Death and Nonsense in the Spiritual Sweat Lodge

steam bath

Years ago my grandfather went to the steam baths.   These were not the steam baths of today, anemic cubes of tile with a little spritz of hot vapor every now and then.  No these were the old time Russian Baths.  These were the real thing.   The steam was so thick you could barely see through the moist fog.   It was hot in there, not warm and tolerable like the wussy steam baths in the modern health clubs.   In the old Russian Baths, you really sweat.

The Russian-style steam baths permeated the East Coast.   They catered to the European immigrants and the stout hearted Americans who sought them out for solace and comfort.    Old men would sit in there for extended period, meditating in silence or talking silently with their friends and associates.   Younger men, that is any man under forty, would also enter the baths, but they would leave a lot earlier than the older gents who could just suck up that hot, wet air.   Some of these old time Russian baths are still around.

Sometimes I went with my grandfather.  It was an experience, as a pre-teen or young teenage kid, watching these men sit naked or wrapped in sheets.  There they were hunched over, save for the ones who for extra stimulation were bathed by some old guy who seemed to live inside the steam bath.   He would soap up their bodies with a real sponge, and then swirl a bouquet of hot Eucalyptus leaves in the air and then rub them over the the wet, gleaming skin.   It was good for the stimulation.   The toxins would ooze from your pores.

Even junkies and assorted drug addicts visited the baths to sweat all the toxic residue from their pores.    The steam bath population was comprised of a democratic society.    In Los Angeles, as a somewhat older me, the Pico Baths, still remain, a homage to another era.   The Pico Baths has the sauna, of course, they all did, but the real attraction was the steam bath.   Hot steam.  The real thing.   Peel the plaster off the walls.  No messing around.

I remember sitting in there and shortly before he died, John Belushi was being treated to the Eucalyptus treatment.  There he was, splayed out on the wooden table like a giant white whale, getting soaped for treated for all to see.  He didn’t care, and in the tradition of the time, no one else did either.     It was his attempt to clean out, I suppose.    If nothing else, the man knew how to live before he died.

Even before I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I knew the Indians had the sweat lodges.   It was a cleansing proposition, clear the body so the mind and spirit had a better view.  Sweat all that crap out of you.   It made sense.  I knew the story.   And while I had Indian friends, I never asked to be part of a sweat lodge ceremony.  I understood it was their thing and the Anglos who begged in were tolerated maybe, but still interlopers.   I stuck with the health club, even though it was nothing like my grandfather’s Russian baths or the Pico Baths, in Los Angeles.

But here we are in search of spiritual enlightenment and chasing the buck.   That’s the set up, it seems, for self-help gurus who utilize the sweat lodge so their paying clients can achieve some form of enlightenment.   It is a way for some self-help gurus to demonstrate to their clients that they can achieve strength and confidence by mastering physical discomfort.   My grandfather, on the other hand, walked across Europe to get on a boat to come here, so he could find relaxation and not adversity in the steam baths.  He would have been surprised to find death waiting for him among the white tiles and hot steam.

But death came to some poor schmucks, sure enough.   For close to $10 thousand apiece,  for the “Spiritual Warrior Retreat,  patrons had the rare privilege of seeking success by overcoming hardship, only to find out that they couldn’t quite pull it off.  They died instead.    One wonders why, when feeling a little woozy, they didn’t make for the door, or the lodge flap, whatever it was.   Apparently, from reports listed both in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, they were dissuaded from doing so.

Now I subscribe to the age old axiom there is a sucker born every minute.  In this case, no doubt there are people who benefit from the “spiritual warrior” experience.  I can only imagine what lame souls they may have been before they saw the light of all creation, reaching that cathartic moment amid the communal B.O. where they realized, “hey, I can turn my life around.”

And certainly enduring adversity  is a big deal when you are training for special purposes.    The Navy Seals, Marine Recon, Special Forces, must all training under harsh conditions to endure adversity.   They are trained to anticipate the unexpected, to endure, and to prevail.   But then they are trained by highly experienced men, part of a legacy, who impart the wisdom of generations of military people who have benefited from on the ground experience.   Experience of the real kind.  Exotic life and death considerations in the ever changing field of battle.

With self-help gurus, it seems the kind of experience takes  some of life’s speed bumps and proclaim  that any progress their subscribers achieve are to be regarded  as great spiritual triumphs.  Now certainly the argument can be made that life is an endurance trial.  That one can only prevail by surmounting past mistakes and overcoming adversity.   It is at best questionable whether adversity can be manufactured in a sweat lodge or any other controlled circumstances where the full impact of what you may face in the harsh world is never fully realized.   It is adversity light.

