Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two Big Chokes

As I posted back in the summer, history is made almost every day in baseball. Sometimes it is the “bad” kind of history. The kind of history that makes baseball fans like me suffer. Lord knows the Atlanta Braves made me suffer aplenty in 1970’s and 1980’s. But, they didn’t make me suffer in a classic choking kind of way. They waited until the 2011 season to do that.

Along with the storied Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves are the
only two teams in baseball history to hold such a massive lead in a play-off race only to see it squandered in a September swoon. Nothing like this has ever happened before and now it has happened to two teams in the same season. Truly historic twin chokes.

If I disassociate myself (briefly) from the trauma of the demise, last night’s action was pretty incredible from a pure baseball perspective. The St. Louis – Houston game was
an 8-0 blow out. So, it doesn’t count except to cap a terrific hard charge by the Cardinals when it matters most. So, my hat’s off to them for besting the Braves in a tight National League wild-card race.

But, the other three games played, all with critical play-off implications, all decided in either last at-bats and/or in extra-innings, all making history on the last game of the regular season, were simply terrific games of baseball. Baltimore eliminated the once American League wild-card commanding Red Sox with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. The Tampa Bay Rays made an almost unbelievable comeback against the DamnYankees and beat them 8-7 in 12 innings.

Evan Longoria's walk-off home-run was the first to send a team into the play-offs since Bobby Thomson's historic "the shot heard 'round the world" in 1951. 60 years ago.

Then there was the Braves' collapse to this year’s most dominant team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Taking a slim 3-2 lead into the ninth inning, after another great outing by Tim Hudson with help from Eric O’Flaherty (the lowest ERA in the majors this year among pitchers that qualified – 0.98) and Jonny Venters, possible rookie-of-the-year Craig Kimbrel got wild and allowed the game to be tied. The Braves dropped the game in 13 innings 4-3. Choke city.

It was the 26th extra inning game played by the Braves in 2011. An Atlanta-era record. See? All kinds of baseball history being made here.

Now, I have to live with this lump in my throat all winter long. “We’ll get ‘em next year” ain’t gonna cut it. Leading the wild card race by 8 ½ games at the end of August the Braves went 9-18 in September to lose the race to the Cardinals on the last day of the season.

Last year I was at the final game of the season. It was Bobby Cox’s last regular season game. The Braves were tied for the National League wild card with the San Diego Padres. The Braves edged the dominant Philadelphia Phillies 8-7 while the Padres lost on the west coast. So, we made it into the play-offs by the slimmest of margins on the season's final game.

This year it was a very similar story. Only with different results.

It is easy to get into apologetics. You can talk about the injuries to arguably the Braves’ two best starters, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hansen. You can talk about the horrible year Derek Lowe had (he lost 17 games and we owe this guy $15 million next year?!). Or the terrible first half of the season Dan Uggla experienced at the plate. Or Jason Hayward’s awful season. Or nagging injuries to Brian McCann and Martin Prado. You can talk about a lot of little things but the bottom line is that the Braves did not play well in September. They ended the season undeserving of the post-season berth that looked so promising just a few weeks ago.

This is what it is like to be a baseball fan. Success and failure is usually a persistent, grinding thing. The Braves spiraling out of control didn’t happen overnight or even in over the course of a few games. It was a slow train wreck over the course of some 27 games.

If I had to pick a moment that defined the choke it would the three-game series earlier this month in St. Louis. More specifically, I can point to a single half-inning. It was
September 9, the Braves were leading by a score of 3-1. Their star rookie closer came in to end the game. And he blew a save. Before blowing that game Kimbrel had pitched 37 2/3 scoreless innings. The longest stretch by any pitcher in the majors this year. Guess he just peaked too early.

