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Asbestos Gelos


Good Luck, Bad Luck

Ask Me to Sing


The Survey

The Tale of the Apprentice Acrobat

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Museums in Moab

Mask and Trance

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Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff -- complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?
April 25, 2016

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah
The end of April, 2016

Rowdy spring weather – wind, rain - and even snow on the high mountain peaks.
Wildflowers abound in the valleys after the perfect winter for moisture.

The story that follows connects to my most recent posting – about the laughter of Jesus and the fact that I’m in motion on my way to Crete. My mind is already in Greek mode. I’m often asked how I came to be connected to that world – here’s the story – written several years ago and revised for now:

For more than thirty years I have spent several months on the Greek island of Crete. Why Crete? I might say it’s because I like history - more than 6,000 years of amazing human enterprise are piled up there. I could say it’s the beauty of the landscape – mountains, sea, and beaches. But, in truth, I go back for the people – the Cretans. I have binding connections with them, their view of life, and their way with strangers.
It all began the summer I was wandering around Europe alone while waiting for my wife to finish her medical residency. No particular agenda – just doing what came next. I went to Crete to see the famous archeological digs at Knossos, and to look in on a graduate school program at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. When I was ready to get off the paths beaten down by tourists, I went to a small fishing village on a gravel road at the western end of the island – Kolymbari.
I found a room for the night, and rose up before the sun to go running. The day was already hot, so I was dressed only in black running briefs and shoes. (It’s relevant to the story to note here that my hair and beard were white even then.)
I ran past the village coffee house where men sat drinking coffee.
They seemed surly, hostile, un-welcoming.
When I mentioned this to my landlord, he said, “Oh, no, Cretans are very welcoming to strangers – it’s an old tradition – philoxenia. But in your case the men at the kofeneion don’t know what to make of you. For one thing, your hair and beard make you look like a priest, and they have never seen a half-naked priest running through the village in what looks like his underwear at that hour of the morning. They don’t know what to say or do.”
“No problem. Smile, wave, say good morning:
Pause. See this from the point of view of the men at the coffee house. They have been drinking coffee at dawn for years without disturbance or distraction. Suddenly, without warning, the white-bearded, half-naked priest flashes by.
“What the hell was that? Damned if I know.”
The next morning I set off running with goodwill toward men in my heart.
Ready to greet the villagers.
The men see me coming.
“For the love of Christ, Manolis, here he comes again!”
Hold the moment. Parenthesis: As I said, my appearance was a bit of a surprise in the first place – the-priest-in-his-underpants look. Then there is the fact of my lack of language skills. During the night my brain changed calimera (good morning) to calamari, which means “squid.”
And then there was the matter of waving. I did not know that Cretans wave with a gentle gesture of upheld, closed-fingered hand, backside out – palm in. I did not know that the All-American hearty wave – arm extended, fingers open – is the equivalent of giving someone the finger in Crete – “up yours,” in other words.
So. Here I come.
And as I ran by the coffee house, I shout, “Calimari, Calimari, Calimari,” and give my big wave to all. From the Cretans point of view it was, “Squid, Squid, Squid” and “up yours.” From the priest in his underpants.
Well . . . They fell out of their chairs laughing.
And shouted “Calimari, Calimari, Calimari” and waved “up yours” back at me.
Greatly pleased, I ran on, thinking: “These are really friendly people after all – my kind of guys.”
The men in the coffee house could hardly believe what had happened.
“What planet did he fall off of?” they wondered. And of course they did what you and I would do next. During the day they told their friends about the bizarre stranger’s appearance. And when their friends didn’t believe them, they said, “It’s true. Come see. Have coffee in the morning.”
And sure enough, here I come again.
Noticing there are quite a few more men having coffee.
“Look, I told you, here he comes. Shout squid at him and give him the finger and see what he does.” So they did and I did and so on. Funny. Great laughter all around. I gave them the American sign for OK – thumb and forefinger forming a circle, and ran on. They laughed even harder and gave me the OK sign back.
Word gets around quickly in a small village. “You’re kidding. No, come see.”
The next morning, even women and children were there to see me.
Marvelous people, these Cretans.
But that same morning, just after I passed the coffee house, a grade school teacher stopped me in the street. Serious young man. He was upset.
“Excuse me, mister, you are making a jackass of yourself, and those idiots at the kofenion are helping you. You should all be ashamed. You set a bad example. What will the children think?”
He explained that no self-respecting Cretan man would go out of his house and into the village dressed as I was. Immodest, to say the least.
And he explained about calamari and calimera, and about how to wave.
Finally, he wanted me to know that the sign for OK in America was the Cretan sign for telling someone to stick their head up their own rear end.
Road-rage material in Crete, except with friends, of course.
I felt bad. I glanced back at the men at the coffee house. Sheepish grins. Now they knew I knew. And I knew they knew. And so, now what? I walked along wondering what to do: leave, run another way, find someone to help me apologize, What?
But I couldn’t ignore one clear fact: the laughter.
What had happened was funny. The laughter was real. Actually, my best friends
and I would have done the same. thing. These Cretans seemed like my kind of guys. I consulted my landlord. During the night my brain sorted out the problem. At first light it was clear in my mind. Still in my running shorts, I went forth.
Here I come again - but this time wearing my T-shirt with the blue and white Greek flag on it..
Solemnly, they watched me come. No gestures. As impassive as the first morning. “Look, here he is again. What do you think he’ll do now? Is he angry with us? Who knows? ”
I had asked my landlord how to insult Cretan men in that way permissible only among friends – the grossest things - trusting they know you are kidding.
In the same spirit I might say to a good friend, “You bastard.”

