How to live

In mid life, Michel de Montaigne had a brush with death that cured him of obsessions with death.  It incidentally cured depression and self-doubt, and set him on a course writing the essays which we still read and learn from 450 years later.

Read a Guardian review of a biography by Sarah Bakewell

«Ce qui est hors des gonds de la coutume, on le croit hors des gonds de la raison.»

“Whatever is out of fashion we believe to be unhinged from reason.”

— Montaigne

1 December 2010

The Festival of Chutzpah

While it is common for countries and states to have their official birds and flowers, we Jews have our official attitude: chutzpah. Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning “extreme self-confidence.” Whether it is the chutzpah of Abraham arguing with God to spare Sodom, or the chutzpah of Job demanding that God appear before him to explain Himself, or the chutzpah of Jesus taking on the powers of Temple and Empire in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven, chutzpah is a powerful force shaping the mindset of the Jewish people and our religion. Chanukah is a celebration of chutzpah. 

Rami Shapiro   (read more)

The reason most Jews are unaffiliated and nonpracticing isn’t because
they have lost their faith, but because they have outgrown it. –RS

2 December 2010


Don’t forget to celebrate the world exactly as it is today.

3 December 2010

Take this crown upon thy head

The Master says to our master, Come up.  Share my rest and splendour till all natures that were your enemies become slaves to dance before you and backs for you to ride, and firmness for your feet to rest on.

From beyond all place and time, out of the very Place, authority will be given you: the strengths that once opposed your will shall be obedient fire in your blood and heavenly thunder in your voice.

“Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves: we desire the beginning of your reign as we desire dawn and dew, wetness at the birth of light.

Master, your master has appointed you forever: to be our King of Justice and our high Priest.

— from The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis

4 December 2010

In praise of amateur music

As a musical amateur, I feel free to throw caution to the winds, to play with abandon, not to be constrained by consistency or even the details on the page.  I believe in fidelity to the composer’s intent, but broadly interpreted as a conception, not necessarily in detail.

Within my own technical limits, I try to express an interpretation that is individual and idiosyncratic, knowing there is no public to please and no critics to placate.

I first learned this miniature from Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives when I was still in my teens, and my interpretation was furious and without subtlety.  I hope that my present rendition is just as explosive, but more effective for the sharp dynamic contrast and controlled variations in tempo.

The one-minute piece was inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917.  My association with the word fugitive has been the desperation of a refugee from brutal war; but just yesterday I came to understand that Prokofiev’s title means simply Fleeting Visions.

Listen to #19 from Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, performed by Josh Mitteldorf

5 December 2010


Like a prism of oil in a puddle under a car after a storm,
Love reminds us of the impossible passing beauty
Of this world, like the nights in autumn when a streetlight dapples
A city sidewalk through a tree. It’s the same reason my heart
Breaks when I notice how tiny my niece’s hands are, breaks
A little each time I hear her laugh. Her hands will grow,
And she will not stay laughing. Leaves fall in November,
Streetlights are dark by sunrise, oil slips down a drainpipe.

Not a single one of us can promise forever, but in these bodies
We bury our love inside each other; we try to keep it safe from death.
We forage within each other, blind and starving, never
Giving or getting as much as we search for, never understanding
That none of us will ever have enough love to hold onto this world.

But what if we could learn to love within our means here,
As garlic and onions simmer on a stove,
As bodies are warmed and fed with rice and beans?
What if we left forever for death to deal with, and knuckled down
To reaping this modest, evanescent harvest?
Could we be candles and firewood and salt pork for one another?
Could we become the prism and the streetlight and the child?
Could we teach each other to let our hearts break open,
To let in the garlic, the laughter, the oil, the music, the light,
Until eternity takes us and all these seasons change?

Rebecca T. Klein

6 December 2010

Whither happiness?


“One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and hold fast to the days, as to fortune or fame.”

Willa Cather, born this day in 1873


“That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
— W.C.


