Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Road to Germany

--  By Tom Phillips
Gestapo Prison Cell -- Koln 

Among my must-see destinations on the road to dotage are some I've spent my life avoiding --  places in the world that frighten me. And the scariest has always been Germany.

Born in 1942, my first idea of Germans was just "the enemy," the ones who started this all-consuming war. Then in 1946, right after the war, we moved to London and I learned what was meant by blitzkrieg. Bricks and half-bricks were scattered everywhere, cranes were excavating craters where buildings had been. An army manual showed how an incendiary bomb pierces the floors of a home, then blows the place up. I drew picture after picture of planes dropping bombs, blowing homes and people to bits.

Back in America at age twelve,  I read the diary of Ann Frank and felt her terror of the Gestapo. It seemed incomprehensible that anyone would want to kill such a peaceful, brilliant child. Germans struck me as uniquely ruthless and sadistic people. And as I grew up, my fears were intensified by my affection and admiration for Jews, who were my best friends, teachers and mentors.

Still, it was clear that Germany did not equal Nazism. History showed it was the very center of western civilization, the seat of philosophy and the arts. How it turned monstrous was a conundrum without a clear answer. Some of my fellow students had no qualms about visiting Germany, but many, like me, were afraid.

Still, I was amazed to learn that some Jews actually went back after the war, to live in the nation that had tried to exterminate them. And recently I read about Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals  thriving in Germany, despite continued incidents of anti-Semitism.

If they could go, I should. So this summer, on vacation in the Netherlands, we planned a short side trip -- a weekend in Koln (Cologne) on the Rhine. The prospect filled me with violently mixed emotions. What would we see?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

In a Spin (Circumambulation #2)

-- By Tom Phillips

A few years back, just starting out on the Road to Dotage, I wrote about the benefits of walking around in circles -- the spiritual practice of circumambulation. That essay described walking around various holy sites in India, and later circumambulating an elephant sculpture in New Jersey. As one's dotage advances, the circles get smaller. And so it is that this year I have ended up in the most minimal of all circular paths -- turning on a dime, AKA whirling.

I had only whirled once before -- in the 1970s, at the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Poona, India -- where a friend and I were visiting out of curiosity.

My most ecstatic time was in the whirling class, where we learned the basic technique of the Sufi Dervishes. Contrary to all my previous learning and experience, I found if you keep one foot in the same place and your eyes on a level plane, it’s possible to spin around indefinitely. We beginners did it with one foot planted and the other pushing around in a circle, as if we were riding a scooter on a dime. We held one arm straight and looked out over the fingertips. I felt no dizziness at all. The world, trees, buildings, clouds and sky, just rolled around over and over again like the walls of a whirlpool. The picture was not blurred at all, just moved faster and faster, round and round.

This experience was so deep and inexplicable that I never tried it again after we left the ashram, and to this day don’t know if I could repeat it. It seemed like a magical window, opening on an area of truth that could not be set down in words...  (from "A Beginner's Life.")

Monday, August 21, 2017

An American Eclipse

Eclipse Watchers at Sea-Tac Airport
I ran with the eclipse across America today, and what a day it was.

It just so happened that August 21 was the day I had a ticket to fly west and visit our daughters and grandchildren in Seattle  -- right along the path of the total eclipse, or just north of it.  I woke up at 4 a.m. and caught a taxi from Manhattan to JFK -- with a young African cabbie.  
     -- You want some music?  he asked as we started out.
    Sure, I said, wondering what he had in mind.  On came Bob Marley.  The reggae beat begged to be turned up.   
   Turn it up, I said.
   -- Oh. you like it?

Ignoring the timed lights on First Avenue, he peeled out at every intersection and slammed on the brakes at the next.  Hitting the highways, we went at least 15 miles over the speed limit all the way.  But there was little traffic on a Monday, so I decided to relax.  Bob Marley had bigger things on his mind.  Move .. Move ...Move.. A Movement.. of the People!

