Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2021

New Year 2022: Today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday

Lady Shizuka

Yoshitsune was a famous warrior who lived in medieval Japan. Because of the situation of the country at that time, he was sent to the northern provinces, where he was killed. Before he left he bade farewell to his wife [Lady Shizuka], and soon after she wrote in a poem, “Just as you unreel the thread from a spool, I want the past to become present.” When she said this, actually she made past time present. In her mind the past became alive and was the present. So as Dogen said, “Time goes from present to past.” This is not true in our logical mind, but it is in the actual experience of making past time present. There we have poetry, and there we have human life.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Dogen, Shobo Genzo/Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Uji/The Time Being

Now it’s children: Is this the polio moment for covid?

The story of polio in America has been relevant since the covid pandemic began.

Polio is a highly communicable virus that can cause irreparable damage to the central nervous system. Most famously in American history, it was the disease that handicapped President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a handicap that was hidden from the public but that was an open secret among all who knew him.

Polio had been managed into the twentieth century. But by the 1950s America was suffering with a polio epidemic—an epidemic that predominately affected children, leaving them with lifelong weakness in their limbs, or in iron lungs to help them breathe.

Frantic projects to find a vaccine eventually yielded results. Two types were developed: the dead-virus vaccine Salk and the live-virus vaccine Sabin. Unfortunately, unlike the strict review and manufacturing process we have today, vaccine review then was not stringent enough to catch one harmful bad batch of the live-virus vaccine. Still, the vaccines were overwhelmingly safe and effective.

More than that, parents who had been scared every single day that their children would get polio were beyond relieved. They rushed for vaccinations, which then became a regular part of required public health. Today, polio has been eradicated. Still, the immediate and long-term suffering it caused can’t be erased.

Recent reports are that covid hospitalizations among children are increasing in frightening numbers (one New York children’s hospital reports a 500% increase in one week). So it is time to ask those who have chosen to forego behaviors to reduce the spread of covid: If not for yourself, or your neighbors, or strangers in your community, what about children—your children, their children? Seventy years ago, parents stood in long lines to wait for a vaccine shot. What are you waiting for?

PBS American Experience produced the episode The Polio Crusade.

The first part:

The complete episode.

Don’t Look Up: When we overlook poor entertainment quality for ideology we are in trouble

Don’t Look Up is now the #1 movie on Netflix. It is the work of Adam McKay, a good comedy writer and director, creator of such gems as Anchorman (2004), a gently absurd satire of 1970s TV news that is loaded with laughs.

Don’t Look Up is not loaded with laughs, according to about half of its reviewers. To be more precise, reviews fall into three categories:

1. Sorry, but this is an unsuccessful attempt to deal with big issues. It is supposed to be a satire, but the laughs are few. A wasted opportunity.

2. This is a worthy attempt, and the results are mixed but mostly on point. Thank you.

3. Brilliant. The Academy award buzz is deserved.

What are the big issues that the movie employs so many big stars to satirize? Rejection of science (climate change, covid), social media, useless news, stupid political leaders, visionary self-serving billionaires, citizen lemmings, all in the context of the world literally ending.

Every single one of those issues deserves astute attention and analysis. You can do it seriously and didactically, and there is plenty of that. Or you can take the route of satire, which writers and filmmakers have long done. If, for example, you haven’t ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, go ahead, finish the last few paragraphs here, and watch it.

Reviewers in all categories, even the most negative, sympathize with McKay’s anger about these targets. Good intentions, even in art, should be applauded. But when we allow good intentions to distort our view of outcomes, we are hampering our ability to achieve our goals. Whether it is artists or leaders, sympathy with ideology is not nearly enough.

Every single problem McKay takes on in the movie deserves deep attention. With all due appreciation for his talents, maybe someone else will come along with a better big picture satire (or maybe nobody can or should even try to take on all of these in one film). That said, it is near certain that he will be rewarded with many award nominations and probably some wins. But if viewers, critics and awards voters don’t quite understand the cliché that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, they should consider it.

Coyote Christmas (Faith)

For K

heard but unseen
arias in the dark
what do they mean
songs in the canyon
loneliness love longing
surely something there
in the night
unseen but heard

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

What Christmas means to you (and me)

There are infinite stories about someone who has lost the “meaning” of Christmas, then through a series of plot points, finds the “meaning” of Christmas, which is defined in the story. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the most famous, and there are many more (watch Hallmark Christmas movies for a sampling).

This glosses over the fact that there are multiple meanings of Christmas for different people. For the faithful, it is in the first place (but not only) the birth day of the foretold Messiah. It is also a time to emphasize peace, good will, emergence from the darkest of winter to a brighter season. It is a time for giving (and receiving), which has helped transform it into a holiday of commercial opportunity. These are just some of the meanings.

For those without faith in the conventionally detailed Christmas story (but who may still find Jesus a worthy teacher), there is still much positive meaning to be mined. The questions for anyone is what Christmas means to you, if anything, and what it might mean.

For me, those things mentioned above—peace, good will, more light—are perfect. I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are plenty of days that are soiled and spoiled by conflict, ill will and shade. Having at least one day a year, especially during such challenging years, is the least we can aspire to.

Have a joyful Christmas!

Joan Didion Dead at 87

Writer Joan Didion has died at the age of 87. There are going to be so many literary and laudatory obituaries that I am not going to try. The New York Times obituary is just one of dozens.

