Category Archives: Features

#ArtSunday: Fall Flora

I recently purchased a new Nikon D750 full-frame, and on Friday my new Sigma 105mm macro lens arrived. Yesterday was my first flower-hunt with the rig. More test-drive than anything, but for me there’s something quite beautiful about this time of year, as nature begins tucking in and settling accounts…

Susan-in-Fall When-September-Ends

George Floyd and the Soul of The Mission

I’m a big fan of Dan Ryan’s. He sees the streets and he loves the people he finds there. And in him they obviously recognize something they can trust.

As a result he’s able to capture a frankness, an honesty, a whimsy that I think the rest of us miss entirely. Maybe we can’t see it, or maybe we’re afraid to.

Dan recently took his camera to the George Floyd Matters rally in San Francisco’s Mission District and came away with a visual record of a tough community that has seen plenty, and has now seen enough. But not so much they’ll forsake their values.

Give it a look.

George Floyd Matters rally

Despair and the Road to the Bamboo Gate


Master Ikkyū sits by the well plinking at his lute. Sōgi waits patiently for a tune to emerge but none does. Finally he clears his throat.

“Yes, Sōgi?”

“Good morning, Master. I have a request.”

The Master continues at the lute, to no end Sōgi can discern. “Go on.”

Sōgi sits on the packed earth before Ikkyū.

“They say you are the wisest here.”


Sōgi gestures vaguely toward the shrine.

“Ah. They are generous. Anyway?”

“Yes. It is said your wisdom arises from the path you walked before arriving at the Bamboo Gate.”

Ikkyū sighs and sets his lute in its case, then returns his attention to Sōgi. “You want to hear the sordid tale of my failed life, do you?”

“I’m sorry if I gave offense, Master. No one has suggested it was sordid.”

Ikkyū arches an eyebrow. He rises and draws a cup of water from the bucket by the well. He takes a sip, replaces the cup, and returns to his seat.

“The road to self-immolation is slick with the paving stones of secrecy. What would you hear?”

Sōgi furrows his brow. “They say you were worldly, with credentials and status. But you fell. Were you undone by desire, Master?”

Ikkyū chuckles with, to Sōgi’s ear, an echo of irony. Hmmm. Irony is the yang of Enlightenment? Ooh, that’s good, he thinks, making a mental note to write it down before he forgets it.

“In a way,” begins Ikkyū. “As a young man I pursued a career in the markets, a career for which I was unsuited.”

“Did you lack sufficient training, Master?” asks Sōgi?

“I had training. I was unsuited to…” He pauses for a moment. “I was unsuited to the world. I enjoyed the comforts and entertainments money afforded, but I detested the pursuit of wealth. I was clever enough but success required more effort than I was able to invest.”

“They say you had a wife,” says Sōgi.

“Three, actually.”


“All of them hated me. One chased me around our home with a knife one night.”

“Mmmm.” The younger monk nods. “When seeking a life partner you chose poorly.”

“That’s one theory,” says the Master. “There are others.”

“Like what?”

“It has been suggested that I chose well, but in the end I was…vexatious.”

Sōgi bites his lower lip in an attempt to stifle a laugh.

The Master watches silently. “You have some blood trickling down your chin, Sōgi.”

“Ummm.” [sngrk] “I’m startled by the idea of you as ‘vexatious.’ Just the other night at vespers we were all saying no, of all the Masters here, you were easily the least vexa-”

“If you’ll compose yourself I’ll continue.”

Sōgi wills his laughter into submission. He wipes the tears from his cheek. “I apologize, Master. You were saying?”

I lost three wives. I lost my job. I fell into grave debt. I developed a strange affliction of the nerves the doctors could not heal. I drank. My life was a failure by all the standards of society. It felt as though there were a rulebook for success and everyone had a copy save me. My struggle for self-awareness, which is rare among humans, was hindered by self-pity, which comes naturally to all.”

Ikkyū scribbles in the dirt between them. “I despaired.”


“Your story is a sad one, Master.”

Ikkyū shrugs. “I found the road to the Bamboo Gate.”


The next day Sōgi again finds Ikkyū at the well tormenting his lute.

He bows. “Greetings, Master.”

“Greetings, Sōgi. Is your lip healing?”

Sōgi laughs. “Yes, Master. It’s much better now.”

Ikkyū plinks.

“Master Ikkyū, I have been meditating on our conversation yesterday.”



“Hm. Didn’t see that coming. But good. What have your meditations revealed?”

Sōgi sits. “You explained how you, as Master Steve might put it, hit rock bottom.”

“Master Steve’s tongue is like the nightingale in Spring.”

“Yes. So, your marriages failed, you had no money, you were sick.”

Ikkyū interrupts. “I didn’t have ‘no money.’ I had a mountain of debt. ‘No money’ would have been a welcome improvement in my fortunes.”

“I see. So, when you attained this state, what did you do?”

The Master studies the dirt between them. “I took account of my ‘assets and liabilities.’ I read books by wealthy people. I finally realized I was – let me employ another Master Steve-ism – a ‘hot mess.’ There was literally no road back. I would never be able to repay the debt. As my knife-wielding ex-wife explained, I was aging and thrice-broke – body, soul, and wallet. In her view, I was not a ‘catch.’

“I was at an end. I had failed utterly. And accepting this…” Ikkyū leans back and looks beyond the sky. “If there is no hope of victory, there is no obligation to strive. I was free.”

The silence sits uneasily between them. Sōgi gets up and fetches a cup of water from the well. He sits back and clears his throat.

“It is as I suspected,” begins Sōgi.

Ikkyū cocks his head. “How so?”

“The Buddha teaches that desire is the root of suffering, yes?”

“Well, that’s the 50-characters-or-less version, but sure, let’s go with it.”

Sōgi draws a deep breath and looks Ikkyū in the eye. “I believe the Buddha was wrong.”

Sōgi waits while the Master composes himself.

“Very well. How is the Buddha wrong, young Sōgi?”

“Desire is certainly an impediment to Zen. But your light flickered on and you set out for the Bamboo Gate when you abandoned hope. It is attachment to hope that is the root of suffering, Master Ikkyū.

“Despair is the cradle of Enlightenment.”

Having endured enough youthful insight for one afternoon, Ikkyū sends Sōgi to the gardener to seek wisdom in the art of pulling weeds.

That night he dreams of the Buddha and Nietzsche seated beneath a cherry tree….


Kanji symbols: Life, crossroads, death

#ArtSunday: What’s the Greatest Book You Ever Read?

My buddy Jim Booth put together a quarantine reading list for our little S&R community this week and it got me thinking. So let’s pose a challenge.

What is the greatest work of literature you’ve ever read?

The Rules

It can be a novel, a collection of short fiction, a book of poetry, a play (yes, Shakespeare is eligible), or a work of creative nonfiction.

You may discuss your criteria and thought processes and you may mention your nominees. No dissertations necessary. Keep it as short as you like.

But you must pick ONE book. No ties, no waffling.

I’ll go first.

I sort of instantly leap to Flannery O’Connor’s collected short stories, although that feels like cheating since it’s kind of a greatest hits thing. Still, goddamn, her insight into the South, the way she manages to develop such distinct characters in such a short period of time, and the enthusiastic meanness of her humor surpasses anything I’ve read.

I may have some sort of bias toward short fiction, too, because as great as The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye are I’ve always found more essential connection to the short stories of Hawthorne and Salinger.

Even though it’s genre, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon hit me squarely where I lived at that moment in time, as I wandered away from Christianity and toward Paganism. So that’s more about personal relevance.

Yeats. Duh. But again, there’s the greatest hits issue.

Othello. Iago is perhaps my favorite character in the history of writing. There’s a library in there about evil and manipulation and how the powerful destroy the pure and good, and so that one seems especially relevant right now.


But if I have to pick one – and I do, because it’s MY rule – I’m going with The Grapes of Wrath. There’s no overstatting the importance of the Dust Bowl/Route 66 to California story in American history, especially now as the descendants of those dirt-poor migrants have transformed the state into its own emerging nation.

I’m not a reviewer. All I can do is think about Steinbeck delivering one body blow on top of another and the unfathomable perseverance of the Joad clan. For me there’s a psychological wonder in it because I’ve always figured there’s a depth below which I cannot sink, and if I get there I end it. But these people kept going because there wasn’t a choice.

I’m unworthy to even talk about these authors, and fortunately history has done better for them than I can. But that’s my humble take.

Your turn.

A Toast to Scholars & Rogues

As my friends know I spent the last 13 years as Publisher of Scholars & Rogues, a team blog covering everything from politics to the arts to climate to sports to music to journalism to … well, whatever was on somebody’s mind. During that time we produced nearly 11,000 posts.

We were never big, but we were always smart, thoughtful and committed to some basic principles about fairness, empathy, human achievement and justice in our world. My colleagues were as amazing as any group of people you’ve ever been around.

I want to take a moment to say to thanks to all of them. I’ll never be on a better team.

To S&R:



Quantum Enlightenment and the Watched Pot

Sogi-vs-IkkyuSōgi bows before Ikkyū.

“Master Dōken rebuked me this morning,” he says.

“What did you do this time?” replies Ikkyū.

“Nothing. I merely asked why the bird sings in its gilded cage.”

Ikkyū sighs. “What was the Master doing?”

Sōgi reflects for a moment. “At the time he seemed rather agitated at a pot of water.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He cursed the stove. Then he cursed my gilded bird. I explained that the cage was gilded, not the bird, but that upset him further. Then he asked did I not know a watched pot never boils?

“Master Ikkyū, I am unfamiliar with this wisdom. What is its meaning?”

Ikkyū laughs. “Young Sōgi, that is not wisdom. It is mere frustration with the perceived perversity of the material universe.”

“But … Master Dōken is the embodiment of enlightenment.”

“Master Dōken isn’t enlightened until after he’s had his coffee. Before then he’s just a grumpy old man.”


Later, Sōgi again approaches Ikkyū. “Master, I have been thinking on your lesson this morning.”

“It wasn’t a lesson. I just explained why Master Dōken was upset.”

“Indeed. So, the other day Master Haisen was reflecting on the quantum nature of enlightenment.”

“Here we go…” Ikkyū mutters under his breath.

“He holds that all we perceive is merely the expression of one potentiality. There are infinite possibilities, he says. Infinite universes. ‘Infinity awaits our notice,’ he says. Nothing becomes real until it is observed.”

“Yes,” says Ikkyū. “That sounds like something Master Haisen would say. In this continuum, anyway. Who knows what he might say if a raindrop fell on the fly instead of the honeybee.”

“I believe his insight must mean Master Dōken is wrong,” says Sōgi.

“Wrong? How so?”

“If Master Haisen is correct, it means a pot never boils until it is watched.”

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