 Alaska Airlines was 30 minutes delayed but our pilot assured us we'd get to Seattle on time. He was a retired Navy Captain, and this, he said, was his "afterlife" job.  Before takeoff he came back into the cabin to brief us on the E-clipse -- that's how he said it.  It would be following us, tailing us across the west and reaching its peak just as we landed.  Still, he warned us, don't look at the sun unless you have those special glasses.  A couple of passengers did have them, but I had neglected to find some.  This was gonna be frustrating.

 Still, I had a window seat on a clear day, and I got my first look ever along the northern border of the US -- narrated by the pilot, whose interest in geology and geography sparked a running account.  We crossed Lake Erie, meandered over Canada and then across the farmland of Wisconsin.  "The Cheesehead State!" cried our captain. 

How many people get enthusiastic when sighting Bismarck, North Dakota?  He did, and I did shortly after that as the flat Midwest farmland broke into a rutted surface, then into stark Black Hills with only patches of farmland, then into a lunar waste with no towns and barely a road.  Then suddenly out of the clouds ahead a whole landscape, blue heaped upon blue, of sheer uninhabitable gorges and peaks -- the Rocky Mountains. "We're goin' over the Continental Divide!" whooped the pilot.  And now the race was on.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

In the Shadow of the Bomb

-- By Tom Phillips

In my lifetime, Western Man's greatest fear has always been that he will be "hoist by his own petard," blown up with one of his home-made  bombs.  Baby boomers grew up in the shadow of the A-bomb, then the H-bomb.  Today, the fear of nuclear war has receded, but another spectre of the post-war era has returned -- babies themselves. 

With the earth warming and seas rising, the "Population Bomb" is upon us again, bigger and uglier than ever.     

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why God Created Woman: My Feminist Theology

-- by Tom Phillips

The Bible tells us that God created woman as a helper to man, because it was not good for man to be alone. But God's ways are not our ways, and God's reasons are hidden from us.

For Mother's Day, let me offer an alternative theory of Why God Created Woman.  Maybe he just saw the flaws in his original design, and wanted to improve it. 

Woman was a new form of humanity, not just a helper but a refinement of the original.  Botticelli painted it in his "Birth of Venus."  This was a new being -- more beautiful, subtle, gentle, peaceful, more like God herself. 

Plato described it in his Symposium.  The character of Aristophanes tells us the first humans were hermaphroditic, all in one, like primitive organisms that reproduce themselves.  ".. Each human was a rounded whole, with a double back and flanks forming a complete circle... These people could walk upright like us in either direction, backwards or forwards, but when they wanted to run quickly they used all their eight limbs, and turned rapidly over in a circle, like tumblers...  Their strength and vigor made them quite formidable, and their pride was overweening."  Aristophanes says their arrogance led them to attack the Gods, so Zeus decided to weaken them -- he took a sword and cut them in two, "just like fruits." 

The Bible also describes this separation as surgery, but adds general anesthesia.

"God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs, and closed up its place with flesh.  And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man."  (Genesis 2, 21-22.)

The operation was a success, but like most major surgery, it left the patient permanently wounded.  The division of humanity left an ache in the human psyche, a feeling of incompleteness, of longing for one's other half.  In the Symposium:  "Each of us is the mere broken tally of a man... it is clear that the soul of each has some longing which it cannot express, but can only surmise and obscurely hint at...  The reason is that this was our primitive condition when we were wholes, and love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole."

Saturday, April 22, 2017

End Game

The Seventh Seal
-- By Tom Phillips

The game is on, and I'm already losing.

The game is chess, in which I have little experience and no aptitude. My opponent is ranked number one in the world, having checkmated every player who ever lived, excepting possibly one.

I didn't make this up. I saw it in a movie, Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," from 1957.  A knight plays chess with the hooded figure of Death. He plays his best, he draws out the match, but Death makes a surprise move, takes his queen -- and soon, checkmate.  I saw it at 19 when it was new, and couldn't comprehend it.  I saw it again at 39, and it scared me, but I held out hope that I could avoid this defeat, by staying out of the game.

