my life

"Backpack Ed": Rest In Peace

Posted on: Fri, 02/05/2010 - 23:03 By: Tom Swiss

There's something about this area where I live, the Patapsco Valley around Catonsville and Ellicott City, that's special. Call it the genius loci, call it the kami of the river and the forest, call it cultural geography, ley lines, whatever, but somehow there's a cluster of interesting people that have ended up around here. Some of them are just a little off (perhaps I should include myself there and say some of us!); some are kooky but functional, like the always interesting musician and activist Bob Pyle, subject of Sara Michener's short film Bobumentary (can't find a link right now but hope someone will give one in a comment); and some are vagrants, living in the woods around the river valley.

Even the vagrants aren't just random homeless people; you get the impression that in a slightly different world, a saner and more humane one, they would be artists or shamans -- or perhaps even Emperors.

One of these was a man known as "Backpack Ed".

If you spent time in Ellicott City, you probably saw him walking the streets or hanging out in Tiber Park. I didn't really know him, but he was a familiar face, and I'd nod and say "hi" whenever I passed. A lot of locals, though, knew him pretty well.

Last night, Ed was struck and killed by a train. I've walked along that stretch of track. We'll probably never know, but it is hard to believe that someone could be struck accidentally.

Sara wrote a moving note about him:

He was the town's Gollum; Everyone who knew him well enough, knew things couldn't possibly end well for him. He didn't have the support network that other vagrants in town had. And everyone who knew him more closely, shared with that feeling the hope that he would one day surprise us. But the eerie feeling last night among the townspeople that I spoke with was the death also of that hope. Both for himself, as he may have chosen to lay on those tracks rather than deal with an impending snowstorm with no place to stay, and for us, who were always pulling for him.

That's a hell of a thing to think about, that we live in a society where some people make a million dollars a year, and others are so desperate and hurting that rather than face a harsh winter they will lie down on the tracks. This is not due to some inviolate law of nature, it is not a consequence of physics or chemistry. It is because we have chosen to organize our society in this way.

I don't have any easy answer as to how to change that. All I can do right now is say, rest in peace, Ed.

Ringo the dog

Posted on: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 23:07 By: Tom Swiss

Yesterday the lovely and talented Sara Michener texted me: "See my [Facebook] wall about a puppy." A friend of hers had a rescued pup, found on the street in Pigtown, that she was trying to find a home for.

There were cute photos, too, and so I talked to the folks who had rescued and were fostering him, Jillian and Issac, and arranged to go meet him tonight.

And so now there's a dog napping -- snoring, even -- in my room.

They had named him Bingo, but that didn't quite click with me. As soon as I got him in the car, it hit me: not Bingo, but Ringo! My mom's favorite Beatle; when I was a wee bitty lad, she had a car she named Ringo, so that makes it a venerable family name.

You never know the full history with a street dog, of course, but he's estimated to be about four months old, a good ol' American mutt, maybe some boxer, maybe some pit bull. He's a sweetheart; when Jillian, Issac, and I were talking, he lied down next to me, put his head in my lap, and went to sleep. That pretty much sealed the deal.

So, here we are at the start of a new adventure: the Ringo years.

how Verizon lost a FiOS sale

Posted on: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 15:15 By: Tom Swiss

I've got a fairly slow DSL line out here at the Secret Headquaters: a 384k symmetric DSL line. Now that's faster than dial-up, but a lot slower than cable or other DSL services. (I have my line with Cavalier, and other than the speed have been generally satisfied.

I'm just barely close enough to the CO (the telephone company "central office") to get DSL service, and because of the distance have been told I can't get a faster line. So I've been looking at options.

There's cable, but a) Comcast sucks, and b) a cable connection is shared with everyone on your block. There are performance and security concerns with the whole setup.

So I was thinking about Verizon's FiOS. Now, yes, Verizon also sucks, so I was reluctant to consider it, but I figured I'd at least check it out.

So I sent them an e-mail with some questions: technical ones like the availability of static IP addresses, and billing ones about the fees they might tack on. (I do not understand how it is legal for telcos to advertize a $49.95 price and then add a whole bunch of unmandated "fees" on top of that, as much as $20 more. Not taxes, mind you, that their competitors would also have to charge, but "fees" that they choose to charge but don't include in the price you sign up for. How is this not fraud? Grrr.)