I can’t fault possible rookie-of-the-year Kimbrel with the weight of the whole sucking collapse. He has certainly pitched outstanding as a reliever in his first full season with the Braves. But, he’s not perfect. No one is. And his greatest moment of imperfection so far in his young career came at worst possible time. If he saves that particular game, all else being equal, we have an extra game lead in the wild card. But, as
Don Meredith used to say, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.”

Being swept in St. Louis seemed to establish the indisputable momentum. And it wasn’t just the Braves giving it away. The Cardinals, to their credit, took care of business and finished strong down the stretch. In the end, they are a more deserving wild-card team, as are the Rays.

After 162-games, luck doesn't get you in or keep you out of the play-offs. Baseball is unforgiving that way. In the end, everybody gets what they deserve.

And usually history is made.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Other Fragonard

Honoré Fragonard's "Horseman", circa 1768

One thing leads to another. While rummaging around the internet in search of information on Jean-Honoré Fragonard (see previous post), I inadvertently came across a three-part documentary on youtube concerning his younger cousin, Honoré Fragonard. Initially, I took the younger Fragonard to be an artist as well, only he seemed to devote his creative talents toward sculpture. But, I quickly discovered that he was a sculptor of the strangest sort. He sculpted cadavers in the 18th-century.

Apparently, this is a little-known part of intellectual France at that time. Many educated persons of medicine and of certain prestige desired to own a sculpted cadaver for their personal art collection. While Fragonard was certainly not the only anatomist/artist to cater to such demand, he was one of the most sought after and most prolific, with more than 3,000 specimens to his credit. Most of these were various animals and parts of humans created of purposes of scientific study but many other pieces were composed for pure artistic reasons.

Fragonard used a method which left the various tissues of the skinned body essentially mummified. He never revealed how he preserved his cadavers. The result was an almost bronzing effect. Many of these “works” appear to be layered pieces of leather, treated and formed as a kind of collage or mache in human form. But, this appearance is merely the human mind trying to deny what it is beholding. These are all real people, mostly criminals, who died for various reasons, whose bodies were chosen to be preserved in order to accommodate various aesthetic tastes of the period.

At first it seems ghastly and macabre, yet, you can see many of Fragonard’s efforts today in a special Parisian museum. The French, obviously, had a rather twisted, if somewhat progressive, fringe taste for art. Officially, Parisian society frowned upon the apparently lively cadaver trade of the time. They also considered anatomists to be a base sort of scientist. So, while Fragonard made a decent living for many years with his mummified works thanks to his robust patronage, everything had to be kept quiet and out of the public eye.

Honoré Fragonard got his start in equine and animal practice at the world’s first veterinary school at Lyon in 1762. He was hired by and worked closely with the renowned Claude Bourgelat. Soon, Fragonard was producing anatomical specimens for academic study. These preserved not just the flesh and bone of the given animal but the organs and other tissues as well. Essentially, everything Fragonard did preserved the subject in its natural complexity in order to assist the scientific community in better understanding the workings of any given body.

Eventually, Fragonard came to preserve entire human bodies, going so far as to place them in various poses for presentation. There is one of a man offered as Samson, holding the jawbone of an ass. More infamous, however, was his preservation of another human figure atop an entire horse; an immortal rider.

This led to Fragonard’s temporary downfall. It seems that Bourgelat was less than impressed with Fragonard’s artistic pursuits and his catering to the tastes of certain French intellectuals with interests in the cadaver trade. The rumor circulated that Fragonard’s “horseman” was, in fact, a woman (something that seems rather obviously false to use today but remember little was known of human anatomy at the time) who Honoré had once loved but had died.

In his grief, so the rumor went, he had the body exhumed so that he could preserve his loved one forever. Whether through rivalry or morality or some personal dispute (we do not know) Bourgelat despised Fragonard’s so-called art and had him dismissed from the school on concerns regarding his sanity – or lack thereof.

For about a dozen years little is known about the whereabouts and doings of Honoré. He resurfaces in the public record indicate that he continued his work with animals and cadavers which were now prepared for displays in private intellectual and aristocratic residences. Apparently, it was through the influence of such contacts that he was able to attain a couple of memberships in lesser assemblies of the arts in France. He died, falling into utter obscurity, in 1799.

