Dispatch #1: On Loss
Part One: A Sylvia Plath Moment at the Charles Hotel

  On August 8 of this year, 2001, I drove from our place in the Adirondacks to Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss a possible future Dispatch with a Shamar Rinpoche, a high lama of the kagiu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and an American practitioner whom I have known since childhood. The drive across New England took five hours in my old pickup, which has no air conditioning, and it just happened to be the hottest day of the year, the second day of a four-day heat wave. As the sun sank into the Pacific, ending the day for the U.S.A., the entire country carded a mean high of 95 degrees. Something felt very wrong about it--  the way the whole continent had suddenly just turned into a blast furnace. It didn’t seem at all normal or natural. Massive fronts of extreme weather, spikes of often unseasonal  heat,  have become noticeably more common in the last ten or fifteen years as we continue to obliviously spew hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Elsewhere in the world, huge dense clouds of humidity,  are building in size and turbulence and crackling with electric energy under the heat-trapping layer of COD, which is why we are seeing more floods tornados, and record-breaking temperatures. Many plants and animals can’t keep up with the sudden change in the climate and are going under because their survival kit, finely tuned to certain conditions that have remained relatively stable since the last Ice Age,  is now worthless. They can’t adapt or migrate poleward fast enough, or there is nowhere for them to go because they are on islands surrounded by salt water or human sprawl. The sugar maples are being pushed north out of Vermont. There won’t be any in New England if this keeps up. Such jolly thoughts occupied my mind as I drove along, contributing however many pounds of particulate carbon to the problem, doing my own bit. 
  
      I was pretty wiped out by the time I reached the Charles Hotel, where the three of us had agreed to meet for dinner at eight. The courtyard, where there were some outdoor tables, was still like an oven, so we decided to eat inside. But the dining room was way too air-conditioned, too frigid for my body, whose every pore was open, passing heat, to adjust to so quickly. By the time dessert came, I could feel the beginning of a sore throat. 
     The second-highest tulku or officially recognized reincarnation of the Buddha in the kagiu hierarchy, Shamar Rinpoche, who is also known as the Shamarpa [and the Kagyu], is one of the major players in a controversy that has been rocking Tibetan Buddhism—the controversy over the seventeenth reincarnation of the Karmapa. The Karmapa is the number one boddhistava of the kagiu lineage, its equivalent of the Dalai Lama (who heads the gelug lineage). The assets attached to the Karmaship worldwide are considerable, and there are two rival reincarnations, two claimants, rather like the two Popes, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon, in the fourteenth century, or the various Anastasias that surfaced after the Russian Revolution (none of whom appear to have been real in the end. According to the latest DNA evidence from the Romanoff massacre site in Ekaterinburg the melancholy eighteen-year- old princess did not escape the firing squad).
      The Shamarpa is one of the four regents who were in charge of finding the next Karmapa after the death of the sixteenth in l981, and of looking after the boy until he reached his majority. Twelve passed, and there was no Karmapa. The kagyu were growing impatient. Finally in l992 another of the regents, Situ Rinpoche, produced a letter that he claimed had been written by the late Sixteenth. It gave instructions as to where and how his next reincarnation could be found.

      This requirement—there must always be a letter—is a feature of the Karmapa succession. Whether it is peculiar to the karmaship, or other tulku searches also require a letter, I don’t know. 
      Situ went to Tibet and following the instructions found the boy, whose name was Urgyen Thinlay. Or it was the other way around, as his detractors allege: he had already found the boy and then written the letter himself. A third regent, Jonghum Khontrol Rinpoche, set out for Tibet from India to see the boy for himself and en route was killed when his car either swerved off the road to avoid killing some birds, or, as Shamarpa’s detractors allege, was blown up with a bomb commissioned by the Shamarpa. This precipitated Situ to announce publicly that the seventeenth Karmapa had been found, and that he was Urgyen Thinlay. The Shamarpa was furious because Situ had broken a pact the four regents had made to make no public statements until they met again in the fall, and because he was engaged in his own search and following clues that led him to a boy in Lhasa named Taye Dorje, whom he announced to be the true Karmapa two years later. 

      I had met both “soul boys,” as the Chinese call tulkus, or officially recognized reincarnations of Buddha, in l995: Taye Dorje is now seventeen, and Urgyen Thinlay fifteen. Both are now in India.  I had been twice to Tshurphu, the monastery three hours outside of Lhasa that is the seat of the Karmapa. Tsurphu is perched at 16,000 feet, at the head of a spectacular valley plugged by a hanging glacier. In the cave-riddled cliffs above the monastery, aspiring monks were undergoing their three-year, three-month-three-day retreat during which they were not allowed to speak to anyone or to lie down and sleep, and had to keep themselves warm solely by tum-mo heat meditation. This was in l995. I gave a katha, the traditional offering of a white scarf, to Urgyen Thinlay, who had been recognized as the Karmapa by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. He was surrounded by Chinese bodyguards and was reading a comic book. I was forbidden to speak with him. As I backed out the door, Urgyen Thinlay winked at me. It was not an ordinary wink, but a very powerful one that zapped me the same way I was zapped when the Dalai Lama gave my beard a playful tug seven years earlier. The effects of that tug took a month to wear off.  
      I had also known the sixteenth Karmapa. My older brother had been attracted to Buddhism and Tibet in his teens in the fifties, and in l960 he had roomed at Oxford with Trogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, another high kagiu tulku who had just arrived in the West and would later become the guru of Alan Ginsberg. In the early seventies my brother converted his house in Katonah, New York, into the first karma kagyu meditation center  and the Karmapa came and did a Black Hat ceremony. The sight of him placing his black hat on his head is said to be a very powerful transmission.
       I had also written (in the August, l996 issue of Vanity Fair) about the kidnapping of the present, eleventh Panchen Lama by the Chinese. He had been secretly recognized in Tibet by the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese had replaced by a “soul boy” of their own choosing. His whereabouts, or whether he is even still alive, are still unknown So I have a more than passing interest in controversy over the seventeenth Karmapa, which has bitterly divided the kagius. I am not in either camp. I am not even a practicing Buddhist. I have never “taken refuge,” committed myself to living by the precepts of the Buddha.  But many of them I have found very useful in understanding the nature of existence, particularly his breakdown of the basic causes of suffering. My own life has brought me to many of the same conclusions. I had already realized, for instance, from 30 years as a journalist, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There are only versions, often wildly divergent ones. In places with particularly active rumor mills like central Africa, Brazil, India, Nepal, and Tibet— places I have spent much of my career to writing about—I have had to content myself with collecting versions, with being a “total-immersion version journalist,” as I called myself. The Karmapa controversy was already shaping up as one of these assignments where “the truth” was going to be very hard to establish, if not impossible. 
      Starting out with the premise that tulkus reincarnate when they die (or even before they die, in some cases like the tenth Panchen) as some boy somewhere in Tibet who has to be found and identified (traditionally the tulkus have been Tibetan, but now as more Westerners take refuge in Tibetan Buddhism, a French boy, and a Spanish one, have been recognized as reincarnations). The tulku recognition system was started by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193).
      Its original intent was egalitarian. It was designed to prevent the buildup of hereditary spiritual power in families or clans. (There was an aristocracy in old Tibet, but their power was worldly.)
Any Tibetan family, even the lowliest drokhpa or nomads, could produce the next Karmapa or Dalai Lama. But because of the manipulation of regents and other adults, the system has been subject to all kinds of abuse. Only two of the six Dalai Lamas in the nineteenth century, for, made it to the age of twenty. The rest were done in by palace intrigues. 
      By now there are more than 600 tulkus. Even Steven Segal, the action-movie star, has been recognized as a rinpoche, a title of adoration bestowed on tulkus and other holy men, by Penor Rinpoche, a leading lama of the nyingma lineage—a matter of some embarrassment to Buddhists around the world. The Shamarpa told us that in his opinion the situation had gotten out of hand and the whole institution should be curtailed if not abolished altogether because it “creates religious dukedoms” and “is infectious.” Only the Dalai Lama should continue to be recognized in the traditional way. Otherwise he would not be the Dalai Lama. Tibetans would not accept him. 
      The Dalai Lama himself has declared that his next reincarnation should be only a religious leader, and that his political functions should be transferred to someone else who is democratically elected, so the entire tulku system is threatened, not least by the Chinese who see it as medieval feudal religious mumbo jumbo that is keeping the Tibetans from progressing (which hasn’t stopped them from using it for their own purposes of control and influence). And this Florentine imbroglio over the seventeenth Karmapa wasn’t helping the situation. “It exposes the dark side of Tibetan Buddhism,” as my sister, who is a kagiu practitioner, put it. 

