Cool Gray Dawn

June 25, 2017

Here is the first season of Cool Gray Dawn, an espionage series I have created about the Central Intelligence Agency. With a focus on the early days of the Cold War, Cool Gray Dawn features the exploits of CIA’s Domestic Operations Division and their Special Operations Team, nicknamed “mandarins.” This first season focuses on the years 1959 and 1960.

As the Cold War pit the rival superpowers of the East against the West, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, CIA’s Domestic Operations Division not only found itself embroiled in deadly battles with the KGB, but also with its NATO allies, the FBI and other U.S. government agencies—as well as divisions within CIA itself.

Each episode, based in the context of historical fact, features Warren Latham, spymaster and head of Domestic Operations. An American version of John le Carré’s George Smiley at MI6, Latham displays the guile and genius, intelligence and wit, ruthlessness and charm that formed the free world’s last line of defense.

Each title is a hyperlink to a PDF file. I hope you enjoy them.

Episode #1: The First Casualty

Episode #2: A Finesse Strategy

Episode #3: Marginal Value

Episode #4: Loyalty

Episode #5: Little Dove

Episode #6: A Passive Provocation

Episode #7: Everybody Wins

Episode #8: Training Purposes

Episode #9: The Devil Is In The Details

Episode #10: The KUBARK Way

Episode #11: The Canard

Episode #12: Raising The Bar

Episode #13: Something’s Wrong Here

Episode #14: The Last Refuge

The First Dialectic

June 19, 2017

While sitting in a booth at The Deli Llama, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed Dialectical Materialism, a philosophical construct derived from one of their failed comedy routines. Let’s listen in on their conversation that fateful night…

Karl Marx:  Ach! What was up with that audience?

Friedrich Engels:  What was with you tonight?

KM: What?

FE: You had to have audience participation. Did I tell you to ask for audience participation? No. You had to have audience participation. It was your brilliant idea.

KM:  How was I to know they’d throw things?

FE:  And that stupid song of yours – who ever heard of a word that rhymes with “heuristics?” What kind of an idiot asks the audience for a word that rhymes with heuristics?

KM:  It sounded good at the time.

FE:  Moron. And what the hell is the “materialist conception of history?” Where do you get that stuff?

KM:  I was waiting for Sasha to finish her gruel so I could take her to kindergarten. I saw it on the side of her lunch box. I thought it might get a laugh.

FE:  Oh, by the way, genius—it’s “materialist dialectic,” not “dialectical materialism.”

KM:  Since when?

FE:  Since we started. It’s always been materialist dialectic.

KM:  Yeah, and no one laughed. Ever. Look what happened tonight—they were rolling on the floor.

FE:  That was the cheese. Roquefort isn’t supposed to be green.

KM:  You should talk. First it’s “geist”, then it’s “zeitgeist.” Make up your mind.

FE:  I wanted to get some concept of time in there, so I used zeitgeist. What’s the big deal?

KM:  You threw off my timing is what!

FE:  Like you know timing. You were supposed to pause after “thought is a reflection of the material world in the drain.”

KM:  It’s “brain,” you idiot—not drain!

FE:  Well, if you’re going to start quoting me on stage, you nitwit, it’s “ceaseless,” as in “All nature is a ceaseless state of movement and change.”

KM:  What did I say?

FE:  Creaseless.

KM:  It got a laugh.

FE:  We sounded like idiots up there tonight.

KM:  What if we focused more on materialism?  I heard this kid Lenin do a real funny bit on it at the Rathskeller. It was murder!

WANTED: Poster

June 19, 2017

Sooner or later you will be asked to do a presentation, one requiring a full display of your creative and oratorical skills. So how do you overwhelm your audience if your greatest skill heretofore has been talking behind the backs of your coworkers?

The answer is the poster. Yes, that stalwart of boardrooms and bedrooms, the poster offers style, format, color, readability, attractiveness and showmanship—traits that, when properly applied, can easily camouflage your lack of knowledge.

