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Happy Birthday, Daddy


Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

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January 6, 2008 Posted by | Conversations With Children, Death, Health, Lawyer, Personal, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Proof


Imagine that you discover a document that absolutely proves whether or not God exists. Upon reading the document and finding the truth, you must decide whether or not to share the proof with the world. Would you?

Would it make a difference if the document proved the opposite of what you believed until you discovered it?

(Assume, for purposes of this question, that the document itself is proof enough)

November 28, 2007 Posted by | Philosophy | , , | Leave a comment

What if Guilt Disappeared?


This is an essay question on your final in a philosophy class:

Imagine that scientists create a new drug. When swallowed as a pill, it will completely and permanently eliminate feelings of guilt for prior events. Testing reveals that there are no harmful medical side effects. How should this pill be distributed?

Discuss.

November 27, 2007 Posted by | Philosophy | , , | Leave a comment

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report


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Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , | 1 Comment