Any morbidity about what Honoré Fragonard created in his lifetime is tempered today by Bodies, a wildly successful of the artist/scientific exhibition that has circled through various museums of art for the past several years, and Body Worlds, a preceding exhibit. My personal surprise (a better word than “shock” in this case) was in the fact that, while researching a prominent artist of the frolicsome Rococo period, I came across a somewhat secretive and bizarre artistic world previously unknown to me occurring at precisely the same time as a well-known movement of lightness and sensuality.

This might be called the “dark art” of the time. It was certainly not widely accepted but it, nevertheless, offers a glimpse of what can be considered postmodern art – some 300 years ago. Often, it is the obscure that heralds the innovative form of the human imagination. For me, Honoré Fragonard, like his cousin, has proven to be a pioneer of certain aspects of artistic expression. And he indicates how vast the scope of Art, that highest expression of our humanity, can be; a terrific contrast to the work and sentimentalities of his cousin, the more famous, other Fragonard.

Was Honoré actually insane? It is doubtful. Perhaps he was just "weird." He gravitated toward a niche of artistic expression in his time that many people would still find objectionable today. But, provocation is certainly no excuse to impinge upon the freedom of artistic endeavor. It is all a matter of taste, is it not?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Discovering Fragonard

The Swing, 1767
The fashioned slipper flings into the air from the force of the aristocratic lady’s body swinging in mid-air over the desiring gaze of her hidden lover. This was my surprised and pleasing introduction to the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. I am sensual and erotic by nature and so I am attracted to many of the preromantic works in Fragonard. The Swing (1767) is arguably not only his most famous painting but also a superb and exemplary representation of the Rococo art period.

One of the karmic ripples of Jennifer’s recovery from surgery recently was her mother loaned us a 48-lecture DVD series from The Teaching Company entitled A History of European Art. Delivered by Professor William Kloss, these lectures offer a detailed chronology of Art in Europe, primarily through painting but also including sculpture and architecture. Each lecture lasts between 30-45 minutes and is delivered in an objective, insightful, and often humorous flair. Dr. Kloss' style of presentation is so entertaining that it inspired Jennifer and me to dub him with the affectionate nickname of "Mr. Prissy Pants."

Lecture 38 concerns “French Art in the 18th Century” and deals predominantly with Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. I have always appreciated Chardin as a great ambassador of the transition from the Baroque period to the Romantic period of Art. But, Fragonard is new to me and that flying slipper perked my curiosity about his work so I decided to go beyond the lecture and do some discovery of my own.

The Rococo Movement has long been viewed as unsophisticated and second-rate in the history of Art. As a transition from the aristocratic Baroque to the more democratic Romantic and Revolutionary Art periods, it is considered “…one of the most puny styles in the brood spawned by art-historians.” (Levey, page 15) As a reaction to Baroque, Rococo often expressed frivolity and fanciful subjects. But, because of the strength of the political movements in America and France in the late 18th-century and the emphasis of the Enlightenment upon factual knowledge and liberation from the mythic and religious considerations that dominated the Renaissance, Rococo was soon deemed to be decadent and what my college art history professor called kitsch.

So, taking my professor at his word, I never focused much on the period until Professor Kloss explored Fragonard in some detail. The Rococo might not have been serious enough for the democratic times in the late-1700’s but it certainly offers much in terms of a bolder expression of Eros than I previously appreciated. Many of Fragonard’s works are filled with passion in what is depicted upon the canvass and how it is created in terms of color and light even down to the individual brush strokes. That is its primary attraction for me.

