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Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

File under story I will never actually write:
In a not so far off future, an increasingly elderly society is decimated when massive numbers of people over 65 suddenly overdose. After much investigstion to culprit turns out to be a group of young political activists who seek to save their future by eliminating retired people who are cost more and more in public health expenditure and dominate the political process through their numbers. How? By hacking into internet connected automatic pill despensers everyone uses…

Welcome to the aged, connected society.

Do or Do Not, There is No Try

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

This is the second of two posts based on papers I turned in for a class on Eastern Philosophy I took in 1997. This is the second paper, the final exam. For the first paper see here [confusion.cc], for the whole story see here [confusion.cc].

Somewhere between eating honey with Pooh and walking the narrow road with Basho I learned something more than eastern philosophy over the last semester. I learned how to live some of the ideals of the traditions we studied. Words spoken by the Dalai Lama now make sense beyond the words themselves. The moon is the moon and the finger the finger. So my final exam is not a retelling of the books we read in the course of the semester but a the answer to a simple question: what did I learn in Philosophy 260?

Why Worry?

“If it is fixable, then there is no need to worry. If not, there is no benefit to worrying.” These are the words of the Dalai Lama, but the sentiment is familiar to everyone: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, “Don’t worry, be happy” and a million other turns of phrase. Though I have heard them before I have never really listened to them, until I myself said them.

…About halfway through the semester a friend of mine was in the process of getting a loan for a new car. She was hysterical about everything. Every little detail she worried over, completely stressing her out. She worried so much she was making herself sick. All I could say to her was don’t worry, if you are going to get the loan there is no need to worry, if not then worrying will only make you sick, not help you get the car. Stop. Hold the press! I sounded like some dime store version of the Dalai Lama. But, the more I thought about it the more it finally made since, in a way I can’t explain, and over the next few weeks I repeated if to myself when I worried. I works. It released me from the prison of my worry and calmed me down. The worry didn’t always go away completely but the words became a sort of mantra. My own litany against worry, like the Litany Against Fear which Paul Atreides used in Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

A practical example of how I applied my litany against worry is the written exam for this class. Given that the written exam forms 25% of our grade I worried about it long before the semester drew to a close. Normally I would have tied myself into mental knots worrying about my grade, zapping my concentration and rendering studying a vicious cycle. Applying the Dalai Lama’s words I strove to quit worrying about the grade, I reread the materials and reviewed our class discussions. I spent some time away from studying, spending the last hours before the test discussing other things over coffee with friends, just relaxing. When all was said and done, I got a better grade on the written exam than on the paper I spent so much time on worrying about late into the night.

The Bisy Backson

What is a Bisy Backson? In The Tao of Pooh a Backson is described as a person who goes through life always searching but never finding happiness. The Backson is so obsessed with saving time that they have none to spend and in the end has wasted all their time. This sounds familiar.

I go to school to learn so I can get a good job and make money. Why? So I can buy things to save me time so I can enjoy life. But in the meantime I waste the here and now. Trying to get ahead I take too many classes and work as many hours as I can in between. A quad-shot latte to start the morning is a necessity and it’s never shared over conversation and camaraderie. Drink it on the way to class. Finish the next assignment while eating lunch. More lectures and a six-hour shift. Sleep and repeat. Not allowing any time for myself, for life.

On the other hand I see people I go to school with who are wasting their money, or their parents money. They seem to be here to party. Their textbooks always fetch the highest trade-in at the end of the semester, mint condition, never used. Halfway through the this semester I sought middle ground. I missed, too far to the fun side and I know it. Last year I burnt out because I never did anything but work and study.

Somewhere between the Backson and the Hedonist is a better path that I will aim for. Hopefully I can find this path between the two extremes and walk it to success and happiness.

The Finger and the Moon

One koan from or studies of Zen this semester took on greater importance to me, the koan of the finger and the moon:

All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.

At first I dismissed this as just another formulation of the familiar “missing the forest for the moon”, and a silly one at that, how could anyone mistake a finger for the moon it points too? But that’s not quite it. Slowly over this semester I have come to understand the koan through my experience with our mid-term paper. I mistook the grade for the assignment.

Instead of trying to learn something I focused on writing a paper that would get me a good grade. I tried to impress my teacher instead of writing a paper. In doing so I fixed my gaze upon the grade and by fixating on it I lost sight of the assignment. It was only after being called out on this by two of my classmates outside of class that I was able to see the mistake I had made. Only now, too late, have I understood that the finger is a necessary tool but that it is the moon itself that is the point. Now I am applying this lesson and a paper on what I learned rather than just writing an “A” paper.

The Big Lesson…

The biggest lesson I have learned in class this semester was not something I got from a book or a poem or a play or a movie. The biggest lesson I learned came from myself. When I registered for this class I anticipated an easy ride. Because I had already taken Religions of the World and Eastern Religions I assumed I would sit back, read a few books, write a few papers and collect an easy A.

Wrong.

My problem was I started the semester with no intention of putting into class anything like the amount of effort that is necessary to learn. At the start of the semester it was clearly stated that we could only take away from this class what we put into this class. Other teachers have said it before yet I always did well even when my effort was less than what it should have been. This semester it caught up with me. I put minimal effort in and will get a minimal grade out.

This is a lesson more valuable to my life than any lesson I have learned in any other class. It is a lesson more valuable than any skill or facts I could learn. More than knowledge it is wisdom. Wisdom I will remember for the rest of my life: don’t ever do anything half-assed, do it right or don’t do it at all. As Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

In closing

In closing this examination, of myself for this class, I can say that Study of Eastern Thinking has been one of the most informative experiences in my life. One that I hope will be a transformative experience in my life. I have learned simple lessons; about worrying, about losing sight of what matters. Lessons that I hope I can apply to all aspects of my life now and in the future.