Adversity is organic.  Failure, embarrassment, and destruction are endured when the world comes down around us.   We fail at business, get divorced, suffer the loss of a loved one, lose our jobs, watch Bernard Madoff walk off with our money, or we near retirement age only to find that Wall Street has turned our investments into garbage.  You don’t suffer that kind of loss in a sweat lodge.   You may lose your life, but at least you are not left to scrape up the shattered pieces of what used to be your life and try to reassemble them into some workable manner.

The Indians didn’t go to the sweat lodge to overcome adversity.   They had enough thrown at them before they ever got near the sweat lodge.   The Indians went into the sweat lodge for the same reasons my grandfather went into the Shvitz.  They went to sweat, to purify themselves in small ways, clean the toxins, think and either share some camaraderie or to be left alone.   It was a way of getting out of the house, losing the wife and family for a couple of hours so you could get your thoughts together.

My grandfather didn’t go to the steam baths to garner  spiritual enlightenment.   Besides the sweat and relaxation, he may have gone for business tips.   These old cockers would sit around talking shop, offering financial advice in everything from stock tips to evaluating real estate and other prevailing markets.  There were no business channels back then.  Neil Cavuto, and Jim Cramer, the dozens of others,  were not around to bolster the markets with bad advice.   There was the Wall Street Journal and a few other things.  That was it.  And these men, sitting around in steam, talking investments, this was your financial network.

If they had only known that their daily practice of meeting in the steam baths would someday be an appendage to the whole self-help guru thing, an $11 Billion industry, they would have choked on the slimy mucous hockers they used to raise up from the back of their throats and spit into their sheets.   These guys had lived tough and overcome all sorts of adversity to make their way in the world.

They had endured pogroms, plagues, the Great Depression, in some cases Two World Wars, and countless business challenges.   They didn’t need to hear how to overcome obstacles from some wiseacre who had no clue what real adversity was all about.     They would have looked at someone lecturing them, imploring them  to become the spiritual warriors they were meant to be as deranged and in need a swift kick in the ass.   And they would look at those who bought into this program, who paid thousands for the privilege of sweating, as a bunch of suckers with too much money to spend.

James Arthur Ray is the gentleman who presided over the sweat lodge sessions where three of his clients died.   He has proved to the world that he, too, can overcome adversity and rise to the challenge.   Despite the fatal loss of three of his flock, he has taken to the road again, where more lucky souls will benefit from the secrets of his success.   As for the deaths of three people and all the negative headlines…hey…no sweat.

Minstrel’s Alley Publishes The Guys Who Spied For China

(Los Angeles) Minstrel’s Alley, an independent publishing and media group, has entered the publishing world with the publication of its first book, “The Guys Who Spied for China.”   The book was written by Gordon Basichis and is based on his real life experiencing uncovering Chinese Espionage Networks operating in the United States in the eighties and nineties.

“The Guys Who Spied for China,” has been listed on Amazon.com and will soon be released as an EBook on Kindle, the electronic publishing site.   It is also scheduled for listing on the Barnes & Noble website and will soon be available in bookstores around the country.

“We are very excited about the publication of “The Guys Who Spied for China,” said M.J. Hammond, publisher and president of Minstrel’s Alley.   “This roman a clef is a most unusual spy book as it breaks the mold for this genre.  It tells the story of what it is like to be suddenly thrust into the world of espionage.  Unlike most spy books, this one is set in California and Beverly Hills.”

Hammond describes the book as quirky and authentic with touches of dark humor that will engage the reader.   “If you are looking for the basic spy book where two guys save the world from imminent disaster, this is not your cup of tea,” said Hammond.   This tells a much richer story.  This is a timely book, given the ongoing headlines about Chinese Espionage and the growing tensions again between the United States and China.”

Gordon Basichis is the author of two previous books, “The Constant Travellers,” and “Beautiful Bad Girl, The Vicki Morgan Story.”   He is the co-founder of Corra Group, a Los Angeles based companies that conducts employment background checks and corporate research for companies throughout the United States and around the world.

M.J. Hammond is a former entertainment industry executive who founded Minstrel’s Alley to publish popular books not found in mainstream publishing.

“Mainstream publishing has its purpose,” said Hammond.  But the industry’s focus on celebrity and genre based books has left readers wanting.  We hope to help bring a sense of adventure back to books and publishing.”

