December 23, 2008

So What's With this Semicolon?

I got the job as assisstant opinion editor at the Daily Nebraskan. I'm starting on January 12.

I wonder how that's gonna go?

December 20, 2008

Connecting the Fenceposts

Sylvia was beautiful. She has the most wonderful hair, black and glossy, her springy curls giving her a constant impression of energy. She was petite and well rounded, smiling, with sharp eyes and a wonderful way of articulating herself with words and gestures. She appeared fully engaged with the people and the world around her. She was a good Catholic girl from Los Angeles who had travelled with her church group in Europe and looked far too young to be a high school English teacher. I met her at Karme Choling, where she was attending the Mukpo Institute for Buddhist Studies before moving to Manhattan to study art.

We sat in the dining hall speaking about the places we had travelled to. She advised me that San Francisco was the only city in California worth visiting and that Wyoming was beautiful. We had both been to Colorado. She had a friend there, a woman who was a backpacking guide, who liked to go by herself to the wild places, the places without a footprint. She would search for days for those untouched spots. Sylvia was mystified, but I nodded my head. I could understand her friend. I thought of the Sand Hills and I tried to explain it as best I could in halting and clumsy language. I told her about the mountains and the grass and the ocean, struggling for a metaphor.

“You see, the wild places don’t care,” I said, knowing that wasn’t the half of it.

“But isn’t that scary?” she asked.

I struggled to explain. “But you see, because they don’t care, they don’t want anything from you. They don’t demand anything. They don’t tell you how to be. Like in the Sand Hills, it’s just oceans and oceans of grass and all you can hear is the wind. In some places you can walk across the hills and you can’t see anything human within that landscape, not a road or house or windmill, not even a barbed wire fence. Because everything people make contains a message, beyond its mere function, it has a reason, a ‘do this, not that.’ So even something as simple as a fence is a message from someone demanding something from you, don’t cross, walk beside, or telling you something, this is where your land stops and mine begins. Because we are social creatures, we are always looking for these messages, consciously and unconsciously. But the hills themselves don’t care and because they don’t care you’re…free.”

I think finding that kind for freedom is one of the things that helps us realize the constructed nature of our reality. Without the uncaring hills, the stoic mountains, or the indifferent sea to show us that something else is possible, we might never realize it. I wonder if that is why the Buddha sat under a tree, even if he might not have realized it at the time. After all, the tree didn’t care, did it? While the companions he had been studying with had all had expectations and they gave him guff for failing to meet those expectations. But the tree didn’t care. It was content to let him be and to go on doing as it had always done.

It is true that the fencepost really doesn’t care any more than the hills or the grass or the wind. It is the meaning our mind gives it that makes us believe the fencepost wants something from us, but it is also the interconnectedness of it all. We know someone made that fencepost, sometime in the past, someone felt the need to tell other people (or cows) that this was a boundary not to be crossed. We instinctively see a connection with that person. Our world is made up of fenceposts and the meanings we give them and the connections we seek through them.

These words are fenceposts. Fundamentally, they don’t care. They have no meaning. They make not connections. We care. We decide meaning. We make connections. Fundamentally, we are not fenceposts. We seek not to create boundaries but remove them. We seek to renounce all those barriers between ourselves and others, to connect, heart to heart.

“I think I understand,” Sylvia told me. She had such a thoughtful expression.

I smiled and leaned forward on the table, making a connection.

December 11, 2008

DN Article - Christmas without Consumerism

It's another two-fer today. Gee, you'd think I didn't have anything better to do during Dead Week than play on the internet. Well, I'm not convinced I have anything better to do, but I certainly do have something else that needs doing. Or so my professors keep telling me.

Holiday happiness, memories can’t be bought.

Enjoy!

Maybe You Can Live a Lie

Keith had a family emergency. He has a two year old so we all hoped it was nothing serious. Julie, our professor, asked me if I could cover his portion of the group presentation. Could I explain the Rational Model? Sure. I told her I could. I didn’t know whether or not I was lying.

The truth seems like it should be a solid, immutable thing. Even the word “truth” sounds steady, strong, like a rock, like a thing with an absolute existence. As part of the Dharma, I have studied the dichotomy of relative truth and ultimate truth. I knew this statement, quick to reassure my fretting professor, belonged to the realm of the relative. But that wouldn’t make it any less a lie.

If someone hold up a playing card, back facing you, and asks you to tell them the suit, is your answer a lie? A guess? Maybe so. But what if that person expects you to know for certain? What if that person relies on your answer? Then is it a lie? Do you wear your confidence like a cloak?

I read the one page explanation of the Rational Model. Five minutes later I stood up and made my introductions and moved through the half a dozen slides as if I had known all along what they had said - as if I wasn’t just paraphrasing the words, making them sound extemporaneous, as I read them – as if I knew what the Rational Model was – as if I had known we had used the Rational Model for our group project (which we did, but only by stumbling into it). I felt vaguely like a fraud, but also like a success for so smoothly fulfilling all their expectations.

As I handed off the presentation to the next team member and found a seat with my group at the back of the room, Julie whispered in my ear that I had done a fantastic job. I whispered by my standard line about having become quite competent at faking confidence.

“Fake it ‘til you make it, I always say!” Julie whispered back.

I guess. On the one hand, I’ve been living that line for half of my life. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve spend half of my life living a lie. I’ve spend my life pretending confidence, knowledge, expertise, caring, conformity, happiness, equanimity, and courage.

What if I’m not confident? What if I’m unsure, ignorant, inexperienced, indifferent, antisocial, depressed, tempest tossed and full of fear?

Let’s not be melodramatic here. I’m not that either. It is a fascinating thing that as human beings we can be so vital with contradiction. We can walk the Middle Way between all these extremes. We can live within the beauty of irony, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, and fantasy. We can come to know all the joys and sorrow of samsara – never limited to only one or the other.

We can judge, reason, and discern. We can choose the truth and in so doing, bring it into being. I made a judgment and I certainly didn’t bother choosing rationally. I chose intuitively, based at least as much on what I wanted to be so as what I felt was actually possible. Maybe that is the greatest form of delusion, but I stood up and made myself into an honest woman. I did what I told Julie I could do. In so doing, I took another step towards actually being that confident person we all fake so well.

In the absense of a "true self," maybe we can live a lie.

December 09, 2008

Falling in Love

I fell in love on the subway. It was in Chicago and it was bitterly cold. I was on the red line, which is more of an elevated train than a subway. A few stops after mine, a trio of teenagers boarded, loud and laughing as only teenagers can be. The first one I noticed was a dark-haired boy in a red T-shirt, only a T-shirt on a dark December evening. They stood in front of me, two boys and a girl, shifting and fidgeting with youthful energy and talking just a bit too loud.