As with the essence of Zen, what I have learned I cannot express in words in a way that will make anyone understand. It is not a to be summed up in a word or a phrase. It is a feeling, and feelings must be felt to be understood. I am satisfied that I have, only now in the end, accomplished the objectives of this class, from it to it and everything in between.

Zen at Walden Pond

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

This is the first of two posts from an introduction to eastern philosophy class I took in 1997. I’m only posting this paper to tell a story about my own path to learning. The paper itself is not good, in fact it is quite bad. at best repetitive, poorly organized and altogether lackluster —showing no real insight into the material. For the second paper see here [confusion.cc], for the whole story see here [confusion.cc].

Zen. Simplicity. The feeling of simplicity i feel when reading Zen brings back memories of other writings. Simplicity connected not with a monastery in the mountains of Japan, but in the reflections of life on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Life on Walden Pond imparted to me the same feelings of simplicity in living that Maura O’Holloran wrote about in Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. Simplicity that is in the core of Zen. Simplicity of life living at Walden Pond. Walden helps me to understand Zen by relating to a more western perspective.

Henry David Thoreau’s Life on Walden Pond is a record of his everyday life during two years he lived there, alone, in a simple house he built in with his own hands. Zen is, Master Choa-chou said, “everyday thought.” Walden can be seen as the diary of Thoreau’s search for his version of enlightenment, living simply in the woods. In much the same manner as Thoreau, O’Halloran recorded her personal journey to enlightenment in the letters and diary that make up Pure Heard, Enlightened Mind. By documenting everyday experiences both authors allowed me to glimpse their personal journey down the path of life.

Living in Toshoji Temple O’Holloran learned the things no book could teach her. She learned the lessons of life, practical yet simple. The same lessons that Thoreau learned on the shores of Walden and recorded in his writing. “Walden, in short, is designed as a practical course in the liberation of the reader” (1676), writes Hershel Walker in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. In Walden Thoreau offers his everyday thoughts and experiences to the reader. Within its pages I shared in his journey to enlightenment. The idea that liberation comes through everyday living is summed up in one word in Japanese, “jiriki”. Jiriki refers to a persons attempt to “achieve enlightenment through his or her own efforts (Lindley). Jirkiki to me implies that to reach enlightenment we must learn from personal experience as opposed to what we can learn from outside sources, like books and people.

In Essays in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Sazuki says “Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom” (13). In Walden Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials facts of life” (75). Thoreau went to live simply. Alone at Walden Pond, without the distractions of others, he could look within himself. The simplicity of life on the pond allowed him to discard the bondage of society, peal back the layers and reveal himself.

To reach the Buddhist goal of becoming one with everything and gaining freedom from the bondage of life, O’Holloran struggled with the idea of “mu.” Mu is the Japanese word for nothing. O’Halloran concludes that she must “embrace mu”. To embrace mu a person must become one with everything. Abandon your ego and explore yourself outside the complexity of society. In modern society, many people have walled their true self behind the complexity of conformity. Thoreau left society because as he said “the life of a civilized people is an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed” (26). The institution forces most people to conform in each situation, adding a layer of complexity to them. The child whose clothing does not conform is pressured into buying the cool cloths, pressured into conformity. Else he is shunned by his peers, and made an outcast of society.

Our society grows more complex each day. Everywhere we look a new gizmo that promises to make our lives easier, in fact makes it more complex. My world is the ever-changing world of computers, the epitome of complexity, I must spend much of my time learning the new technology in order to continue to use the computer. Because of the complexity of my life the simplicity of Thoreau’s life, on the shores of Walden appeals to me.

Thoreau reduced his life to only the essentials, Hershel Parker, commented of Walden, that “[Thoreau’s] life became a refusal to live by the materialistics values of this neighbors” (1679). Thoreau himself said “I have three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, I threw them out in disgust” (30). The limestone on the desk is like the many things that I buy in a vain attempt to fill my world with beauty, but only clutter my life. Over and over I buy new things to put in my house to make it more appealing. Thoreau’s last of things is what made his life simple. The simplicity made his life appealing.

Thoreau abandoned the object of his life, like the limestone that were not necessities. Mumon, a Zen master said, “the treasures of the house do not come in by the front door.” The “things” that we bring into our house unnecessarily are just fluff, useless. Thoreau said “bare feet are older than shoes, and [one] can made them do” (19). A quote in The Little Zen Companion says “I threw my cup away when is saw a child drinking from his hand at the trough” (133). Both the shoes and the cup are items that perform as specific job, one that we can perform without them. They are examples of the fluff that my life has become filled with. It is the fluff that hides the true treasure of the house. The true treasure that enters the house when we enter, and leaves when we leave. Simple treasure that are always with us.

Our treasures have always been inside of us, but we have filled or lives with complexity and hidden them. Thoreau simplified his life on the shores of Walden Pond, by removing the materialistics treasure, leaving only himself, his treasures. In his writings I glimpsed an undiluted look into his journey to find himself. The simplicity of his life is a beacon of hope in the complexity of my world. Walden left me with the belief that a simple uncluttered life leads us to a simple uncluttered mind. A mind in which we may experience our true selves. O’Halloran, Suzuki, and all other Zen masters an teachers I have read have only help to water seeds planted by Walden. Thoreau likely never new what Zen was but his insights into life would have made him a master of Zen to me. His words taught me the essence of Zen before I know what Zen was, and he continues to help me understand the Zen I read.

The bibliography is missing, but as I still have most of these books, except the Norton Anthology. Here is what I have:

My time has passed

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Walking in the forest, I found a shovel sitting by a tree. So I dug a hole. A little way down I found a bone, maybe a leg bone. Maybe human. I took the bone to the old woman who lives up the street. She deals tarot cards, reads palms and talks to the dead. The old woman told me it was indeed a human bone. She told me it had a violent past. Then she lit candles, burned incense, spoke in tongues, and communicated with the dead. Sitting in her living room surrounded by B-movie props I felt the air turn cold. A voice from the other side spoke; ‘leave me alone. My time has passed.’ The old woman held out the bone for me and said, “bury it back where you found it.” So I returned to the forest, to the hole I had dug and I tossed in the bone. I picked up the shovel and filled in the hole. Then I took the shovel back with me and put it in the shed. Some stories were not meant to be told.

