Sunday, May 22, 2016

Big Stories

I've been thinking about big stories.

Putting on the market a 1895 house that my wife's family has lived in for 68 years is a big story, yet, as we went through every piece of paper that had come to the house in those years, we kept getting caught in the little stories.

Just as the old man with the gray beard listens to a bird, I try to listen too. My car won't start. What are my options? How do I go from the exasperation of the moment to seeing how fortunate I am to have a car at all. And so I have to walk. At first I complain because I paid someone to fix my car, but then I realize that birds are singing as I walk.

Why is it so hard to step back? How much wisdom that man must have had to listen to the bird. He could be complaining about his fading memory or his aching body. But no, it is the bird that catches his attention.

There is a dark cloud above him. Is this telling us that something bad is going to happen to the man? And his hearing might be going, which is why the horn is placed on his ear like a hearing aid.

My sister-in-law asked me what my big story was in five words. I said something about wanting to connect different belief systems. She said I used too many words.

These simple joys, like listening to a bird's song, take us away from our miseries. The big story... It is not the story with consequences. It goes beyond time, place and circumstance. There is so much petty stuff that the man could be obsessing about. How will he divide up her property when he dies? Did he pay his bills? Does he have food for dinner?

Yet he chooses a little joy. The bird's song takes him to another place. Like the bird, he is just focusing on a song. He is liberated from his car not starting, his life ending, his kids fighting over his property. The bird sings a big story. If only I could hear it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Involuntary Transgressions: Lifting up the Chair

In the Torah, Aaron puts his hands on the goat to rid the Israelites of their sins and their involuntary transgressions. I understood how sin was something that should be removed, but why should I worry about involuntary transgressions? Am I responsible for what I didn’t intend to do? Of course not.

Something nagged me to learn more. I listened to part of a talk by a Hassidic rabbi about involuntary transgressions. It seemed like a silly topic… but still, something was calling me to learn more.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the beginning of the talk… I did hear him mumbling about the problem of moving a bench. He spoke a little about the various ways we can move a bench. Then he asked, “Suppose the bench weighs 200 pounds. What then? If you aren’t careful you will leave a trough.” I didn’t connect this to involuntary transgressions. I just assumed that he was talking about something else… and he’d get to the matter at hand.

Later that evening, our Zen teacher was scolding us about how we were moving the chairs, as another Zen teacher had scolded me months ago. I should have known better, living with someone who practices Japanese tea ceremony. But as I heard the scolding, I thought of the rabbi moving a bench. Our focus might be on getting the bench from point A to point B. But in doing so, there might be collateral damage, so to speak.

Back to the lecture. The rabbi apologetically gave the too graphic example of a father whose daughter tells him that she’d like to play with a chicken’s head. So the loving father cuts off the head for his daughter. He should have known that the chicken would die a needless death, but he overlooked that with the job at hand: pleasing his daughter. If we had confronted him on his seemingly benevolent act, he’d be quick to respond that he was just expressing his love for his daughter by fulfilling her desire for a toy.

The scapegoat, so to speak, was his intention. It reminded me of the saying that we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. Certainly it is not a fair game. And I can see how one can muster up a great deal of anger from not understanding how someone might criticize us for killing the chicken, even when we just wanted to express love.

My mind thought back to when my dad, acting out of the best of intentions, disappointed me. He was a good lawyer, and as such, could find convincing excuses for whatever he had done. He also had been on the University of Chicago debate team, and could take any side of a discussion at ease. He even could do this on his death bed, while taking morphine for great pain from pancreatic cancer. But that’s another story.

I had a sick goldfish. Well, it actually had been torn into pieces by our neighbor’s cat and was floating on the surface of our pond. It was a sorry sigh and I was devastated. I insisted to my parents that we go to the pet store and get some pills. We did, and put the pills in the pond. The next day, the goldfish was happily swimming in the pond. I’m not sure if I saw the original goldfish later that day in the garbage can, or if that's something I’m just imagining… but the image is just as real. In fact, I killed a goldfish a few years later so I could watch it die. But that’s still another story.

I was very disappointed in my dad for lying to me because he didn’t want me to be sad. My parents believed that “life was for the living” and we had no time for death. Was it skillful means? Or was this an opportunity for me to learn about death, a subject painful for him having lost his father at an early age? He never saw that he had done anything wrong. Perhaps, as in the classic Buddhist story, I was in a burning house unwilling to stop playing with my toys and my father lied because it was the only way he could get me out of his house. I do know how I felt: deceived.