“Call them malaccos – masturbators – and slap the palm of one hand on the back of the other hand, with arms stretched out in front of you.”
(It suggests what they do with sheep and their mothers and themselves.)

As I got to the coffee house, I slowed down and stopped to face them.
A tense moment.
Friend or foe?

I smiled. And shouted malaccos at them and shot them my newly acquired hand gesture.

The coffee house erupted with laughter and applause. A chair was provided. “Come, come. Sit.” Coffee, brandy, and a cigarette were offered. And with their minimal English and my feeble Greek we retold and re-enacted the joke we had made together – from their point of view as well as mine. Above all, they thought my way of handling the situation – the in-your-face-with-humor - had Cretan style.
I was, after all, their kind of guy – and the feeling was mutual.
I went back to the village the next year. And the next and for 30 more years.
I built a house there – with the advice of the men of the kafenion.
They included me in the life of the village – feasts, weddings, baptisms, wine-making, and olive harvests.
For a long time they had no idea who I am or what I do, really. All they knew for sure is that I am a laugher who understands something about the gross humor and social courage of Cretan men. To me they became friends with names like Manolis, Kostas, Aecheleus, Nikos, and Ioannis. To them, I became the Americanos, Kyrios Calimari – the American, the honorable Mr. Squid.

As I say, I have been going back for more many years. I go in part because I still expect laughter – from jokes and stories that are often raw and reckless and wicked and timeless. About old age and sex and war stupidity – jokes that mask fear and failure and foolishness. They laugh big, belly-shaking laughs, not chuckles. Laughter in the face of hard and serious things.

The laughter is not incidental.
Without this laughter the Cretans would not have survived their travails and tragedies across centuries.
Cretan laughter is fierce – defiant laughter – an “up yours” to the forces of death and mystery and evil. Life is a practical joke and they are in on the joke.

They have a word for this laughter: Asbestos Gelos. (As-bes-tos yay-lohs)
A term used by Homer actually.
Fireproof laughter.
Unquenchable laughter. Invincible laughter.
And the Cretans say that he who laughs, lasts.
They should know - they have been around a long, long time.
And I’ll soon be there with them again.

link to this story

April 15, 2016

Seattle, Washington – The middle of April 2016
Calm, cloudy, drippy, cool

In a very short time I’ll return to Greece and the island of Crete, where I have a house and a sense of “home” even though I am not Greek.
My mind is already there – engaged in the spirit of the run-up to Easter – Pascha – which falls on Sunday, May l, for the Greek Orthodox Church.
I am not an Orthodox Catholic, either.
A theological heretic by any Christian standard.
Yet my house is on the grounds of the Orthodox Academy of Crete, across the road from an ancient monastery – where I often attend services.
I’m comfortable with the apparent contradiction, and my religious views are no threat to the affable Cretan spirit of “live and let live.”
Here’s an essay I wrote ten years ago – one I thought might offend the Greeks Orthodox mind set. But when my Greek friends read it, they were amused. To them I am weird in my thinking, but weird is no threat to a Cretan. One said – “Jesus would like you, anyway.”


“Know any good jokes?”
A reasonable question at a convivial social occasion.
To ask that of a Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church at lunch at his table after church on a Sunday is a risk.
His Eminence, the Dispotis of Chania, slowly turned his pale, white-bearded face to me, gave me his Blessed-Are-The-Meek look, smiled thinly, and went back to dissecting the small pink fish on his fine china plate.
No, I guess he doesn’t know any jokes.
And that’s funny – to me, at least.

