Sunday, February 18, 2018

On outrage and heartbreak

Since the 45th President of the United States took office I have been in an almost constant state of outrage about the conduct of the US government.  In fact, I'm not sure "almost' is appropriate.  Every day it is something new, there's no time to process yesterday's outrage, today's outrage from this administration and their congressional enablers simply displaces yesterday's incident from my attention.  There's never time to come to terms with any of it.

Outrage is not really an emotion.  Fear is an emotion, sadness is an emotion, joy is an emotion.  These things are directly experienced.  Outrage requires thinking.  Fear is felt in my chest, sadness in my throat, joy in my belly.  These are direct experiences I'm sure I've been having since before I could speak or think in words.

Outrage requires the violation of a norm or a principal; some rule has to be broken.  One can be sad or angry because they didn't receive a phone call from a loved one on some random day.  Not receiving a call on your birthday, or on some anniversary, or when you've experienced some tragic loss, sparks outrage.  The rhetorical calling card of outrage is "how could they.....?"

Outrage is also a defense, a way to obscure from one's view a deeper, more painful emotion.  If one stays in outrage, one stays confused.  To take the phone call example, the last time I was outraged someone didn't make a call, underneath my outrage was much more painful information about the state of the relationship in question.  The fact that I did not receive this call was an important signal, something I needed to know, but I didn't see that until my outrage had time to settle.

There's been no time for my outrage about the 45th President to settle.  Until this sesshin.

This sesshin last weekend my first since Obama was President.

Sesshin practice requires silence, and part of the silence required is a temporary cessation of contact with any news media.  My phone gets powered down, there's no TV, no newspapers, and no radio from start until finish.  That might not have been enough by itself, but since I was spending about 16 hours a day in some form of meditation my mind quickly settled and revealed to me what all this outrage about the conduct of my government was obscuring from my view.

I am heartbroken.  I am utterly, completely and devastatingly heartbroken over what has happened to my country.  I grew up with Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and witnessing the advent of Medicare, civil rights legislation and moon-shots.  When I was young the US was a beacon of hope for all the world's people, not just our citizens.  We had a lot of problems, many things needed fixing, but the overall arc of American progress was towards compassion, wisdom and generosity for all of humanity.

Now the United States government is a risk to world security.  Now it's a place that the less fortunate fear.  As incredibly impossible to me as it sounds, I am truly considering permanent immigration to an English-speaking democracy with a national health system.  What I discovered this weekend is that what is motivating me isn't outrage.  I'm not rage-quitting the US because I am disappointed my candidate didn't win in 2016.  It's much deeper than that.  I am so, so heartbroken.

I haven't lost faith in the American people.  The people in this country are the same wise, compassionate and generous people who have made me so proud over my lifetime to count myself among them.  Three million more of those people voted for the person who did not take office in 2016.

I have lost faith in what our system of government has become.  I truly fear these wise, compassionate and generous people I have been so proud to live among my entire life have lost control of their government.  The people in this country want things they can't get their government to even attempt to act upon.  They want DACA immigrants protected, they want sensible gun legislation, they want everyone to have health care and make enough money to live on.  This government can't deliver any of that.

So, I'm heartbroken.  I fear the American experiment is over after a two-hundred and fifty year run.  It will take some time to dismantle, but the process is underway.  Like my friends who have been dealing with the pain of divorce, I fear that I am going to have to leave.  Not because I wanted this, not because this is what I had planned, but because I honestly fear my differences are irreconcilable.

I was wondering about this because I generally don't take huge, life-altering decisions out of anger.  I have been unable to talk myself out of my desire to live somewhere else in the same way that I'm always able to talk myself out of rage-quitting a job or withdrawing from a personal relationship in anger.

This is the value of zen practice for me.  Sitting and staring at a wall without the exposure to today's outrage from the government cleared the smoke.

I'm still not sure I'm going to do it.  I have a lot of information to gather first and it's going to take some time to do that.  I don't know what the right thing is.