A few years later, I was playing with some kids and Rodney Banks (I hope he finds this so I can tell him how sorry I am) wanted to play with us. He was younger, and we didn’t want to play with him. He wouldn’t leave us alone, so I started throwing pebbles at his. One hit him just below the eye. I found out later that day, after he had gone to the hospital, that he could have lost his eye sight in one eye. In the meantime, my friends and I went to my room and made a list of 20 reasons why it was ok that I have thrown a rock at him. We were innocent, we concluded.

That was the first of 100s of 1000s of involuntary transgressions that I have done. All were very defensible (I am my father’s son), and all wrong.

In the shower this morning, I thought about how, in a Zen reading group last night, I was once again criticized for believing that Zen could end suffering. We laughed at various zen sayings. The one I’ve heard in the past is that “Zen is good for nothing.” So why in the world would you do something (that isn’t easy) for no reason whatsoever? I tried to see if there was a connection between believing there would be some gain to Zen practice, and, to up the ante, to connect this to why my friend was so mad when I suggested the other day that life is a game.

As the warm water was making my sore shoulder feel better, something started to come together. First, the rhyming words gain and game are friends. They go together. There is an end in sight, and the strategy is to get a result in the end. It reminded me of a Zen saying about how could we walk the path if one eye was on the destination. Being present means having both eyes on the path.

So what does this have to do with involuntary transgressions? The man who cut off the chicken’s head without realizing he was killing the chicken had one eye on the goal: pleasing his daughter. My dad pleased me by switching the goldfish, and also excused himself from having to explain death to his son. Saul Alinsky asked, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” Justify is another word for pleading innocent for an involuntary transgression.

Rather than thinking that I really don’t need to pay attention to my involuntary transgressions, I realized that most of the harm that I cause is the result of these actions. The voluntary transgressions are not so frequent. What impacts the world, and what comes back to haunt me, is all those things that I “innocently” do or don’t do that have a negative effect. I can defend them all, as my father taught me so well. Or I can “watch my step,” as the saying goes, lifting up the chair to move it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Boo circles! Yea mists!

Here’s what I don’t like about circles. I’m either in or out. If I’m in, I can’t get out. And if I’m out, I can’t get in. Either way, I am restricted. Even when we set chairs in a circle we need to leave an opening.

I like circles better than other geometric shapes. They all have their problems. I like cars that look like square boxes. The boxier the better.

The other problem with circles is that they roll down hills. They don’t sit anywhere.  They just lay down. Our world, as angular as it is, isn’t very friendly towards circles.

Did you know that the lenses on a camera sees circles? But since art is rectangles for the most part, what you get when you take a picture is either a landscape or a portrait, all cut by your helpful camera from a circle.

There is talk of a new camera that would give you only circles. And then, if you need to cow down to rectangle loving people, you can give them portraits or landscapes to their heart’s content.

So what is it that I like? Mists. Mists neither include nor exclude. They are both here and there. There is no beginning and no end. No one can take my mist because they can’t grab hold of her. We are all mists. Nothing more and nothing less. Our edges are soft. Some molecules bouncing off of me might be on the other side of the world, and some on this side. If someone says, where do you live, I can just say here or over there, and I’d be right. No need for GPS... Because I am always in the mist, wherever I am. Want to join households? It already happened. All mists are one.

I do owe a lot to circles. Zero is supposed to be a great mathematical advancement. How else would I indicate how many children I have living at home when they both grow up and leave home?

In school, I used to dread “0s.” 50% was bad enough, but if I knew nothing and wasn’t wise enough to know that was cool, I’d be devastated with a “0.”

Back to mists... They are much closer to what I know about something. There is nothing solid, nothing unchanging, nothing resolute about a mist. They are like feelings. They have some focus, but they don’t give up there as does a circle. Sometimes they are very contained and sometimes they explode. But they always respond to atmospheric conditions and changing life situations.

Circles on the other hand are like pies... And my problem with a pie is that once I eat it, it is gone. Gone with the wind, except not really... Gone into my stomach. Mists might be “gone with the wind,” but there is always a piece left behind... A memory... A glimpse at what once was.

Boo circles! Yea mists!

Circles with an Opening

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Monkey on my Back

My favorite landscapes, as a kid, were polar opposites. On the one hand, there was the frantic and busy State Street in Chicago. I was a little midget to the grown people and screeching cars. And I loved it. It pumped my adrenaline. It was a collage catering to every sense, from garish colors to cheap perfume. Women wore so much makeup that it almost fell off. And I admired how they could walk with their high heels. Everyone was in a hurry. I was lost in the chaos, and yet I felt completely at home.

