Sunday, February 15, 2015
In late October 1970 my father died, age 83, in the Comanche County Hospital near Lawton, Oklahoma. Carol and I were in Kyoto, Japan, where I was codirecting a six-month program for students from the University of Washington. Our sons Burke (age 9) and Reg (age 3) were with us. I had said goodbye to my father earlier in the year, before leaving the States. When the news arrived of his death, Carol stayed in in Kyoto with Reg, and Burke and I flew to Lawton for the funeral. Today I received the typed eulogy I gave standing next to the casket, from a friend of my parents. I had lost track of what I said, so reading what I wrote brought tears to my eyes. I loved him very much.
(In Memory of Robert Oscar Webb, by Glenn Taylor Webb)
He talked a lot – too much, I thought, until I understood a basic fact that he had driven home for me: words are magic costumes of seemingly endless colors and designs, for ideas. Like real costumes they reflect the reality behind the disguise; but more so, since the reality of an idea is indiscernible apart from its disguise of words.
Ideas. He loved them and collected them even after the age when most people close the mind-door and say, “No more ideas for me, these are enough!” He knew that one human being could never get enough of the ideas human beings have had. (“Son, I figured out that it would have taken me 969 years just to take all the courses offered in my field at the University of Oklahoma back in 1928!”)
Of course, he didn’t approve of every idea, in terms of its truth and usefulness, but I don’t think he ever discarded any idea as insignificant, either. Even the most repulsive idea was important to him as an idea, the most immediate indicator of the human condition. For a man who believed earnestly in the truth of the ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and who belonged to a group of dear people (the Church of Christ) who also believe in that truth but tend to fear other ideas (or even the same ideas in unfamiliar word disguises), my father’s respect for ideas seems especially remarkable. It made him appear strangely tolerant and understanding among his friends.
That’s not to say he looked around with a patronizing smile and didn’t criticize. He had a sharp tongue, and it stung. But anyone who felt that sting and still thinks of him as a tyrant has missed the point. He was smiling, and his love for you was not in danger of being withheld just because he didn’t like what you did or said. (To the words “tolerant” and “understanding” the word “compassionate” can be added to the disguise of this idea.)
I am pretty sure that nothing irritated him more than a display of ego. He himself was virtually without one. He was not particularly introspective and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he thought of himself as little as possible. Again, it was ideas that interested him. I think he found it awkward to put bodies on ideas. (“Thou shalt not kill,” as part of a beautiful idea, was one thing; it was quite another to apply it to the circumstances of living in a military town where the most devout Christians – and the few Jews, in whose heritage the idea originated – were finding justifications for killing.) His solution was simple: keep the ideas and circumstances separate – even the ideas of patriotism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, etc., that lay behind the circumstances that justified killing. In a word, my father was polite.
It amazes me that he could hold such strong beliefs (i.e., be deeply attracted to certain ideas over others) and not force those beliefs on others (which most people do by denying their love to a dissenter, saying, in effect, “You do not exist because you have strange ideas.”) His path was argument-without-the-slightest-loss-of-honor-to-my-opponent. Since for him ideas were longer-lived and thus above the men who happened to play with them, I doubt if he ever thought of himself as having honor, much less of losing any.
Equally amazing was my father’s ability to maintain a relationship with a friend who professed the same beliefs he did but behaved, as it were, contrarily. The idea, for example, of “Seek ye not the things of this world …,” of being actively un-attracted to material wealth, was a real favorite of his and of most of his friends. He honestly didn’t put “undue” store in things. But friends who did can never say he criticized them for it; if anything, when they expressed feelings of guilt for their love of money he tried to give them encouragement, to find a way for them to be comfortable in both their belief and their desire. His beloved repertory of ideas made him a magician of reconciliatory powers.
Such powers no doubt enabled him to have confidence in people in spite of everything. R. O. Webb seemed to be as sure of any person as he was of himself. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Rock he built his life on was the Christ, to be sure. It is therefore no wonder that the human condition – seen through ideas as words – was his passion. But as an epitaph my father probably would prefer an un-dramatic “you can’t get along in this world without friends,” or better yet, “I meant no harm.”
P.S. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but in the LA Times today, Feb. 15, 2015, my sign (Sagittarius) reads as follows: “Your father. That’s where the day focuses. The things your dad did to influence you will be apparent, for better and for worse.” What are the odds of this prediction coming on the very day when I decided to share and post this remembrance on Facebook and my blog? - GTW
Friday, December 12, 2014
Am I thinking I may be the wooden puppet hanging here? Or is the wooden puppet hanging here thinking he may be me?