Comm 100 – Persuasive Speech

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

The Dalai Lama’s remarks [news.bbc.co.uk] on the 50th anniversary of his flight from Tibet and the failed uprising against the Chinese Communist occupation reminded me or a long delayed project; transcribing my 1999 speech—originally written for a communications class—about the plight of the Tibetan people. So, here we go. I just going to transcribe the outline I used for the speech (given in class and several times in Amnesty meetings around the DC Metro area). In 1999 there wasn’t the crazy cool Internet video there is today, so I actually had to show the video’s linked to below using a VCR and I had to go and buy them from Save Tibet [savetibet.org] in downtown DC! Anyway, here is the speech:

Brian Beggerly
Comm. 100
Persuasive Speech
Specific Purpose: To persuade my audience to take personal action to end the situation in Tibet.

Main Idea: China has and continues to violate the human rights of the people of Tibet.

INTRO

SHOW “WHY ARE WE SILENT [savetibet.org]

— What you just saw was a public service announcement prepared by the International Campaign for Tibet, the actors and actresses were reading passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

— The Declaration was passed by the United Nations in 1948 and subsequently ratified by all member states. Today all 188-member states are legally bound by it’s articles.

— The 30 articles of the Declaration are designed to guarantee the basic human rights of all citizens of the world.

Rights like:
— Freedom of speech
— Freedom of religion
— Freedom from torture
— Freedom from arbitrary incarceration
— and many others…

— Yet China, the largest country on Earth, a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security council, has been in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for over 50 years, almost since the day Eleanor Roosevelt first read out the worlds of the declaration to the world.

— China has and continues to violate the rights of many of it’s citizens according to Amnesty International’s latest annual report. The plight of the Tibetans in their own homeland, occupied for half a century is especially dire.

— And since the governments of the world, including the government of the US with it’s supposed moral leadership, seem not to care about the people of Tibet, it is up to us, to you and I, to ordinary people all over the western world to stand up and do everything in our power to put a stop to China’s Tibet policies and abuses. To put a stop to what Russian defector Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as

The most brutal and inhuman communist regime in the world.

BODY

  1. It began in 1949, only a year after China ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the communist Chinese army invaded and quickly overran the mostly pacifist country of Tibet.
    1. The invasion was uncontested by the rest of the world despite the fact that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, requested help from the free world; the UNITED STATES, BRITTAN, INDIA and other all ignored the pleas for help and protection.
    2. For ten years the Tibetans struggled to live under Chinese rule, but as time passed the Chinese began to take away the basic aspect of Tibetan Culture one-by-one.
    3. In 1959 when the Chinese government outlawed the practice of religion in Tibet, the Tibetan people revolted. The Tibetan people did not use violence as a means to revolt, instead the pacifist Buddhist people gathered in the streets and sang religious songs and chanted anti-Chinese slogans…
    4. The response from the Chinese was swift and violent. Half a million Tibetans were killed. The Dalai Lama and nearly one million other Tibetans fled Tibet on foot, traveling across the roof of the world—the Himalayan mountains into India to seek safety as a political refugee.
    5. Over the past 50 years China has done as it pleases in Tibet. Committing uncountable atrocities with complete immunity. According to the Tibetan Government, exiled and today based in India, and numerous human rights organizations around the world:
      1. Over 1.2 million Tibetans, approximately one-fifth of the population, has died as a direct result from China’s policies in Tibet.
      2. Hundreds more languish in prisons and labor camps, enduring what the Chinese authorities term “reeducation”.
      3. More than 6,000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historical buildings have been demolished and their contents pillaged. Today, less than 300 monasteries remain.
      4. Today China uses the Tibetan Plateau as a testing site for nuclear weapons and as a landfill for it’s toxic and nuclear waste.
      5. In 1995, Nagawang Choephel, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Tibetan, returned to Tibet to document the religious practices of this native people as part of his Doctoral Thesis. He was arrested and charged with promoting anti-government activities, based on his videotaping of religious ceremonies. He remain is a Chinese prison today.
      6. Then there is the case of Gedhum Nyima, recognized in 1995, at the age of 6 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism, was abducted from his home along with his entire family on May 17, 1995. He and his family have not been see or heard from sense, he remains the youngest political prisoner in history.
      7. The worst atrocities in Tibet are inflicted on the nuns. The nuns are the heard of the continuing peaceful struggle for freedom. In recent years hundreds of nuns have been arrested for gathering to sing religious songs and for possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama. They are kept in prisons without trial where they are systematically starved, tortured, raped and executed in an ongoing attempt to break the will of the Tibetan people.
      8. To show what the people of Tibet have been enduring for half a century the International Campaign for Tibet released their video “The World isn’t Listening” in 1998:

        SHOW “THE WORLD ISN’T LISTENING [savetibet.org]

  2. In recent years, and especially since the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace, the world has begun to look more and more into the realities of China’s occupation of Tibet.
    1. Today there are many organizations working to inform the world of the atrocities which continue to be committed by the Chinese government. Including:
      1. The International Campaign for Tibet, based here in DC publishes many resources to educate people on the situation. Both the videos I have shown tonight were provided by the International Campaign for Tibet.
      2. Amnesty International, based in London, with offices around the world engages it’s members in letter writing campaigns to attempt to gain freedom for the prisoners of conscience in Tibet.
    2. Thou the actions of these and numerous other grass roots organizations around the world has helped to focus more attention on the situation in Tibet there is still a long way to go.

