Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Local Temple Break-in Raises Questions About Police Response and Buddhist Equanimity

A week ago yesterday, two people broke in to the local Thai Buddhist temple early in the morning and stole thousands of dollars in cash from donations stored mostly in traditional wooden donation boxes. Their crime was caught on cameras outside and inside the temple, but they were wearing masks and thick clothing that disguised their identities. Nevertheless, after some of the temple regulars scrutinized the videos closely, they think they recognized at least one of the thieves. They believe it was someone who had attended the temple previously and argued with other members present. This seems credible given the fact that the thieves knew exactly where to find most of the money housed in the temple. Of course, my Thai wife, who serves on the temple board of directors, and I also attend the temple on an almost weekly basis, and I didn't know where the money was stored. But then I wasn't looking to break in and steal it.

Another wrinkle to this story is that the head monk or abbot was sleeping in an adjoining room to the main temple area when the thieves broke in, and he awoke to watch the video monitor with frightened helplessness as the thieves ransacked the sacred space just outside his closed door. He picked up his phone to alert someone, but because of his rudimentary English, he called someone with better English skills than his and asked them to call 911. However, soon afterwards, an accomplice waiting outside the closed temple gates blew a whistle and the two thieves inside the temple hastily departed with their booty, scaled the temple fence, and took off in a car. Once the police learned that the culprits had fled the scene, they canceled their response.

Still, the monks and, later, other members of the temple waited patiently on scene for the police to arrive and investigate. And because they didn't want to disturb the evidence, they touched nothing, leaving the temple, where members meet daily in traditional Thai Buddhist style to offer food to the monks and gather for a brief service, unusable in the interim. They were still waiting twelve hours later when a local TV news reporter and her camera man showed up to do a story on the break-in. She immediately called police, and a few minutes later, an officer and crime technician arrived. A few minutes after that, so did my wife and I.

That day had been one of the coldest on record for the area, and two things that struck me as soon as I stepped through the shattered sliding glass door that served as the main entrance into the temple was how cold it was inside and what a sacrilegious mess of broken glass, splintered wood, and coins the thieves had left strewn all over the matted temple floor where attendees normally kneel or sit in reverent devotion.

After the police and news crew took their absence, I called the temple's insurance provider to help file a theft and damages claim, and then, as my wife and I helped clean up the mess on the floor, some of the members began to question why it took so long for police to investigate. The reporter had asked the police officer about this, and he replied that because the thieves left as quickly as they did, a lower priority was assigned to the call. But twelve hours and counting lower of a priority, and, even then, only in response to a reporter's goading? This seemed excessive even for the understaffed police department of California's capital city of half a million.

Some began to openly wonder if it would have taken the police as long to come out to investigate the break-in and burglary of a Caucasian business or Christian church. And, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder the same. A few days later, I composed the following letter to the editor of the local newspaper, although it hasn't yet appeared in the paper and, from the looks of it, may never do so:

Do the Sacramento police care less about Asian Buddhist temples than they do about Caucasian businesses and Christian churches? Some of us think this is a possibility after thieves broke in to a Sacramento Thai Buddhist temple early Tuesday morning, stole several thousand dollars in cash, and left behind a shattered sliding-glass door, splintered wood, and frayed nerves for twelve hours in the freakishly wintry chill before the police finally arrived to investigate. And they did this only after a local news reporter called in to ask when they were coming.
We all know the police keep very busy and we understand that they can't be everywhere at once or respond to every burglary minutes after the fact. But twelve hours after a serious crime while the distressed victims eagerly wait for them in the freezing disarray? Would they do that with Caucasians or Christians?
I don't presume to know the answer to the question I raised, but I wish someone would look into the issue. That's why I ended up writing messages to two local TV news reporters about it. One of the reporters has yet to reply, but the other graciously wrote back that she hoped to do a future story on police response times and would pitch the idea to her bosses. I hope she's able to do it despite the fact that, as she says, they don't want to incur the potentially unpleasant consequences of alienating the police department.

