Archive for March, 2011

Making Marines

Making Marines

by Susan Downing

Last week I travelled down to Quantico with my son Mike’s dad, sister and girlfriend to attend his graduation from Officer Candidates School and commissioning ceremony.  We first glimpsed Mike as he stood on the OCS parade deck, rehearsing with the rest of Charlie Company for the next day’s graduation parade.  We’d arrived early for the Family Day presentation, hoping to be able to see the rehearsal.  Scanning Third Platoon in an effort to pick out Michael from among his fellow candidates, we were looking for tall, with glasses.  We found him in the back row, fourth man in.

We were mesmerized, squinting to get a better look as we listened to the Drill Sgt. take them through their paces.   “What was that?!” he’d call out out when they missed a cue or someone was slow putting a rifle up to his shoulder.  “Put ‘em back down.  Do it again!” he’d shout.  Again and again.  “It’ll be a lot worse out here tomorrow,” he reminded them.  “It’ll be longer.  It’ll suck.”

They did a run-through of awards to the top candidates and of the OCS Commander and Brigadier General making their speeches.  “Okay.  Clap, clap, clap, yay, yay, yay. Clappin’s done,” the Sgt. intoned.  And he took them through what to do next.  Again, he was not pleased.  “That was sloppy.  And disgusting.  Do it again.”

Now, hearing him call that out to our son and 183 other sons, I cringed a bit, but at the same time, I found it somewhat …. funny.  It made us smile.  Because we detected a note of affection in the Sgt’s criticism.  (And when we asked him about it later, Mike said that yes, it was definitely amusing to all of them, too.) The critiques and the repetition continued, with the Sgt. giving them hints about how to make it through the next day’s parade:  “Don’t lock your knees.  Hydrate.  You’ll get a head call before you come out.” Again, he reminded them they wouldn’t be comfortable, standing there for an hour. “Remember,” he told them, “pain builds character.  As long as you don’t pass out, that is.”  We smiled again.

Finally they were given the go ahead to do their final march where the whole company would circle around and pass before the bleachers. Before starting them off, he told them, “I can’t fix it tomorrow. There’s nothing I can do.  I can’t yell at you – your families are gonna be out there!” With that motivation – or threat – in their minds, they started off.  As they marched, the Sgt. kept calling out to them. “Don’t bounce.  March from the waist down.  Follow the drumbeat.  Your feet hit the deck on the drumbeat.” He repeated it over and over, like a cadence.

I was so delighted to have the chance to watch this rehearsal that I didn’t reflect too much on the drill Sgt.’s approach.  But what did strike me was the element of humor that came through as he directed the candidates.  And his concern for them.  Telling them how to keep themselves from passing out, how to stay as comfortable as possible the next day.  Letting them know that he wanted them to do a good job for their parents. And that he knew it was all painful, that it sucked.

After getting this first glimpse of Mike, we attended a presentation for families by Colonel Jackson, the OCS Commander.  He talked to us about what the candidates had gone through during the previous ten weeks. “We give ‘em 15 tasks to do every day. Maybe they’ll get 6 or 7 done.”  And they get no congratulations for that achievement.  These candidates, the colonel said, “Grew up in a world where no one kept score and everyone got a trophy. Here, we keep score.  And we’re not gonna pat you on the back for something you’re supposed to do.”

This overload is part of the training. A test. They have to decide when to sleep, when to stay up and get a couple more tasks done. Most of them chose to consistently stay up.  The colonel told us that although he gave the candidates a schedule that allowed for 8 hours of sleep a night, it was their choice to use that time to complete other work.  Mike, for example, routinely worked on about 4 hours of sleep, rising at 3, instead of 5, and often working way past lights out.  After telling us that this company’s biggest challenge was staying awake in class, the colonel said he seriously considered walking into a classroom at random, picking out a sleeping candidate and sending him home.  A lot of eyes got big when he said that.  But, he said, he’d decided against it.

“Everything is a test here,” he went on. From giving them liberty to see how they behave, to making them go through the frigid water course, to making them stand at parade rest for 15 minutes in front of the bleachers before releasing them to their families, as they did after this presentation.  In explaining why some candidates didn’t make it, the Colonel said, “They say, ‘Why do I have to do this? Is it really important to do that?’ And I tell them, ‘You don’t get to decide what’s important.  It’s all important.”

