I went to the CBA Oktoberfest this weekend. It was fun, though since I got up at 4am yesterday so I could drive the 4 hours or so and not miss too much, I'm tired; and since the crowd was a mix of artists and tinkerers (I'm pretty sure the latter were the ones with "Bush-Cheney '04" and "Question Evolution" bumper stickers on their trucks), none of whom I knew, I think I might have enjoyed it more with company. I'm sort of split on how much I enjoy camping by myself, too.

This place I went to set me a new standard for "boondocks". Now, I am not unacquainted with boondocks. I've driven cross-country, I've driven to Ithaca, New York, I've driven all through New England. I've been up to Mount Lassen and Fort Bragg. I've been to random settlements in Maine past the borders of Absolutely Fucking Nowhere, and Potsdam, New York, hiding out on the Canadian border, and driven through Nebraska, which looked from the freeway like there was an infinite amount of nothing that would be plenty hard to get to if I wanted it. No, this time I went to Plantation, California, and what takes the cake is the sheer inconvenience of getting there, and how far away it is from anything useful.

Anyway, I had fun, discovering that coal is nasty, nasty shit, deciding that whatever smithing I want to do at home I can do with smells-like-barbecue charcoal instead of the more exotic coal, coke, or propane, and enjoyed getting to hammer a bit. It turns out that blacksmithing is hard and I'm not immediately good at it, but I still want to learn and it's a good challenge.

I was inspired today to do a bit more reading into the origins of American public education, in a Prussian system designed to produce pliable, obedient citizens. Good introductory surveys here and here, reminding me that I don't want my kids in public schools.

I'm amusing myself by re-reading, and enjoying, Ambivalent Zen, a book full of people who irritate me. The author/narrator is whiny and indecisive, constantly casting about for an authority figure to give him the approval he never got from his father, a constant mild depressive who chewed through spiritual teachings very much like a marijuana smoker satisfies the munchies: at the moment of consumption, the Doritos are perfect, God's gift to humankind, but you're not actually hungry, you just want to eat, and you have no real interest in Doritos and it passes when you wake up the next day and Doritos are no longer the key to your happiness. Shainberg goes through psychoanalysis, a series of teachers, constantly being desperate for someone to tell him that his experience, his feelings, are real, that he's not being egotistical and it's not the product of neurosis. Given how psycho his parents were, I'm impressed he's not more of a mess than he is, but his whining indecision still annoys me.

His teacher at the time of writing, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, appears to be a living reminder that enlightenment and awareness do not, by any stretch, make you nice. (Patrick Cassidy, an outstanding aikido instructor, once said that "Many of us think that aikido is intended to produce nice people. It's not. Aikido is meant to produce true people.") I would say, if asked my opinion, that he is enlightened, but he's also a bigoted, homophobic, inconsiderate, childish jerk. Enlightenment is being who you truly are, and not everyone is at heart someone you want to be around. But Shainberg has latched onto him as the current authority figure, and seems willing to put up with a lot of irritating crap.

I find the book fascinating because it's well-written, and any well-crafted story where I dislike the characters intrigues me, and not just because I want to feel superior. I have to ask myself, why do I disdain these people? These days I am very much unabashedly myself, but my feeling about this has varied over the years. I've done my share of worrying about committing to some spiritual path or another, and the Bad Relationship was, among other less enjoyable things, two years of being ambivalent about the one woman. What makes me so unwilling to sympathize with these people running around looking for answers.

I think the big thing is that I never ran quite so hard as they have, nor, in my desperate times, surrendered myself in the hope that someone else could save me. These characters are scrambling from one disenchantment to the next, loudly insisting that not only is [activity of the moment] The Way To Enlightenment, but anything else, or doing said activity differently, is a waste of our most precious time. They behave as though spiritual authority is the only thing that can help them be happy, and don't seem to notice the accompanying lesson that you are yourself, your own master--that Buddha said not to take things on faith, but to find them out for yourself. (It is also said that the three qualities needed for Zen training are Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Effort. Zen makes no apologies for its paradoxes: it would be very Zen of you if you though Zen was full of crap and told Zen to shove it.) I find this missing-the-point frustrating or sad in people who have put so much effort into spiritual practice over the course of years and decades. That it bugs me at all probably shows the limits of my understanding, when I suppose it's just their karma to be who they are, as it's mine to be who I am, and we're all bound up in a wonderful net of Is-ness and everything is just as it should be.

Shainberg is a good writer, by the way, and I do recommend the book. At the end of the day maybe the characters just commit the barely-forgivable sin of reminding me of the limits of my understanding.