An self-portrait of Jean-Honoré Fragonard circa 1785 in the Louvre Collection.
In The Swing, Fragonard makes a representative, semi-mythic statement about romance and sexuality. Set within a womb of detailed leaves of natural vegetation, the quintessential beauty in period attire opens and exhibits herself, allowing a foot to go bare with the flinging of the slipper. She is the central focal point of the painting. She is propelled with the assistance of an aged male servant who sits in the shadows ready to pull her back for the next swing motion.

But, before he can do that, the lady’s lover enjoys a splendid view up her dress. The elderly man in the shadows cannot see the lover thanks to the shrubbery that shields him. He reaches for her in dreamy need. Their eyes are directed into one another. She is at the point of weightlessness, yet there is an energy about her dress that surpasses any other detail in the painting. This is a wonderful, carefree moment of love and desire.

The Bolt, 1778
Whereas The Swing expresses the Rococo in its attention to natural detail and human playfulness, The Bolt (1778) is an example of Fragonard’s intense and erotic energy. A man is pressing a woman against a wall with his upper body and hips. He is pressing so hard that he is on his toes, his calf muscles pronounced and presented. It is a highly provocative pose for its time.

The woman presents us with an enigma, however. Fragonard depicts her in both resistance and haste. Which is dominant in her? Both figures are reaching for the bolt on the door that will ensure their lustful privacy. But, is she reaching to stop him or to urge him on? Is he forcing himself upon her against her will or aided by her? The painting purposefully asks these questions.

Once again, Fragonard makes the woman’s dress the central and most vibrant and energetic part of the painting. The bed sheets are tossed about with an opening to large pillows in the middle. There is a fruit of some kind on a clothed stand next to the bed. Opposite that, on the floor, is a small floral arrangement. All this suggests love and romance. But, we cannot know for certain. Her hand is definitely covering the man's chin and pushing against him there. That would suggest denying him.

For me, The Bolt is more of a Romantic painting than Rococo and for that reason I see Fragonard as being fundamentally influential in art at least into the French Impressionist period. Perhaps, the best way to appreciate Fragonard’s influence is to see a detail of his brush strokes in a painting entitled Young Girl Kissing a Cat (undated). Notice the many subtle ways he uses the brush in this detail from that work. The lips and nostrils of the bare-breasted girl and the furry lump of cat are the same color, the girl’s cheek is brush-stroked so that it is not smooth but, rather, the brush thrusts toward the face of the cat which is a luscious, casual series of creamy blobs. The cat’s face possesses the same energy as the dresses of the women in the previous two paintings. Delicious.

Young Girl Kissing a Cat, undated

A clear contrast to what I consider to be two different Fragonard’s can be found in comparing his more traditional style as seen in the mythic but richly and rigidly detailed Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirhoe (1765) with a less rigid piece, Renaud in the Garden of Armida (1761) . Renaud is brushed in blobs and lingering strokes that blur many details yet create an emotional effect all its own. Coresus is Baroque and high Rococo while Renaud is pre-impressionistic.

Coresus, 1765

Renaud, 1761

Fragonard was passionate and erotic but he was also highly sensual, even in an innocent sense. No work depicts this better than Girl with Dog (1765). It is obvious from the way the girl is clothed (or unclothed, rather) and the way she playfully holds the dog between her knees that this is an innocent, almost sweet, yet highly sensual moment. The dog’s body is supported by the girl’s legs slightly above her ankles. The dog’s tail dangles in a rather provoking way. This seems sexual even by today’s standards. A sensually remarkable work for its time.
Girl with Dog, 1765
With a prodigious output of over 550 paintings, Fragonard outlived his own fame. The Rococo, and all associated with it, was rejected by art connoisseurs and historians as a relic of the aristocratic past. Revolution was in the air. The change was rapid. The Age of Reason was coming to fruition and there was little respect for the Baroque style and its frivolous though passionate prodigy. Most of Fragonard’s patrons were either guillotined or went into exile. At the time of his death in 1806 he lived in relative poverty, was considered passé, part of the frowned upon Ancien Régime, and his work was strictly criticized in the press.

