Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book & a Movie for December

In a pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.

Story of a young girl in Nazi Germany, so you might not think this is holiday reading, especially since the narrator is Death himself (now you know why I like it). But this is an exceedingly charming and heartwarming book that continued to surprise me in quiet ways right to the end. 

Strongly recommended.

Last night we saw Clint Eastwood's movie about Nelson Mandela, Invictus.  The theater was filled with slightly restless young adults who drifted in when Avatar was sold out, but to their credit they found themselves engrossed in a very good and uplifting film about one of this century's most remarkable men. Clint Eastwood has emerged as a true wonder himself, turning out a very good movie each and every year——something you never would have dreamed the Dirty Harry movie star would achieve.

Very fine movie.

(By the way, an extraordinarily good film, The Hurt Locker, has been rereleased into select theaters after getting lots of Golden Globe buzz. If you find it playing near you, see it.)

A Theory, part II

A couple of posts ago, I argued (a little bombastically, I admit), that the central concern of life has has to do with those ineffable tastes of happiness and unhappiness that flavor our experiences. Understanding the maddeningly slippery nature of these qualities is really the driving motivation of our lives, I suggested. In our heart of hearts, every man and woman would like to undersstand happiness and unhappiness, and have some degree of competence at courting the one and escaping the other.  Pretty much all other endeavors are slightly muddied or disguised forms of this central instinct. 

And so this means, very simply, that a well-lived life becomes an honest study and appraisal of the causes of happiness and unhappiness, and testing out methods of cultivating the happy and weeding out the unhappy. 

I'd submit that every religion, every spiritual practice, every cultural endeavor, all forms of science,  can really be boiled down to this basic elemental wish:  "I want happiness.  I want to be free of unhappiness."  Keeping this idea in the forefront seems essential to an understanding of self and others. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Home Again

I've now recovered slightly, after the previous 24 hours have seen me on three separate flights enroute home from China. The flights themselves totaled 17 hours or so, but add another 3 hours trapped on the tarmac in a plane with two different mechanical problems, and it was not a pleasant day.

The day began at 4:00 am in Nanjng, China, where we left for the airport in the wee hours for a flight to Beijing. Not a big deal, except for the fact that I'd been struggling with the stomach disorder that plagues many visitors to China. The projectile vomiting had subsided, fortunately, but I was still dealing with (ahem) some disorder at the other end of the digestive tract, if you get my drift. I was finding it wise to be within ready reach of a toilet at all times. Mind you, a toilet in china is very often a squat affair, not the nice porcelain throne we normallythink of.

But no big deal. Planes have toilets. Chinese cab drivers are nothing if not blindingly fast. Off to the airport.

Safely into Beijing in a nice two hour flight that required only three trips to the toilet. Plenty of time for connecting flight to Beijing, and waiting lounge had a bathroom right next door. It was even a western style toilet. And it even featured toilet paper--not a common luxury in china.

The 12 hour flight from Beijing to San Francisco wasn't terrible, but it was 12 hours, after all, which is a hell of a long time to sit on a plane. I sat on the aisle, and the restroom was always at ready reach.

It was, however, an hour late getting into San Francisco, which meant we had to race frantically through the airport. Planes don't wait, even for planes for tourists with rebellious digestive systems. Because San Francisco was our port of entry back into the US, we had to clear customs, of course, and SF airport was an absolute zoo, with thousands and thousands of people, exaggerated by the fact that many east-coast bound travelers had had flights cancelled due to storms.

But really, not all that big a deal, so far. Though feeling extremely wan and pale, I was two thirds of the way home. We made the final flight, moments before the gate closed.

Then the plane pushed back from the gate. And we proceeded to sit on the tarmac for a full three hours while two different mechanical problems were addressed. Now, I normaly love to fly, but I have a peculiar claustrophobia when it comes to being confined in small spaces with lots of people. I can ride an elevator alone all day, but cram it with people and I have to count my breaths carefully on a long ride up a skyscraper. I don't have normal flyer's phobia, but rather a fear of being confined in crowds, and on a full plane, that time between the closing of an airplane's hatches and getting airborn is one that often sees me meditating quietly and struggling against panic. Once aloft, I have no problem, because I'm quite aware that if the damned thing crashes, it will break wide apart, and I'll surely be free of the crowd. Violent death doesn't trouble me at all, but God, spare me a crowded small space.

Our plane was crammed to the gills, and I found myself sitting in the very last row against the window--you know, the seat that won't even recline. And upon announcing that the plane wasn't moving for at least two hours, the crowd leaped to their feet to line up for the rest room.

And me, fighting a stupendous case Chairman Mao's revenge.

Well, no, I didn't soil myself in public, although in reality, it really wouldn't have mattered, because the plane had at least 12 infants aboard, at least 10 of which already had soiled diapers. Nobody would have spotted my transgression. After struggling with a bit of claustrophic panic for an hour or so, I found my way over the crowds and stood in the back galley area and nervously talked with the chief steward, who seemed to recognize my brand of claustrophobia. In a place where I could pace just a bit while eyeing the red emergency handle on the back escape hatch, I managed to get by okay.

To United Airline's credit, they did eventually get us back to a gate and allowed us off to use restrooms and eat, and it was a much cheerier crowd that got on board once the plane was fixed. I made it home fine, fell asleep for 20 hours, and now feel almost human.

Perhaps I'll next be able to describe a bit about China. For the moment, though, I'm simply to have survived the whole thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Theory

There is a rather simple model for understanding the human experience.

In our experience of the world and its phenomenon, there are are always two strains or flavors evident to us. Every "object" that enters the field of our awareness carries a kind of positive or negative magnetic charge that creates either a feeling of pleasantness in some degree, or a feeling of pain and unpleasantness in an opposite degree.

These positive and negative lenses, through which we perceive the world of the mind, pretty much inform everything we do, everything we aspire to. Virtually all of human behavior can be understood in terms of pursuing pleasantness and avoiding unpleasantness. At the end of the day, it is the basis of all science, all religion, all culture, all instinct.

In this, at least, Freud was correct when he suggested a pleasure principle as the driving motivation for human experience.

Pleasantness and unpleasantness——happiness and unhappiness---come in a thousand different degrees and flavors, and are described by thousands of different names. The experience of unpleasantness, for example, can be described as mildly as "restlessness," or as boldly as "loathing." Pleasantness can be simple "satisfaction," or as all-consuming as "bliss."

Close examination of our experience will reveal that every phenomenon born into our awareness carries some portion of a positive or negative emotional charge. The Buddhists will say that there is also feeling that is entirely neutral, but I'm not sure about this. It's true that some experiences don't really elicit much in the way of either longing or aversion, but looking closely at these moments it seems to me that the positive and negative are more or less balanced at these times——not missing altogether.

There is, I suppose, some scientific support for this, as modern physics describes negative and positive charges to the basic workings of matter & energy. Perhaps our subjective sensation of pleasantness and aversion is really nothing more than a manifestation of that truth of physics.

In any case, I think that when cavemen first recognized that faculty of awareness in themselves, it was the awareness of pleasantness vs. unpleasantness that was the primary mystery, and was probably more mysterious than life and death itself. The experience of pleasure and pain, after all, usually seems connected to our actions, at least in part, while life and death are largely outside our control altogether.

So I suggest that religion, science, culture, etc,, aren't about understanding the mystery of life, but rather the mystery of happiness and unhappiness.

All the mythologies of religion, for example, seem to me to be stories and characterizations revolving around the dance between positive and negative, happiness and unhappiness. To "God," we attribute the causes and origination of happiness, while "Evil" is the king of all that seems to be the source of unhappiness. This explains why evil is different for every person. In the experience of war, for example, nobody in the conflict ever cheerfully admits that they are serving the cause of evil. Evil always lurks in the other fellow, they guy who is compromising my happiness.

Religion is ultimately an effort to understand happiness and unhappiness, to court one and escape the other. Buddhism states this quite boldly as its intent; other religions dramatize it through elaborate mythologies.

Similarly, the working of science, government, art & culture, seems to be mostly driven by the mystery of happiness and unhappiness. Many governments, for example, use the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number" as their driving principle. Science, at the end of the day, is about improving our health and comfort, and eliminating discomfort. Art seeks to articulate the drama of happiness and unhappiness, and ultimating to foster happiness through the creation of beauty.

Happiness and unhappiness exist nowhere but in our selves, our subjective experience. No outer physical event in the world is inherently good or bad. A terrible thunderstorm may be bad to a person caught out in the rain without any shelter, but it is good to the farmer longing for rain to quench his parched fields. It is entirely relative and subjective.

Good and bad, happy and unhappy are also slippery qualities. It's very common, for example, to pursue some activity that ostensibly seems to be happy-making, only to find that it's long-term effect is to create unhappiness. LIkewise, it's common for experiences of present unhappiness to prove to be long-term causes of greater happiness. So a well-lived life is very much about studying and evaluating the causes of genuine a happiness, nurturing those causes and weeding out the obstructions. It is a life of intelligent experimentation and observation. Hence, a man given to hedonism early in life may realize that a more genuine happiness comes about through a somewhat more ascetic approach to life.