The dark haired boy in the red shirt put his arm around the other boy in a loverly way and caressed his back, hugging his waist, jokingly I think, though the other boy did not throw him off. It was not the caresser that riveted me, but the caressed. He was not a boy, but not yet a man. His face was beautiful, with perfect high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and flawless pale skin with just the first brush of a five o'clock shadow. His eyes captured me, though they turned not in my direction. They were brown, just brown, but so expressive, so rich and captivating, turning this way and that between his two companions.

His body was trim and athletic, even beneath his quilted winter coat. It was black with a black scarf over dark blue jeans, which were blessedly neither baggy nor sagging. After a time a pair of seats opened up and he and the girl sat, the red-shirted boy standing close before them. The object of my misguided affection sprawled languidly, one foot braced on a vertical support, he head leaned back against the seat.

I did not know his age, nor his name, nor any single fact about him, but I loved him. From his sandy brown hair to his black tennis shoes, I loved him. This was the boy who less controlled women went to prison for and this emotion was what they got in trade. This was the boy that the Greeks wrote poems about and the Romans made statues of. I watched surreptitiously and tried not to stare. He was so beautiful and, unlike so many young people, seemed totally unconcerned by this fact.

Past station after station, as a hundred people came and went, I watched him and marvelled that any human being, live and in the flesh, could be so outwardly beautiful. He could have been a monster inside and I am not sure I would have cared. I could picture him, standing as the Roman statues stand, but of warm, soft, living flesh. He was young enough to be forbidden but certainly old enough to make his own decisions, be they ever so unwise and damaging. It is just that kind of young man, or woman, prone to damage and be damaged, fragile like china and yet somehow powerful.

Would I ever? I thought to myself and then smiled. No never. I shook my head slightly. Oh, but I could love him for those few minutes there on the subway. Love without entanglements, without attachment, without fear or loss or pain or heartbreak. Because I would never, even if he might have. My station came and I left the train without a backward glance and he travelled on into the night never knowing that for that short period of time and for ever after a woman loved him.

Or maybe he did know.

I Knew I Knew it All Along

I recently attended a retreat at Karme Choling in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I participated in Shambhala Training Levels IV & V, Awakened Heart and Open Sky. I got my merit badge, a Level V pin, like a good little girl scout and I fulfilled my commitment to myself, to at the very least finish Level V before I decided if this meditation thing was all a crock of shit. Now I feel like the happy victim of a bait and switch, but in a good way. Level V came with a vast sense of happiness and relief, such that I am now looking forward to continuing on this path. If you continue reading below, you should know that this commentary contains some spoilers, so if you intend to take the Shambhala Levels yourself in the very near future, let me sum up so you need read no further: we are all buddhas. If I do continue on this path, these will probably be the last spoilers I post out of respect for the tradition, but this was something important for me which I thought I should share on the off chance that someone else might take encouragement from it. Let us start then from the beginning.

In August of 2004, not one week after I had moved to my new home in Lincoln and a scarce week before starting classes at the University here, I hopped on a west-bound train and found myself at Shambhala Mountain Center enrolled in something called Shambhala Training Level I, Birth of the Warrior. I loved the mountains. I loved the people. I enjoyed all this basic goodness stuff our teacher, Cynthia Kneen, talked about. I hated meditation. I say that word with a certain emphasis, dragging the ‘Hay’ sound up from my stomach, almost spitting the word, biting down on the ‘T’ sound. I HAY-Ted meditation.

But these people, they were smart and beautiful and glowing in a way that had little to do with their high-altitude tans. And these words in this book, they were strong and sensible and inspiring in a way printed words so seldom are. So, possibly because I’ve always been a bit of a masochist and because meditation was one of the hardest things I’d ever attempted in my life, I came back. I still didn’t get it and I continued not to get it for several years, but I resolved to give this who meditation thing a fair shake. Everything they seemed to say meditation brought - clarity, stability, strength, equanimity, compassion, even wisdom - I seemed to be getting from somewhere else in my life (ok, well maybe not so much the wisdom). I already had my support mechanisms in place.

Acharya Rockwell recently told me that people come to meditation because they are confused, because there has been some upheaval in their lives which they can’t make sense of. Heretofore, I was not confused. (Or no more than usually, I should think.) There had been no upheaval. But I was curious. Why? Why? Why did everyone seem to think this sitting around on your ass doing nothing and watching your mind jibber was such a grand thing?

I’m already enough of a mind game. I’d been watching my mind do cartwheels since elementary school. I’d lived a life of fantasy and storytelling to make up for the disappointment of reality. It’d gradually come to realize this was of no benefit. I’d sought then to free myself from my own illusions, to engage with my world more fully. I’d always been on guard against my introverted tendencies. I’d been the silent observer in my own head for so long, this was all nothing new to me, but here they’d formalized it. They’d made all these confining rules about sitting and breathing and where to place your gaze and to let your tongue touch your palette and to label your thoughts “Thinking” and so on and so forth. For what?

I struggled. I made it through Level II and learned a little more about the cocoons we construct to protect ourselves from reality. I sat quietly through Level III and learned how we relate to others, for better or for ill. (And I had my epiphany moment for the design of my studio project.) Then years passed. Every so often, when I was headed west, I would check the schedules for a Level IV, but it was always just before or just after my trip. I never bothered to prioritize it.

I like to sit, not meditate, just sit. I sit on busses or park benches or in restaurants or libraries or just on my couch at home. I always thought of it as paying attention, but to nothing in particular. A squirrel or a bird wanders into my sight. I hear the wind in the trees. I watch the clouds go by and a person or two pass through. I think whatever I think and when I get caught up and wander away, I come back. I center myself again in my seat, in my little slice of the world, and I just sit.

Every year at Shambhala Mountain Center they have a program for teenagers called Sun Camp. It’s kinda like boy scouts for Buddhists. The Sun Campers were a khaki shirt as part of their uniform and on the back it says “When you lose your mind … Come back.” I love that.

Two summers ago, I described this to my meditation instructor. Why, I wanted to know, was it so easy for me to just sit on the bench in the courtyard and simply be and so hard to get my ass to the cushion? And what’s the difference between the two?

It’s not meditation, she told me, I was just spacing out. It didn’t really count. It wasn’t beneficial. I needed to meditate. I’d only make real progress with meditation. I needed to get my ass to the cushion.

Really? I thought, because it doesn’t feel like spacing out. It feels like being present. But I didn’t speak and I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure it sounded like spacing out.