CONCLUSION

Why should we care about what happens to this remote, isolated, third-world country of Tibet?

According to the International Committee of Lawyer for Tibet;

World peace shares it fate with the outcome in Tibet. A peaceful resolution of the Tibetan struggle will send a message to the world community that international disputes can be resolved peacefully through the rule of law. On the other hand, if such a resolution does not come about, the message to other peoples is that only war, terrorism and violence will force effective international attention on our situations.”

Each and every person who believes in human rights has a responsibility to act to help end the atrocities in Tibet. What good is a belief in human rights if countries can ignore them at will? Elie Wiesel said it best when he said:

If to be free is the most important goal of all, the to help someone else to be or become free must be the most sublime and rewarding of human endeavors.

Here’s what you can do:
— You can seek out the organizations which work for a peaceful resolution, help them, learn from them and help to educate others.
—You can exercise your rights as Americans by addressing our Representatives and Senators in Washington, telling them that the US should use all it’s economic and political power to help the oppressed people of Tibet.
— But most importantly, you can vote with your wallet; refuse to by goods made in China. It’s hard but there are alternatives and if there are not, ask yourself if you really need that new gadget or that pair of shoes more then an entire country needs it freedom.

Because the old saying holds true;

“IF YOU’RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION, THEN YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.”

Fish Fetish: Reading Animal Liberation

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Fish Fetish got it’s share of strange customers over the years. From the typical moms-buying-the-kids-a-goldfish to Schools buying 200 goldfish for the carnival. We even had at least one heart doctor in town who thought that we needed business; he sent patients with high blood pressure to us with prescriptions for elaborate fish tanks. They where instructed to sit and watch the fish tank for 1 or 2 hours every day to lower their blood pressure. Insurance picked up the setup and maintenance fees. Sweet deal really, in order to make a tank interesting enough to watch for hours you have to go all out; amazon inspired plant takes with dozens of small fish and fresh water shrimp or coral reef tanks with all kinds of invertebrates. And at $50 to a $100 an hour for maintenance it’s a good long term cash cow. The doctor did get a discount for this service.

One of our more unusual customers showed up late one night while the three of us were unpacking a large shipment of fish and corals from just in from Jakarta. We all notices the woman who wondered into the freshwater section. She was a blond bombshell in jeans and a tee shirt with the local university logo. After a few games of paper-rock-scissors Eddie got to stop opening endless bags of livesock and headed over to help her.

“Good evening ma’am. Can I help you?”

“Yea, good evening.” She hardly glanced at Eddie, but then she pointed to one of the tanks and said, “I need 500 Zebra Danios, a 50 gallon tank, filter and food. Can you do that?”

“500 Zebra Danios? We’d have to order them.”

“That’s OK.” She said. “I also need to know if you can give me a quote so I can get a PO and have a check cut for you? How long will it take to get the fish?”

“I have to check with the suppliers as 500 is a larger order than we usually get, I can check tomorrow if you would like to leave a name and number so I can call you back.” Walking behind the counter and searching for the live stock lists Eddie continued; “normally Zibra Danios are three for a dollar, but if you are going to get 500 I think we can get a deal. Can you leave your contact details here. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“I’ll need to pick up the quote a few days before I can get a check. Let me know what the price is and I’ll come by and pick up a quote.”

“No problem ma’am.” Eddie smiled at her as she turned towards the door. “We’ll call you tomorrow. Thanks.”

“Thanks.”

Eddie still had that dumb about to be clubbed baby seal look on his face when Matt and I came over to the counter. “Well then. Ms. Wendy Erickson of 405 Jordan Hall.” Eddie was quickly scribbling down the list of items Ms. Wendy has asked for so he didn’t forget.

“Hottie,” was about the most intelligent thing I could think to say.

“What the hell does she want 500 Zebra Danios for?” Matt asked.

“Maybe she has a god complex?”

“Yea right. I bet she doesn’t need to act out her god complex on fish. She’s got men lining up to be abused.” Matt took out the latest live stock list from one of our suppliers. “We can do the Lillyponds order early this week. Danios are 10 cent each for less than 100, 7 cent for 100 to 400 and 5 cent for more. 20 for a buck? Think she’ll pay 200?”

“She’s not paying,” Eddie said, “she said something about a PO.”

“Then charge her 100 for the fish, regular price on the tank and supplies.”

“I still don’t get it,” I said, “what does she need the 500 Danios for?”

“Who cares.” Eddie said.

“Yea, you should ask her when she comes back.” Matt said. “What was she driving?”

“Old Volvo station wagon.”

“Hum… She looked like a college girl, maybe it’s for a carnival.”

The next day Eddie made the call to tell Ms. Wendy what it would cost for the setup and fish. When he was done he hung up the phone, turned to me and said, “the guy who answered the phone, said ‘Keck brain research facility.'”

“That sounds like a horror movie.”

“Their infected.”

“Infected with what?”

“Stupidity!”

“Haha. But will she pay?”

“Yea.”

A few days later the Lillyponds shipment included five extra bags of Danios. 100 fish per bag.

Ms. Windy showed up about 45 minutes later in her Volvo with a check from the university and some forms that had to be signed to make everything official.

While filling out the forms Eddie asked “what are you going to do with 500 Danios?”

“Stick electrodes in their brains and see what makes them tick.”

Laughing Eddie said “no really. what are they for?”

“No really, I’m going to stick wires in their brains for research.”

“Really?” Eddie was not laughing anymore. In fact he was not slouching and filling out the papers anymore. He was standing up strait, all 6 foot 4 of him skinny as ever looking down at Ms. Wendy. Who was about 5 foot 6. “I’m not sure I like that.