The response from Verizon? "In order to provide you with the best customer service, please contact our Verizon FIOS Sales and Customer Service department at (800) 837-4966 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM Eastern Time."

Uh, no. I took the time to write out my questions so that we could have precise communication. I do not want to wait on hold to talk to a salesdroid in your customer service department. If you are not willing to answer my questions in writing, if this is how you treat a potential customer, then thank you, but no, we will not be doing business.

(So now I'm considering Sprint's 4G wireless. Not as fast as FiOS, but they did get right back to me when I e-mailed them questions.)

Piccolo the Wondermutt: 1996(?) - January 20, 2010

Posted on: Wed, 01/20/2010 - 17:44 By: Tom Swiss

Dear friends, I'm very sad to inform you all that Piccolo, one of the truly great dogs, left us on January 20.

She had been in declining health since the end of last year. In early January, she began to lose her appetite, and I took her in (again) to see a vet. This time she was diagnosed with kidney failure, and the prognosis was very poor -- I was advised that there was nothing to be done except euthanasia.

Rather than make a hasty decision, I went to Falls Road Animal Hospital for a second opinion. Piccolo spent a week in intensive care there, and while her urea, creatinine, and phosphorus levels came down (though still not to normal levels), she did not regain her appetite. She was apparently feeling nauseous, possibly due to ulcers. She was put on stomach protectants, but still didn't start eating.

I brought her home on Saturday, and while I continued to care for her, administering subcutaneous fluids and the stomach meds and trying to tempt her with old favorite foods and many new options, she didn't improve. While she was not in pain, because she was weakening and lethargic, and apparently dizzy and confused, and still not eating or showing signs of recovery, I made the very difficult decision that rather than let nature take its course, I would choose euthanasia on her behalf. She passed peacefully here at home while I was with her.

I'm very glad that Saturday, the day I brought her home, was also the day of my 40th birthday party. I'm grateful that this meant that many friends were able to come and say farewells to this wonderful dog in the final days of her life.

A memorial web page has been set up at

why Daniel Pinchbeck needs a smack upside his head

Posted on: Sun, 01/10/2010 - 21:49 By: Tom Swiss

This is probably going to piss off some of my friends. But best to get it out of the way now, rather then whatever future time my book is published.

I'm including a chapter in my book-in-progress about the dark underbelly of the spiritual quest. The idea, basically, is

There is an old aphorism, often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, that those who love sausages or the law should never watch either being made. I've always disagreed with this -- if people saw the truth behind the production of these things, we'd have many more vegetarian anarchists, which would seem to me a positive development.

And so it is too with religion and spirituality. The hazards of cults, superstitions, delusions, hypocrisy, and manipulation are very real. A peek behind the scenes of both ancient traditions and the modern cults of personality around self-help gurus and peddlers of enlightenment-lite, is an unpleasant but necessary requirement for spiritual health.

In this chapter I talk about scandals in Zen (Japanese and American), about Chögyam Trungpa's misbehavior, about sex scandals in the Pagan community, and about some new age-y sort of "Plastic Shamans and Goofy Gurus". And one of the folks I deal with under that heading is Daniel Pinchbeck.

I first mentioned Pinchbeck over three years ago, when Rolling Stone profiled him. I was not impressed, but I didn't give it much more thought than that.

A year or so after that, my good friend Robin Gunkel, whose opinion I regard highly, met him at Burning Man and she was impressed. So I suspended judgment -- maybe the Rolling Stone profile was an unfair hatchet job. That happens.

Robin has since become involved with Evolver, a social network arising out of Pinchbeck's blog, "Reality Sandwich". I've gone to several events put on by the Baltimore "spore" of Evolver, and heard some good discussions.

