Life at the Lake

a diary of living at a small lowland lake


Early moonrise over Lake Ketchum

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All at the lake is not a rainbow

Treat a man like a son of a bitch, and he becomes a son of a bitch, at least as far as you are concerned.

Conflict with a neighbor over a trivial matter. Some of these continue to hang in the air, long after the unpleasant exchange is over.

This can, and does, happen everywhere. Reading some of the old Chinese haiku writers, I find none of them nor their lives were ever free from conflict. They were contentious people. In fact, disagreements were common.

In many parts of the world men and women are killing each other over cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious differences. As if any of it matters, when you and your neighbor are dead.

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The fisherman parable from yesterday (see below) requires some explanation. Actually, it is a Zen "koan," a kind of riddle designed to lead to sudden enlightenment. It is to be meditated over, but not "solved," for there is no solution. And, as is the case with the fisherman, it really doesn't make sense.

It isn't supposed to make sense. Sokei-an describes a koan as a "case." He may mean it as being similar to the cases graduate students in business are given to study to learn how to approach problems and offer tentative solutions to them.

I must admit, my first reaction to Soeki-an's koan was to try to solve it, applying Western-style logic to it, including cynicism and sarcasm. I tried to be practical, arguing to myself that anybody who would fish with a straight-shanked hook for more than a few moments was a fool. The term "fool" doesn't really apply to Eastern thought, or to the concept of the soul and eternity.

A Zen master is often foolish, both in his attitude and his behavior. And, what does it matter—a man and his off behavior? He laughs, and is laughable. "A foolish consistency," described by Emerson (or was it his complement, Thoreau?) is not bothersome to little minds.

The late poet Robert Sund has something of the holy man about him, I have long maintained. He was often opinionated, silly, foolish, arrogant; he didn't care what the world thought of him. When he died, the number of people who attended his out-of-the-way memorial service was astonishing. He was loved and admired by many.

Similarly, or not, the idea of the man fishing for the Emperor with a straight-shanked hook, a hook incapable of hooking a fish, would have appealed to Sund, though we Westerners would have to admit that it is indeed an oblique way of catching the Emperor, and might involve more than a lifetime.

There is no practical application of what the fisher is attempting. Fish for George W. Bush this way and see what results you get. An article in today's newspaper delineates the myriad steps one has to go through just to send an email to the President. (He is our Emperor, or Emperor-Equivalent.) It is impossible to email the President without telling the Department of Home Land Security all about yourself and your purpose. And you must choose from a series of approved "topics" before your bid for communication is screened and allowed to go through. (No, sedition is not one of the permissible topics.)

So, what is the point in the fisherman koan? There is no point, Boobie. It is simply a parable, a thing, a happening, an item to brood over.

Its test as a koan is, Does it remain with you afterwards, like heartburn? Does it expand your understanding, whatever its method?

Peculiarly, it does with me, silly as it is. The silliness is part of the riddle.

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"There was a fisherman in China who for forty years used a straight needle to fish with. When someone asked him, 'Why don't you use a bent hook?" The fisherman replied, 'You can catch ordinary fish with a bent hook, but I will catch a great fish with my straight needle.'

"Word of this came to the ear of the Emperor, so he went to see this fool of a fisherman for himself. The Emperor asked the fisherman, 'What are you fishing for?'

"The fisherman said, 'I am fishing for you, Emperor!'

"If you have no experience fishing with the straight needle, you cannot understand this story. Simply, I am holding my arms on my breast. Like that fisherman with the straight needle, I fish for you good fishes. I do not circulate letters. I do not advertise. I do not ask you to come. I do not ask you to stay. I do not entertain you. You come, and I am living my own life."

--Sokei-an Sasaki (1882-1945, the first Zen master to settle in the US.)
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Let me see if I've got this right.

Congress impeached President Clinton because he lied to the American public about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He professed that he "didn't have sexual relations with that woman. . . ." In his good-old-boy value system, oral sex did not constitute sex, since penetration did not take place. Therefore, it was not sexual intercourse. So, technically, he did not lie.

Now President Bush tells the American people that we must invade and go to war with, and change the government of, not one but two sovereign nations, because we know for a fact that they are harboring international criminals of Muslim faith, whom we believe to be in charge of committing random acts of terrorism against us, namely, the destruction of the NYC World Trade Center's twin towers.

First Afghanistan, then Iraq. We captured neither of the proclaimed terrorists, Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. We destroyed both countries and have left them in occupied ruin. The motivation of finding weapons of mass destruction proved erroneous, to say the least. The press is now arguing that they were trumped-up lies.

Compare the seriousness of the two incidents. Is the grounds for impeaching ex-President Clinton still that strong? Congress thinks so.

Those of us alive during the Fifties and the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the prosecution of suspected Communists in industry and in government are still hesitant (read: afraid) to speak out on issues of perceived foreign threat and the need for increased internal security, let alone mendacity in the executive branch of the government.

Why is that? It is because, once created, political trauma never goes away. And we remain afraid to speak out.
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Three men trolling off my dock

There are a couple of men—one white, one black—who come regularly to fish our lake for spinyrays, namely, yellow perch. There a couple of favorite places they like to anchor and still fish, with bobbers. I know they use worms, sometimes, but I suspect they regularly fish with maggots.

Where they find maggots troubles me. The classic recipe is, "Bury a dead ____. A week or so later, dig it up. You will have all the maggots you will ever need." But I'd like to think they buy them somewhere.

They do not communicate with words frequently, but seem to be able to read each other's minds. After all, there are definite limits on what needs to be discussed when you are anchored in a boat in ten feet of water. They are close—closely in proximity, as well—and enjoy each other's company. They have been coming to the lake together for several years.

Suddenly it was just the black guy who appeared in his gray pickup truck, with the aluminum boat riding in the bed. He off-loaded it near the water, then parked the car, trudging back with his tackle and gear, and shuffled the boat into the shallow water. He used his electric troll to reach one of the favorite spots, dropped two anchors (because one will cause the boat to drift or spin, and this harms the presentation of the bait to the fish), and began to fish. How alone he seemed.

I wanted to ask him about his partner. They are elderly and perhaps his friend was in the hospital or had died. How do you bring the subject up from such a distance? You can't very well shout across two-hundred yards of open water, "Where's your buddy?" especially when you dread hearing the answer, which is none of your business, anyway, and when in the long past the only exchange you've ever had with them is to call our, "Hey, why don't you pick up your pop cans, instead of throwing them over the side, where I have to, since the little rascals float?"

But yesterday they were back, the two of them. It was as if they had never been apart. I put the binoculars on them, just to make sure they were a pair, the same pair, and saw the black guy lift up his stringer and pass it over to the white guy, who evidently had just caught a fish.

I whistled to myself, for the stringer was jammed with what must have been yellow perch. A couple dozen of them, anyway. (There is no legal limit on spinyrays, except for bass.) And I thought to myself, It is probably a good idea to fish them nearly out, each year, for the fry, along with the multitudinous bass fry, must eat up most of the zooplankton, and the zoo- is what eats the pernicious green algae, with which the lake abounds at this time of the year.

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A bit more on Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer, art promoter, and gallery owner, and his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe: They were central figures in the Photo-Secessionist School and started the magazine, Camera Work.

His photographs of clouds at Lake Georgia, shown in this blog yesterday, were called "Equivalents," and were intended to produce emotional effects of an "equivalent" nature on the part of the viewer much as they had on the part of the photographer when he took them.

This is an important aesthetic and intellectual idea, an outgrowth perhaps of Impressionism in painting. Stieglitz was interested in Dove, Hartley, and Marin, and promoted their work in his gallery, 291 (which was its Manhattan street address).

Stiegliz practiced photography when it was not considered a legitimate art but some bastardized spinoff, and saw it into the first quarter-century as the equal of painting and sculpture, largely the results of his own efforts. His photos of O'Keeffe were a natural sensual product of their long association, and led to a whole new approach to the art form of portraiture. (Where would Edward Weston have been without Stieglitz, for instance?)

But it is O'Keeffe's luscious paintings that, today, are the most famous, and Alfred is a bit eclipsed. It is probably deservedly fair. She is the subject of many ongoing studies, with emphasis on her evolving techniques in pastels, watercolor, and oils. She is a master of all three. And her flower series (see above, "Poppies") remains unequaled.

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Alfred Stieglitz's From The Back Window-291, c. 1915

Alfred Stieglitz was born in 1864 and lived until WW II had ended, dying in 1946. It was a long life and he made it count.

When I first took up photography, oh, thirty years ago, he was an icon, but this was in the heyday of 35mm. "grab-shooting,".and Stieglitz's large format, somewhat moody black and white pictures were out of vogue. Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson were in fashion, and the idea of catching human nature on the run was what we all strove for.

Yet somehow Stieglitz's work remained impressive, along with a few facts from his complex life in the arts, such as his marriage to Painter Georgia O'Keeffe, whom he photographed extensively and made famous (not that she needed it) for her strong, graceful hands.

Stieglitz's OKeeffe and Her Hands

He knew all the important artists of his time and showed most of them in his gallery, 291. But what I liked most about Stieglitz was his impressionistic shots of clouds over the family summer home on Lake George. They were a trip in themselves and strongly influenced me, but of course I could not duplicate them, only imitate them. You will see my wan copies on my websites and blogs, from time to time. Nice, but not great.

Stieglitz's photos are a personal experience of high aesthetic value, and I urge you to seek them out and enjoy them. In the meantime, I offer you my crude digital-camera approximations from tiny Lake Ketchum.

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