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Wednesday, 21 December 2016


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My license plate on my SUV in which I travel a lot of backroads, reads Blue Hwy. It generates a lot of interesting conversations along the road, generally from my fellow geezers.

The Hopi Guidelines, make me think a lot about similar sentiments from Vonnegut:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

And a can of sardines. Just in case

At age 8 I was required to memorize the Protestant Catechism questions and answers. I refused to go past the first question even though my father was the instructor and he offered a Silver Dollar as a reward.

The first Q/A was; "What is God?". The answer, "God is love." That seemed to cover everything. All the other Q/As were excessively pedantic though at the time the word I used was "picky".

It took years longer to learn the truth but when I read Blue Highways back in the early '80s the way described did feel much more true than that old Middle Eastern religion I'd abandoned.

Most curious, as one of my favorite albums is the Cocteau Twins' "Four-Calendar Café." How strange the web is interwoven...

Blue Highways, one of the great reads. I have a copy by my bed right now, looking forward to reading it for the third time.

"Try to understand things"
"Don't go around hurting people."

I like it!

My other favorite part of the book is how to find the right place to eat wherever you are, look for the most calendars on the wall from local businesses, that is where the locals eat the most.

The hebrew word `dibrot' (plural of `dibra') doesn't mean `commandments'. It translates more accurately as `utterances' or `declarations'. The hebrew for commandments is `mitzvot' (plural of `mitzvah') of which there are 613 listed in the Torah.

I am curious, do you know how `dibrot' was translated before 1560?

[Wikipedia says "words," "sayings," and "the ten matters," and that early English translations used "the ten verses." Here's the link:



I wonder if that's Neil deGrasse Tyson's inspiration: "For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you."

Good Buddhist say: Do no harm, help others. This works.

This isn't quite as simple, but I like Thich Nhat Hanh's "Fourteen Precepts" of Engaged Buddhism.

These are the first five:

The Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism

1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

2. Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

3. Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.

4. Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.

5. Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life Fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.

One source:



You may also enjoy this piece by Thich Nhat Hanh, on "Interbeing." It is a little more poetic:


(Re: Ed. Note - this sounds new to me).

Personally, I'm a big fan of the Golden Rule. I'm sure it could be misconstrued, bent, warped, twisted to be seen as less useful than ten commandments, and I suppose if you're a masochist who doesn't mind bad things being done to you, then it gives you free reign, but it just seems so sensible, so universal. I also remember being very impressed during my school days by the Code of Hammurabi. It just never seemed necessary to have commandments from a god to figure out how to behave (nor do they seem any more or less effective than any other system of ethics).

Amen, brother.

For what it's worth, Buddhists speak in English of specific "precepts", of which there are various lists. That sounds a bit more like guidance, maybe, or teachings, or at least voluntary undertakings, which they are.

The underlying idea, though, is more useful in the long run than any specific list of do's and don't's: namely, one should learn to be "skillful" at being human, and especially to be skillful among other beings, human or not. I expect you'd be willing to rephrase the Hopi teaching as "don't go around hurting others", wouldn't you, and so bring in more than humankind alone?

I find it handy to think of them as the Ten Promises ..just preface each one with the words "..A time will come when..."

PS You write of a 'mystical' Spider Woman at the end of your post. I hope you won't mind if I object. So far as I am aware of our common English usage, the word 'mystical' brings along two implications. First, that the writer/speaker who calls something 'mystical' means not to make sense of whatever idea/belief/story is so denominated; and second, the writer/speaker is more than skeptical about the matter: s/he implicitly debunks it.

I would say -- and please excuse me here for writing sharply -- that it is not morally skillful, not good manners, to do so. Nor is it a wise habit in thinking. The Hopi, and for that matter, the Navajo and other Native Americans -- speak at length of Spider Woman and her doings, and what they mean thereby is well worth studying. They have much to say, and much to teach others, in their accounts, just as Christians (to take one example) have much to teach in many of their stories.

But I still say "amen" to the rest of your post!

Perhaps "the two pillars" or something to that effect? This avoids all the negative associations with labeling them as commandments, rules, etc. and instead projects a connotation of a sound structure upon which one can build one's life.

The Ten Commandments can in fact brought back to two as well.
- Love God above all things
- Love others as yourself

Alle the other ones are in fact variations. I am an agnost or atheist or whatever. And not particularly interested in myself either, so those commandments won't bring me very far in life. The flesh is weak and my neighbor has an attractive wife. But he can keep his ox.

The Hopi guidelines are great. A perfect Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I've always liked this summary from the book of Micah. The King James reads:

"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

It works well even leaving out the bits about God: Justice, Mercy, and Humility are a combination we all might aspire to.

