Tips for Buddhist Writers

Tra-la, it’s May, the lusty month of May, the time when yearly royalty checks, merrily they pay…

There is exactly only one reason for anyone to be a writer, and it’s because you can’t not write. You can’t make a living at it either. My book Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Buddhism is one of the most popular books about Buddhism on the market, and sales remain strong. But the money I make off of it doesn’t even cover my yearly weed bill.

Getting into writing for publication was like a loose Vegas slot machine for me. My first published article, the first one I submitted, appeared in 1975. It was about motorcycles. The same magazine bought my second article. It was about autism. I hit the jackpot early, and couldn’t walk away.

I became a part-time, and occasionally full-time, journeyman magazine writer. I’ve written about a lot of different stuff, most under the aegis of professional organizations wanting to look their best for the public. I was big in housing trade journals for a number of years, that’s where I made the most money. I was one of the first in the trades to write about radon abatement, and got nominated for a journalism award for it. There are no dull subjects, only dull writers. One of my favorite assignments in the late Eighties was an article describing the use of lateral lines to replace septic tanks in sandy barrier island environments.

One of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done was to teach “Writing for Publication” for eight years in the adult and continuing education program of my city’s school system. That’s when I really got into mentoring writers. Five of my students published books, two of them World War II memoirs. I’m always mentoring writers.

Then came 9-11 and my resolve to do something to address terrorist violence. Somehow my plans to go to Pakistan turned into six months in Sri Lanka during their civil war. That is where I studied Buddhism, and since 2002, that is all I write about. Fifteen years in this particular trench, three books written, and the last one got published. Now I’m the talk of the town.

Here are a few tips I’d like to lay on you.

  • Write outside your comfort zone. Most writers I run into are way too introspective when they ought to be out interviewing people, and traveling, and trying new things. Don’t turn your nose up writing helpful hints pieces for the weekly newspaper. It all counts.

  • If you write in the first person you’re not supposed to be writing about yourself.

  • Edit ruthlessly. It’s not called “killing your babies” for nothing. If it’s not pertinent, lose it, especially unnecessary personal references. Write in the active voice.

  • Expect to be edited ruthlessly. It may be your piece, but it’s their masthead, and they can do whatever they want to your work without your permission, though editing is usually a “give and take” process. There are incompetent editors out there and some who are on power trips. Don’t work for them. I once told an editor that if she was a man, I’d drag her out into the middle of the street and horse-whip her. Another editor was so capricious with her ordered changes that I yanked the piece just before it was to be published.

  • A really good editor, especially if you’re working on a book-length project, is so valuable you end up in a surprisingly intimate relationship. Your baby is now your-and-your-editor’s baby, and it takes months to get your “perfect” book to press. Expect lots more changes to your manuscript than you expect.

  • Don’t submit a manuscript full of errors and grammatical mistakes. You can always pay a freelance writer or editor to line-edit your book before you send it to a publisher. Really, with spell-check and grammar-check software built into your word processor, there is no excuse.

  • Do not be obsequious in your cover letters. Tell the publisher why your work can stand out in a sea of other books or articles that are about the same thing you’re writing about.

  • E-publish. Buddhism for Dudes was a Kindle book for three years before I submitted it anywhere. It would still be a Kindle book if my friends had not encouraged me to find a publisher for it. The book I’m marketing now is on Kindle, and as I submit it around for publication, I can tell publishers that a thousand people have already read it, and take a look at those reviews!

  • No one is interested in your personal tribulations and traumas. Writing isn’t therapeutic. Writing is hard work. Pay your dues.

  • It’s important to “write about what you know,” so if you’re not constantly researching and studying, you’re not going to get published. I’m working with a guy right now who researched the book he’s writing for 25 years. And it’s going to be one helluva read when he gets done with it.

  • You don’t need an agent if you’re not writing fiction. I’ve had three agents. None of them ever did me a bit of good.