Background: Minstrel’s Alley is a Los Angeles based independent publisher that seeks to bring adventure back into the publishing industry by publishing books that have popular appeal but with more complexity than the standard mainstream fare.   The new publishing group distributes its books through Amazon, Kindle, and assorted Internet outlets as well as through bookstores around the country.    You can view Minstrel’s Alley at www.minstrelsalley.com or at Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=guys+who+spied+for+china&x=0&y=0

Baseball’s October Classic Will Soon Need Snowshoes

baseball field in snow

Once upon a time in baseball, you had two leagues, eight teams,  and 152 games in a season.   You had the American League and the National League.   Whichever team in each league came out on top was the League Champ, and then they played the other League Champ in the World Series.  Simple.

More to the point, the October Classic or the Fall Classic, as the World Series is known, was over in early October.   The leaves were just beginning to fall.   There was a slight chill in the air, maybe, and the first nip of winter was for the most part just around the corner.  Ball players played the game in shirt sleeves, or wore the long sleeves under their uniforms.   Their baseball caps were the same ones worn through the season.   Their fans, save for the rare occasions, watched the game in windbreakers and sweater.   No big deal.

But now you have the same two leagues, but with three divisions within each league, wild card teams, extended playoffs and more extended playoffs, and on top of it all an extended, 162 game  regular season.   So now, by the time you are done with the season, the playoffs, and, finally, the World Series itself, the October Classic can stretch into early November.   Factor in a couple of rain outs, and Santa Claus may come watch the game.

Now, mind you, I love baseball.  I love the playoffs.   I understand that the leagues extended regular season to pay for the hefty player’s salaries.   With so many teams, and in so many cities, the extended season for the most part is not surprising.   With so much competition, the playoffs are surely exciting for any sports fan.  If your favorite team is in the playoffs, then the excitement is that much greater.

But…it just looks so odd to see baseball players sealed up in hefty thermals.  They wear hood like balaclava things on their head that make them appear like they are off on a Delta Force mission and not preparing to take the baseball field.  Their baseball hats have ear flaps.

The fans are wearing parkas, thermals, and gloves.   They wear rain gear, for winter rain, and snow gear.   They look like they are going to a football game and not baseball.   Everyone, players and fans, are blowing on their hands, drinking warm liquids and hoping more freezing rain doesn’t drop from the skies and douse their few remaining dry spots.

It may look like a football game, but it’s baseball.  We are used to seeing players snorting frost smoke and the fans huddling and bouncing just to stay warm.   In football, we are used to the coaches and staff, the production crews and commentators wearing winter coats and mufflers.   We are used to seeing their breath belch out into the microphone.

But this is baseball.  It isn’t football, and it isn’t a trip to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving Day, or Christmas Shopping.  It only looks that way.

The added cold has to have its impact on the game.  Balls don’t travel quite as far in cold air.  Sliding hurts, collisions hurt more.  Just the impact of the ball, whether it’s in your glove or bouncing off your shins, has to start hurting after awhile.    The ball has to bounce differently on the harder infield group.   Throwing has to be tougher.   In all, what may have been the strong points for a team all season may be altered by the World Series.  I am not saying this as a fact, but you would think it the case.

Anyway, I write this as I watch the Philadelphia Phillies beat on the Los Angeles Dodgers.   I was born in Philly and grew up in L.A., so there is a definitely mix of emotions working for me.   But then, when it comes to watching sheer precision, the most consistent team in executing fundamental baseball, there is nothing like the Yankees.   Make a mistake with the Yankees, and you will pay a heavy price.   But I digress here.

So if the  season gets any longer, baseball’s concession stands will be selling hot toddies and soup.   You will soon see the concession stands selling acrylic mufflers and ear muffs with the team logo boldly emblazoned.   And the people will come in hefty four wheelers, wearing snow boots.   Between baseball and football, out in the post-season parking lot, you will hardly tell the difference.

When You Still Want to Marry a Virgin

Wedding Night 2

We are nearing the close of the first decade of the 21st Century.    Yet there are men who still want to marry a virgin.   Forget the bygone days when the mother-in-law or some other responsible party held up the bloody wedding night sheet to proclaim the chastity of the blushing bride.    Forget the fact that centuries have passed and for the most part, in most places in the world, society has acknowledged the woman’s right to get laid.    Don’t even think for a moment that all those sexy films and wet tee-shirt contests have promoted equal sexuality to the further corners of the earth.    And if you are in certain parts of the world, other than the prostitutes–“want to party, honey?”– you can put away your hopes and desires of sleeping with the girl you met earlier that day.