Good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, happy and unhappy exist only in the matrix of our awareness. If a phenomenon is extricated from the context of our awareness of it, it is entirely empty of such judgments. So it is the field of awareness itself where the science and study should be aimed. God is not in his heaven, nor the devil in Hell. Neither do they exist in other people. Only within.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Part II

Okay, so if you're more or less on board with the premise of the previous post——that our species' angst arises because of the dissonance between what we want (permanence and stability) and the shifting, squirming impermanence that circumstances really offer——where does that leave us?

Assuming that a happy state is what we all seek, there are two conceivable solutions. One, we can attempt to create permanence and stability in our circumstances and in our identities. We can try to make the world fit our desires. Generally speaking, I think this is human solution of choice. We try to make become permanently healthy, to solidify our level of comfort in the world. Through career, or family, or good deeds, we try to give our name and reputation some permanence, even eternity. Hence, a wealthy man builds a law school and names it after himself; an artist seeks glory; an actor, a star on the hollywood walk of fame. Nations try to establish themselves as cultures for the ages. We try to convince ourselves that we are real, in other words.

These efforts can work for a little while--at least long enough for us momentarily convince ourselves that we're succeeding. We actually can change the world to our liking, at least for a little while. We can extend the average length of a healthy life. We can send men to the moon. We convince ourselves these are momentous, fabulous victories, signifying everything. We ignore the fact that to die at 90 rather than 70 is, at the end of the day, still to die. Most every human triumph, in the final measure, is slightly hollow, as the truth is never really escaped. I'm exaggerating this for effect, but you get the idea.

Eventually, the rug gets pulled away, and illness visits, poverty descends, or reputation becomes sullied. Waistline sags, the memory grows feeble, friends forget us. And through it all, we're constantly trying rebuilding the sand castle, trying to defend the illusion against the evidence.

This is the point where disillusionment can be an important gift. To become disillusioned, after all, means to be relieved of your illusions——to forfeit your false beliefs, in others words. It's not a terrible thing to wake up and see that a lot of our ambition is rather meaningless.

The danger, though, is that we'll swing to the opposite pole. If I can't make life constantly to my liking, we think, then it automatically means that life is shit. Nihilism can set it. There are people who travel in this direction, but never come to the point where there realize that nihilism is its own form of illusion.

Rather than seeking to remake the world to match our wishes, the second option, the one much less traveled, would be to work with the wishing itself, the illusion, and see if we can't bring it more into alignment with the ways things really are.

This, I would suggest, is the more revolutionary approach, and the one that perhaps has more real potential for creating a happy life. It is a life of letting to to things as they are, and it is quite alien to us. We really can't believe such a thing is possible, and dismiss the mere idea as lazy hogwash. We defend our right to hold on to delusion.

A bit of experiment, though, can begin to convince you that there's something to different approach. Perhaps our ability to truly and wholly "let go" can only happen for a sporadic few moments at a time before the need to control things again reasserts itself. Pay attention, though, and you may realize that those few moments of utter surrender to the world is as peaceful as anything you've known.

Some people with whom I talk to about such ideas will mutter that such a life would be nothing more than laziness. A life without the attempt to control the world is no life at all, they'd say.
In point of fact, though, a life of surrender very often will mean abandoning our inaction, and allowing oneself to act with unusual strength and power in accordance with the natural flow of things.

A tiny little glimpse of this approach can be experienced through a very simple meditation exercise once taught to me.

"As you pay attention to your breath, abandon the illusion that "you" are breathing. Instead, consider the possibility that the universe is breathing you."

Part 1

I don't think it takes great powers of observation or enormous insight to conclude that the human animal exists in a kind of restless condition. There are some philosophers and nihilists who would describe the human condition as one of never-ending suffering, sorrow, or original sin. I don't know that I'd go quite that far; but if you practice mere observation,  it does seem logical to conclude that our species is vaguely dissatisfied with its existence, and is almost always squirming and striving for something more.  Spend a day looking around, and you will see that virtually everyone seems to be longing for things to be different. It is the reason behind most everything we do.

I have a theory about why this is so, and here it is:  the reason we, as a species, are unhappy is that we're not entirely sure that we exist.

There is some classic philosophy behind this, which can be found in both the occident and orient. The argument is something like this: For something to truly, concretely exist, as a phenomenon it would be concrete, definite, tangible. Moreover, as some philosophers have tried to show through logic, something that truly "exists" would not materialize or dissolve, but would have stable, non-ending existence.

Since none of these qualities can possibly be applied to the concept we call "self," we exist in a kind of nervous worry about who and what we are....or even IF we are. 

Consider the evidence.  In almost every circumstance, who we are changes moment to moment. One moment I'm a husband, the next a father, now a friend, later a son to an aging father. A supervisor, an underling; an intellectual, a screaming sports fan. Even in the absence of other people and changing circumstances, the self I identify in my thoughts changes every few seconds. 

 Our emotional view of the world, which may define us more than almost anything else, is the most shifting experience of all. Blissfully content one moment, irritated the next. Happy as a clam today; on the wrong side of the bed tomorrow. Full of wisdom and common sense....30 seconds later forgetting where I put my eyeglasses.

25 years old one minute, a second later, I'm 53 years and counting.

The reality truly is that there is a new reality with every passing moment, and that nothing whatsoever is real in the sense of being concrete and stable. In the very moment that some phenomenon occurs, it is already vanishing. No wonder we're all a bit anguished about our place in the cosmos. 

That's the real nature of things: flux, change, impermanence.  Unhappiness, it seems to me, arises because we don't like the real nature of things, and we're constantly fighting against it. It's not much more complicated than that. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Don't Learn....Remember

The grandfather sat back in his rocker and looked at his grandson. Not for the first time, he was again amused and also flattered that the young man continued to seek his opinion, even now that he was no longer a child. Highly unusual for young adults in these times, when most had little interest in the views of old people. His grandson, though, wasn't exactly a typical twenty-something, that's true.

"Okay then, one more bit of advice before I drive you to the airport," the old man said, then paused. "Don't strive to learn anything at all. Instead, allow yourself  to remember."

The grandson merely raised his eyebrows.

"What I mean is this," the old man continued. "The truest wisdom will never feel to you like something added, like something you're learning new.  More often, it will be something that was already evident to common sense. It will always feel like you're remembering what you've known all along." He stood up, checking his pockets for car keys.  "That's how you know it's the real thing. Wisdom will feel like something remembered."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Philosopher and the Monk....and a middle-age guy in Minneapolis

On the bus ride home the other day, a woman across the aisle was reading a book with a great title——"The Philosopher & the Monk," and yesterday I picked up a copy of my own.
I've just started reading it, but can already heartily recommend it. The book is a dialogue between a French philosopher and his son——a one-time genetic biologist who gave up a promising career to follow Tibetan Buddhism. The book follows the Socratic method, in which questions and answer gradually divulge a fully developed philosophy for living.

These guys are considerably smarter and more talented than me, but for all of that, there is something in this story that echoes a bit of my own experience in the world. This father and son dialogue is strikingly similar to my inner dialogue over the years. At one time I was a pretty typical westerner, enamored of the power of science and rationality, without much at all in the way of religious sentiment. When I was a kid, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. As a young adult, though, I became greatly disenchanted with results of science and technology in human culture, and found myself drawn to various mystical disciplines, and Tibetan Buddhism particularly resonated with me.

Although I continue to read a lot of science to this day, I'm always struck that science only manages to shift the boundaries of the unknown, and never actually eliminates the unknown at all. And no matter how much scientific knowledge gets collected, it has never had much impact whatsoever on the overall experience of genuine human happiness. Nor has science done anything whatsoever to reduce the causes of human unhappiness. Cell phones are now used to detonate roadside bombs, which can hardly be called progress.

Spiritual study, on the other hand is in some ways the study of the subjective truth of human happiness and suffering, and as such strikes me as a discipline of critical importance. Personally, I gravitated to the Buddhist model for several key reasons: First, it is non-theistic discipline which has no need for dogma or superstition. In fact, Buddhism encourages you to trust the evidence of your own experience, and never to trust anything completely on faith.
I have also found the Buddhism offers a clarity and simplicity lacking in other traditions. It is a straight-ahead philosophy with little nuance to it. Most late-arrivals to Buddhism, in fact, are surprised when they discover that the principles mean exactly what they say, and that there is no need to read between the lines.

But it now begins to sound like I'm advocating, when all I meant to do was recommend a good book, which just happens to articulate the inner questions many westerners have about the role of spirituality in a modern society.

The Philosopher & the Monk, by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baby Boomer Shame

My 24-year-old son emerged into the job market from college at a very bad time—in the heart of a very bad economic recession. He's one of those young people who have been unable to find work in his discipline of choice (Physics) and instead is working at a grocery store doing  variety of duties. In some ways, he's quite lucky to have this, but I wish better for him, of course. 