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Two things that never get old: seeing your byline, and signing your books. But it is an enormously satisfying thing to hear from someone who says they actually benefited from something you wrote. Soldiers have e-mailed me from Iraq and Afghanistan saying how my book “kept them centered” during their deployments, and one Scandinavian woman said it jarred her out of her depression and “gave me my happiness back.”

That’s strong shit. Usually when I tell people about the Scandinavian woman, I choke up and start to cry.

Readers expect to become informed, and possibly even enlightened, by the things they read. Better yet, they like to be entertained. That’s the secret to my success: I’m writing about stuff people have been writing about since the Third Century BC, but my stuff gets read because I’m funny. Humor is a tool. Use it. Any teacher will tell you how effective it is to get a point across using humor.

You don’t have to beat your readers over the head with humor – you’re not Erma Bombeck. But turns-of-phrases, interesting word choices, surprising metaphors, and short stories used as illustrative examples can get readers to return to your work. Subliminally, it’s “I learned something from your piece, and it also made me smile.”

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Tips for Buddhist Writers II: Humor Me

 You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs.

For one thing, effective humor is ambush humor. It is a grave mistake for writers to think that readers remember the first part of a paragraph, when what makes the most impression is what comes last. People walk away from the paragraph above chuckling about the delusions most people suffer from.

“Boob” is a very funny word. It means one of two things: a harmless stupid person, or a woman’s breast. Women use “boobs” a lot, since they come in pairs, but when women use the singular “boob” it can refer either to a mosquito bite or her husband. (See how that works?)

Now I am going to re-structure the sentence so that “boob” isn’t a punchline. By moving the one sentence, I am able to leave the reader with a completely different impression.

You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping.

Get it? You could start the paragraph with a joke if you wanted, but if you end it with the words there is no soul, or God, or life after death, that is what the reader will take away.

You can avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. If he eats like a horse, but gulps his food down and is finished eating before anyone else, it means that in reality, he eats like a Labrador retriever. And since most people don’t know Labrador retrievers for the gluttons that they are, you’ve made a tired cliché funny, and you’ve also educated the public about watching your plate where there are Labrador retrievers around.

Schnauzers are funnier dogs, but they don’t eat like Labs do.

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Illustration for Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Buddhism by Ivette Salom

Metaphors are the stuff of life. Labels are meaningless, but comparing things to other things is how we understand stuff. Other than word choice itself, metaphors are also ways to brand your style with some flair and pzazz. Consider:

The meeting went fine until Jeremy announced that he was leaving the firm. Borrr-ing.

The meeting went fine until Jeremy dropped a bombshell by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Cliched.

The meeting went fine until Jeremy threw a grenade into the room by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Not cliched and more descriptive about the effect Jeremy’s announcement had on the people in the meeting. Hand grenades are funny. The only two sports where “almost” counts are horseshoes and hand grenades.

Writing in the active voice provides additional opportunity to use more vivid language. Avoid qualifiers. It may not be as grammatically correct as Mrs. Grundy expected in 11th grade English, but readers appreciate it. (Not readers will appreciate it, although that might be more accurate.)

Maggie walked to the corner store to buy some apples.

What’s the backstory? Did she lumber down to the corner store because she is overweight, or dance down the street, providing a kind of Holly Golightly feel, or did she limp down the street? Dashed down the street. Stumbled down the street. Skipped down the street. Dragged her tired ass down the street. Roller skated down the street. In each instance you’ve livened your writing up considerably by using a more active active voice, and added detail that tells you a lot more about Maggie than her mere destination and purpose. It’s funnier if you replace the apples with gefeltefish.

Maggie is having an affair with Kurt. Or, Maggie is shagging Kurt. Little turns of phrases, playing with single words, it’s that kind of thing that makes a writer’s work entertaining. For humor, it’s absolutely essential.

He flew through the air like a bird. Or, he flew through the air like a rock shot out of a slingshot. Once during a training exercise in Key West I accidentally got launched 30 feet into the air and landed 150 feet out into the Caribbean, and had to be rescued by Coast Guardsmen who were laughing their asses off. I did not feel like a bird. I didn’t choose to fly that day. I was definitely a rock.