But Fragonard was much more than austere Rococo. He infused many of his works with a rich emotional character that prefaced the Romantic Era of Art. A work of his decorated Jennifer’s bedroom in her teens. She recalls seeing it on her wall in that time of her life. A Young Girl Reading (1772) is one of Fragonard’s most famous works and is clearly as pre-impressionistic and it is pre-romantic. An influential work of art even if it was poo-pooed by “discerning minds” of the revolutions for liberty and freedom.

A Young Girl Reading, 1772
"Under the patronage of King Louis XV, he became the great artist of pleasure, desire and carefree enjoyment of life. He missed the connection with the classical trend that arrived after the Revolution. He died, as reported, alone and forgotten in 1806 in a cafe where, despite his poverty, he was treating himself to and ice cream as a means of recuperating from the wear and tear of the day." (Charles & Carl, page 55)

How lucky I am to live in the new discovery of previously unexplored artistic expression! It is true, I think, that Art is the highest and purest manifestation of our humanity. More so than religion or ethics or philosophy, Art attempts to express some perceived essence of its cultural world and, therefore, reveals much about humanity. Exploring this new ground for the first time is a small example of my continuing sense of wonder in life.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Karma: A Word Doodle

A new kind of post. Let’s call it a “word doodle.” By this I wish to suggest a certain lightness toward the subjects covered. But, this lightness should not be taken humorously, even though I find humor in many places. The word “frame” is a better substitute for “doodle” than “humor.”

My word doodles are rationally and emotionally articulated frameworks of ideas and experiences about what I consider to be central and fundamental to my intimate life. Whether they are universally applicable or not is beyond my intimacy or (anyone else’s for that matter) to proclaim with certainty. My word doodles are not presented in any particular order. I will simply post a doodle, and perhaps revisions to it upon further contemplation later, as I find a sufficient voice within myself to take a coherent stab at it.

I have mentioned several of these word doodles in previous posts. “Being” is perhaps the most prevalent frame mentioned thus far in this blog. But, I have yet to articulate what I mean by that word and this is not the time to do so now. Instead, I want to articulate something about “Karma,” another doodle I have mentioned sporadically in previous posts. Presently, I am experiencing an intense karmic period. Normally, I live a more contemplative life and karma happens slower to me. I want to share it with you and hopefully give some indication as to what I mean by the word “karma.”

Karma is a concept I have experienced and pondered for decades. I was exposed to the various expressions of people beholding to the karma belief construct (a cultural word frame) when I spent six months in India. Karma has specific meanings and distinctions in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other systems of belief. These are woven into the fabric of their traditions. The biblical word doodle of “you will reap what you sow” is a Judeo-Christian example of believing that human actions affect what happens to the life of the actor.

My take on all traditions of any kind is my own. No culture is inherently superior in its expression and I freely cherry-pick aspects of various cultures that seem most applicable to my intimacy. Your mileage may (and probably will) vary. For me, karma is best articulated as any expenditure of physical, emotional, or instinctual energy, an adhesion of intimate indifferences and mundane happenings punctuated by extraordinary moments.

So, what the hell does that mean? Some examples might shed some light.

Several months ago, the company I work for hired a new sales manager. A real sales manager oozes karma. He came in with a lot of ideas on how things should change and many of his ideas affect my marketing department. One of the many ways my department was affected was the creation of a new and rather sophisticated marketing plan for lead generation involving a wide variety of traditional marketing methods including direct mail, telemarketing, email blasts, among other techniques. All of this needs to be coordinated and executed in conjunction with various sales calling activities. The budgeting, planning, creation, tracking, analytical methods, and all other aspects of marketing have to be planned out and accounted for before anything starts. In marketing, the planning stage is the most important, though most activity occurs after the plan is set in motion.