And if you don’t do it right, you do it again and again and again. Until you get it right. Until it is no longer sloppy.  Or disgusting.  Because it’s that precision and attention to detail in both action and decision-making that builds the focus and consistency that will ultimately contribute to keeping these new 2nd Lieutenants and the Marines they are leading safe.

At the lunch following this presentation, we got to meet Mike’s instructors.  Gny. Sgt. Jaramillo, Mike’s favorite instructor, shook my hand and looked at me very intently.  “Do you see a difference?” he asked sternly, about Mike.  I smiled and said it was hard to say, since I’d only been with him ten minutes at that point.  But he proceeded to tell me about Mike’s qualities when he’d entered OCS  and how Mike had managed to develop his strengths and overcome his weaknesses.  Listening to him, I understood how well this instructor had come to know my son over these ten weeks, what insight he had gained into his character.

I also understood how much he cared about Mike.  His affection was clear in his words, his tone of voice, and his slight smile.  I told him how impressed I was by all that he had done for Mike and the other candidates. I talked to him about similarities I saw between what he was doing as an instructor and my own spiritual practice.  Somehow I felt it was appropriate to say that.  And he nodded.  “People ask me how I like my job,” he responded, “but I tell them it’s not a job.  It’s a way of life.  I’m committed to it. It is like a practice.”

I could certainly feel his devotion to helping these young men learn what it means to be an officer.  He was the one who, about a month earlier, when Mike had asked what his job as a 2nd Lt. would be, had told him, “Taking care of Marines.”  And he had obviously modeled that for Mike and the other candidates, as he both held them to seemingly impossibly high standards and at the same time treated them with deep affection. As he shook my hand once more, Sgt. Jaramillo smiled.  “Go. Enjoy him.  I told him your lunch today is on him.”

The next night, after graduation and commissioning, we went out to dinner – which Mike also insisted on paying for, by the way.  On the way out of the restaurant after dinner, we were passing by one of the booths, when suddenly a voice called out: “Get in line! Right now!!” Stunned, Mike stopped in his tracks and looked down to see Gny. Sgt. Hill, one of his other instructors, who was having dinner with his wife.  Seeing Mike’s reaction, he smiled and stood up to greet us. He shook Mike’s hand, then turned to us, beaming.  “Congratulations.  Are you enjoying him? Good!  Have fun.”  It was the same fondness I’d sensed in both Gny. Sgt. Jaramillo and in the drill Sgt’s advice to the candidates at parade rehearsal.

By the time we met up with Gny. Sgt. Jaramillo again – he’d agreed to give Mike his first salute following the commissioning ceremony – I was able to tell him that yes, I did see the difference.  Mike is his same, vibrant self, but there is greater confidence, greater focus, a deep awareness of what is going on around him and in those around him.  If anything, his innate kindness has grown.  Would you have expected that would be a result of attending OCS?  If you’d asked me in January, I would not have expected it.  But last week, when I was able to see for myself the results of all this training and talk with the instructors who had led it, it seemed the most natural thing in the world, that combination of demanding training and deep caring for the candidates.

When he addressed the newly graduated candidates at the parade, Colonel Jackson finished up by telling them, “You will do good. For the right reasons.  Job well done.”


Mike receives his first salute from Gny. Sgt. Jaramillo

Mike receives his first salute from Gny. Sgt. Jaramillo

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Who Are The Good Guys

Who Are The Good Guys

by Jeffrey Brooks

Two a.m. on Saturday night is a funny time in this world. What was gonna happen is probably over and if it didn’t you have to deal with it and go home. But there are always some who want to take it into overtime.

The streets were wet and the mist was blowing in clouds. I was sitting with my lights blacked out on the side of the road when a call came for a complaint of a car blocking a road a mile from where I was. I drove over. The mist was thick and the streets were dark but as I rolled down the block I saw the body of a car turned sideways straddling the yellow line in the middle of the road. The windows were smashed in. Glass filled the car. The headlights were smashed too but one of the tail lights glowed like an ember, like the battery had been left on when the car was ditched, like the car had been sitting there for hours before someone reported it.