My mom was a well-known laugher. Even her 1942 High School Yearbook talked about how she loved to laugh, and be around people who made her laugh, which was not hard to do.

But mom had a friend who was one of the most unpleasant, humorless woman anyone could meet. In a community context, my family was retired military in a community full of retired military people, and were friends with a number of retired guys who’d married German girls after World War II, until all the men died off, leaving my dad holding the bag for at least a half-dozen former frauleins. Among them was Hildeborg, the sourpuss no one could stand to be around except for Mom. But Hildeborg and my mother shared a passion for riverboat gambling and made several trips a year together to hit the casinos. No one understood why they were so close.

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When my mother died in 2010, I wrote and read her eulogy. In homage to her sense of humor, I started with this story:

I don’t know how many of you know this, but in 1943 my mother Dorothy DeBolzo, who was only 18, parachuted behind enemy lines with the OSS in German-controlled Italy. Before she was extracted, she had stolen the secret plans the Wehrmacht developed for their retreat. She also seduced an SS Nazi Colonel, and then cut his throat while he was sleeping.

A hush fell over the room. I continued.

And that’s just the kind of story that would crack my mother up.

Mom did serve in the WACS during World War II, but I doubt that she killed anybody. She was a clerk-typist. But I didn’t hear the rest of the story until several years later at the VFW, where I meet my dad and his Teutonic harem once a month for community breakfast. On one occasion, Hildeborg wasn’t present, as she had flown back to Germany to visit her family. In her absence, all the other German ladies took the opportunity to gossip about her.

That’s when I heard the rest of the story. I don’t know that any of the German women made the connection, but it seems that Mom and Hildeborg had more in common than slot machines.

“She vass in the German army, you know,” one of the women told me. She and Mom were veterans, once mortal enemies, then the best of friends.

The gossiper continued. “She vass a Nazi!

Mel Brooks once said that his goal in life was to get people to laugh at Adolph Hitler. Brooks was in combat engineers during the latter part of the war. You know what combat engineers do? They find and defuse land mines.

I saw the humor in my mom’s relationship with Hildeborg, and when the punchline “She vass a Nazi” came up, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Mel Brooks would have chuckled, too.

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Buddhism for Geezers

If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. But you can’t blame the drugs (unless you’re still using drugs). It’s just your mind going. Don’t worry about it. It happens to everyone. If you want to do something about it, take up mindfulness. But it’s a losing battle.

Talkin’ bout my gen-neration. You’re from the first half of the baby boom, the ones who sweated Vietnam, and now you’re retiring in droves. Fixed bayonets are now fixed incomes. No matter which side of the war you came down on, you’re now sucking on the teat of Social Security and Medicare – you know, the plans you already paid for?

Buddhism has a lot to offer geezers.

If you’re retired, you now have time to meditate. You can do it asleep, too. It’s called taking a nap. And since you don’t really have to wear pants anymore, you can be comfortable while you meditate. Some Buddhist sects believe that enlightenment isn’t for people who wear pants. The Buddha didn’t wear pants.

Elder Buddhists seem transcendent. That’s because you have to try so hard to keep up with conversations that you end up with the thousand-yard stare.

Erectile dysfunction is not such a big deal after all. You’re a Buddhist. You have equanimity. Everything in the universe changes, including your ability to get a stiffy. Someday the pills will quit working, too. You’ll find something else to do. I recommend writing a lurid memoir about what you were doing in the Sixties.

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Affixiated income. Since human misery comes from desire, you won’t have to buy so much stuff. You probably have stuff you need to rid of, anyway, like the cross-country skis you bought when you lived in Minnesota in the Seventies. You can live within your means, so long as you don’t buy anything.

That was no lady, that was my wife. Everyone needs a man cave or a sewing room, which is what you do with your kids’ bedrooms when they move out. Each one needs a Buddha figurine. Believe it or not, you can actually see less of each other when you’re retired and living in the same house than you did when you both worked, especially if you have a finished basement.