Here, then, is my brief guide through the do’s and don’ts of creating an effective poster, one that, if followed to the letter, will spellbind your audiences and confound your critics. So let’s get started!


DON’T create your poster on just one or two large boards, especially billboards; they’re clumsy and a real nuisance to lug around. Billboards frequently don’t fit well into a glove box. They strain your muscles and your patience, and when they fall down, they generally tend to crush anyone standing beneath them.

DO make up your poster in a large number of separate sections of roughly comparable size. However, resist the temptation to shape each section irregularly so as to resemble a jigsaw puzzle. Mount each section individually on a colored board of its own of slightly larger dimensions; this frames each poster segment with a nice border. Where the borders are restricted, enhance them with barbed wire.

DON’T vary type sizes and typefaces, especially in the same sentence.

DO design your poster as though it were the layout for a magazine. Select fonts and sizes that work well together and dismiss the ones that don’t with only a week’s severance.

DON’T use too small a type size for your poster. This is the single most common error, aside from writing in crayon. Using 8- or 10-point type will only please your optometrist. And never, ever, use 2-point type except under a court order.

DO use a type size that draws a crowd around your poster. Failing that, offer free beer.

DON’T pick a font simply because it was the only one left after all the others had paired off. More importantly, avoid the urge to choose a font where the lower-case ‘m’ resembles a rear view of someone bending over at the waist.

DO, by all means, use colors in your poster. But always try to use them without letting them know they’re being used.

DON’T leave people wondering who did the work. Put the names of all authors and their institutional affiliations just below the title. It’s also a nice touch to include the full names of any correctional institutions they may have attended.

DO use a high-quality laser printer to print your poster. Where funding is an issue, select someone with good penmanship. Also, consider adjusting the kerningthe space between each letter—to reduce the risk from pickpockets.


DON’T use sexist language. Avoid gender-specific words, as in this example: “Anyone who parked in Lot 3 will have his car removed.” Instead, make this gender-neutral with: “Anyone who parked in Lot 3 is fired.”

DO consider adding a helpful tutorial section to your poster, complete with photos taken with a hidden camera and instructions on where to leave the cash.

DON’T use chalk outlines to represent the competition.

DO give credit where it is due; just do so in a low voice.

DON’T expect anyone to spend more than three minutes looking at your poster. If they do, check to see if you still have your wallet.

DO be descriptive. Remember, you are not limited to 50 words—unless it exceeds your vocabulary.

DON’T forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered. Don’t forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered. Don’t forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered.


DO treat people you encounter with courtesy and respect; however, do not follow them home.

DON’T stand too close to the audience; it’s much easier to deflect objects when they are hurled at you from a distance.

DO realize that a poster should be accessible. A little informality can be helpful, but stop short of calling everyone “baby.”

DON’T put your hands in the pockets of your sport coat if you’re not actually wearing your sport coat.

DO offer a firm handshake to everyone in the audience; this should leave little time for your presentation and get you off the hook.

DON’T fidget or slouch, especially if you are lying on the floor.

DO ask for clarification if you do not understand someone’s question. Then ask again and again and again until they tire of speaking to you.

DON’T use correction fluid to hide a pimple.

DO offer to explain complex formulae as soon as you get back from break. Then take off.

DON’T tease the audience; it can only come back to haunt you later on when, after the presentation, they are outside waiting for you with baseball bats.

My Boeing–McDonnell Douglas–Insitu Survey

June 19, 2017

Dear Valued Customer,

Thank you for purchasing a Boeing–McDonnell Douglas–Insitu aircraft. Please take a few moments to fill out our survey. Answering these questions is not required, but the information will help us to develop new products that best meet your needs and desires—and those of your followers.

