Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Memorial Day

Excerpt from “Til Death Do Us Part?”

On Memorial Day, 1983

It was a sunny and brisk day as Dolores and I walked up the steep stony driveway to the WTI headquarters. We were going to the annual Memorial Day gathering, which would be held outdoors.

When we reached the top, we could see that several others had already arrived. A table with various books for sale had been set up near the entrance, and I began scanning some of the unfamiliar titles.

Prudence approached us, and she handed each of us a hot cup of elixir.
“Thanks,” I said, taking a long sip. “That sure hits the spot.”

Dolores and I said hello to the dozen other guests who were sitting on chairs, or reading from a pink paper. Timothy approached Dolores and I and handed each of us a copy of something printed on pink paper.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, smiling broadly with his charismatic smile. “Once those instructions are clear, you should go to a private spot with your notebook. We’ll all meet back here in 30 minutes.”

“OK,” I said. We both studied the paper as Timothy stood there.

I quickly read the instructions. We were to select three living “loved-ones” and write their names in our notebook. We were then to go sit under a bush, or sit in some private spot somewhere on the hilltop. Next, we were to mentally imagine that we get a phone call, and someone tells us that one of the people on our list have died. Each of us was to feel and experience the grief as if that person really died, and attempt to make it real. With the full feeling of grief, we were to write down all those things that we wished we’d told that person before they died. We were to do this exercise with all three of the people on our list.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Timothy. “It doesn’t say this on your paper, but it would be good if at least one person on your list of three is someone who is here today.”

“OK,” I responded. I knew that my father would be on my list, and so would Dolores.

I walked up the rough steps which led to the upper portion of the property, and I sat myself under an old citrus tree. It was one of my favorite spots on the property because I always felt very “invisible” there, yet I had a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood.

I began my list. I wrote down Dolores, Prudence, and my father. I then closed my eyes, and imagined that I just received a call from my brother telling me that my father had died. I let it hit me that he was gone, dead, out of my life. I began to cry involuntarily. My mind automatically thought back to the earliest childhood memories of my father cutting the lawn, and taking me with him in the station wagon to the supermarket. I remembered the things I did wrong, and was punished for, and my mind went through a non-chronological review of various events.

I cried at other memories. I realized my father was by no means perfect, and yet I could see he tried to do what was right, despite his many weaknesses or deficiencies. I found myself missing him terribly, in spite of the fact that he was still alive and I had not called him for over a month.

I began to do the same with Dolores and Prudence. Dolores and I hadn’t yet married, though we were both very interested in one another and enjoyed each other’s friendship and company. Still, we had already experienced several “rough spots” together. I looked at my watch and saw that I had already been there over 30 minutes, so I quickly finished writing my notes and then headed back down to the gathering.

Most everyone was already back down at the gathering site, and were serving themselves from the delicious dishes that everyone provided. I began to serve myself a smaller than usual dish. I still felt very “shaken up” by my brief but intensive experience of “hearing that my father had died.”

Timothy shared a few prepared readings about Memorial Day and the nature of death. Then we got to the part where Timothy asked each person to briefly share their experiences with their list of three people.

Once each person briefly shared their varied experiences, Timothy then got back in front and, with his charismatic smile, announced that everyone now would have a rare opportunity.

“You’ve all just done what most people do when they learn that someone they love has died. However, all these people are still here. Now you need to tell them today those things that you’d regret not telling them if they died. We have two phones here, so whomever wants to use them may do so now.” [Note: this was before the days of universal cell phones.]

A few people got up and went inside to call someone.

“Or, you can write a short note or letter right now,” Timothy declared. “If you don’t have any stationery, we have lots of paper and envelopes that you can use.”

“Now, if the person is here now,” Timothy continued, “I want the two of you to go to a private place and you can tell that person whatever it is that you want them to hear. Don’t be embarrassed. We’ll all meet back here together in about 30 minutes and share that experience.”

I was a bit hesitant to do this next step. It would be risky. It’s always risky to be completely honest and open. It could be embarrassing. Nevertheless, I first went with Prudence to a private spot. It turns out that she also chose me, so we were able to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.

Next I looked for Dolores, who was just getting done with another person. We walked up the hill and sat under the towering eucalyptus tree. It was not easy, but we talked, and then we hugged, and went back to join the others.

After a few minutes, Prudence read a few passages from a book about death. I took a few notes as I listened, and also looked around at the expressions of those gathered there that day. I felt very much “startled awake,” and I could tell that most everyone had had some sort of eye-opening epiphany about life and death and how quickly it all passes.

