent transmission most of the time. (Hysterical pronouncements of God's wrath on the homosexual community aside, as far as I know, no woman has ever given AIDS to another woman. Every lesbian who has it got it from a man, or from blood. Does this mean lesbians are God's chosen people? Hmm.) However, if you live in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India, none of the above is true. AIDS has burned through communities like a bush fire and the death rate is ridiculous. It's highly communicable and some scientists even theorize it's gone airborne. Why? No one knows, but one theory is that sub-Saharan Africans never got the plague. That Sahara Desert being in the way thing. They didn't get the immunity that us northern European plague survivors have.

So, financially speaking, what does this mean? Well, I'm hoping it means we'll be a little more immune to bullshit financing schemes. That we'll ask a lot more questions about the regulation of the banking industry. That we'll invest in sustainable crops, energy that doesn't kill us, hybrid cars (or better yet, mass transit) and other things that people need to live decent lives. That instead of kneeling and praying when the flagellants come through town, flogging themselves into hysterics, we'll actually stop them and say, "Guys, you're making yourselves weaker and you're going to be easy prey for an infection. Cut it out, now." Or, more directly, "Guys, don't bail out of your 401k. You won't do any better on your own and ten years from now you'll feel like an idiot."

Beats hell out of burying 600,000 bodies, or, harder still, figuring out how to take care of millions of adults living to the age of 106 with no income and no Social Security.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book o'the Decade: The Sociopath Next Door

Meters swum today: 1400 (yay!!!!)
Playing in the background: Somebody's boom car and the twinkling of Christmas lights

Gotta talk about child abuse again, or rather child murder. If this subject depresses you, skip this post. I'm talking about Caylee Anthony, the second-most-popular Google search this year (just behind Britney Spears, which says more about we Americans as a people than we perhaps want the rest of the world to know.) This is the two-year-old who disappeared in Florida roundabouts last May, but wasn't reported missing until July when her grandmother called 911 and reported that "it smells like there was a dead body" in her daughter's car. Extensive coverage here- I'm not a fan of Fox News but they've been all over this story from the beginning.

Caylee's mother, Casey, has been charged with killing her and lying about her disappearance to authorities. I won't go into the whole deal here, but Casey spun a number of increasingly bizarre stories about what happened to Caylee. She left her with a babysitter and then couldn't find the babysitter's apartment again. No, the babysitter kidnapped her. No, she's living with some couple in Tennessee. She didn't say anything about alien abductions but that might have just been an oversight. Then there's all this plot about human decomposition found in the trunk of the aforementioned car, Internet searches on how to make chloroform on the family computer, various "sightings" of Caylee at shopping malls and on airplanes, and then of course the discovery of a child's body about 500 feet from the house. Which is almost certainly Caylee, or another two-year-old who's the exact same size and has an identical hair color and who's been dead for the same amount of time.

I gotta be honest with ya, when the child's body turned up my first thought was, "Okay, her mom couldn't have killed her. No murderer would be that stupid." Then some famous criminologist or other came on 20/20 and stated that women who kill their children typically either keep the bodies (ie, in a freezer) or dispose of them very close to the house, where they can watch over them. Later in that same episode of 20/20, they broadcast a particularly telling conversation where mom Casey called her parents, Caylee's grandparents (and there's a whole ridiculous sidebar about their behavior in this sordid tale, but that's too long for this post) from jail.

I got chills listening to this recording. (Here it is, about three minutes in. Watch the whole clip, though.) Casey is asking her mother when she thinks she'll get out of here. Her mother points out, logically, that if she hadn't been lying to the police all this time she wouldn't be in jail in the first place. Casey gets mad and demands the phone number of someone named Tony. Casey's mom passes the phone to Casey's friend Kristina, who's obviously crying. The woman says, "Casey, if anything happened to that little girl, I'll die. Do you understand? I'll die." There's a space of silence, followed by a long-suffering sigh, and Casey says, "Oh my God. Calling you guys, a waste. A huge waste."

So what kind of person would behave this way? Well, The Sociopath Next Door, is what kind. The FBI profiler on the clip above talks about antisocial personality disorder. Sociopath does it one better. This is my new book o'the decade, a telling and cautionary tale about people who don't have a conscience. They seem to be born without one, just like some people are born without wisdom teeth or ethmoid sinuses (or both, like me, though I have an extra nipple by way of compensation). These people are capable of behavior that most of the rest of us wouldn't think of doing, or at least wouldn't do, because, uh, we'd feel bad. Sociopaths don't feel bad because they can't feel bad. It's not only that they believe themselves to be the most important person on the planet, they believe that nobody else even exists - except to the extent that other people can provide them with things they want.