  1. Appellation: [ ] Mr.  [ ] Mrs.  [ ] Ms.  [ ] Miss  [ ] HRH  [ ] Col.
    [ ] Gen.  
    [ ] Comrade  [ ] Classified  [ ] Other (e.g., Your Beatitude)
  2. First Name (As it appears on your birth certificate, or as you wish to be remembered): …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
  3. Initial(s) [Limit of 3, please]: ………………………
  4. Last Name (For surnames with 2 or more hyphens, use a separate sheet of paper; set off aliases in quotation marks): …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
  5. Password (For your protection, clear text here is replaced with a mix of special characters and ASL—American Sign Language): …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
  6. Your Code Name: …………………………………………………………………………
  7. Latitude-Longitude-Altitude: …………….. – …………… – ….………….
  8. Which aircraft did you purchase?
    a. [ ] F-14 Tomcat
    b. [ ] F-15 Eagle
    c. [ ] F-16 Falcon
    d. [ ] F-117A Stealth
    e. [ ] ScanEagle Drone
    f.  [ ] Pre-owned DC-10 (Refurbished)
    g. [ ] Pre-owned DC-10 (Crashed and Refurbished)
    h. [ ] Mitsubishi F1M (Received in a trade)
    i.  [ ] Classified
  9. Date of purchase (Use Julian Date only, please): ________.____
  10. Serial No. (For manned aircraft, see tag on pilot-side doorsill or bomb bay door; for drones, see plate behind inertial stabilized turret system): …….………………………………………..…..….……
  11. How was this Boeing-McDonnell Douglas-Insitu product purchased?
    a. [ ] Received as a gift/humanitarian aid package
    b. [ ] Catalog showroom
    c. [ ] Independent arms broker
    d. [ ] Mail order
    e. [ ] Discount store
    f.  [ ] Government surplus
    g. [ ] Classified
  12. How did you became aware of the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas-Insitu product you have just purchased?
    a. [ ] Heard a loud noise and looked up
    b. [ ] Store window display
    c. [ ] Espionage
    d. [ ] Recommended by friend/relative/ally/Consumer Reports
    e. [ ] Was attacked by one
  13. Select 3 factors that most influenced your decision to purchase this product:
    a. [ ] Style/appearance
    b. [ ] Speed/maneuverability
    c. [ ] Price/value
    d. [ ] Conformed to local noise abatement laws
    e. [ ] Comfort/convenience
    f.  [ ] Kickback/bribe
    g. [ ] Recommended by the salesperson
    h. [ ] Backroom politics
    i.  [ ] Negative experience opposing one in combat
    j.  [ ] Gun held to my head
  14. To the best of your knowledge, check all locations where this Boeing-McDonnell Douglas-Insitu product will be used:
    a. [ ] North America
    b. [ ] Iran
    c. [ ] Central/South America
    d. [ ] Philadelphia
    e. [ ] Iran
    f.  [ ] Europe
    g. [ ] Middle East (not Iran)
    h. [ ] Iran
    i.  [ ] Africa
    j.  [ ] Asia/Far East
    k. [ ] Iran
    l.  [ ] Misc. Third World Countries (excluding Iran)
    m.[ ] Classified
    n. [ ] Iran
  15. Of the products listed, which ones do you currently own or intend to purchase in the near future?
    a. [ ] Flat-Screen TV
    b. [ ] iPod
    c. [ ] ICBM
    d. [ ] Death-Ray Satellite
    e. [ ] DVD Player
    f.  [ ] Air-to-Air Missiles
    g. [ ] Space Shuttle (Used, Refurbished)
    h. [ ] Space Shuttle (Reassembled)
    i.  [ ] Home Computer
    j.  [ ] Nuclear Weapon
    k. [ ] Recovered Alien Spacecraft
  16. Describe yourself and/or your organization. (Check all that apply)
    a. [ ] Communist/Socialist
    b. [ ] Terrorist
    c. [ ] Vegan
    d. [ ] Republican
    e. [ ] Quaker
    f.  [ ] Cosmic Muffin
    g. [ ] Democrat
    h. [ ] Dictatorship
    i.  [ ] Corrupt
    j.  [ ] Primitive/Tribal/Tea Party
  17. How did you pay for your Boeing-McDonnell Douglas-Insitu product?
    a. [ ] Under the table
    b. [ ] Money Order
    c. [ ] Payroll deduction
    d. [ ] Redeemed a coupon
    e. [ ] Deficit spending
    f.  [ ] Cash
    g. [ ] Suitcases of cocaine
    h. [ ] Oil revenues
    i.  [ ] Personal check
    j.  [ ] Prepaid debit card
    k. [ ] Ransom money
  18.  Your occupation:
    a. [ ] Homemaker
    b. [ ] Student
    c. [ ] Sales/Marketing
    d. [ ] Insurgent
    e. [ ] Clerical
    f.  [ ] Mercenary
    g. [ ] Tyrant
    h. [ ] Middle Management
    i.  [ ] Eccentric Billionaire
    j.  [ ] Defense Minister
    k. [ ] Retired
  19. Circle the highest level of education you have attained. (If completed by a proxy, please initial the selection.)
    a. [ ] Postgraduate
    b. [ ] Graduate
    c. [ ] Undergraduate
    d. [ ] High School/G.E.D.
    e. [ ] Elementary/Middle School
    f.  [ ] Other
  20. To help us better understand our customers’ lifestyles, please indicate the interests and activities in which you and your spouse/partner enjoy participating on a regular basis:
    a. [ ] Golf
    b. [ ] Boating/Sailing
    c. [ ] Sabotage
    d. [ ] Shaving the cat
    e. [ ] Walking/Running/Jogging
    f.  [ ] Propaganda/Disinformation
    g. [ ] Destabilization/Overthrow
    h. [ ] Defaulting on loans
    i.  [ ] Gardening
    j.  [ ] Arts and Crafts
    k. [ ] Black Marketeering/Smuggling
    l.  [ ] Collectibles
    m.[ ] Watching sports on TV
    n. [ ] Wine Tasting
    o. [ ] Interrogation/Torture
    p. [ ] Animal Adoptions
    q. [ ] Crushing Rebellions/Insurrections
    r.  [ ] Espionage/Reconnaissance
    s. [ ] Fashion Design
    t.  [ ] Border Disputes
    u. [ ] Mutually Assured Destruction
    v. [ ] Cooking