I do know the answer will come.

Friday, February 16, 2018

On staring at the wall

I am in Minneapolis, home to my home zendo, Dharma Field Zen Center in the somewhat bougie neighborhood of Edina in Southwest Minneapolis, near Lake Harriet if you know the area.  How a boy from Texas who now lives in Manhattan ended up in a zen center in Minneapolis (a place I have never lived or worked) is a topic for another post.

I often tell people when they ask what brought me to zen practice that no one sits and stares at a wall for six hours a day because things are going well in their life.  When we gather in the zendo this evening each of us will have a different tale of woe that brought us here, some are pretty glamorous, some are tragic, most are variations on the theme of life not making sense at some point and not knowing where else to turn.

To save you from hours of staring at a wall, let me tell you the secret.  There is no secret.  Life will never make sense, it can't.  The philosophies we construct to flail against the mystery may make sense inside their own context and offer the balm of temporary salvation, but at some point they all will walk into the same trap.  The best one can do is learn to live in a world that doesn't make sense.

Buddhism is the religion that offers you nothing...and delivers!

I cracked myself up this morning when I was in my apartment in Manhattan packing for this trip.  I stopped and thought, what does one need to bring to sesshin? (Sesshin is another Japanese term we borrow, one helpful translation is "collecting the mind."  In general it refers to this variety of zen meditation retreats).

Nothing!  Once it starts, concerns about the body, dress and clothing drop away.  In these short sesshins I do not bathe aside from washing my hands and caring for my teeth.  I will be wearing the same clothes when I finish the almost 48 hours of continuous silent zen practice.

That's the point.  Everything about sesshin is organized to make it possible for a group of people to spend all day with the meditative mind.  We rehearse and practice highly ritualized ways of moving about the zendo, eating, working, and resting.  This kind of intense practice is exhausting, so I'll be asleep before my head hits the pillow at night, and will sleep soundly until someone rings a bell to get everyone up at some ass-early o'clock in the dark of morning. 

So, essentially I stay in meditation for almost 48 hours straight.  I do not wear a watch, and none are in view during sesshin.  The zen center has clocks of course, but they cover them with a cloth during sesshin.  We organize ourselves time-wise through signals created by someone pounding a block of wood (which generally means "get up") or ringing a bell (which generally means "sit down").

"Oryoki" is the Japanese term we borrow for eating meditation, it is complicated and I mess it up every time, but it does allow for 30 people to be fed and clean up after themselves in a quick, quiet, and efficient manner with barely any need for communicating with others. 

Everything from preparing one's eating utensils and bowls for receiving food, to eating itself, to cleaning up everything afterwards happens in a tightly defined and practiced ritualized sequence. Even though we are all silent we all know what to expect of everyone else at every single step. 

There's a video on the bottom right of this page if you want to see how its done (and perhaps if you find that you need to lull yourself to sleep and this post hasn't done the trick).

Oryoki is really just a more complex version of kinhin, walking meditation, and the basic point is it allows everyone to eat and not arouse the operative mind, that endless judgy chatter of "do this, don't do that, like that person, hate that idiot" which most people confuse for reality as they go through the day.  Trying to get it right, that is to do everything in the right order and as fast as everyone else, makes me anxious as hell, but that's my work to do.  I can work with that and not bother anyone else.  That's the wisdom of the way this works.

I had been considering the fact as this sesshin approached that I was in a pretty good place in my life, unlike most of the other times I've prepared for sesshin.  Things are okay, I'm pretty comfortable with how things don't make sense at the moment.  I wondered if that would affect the quality of my practice.  Would I slack off a bit?

Then I got off the plane, read a email, and immediately started crying.  Well, all that aside, at least I don't have to worry about coming to this practice empty-handed emotionally.

If you've never been in some kind of silent practice with a group of people let me tell you some things that might surprise you.  Keep in mind that I only visit this zen center for sesshin so I don't know, as in REALLY don't know, the people I practice with aside from the teachers and a couple of others, none of whom I know all that well.

Yet, in the 48 hours that we're together in the same room all day I will grow to intensely despise some of them and develop crushes (or bromances in the case of men) on some of the others.  Now, there genuinely is a way that one really gets to know another person by sitting next to them in silence for hours that is unlike other forms of intimacy, that's real.  Im talking about something else.

There's also the process that unfolds as your mind works to make sense of your relationships with these other people without the benefit of conversation or even looking them in the eye (we avoid direct eye contact during silent practice).  It hilarious to watch your mind do this as long as you don't take it seriously, which I don't.

At the end, we break silence and stand around to chat for a few minutes (some people do just get the hell out of there, my teacher runs home to order a pizza delivery, for example), I can't tell you how many times my intense infatuation or hatred has been pierced forever by a single phrase uttered by this person I've spent the last two days constructing ideas about.  This is perhaps one of the most valuable things I learn about myself here.  My mind is funny, it's a mixture of wise insight and truly ridiculous extrapolations.  I can't always tell which is which.

But, I do find out who can sit still, and that's a quality I like in others regardless of their other charms, quirks, or rough edges.

I can sit still.  It tooks years of training, and still requires effort, but I can do it.  I like that about myself.  Sesshin is a chance to show it off.




Monday, February 12, 2018

On being Internet-homeless

I am not homeless in any real sense of the word, what I refer to here is that I no longer have a primary landing page for Internet browsing.

In the very beginning, my landing page was the University of Kansas.  My browser was Lynx, text only, and everything I could think of doing was available from the University of Kansas website.  At that time, the list of all Internet websites was a 30k text file.  We passed it around.  Hypertext transfer protocol (http) was just one of the available protocols, we used ftp a lot, and archie and his cousin veronica were also useful.  What we consumed was software and text files.

That right, we used to download text files to read.  It was the 1980's.  All the TV channels on cable fit from 2-13, with channel 3 for the VCR, channel 6 was CNN, 8 was WGN, MTV was 10.  A phone number was associated with a place, not a person.

At the same time, long distance phone calls were expensive and there was no easy public access for the Internet.  Clever hackers from the ham radio community helped develop FidoNet, a store and forward network of computers connected by modems over analog phone lines.  I supported FidoNet node 1:382/70 for a number of years, until DSL internet because affordable and within reach of residential budgets.

Then came The Well.  That's where I encountered John Barlow, who was trying to humanize online communities with norms of respect and politeness.  I learned much from The Well.  I miss it fondly.

Once The Well spun into irrelevance, being taken over by matters of scale they did not anticipate, we had Slashdot.  The Slashdot comment moderation and blogging system changed everything, they had taken the best parts of The Well and turned it into a PERL script.  It caused community to happen.  Social media was born.

What has happened to Twitter and Facebook in 2016 happened to Slashdot in 2004.  I jumped to a clever and well-written blogging interface called Multiply.  Unfortunately, Multiply had no business case, it had no way to make revenue, it was still too early for Google-text ads, so it died after being harpooned as a peer-to-peer trading service in Asia.

The community I was a member of at Multiply fractured at the same time, some went to Reddit, others to Facebook.  Reddit was far too vicious for me, so I settled into Facebook, and started a Twitter hobby.

Now I have to leave Facebook.  I can't be a part of what that has become, and Twitter is not a community as much as it is an organized concauphony of curated sources of trivia.

So, I don't have a home page.  This is kind of new territory for me.  I have nowhere to just go to get on the Internet.

The New York Times (and other papers) are too stoic.  YouTube is too random and chaotic.  There's not a true community in either location.  That's weird.

Friday, February 9, 2018

On going down under

If you've spoken with me in the last couple of months you know I am going to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, the northeast part of Australia, in March.  There are a number of reasons for this choice, but if I had to combine them all in one word, it would be "adventure."