I was experiencing an inner turmoil, a bit apprehensive about my plan to talk to my father later in the day. I was also very reflective about all the choices I make day in and out, and how everyone else affects me, and how I affect everyone else. Especially Dolores. How to do it all “just right,” all the time, I wondered? How can I live my life without regrets? I wondered, was everyone else feeling such inner turmoil, and inner challenge?
[more to follow]

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Night at the L.A. Adventurers' Club

In May, I gave a talk at the Los Angeles Adventurers Club, which was billed as a presentation on primitive weapons and urban survival, which is sort of what I talked about. After hearing about some of the truly hard-core mountain climbs and boating trips with accompanying deaths, I felt that my little presentation was a bit tame.

I began by briefly sharing my recent series of adventures with Helen, which we call “In Search of the Nipton Troll.” (More on that later). I also shared some discoveries about the Maya during visits to Mexico and Guatemala. (Nope, there are no “prophecies” about “the end of the world” in 2012).

Then I explained my recent appearance on the National Geographic’s television show called “Doomsday Preppers.” I said I was preparing for an earthquake, and I demonstrated how to make fire with a hand drill, how to forage in L.A., and I showed the contents of my “survival pack.”

I then discussed how such concerns about the world ending tend to distract us from dealing with the very real here and now concerns.

I shared the nine ways in which two recent authors suggested that the world might end with mass deaths or extinction of the human race. However, most of those scenarios cannot be prepared for. If a comet hit the earth with L.A. at the point of impact, there would be no survivors and your survival kit would be irrelevant.

So my perspective is that we have many very real concerns which we can and should deal with, without being distracted by 2012 fears or aliens invading from Mars.

In general, these concerns can be divided into those that are man-made, and those that are natural. The man-made are such things as war, nuclear accidents, terrorism, economic disasters, massive pollution of the water due to fracking, etc. The natural disasters, which are usually exacerbated by man, are such things as famine, flooding, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, an ice age, etc.

I’m a big fan of deriving lessons from literature and movies, so I recommended books such as “Hole in the Sky,” “Earth Abides,” and “Lucifer’s Hammer.” Each depicts some sort of disaster or survival situation, and how the people dealt with it.

I also suggested movies such as “Book of Eli,” “Hunger Games,” even “Mad Max” which provide some clues as to what a post-cataclysmic world might look like.

So how does one prepare for such possibilities? I suggested that primitive survival skills will never go out of style. These are skills such as wilderness first aid, making tools from stones, making fire from sticks, making fibre from plants and then making things from that fibre, and many more.

But I strongly encouraged the audience to not get into a typical “survivalist” trap, where you are wholly focused on physical skills and acquiring objects like knives and guns and food.

I read from my “How to Survive Anywhere” book, and my “Extreme Simplicity” book, where I suggested that we should all spend equal time on developing not just our physical skills, but also our health, our economic integrity, our moral and spiritual health, and our sense of being a positive contributing factor in our society. The negative stereotype of a “survivalist” is the guy who is a loner and who thinks he can do it all alone, and to hell with everyone else.

By contrast, to consider how to think about the long-term sustainability of our culture and our species, we should examine at least some of the methods used by the so-called primitive cultures for millennia. Among the many lessons we can learn from studying the more advanced “primitive” cultures are cooperation, realizing that your neighbor’s survival is your survival, learning to do more with less, learning how to work with the land and ecology, and not against it, etc.

Of course, this is the tip of a very big iceberg – the full scope and depth of what is meant by “survival.”  I  welcome your comments and questions.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

When Vegetarians Eat Chicken

A Lesson in Not Being Too Rigid

Several years ago, after a Sunday morning Spiritual Studies gathering, many of the participants gathered to plant a tree as a remuneration to the facilitator. Most of us were helping the two main individuals who had planned the tree-planting. As we gathered to plant the tree, the two planners began to argue. One had already taken the time to dig a hole of the appropriate depth, and watered it, and gotten the tree ready to place into the hole. The other individual, however, argued that it wasn’t exactly the right spot, and insisted that a new hole be dug about three feet away. Most of us observers didn’t say much, but we thought that a mere three feet wouldn’t make much difference.

The person who had dug the hole was rather upset at this turn of events, for she felt that all her work was now for naught. As it turned out, the man who wanted to move the hole got his way. He argued that he had a degree in landscaping (or some related field), and that therefore his argument had greater weight.

To all us observers, it was a sad sight -- something the two of them should have worked out ahead of time rather than force us all to witness their dispute (not to mention the time waste).

After it was over, Dr. Elan Neev told me a little story. (Dr. Elan Neev, who was one of the tree-planting participants, is the author of Wholistic Healing, and the founder of the Self Improvement Institute in Los Angeles.)