      A group of Americans interested in Tibet—especially its ecological problems— were contributing to the site. They were also interested in help to heal the sectarian rift among the kagiu, and had approached me about writing a Dispatch on the Karmapa controversy – conducting an independent, in-depth investigation of twenty or thirty thousand words or so that would lay out everyone’s side of the story and perhaps thus pave the way toward some sort of a resolution. The report would be posted on Dispatches From the Vanishing World and excerpted in one of the American general-interest or Buddhist magazines and maybe even published as a short book.
      The subject was certainly right for the Dispatches. I already knew what I was going the dispatch was going to be called: “The Future of Reincarnation.” The tulku recognition system was clearly an endangered “meme,” to use a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme, I explained to the Shamarpa, is any unit of transmissible cultural information. In the world today memes and species, habitats, languages, entire cultures and ecosystems, and other elements of the world’s biological and culture diversity, are disappearing at a rate unprecedented in recorded history. Not since the massive extinctions of the Pleistocene, which took out the wooly mammoth and mastodon, the giant sloth and the saber-toothed tiger, has there been anything comparable. The difference between sixth extinction, as E.O.Wilson calls it and the earlier global-scale ones (meteor strikes or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that wiped out up to eighty percent of the life on earth) is that it has been precipitated by us, by our phenomenal success as a species. Although Folsom and Clovis man and their cousins may have played a major role in wiping out the big Pleistocene mammals. 
      The main agents of this extinction event are human population growth and “the cancer of modern life,” as Simon Elegant, a journalist for Time Asia, has called it, which takes many forms: hundreds of millions of car exhausts, rapacious capitalism, chainsaws, bulldozers, toxic waste, the effect of the Spice Girls on Brazilian samba, of tuolomene fumes the Vietnamese children who work in Adidas factories inhale as they are gluing together sneakers. The list goes on for pages. The Dispatches, I explained, will be devoted to fleshing it out. 
      It will be a great loss if there are no more tulkus, I said, and if this mystical succession system dies out, because there is nothing like it in the world. The recognition of the present Dalai Lama, for instance, the fourteenth, has an almost fairy-tale like quality. The search committee had to hike up to a 18,000-foot lake on whose surface they saw a vision that led them, after a country-wide search, to a house with a blue-tiled roof near the China border where there lived an extraordinary two-and-a half-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso who was presented with a collection of ritual paraphernalia and unhesitatingly picked out the ones that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. By this and other tests the boy was confirmed as his reincarnation. 
      Whether there is anything to the entire process depends, of course, on whether you believe that reincarnation is what happens after death. I hadn’t made that leap of faith, but I wasn’t prepared to dismiss it, either, having had intimations on several occasions that it could be have some basis—a sudden sense of interconnectedness with the other, unseen forms of life when walking in the woods—and having spent times in cultures that are much more attuned to this sort of thing like the Yanomamo, Tikuna, and Cayapo Indians of the Amazon and the Malgasies of all the archipelago’s ethnic groups.  
      I told Shamar that I would do the Dispatch as long as it was understood that I would be absolutely nonpartisan. If he was expecting me to advocate his position, he would have to find someone else. I may find out things he wasn’t going to like. Shamar was confident that “the facts” would speak for themselves. He just wanted to make sure I had them. “The past will reveal the present,” he assured me.
      I explained what the dispatches were all about, how I had gotten the idea of doing them last year, when I spent three weeks in the eastern, rebel-held part of the civil-war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo for short (formerly Zaire), doing a report for Ted Turner’s United Foundation. The UNF is supporting four national parks that are the home of some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom—mountain and lowland gorillas, okapis, Congo peacocks. These animals are being decimated by deserters, bandits, genocidal Rwandans, and various other bands of desperate, psychotic individuals who are holed up in four national parks and living off the game. The UNF is contributing several million dollars to the heroic effort to keep them from being completely poached out. Most of it is going to keeping the guards paid and motivated to go out on their patrols. 
      In the course of my investigation I discovered that a lot of the poaching is being done by or for miners of a rare mineral called coltan, whose exceptional stability, high melting point, and conductivity make it the ideal material for capacitors and numerous other high-tech applications. Every cellphone, laptop, satellite, ballistic missile, jet plane’s nose cone, car ignition system, solid state electronic appliance, prosthetic device, and SONY game boy contains coltan. But few people have ever heard about this substance or are aware that forest elephants, gorillas and okapis are being slaughtered, roasted and eaten by its miners, so that the modern world can be supplied with it. 
      My report to the UNF, I explained to Shamar, ran 26,000 words. It needs to be extensively updated and amplified as a lot has happened and has come out since my trip. The new version will be on posted as Dispatch 2 sometime in the fall, and I have worked up a 6,000-word excerpt that has been bought by Rolling Stone magazine. So the word is being gotten out about the terrible cost of this mineral, and the UNF has gotten an independent assessment of its program and publicity for it and the little-known heroes, Congolese and expatriates, who are risking their lives to keep these magnificent animals from being poached. The experience made me realize that I could perform a service by starting a site that exposed the horrendous things that are happening in remote parts of the world and recognized the people who are trying to do something about them.
      The site, I had been thinking, should have a discussion up front that put the loss of the planet’s natural and cultural diversity in the context of loss in general. I was just beginning to gather my thoughts about this subject. Perhaps Rinpoche could help me. These were the points I had thought about so far: 