No blood. No bodies. No windshield smashed from the inside out by a head moving at high speed. No collision damage. But there was a plastic leg in the back seat. I doubted the owner hopped away. I called dispatch and ran the plate and got the phone number of the owner. I called the owner. Sorry to wake you ma’am. Do you own a – I described the car… She said she did. I asked where is it now? She said in the driveway. I asked if she lent it to anyone. She said no. I asked her to look in the driveway and see if it was still there. It wasn’t. She began to freak out. I told her I would bring the leg to her tonight and where she could find her car tomorrow.

I called for a tow truck. Pretty soon one of the three or four drivers who take the calls at this time of night, who I see most nights I work, rolled up. He waved and shrugged and hooked it up and towed it away to the impound lot. The rain fell and the mist rolled and there wasn’t even a piece of glass left the pavement.

As I warmed up in the cruiser a call for a burglar alarm, at a house, came over the radio. I drove to the address.  I watched the windows. I met another officer there. We saw an open door. We went in. It could have been blown open by the wind. But what are the chances of that?

We moved together through the house. Street light and moonlight in strips on the floors. Listening. Looking. It was a big house. Through the great room and the kitchen. Through the home theatre with deep seats that could conceal anyone who wanted to hide there. Up a stairway and down a hall with no cover or room to maneuver. Into the meditation room. High windows. An altar with pictures of sages and saints, cushions, pristine oak floors, and a shelf of books.

Through the bedrooms, closets, under the beds, we looked in the attic, in the crawl spaces, in the basement, and as we moved from room to room we did it silently, carefully, slowly, with sharp awareness, mindful that the smallest sound or movement could be all the warning we would have of the gunshot. It could come from behind any door, around any corner, out of nowhere.  We knew that while usually it doesn’t sometimes it does, it is a sound that can split the universe in two, and you can die any time if your attention drifts for a second. And even if it doesn’t.

Every night when I go to work there are people who are in trouble. Wrapping their car around a pole or overdosing on heroin. Their door kicked in, their jewelry gone, or their children missing for hours. Or caught doing something they always do but hardly ever get caught for.

Cops, like bodhisattvas, are called to help. We help strangers every day. We risk our comfort and safety and convenience as a habit, as a job, as a way of life. We are trained to do it. Trained in the habit of service. Trained in the skills and methods that give us a chance to succeed.

When I go to work I do not go to further the interests of one group over another. I do not support corporate America over working people, or the nice over the irritating. I go to work to prevent harm.

I go to work to fulfill my oath to uphold the Constitution and my vow as a bodhisattva. The understanding in both of these worlds is that killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, and being ruled by impulsive sexual desire cause suffering, for yourself and others. As a dharma teacher it has been my job to persuade people that this is true. As a law enforcement officer, in the moment of crisis, it may be necessary to use coercion instead of persuasion to protect people from actual harm, and from the causes of suffering. We cannot say that one is spiritual and the other is not.

To be really at home in life we cannot hide in a home theatre and relegate spiritual life to a meditation room cordoned off from the rest of the world. Of course we do need a peaceful place to meditate and to think. But the actual practice of spiritual life cannot be defined and sequestered. It will spread to the other rooms of the mansion, and radiate out to wherever you are, throughout space and time, with no boundaries. This is the nature of our mind and our lives. We cannot be separate from it for an instant.

The five Buddhist precepts I mentioned correspond to five key areas of criminal law. The three trainings which comprise the Buddhist path – morality, mental focus, and understanding – are all fully expressed in the realm of public service as well as in dharma. The depth of philosophical exploration of the nature of reality and the function of karma – that is the ways in which one’s own actions form one’s reality – are not matters of study or consideration within the ordinary scope of professional service but the assumptions that underlie this profound philosophy and the conclusions that can be drawn from it are the operating assumptions of a life in public service. There is nothing off beat or unconventional about this, although it has not been explored too much in the west. It will be. Starting now.