7 December 2010

Portrait of a woman
who knows a thing or two
about happiness

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

— AE

8 December 2010

Gail Weinstein, 1955 - 2010

She listened.
She made herself available for all of us who were drawn to her.
She brought people together.
And—the alchemy that I never understood—
as her body failed her, she wanted only to give more of herself.

Say “death” and the whole room freezes–
even the couches stop moving,
even the lamps.
Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.

Say the word continuously,
and things begin to go forward.
Your life takes on
the jerky texture of an old film strip.

Continue saying it, hold it moment after moment inside the mouth,
it becomes another syllable.
A shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.

Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.
neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,
each swallows and swallows the world.

The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.

(but the vanished, the vanished beloved, o where?)

— Jane Hirshfield

9 December 2010

Freer – messier – happier

Child-rearing should be shared.  It was never meant to be a full-time job.  Part-time, it’s a joy.

Roles are blurring, families are more chaotic, and that’s a good thing. A confluence of economic necessities and an opening of social values has led people to experiment with non-traditional models of child-rearing.  When it works best, it serves both the children and the adults.

Wendy Call writes about co-parenting a neighbor’s baby.
Michelle Chen interprets a Pew study of changing family choices.
Jeremy Adam Smith writes about acceptance for gay families.

10 December 2010

“It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between social classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts. And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, bless you, prison, for having been a part of my life.”

Alexender Solzhenitsyn, born this day in 1918
(quoted here)

“Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.” 

11 December 2010

And philosophers ask is it possible knowingly to believe a lie

I might knock off writing now
And join friends in pursuit of holiday cheer,
But I choose to stay the course I find more comfortable.
A wave of satisfaction is my unearned reward,
Followed by – dare I call it joy?

Hope is a benignant thief.
We offer her our now,
But she dissects the plunder, carrying off
Our expectation of joy in this moment,
Leaving us the joy itself,
Which now may take us by ambush.

Chits we earn by today’s effort
Are stowed for an ever-receding future.
To redeem them would be to know the hollow of their promise,
the disappointment of joy.

On our deathbeds, the habit of hope will be with us still
As with fond expectation, we anticipate timelessness.

— Josh Mitteldorf

12 December 2010

Communal living

We’ve built and maintained do-it-yourself communities because we believe there’s much more to a neighborhood than redundant rows of houses and hallways without any other humans in sight.  As a self-selecting band of social and environmental activists, we decided that if the market wouldn’t supply ‘neighborhoods on purpose,’ we’d do it ourselves.

— David Wann, from Reinventing Community

13 December 2010

Incremental anti-aging progress

Extremely low doses of the drug lenalidomide can stimulate the body’s immune-cell protein factories, which decrease production during aging, and rebalance the levels of several keyimmune proteins that either attack viruses and bacteria or cause inflammation that leads to an overall decline in health.
UCSF press release

Our immune systems become less effective as we age, both because they attack intruders less actively and also because they become less able to distinguish ‘self’ from ‘other’, leading to auto-immune symptoms like arthritis.  Lenalidomide in tiny doses has substantial benefit for both these. 

Lenalidomide is derived from the infamous Thalidomide that caused birth defects in the 1950s.

14 December 2010

‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert
that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

G. K. Chesterton

The whole order of things is as outrageous as any miracle which could presume to violate it.

15 December 2010

Happy birthday, Ludwig

Everyone’s favorite irascible is 240 years old today.

Beethoven’s late music was more directly appealing, un-selfconscious and not showmanlike

Listen to three of his Bagatelles Op 119, “throw-away” pieces, short and direct and delightful.  Another personal favorite of mine is this long movement from his String Quartet Op 131, which I find to be alternately poignant and hilarious.

16 December 2010

What to do after you die, first thing...