Over time other people reacted the same. What do you mean you don’t meditate? How can you not meditate? Meditation is so important. You need to meditate.

A few weeks ago I had an emotional episode. I broke down and bawled my eyes out. I got angry, a little crazy, and I got my butt to the cushion. And I made it a priority to find a Level IV. As it turned out, I found a Level IV & V program with Acharya Rockwell at Karme Choling. I managed to sell it to my thesis professors as an investigation of another type of retreat center. (Which definately paid off, in the end.) Karme Choling offered me a scholarship and payment plan to help with the costs. Off I flew, leaving my family behind on Thanksgiving.

In Level IV the technique changed yet again, we brought the gaze up, raised it off the floor. People struggled with this, they found themselves overwhelmed with thoughts, sense perceptions, the glorious phenomenal world. I just shrugged. Due to my bad back, I have already modified the instructions so much, what’s one more thing? I spent both levels leaning against a gomden supported by one of the posts in the middle of the shrine room. Close gaze, raised gaze, stand on your head, so what? I was still bored to tears and trying not to fall asleep. I learned some important things about trusting my sense perceptions and that thoughts, like sights and sounds, are among these. They are the perceptions of my mind and just as much a part of the world, of my experience of the world, as anything else. They are not separate. They are not me, but they can be trusted.

I played hooky from meditation and I enjoyed the physical and perceptual exercises. Acharya Rockwell has that presence that I have noticed in the acharyas. He is there, every moment, and smart, funny, kind, and helpful. I enjoyed his talks.

Level V came around and we all gathered to receive the meditation instruction for Level V. There is no instruction, Acharya Rockwell told us, just drop it. Just be. It’s the technique of no technique.

I’m not usually a dunce, but it took me a moment to catch on. I suppose I was incredulous, which I don’t recall ever having been. Really? You mean I can just be? Finally, I can just be! It was such a joyous relief. I was awake for the entire morning sit, no head-bobbing at all. I can just be. Just be. Just be. Damn, why didn’t somebody tell me this four levels ago? I can just be.

Acharya Rockwell was my meditation instructor and when I spoke with him the first time, I hadn’t much to report. Now I had a question. I told him my story. I told him about my just sitting. I told him that his instructions sounded an awful lot like what I’d always done but been told didn’t count. And I asked my question: when is the other shoe going to drop?

No shoe. I can just be. I can really just be. Damn! I knew I knew it all along.

As I left that interview and looked back on the years between Level III and IV, I realized something. I paid too much attention to all the people that told me my version of sitting didn’t count. Over the years I gradually devalued it, sat less and less, and finally stopped. All the while I struggled to maintain a formal meditation practice and failed again and again. This left a gap in my life and stripped me of my normal coping mechanisms, my strength, my clarity, made me vulnerable until I finally broke down. Until it drove me back to a formal meditation practice in search of relief.

But now I know I can just be. No technique. Just be, just as I have always been. This is awakened heart. This is open sky. This is bodhicitta. This is buddha-nature, that thing we all have but can’t see.

I remember when I read Thich Naht Hahn’s words and realized nirvana is now. I remember how I laughed like it was the greatest, most wonderful joke ever played. I remember how happy I was. It is the same. I don’t regret Levels I through IV, they gave me the ability to see this clearly, to articulate and understand. And now after all that, I can drop it, let go of the technique, and just be.

We are all buddhas.

December 08, 2008

Reading Aloud

“I will never need to go skydiving…

“I find here and there granite seats where I can listen to the whispering trees and flowing water… I notice the neurosis, the ego, the anxiety is still there, but it is small now and distant, like the ant against the mountain or the bird against the sky…

“I have flown on four swift legs not my own through the rushing course of trees and over the whipping grasses…

“I have rolled my eyes at my own behavior and then gone about it anyway, smooching in the Wal-Mart aisles and tickling in the aspen groves. I have teased and laughed and been very conscious of all the ways I shut down, close off, protect and defend against people who might, only just might, hurt me some amorphous someday. I have dragged out my introverted habits by their tails and held them up to the light only to realize the only one chewing on the slippers and peeing in the house is me. But I don’t scold them, no never that. I just stop feeding them until someday they might turn into little dust bunnies and blow away.

“I have listened to the rain. Some rain drips like the ticking of a clock, quick and steady. Other rain pitter patters like children’s feet, splashing and jumping. It snowed last night, so the land is bright and white, the clouds full and soft. Here and there the rain has washed the land clean, bright green moss over dark grey stone. The tall, tall, trees reach up, and with soft needles, tickle the underbellies of the clouds that skim the rolling hills. The sky laughs, shaking, and rain falls gently down. The grasses smile and wave. It is almost winter.

“I watch people go about the day, warm and snug. Bright colors and thick carpets chase away the grey outdoors with reds and greens and oranges. Warm cups of tea steam and sparkle in the lamplight, which shines onto the crisp white pages and the clear black text of a book held softly in the lap. Water seeps in through cracks and crevices, dripping with a hollow and discordant Poh! into gently placed buckets. Like the meditation bell that calls our attention away from our tail-chasing thoughts. The world is breathing.

“I feel the chill seep in and seek the warm company of friends, the cheery heat of laughter, the happily knit pair of thick winter socks. It is a day of scrubbing and cleaning, cooking and making, thinking soft and slow thoughts, rough and raging thoughts, of washing away the sorrows of the world. It is the day of sad joy.

“As I continue on, I find the great wide world is so much more interesting, so much more perfect in its every moment than all my little mental worrying ants and drifting birds and misbehaving dust bunnies.

“Poh! the water drips! We are here again.”

I didn’t eat much of my dinner. The energy curled in the bottom of my stomach, displacing hunger and thirst and even fear, vibrating through me. My voice was more steady than I expected, ringing out the words. Did it quaver just a bit there? Maybe, but only just the tiniest bit. As I read the second to last lines, I realize they are wrong. Or not wrong, just unfinished, just misunderstood, just always changing. I realize my worrying ants and drifting birds and delightfully misbehaving dust bunnies are part of the wide fascinating world. They are as much of the world as the mountains and the horses and the people and the rain. Yet, I read my offering as it is, only stumbling a bit over those final words as I discover the new ones yet unwritten. And they clap and I bow and sit down again. They come by later, one here or there to compliment the words. I was flattered and I stuttered a little to say my thanks. Sometimes I feel the words don’t belong to me anymore than the landscape belongs to the painter. Other times I cling like a jealous terrier.

But the fact that the words, arranged just so, might have helped someone, might have made someone sigh or smile - well that is a wondrous thing, a wondrous like the wild world thing.

Note: portions of this reading and post were excerpted from a previous post, Little Perfect Present Moments.