In the meantime, while serious measures are being taken to prevent future temple break-ins and thefts of donations, the abbot, who could have been assaulted or worse by the thieves, is now having difficulty sleeping at night and is struggling with anxiety over what happened. One could argue that no one was hurt and that not that much money was stolen, but if it had been me in that adjoining room knowing that the thieves could have discovered me there easily enough and harmed or even killed me, I'd probably be experiencing just as much post-traumatic anxiety and insomnia as the abbot.

But then I haven't been a serious Buddhist monk for several decades the way the abbot and his fellow temple monks have been. I've heard it said many times that we can't reasonably expect Buddhist discipline, even in the rigorous Thai forest monk tradition of our local temple monks, to inure one to fear, anxiety, and all other forms of emotional suffering. Yet, I find myself wondering if it shouldn't impart significant equanimity in the face of this and even far worse crime and, if it doesn't, if the Buddhist game is worth the proverbial candle.

Here is the story (with video) presented by the reporter on scene the day of the break-in, and here (with video) is another local channel reporter's presentation a day or two later.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Are the Odds?

I discontinued cable TV several months ago and barely miss it at all. I now get my TV fixes from broadcast TV delivered over rabbit ears, and from Hulu, Amazon Prime, and more recently, Netflix Instant. I've been binge watching great shows including "Battlestar Galactica," "Caprica," "Sons of Anarchy," "Justified," "The Good Wife," "Dexter," and, perhaps the best of them all, "Breaking Bad" and enjoying the bejesus out of them all.

But last night something unusual happened. I watched an episode of "Breaking Bad" in which the lead character becomes obsessed with killing a fly that keeps buzzing around his meth lab. And as I was watching it, a mosquito buzzed near my ear. You may wonder what was so unusual about this. Well, it's the fact that in the whole nine years I've lived in my house in Sacramento, this is the first time I can remember a mosquito bothering me in my bedroom. Given Sacramento's hot summer climate, nearby creeks and rivers, and abundance of mosquitoes during the hotter months, you'd think I would have faced this problem many times. But not only have I never been bothered by mosquitoes in my bedroom before, but I generally don't even see them outside during the colder months, and this month has been the coldest we've had since we've lived here.

So, why in the world did that mosquito come buzzing around my head at the same time I was watching a television episode about a pesky fly?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Preparing for Alzheimer's Disease

I watched a TED talk (you can view the embedded video below) last night by a woman, Alanna Shaikh, whose dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease twelve years previously. Her dad used to be a college professor, but now he requires round the clock care and supervision. Yet, he keeps busy and seems relatively happy filling out paper forms, and the good, loving heart he always had continues to shine through his senility in his dealings with people even as his disease has stripped away almost every other part of his mind.

Observing her dad and learning all she can about Alzheimer's led Alanna to resolve to prepare as best she can for the Alzheimer's disease she expects to develop when she gets older, even though she's also taking all the preventive measures she can such as eating right and exercising her mind and body.

Her strategy is to  (1) Cultivate as much strength and balance as she can since people with Alzheimer's typically begin to lose their sense of balance and subsequently become less and less physically active, and the more balance and strength she has going in, the longer she hopes to be able to remain ambulatory and physically active as her senility progresses. (2) Take up largely physical activity such knitting and drawing with which she can happily occupy herself when she's no longer able to enjoy mentally taxing activities such as reading, writing, or even watching TV. And (3) Work on making herself a kinder, more loving person so that when her Alzheimer's has done to her what it has to her dad and stolen almost everything else of her mind and personality, there'll still be a glowing core of love and kindness left behind to make things easier for her and her caregivers.

I think she offers sound advice that a guy like me, entering my seventh decade and quite possibly cursed with some risk factors of my own for the disease, would do well to follow. Finding an activity to enjoy that doesn't require much brainpower might be hard since I'm so hopelessly lousy working with my hands that I couldn't see myself taking up hobbies such as knitting, drawing, or building models or anything of that kind. But maybe I could learn to play an instrument such as guitar and be able to enjoy listening to and playing music well into my senility, hopefully without driving my caregivers insane. And I could surely do more to improve my strength and balance. I'd also like to think I could strengthen my lovingkindness. If the way we are when we're drunk enough that most of our inhibitions have been chemically disabled is revealing, then the fact that I tend to be quite happy and agreeable when I'm drunk may be a good indicator of how I'd be when senile. I hope so.