In some parts of the world, that woman won’t have sex.  She can’t.  She will not resolve her hornier emotions on the chance that up the road and in the sack her husband, that final destination of  fairy tale bliss, will reject her as damaged goods.    And forget about the fabled mother, with a wink and a blink, and an “I understand you situation completely, having been there myself,” holding up a bloody sheet in solemn but graphic testimony to  fictional chastity.    Twenty centuries later, we men are almost wise to that trick.

But then, again, maybe not.  According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the new Artificial Virginity Hymen Kit is more threatening to many male Egyptians than the triumphant return of Cleopatra.   For a mere $29.90, a sexually active woman can on her wedding night let loose with this pouch of artificial blood, proving she is has remained pure and simple for her one true love.  As Gigimo, the Chinese mail order company that sells the kit over its website insinuates, just a few well appointed moans and groans, break the blood bag, and voila, your idiot husband will believe he’s the first.   Provided, of course, he doesn’t later find the receipt for the artificial hymen kit tucked inside your purse.

Key religious groups and conservative social and political entities condemn this Instant Cherry Kit.   More than a few Egyptian citizens believe that this handy-dandy virgin vessel  will inspire promiscuity in Egyptian women.   Confident they can fool their grooms, they will also fool around.   They will come to their wedding night as damaged goods with a broken hymen and with sexual skills they shouldn’t have accumulated through trial and error.    Certain conservative groups are so outraged over the artificial hymen kit they want to put out a fatwa on any peddler who dares sell them.   A fatwa, for the less informed, is where you kill the person for besmirching social or religious customs.  Strong stuff.

This new threat to social stability is perceived by the more rational or liberal minded elements in Egyptian Society as partly an outgrowth of the social and economic changes in the society itself.    Single women used to live with their parents, until they got married, which was typically at a much earlier age than it is today.  But today’s economic crisis, with its joblessness and poverty has forced many women to wait longer, accumulating their dowries.   So you have women single longer and dating longer.   Things do happen.

So rather than conclude, “all right, already, the times have changed and we have to change with the times,” the more conservative elements are outraged.  As noted before, they are concerned promiscuity will spread.     And, you know, probably it will.   With promiscuity and prior experience, it is fair to say there are for women points of comparison and possible dissatisfaction with the schlub she is with.   In other words, there will be discord.    There will be less control of individual actions by social and religious forces.    Life will be chaotic.

No wonder everyone is upset.   Not that Egypt is necessarily the paragon of order and control.    Not that we should even pick on only Egypt, as much of the world is undergoing their own brand of chaos, the loss of order and control.  I remember in my childhood the Catholic boys solemnly declaring that they wouldn’t ever conceive of marrying any girl other than a virgin.   This, mind you, was  at the cusp of social change in this country, when sex, drugs, and rock and roll, dramatically replaced Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, as our social gyroscopes.   So weren’t those guys in for a rude awakening?

Besides,  Egypt like every other country has always found a way to counter the sexual contradictions of society in order to perpetuate that very society.   Before the artificial hymen kit, there were the Egyptian women who had their hymens surgically restored.  Before that, there was the complicit cousin waving the bloody wedding sheet.  In short, people will screw around.  It is just a question of how open we want to be about it.

As a world, we suffer from hypocrisy.   It’s part of out nature.  We preach one thing and do another.   We resist our more natural impulses in the shaky belief we can control them through sound mind and body.  Whatever that is.   We invoke the celestial to give us guidance.  Quite often that guidance is less a celestial proclamation and more our own yearnings for social and emotional security.   And control.    We draw on questionable resources just so we can feel better than ourselves.  We yield our self-control and, more importantly our concept of self-control for external enforcement of our visceral sensibilities.

Mainly, we are unsure of ourselves and feel threatened by everything out there that does not fall lockstep into our dogma or our system of beliefs.   Conservatives are threatened by one thing.  Liberals are threatened by another.   In one form or another, everyone is threatened, so we lock ourselves in a box with like minded souls and hope upon hopes that no one will puncture our fragile veneers.

Sometimes it is ridiculous.  Like this.   We order from the Chinese a thirty dollar hymen kit so we can proclaim and reinforce the righteousness of our own limitations.   It’s amazing.   Yet on one level we should be grateful.  Seldom does our fragile emotional security come this cheap.