The threat of mindfulness. When your grandkids are running around like maniacs and fighting, tell them that if they don’t start behaving, you’ll make them meditate. It works great with obnoxious little yard-apes.

You don’t fear death. You’re not allowed to. You’re Buddhist.

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Baloney Buddhism

Man, if I had a dollar for every time somebody’s said to me that “you have to be an intellectual to get Buddhism,” I’d have enough for a case of beer. I laugh in their face and point to myself — do I look like an intellectual to you? I used to be a farm hand, and broke my back doing 60-pound pours of corrosive resistant plastic at 550 degrees when I was a United Steelworker. The work was so hard and dangerous I joined the Marines to get away from it.

Fact is, it’s intellectualism that makes American institutional Buddhism the joke that it is. Overshadowed as it is with expensive Vajrayana temples situated in suburbs, “The Great White Sangha” is put to shame for its lack of social engagement by even the most podunk Baptist church. The Tibetans espouse pacifism, charge membership fees to belong to their temples, and pray to deities. None of that crap is Buddhism. If you like religious processions and guys parading around in funny hats, you can get that at the Episcopal cathedral, and you don’t have to sit on the floor.

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Studying Theravada at the feet of the masters, literally the feet of the masters, in Sri Lanka, I would not have even had to know how to read to gain the appreciation of dhamma that now drives my life. I’ve known my share of rice farmers and household servants and elephants mahouts who were lay masters themselves.

Even though I am a working writer, when I read almost any book about Buddhism I feel like a functional illiterate. Maybe I am. I probably own 25 different books about Buddhism, but the only two I’ve finished reading have been Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught and Karen Armstrong’s Buddha: A Biography. All the others have bookmarks in them. The closer the bookmark is to the front cover, the more stultifying I found the book. B-O-R-I-N-G.

You don’t learn Buddhism from reading about it. You learn Buddhism by living it.

Fact is, Mahayana Buddhism is based on a lie. Those who ascribe the Sutras to documents the Buddha himself dictated late in life to more “intelligent” (that is, Chinese) people, because the primitives who made up the early (Indian) Sangha weren’t sophisticated enough, i.e., too stupid, to appreciate them, believe in a lie. Buddha didn’t establish Mahayana Buddhism, but tyranny did.

Fuck you. Call me a Hinayana and I’ll grab your nipple and twist it real hard.

When the Buddhist missionaries spread the dhamma to much of the rest of Asia, they weren’t selling Buddhism to the masses, it was pitched to the nobility and bureaucrats. Many of the Sutras were written (and mythologized) to support the elites against the masses. Otherwise, where would “Pure Land” Buddhism have come from, a “heaven” promised to the suffering peasants much like the same malarky sold to European peasantry by the Church in the Middle Ages? Sutras supporting vegetarianism were written so elites could hoard animal protein.

The Sutras is the territory of the Buddhist intelligensia. By comparison the Pali suttas are easy to understand. The Buddha spoke in nouns and verbs, causes and effects. Sutra-fying seems to have reached its apotheosis in certain forms of Japanese Buddhism. The Sokka Gakai say that all you need to do is to repeat the chant “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” a bazillion times and good things will happen to you, like job promotions and finding true love. Sokka Gakai is based on the “Lotus” Sutra, in which the Buddha supposedly denied everything he’d been teaching for 40 years so some Tokyo housewife’s husband will pay more attention to her.

Why obfuscate simple truths? So you can make a congregation dependent upon the clergy to interpret it. Modern Buddhism doesn’t need monks or gurus. Keep it simple, stupid. You start with studying the Eightfold Path. Google and read. If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s bad intel. Start with Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness. If you can’t understand that book, you’re hopeless.

You know what drives these points home to me: the “After-Buddhists.” Two writers in this arena are Stephen Batchelor, one of the biggest names in Buddhist publishing, and Canada’s Stephen Schettini. Both of them went to India for years and years to become Tibetan monks and hang out in Dharmasala, where the Dalai Lama lives. During their tenures, they took vacations to Sri Lanka and sat with the Theravada monks. They then quit Dharmasala and took much more secular paths, and of course are atheists now. Like Buddhists are supposed to be.