Thoughts on transformation inspired by the Italian satirist, Carlo Collodi, who lived about 165 years ago, and the Chinese philosopher, 荘子, who lived about 4,650 years ago:
Ever since my little Pinocchio puppet began to speak to me I have been drawn deeper and deeper into these thoughts. He only began to speak last week, although I bought him from a lady in San Gimignano two years ago. Her store had not opened, but she let me in. For some reason she did not want to part with the puppet I saw in her window, even though he was an old model, covered with dust. But she finally let me have him. In Palm Desert I gave him a place next to my computer, suspended by his seven strings from a bookrest.
His first words were, “I want to be just like you, BUT …” followed by all of the things I had done recently that he would have done differently. His main point seemed to be that I was too human. I was willful, self-centered, vain, always buffering myself even when I was doing things that everyone around me thought of as kind and generous, even heroic. He noted that we both were only children: we had no brothers or sisters. So he thought that made us both equally prone to have a fear of (and sense of superiority towards) others.
I agreed only that I did indeed find people inscrutable. But I denied fearing or hating them. He went on to argue that a one-of-a-kind puppet could handle fear and loathing better than most people, including only children, me especially. “As a puppet,” he challenged, “I do not have the freedom to do whatever I want. In fact, I am literally in the hands of a human puppeteer,” he boasted. “If I do anything unkind or unlawful, he is responsible. And that gives me an advantage when it comes to moral behavior.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “I would like to call the shots sometimes, try out, so to speak, my own sense of right and wrong. I’m sure I could control my urges to act willfully better than my master does. Did you know he makes me hit other puppets sometimes?” (Well, I told him, I never in my life have hit anyone, even when I wanted to!) “Yes, but you have wanted to, right? With a head and heart of wood I have nothing selfish programed inside me. If I had full control of my actions like you, I could do all sorts of good things.”
It was then that I lost it. “But how do you know what IS good or bad? Do you mean a puppet can figure that out?” “Yes!” he cried. I know that fire, heat, dampness, mold, hammers, nails, knives and axes are bad. You, on the other hand, use those things (and much worse) on human beings just because they believe stuff you don’t believe in. I don’t care what people think, I just have to be careful to stay out of their way. You think you have the right to stop what people think with laws that punish them for what they believe; or worse still, with guns, torture, bombs, and any way you can. But I have no desire to do anything but live my life as a human puppet who sets a good example by my good behavior.”
A thoughtless person was never my hero. Nor were people so unable to feel pain or joy that they simply ignored whatever was going on around them, which is the kind of person Pinocchio seemed to want to be after his strings were cut. Even so, there are times when I sit at my desk, looking at him, and wishing I could be like him. As a child I understood God to be a puppeteer of sorts, controlling my life but giving me options that he would praise or condemn depending on my choices.
But that kind of God (who appears in all three Western religions) seemed just as full of himself as I am. So I outgrew that notion of Him by about eight, when my sexual juices began to flow (pardon the pun.) By then music was clearly my god, shaping and testing me through hundreds if not thousands of piano preludes, fugues, etudes, sonatas, ballades, and concertos. The pressure of performing landed me in the hospital at seventeen, having no reason to live. Going to a Christian college in Texas saved my life by making me interact with boys and girls who basically knew only farm and ranch life. I majored in art, and within a year was married to my beautiful, kind Carol. We were twenty years old. (Today, December 10, 2014, is our 59th anniversary.)
After graduation we moved to Chicago, where I studied first at the Art Institute for the MFA, and then for the MA and PhD in art history at the University of Chicago. My field was East Asia, which I had learned about (at ten) from Zen and Japanese Culture, by D. T. Suzuki. National Defense Foreign Language fellowships supported us for seven years, and my doctoral research at Kyoto University was covered by a Fulbright for another two, with Dr. Suzuki being one of my advisors. I’ve had a long career (54 years now) as a professor of East Asian art history and religion. More than instructing me in history, teachers in Japan birthed me: they led me to Zen meditation and into that profound silence where the universe can be seen and heard inside and out.
All of this I shared with Pinocchio, who listened to me with unabashed envy, even though my purpose in telling him these things was to dissuade him from pursing his dream of being human. But he immediately jumped on the part of my life where Buddhism came in, and said he especially liked the idea of karma and reincarnation. He liked the notion that he might have been a human in a previous life. I told him, “That is not how the system works, Pinocchio! You have to be alive to be part of that,” I said.