Joan Didion wrote non-fiction and fiction. I am partial to her essays, where she demonstrated that she was one of the greatest English language prose voices. I have read and reread her collections, the best of which is The White Album (1979) .

The White Album begins with a long multi-part essay entitled The White Album. The whole collection is her vision of the Sixties, as a writer, person, and L.A. resident, but the opening essay is the key. It starts with a perfect paragraph about storytelling, then describes her disjointed life, wanders through the Doors, Eldridge Cleaver, and more, visits the Manson murders, and closes with her view of writing itself.

The essay begins:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and ends:

I have known, since then, very little about the movements of the people who seemed to me emblematic of those years. I know of course that Eldridge Cleaver went to Algeria and came home an entrepreneur. I know that Jim Morrison died in Paris. I know that Linda Kasabian fled in search of the pastoral to New Hampshire, where I once visited her; she also visited me in New York, and we took our children on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. I also know that in 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to “continue my writing.” Writing had helped him, he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.

Please read what’s in between.

Ask Santa for American democracy this Christmas (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington + It’s A Wonderful Life)

Jefferson Smith: And this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light; they’re right here! You just have to see them again.

I walked in to find my nearest and dearest one watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The movie stars Jimmy Stewart, in one of his two most iconic film roles. The other is the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), also directed by Frank Capra.

For those who don’t know, Mr. Smith is about an idealistic small town everyman who ends up in the U.S. Senate, where he discovers that his lifelong hero has been corrupted by the political machine—a machine that will do anything to get its way, even hurt children and destroy democracy. The good news, in the movie at least, is that democracy lives and prevails.

Thinking about Mr. Smith and Wonderful Life together, an idea was hatched. This Christmas, why not add American democracy to your list for Santa? Where you stack it on the list is up to you. Maybe you don’t believe in Santa, maybe if you believe in Santa you think that for him, American democracy is just too big an ask. Go ahead anyway. We have nothing to lose more than we already have and might.

Bodhi Day (Rohatsu)

Bodhi Day, marking the Buddha’s enlightenment, is known as Rohatsu in Japan and is celebrated there on December 8. A week ago. My apologies for the delay to the Buddha, to Buddhists in Japan and elsewhere, and to anyone who might benefit from a gentle reminder to be awake.

IT IS SAID that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, “My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

“No,” said the Buddha.

“Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?” Again the Buddha answered, “No.”

“Are you a man?”


“Well, my friend, then what are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

Everything affects the pandemic

The sense, rather than just thought, that emerges from ultimate experience, the thing that all traditions are trying to get at and get us to, is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase “everything is everything.”

If that sounds like the “Oh wow!” revelation of someone in the throes of a psychedelic drug or spiritual experience, so be it. Its truth stands.

In Buddhism, the idea of interdependence is central. The image of the net of Indra is the model. Jewels or mirrors at each knot of the net are not just connected. They reflect each other, infinitely. Reason tells you that some things have nothing to do with each other at all. The net tells you that of course the smallest thing there is reflected here, no matter how seemingly remote.

The theory of the butterfly effect is well known. It is posited that tiny events may have big effects, as the flutter of wings may result in catastrophic weather.

This is one step beyond “may.” Our choices, thoughts, words or actions are reflected everywhere else, even if our rational analysis can’t detail any connection.

If you think this is hippie New Age nonsense, consider the mainstream religious traditions, if you happen to be an adherent. You are asked to watch or are being watched for every one of those choices, thoughts, words or actions. Not, as the more authoritarian leaders have it, because you will be punished, but because we are not smart enough to know exactly what their effect will be. Our best approach is to be aware and take care, knowing that every bit of it will be reflected.

Which is a way round to the covid pandemic. Once the virus was here, everything affected what happened next. Not just choices about socializing, masks, vaccines, etc. Everything that individuals chose to do, say, read, watch, listen to.

Some will, as noted, reject this as nonsense. Your social media and entertainment choices have nothing to do with covid, you believe. Nor do the things you choose to buy or the people you choose to be with. Anyway, if everything is everything, and everything really is reflected in the pandemic, so what? What can you do about it?

What can you do about it anyway?

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

The early (now fading) pandemic popularity of Albert Camus’ The Plague

In the early days of the pandemic—spring of 2020—Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague became a bestseller. Camus is highly regarded as novelist and essayist (he won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature), so it was natural that his fiction about bubonic plague in the French town of Oran would gain so much attention.

That popularity and attention has faded. In the novel, the plague lasts for one year. In America and the world, the plague is finishing its second year. If you read comments from 2020, people were anticipating the end and what lessons we might learn as covid was in our rear view mirror. In many quarters, sober reflection has given way to either resignation or delusion.

Camus deftly pictures the stages of plague mentality, as other analysts have outlined the stages of grief. He offers characters that adopt different roles, some based on their nature, some developed to meet the moment as best they can. The novel has long been deeply mined. Some find it a metaphor for the ways we deal with the onslaught of sudden mass disease and death. Others see a metaphor for how the French handled the then-just-ended plague of Nazi occupation, some collaborating, some shrugging it off as the way things are, some like Camus actively resisting.  

Now that the early days of our plague have evolved to these latter days, it is still worth reading The Plague. Because in describing the darkness, it is optimistic. Along with those who exploit the plague, or offer metaphysical solace, or give up and hope for the best, there are those who are compelled to help get the town through the worst days, however long those worst days last. To resist.

Here is a message from Camus in his Nobel acceptance speech:

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant. It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself.

Albert Camus