Thank you for participating in this survey. Your answers will be used in market studies that will help Boeing-McDonnell Douglas-Insitu serve you better in the future.

Your privacy is important to us. You have our assurance that your information will not be shared with other companies, governments, extremist groups, the FBI or their various international consortia.

As a bonus for responding to this survey, you will be registered to win a brand new Cuisinart Pressure Cooker in our Guns And Butter Sweepstakes!

Comments or suggestions about our aircraft? Please write to:

Marketing Department
Military Aerospace Division
Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada

When House Arrest Really Is House Arrest

February 23, 2017

A Right Turn Into The 4th Dimension

Not too long ago, if you ran afoul of the law, were arrested and deemed a flight risk, you were locked up in the pokey until your trial. Granted, even in the good ol’ days money talked, and your lawyer could probably persuade a judge lenient or dimwitted enough to place you under house arrest. Today, though, when the courts let freedom ring, house arrest means wearing judicial bling – an ankle bracelet – to keep you within police radar range while you hobnob around the neighborhood, visit old haunts and even older friends, and continue to engage in the same illicit behavior that got you arrested in the first place.

But what if house arrest meant you were truly unable to leave the friendly confines of your quaint little crib? Imagine every front, side and back door that once opened to the outside world now only leads you to some other room within your own home. And every window that once held vistas of the Manhattan skyline or the Bronx County courthouse now only lets you peek into some other room of your own home.