It should be noted at this point the everyone who worked at Fish Fetish was a vegetarian based on a shared ethical epiphany about the mistreatment of animals in the name of food and human shovanism. None of us had been vegetarians or even ever given a second thought to meat prior to opening the store. It was a decision based on shared conversation after the store opened. This awakening would in the long run lead to the closing of Fish Fetish but that was still years away. At the time Ms. Wendy showed up to purchase her 500 Zebra Danios for Frankenstein experiments Eddie had only been a vegetarian for a few months. The idea of selling 500 fish to be poked and prodded for some thesis was not a happy thought.

“What do you mean you don’t like it?” Ms. Wendy asked looking up to Eddie and somehow making him look unimposing.

“That’s cruel. You’re going to experiment on 500 living things for some sick science experiment? Have you thought about the fish.”

“Yea I thought about the fish, I chose the Zebra Danios because they are well studied.”

“I don’t mean what type of fish to use,” Eddie said “I mean how would you like it if someone stuck wires in your head and electrocuted you.”

“I’m not going to electrocute them…”

“Have you ever read Animal Liberation?”

“Yes. Have you?”

“Um. No. Actually, No.”

By this point Matt and I were laughing our asses off on the couch across the store. This little college girl with her blond pony tail was standing there with her hands on her hips yelling at Eddie who should have been imposing towering over her. But instead he looked tired and confused looking down at her like an elephant scared of a mouse.

So Ms. Wendy got her 500 Zebra Danios with no more lectures. Eventually she came back to buy a tank for home and some fish to take care of in stead of to ‘take care off.’ She became one of our regulars and sometimes joined us for life outside of Fish Fetish. And her 500 Danios helped her get her PhD.

And Eddie read Animal Liberation.

We all did.

Fish Fetish: Breatharianism

Monday, June 9th, 2008

It was a slow Thursday afternoon when we met the breatharian. Matt, Eddie and I were in the fish shop browsing a livestock list from a big west coast supplier with Mark. Mark was looking for some bread-and-butter fish for one of his high powered lawyer clients tank. Nothing too exotic, just some color please. So, Sgt. Major Damsel’s at 15¢ each, minimum 10? And Yellow Tangs $1.00 or Coral Beauty’s for $1.50?

Pricing livestock is a tricky business; you have to pay a fortune in shipping costs when you ship live fish; fish have to be in water, water ways a lot, express shipping is by weight. Combine that with the loss rates of shipping and holding till the fish is sold and you can end up with a Damsel that cost 15¢ wholesale costing $2.00 in store. High powered lawyers in plush law firms don’t care how much the fish cost as long as it swims around in the tank to pacify the socialites waiting for to sign their divorce papers at $500 an hour. Hence Mark’s $2.00 Damsel’s being sold for $5.00.

While we were debating the ethics of potential markups on the various fish one of our regulars, Sandy, came in. Sandy was a slightly butch skinny-minnie ex-marine that topped out at about 100 pounds. With a huge colorful tattoo of an octopus covering her right shoulder and neck as a memento of her time in Okinawa. Her fish tank was at the heart of a bitter divorce and custody battle. Not that the tank was the cause; maintenance was the issue, because when Matt did the maintenance he did Sandy too.

Besides being a slightly butch ex-marine heterosexual girl, Sandy was a Wholefoods nut. She regularly came into the fish shop raving about this or that new diet fad; One month she’d be macrobiotic vegan, next month it was raw foods only. It was always going to be a miracle cure for her chronic lethargy and insomnia. We all laughed behind her back about it; and as Mark once said, “there’s nothing wrong with that girl a Big Mac wouldn’t fix.” And Mark was a vegetarian.

Today Sandy had a tag-along; an even skinnier girl who stood a head taller but looked more like Skeletor than a real person.

“Hey guys. This is Anne. My tang died.”

“Hey.”

“So sad, which one?”

“Yellow one. I brought some water to test.”

“OK. Test kits in the back.” With that Matt took the zip-lock bag of fish tank water and lead Sandy to the back counter. No real need, there was a test kit at the front counter. This of course left Eddie, Mark and me alone with Skeletor.

Mark, did the dirty work of starting the conversation with the third wheel. “So, Anne. Have a fish tank?”

“Not since fifth grade. Sandy says you guys are all vegetarians?”

“Yep. Except Matt, he’s a vegan. We all make fun of him.”

“That’s cool that your vegetarians. Cruel that you make fun of him. I’m training to be a breatharian.”

None of us had ever heard of this term before. Mark looked at Eddie and then Eddie opened the wrong door; “What’s a breatharian?”

“It’s the science of living on the nutrients of air.”

I watched too much PBS as a kid to let that one go. “You can’t live off air.”

“Oh no, see that’s what most people think. Really it’s just fear that kills you…”

“… Not starvation?”

“No, just fear. We’ve all been taught for so long that we can’t live without food and water that when we don’t have food and water we become scared and our minds cause us to get ill and die.”

“So,” Eddie took the bait, “if I stop eating and drinking today, I won’t die, as long as I am not afraid of death?”

“It’s not quite that simple.”

“Oh,” Mark said, “it never is.”

“To succeed,” Anne continued, “you have to unlearn all that you know about food and nutrition and all the science mambo jumbo. You have to train yourself, you can’t quite cold turkey.”

“And where did you learn all this from?”

“There are a number of people all around the world that have been teaching this system for years. It goes way back.” By this time Anna was really into it, her eyes were starting to light up in a remarkablySkeletor like way, “but the media doesn’t want to report on it. No one in the media believes it, so it’s hard to learn about it from TV or newspapers.”

“So how did you learn about it?” I asked.

“I met this guy in California who was just back from Australia where he was studying under a wonderful woman who is like the high priest of breatharianism. She hasn’t eaten or had to drink anything in almost seven years.”

“Seven years?” We all said that, more or less.

“Yes, really. Isn’t it amazing? Seven years, but it took here a lot longer to build up to it.”

