Monday, May 30, 2016


I hadn't realized it has been so long since I last posted here. My father has died since then. I will turn 60 in a bit over a week. I'm having a hard time right now, though I'm not quite sure what the first two statements have to do with the last.

Sometimes it feels like a loss of faith. Not faith in any particular thing, because I did not start out with faith in a god or a system or a plan. I have been an optimist, but no Pollyanna. I am not at all sure that everything will turn out just fine, and I am damn sure things don't happen for a reason. And if you tell me about god's plan one more time....

No, it's more like a loss of faith in the point of it all. I know that sounds very depressed (and depressing), but that's not how I mean it, believe it or not. There is in me the sense of the foundation somehow having been shaken. I know that the political climate in the U.S. and in the world has something to do with it. I have a deep belief in the efficacy of kindness and reasoned thought, but neither of these are much in evidence in the world these days. It's almost as if the majority of people see this as the end times and feel that unless they give their maximal energy to anger and vindictiveness right now, disaster cannot be averted. What they do not seem to realize is that it is the anger that is the cause of the destruction rather than its cure. And I see this from every direction in America's political divide, a nastiness that subsumes and consumes everything in its path.

I also had an experience recently which shook my faith in my marriage. It was a minor tremor, really, but it caused me to realize just how much of my well-being is tied up in the health of that connection. I'm not so sure this is healthy. Because it will end, of course. That is the central lesson of the Dharma, that all things end. Love is a guarantee of loss, because either the relationship will end or one or the other of you will die. Ha! That sounds awfully grim, I know, but is the simple reality of such things. And to have a little off-handed, casual comment cause such tremors in me is pretty frightening. On the other hand, if this is a wake-up call to nurture and heal what we have, then so much the better.

And I know it seems petty in comparison, but some of my perturbation is that most of my technology is rebelling against me. My internet goes down periodically for no reason whatsoever (who knew that going from copper wire slow internet to fiber optic fast internet would be a problem?) and my brand new laptop has a malfunction so bad that it must be returned to the manufacturer for replacement or repair. Crazy-making.

I miss my father. He was a sweet and wonderful man. He taught me a great deal. He was a man of deep faith, and I respected that more and more the older I got, even if I did not share his belief. He died April 7.

But, what the heck! On June 11 I will be 60. I will be in Portland that day, enjoying the city and going to Sweeney Todd with my much beloved wife. We will visit gardens, hiking trails, book stores, restaurants, parks, and coffee shops. All will be well. I love my life and am very fortunate to be living it. So be it.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


So, I was late for the opera. This was mostly poor planning on my part. Doesn't matter. I was late. And there was a Justin Bieber concert (of all things) in the same area of town at the same time. And so I was going to be late, I was pretty sure.

This led to an interesting reflection. I was anxious. I felt a sense of urgency. I was annoyed with every car in front of me. I was annoyed with myself. I was already disappointed. And it was all entirely useless. Not just a little bit misguided or misdirected, but entirely, completely, indefatigably pointless. So, I took the opportunity to use this time in the car, driving to the opera, to simply rest in the anxiety and see it for what it was—an odd and destructive remnant of my primordial being, a lizard-brain response to threat, a kicking in of my endocrine system to enable me to respond to a perceived matter of life and death. I mean, really? I was late for the freaking opera.

This reminded me of a line of inquiry I have pursued many times. When I see someone rushing through a hallway at work, or when I find myself doing that, I try to remember what a misguided response this is to being late or in a hurry. Here is the basic math: let's be generous and say you are trying to go 100 yards from your starting to ending points. Let's give you credit for being able to walk 5 miles per hour, which is pretty fast unless you are a professional speed walker. Let's compare that to the normal walking pace of 3 miles per hour. At 5 mph, you can walk 100 yards in 0.68 minutes. At 3 mph, in 1.13 minutes. So, by rushing down the hall at 5 mph, you gain less than 30 seconds. And you arrive at your destination flustered, winded, and harried, hardly in the best shape to begin whatever work it was you were rushing to. Even more amusing to me is people who rush from their door to the car, a savings of (if they are lucky) five seconds, which of course is entirely negated (and more) if rushing causes them to forget or drop something.