      Loss is as universal and unavoidable a part of the human experience as life and death. The death of a loved one, your children growing up and leaving the nest, the loss of property that has special meaning (like my childhood stamp collection, which I was separated from at the age of 12 and dreamed about particular stamps for years afterwards, like the two cent 1862 Jefferson with the carmine sunburst cancellation that I had found in the Prestons’ attic and traded with their son Seymour for). The heartbreaking end of a relationship that you thought was it, that takes years to get over, that you never really get over (I’ve gone through several of those), the loss of your mind and memory and marbles from Alzheimer’s (from which my mother suffered during the last eight years of her life)or senile dementia. Half the children in America live in broken homes, with one parent or the other or being shuttled between the two. There are courses in our schools on substance abuse and safe sex, but none that I am aware of that deal with how to cope with the explosion of your family, or the many other kinds of loss which a child may already be experiencing or is inevitably going to experience sooner or later. There are no seminars on “impermanence management.” The German writer Gerhard Köpf creates in his novel, There is No Borges, a despairing professor of “Lusitanics,” or the science of loss (from the Lusitania, an ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, l915), but this is not a discipline that is recognized by any hall of learning, even though loss in its many forms is such a basic and inevitable fact of life, and learning how to process it, “becoming real,” as a Navajo friend puts it, is the great lesson of life, perhaps the most crucial survival skill. What is history but the record of loss—the rise and fall of states, cultures, and individuals?  Life is not really about winning or being “number one,” which American culture puts such a premium on. It is about losing. It is, by definition, a losing proposition. 
      How is the loss of species and memes and bio- and cultural diversity different from other kinds of loss?  Let’s take the case of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak, a small irridescent blue butterfly in the enormous Lycaenidae family that Vladimir Nabokov specializied in. My father caught the first specimens known to science in l933 on the island of Jamaica when he was 15 years old. (LINK TO “MY FATHER’S BUTTERFLY” ) and it was named for him by two taxonomists at the American Museum of Natural History, William P. Comstock and E. Irving Huntington. They classified it as a subspecies, Thecla celida shoumatoffii but later, as the taxonomy of the Lycaenidae became more refined,  the genus Thecla was broken up into more than 100 genera, and in l991 it was reclassified by Kurt Johnson as a species, Nesiostrymon shoumatoffii. It differs from Thecla celida celida of Cuba in having a small, wholly black tailspot on the underside of its hindwing, but inspection of its genitalia reveal it to be closer to Nesiostrymon celona, which ranges from Mexico to Argentina but is not easily seen because it is local and elusive. The last known specimen of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak was captured in l974. The species may be extinct, or the lack of a recent capture may simply reflect that not many lepidopterists have been running around Jamaica with their butterfly nets since the island turned violent in the late seventies.
      If it is extinct, no one has noticed its absence. I only know about the “bot,” as Jamaicans call butterflies in their Afrocarribean patois, and am concerned about its status, because it bears the family name, and I feel a certain responsibility for it. I have gone twice to Jamaica in unsuccessful attempts to find one in the wild. The only Shoumatoff’s hairstreaks I’ve ever seen are on pins, at the Jamaica Institute in Kingston and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (which has the type specimens). If there are no more of them in the wild, Jamaica’s plants and other insects seem to have made adjustments. Their contribution to the overall ecology of Jamaica is probably neglible.
      Species and subspecies are disappearing all the time as part of the natural process of evolution. (See William Drury’s book, Chance and Change). For every organism that has successfully established a niche for itself, usually after countless generations of evolutionary refinement, thousands of others have fallen by the wayside. This is clear from the fossil record and from paleobotany and other sciences that reconstruct the flora and fauna of the past.
      Bill McKibben makes the point in The End of Nature that humankind’s (my son who majored in anthropology tells me that mankind is no longer pc) eradication of the flora and fauna is one type of loss that is avoidable. But in many cases we are oblivious to the species we are exterminating and to what is happening in remote parts of the planet that most of us have never been to and have no personal knowledge of or burning interest in.  The most tragic type of extinction is known as sentinelan extinction, in which forms of life are wiped out before they are even discovered or identified, so that there is no knowledge or record of their having even existed.
      The arguments for why the loss of species is so lamentable are scientific, aesthetic, and religious. Each species has a role to play, a place in the order of things, a “niche” in “the ecology.” For a quantification of the “ecological services” that plants and animals perform, see Nature’s Services: Societal Dependance on Natural Ecosystems, ed. Gretchen Daily, Island Press, 1997. Scientists need species and subspecies and other forms of life so they can study how they have adapted and are adapting to change, and for the insights they provide into the process of natural selection. Some species like frogs are “indicator” species. Their decline is an indicator of the deteriorating health of the overall ecosystem. Artists have been inspired by the perfection of the design and “the beauty” of flowers and butterflies. Indeed the entire notion of “beauty” (I am talking about the modern Western one, which doesn’t exist in places like Madagascar), arises from nature. Most religions have an injunction like Tibetan Buddhism’s against harming our fellow “sentient beings.” As a Christian might put it, If you start playing God and messing around with “the creation,” deciding which species go and which stay, you are going to go down. If you are willing to let Shoumatoff’s hairstreak disappear, where does it end?  The logical extension of this attitude is genocide. What does a Jew here, a gypsy there, matter in the big picture?  We are upset when humans are liquidated, but what about the other animals? 