Somewhere I had heard about dope, and how if you ever messed with the stuff you'd be addicted for life. One day, walking around on State Street, a man pinched my arm. I was convinced he had given me a shot of heroin, and that I was now a doomed addict. I knew that the shot would wear off, but I also knew that with the shot came the knowledge of where to get my next fix, so far.

In the summers we went to a little beach town in Oregon. There was a vast ocean there, that went on all the way to the horizon. The beach was deep and long, and the sand sung as you walked in it, due to a special crystalline structure. The little town was as different from State Street as a place could be, and yet I loved it just the same. I could hide in each of these spaces, and I didn't have to say anything. I could get lost in the immensity of either space, feeling both a complete stranger, and back to being in the womb.

How lucky to be able to experience man and nature, if there is to be a distinction. In the end, I am a small invisible dot on an infinite landscape—part of the whole—a whole as immense as I am minuscule.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My Holy Coat

I saw myself wearing a coat with buttons. Whatever I'd do, the buttons would be pushed. Something would set me off. It was like the buttons were just waiting to be set off. I even looked for Torah verses to set me off. I was like an eagle looking for prey. Why? I could have looked for something else. 

I wanted to integrate more with the world, so I decided to make a lot of holes in the coat, like it was Swiss cheese. It worked for a little while, though I was now a contrast of buttons ready to strike and very holy Swiss cheese.

I took the coat off one day and realized that I had no skin. I'd been wearing it for almost 70 years and it had become my skin. So when I took it off, it took off my skin too. Or maybe the coat was my skin, growing as I grew and shrinking as I shrunk.

For awhile, I was so happy without the coat. I had eliminated the distinction between me and the other. So I looked for a place to hang my coat. I tried different closets, but I didn't want to wish my coat on anyone. It had bad vibes.

Finally I realized I could hang it in my childhood closet. No one was living in the house as it was being renovated. And I was a little upset with the people renovating it because they had put an outside door in our dining room right behind where my father sat. I know nothing about feng shui except that you shouldn’t have a straight shot from the front door to the back door. The door was like an arrow in my heart… so now you know what it is like when one of my buttons is pushed.

Then I read the Lakota poem about saying thank you. Ha ha, I thought. i don't have to give up my old and now holy coat with buttons. I can reprogram all the hot buttons to thank you buttons. I'd look around and see what would cause me to feel gratitude--to say thank you.

And  when I started reading the Torah today, I came across this passage: He imbued them with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of work, and I thought a great pleasure in having a love for searching for this wisdom of the heart, and for having so many guides along the way.” (Exodus 35:35)

And then I made bread today, and it came out good. So I said thank you to the bread universe, and then it turned out that it was too much for me to wash the baking dishes so I said thank you to my wife because she said she would do it.

So “thank you thank you thank you” as Gomer Pyle would say.


Thank you thank you thank you...

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hillary's Speaking Fees and the Talmud

People are objecting to Hillary's speaking fees because of the amount and the source. I think the amount is a product of supply and demand (there aren't many Hillarys). 



I think the application of the Talmud is wrong in her situation because it is impossible to worry about who is giving you money, esp. for speaking. If it did matter, political figures could not speak anywhere, and that would be worse than the potential conflict of interest. BTW, there is another suggestion in Judaism that you are never to withhold knowledge (or even not give a book away if someone wants it).

Milton Friedman had no objection to lobbying, saying that people would lobby from both sides. The alternative (outlawing lobbying) would be far worse. We know there will always be an imbalance, but is it the role of government to try to make it even (which is next to impossible)?

Every organization has agendas. We hope that the money for the speeches were not bribery. And then there is a moral question of whether Hillary is being dishonest to Wall Street by speaking to them without any intent to cow to their wishes... but letting them believe that she will. That would seem to be against the Buddhist precept of not taking what is not given (it is my intent to bring Buddhism and Judaism into every argument I try to make.)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

...you are arriving.

You are not leaving
you are arriving. —David Whyte

What a twist! As I see the seconds of my life fly out my window, and as I realize that each breath I take is a gift, especially as I am getting over pneumonia, I am floored by that line. I’ve been feeling that I’m just a disappearing act—hoping that I leave something worthwhile behind. So where might I be arriving?

If the Israelites made a 40-year journey in the desert to the promised land, and if they didn’t even get there, were they arriving? And none of us will complete the work, so did we arrive?

Is this Pollyanna talking? I heard that an old man is 100% authentic. Is that arriving?

Is arriving coming into a wisdom? Is it finally understanding why life operates as she does? Or is it understanding that some things can’t be understood?

Arriving? Some say that we shouldn’t focus on the destination but rather on the journey. So what is this arriving business?

Ah ha. Whyte said you are arriving. Not you have arrived. So it is still a journey, but is it just a reframing? Is that it?