The prospect of being stricken with Alzheimer's or any other irreversible, cognitively incapacitating condition is one that most of us, myself included, would rather not contemplate. Yet, after watching Alanna last night and taking what she said to heart, I'm determined to do everything I reasonably can to prepare for the possibility that I may end up like her dad someday, because if I do, I want to be as happy and lovingkind as he is when the time comes. And the measures I can take to make that more likely will be good for me whether or not I become senile, so I have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain by getting started immediately.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Foreign Affairs Examines North Korea's Nuclear Threat

"Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength." ~ Foreign Affairs magazine

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a brief crush on a pretty classmate named Paulette, although I was too shy to let her know it. Now, some five decades later, she's a Facebook "friend" living in Guam and worried that North Korea might carry out its recent threat to nuke her island paradise.

I posted a comment to reassure her that even the craziest leaders of North Korea weren't crazy enough to bring devastating reprisal on themselves, and, besides, they probably couldn't reach Guam with a nuclear tipped missile even if they wanted to. At least not yet.

She hasn't responded, so I don't know if I allayed her fears, but I'm guessing that I probably didn't. If I lived in Guam or one of the other threatened territories, I probably wouldn't even be able to allay my own fears. Reason can soothe jangled nerves only so much in the face of nuclear threat, however small that threat might seem to be.

And "seem to be" is the operative phrase, because we don't really know the full extent of North Korea's nuclear capabilities or of its inclination to utilize them. We can only make intelligent guesses, and I read an article last night in Foreign Affairs magazine that offers some of the most intelligent guessing I've seen recently. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to calm anyone's fears.

For the gist of the article is that even though North Korea's leaders almost certainly don't want to initiate  military conflict with South Korea or the USA by using nuclear weapons, they could quickly escalate to it if their backs were against the wall after being overwhelmed by superior U.S. and South Korean forces in conventional warfare, just as NATO planned to do in Europe if it were overpowered by Warsaw Pact troops during the Cold War, and just as Russia and Pakistan plan to do now if they're attacked by superior conventional forces.

The article explains that what makes this escalation even more likely is the way advanced militaries such as the USA's conduct modern warfare against less advanced nations by immediately targeting their leaders, command and control systems, and communications infrastructure with "shock and awe" destruction. Were the U.S. to do this against North Korea, it would likely panic its threatened and isolated leadership into using nuclear weapons to save themselves, and God only knows what would happen then.

So, the article urges that the U.S. do everything possible to avoid conventional war with North Korea and if, failing that, it has to attack, that it do so in the most limited ways possible, leaving North Korea's leadership with a sense of some control over their fate and a way out.

I hope President Obama and his cabinet have read Foreign Affairs' incisive analysis and taken it to heart. And I hope my childhood sweetheart sleeps easier tonight.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Birthday Milestone

Don't ask me how I did it, but I somehow managed to reach a milestone birthday today. I think I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Somebody Doesn't Like Me

Somebody out there doesn’t like me, and he’s spent the past several years trying to post comments to this blog telling me what a contemptible loser I am. Well, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve lived an uncommonly diffident, shy, socially awkward, unaccomplished, and unexemplary life. But what I don’t understand is why this person cares so much that he wastes all this time reading my posts and sending comments that don’t get published and also posting nasty comments supposedly from me to a friend’s blog. 

Do my admitted shortcomings unconsciously remind him so much of his own that he vents against his own by disparaging me? I guess this is a question I’ll never be able to answer, because this individual will probably never summon the courage to venture out from behind his wall of anonymity and relate to me as a human being instead of as a faceless, pseudonymous antagonist with an unspecified grudge.

I keep referring to this person as a “he” because I can scarcely imagine a female exhibiting such compulsive antagonism toward someone she’s never even met. This kind of unseemly behavior appears to be the province of disturbed maleness. Men are supposed to be strong and capable, and a weak man might feel compelled to insult and ridicule another man’s weakness in place of his own. Maybe his initial moniker of "Shirley" subconsciously points to his estimation of his own masculine potency.