(The points touched on in this paragraph need a lot more fleshing out. Please communicate any thoughts on them to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com)

      The people who are best informed about what we are doing to “the creation,” or “the environment,” are extremely worried. As Wren Wirth, a veteran of the environmental wars of the last twenty years, whose Winslow Foundation has provided a start-up grant for the Dispatches, told me several years ago, “None of the long-term indicators are positive. Basically, we just aren’t moving fast enough. Nothing works. Local doesn’t work, global doesn’t work. Everything has a red flag on it. The big thing now is compromise. The timber industry wants to compromise with the environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. But how can you compromise, when only 5% of the old-growth forest is left? ” Wren rattled off some horrific stats:  “Humankind is presently using 40% of the plant matter made by photosynthesis and 52% of the fresh water, and our population is about to double, at which time mathematically we will need more than twice the plant matter and fresh water. So we are headed for certain catastrophe.”
      “But even our horrific realization of the destruction underlying the modern world, the terrible cost of all this, is projection and illusion,” my old friend argued, like a good Buddhist. “But this doesn’t give us license to harm, either. Harm goes on, and for those who suffer it it is absolutely real and awful, but harm itself is relative, so it’s delicate.”
      This was a good point. I am beginning to realize that the very notion of ‘nature’ as something distinct from man, which man is destroying, is a construct that dates to the nineteenth century, as the English and American countryside was being visibly altered by industrialism and settlement. Its main proponents were Thoreau and John Muir.
      This led to a discussion about the core belief of Buddhism in shunyata, or emptiness. How nothing really exists in itself, but is a projection of the mind. It is not total illusion, but “like illusion.” According to the most extreme, “Mind Only” School, that chair over there doesn’t even exist, it’s all in your mind. Heizenberg’s principle of uncertainty, that “chairness” will fall short every nth copy, lends some support to the effort to diminish its physical reality, but how helpful is this really?  Recall how Burke responded to Hume who was trying to make the same mind-only argument: he kicked a rock as hard as he could and said, “I refute you, thus!” 
       I recounted a conversation I had had with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in l988. I told his Holiness how the night before I had gotten up in my hotel room to go to the bathroom and had tripped on my suitcase, which I’d left in the middle of the room, and fallen flat on my face. “You can’t say the suitcase was all in my mind, because I had completely forgotten it was there,” I said. The Dalai Lama laughed his deep, slow, hearty laugh and asked,
      “What is a suitcase? You can spend your entire life describing that suitcase—its size, shape, materials, and so forth—but there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a subatomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist—independently.”
      “This is Madiamika-School interdependence type of thinking,” explained the Shamarpa. “Anything that depends on something else does not exist. Left does not exist. This is what the Dalai Lama was talking about. The Mahamudra school, which says that the mind itself is a mirage, takes the whole business even further.”
      So horror at the disappearance of species and memes, at the destruction of the planet, is a mental attitude. It is elective. Most people, indeed, hardly give it a second thought. You could even look at it as an attachment, one of the six causes of suffering according to Buddhism, related to nostalgia, which is attachment to the past-- a particularly futile and painful frame of mind. “The longing to return,” which is what nostalgia means literally, particularly afflicts exiles and refugees and other stateless people who have lost their country and been severed from the culture and natural environments in which they and their forefathers first learned to frame the world. This attachment to the world that was is a great source of pain that can continue for generations, losing fifty percent of its penetrance each generation like a gene. 
      I know about this pain because I suffer twinges of it myself. All four of my grandparents were White Russian émigrés. I was born in New York and so was my father, and yet I still long for the family’s big columned house in the Ukraine which was part of Russian until the breakup of the Soviet Union. There a fabulous collection of art that disappeared after my paternal grandparents and great uncle had to flee in l917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government and started to liquidate the aristocracy. The house no longer exists. It was blown to smithereens in the ensuing civil war. And yet I still have vague longings for that house, and the world it was part of (“remorseful, hospitable, racemosa-blossing,” in Nabokov’s words), which no longer exists, either. For a Russia that no longer exists, where my people had lived for a thousand years.

 

      Isn’t there a contradiction between the Buddhist precept of nonattachment and the Tibetan exiles’ longing for their beautiful culture and their country, which is disintegrating before their eyes, much of which is already gone?  I asked the Shamarpa. 
      “The attachment to Tibet is purely a nationalistic, political stand against China, and like everyone’s politics, Tibetan politics is full of envy, treachery, and hunger for power,” he said. The Shamarpa is a complete realist, which I find refreshing. “Enough information has made it out of the country so that the spiritual practice will continue, and the practice in the country is still very strong [despite China’s effort to suppress it, it is practiced in secret, the way the Pueblos kept their religion going while paying lip service to the Spanish missionaries.]
      Tibetan culture is not Buddhist, anyway,” the Shamarpa added. “It is Bön [the indigenous animism].”
  Robert Thurman, the Columbia professor who is one of America’s foremost Tibetan scholars and the father of Uma, the actress, whom I often consult on Buddhist and who is much more of an idealist about Tibet and its struggle to survive (which is equally valid and complements the Shamarpa’s realism), said, “Yes, there is a contradiction. But Tibet is a culture that teaches nonattachment and compassion, so the compassionate thing to do for mankind is to try to save it. Here the concept of caretaking comes in. It must be done without attachment and with compassion. We do not hate the Chinese who are destroying it, we do not want to kill them. We are like detached martial artists, who throw the negativity of our opponent back on itself. ”
      Shamar took exception to this. “We would kill them if we could,” he said, “and we tried to in the sixties, when we had guerillas supported by the CIA, who in the end decided it was in their best interest to abandon us.” 
      I am by this time woozing off. All this mind is mirage talk is starting to act on me.  It is not hard to believe that nothing is real in this restaurant, a generic upscale American eatery that could be anywhere in the country. Only some quilts hanging on the walls give is an ersatz New England flavor. 
      People at the other tables are downing the heaping portions of food that we Americans are accustomed to eat. 40 million of us are obese—by far the greatest percentage of any country. Two billion people on the earth today suffer from negative malnutrition, and another two billion suffer from positive malnutrition. The latter is going to be the big health problem of the 21st century for the developed. It is part of the larger American pattern of overconsumption. Big helpings, big cars, big everything. A serving of pasta, according to a segment on our burgeoning obesity on the CBS evenings news, is supposed to be no bigger than a tennis ball, but the usual portion in America is more like a can of tennis balls. According to Jeremy Revkin, Americans, who are 4% of the world’s population, are consuming 66% of its resources. This obviously can’t go on. 
      Suddenly in my semi-hallucinal state the blah samsara of the dining room sort of dissolves, and I have the sensation that I am seeing behind it to what is really going on, to the underlying processes, the transmuted raw materials that are making this visual display possible, and the effects its having on the rest of the world. This sensation, which is extremely unsettling, begins with an unsettling epiphany: that the air conditioning , besides giving me a sore throat, is contributing significantly to the very problem it is trying to combat, and from there it proceeds to other disquieting and discombobulating epiphanies. A man at another table is talking into a cellphone, the waitress is entering orders on her computer. Neither of them is aware of the gorilla-cellphone connection. No one in the room is, probably. My eyes go around the room, cataloguing the energy that is being used to heat or chill or illuminate or to produce this vinyl, this plastic, this petroleum product, which long ago was trees. This is my culture, but my organism is physically rejecting it. I feel very alone, like a complete misfit, almost nauseous. Like Sylvia Plath whose suburban anomie and existential disconnect became so unbearable in the early sixties that she ended up sticking her head in the oven and gasing herself. This isn’t the first seizure of this type that I’ve had, and I expect it won’t be the last. It was so strong that I felt myself breaking into a sweat and shivering in the air-conditioning.
      I got a grip on myself. Neither the Shamarpa nor my old friend had noticed that anything was amiss with me. I had one more point to make: that not all loss is not necessarily bad, either. I told them  about a recent conservation I had with a neurophysiologist named Scott Schwarzenwelder, who says that forgetting is as vital for humans to function as remembering is. By the end of the day, we have accumulated so many sensory impressions, so many thoughts have occurred to us, most of which are useless, that we could not function unless there was a mechanism for deleting the from the mind had the capability of deleting them, which it does while we are sleeping and explains why we spend a third of our lives asleep. While we are bagging z’s, our minds are jettisoning useless information. Michael Pollan has a section on the importance of forgetting in his new book, The Botany of Desire, pp. 160ff.
      Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do when you are meditating?  I asked the Sharmarpa. Clear your mind of extraneous and irrelevant thoughts?  This is what many of us had tried to do in the sixties with the help psychotropic drugs: to “blow our minds.” I made strenuous efforts to do away with the part of me that watches and judges and catalogues and compares and to just “be here now,” as Baba Ram Das urged, but to no avail. My superego wouldn’t go away. This was why I have never had much luck meditating. Thoughts are constantly coursing in and out of my mind, unbidden. I have been in the habit for years of carrying around a notebook to write the good ones down. Particularly when I’m in church or a shrine room, sitting in lotus position, these pesky thoughts really plague me. Often they have an erotic cast. I find myself admiring the back of the neck of the woman in front of me. 
      Thurman says that there is one form of meditation that focuses on clearing your mind of all thought, but Shamar said, “You can never rid the mind of thoughts. The mind is like an ocean, and thoughts are like waves. The best you can do is calm them.”
 

      These were my preliminary thoughts on loss, at this point only an unsorted collection of stray ideas, a casting of the net as widely as possible at a huge subject, which could be a book itself, which perhaps I should take on after I finish the multigenerational saga of my wife’s family by the end of the year. (Which is itself a story of inconceivable loss, including the disintegration of a culture—old Rwanda, the slaughter of close to a million Rwandans in the space of 100 days seven years ago, and exile and the exquisite pain that is peculiar to it.) Before I proceed—the entire framework in which I had thinking about loss was about to be exploded—I would again like to throw the floor open to discussion. Please communicate any thoughts on loss, about why we should care about the disappearance of species and cultures, or any other reactions to or suggestions for the Dispatches, to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com or discuss them in the Loss section of the Discussion Board here on DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.Com

 

Part Two: Hellsapoppin

   A month later, I went to New York City for a memorial service for my editor at Harper Collins, Robert Jones, an extraordinary person, an old soul if you believe in that sort of thing, highly evolved and deeply compassionate, who had truly devoted himself to his writers, to nurturing their talent and bringing out the very best in them. He was the editor every writer dreams for.  Robert had touched many people in the New York publishing and literary community, and the turnout at the University Club was perhaps a thousand strong. Devastated author after author of Robert’s recalled his incredibly supportive marginal notes: “Exquisite !” “I’m blown away !” “How did you ever come up with such a beautiful sentence? ” One of his colleagues quoted the columnist Cindy Adams, who wrote at the death of Liberace, “How do you type a tear? ”
      Robert was the third important person in my life who had died since March. Two of them were only in their forties—Robert was 49-- and I was still grieving for my father, whom I’d lost the year before. Death was abroad, closer to me than it had ever been to me. (Except for my own brush with it in Peru in l977, when I very nearly died of blackwater fever.)  I could hear the lacerating Ray Charles voice of the blind Reverend Gary Davis, my guitar teacher and guru in the sixties, singing his haunting song,  “Death don’t have no mercy in this land,” as if he were still here and had not died twenty years ago. LINK TO ETHNOMUSICOLOGY 
      It had been many months since I’d been to New York City. I am “not a pavement person,” as Georgia O’Keefe described herself, and I have always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I had just ended, in July, a very well-paid but singularly unproductive six-year relationship with Vanity Fair, and I was down on everything it stood for and glorified, its celebration of hyperconsumption and the decadent lifestyles of the superrich. There was no place for me there any more, for the kind of the writing I do. Long foreign stories had zero appeal to the current zeitgeist. So I wrote the editor, Graydon Carter, two perhaps too caustic e-mails outlining the issues I had with what he was doing to the magazine, and he didn’t want to deal with it and basically told me to seek employment elsewhere.  My wife thought I had taken leave of my senses for thus kissing off two thirds of my income and an enviable and prestigious position at the pinnacle of journalism in terms of pay and prestige, and maybe I had. But it was worth it. I was no longer a servant of the media. No longer did I cringe every time I passed a real-estate sign in Montreal that said VENDU ! 
      My disillusionment with my own culture had actually been growing since the previous fall, since Dubya stole the election. After that mockery of the democratic process, I just started letting my hair grow. It now cascaded to my shoulders, longer than it had even been in the sixties. I told people that I was in my second hippiehood. The electoral process had been hijacked, the Supreme Court was bought—what was there to respect about this culture whose selfish hyperconsumption was destroying the world?  
      This was more or less where I was “at” when I came to New York to pay hommage to Robert on September 10.  My old childhood friend, the Buddhist, who lives on the Upper East side and had gotten me together with the Shamarpa, put me up, and the following morning we drove out to La Guardia to pick up the Shamarpa, who had flown up from Washington. We were planning to have our second discussion about the Karmapa controversy, then I was going to catch the 11:45 train to Albany.  Having rained torrentially the night before, releasing a weeks-long buildup of humidity. September 11th dawned cool and clear as a bell. The taste of fall was in the air. I marveled at all the gorgeous chique women on the sidewalks of the Upper East Side, walking adorable little dogs or headed for work, chatting on cellphones. Ideologically I was down on the city, but this stance was quickly eroding, a woefully inadequate response to what New York City is. I have always had this ambivalence about New York. I get totally into it and love it when I am there, but I can only take a few days of it at a time.
     After collecting the Shamarpa, we headed back into the city. Getting up on the elevated Grand Central Parkway we could see the whole skyline of Manhattan across the East River, a glorious panoramic view of almost the whole island from tip to tip, whose most prominent features were the twin glass towers of the World Trade Center. But what was this?  A huge black plume of smoke pouring out of one of the World Trade Center towers, about two thirds of the way up. It was instantly apparent to all of us that this was not an ordinary fire. Something horrible had happened, obviously another terrorist attack on the preeminent symbol of American capitalism and global economic supremacy. But this was a very big hit, clearly a mortal blow to the tower, and to the people in it who had already come to their offices. Many people must be dead. I could hardly imagine the panic and the horror that must be going on inside what was left of the tower.
      I looked at my watch. It was 8:51. We turned on the radio but there was no news yet about what had happened. This was the first hit—by the first Boeing 767 from Boston, American Airlines Flight 11. It had happened at 8:45, only six minutes ago. Only one station broadcast an unconfirmed rumor that a twin engine plane had crashed into the tower. But by 9:00 every station was on the story. But no one knew what was happening. 
      “It’s the Taliban. I’m absolutely sure, ” the Shamarpa said. Or Osama Bin Ladin,  who was harbored by the Taliban. Bin Ladin was obsessed with these towers and with destroying Americans and everything American. We went over the Triboro Bridge. A policeman waved everybody off the FDR drive and we descended into Harlem and could no longer see the towers, but at the end of the eastern avenues, there was a huge mushroom cloud of smoke. By now the second tower had been hit, by the second Boeing from Boston, United Airlines 175.
      The three of us realized with a gutwrenching feeling that a major attack, a major act of aggression on the United States on the order of Pearl Harbor, a watershed historical event, was underway. As President Bush (Dubya no longer seems appropriate, considering what he now has to deal with) put it nine days later, in his address to Congress and the nation, “Great harm has been done to us, and we have suffered great loss.” A sentence with an almost biblical cadence, that almost seemed to have a veiled threat to it: and now you shall taste the wrath of Jehovah. I recognized from the phrase “patient justice” that the speechwriter must be the same one who came up with “compassionate conservatism” during Dubya’s campaign. 
      We got to my old friend’s apartment and turned on CNN and watched the twin towers collapse, one after the other, into the greatest heap of rubble in human history. 55,000 people worked in them. How many had already come to work, how many had gotten out, how many had been trapped and incinerated or blown up or crushed. It would be a long time before that was known. The whole of lower Manhattan was engulfed in smoke, but the statue of Liberty was still standing in the clear September air on its little island at the mouth of the Hudson. The symbol of everything that is good about America was intact. This had been a devastating “surgical hit,” as the military experts contracted by the networks described the little puffs of smoke far below that appeared on our screens during the Gulf War nine years ago, when we were bombing Baghdad, causing the staggering collateral damage to Iraqui civilians. It was this violation and desecration of the Muslim Holy Land, this loss of many of the faithful, that created Bin Laden. 
      I decided against going down to Penn Station and trying to make the 11:45 train to Albany. It was not a good idea to go anywhere until it was clear what was happening, until the attack was over. But I didn’t want to stay in the city any longer than I had to, so  I called Amtrak and reserved a seat for the 1:45. The booking agent assured me that the schedule was not going to be disrupted. At noon I started walked south down Lexington. I walked thirty blocks. The city was like a B disaster movie. The mushroom cloud was still billowing at the end the long, narrow, skycraper-lined canyon of Lexington Avenue. There was very little traffic. The streets were full of dazed people, commuters with loosened ties and attaché cases, New Yorkers whose elegance and vibrance I had admired a few hours ago. The sky was blotted out by smoke. Above it jet fighters—our Air Force-- were crisscrossing the airspace frantically. Each time one screamed past overhead everyone in the street would stop and look up anxiously, shielding their eyes with their hands. This must have been what London was like during the blitz. 
      I caught a cab which took me to 42nd Street, where roadblocks had been set up, and walked the rest of the way down to Penn Station. The doors were closed, and thousands of people were waiting outside for them to open. Most of them were commuters waiting for trains to Long Island or New Jersey, dying like me to get out of the gravely wounded city, the war zone, the target zone, and back home to their families. No one was saying a word. Thousands of people, regular, decent Americans, just waiting to get home. No one was complaining. How could anybody complain about having to wait for a train, about anything, after what had happened to the people who worked in the towers?  There was something very moving about the way they were all just standing there. I had been down on the whole new parochial, anti-intellectual, anti-environmental, dumbed-down, born-again cast of the American zeitgeist, epitomized by “Dubya.” I had been feeling more radical, more revolted by the mainstream society, now than I ever did in the sixties. But the humility of the people waiting for the doors of Penn Station, the patience and politeness and consideration that they all realized was the correct response to the situation, renewed my faith in the fundamental decency of the American people, and in that special quality that exists only in New York City: “heart.” 
      I had just put together some reminiscences about the city for TheSpook.Com’s September issue.
Its people and institutions, its energy has been incredibly important for me professionally and personally, even though the only time  only time I have ever lived there was for a few months in l970. I was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and had sublet an apartment on Second and 2nd from a coke dealer that was around the corner from the Hell’s Angels. Eights years later I was commuting from Westchester to my office at the New Yorker and having lunch at the Century and playing squash at the Harvard Club. This was a completely different New York. There are many different New Yorks, and I’ve been exposed to maybe half a dozen of them over the years. After my 1978 Amazon book, I wanted to write a big book on New York, to follow the ultimate natural jungle with the ultimate human jungle (which is in my view as “natural,” in its own way, as the Amazon), but was waylaid by financial considerations, as has often been the case with my more ambitious undertakings. Plus Mr. Shawn, the New Yorker’s legendary editor, of whom I and everyone else at the magazine were in awe, had tactfully shot me down with the question, “Don’t you think that taking on all of New York City might be too big? ”
      The one thing that cuts across  all the different New Yorks is this quality of “heart.”  I first came into contact with it in l967 when I landed a summer job between my junior and senior years of college as a cub reporter for the New York Daily News. My job was to write captions for the Sunday Coloroto Magazine about the weekly bathing belle (“Svelte, statuesque Barbara Contino graces the springboard of the Astoria pool,” etc.) and another column called “Mainly For Seniors” (“ Despite her years—all l04 of them—Mrs. Sophie Slobodein of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is an active cuisiniere”). The most interesting one was called New York’s Changing Scene. My editor, a wizened New York Irish veteran of the City Desk who periodically fortified himself with nips from a flask he kept in his vest pocket, would hand me a snapshot of a streetcorner in one of the boroughs taken in 20s or 30s, and another one taken from the same spot that was only a few days old. Often there was no discernible overlap. The scene had totally changed. I would scrutinize the old photo with a magnifying class, pick out things, and do research on what it was like back then. This was excellent training for the Dispatches, now that I look back on it. How many times in my world travels have I returned to some beautiful place I had passed through a few years early and found it completely obliterated. 
      Among my souvenirs from my twentieth summer at the Daily News is a photograph of a very fat monk in his robes who is swinging at a softball that was taken by one of the paper’s photographers—I don’t know his name. It won a big prize that year and I’ve taken it with me where I’ve lived. It still makes me feel good every time I look at it, and everyone else who visits the bathroom where it hangs. I can’t think of more classic Cartier- Bressons decisive-moment picture. It captures the monk just as he is taking a huge cut at the ball, swinging for Heaven, and missed it. It also captures what I love about New York, the heart that I am talking about. 

      I stood for half an hour with the people at the doors of Penn Station, who were all undoubtedly struggling privately to come to terms with what had happened. How could anybody hate us so much?  I suspect many of them were thinking. What does this mean? Is the world coming apart at the seams, the entire human experiment, the tenuous global social contract that is still being negotiated because it is in no one’s interest that the species annihilates itself and takes everything with it?  The growing frequency of outbreaks of massive psychotic violence—the Rwandan genocide, Tulsa, and now this —is certainly ominous. 
      How did you classify such an attack?  It was clearly an act of terrorism, but was it also an act of war, as the president called it later in the day. Bin Laden had declared a jihad against America, so it was. He had come right out and said that he was out to kill Americans. So the deaths in the towers and the planes and at the Pentagon were more than “collateral damage.” Wasn’t this also an act of genocide?  Killing people, even just one person, because they belong to a group, with the intent of exterminating the entire group or weakening it beyond the capacity to recover is how genocide is defined by the Geneva Convention. Usually the group is racial or ethnic or religious. “Americans” are a national group that embraces hundreds of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, but in Bin Laden’s eyes we are all infidels-- a corrupt, decadent tribe who he feels it is his religious duty to wipe off the face of the earth. So yes, this can be seen as an act of genocide. And what about the killing of ten or fifteen Palestinan civilians a day in Israel since the declaration of the second intifada a year ago?  Is this some important day in the Muslim calendar? I asked the woman standing next to me. It’s the anniversary of the Camp David Accord, she told me in a low voice. So maybe the terrorists are Palestinia: suicide bombers taking out a really attention-getting target. Or Bin-Laden’s folks who had chosen this day for their attack as a gesture of sympathy. 
      Could this also be seen an act of revolution? America has become the hated upper class of the world, in the eyes of many people, not just fanatical Islamists. This is how we are seen by a lot of people in Africa, Latin American, Europe, Canada, the Middle East, Asia. I am constantly having to defend America in my travels. Here we are, 4% of the world’s population who cornered 66% of its resources, if Jeremy Rifkin is to be believed. We have all the goodies, and this obviously isn’t right and a reasonable motive for revolution. As J.Paul Getty said, there will always be someone in the penthouse. The class struggle will always exist. But now it has transcended national borders. 
      So perhaps this attack can be compared—along with the more obvious comparisons-- to the bombing of Tsar Alexander II in on March 13, l881 by a 25-year-old Polish students named Ignacy Grinevitsky, who was Jewish, which prompted a wave of pogroms against the Jews. After that act, which struck at the very heart of Russia, it was clear to everyone that the days of the tsar and the aristocracy were numbered, although the revolution that brought them down didn’t happen for another 36 years. Maybe that was the message that Bin Laden was sending. The party is over, America. And he was just the messenger. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else. Not that what he did can be countenanced, not to diminish the diabolical insanity of what he did, cutting short 6800 innocent lives and counting. That’s how it always is in these liquidations, I thought as I stood there with the others: a lot of good people get killed because of some “ism.” A lot of useful, innocent people are lost. 
      It was also now stunningly clear to me that mainstream American culture is just as vulnerable as the species and cultures that it is destroying. I realized that I was going to have to expand the mission of the Dispatches. Spread the web of compassion to embrace my own culture, cut it some well-deserved slack. The insecurity that most of the world lives in has come to our shores.
      Now there will be more xenophobia. The part of America that I have big problems with will come back to the fore. Africa will be left to its own devices as resources are diverted to the war against the terrorists, and support systems already woefully inadequate will collapse, which will result in all the more loss of species and cultures. A whole lot more loss is in store. I am starting to dislike this word. It’s one of these buzzwords of the moment, like closure, and oxymoron a year or two ago, which is already old and on the way out. But the very fact that it is in such wide circulation these days is perhaps telling. 
      My ability to travel safely and report these Dispatches will undoubtedly be impacted, and to place them in magazines that were hemorraghing ads even before all this and will have less space and inclination to run long stories on foreign subjects that are not about the Middle East, that will shed light on the enemy. I will be leery like everyone about taking airplanes. And airplanes have been an incredibly important thing in my life. They have transported me to new worlds, opened my eyes to the astonishing diversity of life on planet. My grandfather was a partner of Igor Sikorky and Serge Rachmaninoff in the twenties. They developed the Pan American Clipper ship, whose maiden flight was to Rio. One of my aunts was on it. This summer my second son, a junior at Yale who is half-Brazilian, flew to Rio and fell in love with a girl there. Twenty-five years ago, I flew down to Brazil and fell in love with his mother in Brasilia. We divorced after I met the woman who has been my wife for the last eleven years on an Air Ethiopia flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 4, l987. So I associate planes with love, not terror and death, and I will do my bit for the economy by continuing to take them. What curious times these are ! It has become our patriotic duty to keep traveling, consuming, shopping, investing, spending money, so the economy won’t collapse. There is no rationing to put up with—yet. 
      On the Friday after the attack, the Day of Remembrance, I listen on my truck’s radio to Billy Graham addressing much of the American establishment at a church  in Washington. “This earthly tent is temporary, but the house of God is eternal.” And God is on our side, God will help us do what has to be done. A few minutes later, an interview given by Bin-Laden several years time ago is quoted. “From this mountain in Afganistan, God helped us destroy the Russians, and now He will help us make America a shadow of itself. And the war against the Americans will be much easier.” So God is on both sides, hedging his bets. “Just like he is at the Army Navy game,” the writer Russell Banks who is my neighbor in the Adirondacks, reminds me.  
      The world is going to take a huge step backwards, back to the Middle Ages, Banks predicts. It’s going to be the Christians against the Muslims, the crusades all over again. The president even used the word crusade, apparently oblivious to its unpleasant historical resonance for Muslims. Another friend, the New Hampshire poet John Van Hazinga, e-mails a poem he has written called “Hellsapoppin.” There’s a little town by that name south of Yuma Arizona, the hottest pocket of the country. Michiko Kakatuni had a column in the New York Times about how hard it was to find words to describe the attack and its aftermath. But if you had to sum it all up in one word, hellsapoppin is a pretty good candidate.
      Millions of people are e-mailing each other things they think might be helpful. 
Someone sends me, and forty other writers in a discussion group started by Banks, this extraordinary poem:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence 
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book, 
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.
 

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb? 

All I have is a voice 
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allowed no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their message:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame. 

   This poem was written by W.H.Auden on the eve of World War II. It is called September 1, 1939. It has understandably been getting wide circulation. Even the New York Times quoted it. “Auden is a good person to read at times like this,” says Banks, and he tells me that at the end of his life Auden changed the line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love another and die.” Which is sadly the case. A correction that is impossible to quarrel with. A good catch. Russell gives me two other snippets from Auden:

Patriotism—
Little boys obsessed by Bigness
Big pricks, Big money, Big bangs.

and

To regard statehood as anything more than a technical convenience of social organization—and few do not—is idolatry.
    
    There is a lot of e-mailing in the New Age crowd, my New Agey sister tells me, about how this is a conflict between the dark forces of both societies, the capitalists (referred to in most of the e-mails as “the world management team”) and the Islamists, who are themselves both the puppets of larger, superhuman, cosmic dark forces that are orchestrating the destruction of the world. That there is definitely a dark side to our society there can be no doubt, but you don’t have to posit any mystical dark forces to explain why it exists. Ignorance accounts for most it.  In Arizona, soon after the attack,  some of the local boys gunned down a Sikh, an Indian from the Punjab, because he was wearing a turban and was the closest person they could find to an Arab. The governor of Louisiana made a declaration that he took a lot of flak and quickly apologized for: “we’re going to pull over everybody who is wearing a diaper on his head.” In Warrensburg, an hour south of where I live, a Getty station owned by a Pakistani (who are already being called “Pakis,” like the “Japs” of WWII) is pelted with eggs. The owner puts up dozens of American flags, and the egging stops.
      A week after the attack, there’s a lively gathering  on the porch of the restaurant/bar in our little hamlet. Meat is sizzling on a gas grill,  the local boys are all there, beer is flowing freely. It’s an end of the golf season celebration, I find out later. I swing by and ask a carpenter who has done work on my house, hey, what’s this all about, and he say, in his cups, “We’re going to kill some sand niggers. Want to join us? ” 
      Sand niggers. I haven’t heard this revolting term in nine years, not since the Gulf War, when the same regulars at the same watering place were hepped up about “nuking the sand niggers.” This term really gets under my skin, because my wife is African, and it’s an ethnic slur that’s built on an ethnic slur. It has twice the potency of your average slur.
      I call the guy from whom I recall first hearing the term, back at the time of the Gulf War. He is a college-educated guy from an old WASP family, and he told me a joke about “sand niggers” from the local boys. He thought the term was hilariously funny at the time. I remember him saying, after I told him that the most disgusting term I’ve ever heard, “Come on. You have to admit it’s funny.” But now he doesn’t recall the joke or ever having told it to me. “I would never tell a joke like that,” he says. So he has grown, and is in denial about who he was then. 
      I realize that this could be another case of the useful, forgetting type of loss. We must forget our previous selves before we can grow out of them. Denial greases the skin-shedding process.
  My friend tells me that he heard the term long before the Gulf War. He recalls a Jewish stockbroker on Wall Street applying it to the rich Arab oil sheiks who had America by the balls during the oil crisis of 1973. How interesting. So the attack on the tower could have a karmic, what-goes-around-comes-around aspect. “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”
      Anthony Sapienza, the aforementioned editor of The Spook who is a New Yorker through and through, tells me sand nigger is a street term that has been around since the seventies. There were “white niggas” in the South, and “sand niggas,” who included Syrians, Egyptians, Algerians, Indians, whoever was in the hood who wasn’t white or black. So apparently the term was picked up by Wall Street, and also by the rural rednecks. Anything society that could come up with such a term is sick, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe we should be looking within ourselves for the explanation of what happened. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We have our own Bin Laden’s, our Timothy McVeighs on the right and our Ted Kaczynski’s on the left, our Columbines and police stompers of Rodney and sodomizers of Abner Louima. Every culture does. There is a Bin Laden in each of us. Most of us are able to keep him bottled, but if you push the right buttons, he will come out. 
      I refuse to be provoked by the carpenter’s invitation to “kill some sand niggers.” Instead I mumble something about having to get to the grocery store before it closes and drive back up the hill and split some very twisted and gnarly wood for an hour or so, until I can’t lift my splitting maul any more. I call my cousin, who lives in Long Island and could see the smoke engulfing lower Manhattan from Glen Cove beach. She has never heard the term and is appalled, but reminds me, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it what all Americans are like. Not every German is Hitler.” 
      She’s right, of course. At an anti-war protest rally in Cambridge, a young woman who had just started at Harvard as a freshman is photographed by the New York Times holding a placard that says AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND. Gandhi’s dictum.
      A lot of Americans and people all over the world—too many for the “world management team” —don’t want to see another Bagdad. But the Bush administration is going to be more sensitive to public opinion than the other side. 
      So I want to end this, and to kick off the Dispatches, on a hopeful, positive note. Hope (although to the Buddhists it is one of the major causes of suffering) is absolutely essential if we are going save what is left of the planet’s biological and cultural diversity. (My friend Bill McKibben, who followed The End of Nature with a book called Hope, Human and Wild, was several years ahead of me in realizing this.) Without the hope that things can still be turned around, what is the point of living?  What other reason can we give to our children so that they aren’t completely demoralized?  
      For the answer to such questions, I always take to the woods. Yesterday, the 23rd, day twelve of the post-attack era, I went roaming in the woods behind our house with my three little boys, looking for mushrooms, newts, salamanders, and whatever else might be out there.. Zachary, the six-year-old, said, “Look, Dad, a happy face.” He had picked up a birch leaf on the forest floor that had some holes eaten into it by insects. It is the same face that Zach’s teachers in Montreal put on his artwork and writing exercises. You will see what he was talking about. This is undoubtedly an accidental and perhaps, as Jung would say, synchronicitous convergence of nature and art, rather than art imitating nature or the other way around.