Arriving where? I reread my mom’s autopsy an hour ago. It told the weight of her body parts, and described a mysterious scar 27 centimeters long from a Cesarian section. None of me or my siblings were born that way. What don’t we know? Where had she arrived? She never wanted to be sick. So she went from health to death. She left a cool family behind, and a husband who would live and thrive for another five years. But where did she arrive? We saw her leaving, that’s for sure. Did she come home? Did she return from where she came.

Yesterday I was thinking about the Zen riddle—when the me that I imagine to be me actually came into my body. Was it at conception? Was it at birth? Where was it before it came around to me? Where had it been lurking? Did it arrive when we joined forces? And did my mom’s “me” jump ship right before she died. Now is her “me” waiting for a new host? We still have some of her ashes—or do we?

Arriving? Getting there? In Buddhism we talk about crossing the stream... and dispensing the raft that we don’t need anymore. Is that arriving? Some say you shouldn’t put your foot on the opposite shore until all beings are saved. So, in that case, you have not arrived. You are just arriving. I’ve never liked that word just… “Are you an artist,” she asked, “or are you just a photographer?”

So I like that word, arriving. I feel a breath of fresh air. I feel a new lease on life—a new view of an old journey.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Gardener

We imagine that the “simple man” has it figured out. Or at least, doesn't need to figure it out. I don't think I've had that advantage of being a gardener. But I like the idea that one can just take care of their children, even if they are roses.

My wife's grandpa, Grandpa Burgin, was a simple man. He had been a tenant farmer and worked on the railroad. As he became older, he sat in an easy chair and chewed tobacco, spitting it into a repurposed coffee can. And he'd play solitaire, one game after another. His wife, Grandma Stella, would cook and clean. They lived in a little house in a little town. I don't know what they knew of the bigger world.

Once we moved a few hours away and we had them come to our house and visit. Grandpa Burgin would only come if he could work. He spent the day weeding. He worked at a steady pace from dawn to dusk, seemingly never coming up for air.

His son was pretty much the same. Whenever he came to our house, he'd fix something. We raised the stakes for him, though. First it was to add an addition to our house. And then it was to build a large studio, which ended up becoming a second house.

And my grandpa was much the same. When he came to my sister's wedding, he was very antsy. Finally we put him to work painting the outside of our house and he was happy.

The gardener is busy. She works hard. I don't know what she thinks about, but I do know that it takes a lot of focus to garden. My wife does quite a bit of gardening, and she's always focused on the job at hand. Sometimes when I ask her questions about what I'm thinking about, she wisely says, “Does it matter?”

Yesterday we read about Buddhist philosophical meditation, where one examines Buddhist concepts. I'm not quite sure if this varies from philosophical thinking. I do know that Zen people sit more to quiet the stream. The glorification of the simple gardener probably belongs more to Zen than to other branches of Buddhism.

Going back to grandpas and grandmas, if you work hard maybe you don't have time to think cosmic thoughts. The job at hand is so critical. The roses depend upon your attention.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Present Moment

“Throw caution to the wind.” Is that what we are hearing when the Zen warrior remembers what his teacher told him: that his fears will go away when he just attends to the present moment?

Would you drive 100 miles an hour when you just attend to the present moment?

I think being in the present moment is the opposite of “throwing caution to the wind.” We’d be acutely aware of inherent dangers if we were awake. We’d see that driving so fast might endanger others. We’d hear the vibrations of our car and know that, in this moment, we were driving too fast.

Supposedly the frontal part of the brain that tells us about consequences doesn’t get developed until our late 20s. Does that mean that we are living in the moment until then, and as we get to be old fogies, we start looking at the future and past?

No. I think that might be a misinterpretation of “living in the moment.” It is not the reckless abandon of the “happy go lucky” teenager. We’d see the consequences of our actions. We’d do the right thing. We’d make good judgments.

We’d notice that the horse we were riding was ready to collapse. We see that the person with which we were interacting was bored stiff. We’d see it all. There would be enough caution implicit in our moment to moment observations that we wouldn’t kill the horse nor would we bore our friend to sleep.

But, you might say, the warrior who faces a dreadful tomorrow might have been ill-advised from his Zen master to be in the moment. Perhaps he could prepare to avoid his possible execution tomorrow. I think the answer is that fear is about the future. If there is a problem in the present, then that is what should be addressed. This moment is not always about fulfilling sensual needs. It is about appropriately responding to the needs of an infant, or oneself, or the field we are tilling or the plant we are watering.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Penis Envy No More

Fourteen century Japanese story: The monk said that his member was three feet long. The nun said that her vagina was infinite, the container of all, and from where all Buddhas were born.