And of course there are the various schools of Zen Buddhism, something I studied for four years with a Vietnamese monk. Zennies are cool, generally not nearly so institutional as the Dalai Lama set. Useful in bar fights, since a lot of them are also martial arts people.

I get along fine with Zennies, but I don’t read that stuff, either. They make their literature confusing on purpose.

We’re facing a tough century, and it seems that the forces of chaos, delusion, consumerism, capitalism, violence and demagoguery are the things we will all have to contend with. Buddhism, in its purest form, has the answers to the world’s problems, but the forces of ignorance and hate are momentous. America’s Buddhists could become a force for good, but hardly so when the richest and most powerful of them would rather pay homage to monks dead 700 years than hold a goddamn bake sale, organize a mission trip, or man a picket line.

Without social engagement, Buddhism is just so much mumbo-jumbo – authentic mumbo-jumbo, if you try to keep up with Tibetan chants. If you are a Buddhist, then you have duties you share with other Buddhists toward the alleviation of suffering in the world. People who take this seriously (especially if they meditate on the good they do), are more contented with their lives than people who are ignorant of this wellspring of happiness. This is a universal truth found in all religious doctrines and codes of ethics.

Do something that the world will benefit from, the people, or the environment. Planting a tree kills two birds with one stone. You’re not called upon to eradicate malaria, just checking on the old woman who lives in 34B is plenty. If you are a care-giver, and so many of us are, the child you picked up bleeding out of the mud on the soccer field, or the widowed parent you’ve brought into your home, bring merit to your life because you’re doing the right thing.

If you’re using Buddhism as an excuse to hang out with the Geshe and hide from the world, to avoid conflict because you’re “pacifist,” then you’re not fulfilling your obligations as a Buddhist. Then you’re a bad Buddhist. Or a coward.

If you hate people, go volunteer at the animal shelter.

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Soon will come the call for Ogichida, for tough guys to be diligent to protect helpless others from harm in these most precarious times

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The Tattooed Buddha

Blogger’s note: the following is the foreword I wrote to an anthology about parenting presently being assembled by the editor of the website The Tattooed Buddha, for whom I frequently write since they were kind enough to give me a column. You should check it out. http://www.thetattooedbuddha.com

In a little corner of the Buddho-sphere is a website not like any other. Inhabited by renegades from many menial, everyday walks of life, The Tattooed Buddha has become a home for writers caught up in lives centered by Dharma and Yoga and dealing with vicissitudes as different as competitive weight lifting to changing diapers and wiping snotty noses.

Avoiding for the most part the academic bent of so many Buddhist websites, TTB writers instead interpret the meaning of Dharma through their own experiences. Secular Buddhists, mystical Buddhists, anti-establishment Buddhists, and plenty of non-Buddhists and Yogans contribute to The Tattooed Buddha every week. It is a place for new writers to flex their muscles, and more established writers to let their hair down and write from the heart.

This fascinating anthology of parenting stories collected from The Tattooed Buddha would probably shock the helicopter-parenting crowd; no children were harmed during the writing of these stories because none of these parents think it is important for their children to go to expensive private schools. Parenting mistakes are admitted to, lessons learned. Life is messy, and a lot of TTB writers have messier than usual lives. Lots of single parents represented here, including single dads, and moms who have had to endure the loss of a child.

Author Krissy Pozatek states succinctly what TTB parenting is all about.

“A new goal that parents can aspire toward is not for their children to be happy,

but instead to be emotionally healthy.”

My parenting days are long over; I’ve settled into the distinct pleasure of being grandfather to three little girls, who all call me “Grumpy.” However, for the most part the writers of these essays are still active parents, and their wisdom has an immediacy to it. The title of Dana Gornall’s essays says it well: The Middle Way Between Free Range and Neurotic.

