Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


I like to think I am as mindful as anybody out there, but of course I don't like to think I am old enough to forget things, a lot of things. Especially things that might be cooking on my stove. Frankly, I'm proud to say I finally got so mindful that I'm not mindful of eggs boiling, I now carry around a timer while they are. There's nothing like a clicking plastic chicken to remind you eggs are in hot water.

I didn't do that for the rhubarb. Probably because I was sitting at the dining table not far away, reading the newspaper on my i Pad. Probably because I usually put stewing fruit on a very very low flame and expect the process to be long. Probably because I forgot when I leave the kitchen physically, I forget I'm cooking something. Even when I promise myself I'm not going to forget. Remember, I'm mindful.

"Somebody must be barbequing," flickered through my thoughts after a smoky odor wafted into my nostrils. I went right on sipping tea and reading. I love reading the Sunday New York Times on Saturday night, so I treat myself. It's a lot to read.

Eventually I got up, walked toward the stove and lifted the lid off the rhubarb. !?!?!?!?!?!?****??!!!!!!!!!!  Who'd put the flame on high like that? Who stewed my rhubarb in nanoseconds? The white enamel sides and bottom of the cast iron Le Creuset, my favorite reach for perfect size pot, were crunchy black. Deep, dark crunchy black. Screwed rhubarb. A hopeless burn victim. 

I stared at the deathly blackness in my favorite reach-for pot. Ruined just like that. By rhubarb.  Stupid rhubarb I didn't really need and never should have bought. But it was the end of the season for it and I am a pig for fresh local whatever. Shi...i..taki. Was this a lesson or what?

Most women would have shrugged and thrown that hot pot in the trash. Really, who has time to bother trying to scrap burnt crust off the entirety of an enamel sauce pan? We live in the age of New, new new. And a burnt pot is a great excuse to exercise the right to shop for that.

But I'm a stubborn old bird, financially challenged, and quite experienced, I'm sorry to say, at scraping and scrubbing the burn off a pot. Especially if it's an old favorite, too old to have been made in China, so made to last. I went at it, with brio, the energy of vengeance. I got the rhubarb scraped out, most of it anyway, and began the vinegar boil. A sangha sister once rescued a burnt pot of mine by showing me how vinegar helps eat off the crust. It didn't do much this time. The white enamel was still pretty much entirely black. Third degree burns.

I moved on to the Ajax boil, with the fan on high, and this helped to loosen a bit off the bottom. So I soaked the pot overnight in more Ajax. 

In the morning light, it was still seriously, depressingly black. But I wasn't going to give up. Not mindful me. I got out a new pad of SOS and applied my might to scrubbing. What a painfully arduous chore. "You must be a screaming idiot," I told myself, "to think you can clean a pot this far burnt. Just throw it away already." But no, I defiantly kept scrubbing, into my second pad of SOS and lost fingernails.

I'm convinced of course that the current SOS is not the old SOS I remember. It's evidently been New and Improved when I wasn't looking because it's soft and weak. I really don't care about lemon scent: I want stiffness, coarseness, scratchiness when you need it.  But the pad didn't have enough oomph to do more than dislodge teeny little shards of black I'd already loosened with a pastry scraper.

Still, seeing how I was getting some of it off I kept going. I wanted victory, a perfect pot. I took to the pastry scraper again and again. I left the pot soak and came back later in the day.

I had done my second vinegar boil, my umpteenth mental fuming, and fourth SOS pad when I realized scrubbing this stupid pot was a whole lot like scrubbing my mind with Dharma. Really. That white enamel underneath the burnt offering was still there pure as the day it left the French factory, and I was trying to get back to it just the way I struggle in Buddhist practice to get back to the pure mind under all my thoughts, emotions and experiences. I was trying to clean pot the way I'm constantly trying to clear away my obscurations and what the Dharma calls the "adventitious stains" of experience. I'd read enough in the New York Times to realize burnt pot "heads" are running/ruining the world.

 The job sucked but I kept scrubbing... .

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Serfing the Web

(This was originally written in slightly different form for The Daily Dot, an online newspaper)

Palo Alto native George Packer devoted an entire May 27 New Yorker article to how imposition of the whirling innovation culture known as Silicon Valley has turned into a tornado that is upending not only on his old hometown but the roots of our whole nation. Despite its relentless braggadocio about being democratic and uplifting, the newly dominant culture turns out to be insular, indulgent, inequitable and, so obsessed with algorithms, uninterested in even brushing against the human world around it. That would not be frictionless, but rather a dreaded disruption.