Occasionally I find myself a bit glum for his situation. This is no longer an era where every hardworking young person can find a good-paying job quickly. He's really not able to put much money away in the job he has now, and it may be a long, long while until he'll be able to join the middle class routine of home ownership, new car, etc. LIke all parents, I'd like the very best for my son, and his economic struggles are hard to watch.

But it also occurs to me that my perspective is colored by an expectation of affluence that is perhaps a bit unreasonable to begin with. The last 30 years of so has seen a period of pretty unprecedented wealth among white-collar Americans, and who is to say that this current slump is not a long-overdue reality check for our entire culture? 

When I back away for a moment, I realize that my son's situation——struggle though it is——would be enviable to most of the world's population. He maintains his own apartment, albeit a small, very basic one. He keeps an aging car running well enough to get around town. He has a good circle of friends, a social life that include a bowling league, fantasy football. His job doesn't pay great, but it offers full benefits, and is enough for him to save a bit of money to go on a carefully planned week-long skiing vacation every January.  His tight budget makes him choose between electronic amenities——he has a cell phone but no land line, and has decided that internet access is more important than cable TV. He has a pet dog to which he is extremely attached. He lives carefully, but you wouldn't describe him as poverty stricken. He is disciplined enough to live well within his means, and doesn't carry any credit debt whatsoever. No college loans, no credit card payments.

Overall, he gives every indication of being pretty darned happy. So why is it that I want for him to have a large home mortgage, a new car loan, and all the rest? 

Among friends of my own vintage, I have few who have commented to me that the bad economy has caused them to re-evaluate what is genuinely important to them, and a couple have said that they have now found a new-found freedom in living simply and efficiently, and no longer particularly even long for the expensive luxuries they once regarded as automatic. 

However, there are more of my contemporaries who seem to feel that affluence is their birthright, and they simply won't tolerate moderation.

We American baby-boomers were unbelievably lucky  to have dropped onto the planet at the time we did. Perhaps its time we learned the reality that Gen X and Gen Y Americans, and the rest of the world, are taking in stride. 

We could start by supporting health care reform that benefits the greater good. Everywhere I look, there are aging baby-boomers arguing against health care reform, because it might create slight friction against our expectations of getting everything we want, when we want it. I overheard an office mate on the phone the other day, cussing out a health clinic because they didn't want to provide H1N1 vaccinations to healthy folks until the at-risk children had been innoculated. The accusation was that perhaps these innoculations were going to uninsured people rather than those with health insurance.  We're the ones who deserve it, was what my colleague was saying.

Makes me a bit ashamed of my generation. I can't help thinking that we're in this pickle because baby boomers have been snorting riches from the trough for far too long. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Next, Teacher?

Sunday mornings nearly always find my wife and me sitting on the living room floor reading the
Sunday papers. When we find something that especially offends our sensibilities, we'll read aloud some bit of absurdity. Often it involves politics, sometimes cultural trends.

This morning, the subject matter was James Arthur Ray, the self -proclaimed self-help guru whose Arizona sweatlodge recently killed 3 people, one of whom was a local woman from Minneapolis.

Ray practices something he calls "practical mysticism," and travels about the country giving free self-help lectures hook people into signing up for his paid retreats, which go for a cool $10,000 per week. James Arthur Ray's "credentials," according to the article my wife read aloud, was that he had read voraciously over his lifetime, on subjects including science, psychology, religion. "Huh," my wife said. "You read the same subjects, and I'll bet you know a hell of a lot more than he does. Maybe we should go into business...but wait a're an honest man, so I suppose that wouldn't work out, really."

All of which got me to thinking about the issue of spiritual guides, and how tricky it is to find somebody who is a legitimate teacher. It's relatively easy to spot the obvious frauds. You'd have be quite stupid not to see that L. Ron Hubbard was bogus, for example. And this James Arthur Ray appears to cut largely from the same mold. These guys are easy, because anytime somebody's primary goal is make money, it's obvious what's really going on. And a few of the legtimate teachers are pretty much beyond reproach. Doing a little reading about Thich Nat Hahn, or the Dalai Lama,for example, and you'll be hard pressed to find anything that dilutes your admiration.

But others a little trickier. The Indian mystic known as Osho, for example, has some legitmately deep writings, but when you look a bit closer, you learn that he was also famous for a fondness for Rolls Royces. The Hindu leader, the Mararishi who instructed the Beatles in the 1970s is another example of spiritualism corrupted by materialism. In modern times, I find myself puzzled by the case of Eckhart Toll, for example. When you listen to his taped lectures, there is most definitely something legitimate and sincere in the message. But the fact that his philosophy has become such an obvious money-making cottage industry means that I remain uneasy believing that he's the real deal. The novels of Paulo Coello are seriously interesting, but he too, seems to be mostly about making money and promoting himself.

Similarly, I don't quite know what to make of people who flock to "the secret" with its law-of- attraction philosophy. I have friends I respect who have been greatly reassured and helped by this movement, but when I listen to and read the material, I have an uncomfortable sensation that it's a variation of magical thinking, in which folks imagine that spirituality is about gimmicks to help you get what you want. True spirituality, it seems to me, has almost nothing to do with getting want you want, but rather about developing acceptance and joy with what you already have in any moment.

So what is the answer? For me, anyway, I suppose it's largely a matter of going back in time and studying some of the original thinkers, for whom history has already established some judgment of their sincerity. You cannot read Meister Eckhart, for example, and not know that this is mysticism of the first order. Even this is not foolproof, though, for upon close examination of one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Chogham Trunpa, I learned that he died from advanced liver disease due to a lifetime of heavy drinking.

Maybe, at the end of the day, the real key is to court inner silence, and listen to no one but the inner voice deep inside us.

I think it's best not to do this in an Arizona sweatlodge, though.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Killing Me Softly with French Fries

I'm very much like many middle-aged Americans. I don't have a lot of terribly bad habits, but I eat an occasional muffin for breakfast, have a burger sometimes, succumb to the chocolate-chip cookie every so often.  Okay, maybe I do this a little more than "every so often." But I try to offset this by staying moderately active, eating a good volume of vegetables and fruits. I take my daily fish-oil capsule, a multivitamin. I don't smoke; I drink in very small amounts. 

It hasn't been enough.

In the last year or so,  I've been increasingly aware of what seemed like signs of the years encroaching. Energy level ebbing a bit; spare tire around the middle continuing to expand uncomfortably. My sleep hasn't been great, nor my mental focus. I was peeing, very, very often. Mind you, these weren't terrible problems, and I more or less just assigned them to the process of aging.

At my routine physical a few weeks ago, though, my doctor gave me a reason for this quiet malaise. Though my blood pressure and cholesterol and PSA numbers are within acceptable levels, my blood sugar is now becoming uncomfortably high. Although I technically have "prediabetes", if subsequent physical exams show the same rate of glucose increase, I would be two years or so away from having a formal diagnosis of diabetes.

A rather stern lecture from my doctor, as well as a fair amount of reading over the past few weeks, has sold me on the merits of radically changing my diet. At first, I ruefully felt that this diet pretty much cut out everything that might be at all tasty. I joked that I was allowed to eat all the spinach I wanted, plus three cashews each day.

But what my research, and my own experience, is now telling me, is that modern Americans are being quietly poisoned by food that is as deadly as it is tasty.  The food corporations in America are not your friends.

We all might guess that sugar and fat are bad things for us, but as my doctor and other experts are telling me,  the more insidious culprits are corn, potatoes, refined flour. These food substances are now present in so many food combinations, and are available for such ridiculously low prices, that they have come to dominate the modern American diet. Incredibly rich in starchy sugars, these substances alone are creating the blood-sugar emergency in America. The U.S. food industry has demonstrated true genius at combining food flavors in ways that make their product every bit as habit-forming as cocaine.

Stay away from white foods, I'm told, or foods containing these substances,  and we very likely can avoid the epidemic of diet-related diabetes that threatens so many of us. And it's not only older Americans susceptible to this; young kids are showing up with this kind of diabetes at alarming rates.

So I began to eat nuts, vegetables, salads, certain "safe" fruits, lean meats almost exclusively. Whole oat cereals in moderation, an occasional  low-carb cracker heavy in fiber, but no bread at at all. Non-sugar yogurt. Green tea, but no other caffeine. During the first week of this new diet I felt simply awful. Avoiding cookies, muffins, burgers, french fries was very, very hard, even though I hadn't seen myself as a glutton for these things. That's how powerful the hold is on these foods, engineered for "mouth-feel" and flavor combinations, and dissolving instantly in your mouth. For a week, it really did feel a lot like withdrawal from an illegal drug, with headaches, irritability, digestive distress. I began to pee even more often than before. "Holy hell," I thought. "If this is health, I'd rather be diseased."

But after a week or so of different eating, I suddenly began to feel much better. The monkey was climbing down off my back.  Seven pounds evaporated from around my waist almost overnight. My energy level began to climb a bit, and my mental focus was better.  The sluggish late-afternoon doldrums that I'd had come to view as inevitable faded away, and I found that I could focus adequately right up to closing time at the office. Most encouraging was the fact that my appetite became more manageable, even though I was eating less. The rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows was seemingly largely behind my sometimes ravenous appetite. While my fasting blood-sugar levels haven't yet diminished much, I feel considerably better and have a good likelihood or reversing my pre-diabetic condition, given a little time. 

