Thursday, July 28, 2016

Awesome Poem

“From a young age, our parents impressed on us the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed us values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that we continue to pass along. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Awesome Poem

I told my wife 
“I’m going to write 
a poem tonight.”

And then 
Caroline brings this prompt, 
and it didn't seem like a prompt,

at all.

At least, not one
to inspire 
a poem, 

at all. 

I've started to notice,
more and more,
how some things tick me off. 

As we read the prompt,
together in unison, 
I  found myself 

somewhere between 

being ticked off, 
(very) supremely ticked off,
and wondering if 

these words were part 
of Michelle Obama's 
wonderful speech 

the other night (at the DNC).

Today 
I read 
she had no political intentions 

in her speech—
unlike the others 
she followed.

And yet, 
after the speech, 
many said, 

”she ought to be president.”

The prompt seemed dated, 
perhaps it was from 
the Cleavers 

in the 50s. 

My wife said at dinner 
something about how,
if we had better schools, 

things would be different. 

We ended up realizing
it would take about 
three generations 

to really make a change... 

A profound 
change,
that is.

I think this tirade started 
with her 
wondering 

how so many people 
could vote for 
a bully. 

I told her 
that the odds were…
he'd win.

Oh…. 
My friend just texted me, 
“”write something awesome.”

If I didn't know better,
I'd….

So there, 
I tried to write 
an awesome poem. 

And then I wanted to say
“I'd pick my nose”
and you can't say that 

in a poem. 

In high school, 
did you ever read a poem 
about nose picking? No!

Or even about bullies, 
or the Cleavers? 

I heard the other night,
on NPR, 
a poet was told 

he had a terminal illness.

He became very depressed 
and wrote 
the best poems of his life. 

I thought, God, 
grant me 
a terminal illness. 

Oh, just kidding, God.

Let me try again:

The lime I stole from
the Zen center was so
delicious, it made my 
smoothie so great that
my friends drank it 
with such gusto—
so much gusto, 
in fact
that I didn't have 
any left today.

That's a dumb poem. 
Glad there are only 
two minutes left.

I can blame 
the advancing clock 
on my not writing 
anything close to awesome. 

Or I can blame it
on my lack of
having a terminal illness, 

Or maybe 
I wasn't raised right, 
like my neighbors, 

who had their mouths, 
washed with soap,
when they swore.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Lost and Found


I search and search... The perfect this and that. One day it is searching for the perfect diet, then the perfect exercise, then the perfect shampoo, then the perfect friend. The dissatisfaction is looking for the perfect me... How would I really like to be, what would I like to know?

I totally confused a man at the free sample sushi table at Central Market today. I've never seen it without someone handing out samples before. There is a little story here. A few weeks ago I was handed a piece of sushi by an Asian looking guy. He said, have a kamikaze roll. I wondered if he knew what it meant and finally found out that it also referred to a drink that was a mixture of various ingredients.

So I figured that kamikaze must have more meanings than the one who gets in an airplane and rams it into an enemy plane, killing all. 

Today the chef/pilot was nowhere to be seen. I was a little worried about him. 

An old man was there, also waiting for a sample. I put a sample in a cup and handed it to him. He declined the gift, and so I ate it myself. Then he said, “Oh, that was very nice of you." So I said, “Yes." I think I more surprised him than anything... but probably should have responded better.

How would the I who I'd like to be respond? If I'm already me, who was it that was responding? Would/should we be the person who'd we like to be? Since our friends like us as we are (I don't think they'd wait around), would we have to find new friends?

Suzuki Roshi said, “You are perfect just the way you are... and you could stand a little improvement? Could both parts of the statement be true? If I am perfect just as I am, why do I have to do anything? And also, why do I have to change.

A high school classmate recently wrote, “You don't marry the perfect spouse. You marry to become the perfect spouse.” But where do you start? I’m full of loose pages and frayed edges and need a lot of tender conservation.

I certainly often think it is better on the other side of the stream. I waited breathlessly until I could get a drivers license... but by the time I did get it, at 23, it wasn't such a big deal. And I waited breathlessly to get through with high school, to get through with college, to have a real job, to retire from the job, to this and that. I waited breathlessly for what would make me happy. All things on the other side of the river. Where is the boat to take me across?