Being from Nowhere

Introductory conversations tend to follow a pattern at retreat centers. These are places where people have gathered from all over in order to practice together. Everyone is very different and yet all fundamentally the same. We all sit and eat and sleep and suffer and chase our thoughts. Because we have spent a while studying the dharma, we know this, so when we introduce ourselves, we focus on the differences rather than the similarities.

“Hi, I’m Joe/Jane.”

“Hello, Joe/Jane, I’m Monica.”

“So where are you from?”

“Nebraska.”

“Really!” It’s not actually a question, just a statement of surprise followed by, “Wow, I didn’t know we had any Shambhala centers in Nebraska.”

“We don’t. Nor in the Dakotas, or Iowa, or Kansas.”

“So where’s your closest center?”

“Colorado.”

“How far is that?”

“From where I live in Nebraska, it’s 550 miles.”

“Wow!”

They look at me with faint amazement. I begin to feel a little squirmy and a little uncomfortable, like I’m dominating the conversation. After all, I don’t even know where they’re from yet.

Their good opinion of me increases aswe move into the next phases of conversation, "How did you get involved in Buddhism?" and "What do you do?"

“That takes some dedication. To do it all on your own, especially when you're so busy. To travel that far and to practice without a sangha, and then to come all the way here to Vermont for this program. Wow!”

I never really thought about it that way. After all, one of the other participants was from San Francisco. At least they have centers in San Francisco. I have been conscious of being somewhat isolated here, separated, but it never occurred to me to think of myself as dedicated. After all, I am Buddhist. It doesn’t take much dedication to be who I am (or am not, such as it were). I was Buddhist before I knew what Buddhist was. I never really became Buddhist, I just discovered a whole bunch of people already like me, which was great. They happened to call themselves Buddhists and that was fine by me. Sometimes I feel like the cuckoo in the robin’s nest who finally migrated and found all the thousands of other cuckoos already headed in the same direction.

It makes me think though, and worry a little, that my practice is influenced by being the only black goat in the herd. I keep seeking out the other black goats, and we hang out for a while, and I feel safe because I don’t stand out quite so much anymore. Then, at the end of the visit, be it hours or days or months, I go back to my original herd, which isn’t so bad, because goats are goats wherever you go, but I’m once again the only black one. I’m one of a kind, or nearly so, here in Nebraska and I’m one of a kind when I leave because wherever I go, I’m the only one from Nebraska. And I gotta admit, sometimes it’s sorta cool to be one of a kind.

That’s why I started this blog after all. I was feeling isolated, separated. It is now one of the few steady things in my life. I’ve been able to maintain it and to grow through it, to mature into a better writer (I hope) with a stronger love for writing than ever before, and to expand my knowledge of the dharma and meet wonderful new people. It seems that I have flourished in isolation. Yet, is that really the best thing for an introvert? It is the comfortable thing, to be sure, but that can be dangerous. Comfort goes a long way to enhancing our habitual patterns.

So I leave. I seek out other cuckoos, or other black goats, other Buddhists. I go from one extreme to the other, from being ignored to being interesting. No wonder I love spending time with the sangha. Being the center of attention, if ever so minor or fleeting, is a great high. No one would ever think Nebraska could sound exotic, but to people on the coasts, it seems to be. They know the middle of the country only from the writings of Willa Cather and Laura Ingles Wilder.

“Isn’t Nebraska flat?” they ask and I always laugh.

“No, Nebraska isn’t flat. It just looks that way from the Interstate.”

Does being alone affect my practice? Certainly. In an odd sort of way, I live in solitary retreat. Yet, I can also get lost in the whirlwind of mainstream American culture, absent of all those supports or reminders, except those that I construct for myself. I had better be good at constructing those supports. I had better remember to prioritize my practice. I suppose maybe I am dedicated.

Acharya John Rockwell taught the program I recently attended at Karme Choling in Vermont. He spoke a bit about exertion and how it is akin to joy, how Trungpa redefined the word exertion to encompass joy. I guess that’s a complicated way of saying it’s easy to do what we love, so we should cultivate our ability to love what we do.

Dedication is easy when you love.

November 30, 2008

Tiger by the Tail

Ground if .... tastes like certainty.

The flowing stream doesn't freeze / Do I want to be the river or do I want to be the ice? / They are both water

The land speaks / Indignant stones: "Who put me here?" / "We are NOT a fence!"

Leaping lightly from rock to rock / Are we teasing the immobile stones? / Or giving joy in gratitude?

"Fellow Hermits..."

A man who thirsts for sadness, quenched by joy.

November 26, 2008

Jaunt

Somehow I have to break it to my grandmother that I am not going to be there for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. Instead, I'm going to be in the air on my way to Boston with a pit stop in Chicago. I'll probably be camping in Logan International Airport, since I'm getting in too late to proceed that day. The next morning, I'll be on a Greyhound bus, a new mode of travel for me, to White River Junction, Vermont. Then, somehow, magically, I have to get to Barnet from White River Junction. As a last resort, I have the number of a car service which wants to charge me an arm and a leg. I'm hoping some of the messages and emails I've left with other participants will bear fruit.

Despite the uncertainties of navigating the unfamiliar subways of Boston and possibly hitchhiking in Vermont, I have confidence that come Friday I will somehow find myself in Karme Choling. There, I will spend several days sitting on my ass doing nothing and occasionally listening to talks from Acharya Rockwell as I attend Shambhala Training Levels IV & V, Awakened Heart & Open Sky. Plus, I get to see another Shambhala retreat center and how it works, as well as the Green Mountains of Vermont. I wonder if they'll still be green or snow covered?

On the return trip, I have the wonderful opportunity to stop and see a dear friend in Brattleboro, and then a day to explore Boston before flying out. My pit stop in Chicago will this time be a night and a day, and include a visit with my thesis client to hash out some programming details for the Windhorse center in Wisconsin. Then at long last, back home to Nebraska, and straight into the chaos of Dead Week and the Finals Week.

Life is so odd, eh?

November 24, 2008

Fat Squirrels

One thing I love about this time of the year is that the squirrels get fat. Squirrels can’t exactly waddle. Usually they bound in lithe movements, two agile arcs, the arc of the body pushed forward by front feet and back feet moving together, followed by the rippling arc of the tail. When they get fat in late fall, their arcs flatten out, their bounds become less energetic, they move a little slower. As a result, the feral cats who live on campus also get fatter and their coats fluff out for winter. But even though the squirrels are now easier prey, even though they’ve lost their sparking quick agility, somehow they seem happier during this time of year, somehow content. I do so love happy squirrels, fat, waddling, fluffy squirrels that chastise passers-by from their leafless perches. It’s such an amusing thing to be chastised by such a small creature for who knows what it was you did to earn their ire. Especially when they look so fat their can barely move.

