Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Black Dog of Christmas

What's this?

The Black Dog of Christmas is at our heels,

once again.

Plastic mistletoe just won't do.

Real hugs and kisses all around.

Nice dogy!

Every year since 1975 (save one) I have labored in the retail trade at Christmas time. Eleven years as a bookseller, twenty-two in the fine wine trade, I participated in the grueling grind of America's great spending binge holiday season. For those in the trenches of this annual ritual running of the gauntlet, this means extra hours, hastily snatched meals eaten while standing, desperate needs to meet with no time to lose, short tempers, disappointed shoppers with long faces and an unrelenting stream of Xmas music! I can't stress the horror of this last item enough. Muzak, Country Western, Jazz, Celtic Folk, Bing Crosby and Tiny Tim, I've heard 'em all... alot... many times... over and over...again and again... morn' 'till night... dawn to dusk... did I mention that I have heard a lot of Christmas music? Jingle bells become jangle bells!

Thus was born the Black Dog of Christmas. The dark mass of dread that was the Season to be Jolly, that "most wonderful time of the year". But last year I got a "time out", in the form of massive complications from my liver transplant. Bilomas and pneumonia, biliary drains and emergency visits in the dead of night and dozens of painful interventional procedures replaced the ol' grind and I missed the whole season. From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day I was pretty much a basket case.

The worst thing about silver linings is that big black cloud that's always in front of them. So, behind this particular mother of all black clouds there was one heck of a great silver lining. I experienced the loving care of my always-there-for-me wife, the support and encouragement of my family, my dear friends far and wide, the members of my church (St. Michael's by the Sea), the company of my crusty Vietnam-vet buddies at the San Marcos Vet Center, the terrific efforts of certain members of the cyber-Zen community, blogging away to free all sentient beings and the daily fellowship of the terrific sangha at the Vista Zen Center. In other words I experienced the sterling qualities of pretty much everyone I know.

What all of this leads up to is this. This year, when the Black Dog of Christmas came sniffing around I predictably tensed up, waiting for the blow. But instead, this year I have looked that dog in the eye and realized that I missed the old brut! I missed the harried shoppers, the hurried meals, the going the extra mile to help the customer. I've realized that the feeling I got when I was helping others has always been my payoff for my work. Sure I get a paycheck, but if it didn't make me feel good, I would't have lasted a week doing biz. And when someone comes in and tells me their dinner party was a great success or that their special someone was made happy by that perfect wine I led them to, it makes my day.

It may be that helping each other is exactly what we are all here to do.

"But Dave," you may fairly ask, "what about the Xmas music? Do you like that now?"

Nobody's perfect.
(I think that mutt just stained the carpet).

Xmas Card image by Edward Gorey

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Peanuts on Cold Mountain

Peanuts by Charles Schulz

"Here we languish, a bunch of poor scholars,

Battered by extremes of hunger and cold.

Out of work, our only joy is poetry:

Scribble, scribble, we wear out our brains.

Who will read the works of such men?

On that point you can save your sighs.

We could inscribe our poems on biscuits

And homeless dogs wouldn't deign to nibble."

- from "Cold Mountainby Han Shan, Translation by Burton Watson

I've posted this classic poem by Han Shan on FTLO before, early in the year. It is a personal favorite. This morning when I saw this classic Peanuts reprint in the Los Angeles Times, I knew they belonged together. Did Charles Schulz, I wonder, ever read the Cold Mountain poems? Or is this word-devouring dog dilemma so universal that it must pop up ever-fresh in our experience?

Reading this strip carefully, I am saddened by the way the precocious young Rerun is already preparing lame excuses for the inevitable failures to come, what Leonard Cohen called his "invincible defeat". Rerun already knows that suffering is what's in store for him. And Snoopy is making plans to take full advantage of Rerun's dog-feeding dodge!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Half-Empty / Half-Full

Half-empty or half-full?


This glass is empty

All the way to the bottom!

Glass image from: Half-empty-glass-2.jpg

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This morning at breakfast,

She is troubled by crust,

And by the thought

That all dust

Was once alive

As you and us.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Drop the Blade

Although you cut it

All day long,

It never bleeds.

Dice it a thousand times,

There are no pieces.

Chop at it with all your might,

You will never carry a stick away!

Drop the blade and you

May take the whole thing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Forty Years Ago Today

It was then that I first experienced

that peculiarly familiar sensation

of being both inside

and outside

of time and space.

I stood in the busy bustle

of the Student Union square and watched

the light pour into my eyes through closed eyelids.

It seemed like nothing would ever be the same.

Nor was it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Don't Let Bob Dylan Break Your Heart

Don't let Bob Dylan break your heart.

Don't let the past tear you apart.

Our lives are framed,

Not made, by art.

Don't let Bob Dylan break your heart.

It's not stepping stones alone

That call to you,

All the dead you've left

Still follow you.

Your stone was rolling from the start,

In changing times we play our part,

And all that come

Must soon depart.

Don't let Bob Dylan break your heart.

In posting this fresh-written poem I'd like to state that it is in no way a criticism of or a comment upon Bob Dylan himself. Its' inspiration was instead the impulse to melancholy nostalgia brought on by the hearing of emblematic songs of the "old days", AKA the Golden Age. And no one wrote more emblematic songs then than Bob Dylan! Some of you out there might quibble and bring up Lennon & McCartney, but this is my blog and that's my view. That's what the comment button below is for. How about it, what songs set off your nostalgia circuits, and how do you feel about that?

Thursday, October 1, 2009


There is coffee in the morning,

And six pills that are all mine,

And a paper full of sorrow,

Without sense and without rhyme.

But I toss away my troubles,

And forget the world unkind,

When I hear her sweetly singing,

With my ordinary mind.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ugly Dog

My best friend is an ugly dog.

He's been at my side night and day.

You'd have to agree, he's nothing to look at.

He chews my shoes and pees on my rug,

He keeps me up howling all night long.

I awoke this morning to find him gone,

My shoes intact and carpet unsoiled.

Can anyone help me find him?

He's an ugly dog, but he's all I've got!

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Body Mind/ Body Mind,

Home of all ills,

Doctors and dentists,

Potions and drills.

Body Mind/ Body Mind,

On couch and with pills,

A fence in a meadow,

One patient, two bills.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Sifting, I, on seashore strand,

Solitary, seeking bliss.

Infinity in a grain of sand

Seeking eye and finding This.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Pick Up from Cold Mountain

For a mud ball dropped in water

big plans make no sense

for a fragile dreamlike body

a hundred years are rare

unable to ponder deeply

and claiming they're immortal

people steal a ton of gold

then leave it all behind

I have featured the poems of Tang dynasty hermit Han Shan (Cold Mountain) several times on this blog, chosen from the translations of Burton Watson. This morning I was reading Red Pine's excellent collection, "The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain" and was struck by the timeless views of Han Shan's able sidekick, Shih-te (Pick Up). Red Pine's book includes 49 Shih-te verses along with over 300 attributed to Han Shan. Bonus! In print from Copper Canyon Press, this collection is a must have item for lovers of the "brush and ink" crowd.

Although I have used a traditional portrait of Shih-te with broom in hand, perhaps I should have illustrated this verse with a picture of ol' Kenny Boy, merely one of the vast crowd of potential poster-boys for the above verse. But then, why honor fools even with scorn?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Never Mind the Beard


Yes, I'd say so.

But sometimes it can be

So very hard to see,

I wish that old barbarian

Would trim his eyebrows!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wahrenbrock's Bookhouse Closes

When a great tree falls in a forest,

Only those who listen can hear.

Impermanence alone

May be relied upon.

(Photo by Preston Wessells )

Friday, July 31, 2009

It's Fun to Stay Alive

(Left to right: Mike Towery, Wiliam Lund, Scott Shaw!, Ken Kruger, Greg Bear, David Clark, Roger Freedman)

"It's Fun to Stay Alive!"

A breezy sentiment

From an old comic book,

A banner to fly

Through weariful life.

Though the sound man faces the

Passing of generations immune,

As to the sacrifice of straw dogs,

Reunited with my cohorts of old

I marvel at grey heads and

Sparkling eyes.

Passing years may erode the form

But hearts,

Like diamonds,

Stay true.

When I was a very young man I was privileged to know a gaggle of brilliant young fellows who, among their many other accomplishments, founded what has become the largest and longest running comic/ science fiction/ film convention in the world, the San Diego Comic Con. This astounding gathering of the tribe brings together 140,000 passionate followers of the imaginative life, dedicated to celebrating the wildest of dreams, dark and light, tragic bravery and hilarious tomfoolery conjoined at the metaphorical hip.

Last week as guest at the 40th annual event I had the very great pleasure of joining my old friends at panels and parties to celebrate our act of collective lunacy now launched far beyond the boundaries of even our wildest dreams. This poor poem is my attempt to convey my love and respect to a great bunch of guys, present and absent, forever young in my eyes.

Shoes for Industry!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gillian Welch and My Original Face

Aurora borealis fills the sky at night,

Princes Pocahontas bathed in eerie light.

The world dwells in delusion,

Captured by the thought,

That she was an Indian

And that I am not.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Confucian Lines In Honor of My Most Excellent Father

In a world full of pitfalls,

Time lays traps for the unwise.

All are whittled away by slow decay,

Only the very wise attain great age.

Always honorable,

He now becomes venerable.

My father, Ken Clark, was recently honored in his church on Father's Day as the oldest father in a rather sizable congregation. Hearing the news, I was moved to write the lines above. The top photo shows him as a young man in the Navy and was taken in Japan at the end of "The War". Dad was in the very first American landing party in Japan and had a ringside seat for the historic closing events of the Pacific War. The other was taken late last year at dinner in California.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mandala Complete

Sunday saw the mandala completed. Here we see it (from a side angle). I was unable to attend the closing ceremonies, but my wife Diane was there and took these photos.

As part of the ceremony, the sand was carefully brushed up, put in an urn for disposal in the nearest swift-moving river. I'm not sure where that will be, this is a drought-gripped region.

After days of intense concentration on the painting, the monks seemed happy
to be done and there were smiles all around.

The large, four storied central room of the museum was filled with the sounds of the traditional Tibetan instruments and deep-throated chanting.

Diane took many more pictures of the closing event and I plan to post some more soon.
Many thanks to the monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery for sharing their healing vision of Green Tara with the people of San Diego!

For a schedule of upcoming appearances by the monks,
check this link;

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Green Tara Poem

On a lotus seat, standing for realization of voidness,
(You are) the emerald-colored, one-faced, two-armed Lady
In youth's full bloom, right leg out, left drawn in,
Showing the union of wisdom and art - homage to you!

Like the outstretched branch of the heavenly turquoise tree,
Your supple right hand makes the boon- granting gesture,
Inviting the wise to a feast of supreme accomplishments,
As if to an entertainment-homage to you!

Your left hand gives us refuge, showing the Three Jewels;
It says, "You people who see a hundred dangers,
Don't be frightened-I shall swiftly save you!"
Homage to you!

Both hands signal with blue utpala flowers,
"Samsaric beings! Cling not to worldly pleasures.
Enter the great city of liberation!"
Flower-goads prodding us to effort-homage to you!
---First Dalai Lama (1391-1474)


Friday, June 19, 2009

Tibetan Work In Progress

Work on the Green Tara Mandala in San Diego continues apace.
"Seated on a lotus at the center of the mandala, Green Tara is ever ready to respond to the suffering of beings afflicted with emotional obscurations. Arrayed around the mother of mercy are her twenty-one manifestations. Each of the mandala's four gates are ornamented with the eight-spoked Dharma wheel attended by two deer, symbol of the Three Jewels: the Buddha teaching the Dharma to the Sangha." - Wisdom Publications,

Wikepedia has this to say:
"Tara (Sanskrit: तारा, tārā) or Ārya Tārā, also known as Jetsun Dolma (Tibetan language:rje btsun sgrol ma) in Tibetan Buddhism, is a female Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism who appears as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism.. She is known as the "mother of liberation", and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements. In Japan she is known as Tarani Bosatsu but virtually unknown in China.[1]"

"Green Tara/Khadiravani is usually associated with protection from fear and the following eight obscurations: lions (= pride), wild elephants (= delusion/ignorance), fires (= hatred and anger), snakes (= jealousy), bandits and thieves (= wrong views, including fanatical views), bondage (= avarice and miserliness), floods (= desire and attachment), and evil spirits and demons (= deluded doubts)."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tibetan Monks in San Diego

Here are some photos I shot yesterday at the San Diego Natural History Museum. 
Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery started work Wednesday creating a Mandala sand painting, a 2500-year-old Tantric Buddhist healing practice.  They are producing a Green Tara Mandala, which the museum says "Buddhists believe can lead to personal and planetary healing during times of uncertainty and economic crises."

Although I had planned to be on hand early, a surprise last-minute appointment at the UCSD Pain Clinic meant missing the opening ceremonies, which a fellow museum member told me was very impressive. Cymbals, drums, bells and trumpets, accompanied by deep, full-throated chanting filled the three story high open space of the museum's main hall. By the time I arrived on scene three monks had completed the chalk-line layout and had begun to lay down the colored sand from long metal tubes. The tubes, which are tapered, are rubbed vigorously with a sort of wand along a raised metal sawtooth ridge, the vibration sending the grains spilling out the small nozzle end in an incredibly fine stream. The result is a low-tech air brush sort of effect. Their concentration as they worked, as one would expect, was intense, 
their focus complete.

I hung around for several hours, wandering away to look at the various exhibits, including the beautiful new William Stout murals, depicting prehistoric life in the various epochs of our region's past. Bill Stout is an old friend, we first met 40 years ago, at the very first San Diego Comic Con in 1969. Bill is simply one of the very best painters of prehistoric life working today, and the SDNHM is very lucky to 
have secured his services.

I hope to get back to the museum some time over the weekend and see the finished or near-finished image. When completed, the painting will be destroyed sometime on Sunday. This traditional final destruction serves to remind the viewer of the transitory nature of all things, including ourselves.

Here's a link to the museum website, which includes a video of the monks at work; 

Here's a link to the Drepung Loseling Monastery site;

Friday, June 12, 2009

Deign to Nibble

"Here we languish, a bunch of poor scholars,

Battered by extremes of hunger and cold.

Out of work, our only joy is poetry:

Scribble, scribble, we wear out our brains.

Who will read the works of such men?

On that point you can save your sighs.

We could inscribe our poems on biscuits

And homeless dogs wouldn't deign to nibble."

Thus spake Han-Shan, "Cold Mountain" in T'ang dynasty China. What was true fourteen hundred years ago remains true today, though the "poor scholars" may have enough scratch to own a computer. Lonely bloggers now cover the globe, hacking away their thoughts and dreams into cyberspace. To you homeless dogs out there who pause to eat these stale biscuits, a deep bow and a heartfelt "gassho" of thanks. 

I began blogging a little over a year ago, May 19th, to be exact, with little idea of why or what I wished to say, or perhaps most importantly, who I wished to say it to. So much has happened in this last year or so that my head spins in wonder at the changes. I find that I have, perhaps, something to say, and I stumble towards a way to say it. To whom am I speaking? I wonder still. 

Dear homeless dogs, as you pass by to nibble at these poor biscuits, give us a word to save a little "cat" from its' cruel death. The comment button that lies below will not bite you (at least not very hard). Say a word, even "Mu" will do.

The above image, by the way, is a zinc plate etching done a few years ago. It depicts the artist on a nightime ambush in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Totally alert, he sits silently, motionless, aware of every sound and movement in every dark shadow. Because those sounds and motions could mean his instant death, as well as the death of all his friends who lie sleeping beside him, he is as aware as it is really possible to be. Joshu, cats and dogs, stale  biscuits, hundred foot poles and all the rest await him, undreamed of as yet. He's studying Zen the hard way, one breath at a time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Getting Up

Tripping on a rock of pain,

Falling into the rushing stream,

Rise again and take up the staff

One foot before another.

The journey of a thousand miles goes on.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Coming Back

Climbing down from atop a mountain,

Very slowly, step by step.

Careful foot on mossy boulder,

Cross fallen logs wet from waterfall.

One by one, small pills are counted,

Muscles taut and nerves sharp strained.

Nightime watches stretch forever,

Weary eyed to greet the dawn.

All good things must have an end,

What about the bad?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hungry World

I don't know,

I don't know why,

This busy world is so...


Relentless in its hunger.

Hungry world.

It devours,

It devours,

All our waking hours,

With such shocking greed!

The future becomes past

Almost before it is now.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Zuzu the Cat - A Guest Poem

This is the tail of Zuzu the cat.

Zuzu awakes on her favorite rug 
The one that lies in front of the fridge.
She knows that she is not alone,
This mysterious  cat arches  her back like a bridge.

As she washes her coat
Fur lands on the floor.
Zuzu is waiting for her
Master to open the door.

Sleeping, stretching,
Grooming, or sunning, 
A cat is always waiting
For someone to fill it's bowl.

by Kalee Lake

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Perspectives on the Path of the Bird

This last week on his blog, Wild Fox Zen, Dosho Mike Port has asked readers to work with perspectives on the path of the bird from several sources within the Zen tradition, such as this one below. In today's comics comes this perspective from Zen inspired cartoonist Patrick McDonnell. The way of the bird is not the way of the cat, especially not when the cat is at the wheel of a toy car!

The Record of Dungshan has the following dialogue in #94, p. 55:
A monk asked, "The master normally tells us to follow the bird path. I wonder what the bird path is?"
"One does not encounter a single person." replied Dungshan.
"How does one follow such a path?" asked the monk.

"One should go without hemp sandals on one's feet," replied Dungshan. (note: "hemp" and "self" are homonyms and so the sentence could also read "One should go without the self underfoot" - later versions follow this reading)
"If one follows the bird path, isn't that seeing one's original face?" asked the monk.
"Why do you turn things upside down so? asked Dungshan.
"But where have I turned things upside down?" asked the monk.
"If you haven't turned things upside down, then why do you regard the slave as the master?" replied Dungshan.
"What is one's original face?" asked the monk.
"Not to follow the bird path," responded Dungshan.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


In a tower, bells are ringing,

In the trees small birds are singing,

And a peacock calls from

Down on Lone Oak Lane.

I am waiting for a barn owl to appear.

Mine has been a fortunate birth,

Among the many on this Earth,

So what's a war or two between old friends,

Or some time spent with the doctors 

Now and then?

I'm just an old guy in his garden

But one thing is clear to see,

As I think about what's been and going to be.

In my next life I am coming

Back as me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

When You Walk

When you walk,

It walks.

When you sit,

It sits.

The truth is really

No big deal.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Aquinas draws his bow.

Letting his arrow fly,

Hitting the target,

But missing the eye.

Nice try!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour

It's 8:46 PM as I write this, Pacific Daylight Savings Time. Here in Southern California we've turned out the lights. I've lit the candle I normally use when I meditate in the darkened house late at night. I usually sit for a 20 -30 minute period around midnight, before going to sleep. Tonight I'll start my evening routine early.

My wife's niece and her three kids were here for the afternoon and stayed for dinner, but now have gone, the TV has been turned off, along with the lights. I enjoy the house when it's quiet and dark and the world outside has settled down. Since it's early, cars still are driving past the house every now and then, but it is generally quiet.

The gentle smell of my favorite incense is now filling the air and I feel the call of my zafu pillow. I wish you all a quiet night.