At the time I was a Buddhist, sitting on a cushion every day, achieving an equanimity that supposedly went beyond birth and death.  It's true, I'm sure, that the universe is One, and we simply pass from one form of existence to another -- eventually into a many-tiered heaven that rises to Nirvana, the end of suffering, extinction of desire.  I was pretty good at that game. 

Then, I had the misfortune of marrying a Presbyterian minister and losing a chess match with her, in which the loser was bound to adopt the religion of the winner. And I found myself in a new world, where this earthly life mattered, and you had one chance to make yours mean something.  Equanimity was neither the path not the goal -- life was a struggle to bear witness to the truth in a world that didn't want to hear it, to show mercy in a world that lived by conflict. Worst of all, other people mattered. Suffering was not to be contemplated, but fought on every front. Our job is to not to get out of here and into God's Kingdom, but to prepare the way for God's Kingdom on earth.

And where does death fit into that?  I have no ready answer. 

Recently, I made my first move -- a stupid move -- and only then realized the game was underway.  Visiting children and grandchildren on the West Coast, my wife and I went to see an apartment complex designed in part for the elderly and infirm.  No need to climb stairs, the agent assured us. It's a nice place, new and sterile, but comfortable and affordable. I found myself tempted by the prospect of an easy decline, with daughters and sons-in-law nearby to scrape me off the floor when the inevitable fall came. A comfortable death. But something in me screamed NO, that's not what I want.  I want the struggle to continue -- my pride intact, my faculties working, my words read, my music danced to.  

My second move was even worse, and a direct contradiction to the first. Unconsciously I set out to prove I was still young and strong, in no need of Senior Living.  I tried to make myself attractive to a much younger woman -- for no reason, just to see if I could do it.  She seemed to like my stories and jokes, so I set out to impress her further. At that point I immediately became self-conscious and lost my charm, becoming a clanging bell, a nattering nabob. The rest of the evening was painful. Still, at bedtime, I preened in front of the mirror, puffed out my chest and asked my wife, "Do I look young and strong?"

"Sure," was all she said. 

Two moves -- two pawns advanced on opposite sides of the board. That can't be right. Meanwhile Death has moved his ranks into some classic position, the first steps to an invasion that will inevitably destroy me.  I have no more strategy than Donald Trump, sitting in the West Wing in his underwear, watching TV for his next cue to act. 

Come to think of it, I don't really want to play chess!

I'd rather not identify with the hero of the movie --  the knight, a tortured, self-hating intellectual searching for God -- especially when there's another character more to my liking, the knight's squire. He's a cynic, a jester, a fighter, a singer, a ladies' man -- and facing death, his counsel is to savor the incomparable feeling of life, right up to the end.      

Oops! I knocked the pieces off the board.

See you later, Mr. Death.

-- Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips

Knight and Squire (Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Concluding Unscientific Blogpost (Poor Tom's Philosophy 3)

-- By Tom Phillips

(After fasting through the Winter Solstice, Poor Tom puts on his clothes and comes in from the cold.)

OK friends, I apologize.  As some of you realized, Poor Tom was just a naked disguise, and his impenetrable essays on Irony were no more than a post-election distraction for an old man -- an old man fearing for his grandchildren, trying to step back and love the world from an ironic distance, a literary perspective.

Still, it was a timely topic.

The primary definition of irony -- saying one thing and meaning another -- is Trumpspeak, the new lingua franca of our land.  A University means a scam.  I grabbed her by the private parts means I didn't do anything. "Make America Great Again" means make the rich richer.  "Lock her up" means drop the case.  A Wall means a fence, and then nothing.  NATO means NADA.

Everything he says means nothing -- he speaks in the moment only, and the meaning disappears like a post on Snapchat.   This is the ultimate in irony -- not the distance between one meaning and another, but the distance between meaning and non-meaning, being and nothingness.


(With little hope but firm resolve, Poor Tom puts on a scholar's robe, shakes his sleeves and begins to speak into the air)

Listen up, Mr. President-elect: