Monday, December 23, 2013

Germs, Viruses, and Catechisms (historicowarpoligious poems) by Ed Coletti

Ed Coletti's Germs, Viruses, and Catechisms Published December 2013 by Civil Defense Publications (San Francisco)

As you well can imagine, it was difficult finding a press interested in publishing a political ( in this case "historicowarpoligious") poetry book.  I'm very pleased and humbled by CDP's acceptance and all that publisher James Tracy has done!,204,203,200_.jpg

Here's what Jonah Raskin wrote,
“Ed Coletti is at the top of his form in Germs, Viruses, and Catechisms, a collection of irreverent, sacrilegious verse that might become infectious, and that could become a kind of contemporary catechism. Playful and punning, satirical and lyrical, political and whimsical, Coletti’s brave new book brings together Crazy Horse and Joe Gallo, Columbus and George Bush. The lists are funny; the imagery of war and torture is absolutely wild. There are surprises here, too, as in “Hypatia of Alexandria,” a wild and wonderful poem that offers a heretical heroine for our own crazy, brave times.” 
- Jonah Raskin, author of The Radical Jack London and Rock ‘n’ Roll Women, Portraits of a Generation.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What's Obama Done For Us?/Bizaaro/Louis C.K./Anselm Hollo/

(P1) Political  Amol Rajan: What has the President ever done for us? Plenty

Apart from healthcare, Wall Street and social reforms, getting Bin Laden, green investment and smart stewardship of the world’s biggest economy, what the hell has Obama done for the US?

Sept. 23, 2013. In recent weeks it has become a prevailing orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic to call Barack Obama a spent force. The argument goes like this: in screwing up over Syria, a President who was always weak and ineffective and who foolishly inflated expectations ahead of his first term has accelerated America’s decline and exhausted his own authority. History will thereby judge him a failure. It’s White House Down.

Like most prevailing orthodoxy, this is bunkum. We’ll come on to the Syrian mess in a moment. First, a brief review of the wider critique.
I guess it’s true that Obama has done nothing very useful; except achieving, in public healthcare, something that presidents going back a century or more have wanted but failed to get. Then there are the small matters of substantial Wall Street reform, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — which did so much to reduce the pay gap between men and women — repeal of the vile “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule for gays in the military and the exceptionally competent response to Hurricane Sandy. Then there are his radical moves towards energy independence through investment in shale, and his personal supervision of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the scheduled withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, when he took over as President, the world was on the brink of depression and America was losing 700,000 jobs per month — but since 2010 it has grown an average of 2.3 per cent per quarter.
So apart from healthcare, Wall Street and social reforms, getting Bin Laden, green investment and smart stewardship of the world’s biggest economy, what the hell has Obama done for the US?
Not much, I guess; though note that his detractors think his predecessor is sorely missed and often champion Britain’s economic recovery, where quarterly growth since 2010 has averaged 0.28 per cent and is fuelled by a disgraceful housing bubble.
It’s true that Obama screwed up over Syria. His error wasn’t breaking the pledge about crossing a red line but making it in the first place — something he did on his diplomats’ advice. The hesitancy he and Secretary of State John Kerry showed has energised his critics, who see international affairs as a contest over who can put the biggest willy onto the negotiating table.
That’s not how it works. Diplomacy is a combination of patience, strategy and luck. Obama has all three. On Syria, he has been given an exit strategy, by the Russians of all people. And tomorrow, at the UN in New York, almost unthinkably, Iran’s new leader will shake Obama’s hand.
Though the Israelis are — justifiably — sceptical, there has been an astonishing thawing of relations between Iran and America of late. Iran’s leaders released political prisoners, sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews via Twitter, and exchanged letters with the White House via the Swiss. The Americans reciprocated.
If Obama is chastised over his handling of Syria, so he should be applauded over his handling of Iran. It is far too early to tell, of course; but he could yet convert the latter from pariah to partner. That won’t convince his silly critics, but it might shut them up for a bit.
Amol Rajan is editor of The Independent (England) Twitter @amolrajan

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(P2) Philosophical  

 Press the name

"Louis C. K." - Check Out His Measured Reason Why His Kids Will Not Have Cell Phones

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(P3) PoeticalFrom
Guests of Space

For Janey, with French idioms

by Anselm Hollo  (April 12, 1934-January 29, 2013)

wind gusts changes sky from blue to white
above carpet of crabapples under the tree
flickers flicker through air

tremendous lightning strike two nights ago
gave me the flesh of the hen for half a second
then water poured from the sky

      — no I'm not turning into a "nature poet"
but the little green house you built for me
does make me notice a few more things in the universe
to add to my "Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence"
      and I never imagined I could be so unjealous
of my loved one's art
      even when it takes her away from me
for many evenings and mornings and nights inbetween
but o I make myself a joy of it
            to see her again

"the flesh of the hen" — "la chair de poule" — goose pimples
"make myself a joy of it" — "se faire une joie de" — to look forward with pleasure 

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Oscar Grant & Katherine Hastings Redux/Bears! Oh My!/ElizabethHerron Poem/

(P1) Political/Poetical

Ed's Note:  Back in 2009 when I first ran 

this moving Katherine Hastings poem on the P3,
I confess that I worried a bit that perhaps we were
jumping the gun before all the facts were in.  Today in 2013, not only do we know everything about the tragic event, we now have the excruciating film "Fruitvale Station" which Joyce and I watched in tears today, July 27, 2013.  I urge the entire world to watch this film and reread Katherine's poem as  important steps toward human understanding and combating racism.


In Memory of Oscar Grant
New Years Day, 2009

by Katherine Hastings

As the young supermarket worker lay facedown
amid the darkness
as he lay there in Oakland's underground,
where moon and stars are barred
unarmed, black, pinned down,
inside the darkness
begging not to be shot,
as he lay there covered with cops
dark forms with dark wings
hiding him from view as best they could,
through fear's thick veil
cell phones up and down the tracks
a shape-shifting transit crowd
recorded the cop pulling his gun,
pressing it to the back of the unarmed black man
strength in meekness
who was a young friend, who was a lover,
as a drop of dew
who was a father laying facedown
as a small drop of dew

As the young black man lay there,
pinned down, facedown, begging,
a lone drop of dew
a cop shot him in the back, BAM!
shot him in the back!

As the young unarmed man laid dying,
birds within the wind
cops hiding him the best they could,
fish within the wave
cell phones recorded the shooting of Oscar Grant,
thoughts of man's own mind
float through
pinned down,
all above
face down,
the grave

Everyone saw it and saw it and saw it
those eyes
and no one can say
burn through

it wasn't so.
the last embrace

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(P2) Philosophical

A few lions, no tigers and one bear. Oh my!

by Larry Robinson

Op-Ed in June 14, 2013  
Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Bear sightings have increased in the west county in recent weeks. This one was photographed at St. Dorothy's Episcopal Camp & Retreat Center near Camp Meeker.

The Press Democrat


Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 5:19 p.m.
West county seems to have caught bear fever. The sightings and tracking of a juvenile black bear (or maybe two) between Sebastopol and Occidental are headline news. Our wandering friend may have soon his own Facebook page.

Most of us seem to be rooting for the bear. Maybe we're really rooting for ourselves, for nature and for the wild which we are rapidly losing. It wasn't that long ago that our region was home to hundreds of black bears and grizzlies were the top predator. That was also a time when the Laguna teemed with herds of elk and pronghorn antelope and our waterways were filled with salmon and steelhead. 

As a species, we evolved to be in constant relationship to the rest of our more-than-human community — sometimes as predator, sometimes as prey, but always interdependent. Now that we have extinguished the California grizzly and most of the big cats, we are certainly safer from predation. But at what cost?

The world we experience now consists primarily of other humans or things made or grown by humans. I think this makes us lonely, and it makes us forget who we are. We hunger for something but don't know what it is. A misguided pursuit of happiness leads us to want more and more of what we don't really need.
An ancient Greek myth tells the story of Erysichthon, the wealthy landowner who comes across a great oak sacred to the Demeter, the goddess of abundance. His men recognize the tree for what it is and feel an appropriate sense of awe. Erysichthon sees only the bottom line and orders his men to fell the great tree. When they refuse, he seizes an ax, decapitates his foreman who had tried to protect the tree, and proceeds to cut it down. When Demeter learns of this sacrilege, she places a curse on him that whatever he eats will only increase his hunger. He consumes everything he has, including his own children and, eventually, himself.
This is our story. We have severed our connection to the very source of life, and as a result we are possessed by an ever-growing hunger that we try to fill by consuming more and more. We have mortgaged our children's future for our short-term gratification and, in the process, squandered the true wealth we have inherited, destroying the fabric of life that sustains us.

Scientists estimate that every 20 minutes, on the average, another species goes extinct, mostly from loss of habitat and a changing climate. We may not miss the xerces blue butterfly or the Fort Ross weevil, but we will miss the polar bears and the elephants as they leave us. We may think that the California tiger salamander and the spotted owl are not as important to us as a new housing development or a few thousand board feet of lumber, but we will surely be the poorer for it. Our ecosystem has been amazingly resilient, but we are pushing the limits of its ability to recover.

We haven't left much of a home for the west county bear or other inhabitants of the wild, but we can still reduce our human impacts by focusing new development in existing urban footprints and by creating wildlife corridors instead of vineyards or fencing.

And maybe — just maybe — we can find a way to recover our own sense of awe and reverence for this amazing planet we call home.

(Larry Robinson is a former City Council member and mayor of Sebastopol.)

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(P3) Poetical

To Save Yourself
by Elizabeth Herron

When a crow nests in your hair
throw away your comb.

If a white dog comes to your door
drive it off.  If a black dog
let it lie at your hearth. 

Take gravel from the gullet of a cock
and cook it with suet. Shape a loaf
to rise in moonlight. 
When a stranger comes, 
slice the bread.

If you have regrets, sew salt
in the hem of your coat. 
Throw away your heroic medals.
Wrap green ribbons around
your wrists and doorknobs.
Sing to stones. Pray to trees.

When anger fists your heart
pull it out by the root,
wrap it in red twine and bury it
under a rose bush. It will make 
strong thorns.

Let your memories lie 
by the fire beside the black dog.
When melancholy joins them
do not turn away.

Wrap your suffering in blue silk
and let the tide take your tears. 
Take home a seashell 
to remind you
all things come and go, 
come and go.

If despair clings to you
get up before dawn
and think of those you love
still sleeping.

If worry burdens your shoulders
break the crust of your back
and flap your arms like a homeless 
coat or the wings of a blackbird.

When doubt darkens your hope
flap them again. Remember
kicking your legs to swim underwater.

Remember kicking your legs to swing
as high as the swing would go.
Remember weightlessness.

Let sadness see the sunrise.

If longing aches, take aspirin.

When you can’t sleep, go talk
to the owls, and listen
for they will answer.

When you weep, remember rain.

We are such small lives, 
so perishable. We are fruit
falling.  We are the faintest stars
salting the dark.  
We are ants
looking for honey.  
We are flower and pollen.
We are the hive.

What we make and give away
gathers gold.

- Elizabeth Herron

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Toddler Guns/Bill Edelen on Dogs, etc/Jack Crimmins & Rebecca del Rio/

(P1) Political

About Crickett Rifles For Toddlers

From Mother Jones May 1 2013

On Tuesday, inside a rural Kentucky home, a five-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister. The boy had been playing with a .22 caliber single-shot Crickett rifle made and marketed for kids. The children's mother was reportedly outside the house when the shooting took place, and apparently didn't know that the gun contained a shell.

"Just one of those crazy accidents," said the Cumberland County coroner, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Pennsylvania-based maker of Crickett rifles, Keystone Sporting Arms, markets its guns with the slogan "My First Rifle." They are available with different barrel and stock designs, including some made in hot pink to appeal to young girls.

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(P2) Philosophical

Edelen At 91

Poetry, Puppies, and Pleasure
by William Edelen

On the 17th of July, coming  up fast, I will have been on this earth 91 years. On that date in the West Texas town of Stephenville a star danced and I made my entrance into this world in 1922. That city is known today as ‘the cowboy capital of the world.’” Those lazy, hazy days of summer for me will be filled with the pleasure of  poetry and my two four legged soul mates who share my home with me… I named them TAI and CHI. Brown and white Shih-Tzu’s, litter mates, brothers. Abundant joy and the celebration of life is constant in their presence.

They will compliment my other hours relishing good poetry and poets who, to me, are the language and breath of life. It is as Octavio Paz has written “there is more truth to be found in poetry than in all the philosophy ever written” …and again “when you say ‘life is marvelous, you are saying a banality.’ But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry.”  That opinion from a Nobel Prize winner in Literature and Poetry, from a poet called “the soul of Mexico” touches my mind and heart and receives from me a solid YES in affirmation.

Or my being totally absorbed in almost everything written by United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz, who was twice appointed to that distinguished position. When he died a few years ago, at age 100, he was given full page treatment in both the LA Times and the NY Times.

His poetry is breath-taking and his essays on life and writing and meaning and reality are as stimulating as anything I have read in years. When I read his poem on “The Layers” to my Sunday Symposium the response was without precedent. Everyone wanted a copy and we printed about 200 copies to pass out the next week. When I started reading to them “The Wellfleet Whale” about a 63 foot finback whale foundered on the beach, gasping for life, I could not finish the poem I was so choked up. Kunitz received the Pulitzer and the Bollingen Prizes, the National Medal of the Arts, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and where would the listing of honors end?

What puts my brain into overdrive are his insights into life and words, language and meaning. Listen to this: “poetry is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning.” Kunitz wrote much about animals, nature, plants and his beloved garden. In my study is an extensive library.  My favorite section is my shelves of heroes and role models of brilliant poets and their equally brilliant writing. Emerson, Whitman, Sandburg, Frost, e.e.cummings, Mary Oliver, Neruda, Neihardt, Paz. Rumi, Merwin, Gary Snyder, Marquez, Jim Harrison, Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove… and where would it end?…the monumental influence on my life of the vision, thoughts, and ideas of writers of the language of the soul and life.

They will be filling my lazy and hazy days of my birthday summer, along with the sensational new poet, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian born on the Spokane Indian Reservation. I suggest “Blasphemy” and “The Business of Fancydancing”
And always around to remind me to live in the NOW, and enjoy the moments as they come to me, one by one,  are my two bouncing and joyful four legged puppies, Tai and Chi, offering me their “unconditional love” even if I am late on feeding them. Science today is confirming what many of us have long known. The relationship between animals and the human animal is psychic, mystical, and mind boggling. Mark Twain said it well: “man is the only animal that blushes, or needs too.” Think of this and weep:  other than humans, no other animal runs torture experiments on other animals. There is a spiritual and protoplasmic relationship between all living organisms. Nobel Prize scientists are writing today using that kind of language. Of course, the American Indian has known that for thousands of years.

Remember, the little chipmunk is of the same dust as we, He drinks the same waters, breathes the same air, needs the same oxygen, is warmed by the same sun and was created by the same first source. “A human is ethical only when he considers every living cell, plant or animal, sacred and divine” wrote that giant scholar and humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

A New York Times article on the “animal connection “recently was on the health benefits of having a dog or cat.  I loved this paragraph: “Don’t worry about cardiovascular workouts, oat bran, or an aspirin. To live longer and heal faster, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and have a far better chance of surviving a heart attack, get a dog.  Dogs should be making house calls and making the rounds of wards.”
What a beautiful 91st summer I will have this year, filled with fairly good health, joy, love, writing, my Sunday Symposium, surrounded in my library study by profound and brilliant poets… with two little four-legged bouncing Shih-Tzu’s filling every room with the message “this moment… NOW… is all we have… this is IT …now enjoy…”

Meister Eckhart gives me my final word for this column and this day and this life. “IF THE ONLY PRAYER YOU SAY IN YOUR LIFETIME IS ‘THANK YOU’… THAT WILL SUFFICE.”
So to the cosmic Mystery… THANK YOU.

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(P3) Poetical



spirit calls out your name
when lightning flashes
spirit makes a trail

and okay sometimes we catch a glimpse
Yeats' wife begins dictation
on the train outside San Bernardino

years later we listen and
fall inward to

your life is gold within
sun behind clouds
still gives off light

is it too easy to say
life is blessed
and has freedom gone hidden

what is death
dark stone in the center of the path

    - Jack Crimmins

The Dark Stone

for Jack Crimmins

There in the path, it waits
The dark stone, in the center–
The place we hoped never to arrive.

Life is littered with so many losses,
Dark stones, scattered in the fields and paths,
Betrayals by death, dishonesty, disappointment.

What happens if we meet that stone with wonder,
Walk to its cruel center, sit in its
Sorrowful presence?

Here, yes here, in the heart of
Fear, disillusion, chaos and
Confusion, peace arrives, a soft surprise.

- Rebecca del Rio

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Emily D. 435/Susan Lamont Meets Sandy Weill/New Pope Praying/Get the Money Out!/

(P1) Poetical

Emily Dickinson Like Yeats Re. Politics?


Much madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much sense—the starkest Madness—
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightaway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

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(P2) Political (a.)  

Can It Be Called Philanthropy?

By Susan Lamont

Two years ago, I posed the question, “Can it be philanthropy if it was made possible by ill-gotten gains?” I was talking about Sandy Weill, architect of Citigroup, destroyer of the Glass-Steagall economic protections, and creator of the mainstream toxic subprime mortgage market.

You’ll remember that Weill gave $12.5 million to Sonoma State University for the Green Music Center. I called him on it, pointing out that he’d stolen our money and had decided, on his own, how it should be spent. If we’d been asked if we wanted our money spent on a music center, we might have said “yes.” Who knows? But we weren’t asked and there’s the little matter of the extra he kept for himself.

Well, this March the North Bay Business Journal held its annual conference on the state of the economy in Sonoma County. The theme was “Game-Changers: Innovations and Leaders Transforming the North Bay Economy.” The keynote speaker was Sandy Weill (investor in the Press Democrat, Argus-Courier, Sonoma Index-Times and the North Bay Business Journal). That’s enough to make one’s head spin! Sandy Weill knows a little something about game-changing all right, but not for the better. Subprime mortgages and the end of Glass-Steagall were fundamental to the economic crash.

I just had to hear this, so I got myself a ticket. That morning, traffic into Sonoma State was really backed up because of the conference and I was worried I’d be late. But as luck would have it, I wasn’t the only one. As I walked in, Sandy Weill walked in with me. So I turned to him, shook his hand, and introduced myself. He knew who I was.

And then I surprised even myself and told him I wanted to ask him a question. I asked him if they were being ironic when they chose him to speak on game-changers. He said that he didn’t know what I meant. I explained that given the negative influence he’d had on the economy…….He immediately told me that he’d done nothing wrong.

Just then SSU president Ruben Armiňana strode up to greet Weill. Upon seeing me, he hissed to Sandy, “She’s the one who wrote that article.” Sandy said he knew that. Armiňana then turned to me and said, “I have only two words for you: 'mean and nasty'.” I told him that I thought what had happened to people in the crash was “mean and nasty.” Again, Weill squawked that he’d done nothing wrong and they both turned away.

So, apparently both Weill and Armiňana believe there’s nothing wrong with crashing an economy, causing people to lose their homes, or gutting the funding for the very university of which Armiňana is president. It’s no problem for them that the crash has made it more difficult to pay for a college education, causing students to go into greater debt than ever before in the hopes that there will be a decent-paying job when they leave.

I’m going to guess that Weill really believes he’s done nothing wrong. After all, we’ve been encouraged to believe that there’s no right or wrong about money. But I have no problem saying that the world would be a better place if Sandy Weill had never set foot in the business world.

Most economic thinking is done inside a little box by people who couldn’t think their way out of it if it were set on fire. How do I know? Because it’s on fire now and we’re hearing the same old blather!

I want a world in which the wealth is spread more equitably – to the workers in the factories or the implementers of great ideas or the mothers and fathers who raised them or the people who harvested the food that helped them thrive. I want a world with no need for “philanthropy.”

- Susan Lamont is a landscape architect, a photographer, and a peace and social justice activist with the Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County. She is on the collective which puts together the P&J Center's Peace Press, as well as the editorial board of the Occupied Press North Bay/Prensa Ocupada Bahia Norte.

She is the Santa Rosa organizer of monthly readings for 100 Thousand Poets for Change.

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(P3) Philosophical
New Pope Praying (watercolor by Ed Coletti

For some reason, I did this watercolor of the new pope praying the day he was elected.

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(P2) Political (b.)

 I ran this back in September of last year.  Since then, my concern has grown to the extent that I can think of nothing else politically and economically that is more important.  Legalized bribery is the uber-evil that accounts for everything congress refuses to do  in support of a middle class in this country.

Get the Money Out of Politics

"No person, corporation or business entity of any type, domestic or foreign, shall be allowed to contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for Federal office or to contribute money on behalf of or opposed to any type of campaign for Federal office. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, campaign contributions to candidates for Federal office shall not constitute speech of any kind as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or any amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Congress shall set forth a federal holiday for the purposes of voting for candidates for Federal office."

Unfortunately, the mechanisms for amending the Constitution may be too cumbersome and untenable to make this happen during this particular political time.  Additionally, everybody and his brother or sister, seems to be proposing constitutional amendments, and the result is distraction.

So, at this particular juncture, I ask that you watch the following two or so minute announcement of a new method through a law called the American Anti-Corruption Act.  You will then be guided toward steps to be taken.  Initially, however, just watch the short movie. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sandy Hook, Guns, and Politics Cartoons/Jim Carroll/8 Philosophical Unanswerables/

(P1) Political

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(P2) Poetical

Jim Carroll

Carroll in Seattle in 2000
Born James Dennis Carroll
August 1, 1949
United States
Died September 11, 2009 (aged 60)
New York, New York, United States
Nationality American
Occupation Author, poet, musician, autobiographer.  Published in Poetry Magazine and Paris Review.
Years active 1967–2009
Known for The Basketball Diaries,  Fear of Dreaming (Penguin Books), etc.
Influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler,[1] Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs[2]
Influenced Irvine Welsh, Danny Sugarman, James O'Barr, Harmony Korine, Pete Townshend[3]

I came across Jim Carrol after his death when my son, NYC poet John Coletti invited me to the Jim Carroll Memorial Reading at The Poetry Project at St. Mark's in the Village.  That night, in addition to readings and performances by the likes of Anne Waldman and Thurston Moore, I had the distinct pleasure of watching, listening to and speaking with Patti Smith or at least with her famed guitarist Lenny Kaye.  I may briefly have brushed against Patti who performed a memorable version of Jim Carroll's people who died.  She changed the names of the dead to those of poets, mostly Beat.  Here are 2 You Tube cuts of the Jim Carroll Band, one "People Who Died" and the other "Catholic Boy" both of which I admire greatly.  The photo below is a sad one (because he'd been such a vital beautiful young man) taken in shortly before his death of a heart attack.  He was working at his desk when he died - Ed

Watch an listen to "People Who Died"  and "Catholic Boy"


We are very much a part of the boredom
of early Spring of planning the days shopping
of riding down Fifth on a bus terrified by easter.

but here we are anyway, surviving like a wet street in August
and keeping our eye on each other as we “do it,” well
you do west on 8th St. and buy something mystical to wear
and I’ll simply tuck my hands into my corduroy pockets
and whistle over to Carter’s for the poster he promised me.

I like the idea of leaving you for a while
knowing I’ll see you again while boring books
W.H. Auden, and movie schedules sustain my isolation
and all the while my mind’s leaning on you like my body
would like to lean on you below some statue in Central Park
in the lion house at the Bronx Zoo on a bed in Forest Hills on a

I reach 3rd avenue, its blue traffic, I knew I would sooner
or later and there you are in the wind of Astor Place reading
a book and breathing in the air every few seconds
                                                                         you’re so consistent.

Isn’t the day so confetti-like? pieces of warm flesh tickling
my face on St. Mark’s Place and my heart pounding like a negro youth
while depth is approaching everywhere in the sky and in your

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(P3) Philosophical

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8 Great Philosophical Questions That We’ll Never Solve

- George Dvorsky -  

Philosophy goes where hard science can't, or won't. Philosophers have a license to speculate about everything from metaphysics to morality, and this means they can shed light on some of the basic questions of existence. The bad news? These are questions that may always lay just beyond the limits of our comprehension.

Here are eight mysteries of philosophy that we'll probably never resolve.

1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Our presence in the universe is something too bizarre for words. The mundaneness of our daily lives cause us take our existence for granted — but every once in awhile we're cajoled out of that complacency and enter into a profound state of existential awareness, and we ask: Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws? And why should anything exist at all? We inhabit a universe with such things as spiral galaxies, the aurora borealis, and SpongeBob Squarepants. And as Sean Carroll notes, "Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously." And as for the philosophers, the best that they can come up with is the anthropic principle — the notion that our particular universe appears the way it does by virtue of our presence as observers within it — a suggestion that has an uncomfortably tautological ring to it.

2. Is our universe real?

This the classic Cartesian question. It essentially asks, how do we know that what we see around us is the real deal, and not some grand illusion perpetuated by an unseen force (who René Descartes referred to as the hypothesized ‘evil demon')? More recently, the question has been reframed as the "brain in a vat" problem, or the Simulation Argument. And it could very well be that we're the products of an elaborate simulation. A deeper question to ask, therefore, is whether the civilization running the simulation is also in a simulation — a kind of supercomputer regression (or simulationception). Moreover, we may not be who we think we are. Assuming that the people running the simulation are also taking part in it, our true identities may be temporarily suppressed, to heighten the realness of the experience. This philosophical conundrum also forces us to re-evaluate what we mean by "real." Modal realists argue that if the universe around us seems rational (as opposed to it being dreamy, incoherent, or lawless), then we have no choice but to declare it as being real and genuine. Or maybe, as Cipher said after eating a piece of "simulated" steak in The Matrix, "Ignorance is bliss."

3. Do we have free will?

Also called the dilemma of determinism, we do not know if our actions are controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (or by some other external influence), or if we're truly free agents making decisions of our own volition. Philosophers (and now some scientists) have been debating this for millennia, and with no apparent end in sight. If our decision making is influenced by an endless chain of causality, then determinism is true and we don't have free will. But if the opposite is true, what's called indeterminism, then our actions must be random — what some argue is still not free will. Conversely, libertarians (no, not political libertarians, those are other people), make the case for compatibilism — the idea that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe. Compounding the problem are advances in neuroscience showing that our brains make decisions before we're even conscious of them. But if we don't have free will, then why did we evolve consciousness instead of zombie-minds? Quantum mechanics makes this problem even more complicated by suggesting that we live in a universe of probability, and that determinism of any sort is impossible. And as Linas Vepstas has said, "Consciousness seems to be intimately and inescapably tied to the perception of the passage of time, and indeed, the idea that the past is fixed and perfectly deterministic, and that the future is unknowable. This fits well, because if the future were predetermined, then there'd be no free will, and no point in the participation of the passage of time."

4. Does God exist?

Simply put, we cannot know if God exists or not. Both the atheists and believers are wrong in their proclamations, and the agnostics are right. True agnostics are simply being Cartesian about it, recognizing the epistemological issues involved and the limitations of human inquiry. We do not know enough about the inner workings of the universe to make any sort of grand claim about the nature of reality and whether or not a Prime Mover exists somewhere in the background. Many people defer to naturalism — the suggestion that the universe runs according to autonomous processes — but that doesn't preclude the existence of a grand designer who set the whole thing in motion (what's called deism). And as mentioned earlier, we may live in a simulation where the hacker gods control all the variables. Or perhaps the gnostics are right and powerful beings exist in some deeper reality that we're unaware of. These aren't necessarily the omniscient, omnipotent gods of the Abrahamic traditions — but they're (hypothetically) powerful beings nonetheless. Again, these aren't scientific questions per se — they're more Platonic thought experiments that force us to confront the limits of human experience and inquiry.

5. Is there life after death?

Before everyone gets excited, this is not a suggestion that we'll all end up strumming harps on some fluffy white cloud, or find ourselves shoveling coal in the depths of Hell for eternity. Because we cannot ask the dead if there's anything on the other side, we're left guessing as to what happens next. Materialists assume that there's no life after death, but it's just that — an assumption that cannot necessarily be proven. Looking closer at the machinations of the universe (or multiverse), whether it be through a classical Newtonian/Einsteinian lens, or through the spooky filter of quantum mechanics, there's no reason to believe that we only have one shot at this thing called life. It's a question of metaphysics and the possibility that the cosmos (what Carl Sagan described as "all that is or ever was or ever will be") cycles and percolates in such a way that lives are infinitely recycled. Hans Moravec put it best when, speaking in relation to the quantum Many Worlds Interpretation, said that non-observance of the universe is impossible; we must always find ourselves alive and observing the universe in some form or another. This is highly speculative stuff, but like the God problem, is one that science cannot yet tackle, leaving it to the philosophers.

6. Can you really experience anything objectively?

There's a difference between understanding the world objectively (or at least trying to, anyway) and experiencing it through an exclusively objective framework. This is essentially the problem of qualia — the notion that our surroundings can only be observed through the filter of our senses and the cogitations of our minds. Everything you know, everything you've touched, seen, and smelled, has been filtered through any number of physiological and cognitive processes. Subsequently, your subjective experience of the world is unique. In the classic example, the subjective appreciation of the color red may vary from person to person. The only way you could possibly know is if you were to somehow observe the universe from the "conscious lens" of another person in a sort of Being John Malkovich kind of way — not anything we're likely going to be able to accomplish at any stage of our scientific or technological development. Another way of saying all this is that the universe can only be observed through a brain (or potentially a machine mind), and by virtue of that, can only be interpreted subjectively. But given that the universe appears to be coherent and (somewhat) knowable, should we continue to assume that its true objective quality can never be observed or known? It's worth noting that much of Buddhist philosophy is predicated on this fundamental limitation (what they call emptiness), and a complete antithesis to Plato's idealism.

7. What is the best moral system?

Essentially, we'll never truly be able to distinguish between "right" and "wrong" actions. At any given time in history, however, philosophers, theologians, and politicians will claim to have discovered the best way to evaluate human actions and establish the most righteous code of conduct. But it's never that easy. Life is far too messy and complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics. The Golden Rule is great (the idea that you should treat others as you would like them to treat you), but it disregards moral autonomy and leaves no room for the imposition of justice (such as jailing criminals), and can even be used to justify oppression (Immanuel Kant was among its most staunchest critics). Moreover, it's a highly simplified rule of thumb that doesn't provision for more complex scenarios. For example, should the few be spared to save the many? Who has more moral worth: a human baby or a full-grown great ape? And as neuroscientists have shown, morality is not only a culturally-ingrained thing, it's also a part of our psychologies (the Trolly Problem is the best demonstration of this). At best, we can only say that morality is normative, while acknowledging that our sense of right and wrong will change over time.

8. What are numbers?

We use numbers every day, but taking a step back, what are they, really — and why do they do such a damn good job of helping us explain the universe (such as Newtonian laws)? Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points — but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? Plato argued that numbers were real (it doesn't matter that you can't "see" them), but formalists insisted that they were merely formal systems (well-defined constructions of abstract thought based on math). This is essentially an ontological problem, where we're left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible.


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