And yet we live much of our lives this way, as if we are always late, as if our destination mattered to the fate of the world, or even ourselves. Which it does not. I have observed before that we seem to feel the need to be busy because important people are busy. I think it's the same with hurrying. There is no evidence that hurrying makes you faster and quite a bit of evidence that it slows you down. I recall working in the ICU and rushing about whenever a code was called, letting adrenaline run the show. What I finally noticed, though, was that those who were the most effective in a code were those who strolled in, spoke calmly and in a normal voice. They were always thinking clearly and usually had a very good idea what the next, best step would be. Ever since then, I have tried to emulate this behavior in an emergency. It's not nearly as exciting as getting all worked up, but the patient usually does much better, and so do I.

The same in truly in my daily life. When I become agitated and worked up, whether because I am late or stressed or challenged or disrespected, the outcome is never a good one. I usually create more chaos and always create more internal agitation. And it's worthless. A waste of time and energy. I will get to the opera or I will not. No one will die. All will be well.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reflections on Hawaii

I just got back from a vacation in Hawaii so have a limited amount of time to write, but wanted to record a few observations from my time there.

—If you go, I think Kauai is a really good choice, at least for people like us. I suppose it depends on what you are going for. This is not the island of massive, beautiful beaches and the shopping is not high-end, but if you are looking for peace and serenity, beautiful, rugged scenery, and delightful, quiet towns, this is a good island. I have never been to any of the others, but this was a very good match for our temperaments.

—One disappointment is that whales are not as plentiful (or at least not as common to see) on Kauai as they are elsewhere. We heard that Maui is particularly fine for that purpose and may give that island a try next time.

—Try snorkeling. It's really quite easy to pick up and a great deal of fun. And once you have some basic and inexpensive equipment, it's free. We swam with all sorts of tropical fish and quite a few sea turtles, which is an amazing experience. However, you will want to get a good book if you haven't snorkeled before, and find a website that will tell you where it is and is not safe to snorkel on the day you go. If you go to a beach with a lifeguard, they really are very knowledgeable. There can be riptides and undertow, and these can change from day to day. Two great pieces of advice we got from the book we read: take a few minutes to stand on the beach to see how the current is flowing and see if there are other snorkelers out there and how they are doing.

—Standard sunscreen kills coral (who knew?). You must use zinc oxide based sunscreen if you are in the ocean around Hawaii. It also smells better, doesn't get in your eyes and make them sting, and is less toxic. I'm never going back to those old sunscreens.

—If you aren't made nervous by such things, try a helicopter ride. It really is amazing. We chose to go up in one with the doors off, but if you like the feeling of security, you can go with the doors on. This will limit your ability to take good photos, though. It's pretty pricey, but worth it to do at least once.

—I also would recommend the catamaran tours that are offered. In retrospect, it might have been nice to go on a snorkeling tour (more fish and clearer water when it's deep), but we were beginners and not sure we wanted to snorkel off a boat so soon. It probably would have been fine, but we had no way of knowing in advance.

—If you go to Kauai, take advantage of the fact that much of the island is either park land or rural. There are beautiful spots all over the island that are not in any guidebooks. We took a great hike on a beautiful trail in the central part of the island.

—We fell in love with Hanalei, a small town on the north end. Beautiful little shops, and the best lattes I had on my whole vacation.

—If you have heard that Kauai has a lot of feral chickens, you heard right. It's the only island with such a huge population of these because the mongoose has never spread there.

—Shave ice really is pretty amazing stuff. Pay extra and get the natural fruit syrups.

—Pineapple really is better there. It's not native to Hawaii, though (almost none of the food crops are). Apparently natives get peeved if you assume that pineapple was not brought to the island by white Europeans. In any case, though, it is amazing. And relatively cheap.

—It's true, everything is more expensive there. And, like almost anyone will tell you, if you hit Costco when you get into town and stock up, you will save a lot.

—We were staying on the north side of the island. There is nothing north of there until you get to Alaska, so the wind has nothing to slow it down. Especially in the winter, you can get sustained winds of 25-30 miles per hour fairly commonly. If blowing wind and crashing waves keep you awake, you might want to stay on the south side, which is much more sheltered. We loved it for the most part, but were glad to be out of it by the time we left.

And there is nothing quite like a vacation to remind me that I live my life far too much in a doing mode rather than a being mode. I cannot imagine what it is that I accomplish with all of my busyness that justifies the anxiety I put myself through to get there. I am going to try to bring into my daily life some of that relaxed spirit that permeates the islands and soaked into me during my stay there. Yes, I know, there is much to be done. And there is much to be concerned about in our screwed up world (and particularly this strange nation of ours just now). But I have yet to find that my anxious urge to get things done has any perceptible effect on either the world at large or even the manageability of my immediate environment. I need the basics (food, water, shelter and all that), but what is all of the rest of this stuff about? I'm not at all sure it's about anything that truly matters.