Well, all this and more could be yours, penal contestants, if your dream house were suddenly transported from the 3rd dimension into the 4th dimension.

Turn Right

Now, those of you who finished the third grade and are conversant in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity are no doubt saying, “What the hell are you talking about, you idiot? Time is the 4th dimension! How do you move a house into time?” To which I say, Hold on there, Baba Looie. Let’s think of the 4th dimension as the next logical, geometric construct from the 3rd dimension.

For argument’s sake – and I’m writing this, so it’s my argument – let’s define the first three dimensions geometrically by saying that each dimension exists at a 90˚or right angle to the other. Length is the 1st dimension and width is the 2nd dimension. Width exists at a 90˚ or right angle to length; in other words, if length runs east to west (or west to east for those of you in Los Angeles), then width runs north to south. The 3rd dimension is set at a 90˚ or right angle to both length and width – this is height. As an example, consider a flagpole standing at the corner where Broadway and 96th Street intersect; the neon lights are not as bright at this end of Broadway, so the flagpole should stand out. Broadway represents length, 96th Street represents width, and the flagpole represents height, as well as one more thing to walk into if you’re not paying attention. Where length, width and height all intersect at the same point, we have the three distinct dimensions that define our physical world.

Following this logic, then, the 4th dimension would have to be set at a 90˚ or right angle to all of these three dimensions – length, width and height – simultaneously. Huh?

Let’s go back to the first two dimensions for a moment, shall we? Length and width define a plane, which is a flat surface like, say, a sheet of paper (or, perhaps, the top of one’s head). On this sheet of paper we shall draw a three-dimensional object, such as this cube.


Now, a cube is made up of six faces or squares, and a square, of course, has four equal sides. In this two-dimensional representation, however, we actually only see three sides – the front, the top and the right; we cannot see the side on which the cube sits, nor do we see its left side or its, ahem, back side.

In order to give the above cube the illusion of depth, three lines forming part of the top and right faces of the cube are shortened and set at acute angles to the front face of the cube. Thus, the top and right faces of the cube are not really squares (Got that, daddy-o?), they are trapezoids, i.e., only two of the four sides are parallel. What you are seeing is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional cube; your brain fleshes out the parts unseen. Thus, whenever you see this pancaked version of a cube, you are conditioned to accept it as a three-dimensional object. N’est-ce pas?

Your New Home, Minus The Ceiling

Let’s now imagine how a home would be constructed in the 4th dimension. For years builders have constructed typical (typical?) three-dimensional homes by referring to plans drawn on a two-dimensional plane: a blueprint. To imagine, then, how a fourth-dimensional house would be represented in the 3rd dimension, let’s look from our three-dimensional perspective at a house built in a two-dimensional world.

With grateful acknowledgment to Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), let us take a look at a 6-room house in the town of Flatland somewhere in upstate New York, where everything, including the town’s residents, exists in only two dimensions. The house would look something like this:




Clearly, the owner is colorblind or the hardware store had a closeout on paint. In any event, the house is laid out like a ranch house with every room on one level. The rooms are numbered 1 – 6. Each room has four walls, and every wall has a huge sliding glass door (Hey, the owner can do whatever he wants!). Each shared wall leads into an adjacent room; walls that are not shared lead outside the house. Thus, room #1 shares one wall, its south wall, with room #2; the west, north and east walls all lead outside the house. Room #2 is an interior room, sharing all four of its walls with the four adjacent rooms – the north wall is shared with room #1, the south wall is shared with room #3, the west wall is shared with room #5, and the east wall is shared with room #6. Room #3 shares two walls, its north wall with room #2 and its south wall with room #4. Room #4 shares only one wall, its north wall, with room #3. Room #5 shares only its east wall with room #2, and room #6 shares only its west wall with room #2. Everybody got that?