I wonder what kind of person gets reincarnated as a squirrel?

November 20, 2008

DN Article - Help Barack 2 - Price of Carbon

My snarkiest column yet and they aksed me cut out the most acerbic bits. I'm kinda bummed. I never get to be snarky or acerbic, but some sections of our society (cough: Republicans!) are really starting to annoy me. I guess that's just because someone decided to set the television in the student government office on Fox News.

Emissions trading best for pollution control

Enjoy!

November 17, 2008

So Damned Sad

Usually I’m fairly optimistic. I generally believe the world is full of good people who want to help each other. I know that’s naïve and more than likely to be incorrect, but I think it is generally a helpful attitude. Yet today there are so many reasons to be sad.

I’m working from home a lot, so over lunch I turned on the television for a mental break from the site analysis I am writing. Daytime television generally sucks so I ended up on CNN. Today of all days, I remember why I don’t watch the news. Listening to it on NPR is bad enough.

They displayed a picture of a billboard on some Christian community center in some anonymous town which said Obama is a Muslim and it is a sin against God to have elected him to the presidency. It ends with “Ex. 20:3” which I can only assume refers to the scripture Exodus, Chapter 20, Line 3 “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” They should have read a little further, down to line 16 “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I think it’s rather misplaced in a country which enshrines freedom of religion. But if they think electing someone of another religion is a sin, that’s an opinion they are entitled to, I suppose. I’m just not understanding the lie.

CNN was also reporting on a man who is pregnant for the second time. Yes, you’re probably thinking what I was thinking. (Because I was also thinking “Wow! I didn’t think we’d actually figured out how to do that with an entirely biological man!” Although, I think we will sooner or later, which will be super cool.) Thomas is a transgender man who was born a woman and is now legally male. I like the way he put it though, in the article he wrote in The Advocate on April 8, 2008: “I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights. Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.” So when his wife had to have a hysterectomy, he went off his testosterone injections in order to carry their daughter and is now pregnant with their second child. I think that’s fabulous! But reading of the struggles they had in getting medical care, the snide comments of their own family, and reading some of the comments on the website to the story, made me very sad.

One commenter wrote that the world was not ready for this kind of thing. Huh? I wasn’t ready when my eldest cousin got married. I distinctly remember thinking that: “He can’t get married. I’m not ready yet!” My cousin is only two years older than I am. I don't know why us being ready should stop them. Others wrote that it was wrong, evil, and harmful for the child whom they obviously did not love because she would clearly be screwed up and need massive therapy to get over the fact that her daddy loved her enough to carry her when her mommy couldn’t. Huh? That, on top of Proposition 8 passing in California and similar ballot initiatives around the country banning gay marriage, makes me very sad.

Then in Afghanistan, the Taliban are throwing acid at girls on their way to school. They don’t think women should be educated. Sometimes it’s mindboggling, the contradictory nature of gender prejudice. If women are so much stupider than men, then what is the harm of educating them? The guys will still be able to outsmart them right? If men are so much stronger than women, why is the sight of a woman’s bare face enough to drive them into passionate, violent madness? Aren’t women supposed to, at the very least, be protected?

All this unnecessary clinging. All this unnecessary hate. It causes so much suffering. It must hurt so very much. Not just to the victims of the hate, but to the hater. Can you imagine all that energy churning inside you, burning up your mind, strangling your heart, living in such constant anger, such abject fear? I want to ask those people, if you actually do manage to destroy the object of your hate, will it go away? If the person you hate is dead, will you stop hating them? Will that give you any relief?

What if it actually could? What if the hate disappeared with the object of the hate? What if a person could find away to take all the attention of hate, all the anger and violence and pain and viciousness of hate and turn it on themselves? What if a person could hypnotize the world so that all the people who hated those of another race, another religion, another gender, another sexual orientation, or for any other reason, so that all those people were convinced that that single person was the one and only member of that group, the singular object of their hate? What if that one person then killed themself? Would the world finally be at peace? If that was possible, if I could be that one person, I know I would do it.

It makes me very sad to know that it doesn’t work that way. Hate is so much stronger, so much more insidious. Hate is not about the object of the hate. It’s about the person doing the hating. And I’m not much of a hypnotist. It makes me so sad to think of the people at that church who put up that sign and the Muslims who have to look at it. To think of Thomas, his wife, their children, all those freaked out doctors and nurses, and the people who read that article. Not to mention Thomas’s (and his wife’s) family who were so unsupportive and have chosen to lose their own sibling rather than have a brother instead of a sister. It makes me sad to think of those girls in Afghanistan in pain and afraid to go to school and those Taliban men who must be so much more afraid of those little girls in order to go to such lengths.

It’s just so damned sad.

November 15, 2008

Non-Dual Beauty

"When beauty is understood to be the way all things come to be through mutually assisting each other, beauty is the inconceivable non-duality of self and other, the insubstantiality of separation. Beauty seen as separate from ugliness is just a concept of beauty. From the Zen point of view, beauty that lives separate from anything is not true beauty. If one is caught by the discrimination between a right way and a wrong way, and is not able to let go of the delusion of independent action, the light and beauty of all things are obscured. To ope to the beauty of all beings, we practice a meditation in which we thoroughly study and finally forget our ideas of beauty." -- Tenshin Zenki Reb Anderson, Green Dragon Zen Temple, in the Foreword of Zen Architecture by Paul Discoe.

Basic goodness.

November 14, 2008

DN Article - Help Barack 2 - Coal & Geothermal

Raise those picket signs high! Sign those petitions! Pass those initiatives! Citizen action can beat the crap out of the industrial lobby. Even in Texas. Don't let people tell you we gotta do it this way because that's the way it's always been done. With a little imagination, we can find better sollutions.

Geothermal power solves energy woes.

Enjoy!

November 12, 2008

Addiction

Renunciation means you have to want something to change. Renunciation means you have to be fundamentally dissatisfied with the way things are going along. Renunciation means making a commitment. Renunciation means saying “Stop the world. I want off.”

Habitual patterns are an addiction. They are built up over a lifetime, multiple lifetimes, and encoded into our DNA. They are insidious. They are hidden by their very omnipresence, their very normalcy. They hide behind the status quo, not just from us, but from everyone else. Yet they can be no less destructive than chemical addictions.

Utah Phillips quoted the unknown great Ammon Hennessy, “a Catholic anarchist, pacifist, draft-dodger of two World Wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America,”  explaining pacifism.

He said, “You got to be a pacifist.”

I said, “Why?”

He said, "It'll save your life." And my behavior was very violent then.

I said, "What is it?"

And he said, "Well I can't give you a book by Gandhi - you wouldn't understand it. I can't give you a list of rules that if you sign it you're a pacifist." He said, "You look at it like booze. You know, alcoholism will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' And then you can begin to deal with the behavior, you see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you've destroyed."

He said, "It's the same with violence. You know, an alcoholic, they can be dry for twenty years; they're never gonna sit in that circle and put their hand up and say, 'Well, I'm not alcoholic anymore' - no, they're still gonna put their hand up and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' It's the same with violence. You gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behavior, and have the people whose lives you messed with define that behavior for you, you see. And it's not gonna go away - you're gonna be dealing with it every moment in every situation for the rest of your life."

I said, "Okay, I'll try that," and Ammon said "It's not enough!"

I said: "Oh."

He said, "You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it's not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that."

That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I'm still at it. But I figure if there's a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that's probably the one. Think about it.

So I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of addiction and of acknowledging the addiction and dealing with the behavior can be applied to more than just alcoholism or violence or privilege. It can be applied to procrastination, self-deception, obstinacy, clinging, hiding, wallowing, ignoring, and struggling.

I’ve been looking at my self destructive (and people destructive) behaviors. I’ve been trying acknowledge my addictions, my habitual patterns, and to define the impact of those behaviors. I’ve been discussing them, where I can, with the people they effect.

I remember reading once that the second step of addiction recovery is “recognizing a greater power that can give strength,” which is why, I suppose, you hear God mentioned in AA meetings. Or at least in the popular media depiction of AA meetings anyway. So what is the “greater power” when you don’t believe in God? Is it Buddha? In some sects Buddha is depicted as more of a deity, watching over us form the Pure Land or wherever. To me, the Buddha has always been simple Siddhartha Gautama, just some dude who lived and died a couple thousand years ago, who happened, through effort or luck or wisdom, to get some very fundamental things very right. So what then is my “greater power?”

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at home. I had taken a break from my work to sit on the couch and channel surf. My cat was walking along and I reached over the arm of the couch to scoop her up like I have done a thousand times before. I had just deposited her in my lap when she flipped out. Animals generally flip out for a reason, a loud noise, being startled, etc., but she just flipped out for no reason I have yet determined, spazzed, used me as a springboard, scratched the hell out of my arms, and promptly sat down on the floor three feet away with this calm, innocent look on her cute little face.

”What the hell was that for?!?!” I demanded incredulously, pushing up my sleeves to look at the bright bleeding scratches on my arms. She just blinked at me.

Then I was crying. I felt the tightness in my chest, the wobble in my chin, my face muscles scrunching up and I was crying. And it had absolutely nothing to do with the silly little scratches on my arms.  Surprise can be a powerful force.  It's that "liberation upon seeing" that "what the hell" that wakes you up.  My routine was broken.  I was broken. 

I sucked it up. I breathed deeply. I calmed down. Then I got up and went out to get munchies from the gas station up the street. On the way home, I realized I was angry. I was walking swiftly and stridently, in the truest meaning of that word. I dropped off my munchies and then I kept walking. It was dark, with only a sliver of a crescent moon in the sky. The weather was fair and the capitol building was lit. I walked around the giant building, feeling each footfall, listening to each breath. I walked up the grand limestone steps and around the lowest balcony. And when I got home, I sat.

For the first time in months, I sat. I just decided to sit. No strings, no set time of day, no complicated rules about when and how and how many days off. I just set the kitchen timer for ten minutes and sit. Every day. No exceptions. And I count, like an addict. Sat three days.  Then I missed a day and I start all over again.

So I guess that’s my greater power. The power to sit. The power to do nothing, to choose to do nothing, to just stop, to just breath. I can’t indulge in my habitual patterns, my addictions, my destructive behaviors when I’m just sitting. Sitting is greater than them. And maybe, just maybe, if I keep it up, I’ll find a little of that strength and stability they are always talking about.

I decided something was wrong. Why would being scratched by my cat, something that’s happened a dozen times before, suddenly make me cry if something else wasn’t wrong? Why would I feel so antsy? Why would I feel so angry? So I renounced. I said, “Stop. I want off.” 

I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

But I sit.

Honestly! Really!

This morning, I walked through the State Capitol on the way to the bus stop, as I frequently do. I noticed a sign taped to one of the dark, heavy, serious looking doors. "Truth and Deception Board Meeting has been moved to room 1525."

Huh.

November 11, 2008

Can't Find What I'm Looking For

I don't keep copies of my blog. I let what I write exist only online. Now I am looking for something and I can't find it. Once upon a time I wrote something to the effect of "you can never be completely genuine with the other person when you want something from them." It was quite some time ago and I was trying to find it for a reference in something else I was working on. Doesn't it figure I can't keep track of my own mind.

Anybody seen it?

Widsom of Pie

Here in the Western world there has been much consternation and outrage at the discover of some of the rules for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, monks and nuns. Safe in our so-called equality we stand in our glass houses and frown in disapproval at the quaint ethnic traditions of the less civilized cultures while all the while revering them for their wisdom. We pick and choose only the sweetest apples from the tree and leave the rest.

There is this one particular rule which I thought of today – that any nun, no matter her age or seniority, must bow to any monk, no matter his age or seniority. This may result in the eighty year old abbess showing deference to the sixteen year old novice. Naturally, we modern women scowl and scoff at such a rule. Yet, in the grand scheme, I’m thinking the nun got the better part of that deal. I’m thinking someone was laughing when they made up this one.

Which is more worthy of cultivation? Which is more helpful on the path? Which destroys ego and which feeds ego? Humility or superiority?

My grandmothers knew the tart apples, the ones no good for eating, make the best pies.

November 07, 2008

Thoughts from the Kitchen

Courtesy of my new favorite hangout. A place my father would describe as "yuppie," and not in a good way. A place I tend to describe as "yummy," and thought provoking, too.

"Maybe you should have left 30 minutes ago. - It takes more effort to look upward as you move along, because it requires you to slow down. If not, you may run into something." - From the blog of Bread & Cup.

Yummy.

DN Article - Help Barack 1

Yesterday was a helluva day, but it all came out alright in the end. Corrupted files, plotters on the fritz, last minute corrections, everyone scrambling to help, getting it all done in time, and a lovely jaunt out to enjoy a warm bowl of soup and herbal tea before dashing off with the rest of my class to save the world. Or in this case, the town of Douglas, Nebraska, population 251. We got out of there close to ten o'clock that night, and by that time we were all punchy and tired.

