grand old men

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run: I liked Chicken Run better. There’s something wrong with me: I just don’t get the grand old men of American letters. The Sinclairs Upton and Lewis are okay, but Bellow, Mailer and their ilk leave me stone cold. Edith Wharton, on the other hand – I’m rereading The Children – is hilarious, warm and wise.

Bobos in Paradise and Shoes Outside the Door: matched books about the war between money and principles, which overlap explicitly in discussions of the Smith & Hawken catalog, oddly enough. Bobos was okay when it took itself least seriously, as in a 30-page instruction manual on how to become a pundit. Mostly, though, it was godawful, intentionally tweaking the reader’s class anxiety (never difficult with me) while always congratulating the author on his superior discrimination and wit. Imagine if Bill Bryson were a pretentious wanker with a mile-wide mean streak. Ick.

Shoes tells the story of Baker-roshi, the first Western abbot of Zen Center. He bought Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara, wooed huge donations from the likes of Jerry Brown and the Grateful Dead, founded the spectacular Greens restaurant, ran Zen Center like his private fiefdom, spent Zen Center money on renovating his house and buying priceless antiques and a BMW, treated his students as slaves and eventually had a wildly indiscreet affair with Anna Hawken, wife of the Hawken of Smith & Hawken, and so the circle is complete. All hell, rather predictably, broke loose. There’s a great scene when Baker-roshi is given the details of his severance package: “I won’t have health insurance!” he mourns. No one else in Zen Center had health insurance. They took their kids to clinics for the poor. At one point the budget for the abbot’s expenses topped $215,000. Students’ stipends, including those for the founders of Greens, came to about $2.89/hour.

You’d think it was a standard vile-priest story and Christ knows I’ve read (and written, and lived through) enough of those, but it’s nicely told. The author, Downing, talked to eighty people and weaves their voices into a complicated, non-linear narrative that teases out the deeper questions: What does it mean to just sit? What is this spiritual authority thing, anyway? How is it conferred and by whom? And my old favorite: how are we supposed to live? There’s the tantalizing implication that Suzuki-roshi knew Dick Baker was just the kind of guy to fuck up on a cosmic scale, and that he planned the whole thing as a lesson to the silly Americans in practising a little self-reliance. A performance koan?

Chatting to Jack on the weekend we came up with a rough guide to class in America: the rich feed hummingbirds; the poor feed chickens; the really poor feed pigeons.

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