“I still don’t believe you can live on air.” I said. Again.

“So how is your ‘training’ going?” Mark asked.

“Well, I’m quite week. I went two days last week without food, but I did drink water. I felt so tired…”

“There’s a reason for that…”

“… I had to.”

“… because you have to eat.”

“I hope that by the end of the year I can go a whole week. Next year a month. It will take at least a few years to be off food and water forever. Then I’ll be so much healthier None of the man made chemicals, no death hormones.”

By this time Sandy and Matt wondered back from testing the water.

“Sandy,” I started, “what do you think about this living on air thing?”

“Breatharianism? I haven’t looked into it too much,” She said.

“You think that will fix your health issues,” Mark asked.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I just started the raw food diet.”

“Does sashimi count?”

“No, vegan, of course.”

“Yea.”

“Well, we’re off guys, I’m going to drop Anne at Wholefoods. So I can pick up a new tang next week Matt?”

“Yea if nothing else gets sick.”

“See ya.”

“Bye.”

“Nice to meet you guys.”

We watched the breatharian walk with Sandy to her ancient Volvo. They got in and drove off and we all started laughing hysterically.

“You know,” I said, “if you could live without food or water, the ‘Ethernopians’ would have figured it out in the ’80s.”

“I think she needs more than one Big Mac to fix her issues,” Mark concluded, “that girl is Darwinism at work.”

Short Short Story: In a Sandy Court Yard

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

Masked. “Ready!” Afraid. “Aim!” Condemned. “Fire!”

The most beautiful girl

Monday, April 18th, 2005

There was an awkward moment when we first saw her, stunned, deer-in-headlights, helpless. She passed by J——- and I. She glanced up at us for a brief moment. And we were hooked. Her face was a dream of beauty. Her mouth was smiling but it was the light of her eyes that held our gaze. The rich mahogany of her irises almost filling the almond shaped whites. That smile, the smile of her eyes was more powerful.

J——-‘s head followed mine as we turned to see where she went. Jim stood next to us pointing his camera as some building or tree across the little canal that ran along the ‘path to enlightenment,’ until he followed our gaze and saw her for himself.

She walked hand-in-hand with a taller man, in front of the three of us, and crossed a little road. They stopped beneath a sakura tree next to a small foot bridge that crossed over the canal leading deeper into the heart of Geon, Kyoto’s night district. She looked from side to side, hands together holding the handle of her handbag in from of her. The pink of the sakura blossoms matched her shirt and contrasted with the black of her skirt.

Her pony tail bobbed up and down as she nodded to whatever he was saying to her. He turned to the side to light a cigarette and brush something from his tacky plaid jacket. He turned back to her said one last thing and walked off brushing his spiked hair into on of the low hanging branches leaving a few petals in his hair until he swept them away.

Jim, J——- and I continued to stare at her as she stood there, smiling, perfect beneath the sakura tree. The picture of beauty, the most beautiful woman we had ever seen.

“Oh my god.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“She’s a prostitute,” Jim broke the spell with his, now obvious, statement.

We stood there in disbelief for a few minutes, watching her, the way she held herself, the way she turned her head from side to side. Committing every detail of her beauty to our memories: The exact shade of her pink blouse, the thin white sweater she wore to cover her arms from the slight chill in the late March air. The length of her black skirt, the style she wore her hair in, the height of her heels and the silver heart pendent around her neck.

After drinking her beauty in for some time from across the street we decided to cross to the little bridge, to get a closer look at her. We crossed the street, the so called ‘path to enlightenment’—a street lined with hotels that rent their rooms by the hour and shops filled with pictures of those who you can spent your rented hours with. We passed her, only a few inches from her, and she never looked at any of us. She turned her head to look down the street in front of us, then back to look where we had come from as we passed her.

We stopped ten feet away, under the next sakura tree. We stood for some time, maybe half an hour, maybe only ten minutes. We couldn’t take our eyes away from her for more then a few seconds. She never looked at us again, though she smiled and greeted every Japanese man who walked by.

“They won’t talk to Gaijin,” Jim explained, “stereotypes from after World War II. Dirty GI’s”

“I’d give her all my cash just for a picture and a kiss.”

“You live here Jim, we don’t speak Japanese. Talk to her.”

Jim shook his head, “you don’t understand, they won’t talk to us, not unless we are with some Japanese business man. They just don’t talk to Gaijin.”

When we finally decided to move on the three of us took one last, long look at her. The wind blew dawn the street shaking the loose blossoms from the sakura trees. My last view of the most beautiful girl was through that pink snow of sakura blossoms.

“I need a beer-u.”

“I need something stronger than beer,” J——- corrected me, “I need Sake!”

“I can’t believe the most beautiful woman in the world is a hooker on the path to enlightenment in Kyoto.”

“Look at it this way,” Jim offered, “you passed the first test on the path to enlightenment: desire.”

“Only ’cause she won’t talk to Gaijin.”

Tough Questions

Monday, June 28th, 2004

Few topics in the modern world stir such emotions and debate as abortion. In America a single court case has become legendary, and part of the popular psyche: Roe vs. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prevent a woman from seeking an abortion. In China the One-Child policy and the traditional desire of a son to carry on the family have lead to an epidemic in the abortion of female fetuses. Religious groups and feminist argue over the “Right to Life” and a “Women’s Rights.” The depth of conviction to Pro-Life and Pro-Choice has lead to violence, including the bombing of clinics that offer abortions and the murder of doctors who perform abortions.

Abortion is a moral dilemma that challenges our ethical beliefs. Many people’s ideas on abortion come from the beliefs of their religious teachers and are stepped in centuries of doctrine and interpretation by the leaders of their religion. These beliefs are too many and too complex to be critically assessed in this paper. Instead this paper will focus on ethical ideas grounded in non-religious writings. Specifically the ethical ideas found in the writings that are the foundations for the three major non-religious ethical systems of the Western world, Aristotelian, Kantian and Utilitarianism.