Wait, the wise man says that I'm already there. Can't he see I want to be on his side, where the grass is greener? How can I be satisfied with this stuff that isn't the perfect this or that... or is it?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

We're 100% Responsible!

There is a similarity between the two recent events in Orlando. In one case, a kid escaped the bonds of his mommy into the mouth of an alligator and in the second, a sad and tragic slaying of many in a night club.

In last weeks Torah portion (“Naso”), the inventory of what each tribe gave to the temple is repeated twelve times. Given the idea that there are no extraneous words in the Torah, why the repetition? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say each tribe gave A, B, and C? No. No tribe was better than any other tribe. They were all responsible for any sin that was committed in their community.

One thought that goes through my head when I read of tragic events is a kind of self-congratulation that I didn’t let my son into the mouth of an alligator, and that my kids weren’t at the night club. It was the same feeling when another kid was kicked out of class for doing something “bad.” In addition, I think that I had no responsibly for what happened. 

Last night I remembered Werner Erhard's definition of responsibility: 
Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one's life. Ultimately, it is a context from which one chooses to live. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what's so, and your stand. Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. That is not the truth. It is a place to stand. No one can make you responsible, nor can you impose responsibility on another. It is a grace you give yourself—an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life. 
It has led me to believe that we are 100% responsible for everything that happens. This is tough for people to wrap their heads around. And it is obviously illogical as are most ideas that interest me.

And here’s the idea: the options we have in our lives are unlimited. The zoo in Orlando has unlimited options. The way that society creates and then deals with individuals who are agitated and mad are unlimited. We each have the opportunity to change the world. If a butterfly can flip its wings and cause a tornado on the other side of the earth, why can’t we? 

This idea is not meant to shame us all because we didn’t do something in the past, but rather to suggest that we take inventory of what we are doing now. Are we complaining at the zoo because their cages are “attractive nuisances”? Are we finding help for those in our community who are mad and angry? If not, we could do more… like the little boy in this story:
In this classic tale an old man finds a boy walking along the beach throwing beached starfish back into the ocean. however there are many starfish washed up on the beach—far too many for the boy to get them all. the man questions the boy, "how can you possibly get them all, why bother?" the boy acknowledges his limitation but retorts by picking up one sand dollar, just one and saying these words, "you're absolutely right mister, i can't get them all. but you see this starfish? i can save this one. it's worth it for this one..."

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Out of the Box

Drawing by Ken Brown
Out of the box. Older than the box. I'm stuck. And I keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. So often I'm choosing between A and B and don't even consider D. What courses should I take? English or math? Wait, I'm supposed to be thinking outside the box. How about being a bus driver or a skid row bum?

Out of the box. It is easier for me to write about why we should be outside of the box. I can think of artists who did good work because they thought outside of the box.

Breaking rules is part of the trick. Breaking through the box is fun. How many constraints do I have because I live inside of a box. What freedom I  have here, and I just paint within the lines.

I once was criticized because I said it is more important to be interesting than good. The good has been done to death.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? Is that thinking out of the box?

What would happen if we were all someone else? If we are in the wrong body and we have to find where we belong.

What is the solution to the violence in the world? Gandhi thought outside the box. Are there many in the history books who did not.? How about the founders of the country. Did they think outside of the box?

The box tells us exactly what to do... If we want to lead a boring life. What would it look like if we really went out there? Why don't we? Why is it so hard? Why why why why? Are we in chains? What keeps us from opening the window? Why don't we take more chances with the one life we have?

What would it look like if we thought outside of the box. What would if feel like? Would it encourage others to get out of their box? Is that what liberation is about? Who is this devil that is laughing at us believing we don't have more choices?

Friday, June 3, 2016

You Are Too Impressionable

"Be still and know that I am God"—Psalm 46:10 (another illustration for book)
Bruce asked me to go to church with him. Both of my neighbors that I played with went to church every Sunday. They never asked me to join them. Why? Bruce did. I asked my mom. She was taking clothes out of the dryer, and I stood by the door of the utility room. I was framed by the doorway. We were about the same size since she was hunched over getting out the clothes and putting them into a wood clothes basket with wire handles.

“Mom,” I asked, “can I go to church with Bruce on Sunday.” “No,” she said. “Why,” I asked. “Because you are too impressionable.”