μναμοσυνας τοδε εριον επει αμ μελλεισι θανεσθαι

εις αιδαο δομος ευερεας εστ επι δ(ε)ξια κρενα τν̣ξ
παρ δ αυταν εστακυα λευκα κυπαρισσος
ενθα κατερχομεναι ψυκαι νεκυον ψυχονται αϙ ̣
ταυτας ταρ κρανας μεδε σχεδον ενγυθεν ελθεις
προσθεν δε hευρεσεις τας μναμοσυνας απο λιμνας
ψυχρον υδορ προρεον φυλακες δε επυπερθεν εασι
τ̣οι δε σε ειρεσονται εν φρασι πευκαλιμαισι
οτι δε εξερ̣εεις αιδος σκοτος ορ̣οεεντος
ειπον γες παι εμι και ορανο αστεροεντος
διψαι δ εμ αυος και απολλυμαι αλα δοτ ο̣κ[α]
ψυχρον υδορ πvacιενα̣ι τες μνεμοσυνες απο λιμν̣ες
και δε τοι ερ̣εοσιν ιυποχθονιοι βασιλει
και δε τοι δοσοσι πιεν τας μναμοσυνας απο λιμνας
και δε τοι συ π̣ιον hοδον ερχεα hαν τε και αλλοι
μυσται και βαχχοι hιεραν στειχοσι κλεινο̣ ι̣

This is sacred to Memory: when you are about to die, you will find yourself at the House of Hades; on the right there is a spring, by which stands a white cypress. Descending there, the souls of the dead seek refreshment. Do not even approach this spring; beyond you will find from the Pool of Memory cool water flowing; there are guards before it, who will ask you with cool penetration, what you seek from the shades of murky Hades. Say: “I am a son of earth and star-filled Heaven, I am dry with thirst and dying; but give me swiftly cool water flowing from the Pool of Memory.” And they will take pity on you by the will of the Queen of the Underworld, and they will give you water to drink from the Pool of Memory; and moreover, you will go on the great Sacred Way along with the other famed initiates and baccants make their way.

– Text on a Gold Foil found in Hipponion (ca. 400 BCE)

NB: Do not, repeat DO NOT drink from the spring on the right, or you will be stuck in Hades for a long time, or eternity, whichever comes first.

The life you save may be your own.

17 December 2010

Splendid torch

This is the one true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman)

18 December 2010

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

This is the paradox at the core of so many guru stories and zen koans: The disciple practices dutifully for ten or twenty or a thousand years. Then, in an instant, he is transported to nirvana by a miracle utterly unconnected to his practice…yet somehow it would not have been granted without that practice. “To arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

If my aim is to be blissfully at peace with the world just as it is, is there anything I can do to further this end?  I might imagine culturing a mental state of pure satisfaction and gratitude, trying to prolong the condition until it becomes a mental habit.  But the very idea of practicing and perfecting any art implies effort to improve on the state in which I find myself at present.  Why would I do that if the present were already perfect?  So even as I practice being satisfied with the present, I am habituating to work in the present for the sake of future satisfaction.

At the end of the day, nothing I do can prepare me or help me to stop striving.  I will just stop striving.

— Josh Mitteldorf

19 December 2010

We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work. We choose who we will be the next moment, in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.

Michael Merzenich

20 December 2010

Frank Zappa

He was wild by design, a studied, self-conscious maniac.  If his business was to shock, he worked at it much harder than you’d expect.  Being outlandish didn’t come so naturally.

As a libertarian opposed to censorship of all sorts, he went on the air and testified in the US Senate.

In his last years, he composed for classical ensembles, with complex textures and constant surprises.  Listen to the Dog Breath Variations for orchestra with banjo, lute piano, and enhanced percussion.  Watch this acrobatic choreography of G-Spot Tornado.

Frank Zappa would have been 70 years old today.

21 December 2010


I cannot find my way: there is no star
In all the shrouded heavens anywhere;
And there is not a whisper in the air
Of any living voice but one so far
That I can hear it only as a bar
Of lost, imperial music, played when fair
And angel fingers wove, and unaware,
Dead leaves to garlands where no roses are.