Packer’s most startling observation is "the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty-years-old with cash on hand, because that's who thinks these things up." He finds what the loudest Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov calls its obsession with solutionism  to be just an extension of Hollywood's obsession with teenage male quandaries and fantasies.

Well, that solves a murder mystery: how the past, like a political dissident, has been disappeared. Given that the vast majority of teenaged boys live in a cocoon totally absorbed by their burgeoning physical prowess and how to deploy it for most dazzling effect, the past was time of dependence on Mother. Forget about it. Absolute libertarianism has to be the goal. And surprise! That's Silicon Valley's main buzzword. It cascades through Packer’s prose.

Now I know why I just spent a long day trying to stash an enormous set of late 19th Century, gold-rimmed handmade Limoges china that was priceless when my great uncle purchased it as a young groom. All effort to sell it failed. The 21st Century has made its fragile elegance a different kind of priceless: totally without value.  Dear friends on the Atlantic seaboard who for decades specialized in six and seven figure exquisite America antiques are being thrown out of business by the same cultural shift. Ditto a dear friend on the Pacific rim who has folksy Asian art that perfectly expresses humanity, not machinery. Antiques today, she says, means '50s and '60s stuff made in the rise of technology that erased the human hand. (Yes, handwriting is now being expunged from school curricula.)

And now I know why guys at the end of the Millennium proclaimed the end of history. Virtual reality has become the new New World and people are rushing to evacuate the hard reality of the past like exiles fleeing Haiti, or Republicans expunging all memory of W.'s era. Pretending or perhaps fantasizing that yesterday has no tendrils of relevance reaching out to us today, techies serve history on the menu as your own last 20 minutes wandering around the Internet.

The fight to be top of the elite crop in Computerstan, this breathless world of nonstop newness where there is only tomorrow, has become such a hot war, insider Jaron Lanier now asks in book form: Who owns the future? I think he should ask a geezer from the now despised past, someone like Grandma who's seen it all. I suspect she knows because I am her and I know with age comes perspective, which can be defined as hindsight, the handy calibrator of foresight. Back there in the not to be named once upon a time, I learned the more things change the more they stay the same,or in the language of Computerstan: history just goes around repeating itself like a meme on the Web.

So my answer to Lanier’s question is: the owners of the past have purchase on the future. There is no difference between the colonizing of the New World America and capitalizing of the New Internet World. They are simply different iterations, a recycling of the same old American dream. This country was founded not by pious Pilgrims, but by the irrational exuberance of a gold rush: giddy Brits hungry to fish profits from the discovery of huge cod schools in the Gulf of Maine. Salivating to be lords of luxurious fiefdoms, England’s newly gentrified merchant class scrambled to establish onshore plantations in the new world so they could own it. With dreams of unfettered monopoly, ambitious syndicates relentlessly seduced fishermen and would-be fishermen with scabrous settlement offers to populate the land and work the sea for free. After profits from the first shipments paid the syndicate back for its investment, profits from subsequent shipments would be split and everyone would get rich quick.

Of course only the moneymen ever saw the money. Sent to a New World after signing indenture contracts, the help were abandoned entirely to their own devices. Those who didn’t quickly meet the profit expectations of sponsors who, it must be said, knew absolutely nothing about conditions on the ground, were callously abandoned and left to die—of exposure. Ditto 200 years later in the railroad barons’ rush to seduce Scandinavian farmers to create the breadbasket of the Midwest. And let’s not forget the plantations of the South dependent for their glory on slaves. 

Old or new, it's Samsara we've got here. Same old same old. Once upon a time the landed gentry, that quaint old-fashioned 1% who still live happily on Masterpiece Theater, controlled the fields of food, and the leftover 99% had to work its land to eat. As we know, when capitalism launched the Mercantile and Industrial Ages, that arrangement went buy buy. The branded gentry owned the fields and factories that produced things people needed as well as the stores that purveyed them. To eat, everybody else had to get on board or on the assembly line or in the cubicle where they simply became a cog in the assembly line of consumption.

Karl Marx tried to engineer a good-bye to the blood sucking, manicured moneymen and transfer wealth to the candid class, the 99% who do 100% of the work. And we know how that worked out. Yet we also know when the Iron Curtain fell and capitalism won, computers barged in. Bygones were suddenly gone bye-bye.