So there you have it...I'm the poster child for that coming epidemic of food-related diabetes we've all been reading about. It would be ludicrous for me to proclaim myself a victor over my eating urges. I've only been at it a few weeks, and I don't pretend to have such self-control that I can avoid every slice of pizza that winks at me. But what I have learned recently does help , as I've come to see delicious food offered so plentifully and so cheaply as something of an evil conspiracy against consumers. 

For those of you interested, I can recommend a book and movie that will open your eyes to these issues. The movie is "Food, inc."  The book is "The End of Overeating,"  a truly revelatory expose of how the food-engineering industry has successfully made legal addicts of many Americans. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

This Week's Book Recommedation

I'm most happy to heartily recommend Eric Weiner's book, "The Geography of Bliss," to all fellow travelers interested in the study of happiness.

A long-time foreign correspondent for NPR, Weiner's premise for the book is that he's grown weary of the the new-age approach to happiness--that it's holy grail to be found deep, deep within our selves--and decides instead to approach happiness as a place. He travels to various parts of the world where the populations rank high on the happiness scale (and a couple that rank very low) to see what he can learn about the condition of happiness.

The book reads like part travel writing, part depth psychology, part philosophy and part personal essay, and it is a wonderful read, front to back. It's sprinkled with juicy quotes from a variety of folks, and like all good books will give you dozens of additional books you want to read.

It's not too much of a surprise to find that Wiener, in his investigation of places, arrives at some qualities of happiness that actually speak to the soul. I kept a running list of some of the items he spots as elements of happiness in the various places he visits:

Low Expectations
Freedom of failure

There are interesting observations on American culture to be had here. Nowhere else in the world, Weiner points out, are people so intent on having their way that they would find it necessary to have automobiles where driver and passenger are entitled to separate climate controls, or beds in which each partner gets to choose their own firmness level. Oddly enough, such freedom seems to make no one happy, and in fact interferes with genuine relationship, one of the keys to happiness.

Particularly interesting is the chapter on Iceland. Perhaps is because of my own Scandinavian background, but there seemed much to be learned from the example of this small country, where people are not only allowed to fail, but cherished for it.

Good book, highly recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not Your Ordinary Map Quest

Late in the afternoon, several different trains of thought combined to create an amusing and odd diversion.

Today, I was considering the possible publication of a book that would require the use of GoogleEarth images. At the same time, I've recently been thinking about a short vacation to China in order to visit my daughter who is studying in Nanjing for the semester.

Studying GoogleEarth images while musing on the book, it occurred to me to wonder how an airplane flight to China would be routed from Minneapolis——would it go up over the polar region as the shortest distance between two points? Or would it go by the more expected route, to the west coast and then overseas?

So I typed in directions: Minneapolis to Nanjing.

What I got was wholly unexpected: Walking/driving directions to China, which you can follow along visually by clicking turn-by-turn buttons. Among the directions were several dozen traditional directions, but then in Seattle, the map tells you this:

"Kayak across Pacific Ocean. Go 3,879 miles."

This brings you to Hawaaii, where we "turn left at Kailima Dr. Go .5 mile."

And then:

"Kayak across Pacific Ocean. Go 2,756 miles."

At this point, the directions turn into Japanese, then Chinese characters. but clicking on the direction buttons produces a fascinating zoom in-zoom out journey from distant satellite views to street views, back and forth.

Don't really need to go to China anymore. Went there this afternoon.

By the way, if you haven't downloaded and played with Google Earth, you owe it to yourself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Wish There Was Another Explanation

When I was in graduate school, one professor told me two rules that are essential to a genuine critique of how literary art works on an audience.

1. Repetition is always meaningful. The first time an image appears in a novel, it might be random. But when it appears again, it begs to be examined as a metaphor.

2. When an author chooses a particular detail, it's always valid to ask "why this, and not that?" In other words, every choice is made for some reason.

I find some of this valid to the current political atmosphere, and the conclusions I come to aren't happy ones. 

Barrack Obama elicits a fearfulness that has never before been seen in politics, despite all the evidence that the man's nature is as genuinely hopeful as anyone ever seen in the office. When looking at the paranoid shrillness of the far right reaction to Obama's first year in office, the following questions come to mind.

1. Would anybody be worried about political indoctrination of children if John McCain had won the election and wanted to address school children on the first day of class?  Did anyone worry about this when George Bush I or George Bush 2 did it? Why Barrack Obama and no one else?

2. Had Hillary Clinton won the democratic nomination, would anyone have worried about her native born status?  Would any other candidate in the entire election have elicited this question? Why was this question asked of Obama only?

3. Would any other candidate winning the presidency have cause people to vehemently scream about "wanting their country back."? Why did the conservatives not holler this when Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter were elected?

Alas, there is really only one conclusion to draw, and it's not one I really want to accept, even of right wing nuts. 

It's the fact that Obama has African ancestors that is behind every bit of this nonsense.  Why does this fellow, and this fellow only,  draw this kind of response? you must ask. And, why do these ridiculous concerns keep being repeated, again and again, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary?

What these folks really want——no mistake about it——is to have their white domination back.  It's Obama's skin color that seems foreign to them——not his birth certificate.

Obama's birth certificate is indisputable, yet we keep hearing that he is alien. The President's  speech to school children has nothing whatsoever political in it, yet even after it aired, the conservative blogs were filled with venom about his attempt to steal their children.

I'd love to hear a genuine argument that all this is based on politics rather than racism.  I don't see how it can be done.  When I hear Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann make their arguments, I'm genuinely embarrassed for their lack of self-awareness.  

The KKK, at least, is honest about the nature of their hatred. 

Sunday, August 30, 2009

53, Going on 92

With my wife attending the state fair today with a girlfriend (thanks be to God; I hate the fair), I drove down early to Cannon Falls, Minnesota and rode the valley bike trail. The paved trail runs 19 miles from Cannon Falls to Red Wing along the converted bed of the Chicago Northern railroad line. The Cannon River meanders between bluffs and over a couple of waterfalls on the way to the Mississippi River, and the railway bed/bike trail runs along side on the south bank of the river. In the old days, I occasionally hiked this rail bed, but a decade or so the railroad ties were removed and a paved bike trail laid. Most of the rail runs through hardwood forests, though there are a couple of stretches through open meadows. The summer has been cool here, and autumn is just about upon us. The sumac is starting to turn, and the wind is brisk, out of the north. I can see my breath in the air at the beginning of my ride.

Some days it is wild flowers that draw my attention, but today it was the birds. A partial list: brown thrasher; hairy woodpecker; catbird; wild turkey; gold finch; alder flycatcher; bald eagle; killdeer.

I'm really just starting to get my aging legs in bike shape, but suddenly I realized that I had passed mile post 15 , which meant that I had another 15 miles to get back to the car. At mile 24 on the way back, I stopped to rest, and was shortly joined by another lone biker, named older fellow named George, riding a casual cruiser much like mine. We are odd men out, because most everyone is riding much more stylish mountain-style bikes than ours. I'm pretty slow, but that's really fine by me. I long since got used to riding at a leisurely pace that actually lets me identify the birds I see.

George and I chatted for a few minutes, and he mentioned that he lived in Cannon Falls and rode out to milepost 7 almost every day on this trail. I felt just slightly self satisfied, mentioning that I had gone to milepost 15 that morning.

"Yes," George mused. "I used to occasionally go to Red Wing and back (a round trip of 38 miles), but that's a bit far for me these days. Once I turned 80, I began to find that 15 or 20 miles was plenty."

"80?" I said, quite shocked. "How old are you now, George?"

"I turned 92 in June," he replied, mounting his bike again. "Nice to meet you, young fellow."

I watched George ride away, and spent a few minutes finishing my sandwich, wondering if 40 years from now I'll still be in the mood for biking. I rode at a decent clip the six miles back to Cannon Falls, but it wasn't until the outskirts of town that I caught up to George.

I told myself that had I not already done 25 miles, I'd surely have caught him much sooner.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An Illusion of Perfection

To casual passersby, my front lawn is an admirable feature.It has the apparent uniformity of a green felt surface on a billiards table. Some of the neighbors who know me well admire it because they know it is achieved largely without the benefit of chemicals or fertilizers. I never fertilize it, and only the dreaded crabgrass ever gets a treated with spot spray of a selective herbicide. Never, ever, does the entire lawn get broadcast with a layer of any chemical. The fact that it is so green and smooth puzzles the folks who can't acheive anything like it, no matter how much modern chemistry they bring to bear.

My secret is quite simply this. The lawn is horribly imperfect, by design. As any avid amateur landscaper knows, a lawn isn't a uniform culture, but is a hodgepodge of many different types of grasses, and also includes a fair percentage of non-grass species. Over the years, I've become quite familiar with my lawn. At various places, certain types of grass come to the forefront. In a spot in front, a large expanse of fine fescues prosper---my very favorite grass, fine to the touch and easy on the eyes. In other areas, hardy bluegrasses are dominant. In some areas of my back yard, very short bent-grasses dominate. While bentgrasses are very good on golf course greens, they aren't quite so fine for lawns, as they are rather hard to care for in the heat of summer. These small isolated colonies of single species are the exception rather than the rule, and they are in fact susceptible to tragedy.