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This is me as a Simpson Buddha

Each story is quite different from the next, reflecting not only the differences in the perspectives of the women and men who wrote them, but also the differences in the children themselves.

But the wisdom contained in the anthology reflects its roots in the knowledge of the path to enlightenment, so, even if poop is seeping out the leg hole of the baby’s diapers and onto the dog, “skillful” parents can remind themselves of the Buddhist goal of equanimity, of evenness of temperament, you know, before hitting the wine box and taking both the dog and the baby into the back yard so they can be hosed down at the same time.

I think a true measure of parents is the uninhibited ease with which they can laugh with their children. And since I am significantly older than most of the essayists in this collection, let me tell you that it is just as satisfying to laugh out loud with your children when they’re middle aged as when they’re young.

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Strib’s Recipe for Sufferin’ Jarhead Punch

Oh God, it’s that time of year again. I am a notorious holiday basher.

I’m not sure why. I just don’t like this time of year. I like parties, and family get-togethers, the good will, the commercials, the decorations… the greed. Not the greed of nice people, except for greedy children who expect $400 toys every year. I have three little granddaughters, and it is always so much fun to watch them delight in Disney action figures, and anything with Minions on it.

I’ve been studying Minions for quite awhile, as my oldest granddaughter and I watch Despicable Me 2 almost every time we get together. Their language, if you listen closely, sounds like a combination of Russian and Italian. The big ice cream social (gelato!) they had while Gru was away, the singing and stamping and waving of tankards full of hot fudge sundaes, was obviously inspired by Verdi and Puccini operas.

It’s corporate greed, the Black Friday mentality, that gets me. The expectation of mass consumerism, kids going spastic when they score the game system they wanted. The worst are those awful Lexus commercials, and Kay Jewelry commercials. I’d like to find the guy that wrote the Lexus Christmas jingle… and tell him how irritating it is. Thank God for the mute button. I perfected its use during the recent elections.

But the worst part of suffering the holiday season is that I get my annual six weeks of writer’s block. I’ve come to expect it, and this year I’m just going to surrender to it, and do anything but write.

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Makes a great stocking stuffer

Buddhists like Christmas. I know Chinese Buddhists who live in Indonesia who celebrate Christmas with huge dinner parties and gift-giving. Buddhists don’t have a Christmas-type, Hanukkah-type holiday. But many have been happy to appropriate the American Christian celebration, right down to the baby Jesus.

Many Buddhist monks count Jesus as one of their own. His father was an Essene, a mystical branch of Judaism not nearly so powerful as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and it is believed that the Essenes had contact with Buddhist missionaries out of northern India. Some of them say that the Three Wise Men were Buddhist monks. It is believed that Jesus was whisked away by the Buddhists at the age of 13, and studied with them and taught until he returned to Palestine to begin his ministry at the age of 30. That might have been a tactical error on his part.

And on the third day he arose, looking like crap, bleary-eyed and bloody. He poured a cup of coffee with shaking hands and said “God, I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.”*

And so he returned to Kashmir to live out his days far away from the Roman Empire, and is buried there in Esa’s Tomb. His corpse was laid out in a north-south orientation, and later a Muslim holy man was buried in the ground above Esa, but was oriented east-west. Both of their souls went to heaven and get to sit really near God whenever there is a banquet.

I can’t prove the last point, but there is ample evidence in various historical records that Jesus spent his missing years under the sponsorship of Buddhist monks, and he remained Buddhist for the rest of his life.

Christmas was never that big a deal when I was a kid. My parents never went to church. And we were pretty poor, a family of four who lived on the salary of an Army staff sergeant. Gifts were purchased at the PX. We lived in a huge apartment compound in Munich, walled like a Polish ghetto, where only the families of American soldiers lived.

Back in the day 6th graders didn’t have girlfriends, but there was a girl I liked to hang around with because she was an only child, and back in her room it was really quiet. Her name was Johnson, a tall, big-boned blonde who could kick home runs in kickball games. We played Parcheesi and worked on homework, listened to records, and talked a little, not much, not anything like the soul-searing conversations with idiots at Scout camp.