Time for a Mandatory Government National Service

american eagle.svg.med

It is time for the federal government to institute a national service.   That is a service where it is mandated that younger people are drafted to service the public good for two years.    This is not a military draft, mind you, but a system where college graduates can first apply their skills for the general benefit of the American Citizenry, and where high school graduates and dropouts can learn trades and other ways of becoming productive members of this society.

In my plan, people will have a choice regarding which service they care to enter.  They can devote their newly learned business acumen to joining others in repurposing our neglected factories and manufacturing plants in the Rut Belt and Eastern Seaboard.   Rather than rely on imports, we can once again rekindle our manufacturing ability that initially made us the dominant country in the world.   A reconstituted effort in manufacturing would alleviate some of our natural deficit and reliance on trading partners we would rather not owe money.

Young people can use their cutting edge technological and business skills and combine them with seasoned business executives, many of whom are currently out of work in this dreadful economy, in redeveloping factories for domestic production and manufacturing.   This would put the laid off factory workers back on the job and rekindle the economy in blighted parts of the nation.   We would be servicing our fellow Americans and not just the bottom line.

Other younger folk can work with seasoned veterans in rehabilitating our infrastructure and developing alternate energy sources.   They could work on environmental cleanup.    They could work in healthcare where personnel are needed to serve our  sub-income and even middle income citizens.   They could work in legal areas and provide legal assistance to people in need.   In short, they could work to improve the general health and economic well being of this nation, and not just a corporate bottom line.

Those who have such an affinity, can be drafted into military service.   This is becoming essential.  While an all volunteer army has its merits, and a professional army is a better performer, certain drawbacks to the notion of our volunteer army are starting to reveal themselves.   Not the least of which is our shortage of troops and the constant reliance on our National Guard.   This has caused the degrading of performance, despite all best efforts, as troops are cycled over and over again back into combat duty without adequate rest.     Our troops are just exhausted.  Should a real war erupt, where we need hundreds of thousands of combat ready troops we may find ourselves lacking.

Additionally, there have been those who have attempted to instill in our military the type of religious fervor that has no place in any government institution.  It is one thing to have your beliefs, as we are all entitled, but when those beliefs are eclipsed by evangelical elements who all but enforce the doctrine of their own religious this is in direct contradiction to both our constitution and the wishes of our founding fathers.   There are such incidents reports at the Air Force Academy and on Army bases around the world.

A drafted army would go a long way in ameliorating such religious fervor.  People who are drafted for two years, would embrace the long honored military tradition of wanting to go in,  do your tour of duty, and then go home.   They will bring to the party, or the military, in this case, not only secular perspectives but the perspective other other religions.   They will not look on their military duty as a religious crusade to smote the infidel but to protect and defend the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic.

While I am not overly worried, history has dictated that an all volunteer army can become  a mercenary army that is loyal principally to the people that lead it and feed it.   This is a far cry from a good thing.   Additionally, when civilian soldiers are involved, Presidents and political leaders are less inclined to commit troops for useless and misguided wars.    Can we say Iraq? When there are civilian soldiers, there is a much greater chance of public outcry and the sort of protests that finally ended the Vietnam debacle.   Simply put, people seem less concerned about an all volunteer army as they are when it is their family members that are part of a citizen army.   In all, we should consider the long run ramifications our army.

What would a government national service do?  Besides all the do gooder, stuff, it would serve to bring this country together.  Despite all national media, the information on the Internet, cell phones, texting, and everything else, we are probably a more disparate nation than we have been in half a decade.   Technology hasn’t served well in bringing us together.    We are segmented and alienated from each other.

Since changes start with the young, it will behoove us to have a national service that not only augments our efforts to regain our national economy and sense of pride, but to share viewpoints on a person to person, intimate level.   In short, it would benefit us all to see how the other half lives.  MBA’s would be less eager to create the sort of business models that would leave a good segment of this country suffering as a result.   Instead of a good portion of the country being numbers in a chart, they would be real people with real needs, hopes and dreams.

People would share in their efforts to rebuild this country.  Sharing promotes camaraderie and is a boost to general morale.   We would get to know each other again.   We would get to work together.  By starting this with younger people, acceptance and understanding would be infused into our culture, rather than forcibly spoon fed by the media and public school system.   Mutual cooperation for the greater good would be for real rather than theoretical.

Call it the new, lemon scented, reconstituted WPA of the Roosevelt years.  Call it the Peace Corps for the homeland, or Vista with Teeth.   Call it whatever you want.  But do it soon.