If you aren't familiar with them, you may find the American Ethical Union and the Ethical Culture Society(s) of interest.

Add to the Hopi "guide lines" step one in assembling a bicycle from Motorcycle Maintenance, "be sure your head is right". Words to live by.

A very inspirational book
especially for photographers is 'A guide for the perplexed.' by Werner Herzog. Example: 'Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.'

In the spirit of Blue Highways and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance may I respectfully recommend this title.


It happened to land on my doorstep the same month Mrs Plews cousin published a short primer on Paul Tillich.


I found a lot of parallels in the two books. I was afraid the Tillich book would be mostly inside baseball for Lutherans but it has a lot to say to people struggling with faith in the times we live in. Mike, I think you would find his thoughts on doubters and skeptics heartwarming.

RE: "I don't know what you'd call them. Every label seems pejorative in some way. Maxim? Admonition? "Commandments" is doubtless the wrong word. "Rules"? Seems legalistic. The two pieces of advice? I don't know. "Guidelines" is most neutral and accurate, I guess, although that word has a bureaucratic flavor that doesn't harmonize well"

I think the word you're searching for might be "tenets".

Well well, what do you know - here I am, in the Netherlands, reading today's post of Michael Johnston's, and ten minutes later I am loafing through my almost thirty year old copy of Blue Highways, and its sequel Prairyerth which was given to me (obviously at my request) on my 44th birthday in 1993 by my two sons, then 8 and 6 years old... Memories.
Loved Blue Highways. I liked Prairyerth as well, specially the bit about the crashed Fokker tri-motor, if I remember correctly. Now it opens serendipitously on page 479, where I read the quote of one Lynn White, Jr., 'We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.'

" I had rejected the Ten Commandments by the time I was in my 20s."

Seeing as how photography is prohibited by the first or second commandment depending on which* version you are looking at it is no wonder.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth.

*graven images doesn't show up in the Lutheran version the reformation notwithstanding

Hillel said: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."

So... What were they called before they were called commandments?

The Hopi precepts or whatever they are called remind me of a SciFi story I once read in which the main character visited a parallel universe and in that universe, the entire code of laws consisted of "Don't annoy others and don't be too easily annoyed".

I strictly abide by the first commandment.

"Thou shall not spend more money on cameras."

[...And the second, "Spend thy money on lenses instead." --Mike]

The epic of Gilgamesh seems to have come in several furlongs ahead of the field. I recall a passage a while back which went in essence, "Attend to the affairs of this world [ i.e. support yourself], love your family and friends, and submit to the will of the gods." Nothing has really changed in the ensuing four or five thousand years. It's very reassuring. And as for the will of the gods, mysterious, unpredictable, even capricious, any photographer who has stood shivering for a few hours waiting for the right light knows all about that.

Very nice Mike, great way to live.

Said another way, be open to different views, perspectives and new information and treat everyone, everyone with respect unless proven otherwise.

Nice way to live life and just get along.

Peace to all this holiday season and forward.


I like those Hopi tenets, but ....

To understand things we have the scientific method, widely misunderstood, and now being shunned by politicians who think their opinions are facts. (The post-truth world all are harping on about).

And not harming others is great, but it doesn't mean actively doing good. I have always liked the concept of leaving the world a better place than when you joined it. I suppose the problem arises when some in the belief they are doing good actually cause considerable harm.

I am a Christian, of a radically liberal theological & reactionary liturgical bent so I do accept the 10 guidelines and the forms mentioned above. Micah's summary is good and Hillel the Elder's is glorious - and would have been know by a teacher such as Jesus would have been.

I'll simply share the most recent bit of wisdom I cut and pasted (in that old fashioned literal way) into my personal prayer book:
“A blade of grass is a commonplace on Earth; it would be a miracle on Mars. Our descendants on Mars will know the value of a patch of green. And if a blade of grass is priceless, what is the value of a human being?”

― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

My grandmother, born 1888 in Hamburg, Germany had basically the same two principles for me when I had long talks with her in the 1960's. Engaged wise people come to the same conclusions wherever they are.

Or as someone might have said recently " I'm a smart guy, I don't need to understand things".

The hardest part is trying to understand why people hurt other people......

May I suggest the guidelines engraved on The Georgia Guidestones.I find the 10 guidelines in 8 languages to be strong food for thought.
If you are not familiar with the Guidestones, just google them.
Avoid all the conspiracy junk that has been written about them.

Yonatan K in above comments makes an incomplete argument about the Hebrew form, which is the problem of Wikipedia.

"d'brot" (or more commonly, d'vrot) is used rabinically, but as it appears in Shemot itself, the masculine plural is used, "d'varim." While it might literally translate as "words," it's spoken by G-d, so therefore it carries command implication, which is why the Author did not use words as in "vocabulary," and one that also translates as "precepts."

In fact, later in D'varim/Deuteronomy, which is itself literally a litany of commandments, the recounting of the 10 commandments adds "as G-d commanded you," using variations on the root tsavah, "command." In the very next passage of D'varim after the 10 commandments, they are referred to then as the mitzvot, the chukim, the mishpatim, the commandments, the statutes, the ordinances which G-d commanded (again the variation on tsavah).

Hebrew itself has never been subject to the constraints of literal translation, but rather context and the implications of specific word use. Torah itself calls them commandments, but so, too, does rabbinic literature predating the Geneva Bible by at least 1500 years.

I also found myself pulling down a dusty copy of Blue Highways and reading the page that fell open. The writer was in Opelousas Louisiana at the Plantation Lounge. He sat on the "guest stool", met a barmaid with "coiled eyes", and conversed with salty locals. It's time to read this again. As I flipped through the book, I came to a drawing of Ghost Dancer and a list of supplies he packed for his journey. Near the bottom of the list is an entry for "2 Nikon F2 35mm cameras and five lenses." You must be right about the photojournalism. I'd love to see the photos that didn't make the book.

"Blue Highways" -- never heard of it until today but will seek it out. "Zen and the Art of…" is an old favorite. Studying psychology, etc., as a middle aged university student in the late 70s, I added a little fun to the mix by citing it in every essay I wrote for psychology, sociology, environment studies, and English. I came across "The Phaedrus" later and feel Pirsig played a bit fast and loose with it.

However, I recently came across a copy of "Zen and…" for two kina (= 60 cents US) in The Secondhand shop here in paradise (aka Rabaul in the New Guinea islands), and bought it immediately. Fun to revisit an old favorite I read/dipped into so many times that it fell apart.

By the way, I was a motorcyclist and did my own maintenance. That side of "Zen and…" is stands up very well in my experience. :)

Cheers, Geoff

Regarding the Spider Woman -- I would suggest there is really no way in English, or at least modern English, of expressing what she is. "Mystical" is a good try, I think; I can't think of anything better.

The problem is that we English speakers are caught in a conceptual trap here (and I suspect I am taking something out of "Zen and the Art…" to say nothing of "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" -- now there is a read if you haven't read it, regardless of your religious status, which I share pretty much) because we draw hard lines separating our internal and external lives/environments and our conscious/unconscious states. The English language, as understood today, reflects these divisions.

I actually live in a society where dreams and what they portend (not "might portend, but do portend, regardless of whether there is any known outcome or not) are given great weight, to say nothing of the interaction between human and super human affairs. I was at a family gathering the last Sunday when we had a sudden downpour in mid-afternoon. "To be expected, James died this morning," opined one of the aunties (who is tertiary educated and a teacher, by the way). It is the wet season, we get afternoon rains two days out of three, with or without James dying, and we saw this storm moving slowly along the coast to us long before it hit. Doesn't matter.

On the other hand, stuff does happen… Heh, heh.

Cheers, Geoff

Another Blue Highway fan here... and Steve D's stepfather's words of advice sound like the motto of this blog, if it had a motto.

Mike, I thoroughly enjoy your blog and articles, and have done for years. This one was a bit of a challenge ;-)

By way of disclosure, I am a reader who believes in God, I believe in Jesus and his death on the cross to forgive our sins to enable us to once again have a close, intimate relationship with our Father. I believe the Bible is the word of God, including the commandments.

Merry Christmas to you and all your readers from Down Under.

[No disrespect meant. Merry Christmas to you too Brendon. --Mike]


Thank you for William Least Heat-Moon. Never heard of him until now. A precious gem in my library now. [Stage direction: goes away to read with a smile on his lips.]

You have no concept how much I love this little corner of the internet... and it's for days like this, reading the quiet ramblings of a man I'd like to have a cup of coffee with and then reading the comments, knowing that all the readers are people whom I'd also like to have a coffee with as well.

:) :) :)

A lot of the brain cells holding Blue Highways have been reassigned or lost.. but I'd still love to visit the Portal to Paradise section some day!

I recall William from the PBS Lewis & Clark series yet never tied him to Blue Highways. How did I miss that?

Confucius, the Chinese teacher and philosopher, gave the following advice about the two most important things in life:

"Be true to yourself"


"Be kind-hearted to others"

(as quoted by Herman Hesse)

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