I explained that the system was part of the society the historical Buddha grew up with, namely, HInduism, with its caste system, which says we are born over and over again until we all reach spiritual fulfillment together. “But,” I said, “the Buddha believed (contrary to Hindu teachings) that people could reach enlightenment regardless of their caste. He had even decided that since karma and reincarnation were theories he had not actually explored, he did not require followers to believe them.” I told Pinocchio that I, too, did not have enough knowledge to believe in them, so I did not. He asked me if I had not ever remembered anything from a past life, and I said I had not.
When pressed, I told him the only thing that might make me believe that karma or something like it was real had to do with my dreams. All my life there have been moments in waking life when I realize I am experiencing the same moment I had in a dream. Nothing special, really, just a few minutes in which I recognize the scene and can predict exactly what will happen, be done, or said. It’s like watching a clip from a film. But it is happening in real time.
Pinocchio seemed intrigued. “But that’s it,” he shouted. “You are remembering a former life!” I set him straight: “No I’m not! My experience with dreams suggests that we all have lives that are preordained somehow, and we are just playing them out. But you shouldn’t confuse that with the Hindu system of karma and reincarnation.” (Actually, I find the idea of predestination even more disturbing than living a life that has already been filmed! Who is the projectionist, for God’s sake?)
“Let’s face it,” I said, “We don’t know what happens after death. Science can only tell us as much as we know right now. And in light of what we know, Pinocchio, I do not think much of a God who sounds very human (and a lot like me) and is threatening to punish people after they die if they have not loved Him and done His will. He assumes our greatest reward is to spend eternity with Him after we die!”
“Nor do I believe anyone has come back to life to report that they were reincarnated as a fetus in someone with a similar karmic past (and specific Hindu caste dharma), etc., so that the wheels of ultimate enlightenment can be achieved. Hindu Brahmins, and Buddhists who hang onto the old Hindu teachings, speak authoritatively about all of that, of course, but that doesn’t impress me.”
Pinocchio then admitted that he, never having lived, knew nothing about death and had not really thought about it. I suggested that he should relax and enjoy his not knowing, because the two of us, with our very different realities, actually are in the very same boat when it comes to knowing about life after death. We know nothing, and the imaginings of human beings help neither of us.
“But that’s it, too,” the puppet shouted, “people don’t think puppets have imagination, but we do! All man-made objects do. (I’m not sure about rocks, but that’s irrelevant here.) I may not wonder about the meaning of life and death, but I can imagine it. When you think about it, I could last forever, which you humans think would be wonderful after death (or even now), but I don’t waste time thinking about that. For all intents and purposes I am immortal: under the right circumstances I could last for hundreds, even thousands of years. I might outlive countless masters who pull my strings. Someday I could end up in some museum’s archeological exhibits.”
“So what’s the problem?” I asked. “Why then would you want to be human? If you can imagine all the things that we’ve imagined about life after death, which you say is not worth thinking about, then what do you consider worthwhile?” His reply surprised me. “Ah, that’s easy. You can interact with things like me. Most of the time people ignore things around them. They even ignore each other some of the time. If I were human I would greet everyone with a smile. More than that I would dance with them and feed them (I can’t eat, you know.) Most of all I would love them. Oh how I would love them! Not the way I love you, hanging here immobile, but with all my heart and soul (two things I do not have but can imagine having.)”
I wondered how many people Pinocchio had talked to this way. When I asked him he smiled and said, “Only really happy people. They can hear me, even though my lips don’t move. I can feel their admiration of my colors and the skill with which someone carved me. They are filled with wonder at the beauty of things. They can even see the tiny line between opposite ways of behaving. Behavior itself, regardless of its goodness or badness, is such a miracle to people like you. And so I speak to them. And you speak back. It’s wonderful! But most people are not like you.”
This was such a compliment that I began to tell him how much I admired the color of his skin, and the black, green and red colors the person who made him had chosen for his shirt, pants, cap and shoes. The white of his eyes made his black pupils pop, and the little u-shaped mouth made me laugh. “Thanks,” he said. “I knew you loved me.” He went on to say that his primary reason for wanting to be human was to be able to express his love to the world.
“I also would like to set the lesson straight about Signor Collodi’s story about me,” he said. He made it all about how children are easily manipulated to do bad things and have to be scolded to be good. If I were alive I would be free to feel love and express it all the time. I’m sure I would not kill crickets who sing the truth, or stop learning, or squander money, or be tricked into anything. I would actually enjoy seeing what foxes, crows, owls, crooks and assassins face in life and helping them any way I could. I want to know them, too, and love them.”