Three a.m. I see headlights through the fog, moving very slowly, drifting across the road and jerking back into the travel lane, nicking a curb and jolting forward. I get behind the car and watch. I call in our location and the license plate number. I turn on my blue lights and stop the car. I watch him for a few seconds. He might bail out of the car and run. He might stare at me through the closed window. He might ask me what’s this all about officer, while he tries not to slur his words or exhale his breathtaking booze breath.  He might start crying and begging for a break. He might tell me his daughter used to go out with the chief’s brother’s son in high school and how he knows all the cops in town. He might reach for a gun as he opens his window and try his best to shoot me. You never know.

Am I mean for stopping him? Am I a prick who wants to get even with the world or boss people around? Do I have in mind that this guy may drift across the road into oncoming traffic and kill himself and someone else and that people addicted to drugs or booze or with a selfish disregard for their lives and the lives of others would be out maiming and killing and hoping for the best, condemning themselves and others to unimaginable suffering if they are not stopped – even if its late, and there are lots of places I might rather be? But that I have no way to complete my job in this world unless I do my part to take care of people, at least for a while, while I can?

These questions, and the answer I have come to, are not unique to me. In fact they are what men have done and have chosen to do since the beginning of time. My karate teacher, Shoshin Nagamine, was a great Zen practitioner as well as Chief of Police on Okinawa, and was an advocate of the seamless union of public service and spiritual practice throughout his career.

You might say that there are so many ways in which law enforcement falls short of the bodhisattva ideal and that the legal system is imperfect; and so many ways in which we human beings miss our chance to honestly live out our ideals.

According to Buddhism the system will not be perfect until we are. And it is explained exactly how we can be, if we practice properly and sincerely, right now.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at


I’ll Catch Up With You

I’ll Catch Up With You!

by Susan Downing

Last weekend I took a trip to visit two old friends who happen to live in the same city, although they’ve never met each other.  One of them was a student in the first Russian class I taught as a grad student, way back in 1979.  The other is my oldest and closest Russian friend, whom I met in Leningrad in 1978 just before she emigrated and moved to Berkeley, after having married one of my fellow grad students there. After not seeing either of them for more than 25 years, I knew we’d have plenty to talk about, but even so I was surprised by the turn our conversations – and my thoughts – took.

I met my former student, Chris, for lunch, and we each exclaimed, “You look just the same!” which at our age translates as “I wouldn’t recognize you on the street, but I can tell it’s you.”  He’d mentioned in an e-mail that he had some nice news on the personal front, and almost right away he told me that he had fallen in love and would be getting married in a few months. I was so happy for him and thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the details, although he apologized for making a long story even longer.

Then, all of a sudden, the topic shifted to his mother’s death – it came up because he was feeling time pressure to take care of final details to close her estate.  I told him that my mother, too, had died around the same time, and we compared stories – both our moms died of cancer, both quickly, after declining radiation treatment or chemotherapy.  But while my mom died in a nursing home, Chris’ died at home. At his home.

Chris said he’d been so impressed by his mom’s approach to her impending death. She’d said, essentially, I’m an old woman.  I’m going to die.  Why prolong it? Her ability to release her grip on life had amazed Chris.  And he saw such a contrast between her acceptance of the inevitable and his friends’ and family members’ horror–struck avoidance of the topic.  Upon learning she had lung cancer, they’d ask, “Did she smoke?” and when Chris said that she had, they’d cluck, as if, he said, this both explained her misfortune and, assuming they weren’t smokers, offered them some kind of talisman against suffering the same fate themselves.

“But they’re going to die, too!” he exclaimed.  “But they don’t want to think about it, even though it’s the one thing we all have to do.” He told me how the Ecuadorian man who was living in his house at the time responded when Chris said he wanted to have his mom live out her last months – and die – there.  “That would be GREAT!” the friend responded, his voice joyous in a way that surprised Chris.  As he saw it, Chris’ mom was a beacon of positive energy, and if she died in his house, the whole place would be infused with her wonderful spirit.  Chris said that, in fact, this is what happened.  He said that the room where she died does feel different, full of joy.