I think about Freud’s penis envy. Certainly the nun ended it once and for all. There is no doubt that every situation is a teachable moment. Did she act as a bodhisattva (one who saves all beings rather than crossing the stream to Nirvana)?

When I’ve been reading about Buddhist tolerance I read that sometimes it is best to be intolerant as the nun was. Perpetuating the monk’s delusion that his worth could be measured by a ruler would not have been kind. If delusions cause suffering, his suffering would just continue.

We talked last week about why these Zen stories about women aren’t more known. Would Freud have changed his view upon learning of the inadequacy of a man’s member compared to a woman’s vagina?

My wife has taken on quite a different role lately. When I was ill she did things that I always do, like run errands for me. Now she is with our kids, guiding them in their mourning of their grandma. It has been liberating for me to see how I don’t need to be the one “doing things.” Sometimes when we can’t function well we see how others are so able to do so. Both my wife and the nun reframed my views.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Much Profit Is Too Much?

Today at lunch with two friends I heard the comment that insurance companies want too great of a profit. The other person nodded her head in agreement, adding that no one needs to earn 25 million dollars.

Actually there is a law limiting such profits: http://thehealthcareblog.com/blog/2012/02/04/does-obamacare-limit-profits-for-health-insurance-companies-in-your-state/

And, actually, I’m suspicious that this law actually benefits the consumer.

Suppose one wants to go into the insurance business. Would they be more apt to choose a business where the profits were unlimited, or limited?

Competition drives down prices. Companies are drawn to sectors where they can have higher profits. But to get those profits, they need to be efficient and good.

One of my friends said that her insurance company wouldn’t let her go to MD Anderson, where her specialist worked. If this were a profitable industry, another company would hear of this disservice and jump into the field.

Do we care more about the profits, or do we care about the service and the price?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Subsidizing Self-Driving Cars and Sinking Stocks

Supposedly self-driving cars will save lives, save the environment, and save time. Someday we’ll call for a cab… and actually get a cab and no driver to take us where we want to go. It is a brave new world.

Let’s assume that it is all good. I have no way of knowing that, nor do I trust the worthiness of predictions. But that’s another point.

The question is whether the government should be spending 4 billion on this endeavor. Actually, calling a spade a spade, should they be taking $12.40 cents from every man, woman, and child in the US and giving it to the car manufactures to invest in a hot technology with a lucrative potential?

Does the fact that this car will benefit mankind mean that the government should subsidize it? What else should they subsidize? Is there not already sufficient momentum that these cars will be built without the subsidy? What effect will this have on the current cars? Won’t they become more expensive to produce and to buy because they aren’t being subsidized… and many people will therefore choose the driverless cars that maybe be artificially cheaper?

On another front, a friend wrote that she had lost a lot of money in the market slump. Another friend (probably more than one) decided to pull their money out of the market during one slump or another. I tried to explain that you don’t lose money, per se, until you sell a stock at a lower value that what you paid for it. Companies and countries have growing pains. They don’t always do well. That’s a given. Sometimes you should take a loss. But often, you can just repeat the mantra, “the market goes up and down.”

Here is a graph of the Dow for the last 115 years. It goes up and down… but over time goes up. Another mantra, “It is going down so it can go up again.”


Unfortunately, sometimes this up and down might be inconvenient. One might need it to be up on a day that it is down. There comes the Zen teaching that most, if not all, of our suffering comes from the fact that life is different that how we'd like it to be. The givens are: your computer will crash and you’ll lose your data (especially if you don’t back-up), you’ll die, sometimes your friends will unfriend you, etc. etc. Love it or hate it. That is the way things work.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guns on Campus and the Wild West

I’ve been thinking a lot about the open carry law. I’m threatened by seeing citizens around me with guns hanging from their hip. Actually I haven’t seen that yet, but still, I’m scared.

Imagine this. That in some classrooms there would be a button on the desk. If the student pushes it, the teacher evaporates. Is that atmosphere conducive to learning? Can a teacher say, “Well, Johnny, maybe you should look at it this way.”

I’m sure in 38 years of teaching I’ve said many things that would incite a student to push a button. That possibility of evaporating would keep me from reentering the classroom.

Is the button much different than a trigger on a gun? I don’t think so. Texas allows concealed guns on campus. University of Texas says that this has been the case for 20 years.

I did have two situations with students and guns. Once I had to terminate a staff member who had a gun collection and had previously checked themselves into a mental institution because they were afraid they’d use their guns. Another time I had a student who ended up killing one of his teachers with a gun. So it isn’t as if there is nothing to worry about.