So in the winter of 1962 I bought her a Christmas present for 65 cents. It was a 45 RPM record of an obscure band we listened to out of Radio Luxembourg called the Beatles. “Good Golly Miss Molly” was on one side of the record. I can’t remember what was on the other side. She thanked me and gave me a hug. People didn’t hug in 1962, especially sixth graders. It was a short hug, but substantial—Johnson was the strongest girl in Mister Franzen’s class.

I have survived more than 60 Christmases, but one that really stands out is the one with the hug.

Back in 1971, even though I was only a PFC, my unit commander made me stand duty watch on Christmas day, because I wasn’t a Christian. Usually you had to be an NCO to stand Duty NCO, but for 24 hours I was the commander of a totally empty World War II-era wooden barracks. “The Duty” was mostly a firewatch thing. I was delighted to be alone for once, but later a married colleague and his wife brought me a home-cooked chicken dinner. That’s the only Christmas dinner that stands out in my mind. Every Christmas dinner from there on was at my mother-in-law’s. I think she switched from turkey to ham for Christmas dinner because I’m Jewish. I’m sick to death of it and would like sometime to make Christmas dinner myself. But she’s 91 and still bowls, drives, and does volunteer work.

By God, I want spaghetti for Christmas. And Italian cream cake. And a huge green salad. And Chianti.

I like the idea of a destination Christmas, but the destination has always been the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. I like the tropics, but my recently-retired and postmenopausal wife is not a fan of hot weather. I am, because I lived in the tropics for six months, and ever since, I’ve been cold. Freezing! Once I was a winter backpacker and cross-country skier. I scoffed at the cold. We’re talking Minnesota here, baby, not Ohio.

It is a good time to canoe in the Everglades, my daughter and I once found out. No mosquitoes. No gators. And no Burmese pythons. You say inhospitable, I say hospitable. In the day I used to be able to get away and go backpacking for a few days to clear my head during the holidays.

During cold weather I liked to hike and camp in the land that’s on the surface of Mammoth Cave National Park. It was OK in late fall and early spring, but way too ticky for summer hiking. So when I packed there in winter, I had 10,000 acres pretty much all to myself. I was back there with my son once, and a raccoon snatched the stocking cap right off his head one night when we were sleeping.

I have nice kids, and I think one of the reasons they’re both so successful (in the arts!) is because of the peril I put them through when they were little. Sometimes I took them places where a broken boot lace was as bad as a broken ankle.

If you want to make a really yummy, goes down too fast, majorly alcoholic holiday punch, combine one parts each of cheap pineapple, coconut and passionfruit rum to 1 1/2 – 2 parts grapefruit juice (this cuts through the sweetness, so add to taste). I invented it myself. It’s called a Suffering Jarhead. If you can’t find passionfruit rum, mango will do, but it’s better with passionfruit. If they’d have had fruit-flavored rum back in the Sixties, a lot more hippie chicks would have gotten knocked up.

I like hugs. The best ones are from women. But Marines hug a lot, too. I’ve been hugged by total strangers who were Marines. In Chicago recently I met a Buddho-Marine hero of mine, Frank Valdez, a former Force Recon scuba diver and Vietnam vet. He’s 70 years old, has his own business, and still dives commercially. He’s very fit and strong. Memorable hug.

frank

Like a number of “Special Forces” guys I know, he’s bellicose, belligerent, curses like a Marine, and he never shuts up. He’s just like me, only a lot more so. I love him.

I hate Christmas. After Halloween it just all goes downhill. I’ll have to go to the mall sometime in December and walk around stoned to get into the Christmas spirit. I buy presents on Amazon (I only have one person to buy for), but I’ll stop by Yankee Candle for some Midnight Jasmine votives. I love the smell of jasmine. It reminds me of home, uh, er, Sri Lanka.

And Yankee Candle has a veteran’s discount!

Merry frickin, dadgum Christmas.

*Credit goes to an unpublished Gary Larssen cartoon.

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