Casey Anthony fits this pattern so well, her picture might be on the front cover. That chilling phone call. The comment from a detective who tried, unsuccessfully, to find Caylee: "Casey lives ten minutes at a time - if she runs into an obstacle, she just turns and goes another way." The FBI profiler guy: "This person has probably been this way her whole life - she's been manipulating other people since she was a child." Caylee's grandparents, who keep insisting Casey couldn't have hurt Caylee (of course not, their little girl can do no wrong). And of course the pictures of Casey dancing at bars during the time Caylee was missing, to say nothing of text messages that refer to Caylee as "that little snothead."

The thing is, not all sociopaths kill people (though most serial killers are probably sociopaths). Some of them live pretty normal lives, rarely harm anyone and keep their lack of emotion to themselves. Some of 'em are your weird uncle Harold or that annoying lady across the street, and apart from being weird or annoying, they're not really dangerous. I had a friend once who openly admitted that she was the center of the universe, that she basically had no regard for other people, but she liked having company and so she invited people over and didn't do anything very obnoxious to make them hate her. I found her intelligent, funny and very strange, and while we're not in touch, I don't exactly regret having known her.

I'm no psychologist, but my guess here is that whether your average sociopath becomes a serial killer or a halfway normal person or just your weird uncle Harold has a lot to do with upbringing. A kid with no conscience, who figures out early how to manipulate his parents to get what he wants, gets very good at it by the time he's a young adult. After eighteen-odd years of practice, I imagine it's no big deal to kill somebody who gets in your way, or who has something you want and won't give it up. On the other hand, a kid with parents who won't tolerate this crap and insist that the kid be nice to other people has a much better chance of turning out halfway normal. Even if you think you're the only person who matters, you might be able to figure out that not everybody else feels that way. You might start mimicking normal interaction simply because it's less trouble. If you're a sociopath, it's all about you. If it's easier to get what you want and avoid punishment by treating other people well, you're more likely to do those things.

All that said, Jen is gonna play armchair criminologist. This is what I think happened to Caylee Anthony: Sociopath mom Casey probably couldn't find a babysitter for some hot date, so she took Caylee with her, dosed her with chloroform, and stuck her in the trunk. This probably wasn't the first time she'd done it. In fact, it was probably almost routine. She'd come back to the car, Caylee would wake up and start to cry, and she'd remember, "Oh yeah, I left the little snothead in the trunk" and take her back out. This time, she either gave Caylee too much chloroform or something else happened and instead of waking up and starting to cry, Caylee died.

Remember, Casey has no regard for Caylee or anyone else, so she probably thought, "Kid's being quiet" but didn't have any concern or apprehension. In fact--and this is the part that really upsets me--she might have forgotten Caylee was there. I'd even go so far as to say that Casey only bothered to open the trunk when Caylee's body started to decompose. Rotting bodies smell bad. She doesn't want a smelly car, so she gets rid of Caylee. That's it. Kind of like taking out the kitchen trash the night after having fish for dinner. Of course she's not remorseful. She can't be. She can shed a few tears at a hearing because that's what's expected of her, but there's no real feeling behind it.

I dunno if I'm right, but if I am, here's what we're left with. We have a cute little girl who never really had a chance, who's dead if not from abuse, then at least from neglect. We have two grandparents who are plainly delusional, who are convinced that their daughter couldn't have killed Caylee when most of the rest of the planet is more or less convinced that's what happened. (Tried in the media? Oh yeah. Move over, O.J. and Scott Peterson; this is the slam dunk to end all slam dunks.) We've got cops, detectives, lawyers and court officials who have to deal with all this, and it wouldn't surprise me if some of them end up finding another line of work when it's all over.

All of that is tragic, but consider the other tragedy in the corner of the stage: the grown woman, the mother, who will never be able to love or be loved. She's in jail, which is no doubt the best place for her, but I'm feeling a sort of weird pity for her and people like her. What must it be like, to go through life like that? What can you look forward to, in a world where any real measure of happiness comes from your connections to other people? I'm thinking life without parole might be the cruelest thing we can do to this woman. I'm thinking the death penalty, in contrast, might be too kind.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My stupid oral surgery is finally over.

Playing on the iPod: Jonn Serrie, "And the Stars Go With You"
Meters swum today: Zip. Banned from the pool until tomorrow at the earliest.

Sorry for lack of blogging but I spent most of Tuesday unconscious, most of Wednesday asleep, most of Thursday feeling sorry for myself and the majority of today trying to snap the hell out of it. I had the surgery. It wasn't bad. I'm a little sore and I have to take meds and antibiotics for a few days but I'll live. I don't even remember much of it, except one time when I became aware that somebody was pounding something metallic on the inside of my mouth. It didn't hurt but it was loud. Another time somebody poked me to open my mouth for one of those X-ray bite wings. That's about it until I came around at the end. I was still covered up with drapes & stuff so I apparently woke up a little early. There was a heart monitor across from me, beeping away, and I discovered when the heart rate dropped below 50, an alarm would go off. (I remember doing this when I was a kid in the emergency room once. It's not all that hard, just breathe veeeeery sloooooowly, exhale for twice as long as you inhale and think about something relaxing, like a sleeping cat.) After I did that twice, the assistant shook my shoulder and told me to cut that out. Just when I was having fun, too.