You can enter this house through any room that has a wall facing the outside except room #2, which is in the interior of the house. Rooms 1, 4, 5 and 6 have three walls with access into the house; room #3 has two such walls, the west and east walls. Thank goodness the house comes standard with indoor/outdoor carpeting.

Once inside the house, access to each room is somewhat limited. If you are in room #1, for example, the only way to get to rooms 5 or 6 is to pass through room #2; the same is true if you want to get to room #3. To get to room #4, you have to walk through room #2 and room #3, which at 3:00 AM is not likely to win you any brownie points from anyone who might be asleep there.

Well, We’re Movin’ On Up…

Now let’s “fold” this house into three-dimensional space. We do this by folding along each shared wall, just as you would fold a flat piece of paper with six connected squares into a cube. For those whose opposable thumbs leave them all thumbs, this house is in the shape of a cross, which makes this task rather easy.

First, fold room #4 up – i.e., into three-dimensional space – along its shared wall with room #3. Then fold all four sides of room #2 – i.e., along the walls it shares with rooms 1, 5, 6 and 3 – up into three-dimensional space. Finally, connect the south wall of room #4 with the north wall of room #1 and, voila, we have a cube–er, three-dimensional house.

Now, one way to represent our now three-dimensional house in two-dimensional space is to draw it as a cube, as we did above. If we wish to see all the rooms, though, a combination of trapezoids and rectangles is needed to give the impression that we are looking into a three-dimensional cube.

house1 frontback1

The figure on the left is a view of our house looking through room #1 back to room #3, the smaller rectangle; room #2 is the base of the cube; rooms 5 and 6 are the sides; and room #4 is the top.

The figure on the right is the house with the sides stretched to make the relationship of each room clearer, as well as more bizarre. In this figure, rooms 1 and 3 are highlighted, with room #1 in the front and room #3 in the back. Since every side of every face of the cube is actually a wall, every wall then is connected to a wall of another room. What this means is that no wall now leads outside the house. No matter what room you are in, regardless of which wall you punch, walking through its sliding glass door will always lead you into another room.

Stairway To Heaven?

Now let’s put our original two-dimensional owner-occupant in room #1. If he (yes, only a man would let someone fold his two-dimensional house into three-dimensional space) walks through the sliding glass door on the north wall, he now enters room #4. When the house existed in its original two-dimensional state – and the owner was somewhat shy about waking his crazed, knife-wielding cousin snoring away in room #3 – he would have decided to exit the house through the sliding glass door on the north wall, and trudge through the mud all the way to the other end of the house until he finally reached room #4. This could be very disconcerting, especially after a late-night burrito and mocha latte snack, as room #4 had the only bathroom.

When our Flatlander looks through a sliding glass door now, regardless of which wall he chooses, he always sees into the room adjacent to that wall. Remember, in the 2nd dimension there is no concept of up or down because those directions only exist in the 3rd dimension. In the 2nd dimension he reached every room of his house by simply walking – or perhaps gliding – straight ahead, or turning left or right. Now in three-dimensional space, however, every wall is connected to another room, and that other room may well be on another level – the second floor or the basement. But as far as our owner-occupant knows, he is still walking on one level as he had always done, albeit now confused as hell.

With his once two-dimensional house now folded into three-dimensional space, our owner-occupant is unable leave the house, as each wall is now connected to another wall, and there is no wall anywhere leading outside the house. His only escape from his house would be to have it “unfolded” in a lower dimension – in this case, back into two-dimensional space.


Now imagine a three-dimensional house folded into fourth-dimensional space. We here in the 3rd dimension can no more point toward a direction that is at a right angle to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd dimensions than a two-dimensional Flatlander could point to the 3rd dimension, but in theory a dimension outside our world does exist. From our lofty three-dimensional perch we can look “down” and peer into the two-dimensional world of Flatland, just as someone – or some thing – from the 4th dimension can gaze down into our three-dimensional world.