There is nothing earth-shattering here, just that all this activity is a direct result of the new sales manager. Activities beget activities that beget other activities which are largely unpredictable, though certainly measureable and demanding further changes in activities as the response to the original plan becomes clearer. There is a ripple effect as one thing leads to another and matters play out according how participants respond to results. In this way, karma has a “sticky” quality. One thing leads to another, revealing a trail of cause and effect. This is a traditional sense of karma.

Now, let’s add to this something mundane. Two years ago, being a wargame hobbyist, I pre-ordered a couple of large, fairly complex wargames that require a lot of time to learn, setup, and play. I enjoy playing games of this sort and this enjoyment turns out to have a karmic effect on me right now because, just as all this other stuff is kicking off at work, I don’t have time to play with my new toys. As mentioned in a recent post, I ordered these two games separately but they arrived two years later within a few days of one another and more or less simultaneously with everything else I mention in this post.

This is admittedly frustrating at a certain level but, understanding karma as I do, I know that this frustration will, in turn, have further effects and ripple through my life intimately and in my connection with work and significant others if I allow it. I am, in fact, guilty of having expressed myself in existential frustration at times in my past. So, I pay particular attention to this delayed enjoyment and try not to permit it to build up within in such a way that the frustration becomes anger. I don’t deny the frustration, however, because this is who I am as a person. So, I accept the frustration and attempt to fashion it as simple disappointment. For me, writing things out in this blog often helps with stuff like this.

I believe human beings struggle in exactly this way with their lives all the time, often in much more complex situations than I have articulated so far.

But, let’s take things out of the mundane world of work and play for a moment. Simultaneously with the hiring of the new sales manager and the two great wargames that arrived almost at the same time though I pre-ordered them separately years ago, my wife, Jennifer, was dealing with some fairly serious health issues. Fortunately, they were not life threatening or anything but they did require some highly invasive surgery. As a family, we dealt with the emotional weight of this along with the extreme irritation of dealing with our bureaucratic and inefficient health system.

For about three weeks, my daughter and I were basically taking care of my wife and the household as she recovered from surgery. Even today there is much she can’t do that I do in her place. Take the recyclables to the sorting bends. Carrying hoses around the yard for irrigation. Carrying a basket of laundry upstairs. Lots of carrying things. Things that normally she handles with ease. In fact, Jennifer normally handles many things, she is a wheel of activity. Being a highly karmic person, Jennifer emits karma and I receive much of its consequences. This is one of many ways that joins us as husband and wife.

Jennifer’s surgery meant I had to take time off from work, which I certainly don’t mind. Family always should come first. In this case, I’ve known and loved my wife for 24 years. There was no question about showing her all the compassion I could muster. There is the karma of that intimacy which I won’t elaborate upon here. I would be dishonest with myself, however, if I pretended that the time away from work and the now more clearly established general mix of emotional frustration did not impact me intimately. This, too, is the stuff of karma.

Let’s add a further karmic event. Back in May my mother experienced an emotional episode that requires medical attention. She is getting up in her years and I can’t trust her (or my dad) to simply take care of this matter herself. I needed to be personally involved to make sure certain questions are asked and certain understandings are attained by both my mother and her physician. This appointment happened three days after Jennifer’s surgery. It could have been canceled but Jennifer was doing well enough at home to be entrusted to her work assistant for a few hours. Suddenly, I have heavy karma dominating me.

Now, we are at the stage where I think I can articulate a trajectory between my work activity, my wargame activity, and activities resulting from the actual workings of my wife’s body and my mother’s body (which scientifically have nothing whatsoever to do with my work and my hobbies). The demands of their bodies and the demands of my work and my personal desires to direct my attention elsewhere, to contemplate, are all real and they are all interconnected not just in my intimate experience, but to some degree with each other.

Being away from work meant a few key phone calls were not returned as promptly. Communications with the sales manager, my boss, and my team members were affected. I simply did not have the gusto that is typically at my disposal to deal with things. Meanwhile, my mother’s body and my wife’s body have nothing to do with each other yet they are intimately bound as I cannot be in two places at once and each requires a certain, large degree of my attention.