So why so gloomy, you ask. Well, I hate being messed with. Pounding something metallic on the inside of my mouth qualifies as messing with. I hate missing workouts. (I haven't been to the pool since Monday and the chlorine content in my blood is getting low). I hate pain meds. Yes, they're sometimes your best friend, but I never react well to them; they either upset my stomach, make me dizzy, make me fall asleep every five minutes or, in this case, all three. Percocet is the sole exception - I can function close to normally on that stuff - but doctors hate prescribing it because it requires that three-part controlled substance prescription and probably the pharmacists call the DEA as soon as they fill the order; "Psst! Yeah, it's me. Doctor X just wrote another prescription for Percocet!" Which is funny because lots more people get addicted to Vicodin. Ultimately, though, I am a creature of routine. Mess up my routine and I just don't know what to do with myself.

Am I inflexible? Maybe, a little. What I also am, is a large nebulous mass of free-floating anxiety. Yes, there are medications for this and yes, I do take one, but medicine is a mere splint on a broken arm. You still gotta go to physical therapy, keep the cast dry, keep from bearing weight and refrain from sticking anything in there. My swim team works out on Saturdays and about every other Saturday, I haul myself in at seven in the morning when I could still be asleep. I don't think this is dedication so much as a hedge against the long span of unstructured time that weekends can become. Yeah, unstructured time is nice, but when you're a large nebulous mass of free-floating anxiety, what you want to do is structure that time.

So here's the routine; get up at an ungodly hour, go to the pool, get dressed, go to work, work, come home, make dinner, do some household chores, relax for a while, maybe get on the computer and write something or take in a TV program, go to bed. Repeat the next day. I don't swim every day, it's more like every other day, but you get the idea. I'm also pretty standard about my approach to food - I have Issues With Food which is why I'm in OA - and my meals don't vary much from day to day. Two of my primary food groups are fruit and lean meats, and at the moment I can't eat either one of 'em. Lack of teeth. Or rather, a lack of functional teeth.

Today marks Day Four of my routine being messed up. In addition to not getting to the pool, my work day got interrupted by one of those instances of forced socialization that we call the Employee Christmas Party. A fine three perfectly billable hours got dumped down the drain in this exercise, in which there was good food, some door prizes (I won one) and a lot of pretending to have a good time. It's not that I don't like my colleagues - I do, for the most part. I just don't wanna like them for any more hours a day than is actually required and definitely not from the other side of a very small table. To say nothing of there being tons of food I can't eat (chew) and tons more food I probably could eat but don't because I have Issues with Food (see above).

Well, anyway, I finally have the all clear from my dentist that I can get back in the pool tomorrow, provided I don't experience any pain or popping noises in my right ear (or, I guess, the left ear, but he only mentioned the right ear.) So things should be improving directly. This is a great relief, not only to me but to Joan, who's had to put up with me for the last week. A patient patient I ain't.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Buddhist Scriptures, part II

Playing on the iPod: Deuter, from "Ecstasy"
Meters swum today: None.

Much to my relief, the Buddhist scriptures are getting better, or at least less flowery. I guess you can't really blame Buddhist scriptures for following a Hindu tradition, since Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. I had a religion professor in college who said that Buddhism was Hinduism backwards. I dutifully wrote that down with the rest of my notes, but in retrospect I think that's too simple. Buddhism and Hinduism are more like different ways of looking at the same thing. One way has long wordy descriptions, a fascinating pantheon of gods and goddesses and conversations with sacred animals. The other way involves a lot of sitting around, doing nothing, and looking at the floor. I like that one because it's easier, but both require you to be nice to people and to respect other beings. Both favor meditation. There are a lot of similarities.

So what I'm reading now is the Pali Commentaries, and we've just touched on the Five Precepts. Kind of like the Ten Commandments, I guess, and pretty darn decent rules for living:

1. To abstain from killing other living beings
2. To abstain from taking that which is not freely given
3. To abstain from immoral sexual behavior
4. To abstain from using words that are not true, or practicing deception
5. To abstain from using intoxicants (some texts say "abusing intoxicants")

From there, the whole deal gets broken down into strict detail. Take the first one, for example. In order to violate this precept, you must have A. A living being. B. You must be aware that the being is living. C. You must intend to take the life of this being. D. You must then take the life of this being. Without all four of these, you haven't violated the precept. If you stepped on a bug, say, that you didn't realize was a bug (say it looked like a leaf or something), then you couldn't have formed the necessary intent to violate the precept. Sounds a bit like a jury instruction, doesn't it? "Was the defendant aware that the plaintiff was a living being? If yes, go on to question two. If no, sign this form and return it to the bailiff."