If your gorgeous Park Avenue penthouse were suddenly folded into fourth dimensional space with you inside it, you would find yourself trapped forever within your apartment. Every wall, floor and ceiling would be connected to another wall or floor or ceiling. And if you think of each wall, floor and ceiling as simply another surface on a cube – i.e., the room in which you are sitting and sulking – then you may find that, unless your apartment was folded into the fourth dimension with care, you could exit the sliding glass door on the west wall of your bedroom and find yourself standing on the ceiling of your living room.

Needless to say, 24 hours in this funhouse might well punish you more cruelly and unusually than anything the Supreme Court could have imagined.

A Lesson From The Zen Master

February 17, 2017

A koan  (pronounced: /kuo-an/, Chinese; /mugwump/, French; /boring/, English) is a story, question, or statement etched in wet cement that is used in Zen-practice to test a student’s progress by provoking what Zen masters call the “great doubt” or “Big D.”

The word koan comes from the Japanese mispronounciation of an obscure Tibetan phrase, “Chap sang gawa yo rey?” – literally, “Where’s the bathroom?”

Koans and their study developed in China within the context of open questions posed by Emperor Yong-le (Ming Dynasty) to newly-weds who had forgotten to invite his majesty to the reception. In most instances, the emperor was appeased with a slice of wedding cake, his weight in silk pajamas, and a twirl around the rumpus room with the Missus.

Essence Of Enlightenment

The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students, as opposed to an earlier practice, wherein a master spent hours yelling at his reflection in the mirror. Whatever insight this “Eureka!” moment might bring, its verification was always interpersonal – and very noisy. Thus, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting to get out of washing the dishes after dinner.

This mutual inquiry into the meaning of the encounters between masters and students gave rise to a paradigm: one now looked at the enlightened activities of one’s lineal forebears not only to understand one’s own spiritual identity, but to also understand why one looked so much like the milkman.

Literary Practice

Koan practice developed from crafting snippets of encounter-dialogue with the literati into well-edited stories. This interaction often resulted with the “educated class” being relieved of their wallets. Eventually though, the methodology was amended to affect a more literary approach: teachers whose vehicles were stolen found their books left behind on the curb.

There were other dangers posed by encounter-dialogue. An early poetry competition devolved into a free-for-all when a contestant was unable to rhyme “solipsism.”

The style of writing Zen texts has evolved over the years, from the use of exclamation points at the beginning of a sentence – indicating a master’s anger over a student’s temerity to even ask a question – to the excessive use of smiley faces and other emoticons.

Koan Practice, or What’s My Mantra?

A koan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation or other activities, such as pole dancing or dating a pigeon. During koan practice a teacher may probe a student’s ken using “checking” questions to validate an experience, or by surprising the student with an obscene phone call.

Koan practice is particularly important among the Rinzai sect. These practitioners concentrate on qi breathing and its effect on the body’s center of gravity – as opposed to, say, looking for oncoming traffic while crossing the street.

A qualified koan teacher provides instruction in koan practice in private, though some are known to allow viewing through peepholes. In one particular case involving a student named Hu, his teacher wrote:

“Concentrate yourself into this jar of pitted olives, Hu. Make your whole body one pickled inquiry. Day and night, work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations.”

To which, it is recorded, Hu replied, “Are you nuts?!”

Historical Antecedents of Koan Practice

Before the tradition of meditating on koans, the renowned teacher Huangbo Xi (720–723 A.D.) was recorded to have said, “Yours is a clear-cut case, but I will spare you the thirty lashes.” This came as a relief to his students, who had no idea what their diapered master was talking about.

By the Sung Dynasty, the term koan had evolved to describe a teacher who, after advising a student over a cup of tea at a local restaurant, refused to pick up the check. The noted philosopher and teacher Wan-Yu is said to have instructed his students to contemplate the phrase, “Crime doesn’t pay, and neither do I,” while he slipped out the back door.