Most places, though, you will see that the lawn is a mixture of things--bent grasses and blue grasses and fescues. And it isn't all desired grasses, by any means. Much of my seemingly perfect lawn is horribly imperfect. Small spots of wild violet can be seen many places, as well as creeping charley here and there. There are a few plantains scattered about, the occasional dandelion, some oxalis, a bit of chickweed. Overall, though, the effect of all this imperfection is a pretty perfect looking lawn. When weeds sometimes get dominant, I extract a few by hand, with a hand operated core plugger that both removes the weed and root, and also takes a core plug out of the ground which helps with aeration. I never, ever strive for a perfect lawn, though.

The lawn looks great exactly because it is diverse and imperfect. Years ago, I once tried to acheive one of those perfect golf course lawns, and I found that the effort to create singularity and uniformity was disastrous. I reseeded a large section with one very expensive grass seed, which failed miserably. Such attempts are also disastrous in the garden, as any gardner quickly learns that the healthiest garden is not one free of all pests and diseases, but one in which many, many different pests exist in small numbers that keep things in balance. Try to keep black spot fungus off roses entirely, and you open the door to devastation from aphids, for example.

In the backyard near the raspberry patch, there is now a patch of lawn where the fescue is dominating. It's very pretty for the moment, but I won't be at all displeased if a bit of creeping charley or a few violets join the party.

Similarly, time has taught me that my inner landscape is a happier and healthier place when a few weeds are accepted as part of the plan. A bit of sadnes occasionally, a sprout of temper once in a while, an occasional outbreak of pride---nothing to worry about really. Perfection, I think, isn't the goal at all, but the enemy of peace.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Stormy Mood

A bit of negativity has settled over me today. Actually, it's quite a bit of negativity. In the greater scheme of things, today is just the ebb portion of the overall ebb-and-flow cycle of life, but for today, anyway, I'm quite aware that it's the ebb with me today.

The outer atmosphere here in MInneapolis has been in this kind of cycle, too. Repeated bursts of stormy turbulence, broken by a day of beautiful sunshine and calm winds. This rhythm has been present for two weeks now. Physicists tell us that one of the dynamics of a thunderstorm is built-up negative electrical energy that suddenly gets discharged through the action of lightning striking the earth. It's a necessary action.  Early this morning, another such storm passed through the city.

I became aware of the negativity about 2:00 am last night, when I awoke sensitive to a shift in the feel of the air——the return of an oppressive humidity after a short break of nice, dry air.  It's been very damp here recently, and while gardening early in the evening, I was aware of a good deal of mould and fungus about. Mold is one of those things I'm allergic to, so it was no surprise that when I awoke, it was with eyes swollen partway shut and itchy skin and eyes. Allergy is another form of negativity. Like many common human ailments——asthma, psoriasis, arthritis, diseases like lupus—--an allergy arises when the human autoimmune system turns against itself in some way These ailments are negativity made physical, and they are a large part of the human experience. 

This physical negativity crossed over into the emotional realm, and this morning I found myself  nursing a mild but evident negativity and irritability toward people around me. My wife, who turned on the TV at 5:00 am to get a weather update; the bus driver who lurched around without consideration for his passengers; the young male passenger wearing his trousers down around his thighs, ghetto style; the woman who bumped me  in the head with her umbrella; the car driver racing to beat the red light.   I was quietly irritated with just about everyone this morning, and it occurred to me that emotional negativity, dark emotions, are really nothing more than a subtle manifestation of the same negative energy that sends thunderbolts from the heavens to the earth during periodic thunderstorms. 

Nothing to fret about, I suppose. Storms this morning are what make clear skies possible in the afternoon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Simple Energy

Waking up in the morning, there is a simple decision to be made. Most days, we make this decision without even really recognizing that we're making it. If you court a habit of careful self-observation, though, you will perhaps come to recognize this decision you make each morning, each moment.

You can choose to live the day by applying the brakes. Or you can live your day in free-fall, going with the flow.

I suspect that this common decision process is a matter of energy, with a physics very much like magnetic energy. Either we react against things as they are——like magnets of the same polarity repulsing each other; or we're drawn into life, like magnets of opposite polarity pulling one toward one another. 

It's easy to get in the habit of reluctance, of applying the brakes. Living this way, you feel a quiet protest against things as they are. You resist the mortality of the physical body as seen in everyday ache and pain.  You're a little reluctant to get out of bed, to do things. In this mode, your knee-jerk response to the world is one of quiet negation, reluctance, ennui. My hunch is that this impulse arises as a rejection of that most formidable of truths—that we're mortal. In an attempt to deny that truth, we quietly deny life itself.

Normally, I think, this mode of reluctance is present from time to time in all of us, but within a context of give and take. Resistance one moment is replaced by attraction the next, and life is an orchestra of interplay between two energy strains. Fortunately, not many of us are mired in negation all the time. Most of us experience both.

Still, it seems to me that one mode or the other generally has the upper hand in most people. Many people live recessively overall, with reluctance toward the world as it is. This is, I think, the actual prevalent attitude of our culture, this quiet fear and reluctance toward life. Others, rarer individuals, have a happier, more risky approach, in which they meet most of life's idiosyncracies with interest and enthusiasm, moving forward rather than resisting life. 

And I further believe that this isn't a matter of fate or innate personality, but rather that we can choose which club to belong to. The default is the recessive style, I think, as culturally it seems to be the status quo. Fear, after all, pretty much rules us these days, and because it's so common we don't realize it's a choice.  

But although there is some leap of faith required, it is entirely possible to release the brakes and make the leap into the unknown land. I know a few people who h ave managed it, and others who experiment with it from time to time.

A teacher once described this moment to me in the following way:  "It's like jumping from an airplane, only to realize that there is no ground to crush you when you fall. Not only that, but there never was any ground to start with."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Citizen of 4F, Aug. 19, 2009

On the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis today, the mood seemed strangely Mevillian to me.

One of Herman Melville's many strokes of genius was his ability to articulate mankind's struggle to behave in a universe where nature is often indifferent and even hostile to our wishes and preferences. That's the mood I felt on the bus this morning.

Yesterday, during a cool day-long gentle rain without thunder or lightning or wind of any kind, some upper level disturbance suddenly caused a small tornado to drop down through the cloud cover and tear up a small portion of south Minneapolis, about a mile from my home. In a retangular swatch roughly 2 blocks by 12 blocks in size, at least 100 trees were uprooted and flung onto cars and houses. Outside this area, there was literally no sign of wind damage of any kind, and the pattern of the debris tells the authorities that this was a freak tornado.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in any way, but we here in Minneapolis love our trees, and the sight of 100 destroyed elms, ashes, and lindens causes us much sorrow. All evening long, mournful sirens of emergency vehicles sounded in the near distance, as emergency workers tried to restore power and clear streets of debris.

This morning, the drizzle continues as the bus picks its way through the torn branches of south Minneapolis. The cloud cover starts barely 1,000 feet above us, and the tops of the downtown buildings are buried into ragged gray cotton. It's a somber day.

On the bus, Stephanie is having an off day. A stunningly pretty blonde woman in her early 30s, Stephanie normally is kind of a self-illuminating source of energy. Today, though, she's just plain off, and she knows it. Twice she checks her appearance in a hand mirror, and finally gives up in disgust. Pretty woman are probably more often the source of envy, but the burden to keep looking pretty is not something most of us really understand. A pretty girl having a bad day suffers more than usual. 

A new passenger boards at the Super America filling station on 48th street. I'll call him Tom. He has just finished his morning grooming in the gas station restroom, and sips a small cup of cheap gas station coffee. No bus pass for him; the small change he drops into the till is real money to him. He tries hard to be cleaned and groomed, but he is very likely a member of the homeless community, and it's hard to stay presentable when you sleep on the ground several nights a week. His face has a haunted look to it that's hard to ignore.

I open the New York Times, and the first thing I see is an extended feature article about palliative care physicians——the folks who help people in the end stages of terminal disease, as they try to make that final transition with a minimum of indignity. The article has particular meaning for me, as a friend of ours is suffering from cancer that's invaded almost every part of her body, and what I'm reading is directly applicable to what she's going through.

It's a dark morning in every regard, and the only thing that brings me any optimism is the knowledge that nothing whatsoever ever stays the same for very long. 

The weather report says the weekend will be a beautiful example of early fall weather.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So Have I Heard....Nine Parts

"1. The genuinely happy person is a rare cat indeed. Whether you choose to call it "quiet desperation" or to describe it in other terms, the typical state for most people is, at minimum, a murmuring dissatisfaction with the human condition. Except for rare interludes, we typically want things to be different from what they are. How could happiness be remotely possible in this case?