No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night;
For through it all--above, beyond it all—
I know the far sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the light.

— Edwin Arlington Robinson, born this day in 1869

22 December 2010

Helping a stranger

...long rambling story about how the kindness of strangers, particularly folks from south of the border, forced me to be more helpful on the road and in life in general. I am sure it won’t be as meaningful to anyone else but it was seriously the highlight of my 2010...

This past year I have had 3 instances of car trouble. A blow out on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out of gas situation....

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound affect on me.

He was the guy that stopped to help me with a blow out with his whole family of 6 in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to 4 hours. Big jeep, blown rear tire, had a spare but no jack. I had signs in the windows of the car, big signs that said NEED A JACK and offered money.... No dice. Right as I am about to give up and just hitch out there a van pulls over and dude bounds out. He sizes the situation up and calls for his youngest daughter who speaks English.....

[It turns out to be a bigger job...things go wrong...]

We are both filthy and sweaty. The wife produces a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand but he wouldn’t take it...

So, to clarify, a family that is undoubtedly poorer than you, me, and just about everyone else on that stretch of road, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took an hour or two out of their day to help some strange dude on the side of the road when people in tow trucks were just passing me by. Wow...

Dude just smiles, shakes his head and, with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English:

‘Today you.... tomorrow me.’

— blogger who identifies himself as Rhoner. 
Read the rest...

23 December 2010

Healing the broken hearts within us

Even the man who is happy
     glimpses something
     or a hair of sound touches him

     and his heart overflows with a longing
          he does not recognize

then it must be that he is remembering
     in a place out of reach
     shapes he has loved

     in a life before this

     the print of them still there in him waiting

Kalidasa (c350 – 430 AD)
     trans. from the Sanskrit by W. S. Merwin & J. Moussaieff Masson

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger :

I just love these lines. It reminds me of revelation I had around age 20 that really helped me through a lost, lonely period. It was a time when I felt this excruciating inner ache, a hole in myself, an empty space, with no idea how to fill it. Other people that age were busy with life: schoolwork, friends, dating, imagining their futures. But at that age I was struggling with a terrible void.

But then I started really watching people. I wanted to watch all the ‘normal‘’ people to figure out how I could be more like them. Then suddenly it struck me: No matter how ‘happy’ one may be, everyone -- without exception -- has that same gaping hole in their life. Most people pour all of their energies into either filling it endlessly, and with the wrong things, or they cover it up, ignore it, avoid it through endless activity. That sort of happiness is brittle, all too fragile. Suddenly we glimpse something or ‘a hair of sound touches’ us, and that empty space becomes unavoidable. The hunger, the longing overflows.

I saw that the whole world is defined by that longing. And I also began to understand that I wasn’t really different from everyone else. It’s just that perhaps I found it more difficult to avoid staring at that uncomfortable question mark that sits at the center of everyone’s life. 

That insight not only reassured me that I was fundamentally okay, it also gave me permission to feel compassion for people I used to quietly envy. Everyone, all of us, high and low, rich and middle class and poor, famous and infamous and obscure — we’re all struggling with that haunting hunger.

But why? What is that hunger? Why is there a hole in the center of the world?  To really know the answer, we have to stop looking away. We have to stop distracting ourselves. And we have to stop trying to fill it with petty things — money, sex, fame.

Turn and sit and just quietly look at that empty space. Get to know it. Learn its feel.

Here’s what I’ve discovered in my own exploration: That hole is exactly God-shaped.

But there’s an important corollary to that statement: God is not shaped like the cutout doll handed to us when we were children. The word ‘God’ itself is too limiting, and is heavily layered with cultural assumptions. That’s why I often use words like the Divine, the Eternal, the Real.

The most important thing about that God-shaped hole: When we finally, truly, really see it, an amazing river of bliss pours through that hole and washes over us...

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

24 December 2010

Peace, not lack of war

Now I say that the peace the spirit needs
Is peace, not lack of war,
But fierce continual flame.
For all men: effort is freedom,
Effort is peace, it fights.
And along these truths the soul goes home,
Flies in its blazing 
To a place more safe and round
Than Paradise.