He said that people in Israeli villages adopt Army units, and would take care of the soldiers and feed them. In one case, a group of ladies had spent the day preparing a special meal for an Army unit, unaware that they were orthodox Jews and strict vegetarians. The meal that the ladies had prepared included chicken.

The troops came and when they saw that the meal included chicken, they quickly and quietly spoke to their rabbi.

The rabbi told them that the value of honoring their hostesses was more important than their principle of being vegetarians. He said they needed to compare these two competing values. The rabbi said that the value of not hurting another -- in this case, the ladies who worked all day to provide a special meal -- was much more important than their dietary choice. He encouraged the soldiers to eat the meal and to say nothing of the chicken, which is what they did.

When Dr. Neev was finished telling me this story, I paused, and said, “So they should have just planted the tree in the first hole, right?”

“Of course. The fact that the landscaper was ‘right’ about the location was less important than the way he hurt the woman’s feelings who had gone to all the work to plan the hole and to dig it. Of course they should have just planted the tree in that first hole. Now she will always have a bad feeling about that tree. It doesn’t matter that the landscaper was ‘right’ since the end result is a minus, not a plus.” [NOTE: The apple tree that we all planted in the “right” hole died a year later.]

This story reminds us of people with strict self-imposed dietary guidelines who go out to eat at restaurants or other people’s homes and who are endlessly picky about everything that may be in the food. “Oh, we can’t have sugar,” they say. “Oh, we can’t eat anything with pasteurized daily products in it,” “What type of oil did you use in this dressing,” etc., ad nauseam. The result is that the hosts feel disgusted, insulted, and everyone ends up with indigestion, regardless how “correct” the food happens to be.

You must wonder why such people don’t make such dietary arrangements ahead of time. Folks with strict dietary demands who then impose their systems and nuances upon everyone else don’t realize that they spoil the atmosphere so much that it counteracts any of the positive effects of the “good food.”

Dr. Neev then told me another story. Some years ago, he participated in a religious retreat in the Palm Springs area. The people leading the event were all strict vegetarians. On the last day of the retreat, the teacher served Hindu-style chicken. This shocked everyone, including his own students. The teacher encouraged everyone to enjoy the meal. He said, “One of my teachings is: No matter what you teach, you don’t want to be too attached to it.”

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Hunger Games

The “Hunger Games” books are top sellers, and the movie is a hit. More and more teens coming to my classes have been telling me to see the movie. “But read the book first,” one girl told me. Well, I haven’t read the book yet, but I did go to see the movie anyway.

By now, we’ve all heard the story. A futuristic North America is divided into 12 districts. The ruling district is extravagantly rich, while the other districts are impoverished, barely surviving. In order to maintain control after an attempted rebellion, the ruling district takes two teens from each district annually, quickly trains them, and then releases them into a controlled wilderness arena. There they fight to the death until only one winner emerges. They call these the Hunger Games, and the movie depicts the 74th annual event.

It’s a disturbing futuristic glimpse of a world where everyone watches the kills and the strategies for survival. The president states that the use of fear helps to control people, and the games are taken very seriously. The president adds that the only emotion greater than fear is hope, and the people from each district hope that their candidate will emerge a victor.

But the death of each youth is not without its consequences in the territories. Even the way in which the game can be played, and won, is not without the higher manipulation of the winner.

Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, a mentor for the star Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Abernathy, a past winner of the games, seems broken by the games and his society, but he knows the rules and he coaches Katniss well.

Katniss, who grew up hunting and foraging in order to survive, is well suited to emerge victorious. And she has a soul, a fact that throws a few screws into the machinery of the game-makers.

Some friends told me that the movie was both boring and pedestrian, tired old concepts that we’ve seen before. Maybe, and maybe not. I didn’t evaluate the film based on how the camera was held, or even originality of plot. We’ve heard there are only a dozen or so basic plots, but it’s the way you spin it that makes it good and noteworthy.

I asked myself, how can seeing this movie improve my character? What are the elements of true survival and even spirituality that I should embrace in order to be a better person? I wondered as I watched, what are the higher traits that I should always embrace regardless of my gender, race, or era in which I’m born?

There are a lot of historical analogies you might read-into the Hunger Games, such as the decadent Romans who delighted in feeding Christians to the lions. Or, closer to home, the manner in which we hoop and cheer at the brutality of football and soccer games. Or, after the Lakers win a playoff, how the local teens go out onto the streets of Los Angeles, “having fun” and “celebrating” by smashing windows and burning police cars!

The Hunger Games has violence and blood, though not as much as you’d expect. Still, leave the very young children at home since this is a dark and disturbing movie.

I’d recommend the Hunger Games. It is full of useful lessons, but you have to work to find them.