"2. This quiet unhappiness and rejection of actual conditions—it's born out of mistaken assumptions about the nature of things, and especially mistakes about the nature of who we are. Unhappiness is wrong understanding. There are no other causes.

"3. Our dissatisfaction arises because we are separated and distant from our own experience. In our self-imposed exile, in our detached watchfulness, we are starved for absorbed connection to things as they really are. Rarely are we genuinely "in the flow." Instead, we watch and study and pass judgment.

"4. Our unhappiness is always self imposed. It comes from no other source. There is no "other" that causes our unhappiness.

"5. Evidence of the antidote is available to us. No man or woman is so morose that he or she hasn't glimpsed genuine contentment and happiness. Alas, it scares us and we'd rather not look closely at it.

"6. Happiness occurs when we are absorbed and fully invested in our own experience, without detachment and separation. Even bare examination of our moments of happiness tells us this.

"7. A leap of faith and trust is necessary for happiness, in which our self-imposed exile is surrendered. Fear must be risked. You must leap before you learn that you're already floating.

"8. There is no "self" standing behind and creating our experience of the world. Instead, "self" arises out of that experience, out of the phenomena of the world. Self does not create your experience. Self IS your experience.

"9. The "self" that is commonly described is a false self, and is the principle cause of unhappiness. True self is the full, fearless merging with our own experience. True self is realized when we "fully embrace all the joys and sorrow that life offers" (Joseph Campbell), and no longer watch from a distance."

(I said to myself, walking away, "Physician, heal thyself.")

Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Think Healthcare Ain't Broke?

During coffee break time, some folks at the office have been arguing that health care reform isn't necessary, that we have the best health system in the world, and that we really don't dare trust the government to guide health care reform.

These are folks who are all perfectly healthy.

Let me tell you a little story about our perfect health care system.

Five weeks ago a friend of ours, who religiously goes for health checkups twice a year, went to the doctor for a cough that had turned into pneumonia. She belongs to one of the major health care organizations in this area.

One thing lead to another, and within three days, she was told that she had cancer virtually everywhere in her body--bones, brain, liver, lungs.

"How could this happen?" she asked. "Three months ago you told me I was in pefect health."

The answer was, effectively, a shrug. "These things happen." This even while they acknowledged that such widespread cancer was almost certainly brewing for several years. However, some of the test that would reveal cancer are expensive, after all, and doctors receive bad marks from insurance companies if they ask for too many tests.

In the weeks since, she has undergone brain surgery to relieve pressure, but has been told not to really hope for a cure. The twenty-four-hour a day nursing care she requires will not be paid by her health insurance, unless she is first destitute. Nor can she go to a nursing home for care, unless she first liquidates every asset she owns. So she goes home, where friends and relatives care for as they can, until things get critical and she must go back to the hospital for IV treatments until she stabilizes enough to go home again. Mind you, the cost of hospital care is infinitely greater than it would be to have the nurse visit her at home, but this really isn't possible under her insurance plan.

Hospice care is an option, but again, this really isn't possible unless she surrenders completely and gives up all payment from her insurance company. Her health insurance offers nothing resembling hospice care.

So the "finest health system" in world failed to find cancer that had to have been developing for several years, even though they have done physical exams twice a year for decades. Then, the health system cannot really offer any help whatsoever to someone wishing to quietly fight their terminal disease at home.

We have the finest health care system in the world. Provided you are perfectly healthy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Strange Bedfellows....Or Perhaps Not So Strange

This is an interesting development. Certain conservative Republicans have recently begun using language that associates the Obama administration with Nazi philosophy. Their attempt, of course, was to use old loathing for Nazis to somehow gain support for their own opposition to Obama's efforts. Hence, a government that actually legislates in an effort to do what's best for all citizens is being portrayed as Nazi social control. Sara Palin created the preposterous myth of "death panels" precisely to try and paint liberals with a nazi paint brush.

This is surely ironic, because there has never in American history been such a clear demonstration of propaganda. Lie often enough, the right wing seems to think, and people will surely take it as truth. They're banking on the assumption that George Bush's strategies are still applicable. The old mantra "WMD, WMD, WMD," has now been replaced by "Obama is Hitler, Obama is Hitler."

I doubt that the Republican intent was to actually gather modern nazi sympathizers into their own fold, but that seems to be what's occurring. Suddenly, swastikas are sprouting up all over, and they are being used under the ruse of being demonstrations against health care reform. Who spraypaints swastikas on the office signs of liberal senators? Why, modern nazis, of course, who now have sponsors like Newt Gringrich.

With some glee, the folks who delight in Nazi symbolism have begun spray-painting hate messages in the context of fighting health-care reform. AFter all, it's not the folks holding civilized town hall meetings that behave like nazis, but those shouting them down right and left.

Neo nazis are coming out of the woodwork, having found their rightful place, at last, in the company of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. You can see the skinhead relief, their joy, at finally being welcomed by a major political party. At some point soon, we're likely to see the Republicans begin to disavow their new allies. Perhaps Sara Palin, in moment of uncharacteristic insight, was sensing this perhaps when she backed away from her "death panel" metaphor.

Then again, the Republicans need all the help they can get. The modern nazi conservative may be a more significant voting block than we think.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

We Have Met the Nuts...And They is RIGHT there.

I used to think that crackpot-ism was a not ideological phenomenon—that there were just as many liberal crackpots as conservatives.

But an objective look at the current news is beginning to say otherwise. The silly nonsense——or outright lies——being spread around by conservatives regarding Barrack Obama's birth origin, and the conspiracy theories being spun about the dangers of the new health care proposals, have reached new levels of sheer idiocy.

It's not so much that there are crackpots out there shrieking this nonsense that is shocking. What's truly mind-boggling is that this extremist stuff is coming from folks who ought to be mainstream conservatives. YOu have Lou Dobbs on CNN giving credence to the folks concocting elaborate plots by Obama's mother to pave the way, 48 years ago, for her son to one day become president. YOu have members of congress (Michelle Bachmann, to be precise) spinning loony-tunes conspiracy theories over one-world-government use of US census information. Some of these pundits are convincing senior citizens that Barrack Obama wants to force them to commit suicide so that there will be more money to pay publicly for abortions.

This current batch is so unbalanced that Ann Coulter——Ann Coulter!——is now beginning to disavow them.

Used to be, these people lived on the fringe. Now, the fringe has moved to the right side of Mainstreet USA.

For those interested, some interesting and objective debunking of this stuff can be found on

Zen & the Art of Rotten Mood

A good friend called the other day, a bit discouraged because she'd been visited by a couple of days of Rotten Mood, after having enjoyed a month's worth of Good Vibration. Although she didn't say so directly, I had the feeling that she was interpreting the Rotten Mood as a bit of personal failure, as perhaps an indication that her recent good stretch had been canceled. The good stretch had made her feel like she'd turned the corner in some way, so the return of Rotten Mood perhaps hinted at some sort of failure on her part——perhaps an indictment that her recent life changes weren't as valid as she hoped.

This got me to thinking about the role of Rotten Mood in my own life. LIke most people, I am periodically visited by Rotten Mood myself, so here are some personal reflections on my own reactions to it.

First, I don't think it makes sense to simply blow off Rotten Mood as inconsequential or meaningless, tempting though it may be. Rotten Mood that repeats frequently, or comes and stays for a long period of time, is called clinical depression, and this isn't something you can pretend doesn't exist. Rotten Mood seems to me like a natural form of pain response. Just as the burn impulse causes you to recoil from a hot stove, Rotten Mood needs to be acknowledged as a subtle form of pain. It exists as a natural response to some previous conditions, and basic intelligence dictates that we pay attention and learn from it. Rotten Mood, for example, may exist because we have worked ourselves into a state of exhaustion, and we need to cut it out. Or, it may exist because our brain is starved for some kind of nutrient it needs. Sometimes a handful of peanuts or a bit of Prozac might be in order. Rotten mood sometimes visits me after I drink wheat-based beer, for example, which is a signal for me to stop ingesting allergens. On even more subtle levels, Rotten Mood may be the result of a mental delusion or wrong belief. I've known those causes, too. Rotten Mood, like everything, has its causes.

It's also true, though, that Rotten Mood is only that——a mood. It has no particular concrete or permanent reality, and its entry in the encyclopedia doesn't have a photo attached to it, because there is nothing to point to. In very many instances Rotten Mood simply needs to be accepted for a short while until it decomposes and becomes resurrected in some other form——such as bemusement or even Good Vibration. I've noticed a somewhat paradoxical thing: fighting Bad Mood often seems to prolong it, while bland acceptance causes it to get bored. I viewed Rotten Mood as my own tragic failure for many years, which seemed to encourage it to sleep next to my bed, longing to be recognized.Once I gave it its own space, Rotten Mood no longer yells in quite the same way, but is fairly willing to yawn and stretch occasionally and watch TV in the den.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Stand Corrected

A few years ago, the new federal courthouse building in towntown Minneapolis commissioned a renowned landscape architect, Martha Swartz, to create a public plaza between the courthouse and city hall.