— Muriel Ruckheiser

25 December 2010

‘I contain multitudes’*

To Humanity, to all of Life, to the Cosmos that gave us birth we have a sacred obligation to partake from the fullness of our beings, even to hone the best in us so as to enhance our unique contribution to a grand evolution, of which we glimpse barely a speck.

No merit derives from our efforts, no honor is earned when we eschew the easy path and pursue our notion of the Good with ardor of purpose. Neither is there shame in the failure of our will or blame for the inadequacy of our talents or discipline.

There is only grace.

— Josh Mitteldorf


26 December 2010

Lithography by
Joel Nakamura

Ecstatic mysticism

Let the ascetics sing of the garden of Paradise —
We who dwell in the true ecstasy can forget their vase-tamed bouquet.

In our hall of mirrors, the map of the one Face appears
As the sun’s splendor would spangle a world made of dew.

Hidden in this image is also its end,
As peasants’ lives harbor revolt and unthreshed corn sparks with fire.

Hidden in my silence are a thousand abandoned longings:
My words the darkened oil lamp on a stranger’s unspeaking grave.

Ghalib, the road of change is before you always:
The only line stitching this world’s scattered parts.

Mirza Ghalib, born this day in 1797
     (tr Jane Hirshfield)

It is not the sins I have committed that I regret, but those which I have had no opportunity to commit.

27 December 2010

You and the experience become indivisible

Perception can be categorized into three levels: experience, emptiness, and luminosity. At the level of experience, perception is not meaningful self-confirmation, but the experience of things as they are. White is white, and black is black. There is a kind of exuberant energy that goes along with the perception. You actually experience something as though you were it. You and the experience become almost indivisible when you experience something in that way. It’s that kind of direct communication without anything in between.

The perception of emptiness is the absence of things as they are. That is, things have their space; they always come with a certain sense of room. Despite the complexities of the overcrowdedness of our experience, things provide their own space within the overcrowdedness. Actually, that is saying the same thing: overcrowdedness is room, in some sense, because there is movement, dance, play.

The third level of perception is luminosity. This has nothing to do with any visually bright light, but it is a sense of sharp boundary and clarity that does not have a theoretical or intellectualized reference point. It is realized on the spot, within the spaciousness of experience. If there were no space, experience would be unfocused; there would be no sharpness. In terms of our ordinary experience, luminosity is that we have a sense of clarity and a sense of things as they are, seen as they are, unmistakably.

Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche

28 December 2010

Children make good scientists

Twenty-five primary school students in the U.K, 8-10 years old, are the authors of a new study on how bees perceive color and patterns. In fact, the children devised the research, conducted the experiments, analyzed the data and wrote up the results. Led by neuroscientist Beau Lotto, of University College London, the students found that bees can use both color and location to remember where nectar-producing flowers are. “It’s an original discovery, quite apart from who did it,” Lotto says.

Scientific American article

29 December 2010

20th Century Renaissance Man

Paul Bowles found his own path, and managed to be published and successful in multiple fields:  He wrote poems, plays, long and short fiction; he wrote and directed films, and composed music.  Born in Queens, he lived most of his life in North Africa and embraced the world-view of the French Existentialists.

So she said banteringly: “What’s the unit of exchange in this different world of yours?”
He did not hesitate. “The tear.”

— from the novel Sheltering Sky (1949), by Paul Bowles, born 100 years ago

Listen to Music for a Farce, by Paul Bowles  (part 2 here)

I think we all really thrive on hostility, because it’s the
most intense kind of massage the ego can undergo.

30 December 2010

At the End of the Year

The particular mind of the ocean
Filling the coastline’s longing
With such brief harvest
Of elegant, vanishing waves
Is like the mind of time
Opening us shapes of days.

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.

The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.

The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

~ John O’Donohue

31 December 2010


Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design