In the midst of all that, I did manage to snatch the paper and read my column. I am always surprised at the choices of copy desk. This time, they changed "draconian government social engineering" to read "draconian government action," which really doesn't have the same ring to it at all. Oh, well. No clinging, right? So here you go: a low carb column preceeding a dense and gooey desert column next week.

Obama's environmental promises demand our commitment, too.

Enjoy!

November 05, 2008

Confidentiality and Censorship

Sometimes I wonder if my only real talent is to annoy people. I’m not always sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Today I managed to annoy my thesis project co-chairs. I moved forward on an avenue of my project without consulting with them. Apparently, they think this particular method of participatory planning is more tricky than I think it is. I started a website. They are annoyed I didn’t consult with them, I suspect they are wondering in the back of their minds if I was trying to pull a fast one, and they believe I didn’t give the matter much thought.

Well, they have a right to be miffed, wrong to be suspicious, and at least half right on the last one. I really didn’t give this particular action much thought. I didn’t think about it because I am relying on positive past experience and because of a preconceived philosophical position.

Lots of planning projects have websites. Every planning department, city or county, that I know of has a website. Lots of developers have websites. Churches and schools have websites discussing their growth objectives. I see these websites all the time and use them in my research. I have always found them enormously helpful, both as a researcher and as a participant in the planning process in my community. If anything, have only been disgruntled by a lack of more detailed information.

I have a website, a couple, in fact. I’ve been blogging for over two years now. I’ve been writing columns for the paper for several months. I’ve been putting myself out there, opening myself up to feedback and criticism and I’ve gotten some. It hasn’t all been puppy dogs and roses, but overall it has been a very positive experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Also I have a philosophical commitment to openness, honest, inclusiveness, full-disclosure so to speak. I tend to think the more we all know about each other the better off we are. I believe in collective wisdom. I encourage informed decision making. I think it’s easier for a group to move forward together if they know where everyone is coming from and have some idea of where things are going. It’s a belief that has occasionally come back to bite me in the ass. I have to admit, a good portion of it is born out of a strange naïve optimism. I don’t always see the ways people can use information against each other, let alone the reasons for doing so. I’m completely lacking in realpolitik, which I honestly don’t regret. So of course, when I put something out into the world with the best of intentions, I naively assume that people will react to it in the same manner.

My professors think I’m opening up a can of worms. They are concerned there will be elements in the community who will see this and be adamantly and violently opposed to the entire project. They are afraid this could be the match and once the fire is started, there is no putting it out. My initial reaction is that this is ridiculous on many levels. Yet the fact that I am so immediately dismissive makes me question my motivations.

I’ve never handled critique well. Am I just trying to avoid being wrong? I can understand their concerns and some of their objections but I believe that these would be concerns no matter what feedback mechanism we used. We always knew community participation was going to be an important component and I don’t see that this is any riskier. I also have a high comfort level with this form of communication and I think it was telling that between the two professors, the one with the most tech savvy was also the least annoyed with me, though he still expressed deep concerns.

So now I’m wondering about the relationship between privacy, confidentiality, and censorship. When does one become the other? Does privacy apply to groups? What about when the actions of those groups affect a larger community? Privacy implies that the information, if known, could be harmful. The last thing I want to do is harm someone. Is it okay to keep some things confidential even when you know the other party could use the information and would like to know? Is it okay not to tell someone something because you are afraid of the response? Is there a way to present information in a way which would not provoke a strong negative reaction? Is there really anything you can do about people who are likely to be pre-prejudiced from the get go? Is this a lie by omission or a form of censorship? Am I really just silly and naïve to believe people react to you the way you approach them? How can I control the information flow which still allows plenty of opportunities for feedback from two different groups with two different agendas? Will it further bias one group if they find out that other discussions have been going on “behind their back?” All of these questions broaden my understanding of dealing with others. Not that I have any of it figured out yet, of course.

Of course, the biggest question being: am I letting my own need to be right and fear of criticism (or fear of admitting criticism is legitimate) color my response? The only answer I can come to is: of course I am. I’m bringing my own baggage to the table. That’s the thing about baggage. It follows you everywhere. So, if I recognize that, I can look forward at my professor’s concerns as legitimate, merited, and worthy of deep consideration as I look for a solution. I’m not sure I’m wired to think that way. I’m not sure I can competently consider all the angles or even figure out what they are, just because it’s so against my ingrained habitual patterns. It’s good to try, though.

So now how can I have my cake and eat it too?

November 04, 2008

Election

One pundit asked "What are your thoughts on this historic night?" I'm thinking I wish I had someone to play that drinking game with (take a drink whenever someone says "historic") and I'm really glad I didn't because I would be soooo damn drunk by now and soooo horribly sick tomorrow.

My cat slept through the whole thing and complained at me when I clapped.

Vote

"I voted today!" reads the sticker on my thigh. Why my thigh? Well, it's a wonderful, sunny, breezy fall day. If I put the sticker on my jacket, people wouldn't see it if I took my jacket off. If I put the sticker on my shirt, people wouldn't see it if I wore my jacket or my scarf. I briefly contemplated putting it on my face, but decided the stick and stiff circle would probably be uncomfortable.

I am proud that I voted. I am proud of my country, where I have the opportunity to vote. I am proud of all the people who are coming out to vote today. I am proud of the little old ladies who site patiently in the polling places and check out names and addresses, hand out our ballots, and give us our stickers when we're done.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time lately telling us what is wrong with our country, not least of all the candidates themselves. A lot of historians have gotten a lot of face time lately telling us about the history of politics in our country, how it has changed, and very few think it has changed for the better. There was a book review in the Prairie Fire this month (a local newspaper) about The Political Mind by George Lakoff who thinks "...the capacity of government to carry out critical moral missions is systematically [being] destroyed from within the government itself, while public funds are used to provide capital for private corporations to take over those critical function of government and charge the public a great deal for doing so, while avoiding all accountability." He calls this "privateering." It is all of a piece.

Yet today, this day, I am optimistic; I am hopeful; and I am proud of my country - my flawed, imperfect, crazy, stupid, bigoted, violent, angry, wonderful country. Despite how screwed up we all are, somehow we all manage to agree on this one thing: democracy. Maybe we haven't gotten it right, gotten it perfect just yet, but we've come a hell of a long way. Over the last 232 years, we've expanded the franchise here in the United States. We've encourage democracy throughout the world and provided a constant example that it does in fact work.

Of course, there is still more work to do. The turnout today encourages me by showing me that we are willing to do that work. The talking head on CNN just read a poem (go figure): "Some people live for history. We live for the moment just before," she read. That moment just before, this moment, that's where change happens, where we can make it and shape it. By voting, amongst other things.