The Aristotelian system is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, written in the fourth century before Christ. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, written in the 1780’s by Immanuel Kant is the basis for the Kantian system, and John Stuart Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism,” written in the 1860’s, is the “definitive statement” (1) of Utilitarianism. Although these three works do not compromise the whole of the ethical theories they advance they are the seminal works in their respected theories, and will serve as the basis of the following discussion. What insights can these works give us into the ethical question “is abortion moral?”

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle laid out his theory on how to achieve an ethical life, but Aristotle’s ethics differ a great deal from the modern concept of ethics. Aristotle is concerned with how an individual can live an ethical life, not with how a society can make ethical choices. For Aristotle’s community oriented ideas one must look to his Politics where he says of abortion; “when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.” (2) The qualifier, “before sense and life have begun,” strikes strait to one of the central questions of abortion; when does the fetus become alive, and more broadly, when does it gain a right to life? This is a question that will come up again and again in our examination of abortion.

Though Aristotle’s Ethics deal with the individual, he states that it is not for everyone, some people are excluded form ever achieving the good life by their circumstances. Aristotle lays out three conditions that must be met before a person can strive for the good life. The person must have good health, must not be ugly and must have at least moderate wealth. The fetus seams to fall outside of all these preconditions. Even so if we look at the potential of the child should it be born we can extrapolate some from these conditions.

Aristotle says that the ultimate goal of human life is the activity he calls eudaimonia, which is a complex term but for the sake of this argument can be thought of as being approximated by its stock translation, happiness. In order to achieve eudaimonia any child born must meet the three prerequisites that everyone else is subject to, health, wealth and beauty. What if we could detect whether or not a fetus would be unable to achieve one or more of these preconditions?

Modern technology gives us the ability to detect may diseases and defects which could prevent a child from living a healthy life, diseases like sickle cell anemia or down syndrome can be detected very early in a pregnancy. If a fetus is found to have a debilitating condition that will prevent it from living a healthy life should the fetus be aborted? What if the condition is not detected till late in the pregnancy is an abortion sill justifiable? Aristotle’s views expressed in Politics about “life and sense” seam to suggest that he would say no to the second case but what of the first case? How do we determine when a fetus has life and sense? This question rages in modern arguments both for and against abortion and usually relies on religious beliefs. Aristotle gives us no answer.

Many of the same questions arise if we examine the beauty precondition. With the use of sonic-grams a doctor can detect many deformities in the physical appearance of a child. Is an abortion acceptable if a defect is detected? Though the question of beauty seams outdated in today?s world of equal rights some people might still ask if it is not better to abort a fetus which suffers from sever physical deformities and try to re-conceive. However this argument belongs better to the Utilitarian view of life.

The question of wealth is hard to view with respect to the fetus, as the fetus will be dependent for some time on the wealth of its parents or guardians. Raising a child requires means, whether it is measured in money or in goods, wealth is needed to live, to provide the basics of life. Is it morally acceptable to bring a child into the world if the parents do not have the means to care for it financially? What if the parents could provide for the child but it would put strain on their meeting the prerequisites for Aristotle’s ethics?

Is it ethically justifiable to bring a child into the world when the child cannot hope to meet all of Aristotle’s preconditions? Is an abortion justifiable if the birth of the child will cause the parents to not meet one of the conditions? Whose happiness is more valuable, whose rights to a pursuit of eudaimonia is more important? Aristotle provides no answers to these questions in Ethics and his open-ended comment on abortion in Politics provides us with little guidance. Aristotle says that if a couple has “children in excess” then an abortion is an acceptable way of ending an unwanted pregnancy. One interpretation of this is that if a couple has children and another would put some sort of strain on their, and the other children’s, pursuit of eudaimonia, such as financial strain, then an abortion is justifiable. But only acceptable “before sense and life have begun,” though here again Aristotle offers no insight into how to determine when life and sense begin.

Kantian Ethic

Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics raises more questions than it settles about abortion but what of Kant’s ethic? The Kantian system is a duty-based ethic, focusing on the duty to the Categorical Imperative, which Kant clams, is an a priori principal and the fundamental principle. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant gives several formulation of the Categorical Imperative that he clams to be equivalent. Kant clams that the morality of all beliefs on how to act, which he calls maxims, can be determined by deciding if they are in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.

The most famous formulation of the Categorical Imperative is the first; “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will it become a universal law.” (3) Kant says this means that if you are faced with a decision you must first ask yourself what maxim you hold to determine your choice. Then you must say, what if my maxim was universal law, i.e. everyone in my situation acted as I would act. And finally ask yourself if you can will that your maxim become universal law without causing a contradiction. If you can do all these then the maxim passes the test, and is a morally sound maxim, if not then your duty to the Categorical Imperative forbids you from acting on that maxim.

In the case of abortion the test does not seam to solve anything, if your maxim states that in situation X you will have an abortion, And you see no problem with all women in situation X having an abortion, and you can will that all pregnant women in situation X should have an abortion, then your maxim passes the test and is morally sound. The problem results form willing the maxim to be universal, a person with pro-choice beliefs might not have any trouble saying, “yes, any woman in situation X should have an abortion.” While a person with pro-life beliefs could say, “no, abortion is always wrong.” There is also another, more subtle, problem here. Kant states that the morality of any act can be determined from the a priori Categorical Imperative. But in the case of abortion the Categorical Imperative gives no guidance on it’s own, the personal beliefs of the person effect their ability to will a maxim into universal law. The beliefs a person hold before asking if their maxim would cause a contradiction if universalized determine the answer to the question. So this formulation of the categorical imperative does not provide us any help in determining the morality of abortion, and in fact the question of abortion seams to contradict Kant’s belief that the Categorical Imperative is the only thing needed to determine the morality of any maxim.