But with that said, when I sat down to look more deeply into Daniel Pinchbeck, what I found was not favorable. Here's a first draft of the section about him that will go into my book.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the guy probably most responsible for kicking off the idea that some great transformation is going to occur in 2012. In his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, he claims to have received "transmissions" from the Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl telling him about this momentous event. An excerpt from these transmissions:

Slate recalls "the giddy futurism of Omni magazine"

Posted on: Wed, 01/06/2010 - 09:51 By: Tom Swiss

I have fond memories of Omni magazine -- I think there might be some old issues up in my attic. Slate looks back at Omni's look forward into the future world of 2010:

For anyone who was raised in the '70s and never had a date in the '80s or who thought the 2000s would look like a cross between a Yes album cover and Journey concert T-shirt, Omni magazine was essential reading—one with a ready answer to all your robot and rocket questions. And to a 10-year old getting a subscription for Christmas in 1979, Omni was The Future.

The magazine was a lushly airbrushed, sans-serif, and silver-paged vision dreamed up by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and his wife, Kathy Keeton. It split the difference between the consumerist Popular Science—which always seemed to cover hypersonic travel and AMC carburetors in the same page—and the lofty Scientific American, whose rigor was alluring but still impenetrable to me. But with equal parts sci-fi, feature reporting, and meaty interviews with Freeman Dyson and Edward O. Wilson, Omni's arrival every month was a sort of peak nerd experience.

snow or love?

Posted on: Sun, 12/20/2009 - 18:50 By: Tom Swiss

It's beautiful, can stop everything, cause disasters, come unexpectedly. Some can live without it, others never get enough. Snow or love?

Snow is the big story this weekend. It started about 10pm Friday, came down all day and all night Saturday, was still falling lightly around 1 am this morning. I measured 19 inches of it last night, and it was still falling. Dug out this afternoon, which was a decent workout. So just about everything that was scheduled for this weekend -- including the big Solstice show with Telesma and Alex Grey -- got canceled.

After all that digging out, felt like I had to go somewhere tonight! Came down to Fells Point, figured maybe the Grind would be open (it is) and some Zelda's folks might make it (none yet) -- and if not, surely some bar would be open.

I was just down here Friday -- sort of the other half of the question, as I met up with Jen for the first time since October. We had planned to play some chess, but her set got left in her car when she had to borrow another. Still, we spent almost four hours talking, lingering over coffee at the Grind and a drink at Birds of a Feather. Bittersweet, but so it goes.

Got some work done on the book while snowed in yesterday. The chapter on Shinto is shaping up, and when I've finished that, I just have one more to go! I've set the goal of having a rough draft complete by my birthday, and am well on target for that.

So. How about a little writing exercise? What can we make of "nineteen inches of snow"?

nineteen inches of snow
covers the graves
nineteen inches of snow
keeps writers holed up, working
nineteen inches of snow
weighs down the roof
nineteen inches of snow
buries many sins
nineteen inches of snow
makes the city go slowly
nineteen inches of snow
take all day to fall
nineteen inches of snow
will take a long time to melt

Starwood sadness

Posted on: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 23:03 By: Tom Swiss

I just learned today that the Association for Consciousness Exploration's Starwood festival -- one of the largest Neo-Pagan gatherings in the country and an event which I have attended for a decade -- has lost its longtime home at the Brushwood Folklore Center.

(See previous posts about Starwood here and here and here and here.)

ACE plans to relocate Starwood, and Brushwood plans its own summer festival for the time that was occupied by Starwood.

It is a tremendously sad day for the Pagan community. Something that was very special to many of us has been lost. Perhaps something new, and even better, will come along out the relocation of Starwood and the new summer festival; but that's a hope for the future, while the fact of the present is mourning a great loss.

ACE is the yang that energized the yin of Brushwood to make the magic of Starwood. When yang and yin separate, the result is death. Which is, of course, in the long run just a transformation; but it is still a cause for grief.

good dog

Posted on: Sun, 11/29/2009 - 18:54 By: Tom Swiss

good dog

my back and shoulders ache
and I realize it's from digging his grave

it's a good thing, to dig
gives you something to do
relieves that furious need for action
even when action is useless

the vet offered cremation but
I knew it was best to lay him to rest here
in the little bit of yard that had been his
canine territory for a dozen years

I have wrapped him in an old bedsheet for a shroud
I unwrap him a bit so the other dog, his mother
can sniff his cold form for a half minute
how much she understands I'll never know

so a few feet of dirt are moved

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