My dad made me promise on his death bed not to be a dean. I went ahead and did it anyway. (He also made me promise not to retire, which I did.) I feel one of his reasons for me not becoming dean is that it is a dangerous job. As a dean, you need to make decisions that affect livelihoods. Some faculty/staff would have instantly pressed the evaporate button if it was available.

The other side of the coin complicates the issue. If I was a potential shooter who wanted to take as many lives as possible, would I go to our local grocery, Central Market, that doesn’t allow open carry… or would I go to Natural Grocers that does. Where would I be most successful?

I like the idea (fable) that in the Wild West, you’d have to hang up your gun as you entered a tavern. Are we going to have check rooms now at this store and that school, so that people can hang up their guns? I’m baffled… and scared a little about leaving my house. Where is it safe?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Thoughts about Not-Knowing God

Many moons ago, and then, more recently, I read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian. At the first reading, I was convinced that anyone who “believed” had been duped. More recently, I felt that Russell stereotyped the tenets of belief in such a way that his argument was valid, but did not apply to many believers.

When I started going to Torah study I wondered who this God was to the participants. I found that they generally thought of him/her as an expression of an idea, much like beauty or love. I came to believe that there wasn't much to deny. If you call God the nature of things, or the overarching force to the universe, then that's what it is.

But then I just talked with Linda about her mom's funeral today, and she told me about how the minister said that if you don't believe in Jesus you won't be saved... and I'm glad I wasn't there because then I would have had to practice restraint.

I really wanted to write about something more interesting... to me, at least. In the Torah (Lev.19:4) we read, “Do not turn to idols.” In the Talmud (Shabbat 149a) it interprets this to mean, “Do not turn to that which you conceive in your own minds.”

I see this as a beautiful expression about how we really don't know answers to the really big questions... and believing (or conceiving) answers is playing a very dangerous game. Not knowing allows the universe to breathe. And it allows us to breathe. The problem with knowing is that we have to hold our breath because we can be proved wrong at any moment.

The Zen precept I'm working on now is meeting people on equal ground. I think not knowing helps me do this. I don't know what havoc the person next to me has experienced recently. I don't know their ambitions and accomplishments. I don't know much of anything about them. I do know that they are unique and special. Isn't that enough?

When we idolize one thing we un-idolize another thing. Yet, meeting all on equal ground places us all at the same level. We are all well-intentioned and honorable. We are all chosen. But we aren't more special or chosen than anyone else, despite what we've been told all our lives.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Father's Knot


I was going to write something about the difference between grieving and compassion. If we are all suffering, as Buddha surmised, then we might grieve for others as we are feeling compassion. But I'm not going to write about that. Maybe.

My relationship with my dad was complicated, as people like to say on Facebook. There is no doubt that he was a stellar guy. He was smart and kind and funny. He knew so much, but never rammed his opinions down anyone's throat. In fact, many of his friends held ideas diametrically opposed to his, though that never shook their deep admiration for him.

He had one father who died when he was an infant, and a step-father who was not very nice. He basically was fatherless. He married a woman who thought that she knew everything about raising kids, and despite his intelligence, she felt that he could do no right. She'd say, “Shut up, Edmond,” when he'd try to be the parent. So I didn't have much of a father. If I tried to remember things that he taught me, like tying shoes, it would be a very short list.

On the other hand, he taught me a lot. He taught me how to deal with difficult situations. One day he told me, “you can never move too slowly.” I asked my students what he meant by that. Finally we made some progress toward understanding this koan. So I called my dad and told him that we figured it out. He said, “figured out what?” “What you said last week, that you can never move too slowly.” “That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,” he said.

That was my dad. He said things not because they were set in stone, but because they might get someone to consider a new way of looking at the world.

When he was in hospice, they asked whether he'd like a priest, a minister, or a rabbi. “A philosopher,” he said.

He was generally disappointed with his kids. It wasn't that we were complete failures, thought sometimes we were headed in that direction. Rather, we had cousins that went to better schools and were very successful before they were 30.

In the passage “Knots” we read tonight, a knot kept the father from expressing his love. Or maybe I should say, “his like.” Both of my parents were full of love, but in their very critical mode, found it difficult to like many people. We all had faults. I couldn't tie my shoes. My sister couldn't keep her bangs out of her eyes. Someone else raised their kids wrong. And on and on. It got to the point where I didn't want love anymore. I just wanted to be liked.

The other day I went to a performance by three-year olds. It was a marvel how the teacher was totally ok with the students’ ineptness. It was a joy how she made all the kids feel comfortable and do their best... and even if they weren't ready for center stage, that was ok too. I wish she was the one who taught me to tie my shoes.