Another formulation of the categorical imperative which is almost as well know is “so act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (4) This formulation leads us to ask, if the mother is choosing to have the abortion because she “is not ready for a child,” whether financially or because she is not willing to change her life style, or any similar reason, is she violating the Categorical Imperative by using the fetus as a means to her own ends? Conversely suppose that she has decided that the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative demands she have the child and that she does not want the child, is she using herself merely as a means for the fetus’ ends? Here also we find the same problem that Aristotle identified in Politics, when does the fetus gain life and thereby become a member of “humanity”? It appears that Kantian ethics, as laid out in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals does not provide us with any firmer grounds to judge the morality of abortion than did Aristotle’s ethics.

Utilitarianism

The last major ethical system in the western tradition is Utilitarianism, best know through John Stuart Mill’s essay of the same name. The basis for the Utilitarian outlook on ethics is the Greatest Happiness Principle, or the Principle of Utility. This principle states that “the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable, is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” (5) Utilitarianism further states that an act is either right or wrong based on how well it promotes happiness and reduces pain for “all concerned.” Applying the Principle of Utility to abortion raises two central questions, should the fetus be included in our calculations of the pain and pleasure of “all concerned,” and if so how do we measure the pain and pleasure of all the participants.

The question of the status of the fetus returns us to the question of “life and sense.” raised by Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. Is the fetus a person whose interests must be taken into account when judging the morality of an abortion? If so when does “life and sense” begin and the fetus become a person whose pleasure and pain must be take into account in our determination of the morality of abortion? Here as in with Kant and Aristotle we find no answer to the question of when life begins, and so we are left to look elsewhere for answers to this question.

Assuming the fetus must be taken into account in our calculations of pleasure and pain brings us to the second question; how do we judge the pleasure and pain all the participants will endure? How do we determine the pleasure that the child will receive from life? How do we determine if its life will be one of happiness or of pain? This question is complicated more by modern technology. Today we can detect debilitating defects and illness in a fetus early in a pregnancy, however we also have the technology to treat many diseases and deformities, allowing a child born with a deformity or illness to live for many years whereas in the past the child would almost certainly have died young. Should we abort a fetus if we detect that it will suffer from a debilitating disease? Will this disability cause the child to lead an unhappy life? What of the parents, where do they fit into the equation? If the child is born with a disease or with a deformity it may place a great deal of stress on the ability of the parents to support the child, leading to the parents life being less pleasurable. Does the potential happiness of the child outweigh the potential pain of the parents if the fetus displays a disability, or if the parents would be under strain to provide for the child?

Mill is vague on how to decide between the quality and quantity of pleasures and how exactly this is to be taken into account in the pleasure and pain equation. How do we decide how much pleasure or pain a life will have before the life is lived? How do we determine whether this pleasure outweighs the pain and suffering that the mother might have to endure if she gives up something she wants to have the child, if she leaves school or a career? What about the mental suffering that a woman may incur if she chooses to have the abortion but latter regrets it? Mill, like Kant and Aristotle, offers us no concrete answers to the questions raised by abortion. He leaves it to us to determine how to apply the Principle of Utility to the many situations that might arise.

Conclusion

The three main Western ethical systems as laid out in their seminal works do not provide a suitable answer to the question “is abortion morally acceptable?” In fact in attempting to apply the ideas of these systems to abortion we have raised a great number of questions, without providing answers to any of them. Much of this is due to the way the normative ethics are written. As Aristotle said more then two thousands years ago, “any account of conduct must be stated in outline and not in precise detail.” (6) Kant, Mill and Aristotle did not write the answers to every moral question which faces us everyday, they could not possibly do this. What they have each attempted to do is provide us with a basic framework with which to determine what is ethically right. It is up to us to apply these frameworks to the particular situation in order to determine its morality. There are some situations that seam to defy the norms that these ethical systems put forth, and abortion is one of them. Abortion is a very complex subject, although the goal is always the same, the artificial end of pregnancy, the circumstances and reasons for seeking an abortion differ with every woman who seeks one.

Though we have asked many question in applying ethical systems to abortion and answered none, one question we have asked should be repeated outside of any particular system; when does the fetus become a person? Beginning with Aristotle’s clam, in Politics, that an abortion may be sought out “before life and sense have begun,” the status of the fetus has been a question raised in the examination of each ethical system. Neither Aristotle nor Kant nor Mill attempts to answer this question, leaving us to draw our beliefs on when life begins from other sources. An answer to this question would go a long way towards answering our moral dilemmas over abortion. If we know at what point a fetus is a person we would know whether the second formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative applied to the fetus. We would know if we had to take the fetuses’ pain and pleasure into account in our calculations for greatest happiness in Utilitarianism. Although a rule for determining when a fetus is a person would answer a great number of questions, there would still be many unanswered questions left for us to work through.

In the end, none of the three ethical systems provide us with any hard and fast answers to our questions over the morality of abortion, leaving each of us to decide for ourselves. But perhaps it is enough that they make us examine our beliefs and the effects of our decision. Too often in today’s world we do not think of the possible consequences of our actions. In asking tough questions about such dilemmas as abortion we are forced to examine our own ethics and question the beliefs that are the foundations of those ethics. If we are ever in the unfortunate position of having to decide whether or not to have an abortion Aristotle, Kant and Mill will not be there to tell us what to do, but they can help us to know what questions to ask ourselves.

Footnotes

  1. Mill, page 12.
  2. Aristotle, Politics, page.
  3. Kant, page 31.
  4. Kant, page 38.
  5. Mill, page 283.
  6. Aristotle, Ethics, page 93.

Bibliography

  • Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1955.
  • Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by T.A. Sinclair. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1981.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and edited by Mary Gregor. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom 1997.
  • Mill, John Stuart and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Edited by Alan Ryan. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1987.