No. 3 is particularly interesting. In order to have immoral sexual intercourse with someone, the someone must be A. a man (this was written for monks, who were all men at that time) or B. any one of ten different kinds of women; prostitutes, concubines, slave girls who were also concubines, wives of other men, daughters of business associates...and the list goes on. One must refrain from "entering into" any of these persons. Now, since I don't "enter into" anybody, so to speak, can I say I've never violated this precept? On the face, at least, it looks like the anti-homosexuality statutes of Victorian England that barred sex between men but didn't have any specific rules for two women. Which makes me wonder if the guys who wrote the Pali Commentaries even knew that lesbians existed.

I haven't abused any intoxicants since 2005. Which, you have to admit, is a long time.

Since I told a Catholic joke yesterday, I'll tell a Protestant joke today. A Catholic priest goes to visit his Protestant pastor friend. They talk for a while, and then the priest asks if he can use the church phone to call God. He calls God, they talk for a while, and the priest asks how much the long distance charges will be (remember those?) The pastor names some astronomical figure. A few weeks later, the pastor goes to visit his priest friend. While he's there, he asks the priest if he can use the church phone to call God. He calls God, they talk for a while, and the pastor asks how much the long distance charges will be. "None," says the priest, "it's a local call."

Okay, I admit I heard it the other way round. But still.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thus I Have Heard...

Meters swum today: 1450
Playing on the iPod: "Kiss Me" by TinTin

There's an old Protestant joke where a Catholic comes across a Protestant and says, "What's that you're reading there?" The Protestant says, "The Bible." The Catholic says, "Oh, how is it?" Which is not to say that Catholics are stupid, but that the Catholic church didn't expect its members to actually read the Good Book, at least in the grand tradition. It was the job of the priests to tell the parishioners what they needed to know. To be fair, though, most people didn't know how to read for the majority of the Church's history.

By the time the Reformation rolled around, literacy was wider spread and Protestants were expected to not only read the Bible but to figure out for themselves what it meant. That whole "no intercession between God and humankind" thing. Which may have seemed like a good deal when the Reformation first started, but one of the end results was the splitting of the Christian church into a bunch of surly little denominations, each certain that its interpretation of the Bible is the right one. Of course, the Catholic approach has its own problems - lots of wars started in the name of Biblical rightness, among other things - but letting the priests decide does have a certain elegance to it.

I bring this up because I'm kind of a Catholic Buddhist. I've never actually read the Sutras, the legends and the other source material of things Buddhist. I mentioned this to my brother-in-law and he sent me a copy of Buddhist Scriptures, the Penguin Classic edition. I've been making my way through it over the last however many nights before going to bed. (I did this when I was a good Christian, too. Read my little copy of "Light for Today," scan the relevant Bible verse, ponder its significance, blah blah blah.) I haven't gotten to the Sutras yet, but I'm a little worried that I'm not even gonna make it through the legend of Shakyamuni. I dunno if it's the translation, the fact that this edition is from the 195os, or what, exactly, but I gotta ask: Is all religious literature this boring? I made it through all the "begats" in the Book of Numbers without this much aggravation.

I mean, the story of Shakyamuni is pretty cool. And in case you've never heard it, here's the five second version: King hears prophecy his son will become a great sage, would rather have a warlord, shelters said son from anything negative, son finds out as an adult that people get old and die, freaks out, leaves the palace and becomes a wandering mendicant in search of some way to conquer suffering; almost starves to death, takes some food from a pretty girl, sits down under the Bodhi tree, meditates, penetrates to the heart of existence, discovers that all things are temporary, decides that's fine, conquers Mara the god of Death and becomes Buddha the Enlightened One, refuses Nirvana until even the grass is enlightened and spends the rest of his life wandering and teaching.

In this particular version, though, Shakyamuni is in more danger of flowery Hindu turns of phrase than he is of suffering and death. I mean, shortly after giving birth his mother is so transported by joy that she goes directly to heaven. Nice, right? So why did it take an entire chapter to tell us this? To say nothing of the fact that the rest of Buddha's post-enlightenment life gets wrapped up in about two paragraphs. He's born, he's enlightened, he dies. Wait a minute. Didn't the guy live into his eighties? Didn't he pass along many life lessons to his followers? This is kind of like Jesus going straight from the manger to the cross and then rising from the dead just long enough to say, "See ya" while Mary goes straight to heaven on the trail of long elaborate descriptions of what she happened to be wearing at the time.

Well, maybe it gets better. Maybe all the stuff Buddha taught about is in the Sutras. I hope so, or I'm going back to Buddhist Catholicism on the next bus.