On the one hand, this is part of a very serious deliberation concerning permanent immigration out of the United States.  Should this country persist in the current march towards Emperor Trump and the New Free States of America, I will be permanently moving to a country with a democratic form of government and a national health system.  Australia, while it has it's own problems, cultural and political, is on my short list along with english-speaking Canada and Scotland.

It is also the most distant, and in some ways the most difficult to explore, so I'm going there first.  I am truly curious about what it feels like to me to be in a different hemisphere, far from where I have always lived.  I know what others say about this experience, I want to feel it in my own bones.

My choice of Brisbane was really rather random, and I intended that.  I felt visiting Sydney, at least primarily, might be a bit like coming to New York City as a way to get introduced to the US.  If one were to do that, one would get a taste of the US zeitgeist, but you would lack exposure to very large and important aspects of American culture because NYC is really the westernmost city of Europe.

I would recommend to a person desirous of genuine exposure to the USA (by visiting the Northeast, anyway) that they visit Philadelphia, DC or Boston primarily and make a side trip to NYC.  That would expose them to a much wider spectrum of people, norms everyday lifestyle in the USA than booking a nice hotel on Sixth Avenue for a week would, even though that might be more fun and comfortable.

Brisbane also has an office for a software company that I know well, so it's likely to have companies there with jobs appropriate for my skills, it is closer to the countries of the Pacific Rim I want to visit, and I have an online acquaintance who lives there whom has been helpful with practical aspects of the trip like where to stay and how to plan to get around.  I plan to visit Sydney also, as a side trip.

Aside from that, I know next to nothing about it other than what I've read in the last few weeks.  It's on the coast, there's a resort area nearby called Gold Coast that looks like Miami or what Atlantic City might have been.  There's beach, hotels, theme parks, etc.  I generally eschew that kind of stuff in the US, so I'm going to go down there to expose myself to something I might not like in Australia in order to acquaint myself with the full spectrum of the zeitgeist.

I want to see some Australian animals and plants, there's a koala preserve and a national park in the area, as well as botanic gardens.  There's a well known Modern Art museum in Brisbane as well.  These are the things I like.  This might be why Brisbane might also be a good place to settle, as well as a gateway to understanding myself in this country.

It is also the first time in my life that I have gone this far from home, and also the first time to make a major trip alone.  Like a frog sitting in a slowing heating pot of water, too much of my life has passed while I have waited for something that, or someone whom, I can't quite name, someone who sees travel precisely as I do, or some opportunity to do this in a less scary way.  I've been awaiting some physical manifestation of a travel muse, a person who wants to go to exactly the same places for the same reasons I do, or for some plan to emerge that is so convincing it removes all doubt.

No more.  I'm going that-a-way, folks.  I'll write when I get work.

Seriously, I will be blogging the trip here.  I will tag those posts like this one.

I am seeking Australia, I am seeking my next home, I am seeking deeper self-knowledge, I am seeking a good meat pie.  I have no idea what I will find, I'll do my best to tell a good story here.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

On the Patriot games

Because of the big football game this weekend, something has been happening that I generally do not permit.  I have been listening to Tom Brady speak. 

This week I would have to entirely eschew sports programming on radio and television in order to accomplish that.  Avoiding his terse performances of college frat-house faux-innocence is not that important.

Meanwhile, his buddy Bob, the owner of the football club, let it slip in an interview that the beef of the northeast is the trade of Garafalo to the forty-niners, where he has been nothing short of a sensation since getting off the plane.  He described the solution as "some strong people should check their egos."

Ah, Bill.  You're only perhaps the best professional American football coach in history.  Your team has had a winning streak like no other during your tenure.  You deliberately rebuked the New York Jets to agree to a deal with Bob that began all that, but some football decisions, namely which players to suit up, are not yours to make.  I've been there in my business, buddy.  It's a tough piece of cheese.

But wait, then Bob publicly kneels before Tom Brady by pronouncing that Sir Tom has the right to retire when he, and only he, sees fit.  Good thing Tom doesn't have one of those un-checked egos.