Well not quite, it turns out. The whiz kid, whiz-bang whizzes of Computerstan like to swear they've changed the world for good, in both senses of that word, because they've sent old-fashioned, plutocratic exploitation bye-bye. Ha Ha. As Packer points out, these people spend so much time staring at computer screens, they are going blind. In the real old world where most of us still live, the new New World has a clannish gentry that owns almost all the fields that provide food for thought, those wide-open computer spaces the rest of us, as desperate as our ancestors to survive, work in and glean.

The Lord loves a cheerful giver and so do all those Valley folks making a mint off user-generated sites. They've created the land of the free and made it the home of the brave. Before Packer chimed in, best-selling author Scott Turow used a Sunday Times megaphone to sound the alarm for the “slow death of the American author” thanks to “the new, global electronic marketplace rapidly depleting authors' income streams.”

What’s different this time, what’s ended in history, is that no matter how much we produce, the overlords don’t have to give back even a cent so we can survive. Billionaire site owners don’t have to care if we don’t have money, as so many have so publicly lamented, to pay our rent or, ironically, broadband costs to perform for them. The Internet does its joyful best just as the Atlantic Ocean once did to liberate them from seeing any consequences of their behavior.

In times past, a web or a net were traps a body could get snared in and that has not changed. The 13th Amendment insures no one is dragooned into involuntary servitude, but the Valley venturers figured out voluntary is okay, so it's the loophole they're driving their profits through. The draconian contracts professional content providers are required to sign force them to give up absolutely everything, including their ability to protest the slicing, dicing and pricing of their own name, face or material as it spins forever in the widening circle of aggregators and virtual life, even when it brushes dangerously against, as famed statistician Nate Silver put it, the Fair Use guidelines of copyright law.  “You hereby grant …publication and reproduction rights throughout the universe in whole or in part in any and all media now known or hereafter devised (the “License Rights”)…the foregoing License Rights are granted in perpetuity.”

By definition, a contract should be a quid pro quo, but it’s hard to find one in website provider docs that say: “Each of your Contributions will be original and solely created by you as a “work-made-for-hire” specially ordered or commissioned by us…deemed the sole author of the Contribution and the owner of all rights whether now known or hereafter devised (including all copyrights and all extensions and renewals of copyrights) in and to the Contribution, with the right to make all uses of the Contribution throughout the world and all changes in each Contribution. Without further obligation to you and without limitation, we may use, reproduce, publish, sell, perform, distribute, display, exhibit, edit, change, add to, take from, translate, reformat, make derivative works from, or reprocess the Contribution in any manner.” 

The sheer brazenness of giddy media lawyers denying “talent” any shred of right to the end of the universe, gives indentured servitude that breathtaking imprimatur of our time:  “new and improved.” Not even Stephen King can write anything as horrifying as the gleeful contempt in: “To the extent permissible under applicable law, you waive all “moral rights of authors” that may exist or any similar rights. We … are not obligated to provide attribution to you in connection with any Contribution or to display, use or otherwise exploit any Contribution.”

The sharing, the equality and democracy so proudly touted as the mesh of the web comes down to: we give, media company takes-- so its shares rise. Oops, wait. They do give. As they keep saying to seduce us to sign up, we get exposure! We get to build name recognition! We get to show our stuff! "We unfortunately can't pay you for it,” told disgruntled Nate Thayer, “but we do reach 13 million readers a month." Arianna Huffington lures her unpaid bloggers with reports of 250 million eyeballs.

Eyeballs are the latest in American snake oil salesmanship. Content providers are encouraged to perform a bizarre version of American Idol: we are put into gladiatorial contests to knock out eyeballs for the overlords of the Internet terrain. If enough people bother to click LIKE, we get even more exposure because the Caesars can sell our work to other sites that, as they say, “curate and repackage.” Yet still not a cent for rent in all that exposure or compensation from all that “repurposing”, and as any medical professional knows, people who can’t get food, water and warmth can, like the original colonists, die from exposure. If we don’t “like” being exploited serfs required to go at it for no pay, no worries. This is the 21st Century! There are thousands of others breathlessly hungry for algorithms that promise 15 minutes of name recognition, the forspeis of celebrity.

People poised to profit from the automobile revolution, the oil revolution and other introductions of new technology are all the same in their self serving, self-centered giddiness over being the be-all and end-all. Packer piles up quotes about how the nobles of Computerstan think they are saving the world by solving its problems efficiently. He also piles up damning quotes about how blind these ignobles are to the real human problems their mechanical problem solving has created. In other words, the folks of Silicon Valley and their self-justifying logic do not compute.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved