Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Spritual Life, Three Movements

A few nights ago in balmy evening air, a friend and I sipped icy cocktails with a mild percentage of rum and talked a bit about the spiritual instinct in human beings. What exactly is it that makes humans (at least some of us) seek spiritual growth and truth? we wondered.

Rum isn't the best elixir for coming to the truth, however, and we came to no pithy conclusion on this important question. But the conversation did prompt several days of musing and thought.

Reflecting on my own life, as well as on pretty serious study of many different spiritual traditions, it occurs to me that there are three facets to a spiritual life, no matter what form that the instinct choses to take—from fundamental Chistianity to new age Wicca.

The first stage seems to come when we realize that our habitual way of living is less than satisfying. In the histrionic fashion of the Christian tradition in which I was raised, this stage is represented by an awareness of guilt and original sin. In the Buddhist tradition I now follow, it's called the recognition of dukka, a word sometimes translated as "suffering," but more accurately as "unsatisfactoriness."

In practical terms, this stage can appear as very dramatic dark night of the soul, or more gently as a pervading sense of ennui, in which we begin to understand that all the goals and aspirations we've been living with don't amount to much in the end. Either way, it is the moment when we choose to go a different direction.

One teacher I've read describes this first condition, the "ground," as being a place where we acknowledge our own weariness and see the need to renounce old habits that don't work for us. It is a stage to be celebrated, for it is the prerequisite to taking up a different way of living, and for this reason the truth of suffering is called one of the noble truths of Buddhism.

The second stage is sometimes summarized as "path," or "practice" in my Buddhist tradition, and it is marked by developing a sense of the causes of our inherent confusion (or sin), and a movement toward surrendering them or cleansing ourselves of bad habits. In the Christian tradition, predictably, this is a stage marked by ferocious dedication to rules and commandments and dogma. Practice in many Christian traditions looks a little bit like scrubbing your skin with steel wool to remove imperfections. We are inherently loathsome, the belief goes, and only through incredibly hard and painful work will we be cleansed.

In the Buddhist tradition, I find, the practice is much more akin to standing under a gentle shower and simply allowing warm water to wash away the grit and slime and algae. We look carefully at the nature of what's being washed away, but it is for the most part a relatively gentle process of simply surrendering bad habits and taking delight in the natural clean truth that lies beneath. This second stage in an unrelentingly practical one in Buddhism, marked by dozens of different ideas and practical exercises such as meditation, all aimed at helping to shed the grime and seeing the underlying reality.

The third stage, for Buddhists, is known as "fruition," at it involves learning how to comfortably dwell in the clarity and genuine nature we now have come to recognize through the path. Trust and devotion are its hallmarks. For many Christians, it's believed that fruition comes in another existence after we die to this world, but especially in the Dzogchen-flavored Buddhism I favor, it is believed that it's perfectly possible to be enlightened here and now. The third stage, fruition, is about choosing to remain in clarity, to learn how to use this energy, rather than slip back down into the mud and slime of unconscious living.

I've come to believe that spiritual cycle isn't necessarily a perfectly linear process. You may, in fact, go through the entire cycle in the space of a day. ON some level, in fact, all three stages of a spiritual life are present simultaneously. The very act of renunciation, for example, instantly creates both path and fruition.

There is no reason to think that getting to deep spiritual peace requires a lifetime of exertion and sacrifice. The condition is, I think, inherent in every moment and simply waits for us to see it.

I wonder if Christianity might have evolved differently if the ancient scholars putting together the Bible had thought to include some interesting words of Jesus found in the gospel of St. Thomas.

"The heaven of God is right here, right in front of them," Jesus mused, speaking of some local religious leaders. "But they know it not."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Citizens of 4F: July 29, 2008

This morning, I find myself wondering again at what I see: Is it desperation I see, or an example of the heroic human spirit of adventure?

I've watched it for a long, long time, and still I don't know for sure.

My bus commutes have become a laboratory for observing human behavior, and here's what's puzzling me lately:

Human beings have a very clear urge to say "NO" to the present, to escape the here/now and go elsewhere in their minds. A woman I saw on the morning northbound bus this morning was a poster child for the condition. Upon boarding the bus, she fiercely clamped stereo earphones around her head, then opened a novel and buried herself there. For the 40 minute bus ride she did not reside in the present at all, but was clearly doing everything in her power to be someplace other than where she was at that moment. I wondered what her senstations must be like at that moment, trying to read while music blared in her head at the same time. It gave me a headache just to think about it.

It's not as though the here-now was a terrible place, at least not this morning. This morning's air was balmy and nice to touch; a slight humid haze made garden colors in the passing homes almost luminescent. For anyone not buried in a book, or ensnared by I-pod music, the world was a pretty great place. Yet fully 90% of the commuters were doing pretty much everything in their power to be someplace other than where they were. Many had eyes closes as they listened to canned music. Others were buried in newspapers. One woman applied makeup; a young man busied himself with office paperwork.

This urge is pretty prevalent. It's a rare person on the morning bus ride who is isn't trying to distract themselves in some way, or to escape into some realm of imagination.

I vacillate between thinking this is a tragic human trait, and thinking that it's evidence of the herioic human spirit for exploration and reach. Do we try to lose ourselves in music, in the imaginary world of printed language, because we're unable to handle the quiet pain of the here/now? Or is this evidence of our adventurousness, our talent for exploring strange new worlds, or going where no one has gone before?

Ruefully, I recognize that my judgment depends on what I'm doing at the time. If I'm grooving to the here-now, I find myself pitying the folks with eyes and ears buried in other media. This morning, the woman I watched entirely missed the three young children who stood hugging one another a yard we passed along the way.

I'm an utter hypocrite, though.

If I'm enjoying a great novel myself, for example, then I'm celebrating the power of human imagination, and wondering if the folks staring blissfully into the distance are somehow incapable of loftier thought. The folks who stare into sad that they don't roam the rich world of Thomas Wolfe's archetypal America in "Look Homeward, Angel", like I am.

Much as I'd like to think I have a bit of skill at here/now presence, the brutal truth is that I'm prodigiously capable of fleeing the present through gyrations of mind. When I read, I pretty much lose the world entirely.

This inherent penchant for distraction, for escaping the present....Is it a tool for our transcendence? Or a hindrance to it?

Even as I wonder about this, another answer suggests itself. Transcendence may be neither a matter of dwelling stubbornly in the present, nor escaping the present into other states of mind.

Perhaps freedom lies in the simple awareness of both faculties.

Awareness itself...there's a subject worthy of serious wonderment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nobility in the City

Two blocks from my downtown office is a quiet park that reflects most everything good and noble about modern business and personal wealth and inner city life.

Located in front of a rather magnificient modern building that once served as the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, the Cancer Survivor's Park is one of several public parks around the country born out of a vision of Richard Bloch—one of the founders of H & R Block tax preparation empire. A survivor of lung cancer, Mr. Bloch created the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation, an organization that has given many millions of dollars to sufferers of cancer. The presence of nearly a dozen such parks around the nation are a quiet memorial to Bloch, who died some time back of heart failure.

The work of people like Bloch (and people like Joan Kroc, of the McDonald's empire; and Bill Gates, who may well cure AIDS almost single-handedly) offers a bright spot telling us that fabulous wealth need not be all about greed. Wealth can also do great good, which is a nice thing for us to remember in these jaded, post-Enron times.

The meticulous upkeep for this park is diligently shared by the City of Minneapolis and the management of the building itself—a rare and wonderful example of civic and business leadership working together.

Though you'd never know it, the Cancer Survivor's Park is actually a ground level green roof that covers the underground parking garage for the building, now known as the Marquette Office Building.

Designed to complement the architecture of the building, the park's sweeping horizontal layout echoes the soaring vertical arch in the building. At certain times of day, in fact, the geometry of the park itself is reflected in the glass of the building. The walkways and fountains use mostly granites and metals, but built into the retaining walls are dozens of wooden benches, plentiful enough to provide lots of resting points but separated enough to make it easy to find mild isolation for reflection. This is a park that is both nice to look at, and pleasant to use——a combination that is hard to find these days.

A brass sculpture ornaments the expansive lawn that serves as the focal point for contemplation. Near the massive glass walls of the building, rounded plantings of birch trees create shady glades, with short but restful pathways with shade plants and additional benches on which to test and practice restful awareness.

At various points, small metal plaques offer words of encouragement. The messages are intended for cancer victims, but they quietly encourage anyone with a wounded nature—which means just about all of humanity.

The park draws a much different crowd than the throngs that fill the streets and elevated skyways in downtown during lunch. Here, a group of three friends passing the time is quite a crowd, and you are much more likely to see individuals eating a quiet sandwich or taking a reading break in the afternoon. In the heat of a summer afternoon the park is always utterly shaded, thanks to clever orientation by the designers. An hour lunch break passes in but moments.

In fact, time disappears almost entirely in this paradoxical Park dedicated to a mortal disease.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mobid (Mortal) Thoughts, part II

I have a hunch that the quality and complexity,and maybe even the value of life, may be judged on the nature of volition and mobility present in the creature we're studying.

To judge an object as "alive" there must be something that we can call will, and also the capability of willful and deliberate movement. The sophistication of a life form can be judged based on the complexity of that volition to motion.

To certain followers of paganism, the earth itself is regarding as living, and on some level this might be true. A rock, for example, when enlivened with the energy of gravity or tectonic upheaval, has a "will" to move. This is a pretty rudimentary will, though, which is why most people would regard a rock as an non-living object.

A touch more sophistication, though, and we enter the world of plants, creations which show some basic volition as their leaves reach and grope for sunlight, as their roots stretch for water and soil. And plants have the capability of motion. Sunflowers reach east in the morning, west in the evening. Seeds travel on the wind. In my own garden, a single cranesbill geranium has moved itself a full eight feet from where I planted it ten years ago. Some form of will and volition is clearly present here.

A plant becomes an animal, I suspect, when its volition and mobility become faster and more sophisticated. Animals can run or fight or migrate, a capacity that raises them about the world of plants.

In more sophisticated animals, including humans, the capacity for motion becomes ever more refined, until it becomes evident through abstract creation, in art, or in the extremely subtle motion of thought and imagination. If we were to define what it means to be human, we might suggest that it depends on the capacity for symbolic thought—the most subtle of motion.

As I watch the process of life and death in humans, in animals, in plants, even in rocks, it occurs to me that the process of death is largely a matter of gradually relinquishing these various forms of volition and motion.

In some older people, for example, it is physical motion that is first surrendered or taken away through illness. Life most certainly continues, though, and in pretty fine fashion, so long as there is motion and volition of thought, of imagination. This may well explain why older people often find themselves with an increasing instinct to spirituality and imagination, since these things offer an outlet for the instincts to volition and movement. I know some people confined to wheelchairs who are far freer than world-class athletes, so nimble are their minds and imaginations.

Other older people, more tragically to me, find the subtle volition of thought to be the first element surrendered, while volition of the physical body takes longer to decline. A human whose mind badly fails is often regarded, quite logically, as vegetative. Not human, not even animal like, but plant like.

All this may be the reason why I find myself taking more sheer pleasure from the act of movement, in all its forms, as I grow older. Imagination now strikes me as the richest, most wonderful of all forms of movement. And I also treasure each and every act of physical movement in the world, arthritic ankles notwithstanding. I started wearing a pedometer on my belt recently. In the first four days of this week, I've walked 23.84 miles, mostly because I find it such a precious delight to walk the early morning streets until a pending morning meeting forces me to finally hop onto the commuter bus. At lunch, I make a point of walking to the farthest restaurant or park bench that is reasonable within an honest lunch hour.

I won't always have the capacity for motion now available to me, so I'm relishing it. With any luck, dreaming will be the last to go.

Morbid (Mortal) Thoughts, part 1

Philosophically, I'm pretty well adjusted to the truth of human mortality.

What I mean is that, on the intellectual plane, I really don't see much reason to worry about death. It doesn't really scare me much, and the reason for this isn't because of some kind of mental parlour game I play with myself. For example, I don't somehow imagine that I'm going to heaven, and thus have nothing to fear from death. Nor do I have a concrete intimation of reincarnation, which might help me avoid the fear of death. I don't insist that such a possibility doesn't exist; but I don't have any evidence that it does, either. It would be cheating to console myself with such mythology.

No, I know full well that the person I am now will come to an end one day, completely, and when the subject comes up for discussion, I don't really feel too much angst over it. Others my age sometimes talk about feeling younger, more alive, than they ever have before. Frankly, I"m pretty sure this is nothing more than a mind game they're playing with themselves. If you have any degree of self awareness whatsoever, you can't help but witness the truth of our decline.

In point of fact, life can be a somewhat tumultuous, messy affair, and there are times when I actually quietly look forward to the end of all the tumult, an end to the constant sensory barrage that is life. I think that death may represent a well deserved rest.

Then again, I do have a pretty strong intimation that awareness is an energy inherent in the world itself, and while I'm pretty much willing to relinquish my petty human awareness one day, I'm also reassured by a strong sense that awareness as a universal force will simply gobble up my miniscule personality for recycling.

I often think of myself as compost—raw material that is currently serving as nutriment for my kids and perhaps my friends.

And when I look around at the world, I see no real indication that anything dies forever. Individuals die, sure, but they are always recycled in some form. This recycling is a reassurance and relief to me, and frankly I think it is a very fine thing that we don't go on forever. On my death bed, simply thinking about my kids will be pretty good reassurance.

That's my position intellectually, and I can argue it pretty damned persuasively.

Viscerally, though, deep in my gut, it's another matter entirely.

On that level, present a long way south of the brain, I'm not in the least bit happy about growing older, and like almost everybody, I have a strong wish to put it off as long as possible.

In a 20-year blink of an eye, I've gone from a young man to a solidly middle-aged man. In another 20 years, certain to pass even more rapidly, I'll be an old man by every possible definition.

I don't like this. Not even a little bit.

Arthritis has plagued almost every member of my family, and while it's come to me later than most, feet and ankles that could once walk for many, many hours without complaint, now feel the pain after a few hours of walking. My hands are thus far largely free of arthritis; but it has appeared in my left elbow, which becomes tender to the touch after a couple hours of gardening.

Yep. I'm in the process of decay, and I hate it.

(to be continued)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Ridiculous is the Sublime

On many levels, I'm something of a misanthrope. About 90% of modern culture is of no interest to me whatsoever. I think that People Magazine may well be the scourge of modern humanity, and at a social gathering this weekend, when most everyone was talking about how fabulous it is to live in the city, where there is plenty to do at all times, I quietly thought to myself that I could very easily spend the final years of my life in some mountain hu, honing mystical exercises until the bears eventually find my dying corpse and decide to devour me.

Ah, but the 10% of modern culture that I do like...well, that's the little slice of the pie that leaves me in complete awe of this strange, tortured, quaint, divine and demonic creature we call humankind.

Recently, Apple corporation released the newest software release for the I-phone, and though I didn't bother to upgrade to the fancy 3G phone itself, the software update is enough to convince you that humanity is both the most ridiculous and the most holy of creatures.

For those of you not in the know, several months ago, Apple opened up the source code used to create applications for the I-phone to just about anybody who wanted to tinker, and the result is that upon the official release of the new phone and software, several hundred applications already existed. Many were free; others are available for fees that range from .99 to $49.99. You download them to the phone, and thereafter they are free and clear for use anytime, anywhere.

For a week now, I'm stunned by both the silliness and the incredibly ingenuity of what I've seen. First, some silliness:

• One application requires you to do nothing more than hold down an lighted button on the screen of the I-phone. The game is to see how long you can squeeze the damn thing. It does nothing other than this, whatsoever.

• Another application displays a little miniature light-saber from star-wars. When you sweep the phone through the air, it makes that throbbing electronic laser sound from the movie. Silliness personified.

• There is a "flashlight" application that does nothing but cause the phone face to glow brightly. This is to help you find your keys in the dark, supposedly.

But there are a remarkable number of applications that are stunning both for their inventiveness and their usefulness.

• I am currently reading Thomas Wolfe's classic novel "Look Homeward Angel" in completely comfortable fashion on the I-phone. I downloaded it for .99, and find it a whole lot easier than carrying a 2-pound novel in my backpack on the daily bus ride.

• In an application called "Pandora" (utterly free), you tell the I-phone what kind of music you like (either a single song, or an artist), and it then creates a virtual radio station that selects songs in this genre. I've tested this on walks, plugging the I-phone into my car stereo, and plugging it into a cordless dock which I use to play music when I'm gardening, and the application works like a charm in any circumstance. There are no commercials whatsoever, and the only "hook" to it is that, should you happen to like a song you hear, you're allowed to tap a button on the face of the phone to download it permanently to your system for .99.

• Another application lets you speak a verbal memo into the built-in microphone on the I-phone. The verbal message is instantly whisked off to file server somewhere in cyberspace, and a moment or so later, a written transcription arrives back at your phone in the form of a memo. I generated a grocery shopping list in this fashion over the weekend; dictating it verbally, then using the written list as a guide when walking through the store.

• AOL radio is an application that lets you select from among hundreds of commercial radio stations nationwide. Should you want to listen to the Boston REd Sox baseball game, for example, you can instantly find a Boston station to listen to.

• An application called Box Office instantly produces theaters, showing times, and reviews of all movies playing in your area. And should you happen to not know your zip code, another button instantly pinpoints your GPS location, then spots all movie theaters in a 5 or 10 mile radius. Should you be hankering for, say, a barbecue restaurant, you can also use this feature to find all options, and then plot a turn-by-turn route to your destination.

And finally, my favorite...."Zen" turns your I-phone into a miniature sand-and-stone zen garden. Your finger both places small elegant stones, and serves as the rake to sweep the sand into soothing parallel lines. Should you like what you see, you can click a snapshot and save the image for use as a screen-saver.

Truly, it is the best of times. And the worst of times.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Citizens of 4F, July 10, 2008

When I take the 6:47 am bus into downtown, I often find myself watching Frank, who almost always sits slightly ahead of me and on the right side of the bus.

Maybe the reason I think about Frank is because in some ways he's similar to me, in that he doesn't neatly fit into one of the stereotypical passenger categories. On most of the early morning buses, there are three of four general passenger types, none of which fit myself, or Frank.

For example, there are the Target Drones. These are the young adults, ages 25 t0 30 or so, who all can be identified by the neatly clipped Target Corporation key-swipe cards they all attach to their belts or lapels. The young men employed by Target invariably wear short-sleeved dress shirts and ties, and they remind you quite a lot of the old Xerox maintenance specialists, who used to travel about in business dress to crack open your photocopy machines in order to repair them.

My son for a time was considering applying to Target, but after seeing the lemming-like demeanor of the young people who work for the downtown Target corporate headquarters, I'm cautioning him not to worry too much about seeking a traditional career.

Other passenger stereotypes: office clerical workers (folks with neat but non-descript office attire, quite often wearing athletic shoes for the commute, which they will exchange for dress shoes once they hit the office); the service workers (largely hispanic, dressed in the blue custodial gear or neat, starched dresses of hotel housekeeping staff).

I don't really fit into one of the bus stereotypes, since my usual garb this time of year is a tropical print or camp shirt, comfortable linen slacks, mid-ankle hiking shoes. I rarely even carry a briefcase or portfolio, and the only indication I might be of the business executive class is the fact that I'm constantly checking E-mails on an I-phone.

And Frank doesn't neatly fit into any category, either. An African American gentleman in his early 70s, his dress and demeanor might hint that he's a baseball fan headed into downtown to catch an afternoon game. In reality, he has an early morning shift at Rudolph's Barbecue, a popular restaurant on the south edge of downtown. Perhaps he's a chef, though it's pretty early in the morning for the cooking staff to hit the restaurant. Or maybe his job is restocking the kitchen supplies for the day.

Frank has the lean grace of a former athlete. A large metal watch floats loosely on his left wrist, and I've noticed that he carries one of those large snap-close wallets attached to his belt with a fine chain--like the wallet the Schwan Ice Cream salesman used to carry when he delivered ice cream to the neighborhood.

Frank wears a simple khaki-colored ballcap on most days, and his front shirt pocket holds his smokes—Kool Menthol. Some days he gets off the bus a block before the restaurant, and treats himself to a slow walk while he enjoys a single cigarette. Even at 70, his gait could most accurately described as a saunter, with just a hint of strut. John Travolta could take lessons from Frank.

One morning, a white woman took the empty seat next to Frank, and I saw him grow momentarily uncomfortable. Frank is of an age where he certainly remembers the trouble that black men often invited if they so much as smiled at white women, and this makes me think that Frank probably grew up somewhere in the south. For all its flaws, Minnesota has never really had that insane sexual fear of the black man.

When Frank stands to leave the bus, his back is slightly hunched over, but for a man of his age he is surprisingly graceful. He moves with that kind of slow-motion elegance that I've noticed in world-class athletes, who often seem to move with exceeding slowness in real life, but are capable of explosive quickness at the flip of a switch. Frank is about 6 ft. tall, and looks like he might once have been a baseball shortstop, or perhaps a basketball point guard.

Or maybe it's a bit racist for me to think he is a former athlete. After all, don't all white people imagine that African Americans are athletes? Still, I can't get over observing the grace with which Frank moves, and it gives me pleasure to imagine him as a young man moving fluidly on the emerald green of an outdoor baseball diamond.

I'm now closer in age to Frank than I am to the Target Drones, after all. I don't think its so much a racist eye that views Frank, as an envious one. I'd give anything to wake up in 20 years to have the grace that Frank shows.

Glancing down, I see that I've once again spilled coffee on my shirt.

Physical grace, it seems, has long since passed me by. I really doubt that I'm going to develop it in time for my twilight years.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Culture Is As Culture Does

Like most metropolitan areas that don't have the advantage of being located on one of the coasts, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis & St. Paul is pretty desperate to be considered a cultural mecca. Even Chicago has a bit of this inferiority complex, though surely the presence of the Art Institute, the Chicago Bulls, and the active blues scene has long since put that city on the map.

The longing is particularly acute the further north you go on the continent, and on some level Minneapolis & St. Paul is the northern-most city that has any chance at all of earning this level of regard. We have major league baseball, hockey and basketball (both men's and womens); the Minneapolis Institute of Art has a smallish but very respectable collection of classic art, particularly in the Asian fashion; thanks to Prince and music producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam Harris, there is a viable modern music scene; we have perhaps six theaters of very high quality, including the Guthrie, a world-class venue for dramatic theater. Cuisine is a little on the soft side, but we're trying, thanks in part to a recent influx of talented immigrants who have finally given us a bit of ethnic diversity.

For all of that, though, Minneapolis remains a place with a pronounced inferiority complex. For awhile, we tried to market ourselves as the "Mini-Apple," somehow imagining that sophisticates from New York City would come to respect us.

Our wannabee sentiments become most evident in our willingness to wildly celebrate anything that passes for the avant guarde. In our years of attendance at dance performances, for example, my wife and I have seen Minneapolis audiences leap to their feet and give wild standing ovations for performances that are utterly ridiculous. At Northrop Auditorium, we once saw a performance that involved three people pushing around television sets on rolling carts for 20 minutes. The performers themselves looked stunned and slightly embarrassed when 3,000 people leaped to their feet with an ovation that lasted for 8 minutes.

We are desperate to appear cultured here in Minneapolis, and thus will act as though anything that proclaims itself art is worthy of the adoration you might give to the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.

On Saturday, my wife and I went down to the Walker Art Center, to see a widely acclaimed collection of performance art pieces by the Trisha Brown Dance company.

The first piece saw 1,000 Minneapolitans gather around the west brick wall of the art center, for a piece called "Man walking down a wall."

Suspended from ropes and pulleys, a man walked down the side of the museum, using a rig somewhat similar to what we used to use while rappelling down the cliff faces of bluffs when we were teenagers. There was no dancing, though; the fellow just walked down the wall. The performance took all of 30 seconds. Loud applause ensued.

In the second piece, which was mildly entertaining, five female dancers dressed in simple white monk clothes moved in a kind of conga-line dance for two minutes.

We then moved across the street to Loring Park, where the first piece involved the same female dancers descending the trunks of trees with harnesses attached to ropes rigged in spiral fashion around the trunks of trees. One of the women simply fell, but nobody held it against her. The others did manage to hold their perpendicular positions and walked spiral fashion down the trees to the ground.

Finally, four dancers were towed on floating rafts to the center of the park's pond, where they lie on their back and waved their hands in the air until the wind pushed their rafts to shore.

An eight-year old child sitting next to us certainly spoke for my wife and me, when he turned to his mother and said,

"Big Fucking Deal."

The next day, the Minneapolis Tribune celebrated this world-class avante-guarde event with a full page of self-congratulatory coverage. The writer did not once use the adjective "silly."

We're hoping that the next modern dance carries a title like "Dance Troupe Falls 80 Feet Into a Bloody Heap."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Thoughts on the Eve of July 4

I had a lengthy late lunch with a friend yesterday. He is hearing voices again.

This friend is wired a little differently than most folks, and although the voices he hears come from a place located on this side of psychosis, he most certainly does live in an extrasensory place where shamans and other-worldly spirits are quite real. His way of living is not pathological, but it is by no means a common life, either.

Frankly, this territory is also my time zone, and this is probably why my friend wanted to have lunch with me. I never ridicule such things, having my own set of spiritual guides who regularly commune with me.

The lunch conversation got me thinking about the source of this non-traditional intuition that is so very real for some of us. One thing led to another and near the end of the day I found myself reading some interesting material from the main-stream scientific world on the role of chemical neurotransmitters on brain activity and thought processes. This is my life, one foot in the world of science, the other in the world of mystery. I have come to see them as merely different languages for describing the same thing.

One article I came across suggested that human perception is governed by a complex interaction of neurotransmitters of two types: inhibitory and excitatory. Among the inhibitory elements are chemicals such as seratonin and gaba; the excitatory elements include chemicals like epinephrine and histimine.

I have another very smart friend, once a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, who would roll his eyes at the vast oversimplification of this thought, but the suggestion of this article was that human beings experience peace and the sensation of well-being when the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters exist in balance and operate in harmony. Dis-ease and neurosis and spiritual crisis exist during times of imbalance, when either the excitatory or inhibitory energies are overloaded or do not interact freely.

On some level, this all seems to follow the premise of simply physics, where gravity and centrifugal force balance one another; where heat and cold dance together; where water condenses into a solid one minute, then evaporates into vapor again the next. When natural processes are thwarted, the planet itself experiences something like neurosis.

What this suggests to me, on some level, is the all our human foibles are simply normal manifestations of natural forces. Agitation and unhappiness one minute may simply be the process of energies balancing themselves and returning to equilibrium. Excitation is what awakens us from sleep and causes us to create and build and destroy; natural inhibition is what causes us to relax and reflect and enjoy.

So maybe our intuitions and obsessions and even hallucinations are, on some level, nothing more than manifestations of universal energies doing what they do naturally. Perhaps the only thing we need do to experience peace is to relax and let nature drive the train.

I told my friend to listen to his voices. They're speaking for a reason.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Citizens of 4F, July 1, 2008

During rush hours, the citizenry of metro transit line 4F is interesting, but still a relatively main-stream group. Thirty minutes or more outside of official rush hour, though, and the crowd can get positively surreal.

I have a pretty prodigious imagination, but I couldn't possibly have scripted last night's vignette, which reminded me of a story line from some bad counterculture comic book story-board.

Sitting on the first forward facing seat, I had a clear view of the little club of inward facing bus seats lining the front segment of the bus. On the left were two gentlemen. Farthest from me was a rotund little man wearing a grey Cub Foods polo shirt and ball cap. He seemed like "Boyd" to me. Bloyd's black jeans were rolled up at the bottom, and the lower 8 inches of his trousers were speckled with what seemed to be meat byproducts. I estimated that his 5-ft. 3" frame was packing 280 pounds or so. For most of the next half hour, he appeared be sleeping——at least he was snoring audibly.

Nearest to me on the left side was Frank, 65 years old or so, wearing fleece bedroom slippers, a Minnesota Twins club shirt, and a ball cap that said "NUmber 1 Grandpa" on the front. In his lap, he balanced a 30-lb. bag of Kingsford charcoal. From the way his jaw moved up and down, it was clear that he was missing his dentures.

On the right-hand row of inward-facing seats, furthest from me sat a cross-dressing man about 60 years of age, who I'll call Sean. Sean was wearing a blue dress that ended about 9 inches above the knee, with black fishnet stockings that did little to hide the thick leg hair which he hadn't bothered to shave away. Black patent-leather high-heels completed the lower half of the ensemble.

Sean could have used a little help with his gear, for his well-stuffed bra rode very high on him, so that his simulated breasts seemed to jut out at roughly the level of his collar bones. The ear-rings and makeup, however, were tasteful and well selected.

Sean chose to sit near the front to flirt with the bus driver, a 50-year old hispanic man who was profoundly uncomfortable with the attention. Sean talked pretty much non-stop, both to the bus driver and to those sitting around him. Life is a little challenging for Sean, I imagine.

The other inward-facing seats on the right side were full, but the characters were non-descript.

Then a new passenger, Louise, boarded the bus. Louise was a young woman carrying a small cage holding a fluffy yellow cat that hissed instantly and incessantly. The only seat available was one between Boyd and Frank on the left row of seats, which Louise took.

Sean's attention was instantly drawn to the caged cat across the aisle from him, and he began to poke his fingers through the cage trying to play with the animal. Louise repeatedly warned Sean that the cat was mean and prone to attack. Sean loudly insisted that he didn't care at all, and continued to agitate the animal with his finger poking into the cage.

"So is your kitty a boy or a girl?" He asked. Louise indicated that the cat was male.

"Ah, a little boy," Sean said. By this time Boyd and awakened, and seemed to have spotted Sean for the first time. To my discomfort, Boyd seemed to by trying to peak up Sean's dress.

Sean continued. "A little boy kitty," Sean said, adjusting his fishnet stockings. "I wasn't sure. Sometimes it's not always easy to tell the difference between boys and girls."

To the credit of the bus passengers, no one laughed out loud at this straight line delivered on a platter. There were only some quietly amused glances exchanged, and I was proud of their restraint. My pride in my fellow passengers wouldn't last long, though.

Sean continue to poke at the cat in his cage; the hissing grew louder; Louise kept warning Sean about the potential danger.

Frank then spoke up, and I was surprised to here him articulate in a very clear Australian accent, even though he had no teeth.

"This woman has asked you time and again," he sternly said to Sean sitting across the aisle, and a little ripple in the fabric of the cosmos told me that another shoe was about to fall.

Frank shifted his back of charcoal. "Listen, now, you," he said to Sean in a voice loud enough for sidewalk pedestrians to hear. "This woman, she DOES NOT WANT YOU TO FINGER HER PUSSY."

All passengers on the bus looked down at their feet. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

I"m going to confine my bus rides to the rush hour from now on.