It struck me that this man in his early fifties, about to join the ranks of blissful newlyweds, was so accepting of death that he had welcomed it into his home.  Although of course he had welcomed his mother’s death, not his own.  Who knows how he will feel when he faces his own demise – something that is certainly not on his mind now, as he prepares for a transition to a new positive phase of life.  As we talked, he remarked on the unavoidable progression of a life that stretches into old age: we start out as babies, unable to feed or bathe or dress ourselves or walk or talk, then gradually acquire all of these abilities, only to gradually lose them all at life’s end.  And Chris was right to be pleased that he’d done a good job of helping his mother move through those last stages of life. Not many people would take on such a challenge, much less feel great joy at having gone through it.  Since I experienced something similar as my own mother died, I understood his feeling that guiding another on that path helps you feel less anxious about your own death.

But still.

Still, when you see those around you decline, especially when they are not aged, it’s more difficult to be sanguine.  That was what I thought as I listened to Chris and reflected on my Russian friend, whose house I had just left to come to lunch.

Lena (not her real name) is only 61.  She was 28 when we first met, pregnant with her first child, my god daughter.  Beautiful and head-strong, Lena married an American and came here seven months pregnant, knowing no English at all.  When she went into labor, her panicked husband took a detour on the way to the hospital to pick me up and take me along, thinking that as a woman, I’d be better able to translate for Lena during labor.

I don’t recall too much about their daughter’s early life, but I clearly remember being at their apartment one day, as the baby, who had just learned to crawl, was speeding along the kitchen floor, Lena laughing and chasing behind her, arms outstretched, cooing, “Dogoniu, dogoniu, dogoniu!” = “I’ll catch up with you!”  It was the beginning of a new life for all of them.

Another child followed.  Both kids are grown now and live far from home.  Lena’s husband is working abroad and Lena didn’t feel like relocating one more time.  So she’s living in their house here in America, with the cats.  We’ve kept in touch since we both left Berkeley in the 80s, but I haven’t seen Lena since then.  And talking on the phone certainly doesn’t give you the whole picture of someone’s life.  And the picture I got when I walked through Lena’s door last weekend threw me for a loop.  Alone except for her cats, she is in tough shape, in decline to an extent that I hadn’t realized until I saw her in person.

While I was there, we spent a lot of time looking at old photo albums, full of pictures from the time of the baby chase I mentioned.  What a contrast – it was like a living example of what I’d talked about with Chris.  Looking at the photos of the young, vibrant Lena and seeing her now was painful. For both of us. But somehow her words echoed Chris’. Or rather, his mother’s: “I’m old,” she said with a shrug as she shifted in her easy chair.  “What can you do?”  This woman who had summoned the strength to leave everyone and everything she knew 33 years ago now seemed resigned to her deteriorating state.  Was it out of great strength or a great sense of hopelessness?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that all the while I was there, I was desperately trying to find a way to fix things for her.  That’s what I do.  I help people.  But Lena thwarted me at every turn.  She wouldn’t let me do Reiki for her.  She wouldn’t let me wash the dishes or put the groceries away.  No way would she let me take the sheets off the bed the morning I left.  And so we took walks, or sat, watching Russian TV shows  or movies, looking at old pictures, our conversations peppered with thoughts she kept repeating to me.  The first night I was there, she got into bed, the cats at her feet and the TV on and patted the bed next to her.  “Come sit with me.”  And so we watched a bit of a Russian game show before I retired to my room.

Returning from the trip, I felt disconsolate, as if I’d failed to do anything at all for this old friend.  My discomfort was as much about my sense of inadequacy as distress at her suffering.  I told my friend Heather about all of this and noted that strangely, not being able to do what I’d wanted to do to help Lena had given me some insight into my Buddhist practice.  Precisely because I’d been thwarted in my attempts, I also hadn’t been able to distract myself from feeling her suffering deeply. But Heather had another thought about why that lack of distraction was key.  “Maybe she didn’t need you to do those things for her,” she said.  “Maybe it was more important for her just to have you there and do what you did, which was to simply spend time with her.”

Of course!   I should have realized that myself.  After all, I’m always saying to my Reiki students: We can’t know what will bring a person healing, so go into a session without trying to figure out the best way to help, without trying to make anything happen. The most important thing you can do for someone is to just be with them and let them know you care about them.  Which I’m sure is the most precious gift Chris gave his mother.  I managed to give that to Lena, too, without realizing it, while trying hard to make something else happen. But I needed her help – and her refusal of my other offerings – to pull it off.  I’m so glad that she knew that after a gap of 28 years, we needed to give our attention not to dirty dishes or cans of chicken broth, but to each other.  Because you can wash dishes any time, but we could die in an instant, before our next meeting.  And then one is left there chasing after the other.  Dogoniu, dogoniu, dogoniu.