What the Buddha was trying to tell us, it seems to me, is that struggling is never fruitful, whether it be struggling to keep what is good or to avoid what is bad. Yes, we can control some of the outcomes of our lives, but how much, really? I must do what I can with the time I have and simply leave the rest alone. I have been living far too much of my life aspirationally, ignoring the present joy in favor of some future goal. Even the goal of enlightenment is rather missing the point. A goal can either be accomplished or failed at; enlightenment, if it were to come, would come from allowing rather than seeking.

(All of the photographs here are from the trip and taken by me).

Sunday, January 24, 2016

No Time Like the Present

I have been living in a delusion, a fairly common one, but one to which I had thought myself immune. I suppose it is in the nature of delusion for me to believe this: others may be prone to this false belief, but not me. Heaven forbid.

The delusion is this: eventually things will even out at work and I will finally be able to just work my 40 hours. Everything will henceforth go smoothly, none of my employees will resign, or get sick, or become pregnant, or move to Denver. The way to ensure that this evening out happens (so goes the delusion) is for me to work 50 or 60 hours a week now. I will reap the benefits of all that peace later.

This is bullshit.

The realization of just how far down this particular rabbit hole I had gone arose from the recognition of the many mornings I have been skipping my meditation to go in early to work. This is just nuts. One of the pillars of my system of belief and my regimen of self-care is a steady diet of daily meditation, but I have not been getting that. And I have been feeling its lack.

The reason why this fantasy equilibrium can never come to pass (I just had an epiphany about this today) is that I am confusing situational chaos with constitutional and institutional chaos. Up until this moment (I can just barely admit, even to myself, how long it took) I have been operating on the belief that if I can just handle the current situation adequately, smooth sailing is inevitable. The basic problem with this way of thinking (it seems obvious now) is that the problem is not the situation. First of all, it is in the nature of my work (it's constitution) that there will always be chaos. I work in a bureaucracy, in health care, with many moving parts, and even more egos to clash together. Not to mention the basic fact in any workplace with greater than one employee--there will always be inequities in the way people work, how hard they work, whether or not they come to work consistently, their propensity to illness (and "illness"), the likelihood of a move to Denver, and on and on. It is also in the nature of most institutions to ask of their employees just a bit more than each has the ability to give, and when they succeed in supplying that little bit more, to ask for a little bit more yet. With the increased emphasis on "productivity" (which, thankfully, we do not yet have to contend, at least not in any measurable form), I have seen many workers devote hundreds of unpaid hours a year to fulfill these unrealistic requirements, which are then steadily ratcheted up.

I am now, it becomes clear, a practitioner of presenteeism, a fascinating word I heard for the first time just the other day, the definition of which is "the practice of coming to work when ill or tired, or remaining at work for extended hours unnecessarily". Because of where I work, I do not go
to work sick, but the other parts of the definition fit me to a tee. Of course, one could argue about the definition of "unnecessary", but to trust that delineation to me would be like trusting an addict with just how much heroin is a good idea. Thus, the 40 hour limit, the built-in definition of a sane work week.

So, here is my public vow: in June I turn 60. For years I had been saying that at 60 I was going to take a 50% position, work only half time. When I took my current supervisory job, this became unrealistic, but I vow this instead: when I turn 60, I will no longer work any more than an average of 40 hours a week. (I say "average" not as a hedge, but because my plan is to work eight nine-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift every two weeks, taking the tenth day off). As part of this vow, I am going to inform my employers and employees of this. And now I am telling you. And my wife. And everyone who will listen. And I ask that you all hold me to it.

What I can get done in 40 hours, I will get done. What I cannot, I will not. In all likelihood, it will remain undone. And it probably (sadly) won't make all that much difference. That, too, is part of the delusion, isn't it, that my work is so extraordinarily valuable that the place would FALL APART if I worked less than 50 hours a week. How grandiose is that?

Maybe I'll see you in the park. Or the coffee shop. The movie theater. A museum. Anywhere, anywhere, ANYWHERE other than work. I promise.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

When Our Hearts Are Overfull They Sing

Why do we sing? What ever prompted some precursor of the homo sapiens to open her mouth and emit a sound that had no essential communicative purpose (or perhaps it did), to belt out a song? Was this a lament? It may have been joyful. It may be that an idle moment came and with it the realization that there was one more thing this voice could do. It could have been in imitation of a bird or a beast. It was, perhaps, a beautiful mistake.