Now, one danger with karma playing out like this is that there is a tendency to want to control everything. I want to “make” time for everything. This, also, produces frustration to the extent that I get more and more attached to every aspect of all the activities I have described. Karma is sticky. So, I try to be cognizant of these frustrating elements in my intimacy and deal with them through writing or jogging or in my yoga sessions. Treat myself to a movie or book or something; things of that sort.

But, this post is not about how to handle karma; that is up to each of us individually. There is no universal fix, in my opinion. People who teach universal fixes are silly people. They don’t understand anything if they don’t understand the fundamentals of human diversity at the rational, emotional, and instinctual level.

Be that as it may, I hope by now I have articulated how all sorts of levels of human experience and activity are interrelated and how the energy of seemingly disconnected events or activities can be connected. It is the connection of all things great and small, important and mundane that most clearly reveals the stuff of karma.

Now compare these past weeks with that first wonderful day when Jennifer and I visited Boston back in 2009. The street walk signs were all changing in good time on a bright, cloudless day, and I was in tune with the positive energy of the city. Everything was going my way. Jennifer was having fun too. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that any of this easy, effortless experience of fun was happening because of me. I had no control over the smooth flow of the day. Nevertheless, that day as it occurred was perfect in its karmic manifestation.

That karma has this sticky or magnetic quality can be shown in another mundane example. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Clint celebrated his 50th birthday at our house. Naturally, there was a lot of bustle associated with having about 18 people over for dinner one night. Jennifer probably overdid her activity during this event, but that is another story.

What I wish to share has to do with birthday cakes. My wife made Clint her grandmother’s chocolate cake and a German-chocolate cake to boot. She hasn’t baked two cakes at one time in years. But, karma being a magnetic, this-sticks-to-that, sort of thing, there was another cake involved which wasn’t planned for nor anticipated. In fact, we didn’t even present it at Clint’s party.

My great aunt lives near us and she makes the best pound cake in the universe. She is much older these days and my great uncle is not in the best of health, so she doesn’t bake and get out as much as she used to. At any rate, it has been several years since she visited us with any of her good baking. Of course, out of blue as Jennifer was baking Clint’s cakes, my great aunt calls on the phone and tells us she has half a pound cake baked for us. She’d like to come over a visit.

Jennifer has always liked my great aunt and naturally was thrilled she wanted to visit. The couple of pieces of pound cake that we ate were delicious, but we ended up freezing the rest before Clint’s party. We’ll enjoy it with peaches or something a few weeks from now. Still, the point here is that Jennifer rarely makes two cakes and, suddenly, we are inundated with a wonderful but heavy and filling traditional southern pound cake as well. Behold the magnetic, sometimes tasty, stickiness of karma.

Let's take another concrete example: My daughter recently asked to go to a friend’s house after she visited my parents. I instructed her to call me when she left my parents.

Well, she failed to call so about 3 hours later I called her cell. No answer. I called my parents. She had left a couple of hours ago. After repeated texting and voicemails left on her cell we started calling her friends. No one knew where she was. My concern heightened. She has never done anything like this before, but she is at the age when boundaries are usually tested.

We made contact with two of her friends and tried two other friends. One friend phoned Jennifer back on her cell but she inadvertently hit 'ignore'. A few seconds later my daughter finally called but we had poor cell reception and we told her to call the home number. The phone rang but it turned out to be one of her other friends retuning our call from earlier. Of course, my daughter tried to call us exactly as her friend did, so she got a busy signal. This is karma we created. Everyone experiences what might be called episodic hiccups. It is the mediocrity of karma that makes it so easily understandable.