It was a peculiar-looking thing, extremely avante guarde to my way of thinking. I pretty much hated it, as I prefer natural-looking landscapes, and this was one was strange, to say the least. The concrete plaza was interrupted with tear-drop shaped mounds of dirt and grass, placed at a steep pitch, arranged diagonally across the plaza. Concrete cast logs served as benches, with other wire mesh benches also placed in diagonal patterns. Crossing the plaza was an exercise in zig-zagging among the mounds of grass, the concrete logs, the benches.

The arrangment was in large part done this way as a hindrance to potential terrorist attack, as the plaza was rendered virtually impossible for a truck loaded with explosives to cross. No Oklahoma City potential here. This was partially the reason for my distain, since capitulation to this kind of paranoia always annoys me.

Some years later, this plaza is the place where I wait for my commuter bus home from the office, and it has become one of my favorite parts of the downtown landscape. By late afternoon, nearby buildings have blocked the sun, throwing a cool, comfortable shade across the plaza. The grassy knolls undulate gently in the wind, and the jack pines planted in them not only cast shade, but give the plaza a pleasant pine-needle aroma. Waiting for a bus here is among the most pleasant things imaginable, and I have been known to leave work early, or let the first bus line go through, simply in order to spend some extra time here.

Martha Swartz, I stand corrected. I've even looked up your web site, and in the future will visit other public landscapes you've designed.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tastes Okay to Me

As some of you who read these pages regularly know, my interest in things spiritual goes back to childhood, and I have for decades been seriously interested in the mystical edges of various spiritual traditions, from aboriginal shamanism to the writings of the Christian desert fathers.

Buddhism holds a particular resonance for me, in particular because its own form of mysticism is really not supernatural or magical at all, but genuinely metaphysical.

For many, many years, on the esoteric edges of Tibetan Buddhism, I occasionally bump into a concept that's sometimes referred to as "One Taste." (For those of you interested, it is in the Dzochgen and Mahamudra teachings where you usually run into this). Sometimes, the phrase used is "the yoga of one taste" or "the great perfection."

The concept can be maddeningly complex and subtle, but in the most general explanation 'One Taste' refers to a fully realized attitude toward human experience, in which the good, the bad, the ugly are all seen and accepted as the natural play of the mind. An adage sometimes used is "nirvanha, samsara (the hellish opposite of nirvahna)--no difference." In this particular school of practice, the follower not only understands, but virtually lives this slogan: "Form is none other than emptiness, emptiness none other than form."

Now, I'm normally far too egotistical and unevolved to really understand this concept, except in the most academic and intellectual of ways. Bad stuff happens, and I get obsessed and grumble and whine about it just like everybody else. Ever so rarely, though, something clicks within me and I actually get glimpses of a different way.

In the last few days, I have awakened to a throbbing headache, broken out in painful itchy allergic hives after eating something spicy, listened to an author bitterly complain about my company's lack of marketing skill, had my foot run over by a law-breaking motorist, moderated a disagreement between two cat-fighting employees, and had my wife impatiently snarl and snatch the television remote contol from my hand because I didn't change the channel quick enough to "So You Think YOu Can Dance."

My responses to these events haven't been all Buddhist and touchy-feely at all. "F@#@ You" has leaped from my lips several times over the last few days. I've become quite angry many times lately.

But the responses, while entirely human and normal, have also carried a fair amount of good humor with them. When I get angry, I get playfullly angry. The entire pageant has really just felt to me like the energy of the universe going about what it does quite naturally. None of is particularly good or bad, this or that. It's just the normal stuff of experience, a single form of experience just manifesting in various ways. And it's this simple faculty of experience——the knowing of stuff as it happens—— that lately I've found so mesmerizing and satisfying. The subjective goodness or badness, desireability or dislike of it, has seemed largely irrelevant——like television programming you can turn on or off at will. Interesting but not carrying any profound seriousness.

It's possible that this string of odd events has caused me to artificially go to an false "happy place." Perhaps the tension is building without me knowing it. Maybe walking home from the bus stop tonight, something will snap and I'll stomp on a small puppy.

At the moment, though, the good, bad and ugly of life all has the same flavor to me, and it's a pretty good taste. I'm sure to fall back asleep again shortly. But that's okay too.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Three Good Books

It's not real often I can recommend three excellent books at the same time, so such an opportunity can't be ignored. It's entirely a coincidence that two of these books have strangely similar names.

1. The Year of Magical Thinking. It's always a treat when a world-class novelist turns to memoir, and this is no exception. This is Joan Didion's memoir of her year of adjustment after the sudden, unexpected death of her husband. Any effort to describe why this book is great would be woefully inadequate, so I'll simply say it should be must reading.

2. Magical Thinking. This collection of autobiographical essays by Augusten Burroughs, the author of Running with Scissors, is painstakingly crafted, and is by turns hysterically funny and shockingly honest. A great, great read.

3. Rain Gods. James Lee Burke's books could be relegated to the category of pulp fiction, given the subject matters. These are all crime mystery/thrillers. But he is one of the few such authors producing books that I reread periodically, because they cross over from popular fiction to true literature. With heroes and villains who are fascinatingly complex, there are Burke novels that I've read as many as four times——that's how interesting they are. The plots are unmistakably masculine and sometimes a bit raw, but this last novel is good enough to remind you of No Country for Old Men.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

20, 25, 30, 35 and Counting

Over the weekend, we attended our 35th reunion of our high school graduating class of 1974. Hard to believe, but true. I felt some trepidation about this, as like most people, I see a much different image in the mirror today than I did 35 years ago, and I wasn't particularly eager to read shock in other people's eyes when they realized who I was.

Naturally, my anticipation was far worse than the reality. All of us have changed, of course, but I was certainly no more shockingly transformed than other members of my class, and am probably a bit better preserved than the norm.

What was most interesting was the general tenor of the reunion. Like most of these gatherings, there was a general mood perceptible in the group at this one. At the 20th class reunion, I remember there being a good deal of energy and optimism, as we were all right in the heart of our career years, still believing that the best years were just about to arrive. It wasn't a particularly realistic mood, but it was invigorating.

By the 30th reunion we in our late 40s, and I remember that there was a prevailing mood of quiet disappointment and even cynicism. I remember talking with many people who quietly expressed that their jobs/marriages/parenting lives hadn't turned out quite the way they wanted. The dreams that had still been percolating 10 years earlier had now been dashed. Divorces had come for some; job layoffs for others; others just hadn't achieved the happiness they expected as their birthright.

So I didn't know quite what to expect at the 35th reunion. I feared that the mood might be even more negative than five years earlier. So it came as a welcome surprise to find that some level of optimism had returned to the group. There were a few people who still seemed mired in maintaining old illusions——the blonde class bombshell embarrassed herself by pouring herself into a black cocktail dress that is now much too tight; another class member still is seeking the big overnight success that is always just out of reach; another woman continues to complain to others about every negative thing in her life, just the way she did 35 years ago.

But for the most part, what I heard on Saturday night was a group of former classmates who have now put things in perspective. For the most part, we no longer are seeking more out of life, but have learned to take satisfaction in what we have. There are those among us who have enjoyed notable career success, but few people talk about it any more, and absolutely nobody brags about it. Everyone now understands how illusory those acheivements are. Instead, we talk about empty nest living, about our now-grown kids. A surprising number are speaking fondly of grandchildren. We laugh about the shared experience of being middle aged and developing arthritis, and shake our heads at the foibles of our children and the younger generation in general.

It was just fine. And I no longer worry about the year 2024, when the 50th reunion will come and we will hobble in at age 68. I'm looking forward to it, in fact.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two Sides to the Same Train

When you start riding this train, you feel as though the window shades are drawn tightly shut on this side of the railway car, the side you’re sitting on. Your only view is through the windows across the aisle. There, the scenery you see out the window is horrifying and fascinating all at the same time. It’s complicated scenery out those windows, where you see the people outside engaged in all kinds of confused things. As the train passes by, the people you see by the wayside are busy planning and plotting and worrying, and things aren’t ever exactly as they seem. The people you see out that window always seem to be distracted by other things as they go about their business. It is a very interesting landscape, but also quite exhausting. It is a little like watching a neverending Bosch painting, with all manner of horrifying and terrifying and interesting things going on there. There’s a lot of addiction and compulsion and habit to that life, and not much freedom.

You started riding this train, frankly, because you were just exhausted with that scenery out there. It is the scenery of your everyday life, and you boarded the train hoping to escape it. Perhaps you imagined that after a long, long train ride, you’d find scenery that was more peaceful and joyful. And so you start to ride, turning your head away from the open windows in renunciation of what you see there, the way you've lived up to now.

Pretty soon, though, as you learn how to relax and let go, you begin to see some new, unexpected scenery through the cracks around the window shades on this side of the train, the windows right at your elbow, and maybe soon the shades start to come up a little bit. Or maybe one after the other, a shade or two goes up fully, exposing new windows and entirely different scenery.