At some point, someone no doubt made the serendipitous discovery that a string stretched across a space and plucked made a pleasing noise. I would imagine they already knew that striking a hollow piece of wood with a solid one made a delightful sound. A raw voice, a plucked string, a drum. Many punk rock bands began with less.

I recently attended a transcendent performance of the Second Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov at the Seattle Symphony. I was struck not only by the essential beauty of the music, but much more deeply moved by the sheer unlikeliness of all these forces coming together in this place together to form this sound. How is it that the plucked string became the four of the violin, or, yet more remarkable, the 88 of the piano encased in a wooden box and struck with hammers? What wells and vast oceans of creativity and genius are implied by the existence of the bassoon. Have you really looked at a bassoon recently? It's come a long way from blowing over the mouth of a hollowed reed.

I also find the dedication implied by the mastery displayed by the 26-year-old pianist Behzod Abduraimov nearly unfathomable. To have a delicacy of touch while maintaining such essential power of expression is astonishing enough, but to show such range and comprehension at such a young age is awe-inspiring. Add to that the hundred or so other musicians who had to pursue their art for decades to reach this stage and meld themselves so perfectly with his playing. Multiply that by the sacrifices which must have been made by families to support these pursuits. Then step back and marvel that we value this noise highly enough to build a beautiful and expensive hall to contain it, that we will pay to see it, will go out of our way, give up a quiet night at home to witness it. I know the word is overused, but this all seems to me something of a miracle.

We plucked a string. We howled a dirge. We whiled a way an hour wondering what would happen if we carved a hole just there on this hollow stick. To us, a cello may seem obvious, but nothing about it was foreordained. It could have been otherwise. Yet there I sat, gazing at hands much like mine that could do things mine never could and never will be able to do, using the same muscles and tendons and ligaments I use for shoveling dirt to coax from a box with strings and hammers the sound of gods and angels.

I have no idea what the genesis of music is in us humans. It is surely unique to us. Though birds sing and other animals low and bellow and roar and growl and bark and purr and hiss, nothing in any other species approaches this essential surrender to complex form and function, growing in complexity as our history progresses, until the stage is set for the wonders of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Adams, and, yes, Rachmaninov. Oh, I know, there are those who have written the history of music; I'm sure I could learn, if I wished, precisely how we got here. But I don't care about the physical history of the thing. What causes me to wonder, to sit back in awe, with tears in my eyes, is pondering what in us holds beauty so dear that we would give such a vast quantity of our time, our effort, our tears, our failures, and our genius to making and witnessing it. That I was present at one of those nexuses of time in which all of this came together in a moment of transcendent bliss seems improbable at best. And yet I was and was transformed, as all art makes us more than what we were and ever more human and, simultaneously, divine.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Only Power We Have

The only question these days, or so it seems to me, is, "How do we live in this world as it is?" Because it is no secret to anyone that we are in a bit of a mess. We are threatened on every side, or so it appears, and it is difficult to remain optimistic. And yet I am. I am not naively optimistic that everything is going to be O.K., because I'm pretty sure it's not, at least not by the definitions of okayness I have always held as my measure of such things. And sometimes I genuinely despair when I think of the world children being born right now will inherit.

No, my optimism has an entirely different source, one that is difficult for me to tap into from time to time, but which is much more solid and real than the cynicism it is so easy to fall into these days. It is not that everything will someday be alright, but the thought, the deeply held understanding that they could not be otherwise.

I know this can seem to be a tautology: things are as they are because they are as they are and could not be otherwise because if they could be otherwise, they would be otherwise. Well...duh. But that's not really what I mean. The deep meaning of the teachings of the Buddha (at least as far as I am capable of penetrating them with my relatively shallow insight) is that there is nothing that cannot be made worse by wishing it were otherwise. And there is no joy that cannot be ruined by wishing that it could remain forever so. The good and the bad (so-called) arise and pass away.

Each generation believes they are living in the end times. I recall very clearly the certainty we felt in the 1970s that nuclear apocalypse was upon us and the only question was when it would happen. We had to decide from day to day whether or not it was worthwhile making plans. Kathy and I had quite a serious discussion about bringing children into a world they would never see into adulthood; that is how thoroughly we believed in the end of everything. Yet that era arose and passed away. From the luxury of historical remove, we can see that world wars have a beginning, a horrid middle and a joyous end. But in the minds of those living through them there is no such certainty. They, too, have lived through the certainty of end times that nonetheless never arrived.

So, I go through my life with two key commandments for myself: the first is to practice complete and utter acceptance to the best of my ability, because pushing against the reality of what is will only increase the misery of all those around me. The second is to do my very best not to make things worse. There are actions I can take to ameliorate my small corner of global climate change. I can vote for and support those who practice tolerance and kindness. I can open my heart to everyone around me to the best of my ability (I am not very good at this, I admit—it's scary. But I try). I will assume that everything will come out precisely as it is supposed to, not in some sort of "God predestined it" way, but because, indeed, it could not have happened any other way. To presume we can change the past to create a better future is pure fantasy and is not helpful.

And I will not hate. I understand that there are many people who are doing a great many despicable things, but to practice hatred is to let those evildoers call the tune and create in me a place of hardness and rage to match theirs. Humans seem to share an odd delusion that if we practice hate toward a person or group of people, somehow our hatred will overwhelm theirs (somewhat analagous to shouting at the television to change the outcome of the ballgame). Where is the evidence for this? How exactly would that work? Do we believe Donald Trump has the answer to these questions? He seems to think he does, but I have yet to hear him give us a practical plan for how hate is going to solve anything at all, how it will not in fact make things much, much worse, than they already are.

I am not going to do these things because they are the right thing to do, even though they are. I am not going to do them in the vague hope that my love will spread all over the world and make things better, though it might. I am going to do these things because it is the only decent, respectful, openhearted, constructive, proper way to live, and in the end, it is the only decent, respectful, openhearted, constructive, proper way to die, if that is what is to come sooner rather than later.

What else can we do? How can we do anything but love? What other power do we have?

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Year of Metta

I have been pondering the metta sutta recently. For those of you not familiar with the teachings of the Buddha, metta can be translated in several different ways, but most commonly as lovingkindness. And a sutta is simply a teaching. So, the metta sutta is a teaching on lovingkindness delivered by the Buddha.

One of the things that led me to consider this sutta is that quirk of human character which makes all of us more or less selfish. I know this sounds like a criticism, but what I mean is that we are hardwired for survival of ourselves as organisms, and that while essentially no effort is required to think in this way, quite a bit of effort is required to think altruistically.

This fact is not a problem, really, at least not for the most part. Of course, taken to an extreme, this overarching philosophy is the source of all war and the degradation of the environment, since we tend to think rather narrowly about personal or tribal survival at the expense of more (literally and figuratively) global concern. But on a day to day basis, thinking in this way does not really create much havoc.

But it doesn't create much harmony, either, and I have been wondering if my own life and the lives of those around me might not be made considerably more harmonious if I focused my attention on ways of serving others as my first consideration. It's not that I'm some insensitive bastard in my accustomed mode, mind you, but I do find myself rather narrowly focused on what is going to get me through the day, rather than how I can make your life simpler or easier.

Thus the metta sutta. It seems to me that this simple teaching provides the guidance I need to make this shift in thinking and acting in the world.

One quick word on the name of this sutta. Metta can apparently be translated in several ways. I don't speak Pali, of course, but a teacher I trust (Christina Feldman) has chosen the term unconditional friendliness as the translation she prefers. She has said that the term love can be quite a loaded term for many of us, and kindness a bit vague. On the other hand, unconditional friendliness seems to her (and to me) very specific and describes a way of being in the world to which we can all aspire. Thus, from here on out, when I speak of metta, it is this translation I will use. You probably won't see me write the word lovingkindness in this blog for quite some time.

Not that I dislike the word itself, but I do feel it has become code for some sort of vague, warm, fuzzy feeling toward the whole world and all the creatures in it. I'm not sure that's what the Buddha had in mind. We can all generate happy thoughts about bunnies. What metta asks of us is much more stringent. Can you, it asks, feel unconditional friendliness toward everyone and everything? Toward nuclear reactors and ISIS? Toward those who practice hatred, greed, and violence? Toward people who have done the deepest damage to you in your life? Rather than the casual generation of good vibes, metta may well be among the hardest work any of us will ever do.

What I am proposing is to make metta the heart of my practice for a full year. I have taken such vows before (not metta vows, but others) and find that a year is a good test of my discipline. Also, after doing just about anything for a year, it usually becomes an integral part of who I am. That is the hope. Because I distrust the whole idea of New Year's resolutions (too often bogus, too often broken by January 15), I propose to begin this on Decmeber 1st, which is, of course, in a few days.

I'll keep you posted. In future posts, I will also write a bit more about the sutta itself so that you (and I along with you) can figure out a bit of what this vow means. What have I gotten myself into? I guess we'll see.