Karma is mostly neutral. It just happens. It can come in bulk, bad, good, indifferent, or meander in slowness. Parts of it are due to my actions, such as how frustrated I allow myself to become over not being able to devote attention to things of personal interest that I would rather be doing. Certainly, how I respond to my wife's operation can lead to all sorts of marital issues if I abandon her and/or resent her for her needs. More to the point, I love her and can give her more of myself during her recovery to good health.

These are examples of how my activity shapes the karma of events, my contemplative life, my life as needed by others. But, most of what is happening is not the result of me at all. So, while specific human actions play a role in karma, it is often a trivial role. Activity in the world happens and affects me regardless of what type of participant I am.

The larger workings of karma as physical forces and phenomena is more complex. Will the thunderstorm hit your house? Will you be caught in ten miles of backed up traffic on the interstate due to an accident that blocks all lanes? Random earthquakes shiver the globe. In grand schemes of time there are possible collisions with chucks of inter-stellar space that wipe out the earth completely. It has already happened a couple of times.

On this date ten years ago BIG karma happened, affecting millions of lives on the planet here ten years later beyond their control, like a cosmic reverb.

There are large karmic forces at work that are completely disconnected from your intimate karma and only trivially affected by it. Then again, there are collective intimacies that affect things. The human contribution to global warming possibly resulting in stronger hurricanes is one example. The accumulation of public debt and its weight on the economy is another larger connection of collective intimacies on BIG karma.

If you perform an action that might be interpreted as meritorious or condemnatory, the engines of the universe do not care. Tornadoes and earthquakes kill people regardless of their karma. However, the engines of human experience and particularly the very karmic engines of human interaction do tend to reward and punish, celebrate and educate human behavior. Individual acts certainly resonate with cause and effect. Collective patterns of human behavior exhibit magnetic or conductive tendencies toward certain results.

The karma of smoking, for example, could lead to your own cancer or no cancer at all or, perhaps worse, the cancer of a loved one through your second-hand smoke. The karma of hugging generally leads to smiles and openness, a release of stress and feeling of comfortable ease. The karma of a hugging smoker would tend toward all of these traits.

Despite common perception, there is no “good” karma or “bad” karma. There are simply cultural tendencies of the effects of human interaction. Karma is neutral. But, so is clay to the potter and so is marble to the sculpture. The medium of earth and stone can be molded by skilled hands into a creation. The best or worst of intentions is no guarantee of either success or failure. But, there are ways of molding karma as the human medium of activity into the most hopeful results.

So, we have the impersonal and indifferent aspects of karma. The weather, the trajectory of comets through millennia, even the workings of the stock market are beyond specific personal accountability or control. Though you and I are clearly affected by the experience of the genetic make-up of our bodies, genetics itself involves biological interactions beyond our choice. To that extent, much of our intimate experience is, in fact, due to indifferent karmic forces of biology. Intimacy has an impersonal foundation.

Nevertheless, I do love my wife. That is a karmic manifestation by me and is a personal intimacy proclaimed in action for all the world to see. A great deal of karmic intimacy is by choice, as I hope the examination of my recent life and other examples given in this post attest. Just don’t try to stretch these moments of intimate choice into a connection with some asteroid that might obliterate the earth in another 1,000 years. No such connection exists and it is what I call subtle-arrogance to think our intimacy is connected to the universe in any significant way. The meaning and significance we each find in life is our own invention. The karma of the universe is hazard.

In this context, karma is an essential word frame for understanding my daily life and my relationship to others and to the understanding of extra-intimate events and the mechanics of BIG karma. Obviously, it is primarily a matter of belief but I find karma to be substantial as a guiding principle in my intimate days.

A final note. I do not believe in reincarnation. I do not place karma in the traditional context of what you do in this life will affect your next life (Hinduism) nor do I see it as the medium to which you are fashioned by or liberated from samsara (Buddhism). For me, it is more than enough to contextualize karma as a way of understanding how things happen in both the intimate and indifferent milieu of human experience.

There is an intimacy within indifference. Things can be interrelated but that doesn’t make them less random. That is enough.