Smile Politely

Water Under The Bridge

This is, or is supposed to be, a column about how I spent the holiday vacation, such as it was. (You may find out by the end of the column, if you get that far, that it also turns out to be about marijuana, jail time, and catching up with the past, or perhaps the past catching up with you, but, never mind.) 

First, we should begin the New Year with a lesson from the Tao Te Ching. But even before that, I need to confess — confession and self-awareness undertaken in lieu of New Year’s resolutions — that I am one of the most contentious people in the world, or so I have been told. Apparently, this trait, contentiousness, runs in my family. My uncles would argue about the color of dirt.

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the water verse, verse eight, says, “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. … When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

I’m fine with this right up until the last line, when “compete” kicks in. Otherwise, low places are fine with me. Even disdain is fine with me.

The Modern Library translation by Lin Yutang concludes a little differently. “It is because (the Sage) does not contend that he is without reproach.”

Most people think it is very American to compete and to contend, which is probably why some people insist on referring to the United States as a Christian nation and not as a Taoist one. We list toward the feisty.

But there’s a footnote to this. According to Lin Yutang, the most marked difference between Lao-tse and Chuang-tse regards this very subject of non-contention. Lao-tse had more passages on teachings of non-contention than on any other topic. But Lin Yutang writes that “it is difficult, and almost impossible, to find parallel sayings of Chuang-tse on the same subject. This leads one to think that Chuang-tse was probably a stronger and harder spirit than the mellow master.”

Even Taoists look for loopholes in the dogma, I suppose.

So, how did I spend my Christmas vacation? Arguing, of course. I argued with an atheist from Philadelphia about illusion, reality, and acid trips. I argued with a Christian pastor from Farmer City about the inevitability of equal rights for gay people.

There was one really scintillating argument with a purported female named Loren — who sports a bra, fishnet top and purple hair — about bouillabaisse and predetermination. I joined New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in reminding people that Bush, Cheney and crew should not be allowed to disappear without accountability. If Bush really wanted to work on his legacy, he would have demanded the shoe thrower be released instead of letting him languish in prison to be tortured. If you can’t forgive, you can’t be forgiven.

But then something happened: I signed up for Facebook.

If you have read this far, I have another confession to make. You may have noticed that this column is top-loaded with commas and blithering and digressions. I was hoping some people would assume they knew where the column was going and give up. That is because what I’m about to write isn’t something that I generally broadcast or share with just everyone. In fact, it is something that for the past forty years I’ve been unable to write about in any detail at all. Today still isn’t that day, either.

In January 1969, I was sentenced to six months in Cook County Jail for possession of three joints of marijuana, rolled from wild weed harvested from the roadsides of Champaign County. At that time, Cook County was notorious, the subject of an exposé in Life magazine for its appalling conditions. After my arrest (I was escorted out of philosophy class and thrown into a paddy wagon), I got kicked out of North Park College, did my time, floundered for the next several (many?) years, lived in Denver and Goshen and Venice and other places I can’t remember (and suffered from PTSD before the acronym was coined, according to people who knew me then), and eventually went on to, well, I never really went on to much of anything. But I’m not complaining. I doubt my philosophical perspective would have been so acutely honed had I not, as a naive 19-year-old, been thrust into months of cohabitation with the urban addicts and criminals of Cook County, armed only with a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

The first day I signed up for Facebook, I heard from another student from North Park, someone who was actively concerned about Vietnam, a conscientious kid at the time, someone I hadn’t seen or heard from for 40 years. I’ll call him Anderson. As I recall, he was in the college senate with me. 

In those days, at the drop of a hat, we could take the el train down to the University of Chicago, board a bus to Washington and go levitate the Pentagon. And we did.

Anderson contacted me through Facebook and wrote the following:

“Of course I remember you. And of course I remember Lee. I didn’t know you were married. How wonderful to hear from you. You know, I felt so bad when North Park let you down. Dean Carroll Peterson once confided in me that turning that matter over to the police was the worst decision he ever made as Dean of Students. He regretted it so much. I learned a great deal from it and have often thought about it over the years. In fact, it affected my decisions in many other lives for a ten-year period of time while I sat as a District Court Judge in the First Judicial District of Colorado. For that I am grateful and I have you to thank for that lesson, but I am terribly sorry that you had to suffer the undue and extraordinary consequences of that experience. Yes, those were the days indeed. If you have time, I would like to hear about your life. I wish you and Lee a most merry and memorable Christmas.”

So, if the Christmas season began with the trampling of a Wal-Mart employee and ended with Santa shooting up his family and burning down the house, what went on in the middle struck me with the force of an unexpected Christmas miracle.

I had tried to ignore the entire Christmas season or argue my way through it, and then something like this happens. Hee haw, it’s a wonderful life.

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