I seem to recall that “Shirley” did once upon a time suggest a motive for his ongoing insults. They were benevolently meant to “help” by confronting me with hard truths that would provoke me into changing the sorry course of my life. Well, I have a suggestion for my compassionate would-be “helper.” Tell me something I don't know about myself. Tell me I can rise above my limitations instead of persistently berating me for having let them get the better of me. Extend a strong hand of friendship or at least kindness instead of a flaccid fist of hateful vilification. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Letting Go of Cable TV

I'm canceling my cable TV Wednesday. I wish I could say I'm doing it strictly on principle. I posted an entry yesterday about how telecom companies such as Comcast are monopolizing the industry and keeping prices higher and quality lower than they could be, and I'm a Comcast subscriber.

But I'm dropping cable TV and Comcast for another reason. I'm trying to economize, and cable TV is a luxury I can do without. By signing up with another company, dropping cable TV, and keeping only internet and a modest digital phone package, I can save a lot of money. But I'll miss plenty of programming and the overall convenience of cable TV that I've enjoyed for decades, and I think my wife will miss it even more.

I need to find out which shows I can still watch on my computer and on Hulu Plus alongside the ones I can view on the broadcast networks I can catch with my indoor antenna, and I'm hoping this will become second nature over time for both my wife and myself.

But I know we're still going to miss cable TV.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Susan Crawford Says Revamp the Telecom Industry

"The rich are getting gouged, the poor are very often left out, and this means that we're creating, yet again, two Americas, and deepening inequality through this communications inequality." ~ Susan Crawford

Bill Moyers recently conducted an interview with law professor, author, and former Obama administration technology advisor Susan Crawford on the telecom industry in the United States, and I didn't like what she had to say. I won't summarize the interview in detail, but the gist of her message was that even though this nation pioneered much of the telecom industry, it lags behind many other countries in bang-for-the buck public internet and wireless access because certain companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon have been allowed to monopolize their domains and prevent competition that would spur development and lower prices that could benefit the nation as a whole and allow poorer people access to telecommunications resources vital for getting ahead in today's world.

Crawford recommends that the telecom industry be treated not like the provider of a luxury product or service but as a public utility and regulated by federal and local government so that it provides virtually everyone with excellent and affordable internet and wireless access. And she believes that because  telecommunications giants command enough wealth and power to influence government policy to preserve the status quo, the American people need to demand changes from their elected representatives or else this nation will fall further behind the rest of the world and the poor and shrinking middle class will become even more disadvantaged than they are now.

I think Susan Crawford has a compelling message, and she'd get my vote, if I had one, to be the next FCC chairperson. We need more like her and Elizabeth Warren looking out for the American people from powerful government positions.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Writing Better

I seldom post to this blog anymore, but I've started rereading William Zinsser's wonderful book titled "On Writing Well," and I feel inspired to write and challenged to write well. Of course, I've always wanted to believe that I write well already and needn't work harder to write better, but I've always known on one level or other that there's room for improvement.

Zinsser writes: "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon." Well, that seems to describe my writing when I examine my words under the magnifying glass. I've always woven superfluous and pretentiously big words into ornate sentences that surely tax the patience of even the most attentive readers and send the rest scurrying for cover.

Yet I struggle with the question of how to streamline my writing in a way that improves it rather than robs it of my unique and vital voice. I long to write clearly and simply, but I don't want to repel readers with prose that sounds like Dr. Seuss wrote it and they stop reading not because my writing's too daunting in its turbid complexity but because it's too boring in its spare and sterile simplicity.

Well, Zinsser makes one thing clear at the outset. Writing is difficult work. If it ever seems easy, it's probably because I'm doing it wrong. But I still have to figure out how to do it right, and I'm hoping that reading Zinsser's book and practicing what it preaches will help me.

However, I need to remember that when we try to do something differently that we already do pretty well, we may do it worse before we learn how to do it better and that we need to hang in there with the effort and the frustration.