Modern Western Understanding

Today, English-speaking, non-Zen practitioners use koans to refer to universal truisms, such as, “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the original word you thought of,” or ethereal, often unanswerable questions like, “Does being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, refer to Eastern or Pacific time?”

Although there may be traditional answers to many koans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers by masters who couldn’t come up with anything original themselves.

Appropriate answers to koans vary, since different teachers demand different answers. In most cases though, the master is not looking for a specific answer, but rather for evidence that the student can pay the tuition.

The Triumphal Debut of Mass Way

February 17, 2017

All across America, pimply teenagers armed with Stratocaster and Les Paul guitars, Fender basses, synthesized keyboards and drum kits large enough to accommodate an overnight visitor, stand before banks of Marshall amplifiers crowding their parents’ garage. With visions of rock gods like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and others, they toil into the night, testing the limits of amplified sound, their neighbors’ patience, and the sensitivity of Richter scales thousands of miles away. All in the name of Rock ‘n Roll.

Little do these nascent Mozarts realize that,  in addition to providing a comfortable living for thousands of otolaryngologists – and untold misery to millions more – their musical roots trace back to a little-known band of collegiate undergraduates.

In the mid-1960s in Boston, four intrepid lads with side-parted bowl haircuts, black Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and enough change among them to sate their daily pizza pie-a-day habit, invented what is today known as the garage band.

Calling themselves Mass Way, named partly for the avenue that traversed their campus and mostly because they either couldn’t spell or pronounce the word “avenue,” they practiced in the basement of an underused college supplies depot – until they were forcibly ejected by campus police. The erstwhile super group then moved on to various basements in row houses, restaurants and finally a church (where the nightly tithe ate considerably into their pizza budget), practicing arduously until the inevitable appearance of a blister or an episode of Star Trek forced them to call it a night.

Now, prodigies possess true talent; it is an inherent ability, a measure of genius. And there are few prodigies – musical or otherwise – who are recognized as such. The members of Mass Way were not among this group. They could not read music. Coming together as they did from the four corners of the globe, they could barely understand one another, choosing to communicate with a series of grunts, whistles, and a perverted form of American Sign Language.

What they did share, in addition to a dorm room, was a love of American music. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Johnny Mathis – even Lawrence Welk made the list, though he was later dropped when the band realized that playing the accordion led to a more celibate lifestyle than they had hoped.

After hours of grueling practice, the quartet was finally ready for its debut at a college mixer – filling in for a phonograph that had succumbed to a broken needle. But this band did not shrink in the face of humiliation. Despite pleas from their friends, college administrators and the theology school that was conducting choir practice next door, Mass Way plunged headlong into its first song: a cover of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Students who owned (or borrowed and never returned) the original album knew the song would last 9 minutes and prepared themselves for an epic night of dance, choosing the most ravishing partners they could find. What no one in the audience had foreseen were the music stands set up before each of the band’s members. On the stands were notebooks with the chords to the song printed in longhand.

What no one in the band had foreseen was that the house lights would be off.

Unable to read the notebooks, and with no innate sense of rhythm among the four of them, Mass Way proceeded to play from memory. Imagine that smart alec in Catholic school who would stand by the light switch, rapidly flicking it on and off until a nun cuffed him upside his ear. Mass Way proceeded to give the first musical rendition of this annoying act: stopping abruptly to allow fellow band members to catch up, or arguing over what chord should have been played. The audience, being collegiate (translate: high and/or inebriated), responded with what many who were there perceived as threats of bodily harm if the band continued. But Mass Way, unperturbed and unable to understand the words being hurled at them, played on.

Thirty minutes later, the music, such as it was, had finally stopped. The Fire Department was dousing the remaining embers of what were once the band’s instruments, campus police were rounding up the remaining students who had chosen to shed their remaining clothes, and Mass Way were last seen running from the Student Union, arms covering their heads to shield them from the assorted debris being hurled by students and administrators alike.

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