When I was very little I remember taking my mother’s old perfume bottles, placing a handkerchief over them, screwing the lids back on, and pretending they were people. They were perfect for my productions, seen only by me, of stories staged under a chair or table. Speaking to Pinocchio reminded me of those days. At the climax of my little perfume bottle productions I had feelings similar to the ones I experienced later as a child piano prodigy, at times when the composition was brought to life through my fingers.
Now, as an old man, with one foot in the grave, I have those feelings most of the time. I’m so glad Pinocchio decided to speak to me, and I’m sure we will have many more conversations before the curtain comes down. I only wish everyone, especially people who are dealing with deep depression, could have a conversation with a puppet like him. It just makes everything feel so good.
Palm Desert, CA
Glenn Taylor Webb
Saturday, July 26, 2014
THOUGHTS JULY 22, 2014
At the moment I sit down in despair at my computer, agonizing over the crisis situations I see on CNN, MSNBC, Aljazeera America and regular channels. First, there’s the crash site in Ukraine still open to looting and tampering by pro-Russian thugs (look, I heard them, and that’s what they are!) By all accounts (except Putin’s) they (or Russian troops) shot down a passenger plane with almost 300 innocent people aboard, 200 of them from the Netherlands. And for over a week brutish soldiers have looted the personal effects and identities of the crash victims and refused to let experts examine the wreckage, scattered over an enormous area that includes farms and villages.
Finally these self-proclaimed Russian freedom-fighters allowed bodies to be crudely stacked in poorly-refrigerated cattle cars and shipped to the Netherlands, where for the last two days we have watched crowds of an outraged but dignified people honor their dead as casket after casket in motorcades entered a military base for proper identification and return to loved ones. At the same time, fragments of bodies and important airplane wreckage still have not been collected because pro-Russian troops have not allowed outside experts into the site for long enough to do their jobs. They intend to defend the land they have occupied by force in eastern Ukraine. The fighting is intensifying as I write this. Carol and I are scheduled to spend most of August in Russia (mostly at the Hermitage Museum), so all of this is making us nervous. We leave in a little over a week.
The second major crisis going on right now is between Palestinians and Israelis. Nothing new, but the increasing number of casualties in Gaza as a result of Israel’s “target bombs” is sickening. The 6-year Israeli land-sea-and-air embargo on Gaza is in effect imprisoning and nearly starving the population. In response, the Hamas government built a network of tunnels that allows radical Muslim Gazans to enter Egypt and Israel to kill Jews. It is easy to see why citizens would welcome Hamas military help. But Israel is not going to budge on this. And Hamas-led Palestine seems ready to fight even if every man, woman and child in Gaza is killed in the effort. And despite the fact that few of the hundreds of rockets Hamas fires daily into Israel can penetrate the anti-missile “dome” over the country. So the unequal casualty list to date – nearly a thousand Gazans to 35 Israelis – seems outrageous. Two brief cease-fires have come and gone, and the shelling on both sides has resumed. Pictures of the dead and wounded spill out of the TV screen.
From my posh ivory tower in the California desert (Del Webb Sun City Palm Desert), with almost nobody around me to talk to about anything (or not) -- other than Obama-care (devil-sent), golf, sports, houses owned and sold, hedge funds, the stock market, cruises, restaurants and ballroom dances in the area, and Obama (the Devil himself) -- I try my best to engage people in issues I am passionate about. Those include meditation, Japanese language and customs, and then (working back in time from today) the deadly disputes in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Americas south of Texas and America itself. All of those issues relate to the age-old questions about God and land: what does “He” teach and who owns what? No wonder I was attracted to the pacific (and godless) teachings of Buddhism from an early age!
For my Facebook friends, here are two news flashes from my tower regarding (1) a movie and (2) a magazine article. The movie is BOYHOOD by Richard Linklater, whose WAKING LIFE first knocked the breath out of me when it came out in 2001. Most of his other films have at least made me utter a prayer of thanks for him. But after looking at BOYHOOD for about 3 hours, Carol and I looked at each other and said nothing. What’s to say? This is one fine film. I want to translate it immediately into Japanese and add it to my arsenal of teaching materials for Japanese students learning about America.
The movie was made over a 12-year period in the life of an actual boy, Ellar Coltrane (Mason in the film) from grade school to college. His mother is played by a brilliant Patricia Arquette, and his older sister is played by Linklater’s actual daughter, Lorelei (Samantha in the film.) My only problem with the film is why nobody in it speaks “Texan”, but I think I know why. First, there is a scene in which the laid-back liberal father, played flawlessly by Ethan Hawke, mercilessly (and hilariously) bad-mouths outgoing President George W. Bush. (He even steals a McCain sign from a Texas neighbor’s yard while putting up Obama signs with his son and daughter.) I think that scene would be very confusing if the father sounded exactly like Bush. Also, I think most Americans (and maybe all English speakers) would tire of hearing Texan spoken for the length of a film. Besides, Texans in the flesh can be heard in another Linklater film, “Bernie” (2011), which should satisfy anybody wanting to subject themselves to native speech.
The magazine article is by Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, and author of a fine introductory book on Japan that I used for years in some of my classes at Pepperdine in Malibu and International Christian University in Omika, Japan. It is called “The Outnation” (1992). The magazine article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Atlantic, p. 20-21, and it deals with the recent troubling matter of certain Christians trying to cut themselves off from mainstream American society and laws in the name of religious freedom. I like the article so much that I am quoting large portions of it here without comment. Its point is very much the point of BOYHOOD, as well, in the sense that both the film and article are telling us that the youth of today may be on the right track to everything.
“I am someone who believes that religious liberty is the country’s founding freedom, the idea that made America possible. I am also a homosexual atheist, so religious conservatives may not want my advice. I’ll give it to them anyway. Culturally conservative Christians are taking a pronounced turn toward social secession: asserting both the right and the intent to sequester themselves from secular culture and norms, including the norm of nondiscrimination. This is not a good idea. When religion isolates itself from secular society, both sides lose, but religion loses more.
… Why the hunkering down? When I asked around recently, a few answers came back. One is the fear that traditional religious views, especially about marriage, will soon be condemned as no better than racism, and that religious dissenters will be driven from respectable society, denied government contracts, and passed over for jobs …
… I wonder whether religious advocates of these opt-outs have thought through the implications. Associating Christianity with a desire – no, a determination to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred. They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment.
… This much I can guarantee: the First Church of Discrimination will find few adherents in 21st-century America. Polls find that, year by year, Americans are growing more secular. The trend is particularly pronounced among the young, many of whom have come to equate religion with intolerance. Social secession will only exacerbate that trend.”
Monday, June 9, 2014
IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, by Zia Haider Rahman
Reader alert: This is a book rave. I am in awe especially of pages 96-101: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Princeton, Oxford, Statue of Liberty, identity, patriotism, science, philosophy, Muslims, Jews, Christians, religion in general -- informative (and for me transformative) five pages in a novel that is chock full of very human feelings exquisitely expressed on every page. Be prepared to find yourself in the minds of people you might never know otherwise.
Two Muslim men, one from Pakistan but born in Princeton, N.J. to a Pakistani diplomat, the other from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) but raised in Oxford, England, son of shop-keepers. The two of them met in college and kept in touch. When together their conversations were soul-searching, and fill the pages of Rahman’s book. One of those conversation took place in New York in the 1990s.
The first one says he has an American passport and is thrilled when, after returning to America from a trip abroad, he hears “Welcome home!” from a U.S. immigration officer at JFK. The other (who has a British passport) says he would give his life if UK immigration officers at Heathrow would greet him that way after a trip. On impulse, they take the ferry to Liberty Island, where they stand together in front of the famous plaque with the poem by Emma Lazarus, a New York Jew whose forebears immigrated to the U.S. from Portugal.
To the two friends the words seem to come from God/Allah (or perhaps the Virgin Mary), welcoming other immigrants from Europe, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” In the 1920s and ‘30s that would include some of the great Jewish minds of the day, many of whom ended up at Princeton. One of the men imagines that one of those minds must have belonged to his hero, the logician, Kurt Godel (1906-1978).
Not so, says his friend, who points out that the champion of the “true but unprovable” theorem was not Jewish but a Lutheran-born theist who believed in a personal God. As such he was out of step with Albert Einstein, Godel’s colleague, a secular Jewish Deist who believed in God, but in the abstract, following the famous 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher, Spinoza (and hero of my youth, after D.T. Suzuki and Joseph Campbell.) And now? Pope Francis says even atheists, along with believers, will go to Heaven as long as all of us do good on earth! (I wonder if he read this book.)