Don’t Just Do It

Don’t Just Do It

by Jeff Brooks

Ignorance is the cause of suffering. Wisdom puts an end to it.

Wisdom starts with listening to the teaching. It continues as we use our natural wisdom, our ordinary intelligence, to reflect on what we have heard. Third, we use our cultivated wisdom to put what we have learned into action.

If we hear a teaching that says that renunciation is the first step on the path – that to begin to do what we need to do to put an end to suffering for ourselves and others we need to stop seeking refuge in things that will harm us. Money, sex, status, leisure and food will not bring us happiness. Generosity, patience, morality, effort, meditation and wisdom will. This is not obvious. This is a teaching. You just heard it.

We are fortunate to hear it. But to do anything with it we need to think about it. Examine it carefully. See if it’s true. See how it might play out. That is contemplation. Step two.

If we are convinced, then we can practice what we understood. In action. In speech. In deep meditation. In insight. That is step three.

You can’t understand it if you never heard it. You can’t do it if you don’t understand it. Even if you think it’s a good idea, if your understanding is shallow, under pressure, you will not have the determination or courage to do the right thing.

There are people who say ‘Just do it.’ The line was borrowed by Nike from Zen teaching in California in the 60’s. It was as misunderstood in athletics as it was in Buddhism. In Zen at the time, there were many undisciplined hippies attracted to the Zen movement the way young middle class boys are attracted to hip hop now. Sag your pants and you are in. There is nothing needed, nothing demanded, nothing to do. You are good enough as is. It failed them, of course.

Then as now, if you are an untrained person getting up to spar with an experienced, well-trained martial artist, and you ‘just do it’ you will just get your ass kicked. If your mom is dropping you off at middle school someone will surely see through your gangsta act and steal your weed or your lunch money.

If you take your seat at the Zen center and just do it for an hour or a weekend or a week – without any preconceptions, or training, or intention – then all your untrained habits, expectations, and mental chaos will accompany you.

There is a time for spontaneity. But spontaneity is not the same as impulsiveness. If you have been playing the saxophone assiduously for 20 years you may be able to get on stage with a band for the first time and just do it. If it’s the first time you picked up a horn you will barely be able to wet your reed.

Putting an end to suffering forever for yourself and all other beings is more difficult than jazz improvisation. How can people be persuaded they can just do it? Musicians don’t believe that, pilots don’t, athletes don’t but the credulous and the poseurs who want quick answers to difficult problems do.

And leaders of religious groups want followers, and will pander to that inclination.

But that won’t help us.

What will help us is doing the work. Hearing the teachings. Contemplating them. Manifesting them in our body, speech and mind.

Because we live in a bankrupt nation in a decadent time we are surrounded by juvenile behavior. Impulsiveness, self indulgence, self centeredness, and emotional volatility rule the public discourse and rule the economy too – from the entitled to the demanding to the drug dealers to their slaves.

Children were not admitted to the Buddha’s community.  2500 years ago in India a young person had to be at least 20 years old to be ordained, and that was in a time when youth was much shorter than it is today.  Children were excluded because they did not have the emotional stability or maturity to focus on a difficult and long term goal, one which requires a persistent willingness to sacrifice comfort and change one’s inclinations to meet the demands of difficult and worthy life.

They should be excluded from the community today as well, unless they are willing to mature.

Maturity requires consistent cultivation. Many parents have abdicated this responsibility. Schools have abdicated it. Commerce, politics, culture, and drug dealers legal and not have abdicated that responsibility and in fact pander to the juvenilization of our people, especially of young men.

It wrecks them as people. It disqualifies them as spiritual practitioners.

But if we, as teachers and as practitioners, take the responsibility to demand diligence and discipline from ourselves and the people we work with, no one will be disqualified. Everyone can enter the community.

We can’t ‘just do it.’ But we can do it. And we need to do it now.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at