This is Shakespearean.  All we need is for Bill's son to have an affair with Giselle and we'll be acting this out in summer stock for decades.  Why is Bob willing to throw shade at Bill publicly while almost in the very next breath kneeling publicly before Tom Brady?  Which Bob will emerge next?  The strong leader or the humble servant?

It's at this point it's fun to remind people that Bob lost a Super Bowl ring or something to Putin.  And he and the President are great friends, by the way.

But let's get to the end of Act II.  What if there really was something to deflate-gate, or something similarly underhanded, of which only Bob and Tom possess certain knowledge?  What if Tom's demand for his loyal silence is that he be permitted the honor of dying of old age on the field of battle, damn the consequences for the football club?  What if Tom's bottom-line is that Bob wait until Tom decides to retire to even begin the post-Brady-era rebuilding process?

Might that be the same guy that would go on in front of the microphones like this?
"Why does everyone want me to retire so bad?" he said chuckling. "I don't get it. I'm having fun. The team's doing good. I know I'm a little bit older than most of the guys, but I'm really enjoying it. Obviously, I enjoy the experience of playing in this game. This has been obviously a dream come true many times over. It takes a lot of hard work to get here, and I think our team is working hard ... We're playing against a great football team. So I'm not thinking about retirement. I'm thinking about the Super Bowl and trying to win the most important game of the year."
Thank you to the NFL for the quote and background for this hot sports take.
Cue the timpanis.

Tom's got something on Bob.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On (subtly) slut-shaming porn stars

When Michael Wolffe, author of Fire and Fury, was on Bill Maher he mentioned that he had knowledge of an affair the President was having but he couldn't ever corroborate it well enough to put it in the book, except as an oblique reference in a single paragraph near the end.

Well, not that I ever believed it was anything else, but this confirms Mr. Wolffe's opinion that what he does belongs in the gossip pages.  There's no shame in that; its just good to know.  Liz Smith would be proud of him. 

People rapidly began putting two and two together in the Twitterverse hive mind and decided it was Nikki Haley.  Frankly, in my gossip mind, that works on several levels, it would explain why she has been able to act as a bit on contrarian in the UN without being slapped back at some point like everyone else has.  She does seem to be in possession of a backbone that others aren't.  Hmm.

But, I don't care.  If they enjoyed the physical activities of sexual union that is their business, knowing for sure wouldn't change my opinion of either of them.  

I've been a bit concerned about his possible lack of access to a sexual partner.  I don't think his wife is an option, and there are arrangements that can be made in a Manhattan residential building that can't be made at the White House.  It's not good for the judgment and well being of anyone to be involuntarily isolated from sexual comfort.  While I don't want him to be President, I don't see anything to be gained by desiring anyone's basic human discomfort, even his.

That was a long way to go to get to this observation.  

Some of the discussion concerning NIkki Haley has been called slut-shaming.  The inference is that she fucked her way into her position, or with more shade, that she's using her ability to compromise Trump to keep her job because she fucked him, or is fucking him.  That is not exactly slut-shaming, but it's related.  Even I allude to it above.

What's also being called slut-shaming is the "Eww, how could you think she'd have sex with that pig?" variety of faux-sympathy for the apparently-wronged Ms. Haley.  "Oh, that's just gross!  She's not gross!" faux defense of her honor.  Ms. Haley is just too classy a lady to let that guy anywhere near her in this scenario.  Leave Britney alone!

Ms. Haley might take some comfort in that, but it's not the same as slut-shaming.  In some ways, it's the opposite.

No one said that about Stormy Daniels.  There was no reaction like "How could you think that Stormy Daniels would sleep with Donald Trump for money!  Gross."  Nope, in fact, I could only imagine such a discussion deep in the bowels of an online adult film fan forum, or perhaps among her colleagues in the business.

Nope, everyone assumed that she would do it because she performs sexually on film as a career.  Folks, THAT is slut-shaming.  I mean, if a dearth of something can be called shaming, I'm not sure it can, but it's something like slut-shaming.

So, she's an actress who does erotic movies..  Does that mean she's checking her dignity and boundaries at the door?  No.

Now, as you can go back and see, I'm not sure I'm a fan of hers, I don't know enough about this thing, even if I am willing to believe what seems easy to believe about this.   She knew he was newly married, had a new baby, was prone to misjudgments.  Her motives interest me.  I doubt she needed the money.

But I am unwilling to assume that any man can just walk up to Stormy Daniels with a wad of money and take her to bed.  She would have to assert that affirmatively for me to believe it is true.  

One of my dearest Aunts was a famous stripper, she toured the world.  I knew her as a small, scared child, confused and frightened by the violent alcoholism that infected my nuclear family in the mid 1960's.  This Aunt was an oasis of sanity in my world, never failing to be kind, generous, and wise.  I could always rely on her for a warm embrace and soft, comforting words whispered in my ear.

I loved her slutty clothes before I consciously understood why.  She wore them well.  She was fiercely independent until the end of her life, frustrating my mother and others trying to help her deal with dying from brain cancer in her 50's.  The Priest providing her spiritual comfort at the end of her life fell in love with her beside her deathbed.  He said later he considered leaving the service of the Church to be with her if it was possible she might survive.

So, this influences (I think clarifies is a better term, honestly) my view of sex workers of all kinds.

So, consider if you think it would be gross to have sex with Trump (and I count myself among those), it would be potentially just as gross for Stormy Daniels as it would be for Nikki Haley.   

I think it is much more likely that Trump has ED and his show of swagger is all about compensation for his perceived inadequacies.  Perhaps the incident with the hookers in Russia happened they way it did (i.e., the dossier mentions he asked them to pee on the bed, not on him, and it doesn't say he had sex with them) because he didn't want to confront this.  I dunno.  It certainly might explain part of the equation concerning why Melania decides to stay married to him.  

Interesting no one said "How could you think a gentleman like Donald Trump would commit adultery!" but that's another discussion

Whether either of these women had sex with Trump is (his and) their business alone.  What concerns me is his lying, his abuse, and his attacks.  This discussion about Ms. Haley vs. the discussion around Ms. Daniels is illustrative of something I think is worth pointing to.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

On at least one shade of gray

The FBI is wearing the white hat these days, and that hat looks a little odd to me.  This is the same organization that a few months ago was equating black lives matter spokespeople with domestic terrorists, dusting off FBI memos from the 1960's about The Black Panther Party, changing the dates, and targeting black and brown people as straight-up institutional racism.

At the same time, neighborhoods do become less stable and peaceful when these activists seize local control, there is a tunnel-vision tone-deaf argument to be made against them for preservation of public safety, but it's important to understand that there is also such a thing as a rational lie.  This is an example.

Food, medicine, clothing and shelter.  That's the recipe for peace.  Address those problems and you will have peace.  This country can afford to do that, but that's another discussion.  The problem isn't that people want conflict, they engage in conflict when they don't feel safe.

On the other hand, the only thing that has made the significant social gains we have made over the years a permanent part of life in the US is the rule of law.  The FBI is the federal instrument of the rule of law.  This is not a bad thing.  The white hat should fit.  It's a shame that it looks odd, but that's on me.  Everything has good and bad in it, myself included.

If good is white and bad is black, I am definitely an ever-shifting shade of gray.  So is the FBI, so are these issues.  The GOP wants voters to believe it's white vs. black.  They prefer that a dormant unrepentant pedophile serve in the Senate rather than a Democratic prosecutor who jailed American terrorists amongst a citizenry who held a level of hostility to their punishment.

I am dismayed that the Democratic Party is currently aspiring to do little more than be the negative inverse image of the GOP, white where they are black, black where they are white. 

There is no white or black, only gray.