My mom was the expert on me, yet I was an Island.  I picked “Island” because I wanted my initials to be “K.I.M.” She named me after the character in Rudyard Kipling’s book, Kim, where the character by the same name was independent and resourceful at an early age. She wished me to be independent, yet insisted she knew me (and others) better than I knew myself. Could we expect less from a psychiatric social worker, raised on Freud?

I couldn’t argue with her because words were not my forte. I felt disconnected from her. As I look back, I see that I had come from a different time and place. I was her son in this life. I was tied to her, but yet what I’m seeing now is the opposite. I was not her son. I had something in me that yearned to understand the mystery of life.

I believed that Hell was behind the fence at the Catholic Church a block away. I couldn’t see beyond the solid brick fence, and I imagined a deep pit inside that went on forever. I later went to that church and marveled at the Latin that the priest recited. I felt that I had time traveled to a place that felt very familiar.

Behind me, in that kitchen, was a man. My mom could not see him and I did not know he was there. He was the witness to my life. I called him up today and asked him how my mom’s “you’re too impressionable” affected me for my soon to be 70 years.

In Zen, we talk about needing to step off a 100-foot pole. We need to give ourselves to something beyond reason. It is the important orgasm that we are all afraid of reaching. Somehow my mom was right. I was too impressionable. But now I realize it wasn’t to new experiences, but rather to finding out who I was. I feel like the adopted kid who wasn’t allowed to meet his real parents. It touched me deeply in one of the Carlos Castaneda books that Don Juan decided to trash his last name. That's where we came from, but not who we are. In the same way, The Prophet, by Gibran talked about how
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
The man behind me touched my shoulder. I was walking down State Street in Chicago and he pinched my arm. I thought at the time he had shot heroin into me, and that I’d somehow know where to get my next fix. But no, he was telling me something different. Remember who you are. Remember who you are. Remember who you are. I say that three times because we didn’t do that last night reading something Buddha wrote that it was suppose to be written three times, perhaps as a mnemonic device to help us remember it.

I used art all my life as a means to tell people who I was and what I was feeling. Yet, it wasn’t enough, because I had kind of figured that out and it (or me) seemed like a closed system.

What I was looking for was something very very very big. Something that encompassed everything. The next week I went to six churches.

And years later, my mom would tell us of her extensive conversations she’d have with the black birds that would come to her kitchen window.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Payday Loans

I read an article this am about how PayDay loans were now going to have to adhere to lower interest rates. One of the arguments for these new regulations is that the industry was making great profits at the expense of those unfortunate people who aren’t “making ends meet.”

If this were such a profitable business, I wonder why new companies don’t come in and offer the same services at a lower rate. I suspect they don’t because it isn’t such a great business. Many of these loans are never paid.

I had a student once who had a choice of a “like new” camera at $100 at the Click Shop, or a $250 camera at Best Buy with a high interest rate credit card. He bought the $250 camera, which probably cost him $350 if it was ever paid for completely.

Fortunately I’ve never been in that situation. It is unfortunate to have to be there. Yet what is the solution? What was solved with the regulation?

The Payday loan industry claims that where the average store would have a yearly profit of $37,000 now they will have a loss of $28,000. So the regulation worked against the industry. Perhaps there will be no more Payday loan stores. What this means is that more cars will be repossessed and more people will not be able to pay rent.

I think this may be one of those situations where we were correct in identifying a problem but not correct in identifying a solution. I suspect that few will benefit from this regulation and many will suffer, from the industry to the individuals.

What are the solutions?
Education, for one. Many adults, including some with a college degree, can’t figure out how much 17% of $250 is.  
Education too on how to live on a limited budget.
And a host of other initiatives are possible. The obvious one might not be the right one.
4. Obama administration unveiling new rules on payday loans
The Obama administration is expected on Thursday to unveil federal rules to extend federal oversight to the $38.5 billion payday lending industry. The rules proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would require lenders to assess a borrower’s ability to repay, and discourage rolling over loans, which can pile up lending fees. Lenders say the new rules, now opening up for public comment, would gut the industry. Consumer advocates say the rules are necessary to protect borrowers who can be ruined by loans with effective interest rates that can exceed 390 percent. —From This Week, a online (and paper) news service.

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.