P.S. (Credit card track) Wasted time today looking for a credit card bill. Finally found it, but the vendor had put down the wrong last four numbers that really messed me up. I did cancel one card today. My wife said she'd come home if I cut my cards in half. Actually I have eight in her name to cancel. Is it ok for me to pretend I'm her when I call them (and save her the grief of calling them)? Another moral dilemma.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Learning to Mourn... Wanting to be Grief Stricken

She insisted on going to visit her granddad after her grandma died. She said that she wanted to mourn.

Mourning wasn’t part of my experience growing up. When my father was a small child, his dad died. He experienced his mom crying, screaming, and tearing her clothes off. When my grandpa died, whom I was very close to, my dad only mentioned it at the end of a conversation I had with him. “Can I talk to mom,” I asked. “No, she’s at your grandpa’s funeral,” he said.

Jews have some unusual ideas about death. For one, a grave yard is called, “land of the living.” For another, if a funeral procession and wedding procession are going down the same road, and if the road narrows, then the wedding procession should go first.

Funerals were rarely attended by my parents. They weren’t part of the business of life. Echoing a Jewish saying, my mom would say, “Life is for the living.” However, my mom felt great grief when tragedy struck our extended family if it was a kid. When my cousin died, or when another cousin was found to have a serious impairment, she fell apart. But we were generally shielded from death. I discovered that a dear neighbor had died when I was shuffling through my sister’s desk. I asked my mom why she didn't tell me. She said that my school work was more important and she didn’t want to distract me.

Buddhists have an idea of impermanence. They believe everything forever changes. Jews too have such an idea, though a rabbi described it the other day as every moment is new. I then asked A, a Zen priest, and she said that this idea of “new” aligned with Dogen more than just changing. It is a new day. It is a new moment.

I sometimes worry that I’m a sociopath, or perhaps a little on the autistic spectrum because I don’t fall apart in grief when confronted with death. I could not do well in a Shakespearian tragedy. It seems hard for me to realize that a person really is gone because they remain so much in my mind. And if they weren’t in my mind, there certainly wouldn’t be any grieving.

P.S. (Credit card track) He asked why I had ten credit cards. “Ten,” I exclaimed, “I have 29.” So I asked him if he had $800, would he toss it to the wind? That's approximately the value of the 50000 that you get from AA with a new credit card (on a good day). “No,” he said, “I wouldn't throw $800 away.” “So why wouldn't you take the credit card.” “I'm trying to simplify my life,” he said.

Obviously there are costs and benefits to playing the credit card game. There is risk, some loss of credit, and time expended. It takes some discipline and some organization to keep track. I seem to do ok.

Is it dishonest to take a credit card just for the money? I actually once asked this question to a bank. They want you to fall for their offer. They hope you will screw up and incur fees. Capital One Bank told me that. Does that mean that we should do it? It is somewhat a moral dilemma.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Pray that All Things are Born in Heaven

We read the story today of an old woman who asks Buddhist Master Zhaozhou Congshan how she can be free from the world of suffering. He tells her to pray that all things are born in heaven and that you yourself suffer forever in the sea of hardships.

I don’t think she wanted to hear that. It reminded me how once I called one of my favorite teachers and told him that I’d been rejected from some competitive exhibitions. “You must not be any good,” he retorted.

A rabbi was telling us the other day that it takes three to four generations to change behavior, and that education doesn’t help. As we talked more, it became clear that he thought of education as “instruction” and I thought of it as “experience” (à la John Dewey). He then agreed that it might be a little easier to change with experience. In the story, Master Zhaozhou is providing an experience for the old lady. She is taking on suffering for everyone. What she’ll hopefully discover is that she’s not separate from them, and she will be “reborn” (to use a Christian term) in heaven.

I think this idea of suffering for all people is workable. For one, it is all we can do. If you consider suffering is how one responds to life then you can’t really help another. But you can model for others by going into your own suffering and reducing it.

When Buddha was enlightened he said that all beings were enlightened. He realized that we aren't separate. Like with suffering, the real culprit is believing that we are not separate and that we don’t really suffer alone. What the old woman was asked to do wasn’t really possible. Can a finger suffer without affecting the rest of the body?

Perhaps the wise teacher, in telling his student to take in all suffering, was creating an experience where she would focus on good thoughts about others. Perhaps she would realize that she too was born in heaven. Perhaps the Master’s instruction was using a little bit of reverse psychology.

It would take a lot of compassion to suffer for all, as Mary and Christ did. It is the ultimate benevolent act... to take a bullet for a friend (or even for someone you don’t know.)