Here is a man sitting as host at a fine Sunday feed, dressed in a long black dress, with glitzy-gold jewelry around his neck, and on his head a stovepipe with a lid on it. I would think you’d have to have a sense of humor to dress like that at lunch.
But he doesn’t know any jokes.
And he’s so close to a good laugh.
All he needs is a red rubber nose on his schnoz and a mirror to look in.

When dressed in full-dress liturgical finery, he and his fellow bishops could pass as majorettes in a Gay Pride marching band – “Mother Manolis and the Salonika Queens.”
Byzantine Bling. Funny.

A visiting Roman Catholic parish priest from New Jersey, who was dressed incognito in jeans and T-shirt, asked me if I had a book in mind that I had not yet written.
Yes. One on the humor of Jesus, “Jesus Jokes.”
“But there aren’t any Jesus Jokes in the Bible.”
“Right. That’s the problem. The book would be about the missing material.”

And since Father William seemed open to the subject, I explained.

First of all my credentials:
I am a seminary-trained, ordained Unitarian Universalist clergyman with 50 years of experience. Second, I am a man, with seventy-eight years on the job. It is Biblically sound to say that Jesus was also a man – no less.
A whole human being. That’s the important point. Isn’t it?
Whatever else he was, he was a human being like the rest of us.
He ate, wept, got angry, and bled. We know he went to a wedding and provided wine when the reception ran dry. We know he got angry at the money changers, and he spent time with sinners.
He must have had the common cold, gone to the toilet, itched, and ached, and got hungry. Like the rest of us. True, not all of that is mentioned in scripture. But it could and should have been.

Moreover, Jesus was the son of a working class, blue-collar family, with no formal education. He hung out with a close group of guys – fishermen and carpenters and the common riff-raff. He was Jewish. He told great stories – some must have been funny. So how could we think Jesus did not laugh – did not see the humor in this life? Otherwise the claim for his humanity is empty. You can’t tell me that joy, delight, and the all-out belly laugh were not as much a part of him as they are of us.

Heresy? No. Sound theology.

So, what happened to his funny stories? The human comedy?
I think the humor got cut by the copy editors and censors along the way.
Monks and theologians and scholars and Inquisitors.
Those whose black dress shrouded their grey minds as well.
Religion became too serious to underwrite humor.
War, maybe. But not joy.

Here in Crete I am surrounded by Greek Orthodoxy and I often respectfully attend the liturgy in the local monastery. But it’s a deep, solemn affair, more like a funeral than a celebration. There is no laughter in it.
Something’s wrong.

When I am elected to godly power, there will be jokes in the scripture and laughter in the sanctuary, for what else is laughter but sanctuary from the vicissitudes of life?
And the priests will wear workman’s overalls, and carry hammers and nails and pliers and screwdrivers and wrenches - as emblems of those who are committed to constructing a viable society and building a better world.

“Good luck on your book,” said my Catholic friend.
“If it sells, I’ll do the next one on the Jokes Buddha Told,” I replied.
“I don’t think I’d publish the Humor of Mohammed, though,” he said.
“Well, yes, that could set off The Great Joke Jihad.”

On the wall of my study in Crete and in Seattle there is a framed pencil drawing of a bearded, long-haired, strong-featured Jew of Palestine - a man, dressed in the ordinary clothes of his time – two thousand years ago.
He has rough, workman’s hands.
A great expression lights up his face.
He is not just smiling.
His head is thrown back in a great laugh.
The drawing is not titled.
Nobody ever asks me who it is.
They know.
And if that’s what the real Jesus was like, it’s clear why people followed him – then – and now.

link to this story

April 10, 2016

Seattle, Washington - Second week of April, 2016
Calm, clear, sunny, but still cool

There is a story I’ve run across several times in several versions.
It provokes my thinking every time I read it.
It’s usually set in the Far East – India, Japan or China . . .
Here’s a summary version:
Once upon a time, an old farmer who lived in a small remote village in the wild mountains had a very fine, valuable, hard-working horse, beloved by the farmer.
One day the horse went missing – it jumped the fence or the gate was left open or the horse might have been stolen.
His friends all expressed their concern for his bad luck.
But the wise old farmer was philosophical.
“Bad luck or good luck – who knows – wait and see.”
Not long after, the horse came back, leading a herd of young, wild horses.
And the farmer’s friends all congratulated him on his good fortune.
“Good luck or bad luck?” said the farmer – “Who knows – wait and see.”
So the farmer and his son set about breaking the new horses to farm work.
They soon had enough horses to sell and make their fortune.
But one day, while training one of the new horses, the son was thrown and broke an arm and a leg.
“Too bad about your misfortune,” said his friends.
The farmer’s response was the same as always.
“Bad luck or good luck – who knows? – wait and see.”
Shortly after the son’s accident, agents for the Imperial Army came to requisition the horses they had heard about, and they also were conscripting all able-bodied young men to fight in the army in a war that was ravaging the land.
But the son was not taken because of his injuries.
The son stayed on the farm and soon healed – life went on.
And the farmer said, as usual, “Good luck – bad luck – who knows?”
And what happened next? The farmer grew old and was dying.
On his death-bed, contemplating the after-life, he was asked by his friends if he was going to heaven or hell? – and the farmer stayed true to his attitude –
“Good luck - bad luck – who knows?”
And he died peacefully in his sleep.
Pondering the ups and downs of my own life in the past year, I thought I would write a modern version of this old story:
Once upon a time Pakistani man immigrated to the United States to start new life. His family had been in the export/import business for several generations supplying fine restaurants with exotic specialties from around the world.
When he came to this country he opened a grocery store in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic neighborhood and prospered. In time he expanded his store and his line of groceries to include products from Asia, Mediterranean, South American and Caribbean countries. He built a bigger store and held a Grand Opening.
The next day, when he arrived to open the doors, he found the walls of his new building covered with graffiti – RAGHEADS GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM! – NO BROWN SKIN FOREIGNERS HERE! MUSLIMS ARE TERRORISTS! PAKIS ARE WORSE THAN MEXICANS, and so on . . .Swastikas, crosses, and obscenities were part of the graffiti – ugly stuff.
The man was philosophical – “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
The man recruited his oldest son to repair the damage and guard the store.
“No,” said the son.
The man was not surprised. His son had refused to even help in the store.
He wanted to just be a high school student and take part in all the activities of his peers – to be in the school musical, to be a member of the cheerleader squad, to play in the school orchestra, and run for the school council.
“I want to be a normal American kid – not a grocery clerk. I don’t want to be identified as a Paki Muslim – just a regular person.”
And, having once again declared his independence, the son walked away.
The man was philosophical – “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
Two hours later the son returned with the whole cheerleader squad.
The father was anxious – why were they there?
Five girls, four boys – an ethnic mix reflecting the make-up of his high school.
Two Koreans, three African-Americans, an Indian, and three white kids – both Jews – along with their Rabbi and his wife.
They were carrying buckets of paint, brushes and rollers, and ladders.
They had come to paint out all the graffiti.
And they did that.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?’ said the man, as was his way.
His son climbed to the top of the tallest ladder to paint over the highest graffiti.
On the way down, he fell backwards, and broke an arm and a leg.
“Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” said the man.
That night, while the son was in the hospital, there was a fire at the high school gymnasium during a basketball game. All of the members of the cheerleader squad were injured or burned in the fire and the panic to escape.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows said the man.
When everyone had finally recovered, the man decided to throw a feast to celebrate. The son and the cheerleader squad and their families and the Rabbi and half the members of his Synagogue all came.
But the Mullah from the man’s Mosque would not. He said the man ought to stick to his own people and his own faith.
“Good luck – bad luck – who knows? Wait and see.”
And the story goes on . . . but the man’s attitude was always the same.
He, too, died – but with the same attitude guiding his dying as it did his living.
What’s the moral of the story?
I leave that for you to decide . . .