And you see that the scenery on this side of the train is much, much different. Much simpler, much cleaner. It was there all along, it wasn’t something you needed to travel long distances for. Maybe you see something like the scenery in parts of Italy, with the blue sea below you, small white sailboats sailing around; and across a azure bay, towering snow-capped mountains in the distance, white billowy clouds filling the sky.

The scenery on this side is much simpler, and when you pass by people in the landscape outside, you see that they don’t seem to be planning or plotting at all, but they are simply doing things. Doing simple things, and doing them simply, elegantly. No addiction, no compulsion, no dreary habit. It is a free landscape.

It is a clean, straightforward landscape, with no subterfuge, no horror. Everything is workable here, everything is pretty much as it looks. No mystery; things are what they are. Things are exactly what they appear to be, no more.

When you become aware that both kinds of scenery exist on the same train ride, there may actually be a point where you’re really not sure that you want the new, cleaner, simpler landscape. You may feel some nostalgia for the horrific Bosch, garden-of-earthly-delights way of living. After all, it is in some ways more interesting than the simple beautiful way of living. It is also more familiar to you, more comfortable in a strange way, so you may actually find yourself preferring the sorrowful life. The clean way of living can seem a little boring, if you’ve been obsessed with confusion for most of your life.

Careful examination will probably tell you which scenery you truly want, but there are people who glimpse the clean way and then reject it. That is their choice, though they may not even realize that they are making that choice.

The important thing is that you recognize that where you turn your gaze is a decision that you make, and that both scenes are present at all times. It’s not that you must travel thousands of miles and many years to see the new landscape. It’s simply a matter of raising the blinds and turning the direction of your head.

You will even come to realize that the beautiful scenery is to be found immediately out the window closest to you, on your side of the train, not across the aisle, and that it’s actually easier to see this than to crane your neck and peer out the opposite side at the ghastly scenery. Following the horrific way of living actually takes the greater effort.

This is one way of looking at the path you've chosen to travel.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Genetics Isn't a Choice

My mother and I didn't have a great relationship, and I've worked relatively hard over the years to create space between her legacy and my own character. There was time that I bristled with resentment simply because somebody remarked that my wavy hair reminded them of my mother's. Emotionally volatile, occasionally abusive, and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, my mother was a troubled personality any way you look at it. I've lived my life trying to be different from that example, though I was never so naive as to think I've escaped those genes entirely.

The ferocity of that insistence has lessened a bit as I grew older, but it's not gone away. I like to pretend that my own habits and personality are more like my father; to say I am like my mother always feels like something of an insult to me. Even now, 13 years after her death, this is true for me.

Yesterday, though, somebody I work with mentioned that one of the key to my modest success in this particular little corner of the business world is that I have a "big personality" that can hold its own amidst some very dominant personalities around me.

It startled me, at first, because I am first and foremost a shy fellow, and it surprises me when people see me as a forceful personality. But I was also startled because I recognized that there was some truth to this, and that this particular trait is one I owe to no one but my mother.

My father has always been, and always will be, a very unassuming and retiring personality. While he was quietly successful as a small town school teacher, it's not likely his character could have succeeded in the world of frequent business trips and meetings with corporate executives.

There are lots of ways I'm exactly like my father, and I'm thankful for them. But there are also lots of ways I'm like my mother, and after all this time, it's kind of silly to keep thinking this is a bad thing. What choice do I have, after all?

At 53 years of age, is this a sign that I'm growing up?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Brass Ones

Okay, so once in awhile I play hooky for a day, turn off my cell phone, don't answer E-mails, and go to the woods to hike without telling anybody.

Once, I tacked on a couple of extra days to a business trip in order to go hike up to the base of the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

A few moments of pure alone time, when nobody knows where you are, or what you're doing, is a perfectly understandable guilty pleasure.

But today we learned that the governor of South Carolina——the frickin' governor——disappeared for several days, over the Father's Day weekend, of all times. He told staff members that he was going to hike the Appalacian Trail, but couldn't be reached under any circumstances. It is, we're told, fairly typical behavior for this governor.

We now know that the governor instead was vacationing in Argentina with his girlfriend. He tearfully admits the extramarital affair, and regrets the hurt he has caused his family.

What the hell gives with politicians? Spending their whole lives courting public attention, they still somehow imagine that they can get away with anonymous affairs, laisons with high priced call girls, or gay sex trysts in airport bathrooms.

I don't know which is worse....arrogance or stupidity.

Coping, Today

I don't know if this says something about my own nature, or whether it's something more or less inherent in the modern western world we live in. But the truth is that I honestly cannot remember the last time I felt the contentment that goes with feeling that everything's done which needs to be done.

My work days end with dozens of in-progress tasks, all with very urgent deadlines, that aren't yet completed. On a given day, I've probably made progress toward completing some of them, but the moment one small duty is completed, two more have popped up to take its place. Contracts to negotiate, schedules to be approved, budgets to be created, initiatives to be launched.

At home, there are always garden beds to be weeded, siding to be patched, carpeting to be replaced, floors to be refinished, leaky faucets to be repaired, kids to be counseled, trip reservations to be made.

It can all be a little overwhelming and crazy-making, especially when I get seduced by the wish for an end to chaos.

So my method of coping is this: Rather than aiming for permanent Completion of Duties, I simply give myself a small moment of private recognition whenever I've done something that is helpful in any way. Days are generally full of these small opportunities, ranging from opening a locked door for an employee who needs access to a studio, to approving a check request, to making a decision for somebody who needs one, to answering a question from a consumer who calls with a problem. At home, pulling a single noxious weed is helpful, changing the bag on the vacuum cleaner is helpful, so I take note of that small act of helpfulness.

Generally, this means small celebrations of what I CAN do, and little time spent thinking about what I WISH I could do. Focusing on the process of life rather than a goal.

That's in my better moments. In more difficult ones, I still long for a perfection that is far beyond me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rueful Chuckle for Friday Afternoon

I ran across this little postcard message tacked to the wall outside a colleague's office.

The caption is illegible in this photo captured on my phone, but this is what it says:

"As much as I try to be a
spread your wings and fly type....

I just can't stop
trying to burst people
into flames with my mind."

I started to laugh, then realized I wasn't sure if I was on the giving or taking end of this mood.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Never what it seems....

In the above-street pedestrian skyway system of downtown Minneapolis over lunch today, I found myself following behind a young woman, whose appearance begged to be described as "sharp" in every scary sense of the word. I'm not sure if the word for this style is "punk" or "goth" or what, these days; but her hair, dyed jet black, was spiked in spear-shaped shards. Her lipstick and nail polish was glossy black, and rivets and nails and safety pins and railroad spikes seemed to pierce most every bit of exposed skin. The tattoos that covered her neck , upper back and arms were the stuff of horror films: dragon's fangs and barbed wire and thorns. Black leather and black denim comprised her wardrobe.

As she passed through one of the doorways over the skyway tunnel over 5th Street, her right hand balled into a fist and she punched the handicap button that opens the door automatically for disabled folks.

Aha, I thought to myself. Another spoiled young person, too damned lazy to even open a simple door for themselves.

But then I saw coming toward us a elderly pair riding single file in motorized scooters. Clearly husband and wife, they were almost certainly in their late 80s or 90s, and they now aimed their rides toward the door that had opened magically for their passage.

The scary girl didn't even acknowledge the old folks as she strode past them with hobnailed boots, but both the husband and wife each gave a small knowing smile as they rolled past toward the door she had kindly opened for them.

Reality is rarely exactly what we think it is.

Friday, May 22, 2009

An Old Man Rants

Okay, so I'd like to not sound like a grumpy old man, but what's with kids these days? Does nobody teach them the basic manners of existing in the world? I'd very much like to collectively scold the parents who raised the current generation of young adults.

Very often it's on the bus that I observe this rotten behavior on the part of young adults, but sometimes it creeps over into the workplace itself. Cases in point:

• Last week, I found myself surrounding by young working people on the bus, each of whom was wearing ear-bud style headphones for their i-pods, but each of whom was playing the volume at such high levels that everybody around could hear the music clearly. What in the world this was like inside their heads is anybody's guess. Do these kids actually imagine that the rest of us need to hear their music, too?

• Next to the bus, a car driven by a young man pulls up. Windows are down, the better to boom out hurricane-level bass tones from huge speakers mounted inside his car. It is deafening to everyone one the street, even to passengers sequestered behind closed bus windows. WTF! If you want to blow your brains out with hip-hop music, could you not at least close the damned car windows?

• A frequent happening, on the bus and almost everywhere these days, is the young adult who thinks nothing at all about having a private cell phone conversation in crowded places, where the details are impossible for the rest of us to avoid. I'm hear to tell you that if you riding the 4F downtown bus, you just are not important enough to annoy the rest of us with your stupid phone calls. Save it until you get off the bus, already. Older folks seem to have some sense of decency about public phone calls——most of us turn off the phones when in crowded places, or we seek an out-of-the-way corner to have the conversation. No so with the youngsters. They are just too self-important to consider other people.

• And I arrived at the office to find a young female coworker painting her toenails a bright shade of scarlet....seated in the company lunch room.

Honestly, folks. Feral children raised by wolves have better manners than this crop.