P.S. Too many credit cards saga: Did successfully cancel one credit card today. Almost did another, but then they offered me $50 if I spend $300 on groceries. How many carrots is that at 99 cents a lb. and bananas at .45 cents a lb.?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Homage to Dorothy

Grandma Dodie did it. Lifting 202 N. Allen, Leroy, Ill.

I get speechless when something important happens... like my mother-in-law moving today to another world. She's been so much part of our lives for 46 years. She never hesitated to give us what she could. And she was an incredible witness. She noted everything that happened, apparently without judgement.

She was very different from my mom who evaluated and judged everything. When we’d go to visit my mom, the 2nd day (after she slept on it), she’d tell us what was wrong with us and what should be changed. I was so use to it that I never objected. Sometimes Linda did.

Linda’s mom was different. She seemed grateful and duty-driven. Her great pleasure was in participating in the unfolding of life. But she also got pleasure from following directions... lovingly... that was Dorothy.

Our kids would come and go to them as they were growing up. They’d always come back well-behaved... and that would last a few hours.

One time we had a big tree cut by our house and she eyed a large piece of the tree. She asked for a hammer and chisel and carved our address in the wood. It lasted for about 10 years.

They lived in our house-to-be for a year when it was enlarged (and did much of the work)... and then another year when we built a studio. I soon realized that what we really built, besides a house and studio, was a pretty incredible and long-lasting relationship.

A friend told me today that when someone dies, something leaves the room. With machines, they aren’t much different whether they are turned on or off. With people it is different. What emanates... that life force... appears to vanish when the person leaves. May Dorothy find peace in her new life. We will miss her.

Del, Dorothy, Josh (with camera), and Melissa

Friday, January 8, 2016

Nudging History

A Black student, Nissy Aya, at Columbia said, “It's traumatizing to sit in Core classes. We are looking at history through the lens of these powerful, white men. I have no power or agency as a black woman, so where do I fit in?”

Dennis Prager claimed that Columbia made a mistake listening to her and following her lead. http://www.creators.com/opinion/dennis-prager/a-response-to-a-black-student-at-columbia.html

He said that Columbia should keep up pushing the laurels of the great white men, because it would be sad if someone missed learning about these men.

I doubt that Nissy was asking for that. She wanted balance. She didn't want to throw out the baby with the bath water.

I’m more in line with Nissy. I attend a group (all women except for me) where we look at stories about Zen woman. It provides some balance for me.

There are extraordinary examples of great women and people of color that students could study in their core curriculum. Prager is just defending the establishment.

I remember when I was at a meeting at the College Art Assocation around 1971 and Jansen was there (author of the leading text for Art History I & II)… someone asked him why there were no women artists in his book (or very few). He got up and walked out.

I came to learn from Beaumont Newhall’s photo history that he wasn’t writing about the famous photographers as much as he was deciding who will be remembered and will be forgotten.

History sometimes forgets some of the heroes of the past. So it has to be nudged to correct the inaccuracies.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Failure and Plagues

Yesterday I talked about dying. Today I’m going to talk about failure… and maybe about plagues, another uplifting subject.

I tried to cancel another credit card. I think I have twelve more to cancel. It was the same racket. If I spend so much in three months they will give me $75. I can’t say no. That is 75 cans of diced tomatoes (with tax). Would I throw that away?

And then there is Scandal. I need to buy 4 episodes to get to the last 5 episodes. I bought two today. Probably tomorrow will buy the next two.

Failure. But it was so nice to meditate tonight and just breath deeply. We think of all this stuff we want… steaks, travel, sex… but when you are having trouble breathing, you want one thing. To take a deep breath without coughing. It was great.

This week’s Torah portion has to do with the seven plagues. We read this tonight in our little meditation/Torah study group.

There are only two groups of people for whom the Plagues do not present a problem—those who accept the Bible literally and those who dismiss it as book of tales on par with the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood.  For the rest of us there are lots of questions with only partial answers. What really did happen in Egypt? What were the authors trying to tell us happened? What message is there for us at the dawn of the 21st century in these Plagues? The easy answer is that God sent the Plagues to establish His power and might, to prove that He was Master of the Universe. This may be an easy answer, but hardly a satisfying one. From: http://downhomedavartorah.blogspot.com/2016/01/torah-readings-for-saturday-january-9.html

If we’ve been bad, I can see how we will believe that we caused the Plagues. And if we’ve been good, we believe that life is unfair (why didn’t God listen?). Maybe there is some third alternative, that life happens as it happens. Earthquakes and floods come and go. If we want to read something into them, we can. Or we can do our best to live a good life irrespective of the cards we are dealt.

Goodnight.