link to this story

April 05, 2016

Seattle, Washington – The beginning of April, 2016
Calm, clear, sunny, but still cool . . .
Here’s a short video for you to imagine . . .
The Ballard Sunday Farmer’s market - crowded and busy this morning – the lovely April day had taken people by the mental hand and led them outside to stroll around, buy tulips and daffodils and pussy-willows, and soak up the sunshine.
On the sidewalk, almost lost in the people-pageant:  a young man, handsomely dressed – blue blazer, grey slacks, polished black shoes.
And topped off with a face adorned with a wide smile.
Probably ten years old.
Pinned to his jacket was a sign: “Ask me to sing.”
So I asked.
In a high, sweet, smooth voice he sang “Home on the Range.”
No instrument or recorded backup – he just closed his eyes and sang forth.
And I gave him ten dollars, and thanked him for his voice and song.
I said that I admired his social courage and appreciated his contribution to the festive quality of the day.
His little brother stood close by – and I asked him if he also sang.
“No, not yet,” he replied.
Turns out the older brother is raising money to support the Northwest Boy Choir.
Not seeking funds for himself, mind you, but for his group – to purchase sheet music and jackets for fellow singers who cannot afford to buy them.
My spirits were lifted up by the young singer, and I walked on with a light heart.
My route took me around to the other side of the market and down the row of stalls. To my surprise, I found what I thought was the same young man with the same sign offering to sing, and the same little brother standing by.
“Oh,” said I, “You’ve moved. Remember me?”
“You must have met my twin brother who is working the other side of the market.”
“What about the little guy – is he a twin, too?”
“No, he just wanders back and forth to give each of us his support.”
“And I still don’t sing,” said the little guy.
So I bought another song – “America the Beautiful.”
And in that place, in that moment, on that day it was just that – beautiful.
It’s a long-standing personal rule of mine to always give money to any person or any group making music out on the street. Of course, I know these buskers are hoping for tips for singing and playing.
But they are not begging.
They have something to give.
And they keep my world from being drab and joyless and ordinary.
I’m grateful for having live music from live people as part of my day.
And I’m grateful to be in the presence of those who overcome their inner anxiety and get out on the wire in public without a net and take the chance that people like me will notice them, appreciate them, affirm them, and buy a ticket for their concert by putting money in a hat or an instrument case.
Not only do I always contribute, but – and this is really important – I stand and listen for a while, and applaud them at the end of a song. The buskers I’ve talked to always say that, while they are grateful for the money people give, they are even more grateful for careful attention – when somebody really sees them and listens.
So they give me music and I give them attention in return.
I play a mando-cello reasonably well, and my singing is reasonably acceptable.
But I cannot imagine working myself up into a state of mind where I would risk busking out on the street.
I considered giving it a try – but asked the question all buskers have to endure:
“What if nobody notices – what if nobody puts money in my hat?”
And if I was ten years old? Well, forget that . . .
Praise to those who can sing and play.
Praise to those who take their chances out on the street.
They add graceful notes to their corners of the world.
Don’t pass them by.
Stop. Look. Listen.
And always pay your dues – with generosity.
You won’t be sorry if you do – only sorry if you don’t and just pass on by.

link to this story

April 01, 2016

Seattle, Washington – The end of March, and the beginning of April 2016
Blustery, sunny, but still cool


For many years I have carried a list of questions folded up in my wallet.
I think of the questions as social lifeboats – to stay afloat in a becalmed social sea. When I am at a cocktail party or a reception or a group event where small talk seems to be the norm, and I’m bored into a near stupor but really can’t leave, I look for someone who seems to be in the same state of mind as I am. I introduce myself. Explain that I’m a writer – looking for provocative conversation - and I wonder if they would consider a list of questions.
Nobody has ever turned me down.
I show them the list and say “Read through and then pick one to answer.”
The response has always been enthusiastic – leading to rewarding and lingering encounters with lively minds – even some lasting friendships.
The device also works well on long-distant airplane trips when I find myself in a seat next to an engaging fellow passenger.
Alas, the list has proved to be too long – 35 items - and a number of the questions have never been addressed – though the list does say something about me and my interests and my Way in the World.
So. I’ve just revised my list – it’s shorter now – just includes those questions strangers have chosen to answer over the years – field-tested inquiries.
Take a look – but don’t send me answers – just copy the list and carry it with you – try it out sometime when you need a social lifeboat - and see what happens.
Here’s the list:

1. What would you be learning – if you had time?
2. What would you have learned if you knew back then what you know now? (Another language, for example.)
3. What would you teach, if you were asked?
4. What ability/talent do you not have but would like to have?
5. If you could be an eye-witness to some event in history, which one?
6. If you could see any place in the world before human history – where would you go and why?
7. Pick another place/time in modern history – since 1700 – to live. Explain.
8. Do you dance? If so, what? If not, what dance would you learn?
9. Ever thought about changing your appearance or identity? And?
10. If you were a spy, what would be your cover?
11. If you could live one short episode of your life over again – a day, week, month – which would it be? And why?
12. Do you remember your first love? Tell me.
13. Have you ever experienced the kindness of a stranger? How?
14. Ever had a paranormal experience? An out-of-body experience?
15. Do you know where you were conceived - and the circumstances?
16. What do you believe or not believe now that you used believe or not believe? Anything major you’ve changed your mind about?
17. Give me an answer to a question I have not asked because there’s no way I would have known to ask.

link to this story