Sounds like Dharma to me!

November 02, 2008

Call for Letters

This is primarily for UNL students and alumns, but others are welcome also!

"Jeff had a great idea for election day -- he suggested we put out a call to our readers for 'what does democracy mean to you?' letters to the editor. I requested a two-page section for election day, and I'd love to make this work. If you all could help spread the word and get out that we're looking for these letters, that'd be awesome. if you have people that write to you personally about your columns - maybe shoot them an email saying we're accepting letters to the editor about democracy. Anyone else you might know who reads and comments a lot. Anything.

Thanks!

Cyndi Waite, Daily Nebraskan, Opinion Editor"

Send them to me, comment here, or to opinion@dailynebraskan.com.

October 31, 2008

Top Three "I Want"

Okay, so “want” is kinda a dirty word in dharmic circles. But this post by one of my favorite blogger, Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man, got me to thinking:

“Do you dream of a life that's simply ‘sustainable?’ Or do you hope for something better, say, a happy life? One that's full of meaning?”

Do I want a sustainable life? Hell, no! I want something better than that. Do I want to design sustainable architecture? Sustainable communities? Hell, no! I want to design regenerative architecture and regenerative communities. That is, buildings and communities that go beyond no net impact to actively enhancing vitality. These are buildings and communities that produce rather than consume. They produce a surplus of energy, food, biodiversity, clean water, air, and soils, creativity – a surplus of happiness even.

Many Buddhist authors have written about the complex connections between desire, motivation, right action, speech, livelihood, intention, the cultivation of compassion and wisdom, and the traps of attachment and clinging. Judith Simmer-Brown wrote about that connection:

“[A]ccording to the view of vajrayana Buddhism, desire is also the working basis of compassion. Desire’s very eagerness to please carries intelligence, which when liberated from self-centered preoccupations, resonates with the emotional experience of others.”

Colin gave us the challenge “to create a new reality; a new way of living with fewer resources while providing a prosperous life for every member of our growing population – [it] is going to require more than even the best technology that money can buy. It's going to require imagination, open-mindedness, a willingness to live and to understand life differently.”

That got me to thinking about the things I want, just plain old want, just for me, and whether or not those things lend themselves to a sustainable or regenerative lifestyle, one which “every member of our growing population” could enjoy. So I searched for my Top Three. I wanted to know where my priorities are and what motivates me. What is at the root of my desire? What goal can create eagerness and harness intelligence? Turns out I want:

1) Time. I don’t want to be so busy. I don’t want to always feel so rushed. I don’t want to roll out of bed and out the door twenty minutes later. I want to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee and read a magazine article to begin my day. I don’t want to feel guilty about taking half an hour out of study time to watch a television show. I don’t want to spend weeks contemplating whether or not I should drop a class to make time for work. I don’t want to turn down fulfilling work in order to take boring required classes.

2) Good food, good coffee, good wine, and good friends to share it with. I don’t like to cook. I like to eat. I like to give good tips to the wait staff. I like four-hour long dinners.

3) Comprehensive health, dental, and eye care. I don’t want to wait two weeks for my cold to turn out to be pneumonia which now requires hospitalization instead of just antibiotics. I don’t want to have to wait six months to get a cavity filled. I want to have these questionable moles removed soon. I don’t want to wear my contacts three times longer than recommended because I can’t afford to replace them.

Gosh. I (don’t) want rather a lot, huh? All of these things seem to require a certain level of affluence that I do not currently posses. But that’s just me and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that things change. The median household income in the United States was over $50,000 in 2007. Of course, the median income for a single female was only $24,000, compared to the $36,000 earned by a single male. (Yes, gender inequality is alive and well folks!) Even so, $24,000 doesn’t sound too shabby right about now. I could manage on that. I could fulfill my top three desires on $12 an hour.

It strikes me that I didn’t put fulfilling career, world peace, or helping others on that list. It’s a given. It’s what I do. I know no matter what else I want for myself, I will keep doing what I’m doing, which I find very fulfilling, believe supports world peace, and know helps others. Am I super lucky or what?

What’s in your Top Three? What three things do you most want for yourself, for your lifestyle?

What I want for myself tells me that it is possible for me to live a sustainable or regenerative life without an undue amount of fuss. I need to find or create a job at which I can be effective and productive without being a workaholic. (Of course, I think this particular 'want' also reveals a need to better cultivate right diligence/effort and fix a skewed mindset, but that's not the point right now...) It needs to pay enough that I can afford to eat at that lovely little organic restaurant down in the Haymarket, travel a little, and have good health care. I can continue to support efforts to revamp this country’s health care system to bring cost down and offer universal coverage to people who are worse off than I am now. I don’t need to consume or pollute to be content. I don’t need a new Hummer and a hundred pairs of shoes and a house in the suburbs with a pool. I don’t need the stereotypical American dream.

But some people do – or at least they think they do. They’re never gonna listen to some little hippie girl tell them she knows better. So how do we as a society go about rewriting the American dream? Because I bet when it comes right down to it, the car, the shoes, and the house with the pool won’t be in anyone else’s Top Three either. I’m betting family and friends will be there a lot. I’m betting people want to have good jobs which are also fulfilling. I’m betting, all other things being equal, people would rather work for a company which makes equipment to ensure we all have clean drinking water than one that makes plastic disposable anything. I guess I’m betting that, when people actually sit down and think about it, when we actually look at what we want, that we really do know what makes us happy. And that it’s already in line with what is best for the planet as a whole.

I guess I’m betting we’re all really already enlightened.

October 30, 2008

DN Article - Republicans: Fear-Mongering or Factual?

This is my first point-counterpoint article, writen in honor of the upcoming elections, with a wonderful new columnist Emily Nohr. Even though Emily and I obviously strongly disagree on each and every point, we had a wonderful time writing this column together. The Opinion staff is, by and large, rather liberal, so Emily is a welcome addition. I think it was very brave of her to step up and do a column like this as her debut in the Daily Nebraska. I wish her all the luck in the world.

Debate over fear-mongering: sleazy tactic or just the facts?

Enjoy!

PS - Emily is worried about strong negative feedback, so if you feel the need to comment, please be nice! I know all of you are, but please make an extra effort!

October 29, 2008

Authenticity and Art

"I actually think that writing was my first spiritual practice (though I would never have called it that when I was younger), and the only one I had for many years. It was through writing that I accessed the deep part of myself that we see in meditation. For that reason I was a compulsive writer; I felt I had to do it, and had to succeed at it, to justify all the time I was spending. Now that I have meditation as a practice, I no longer have the same desperation about writing. I like to do it, but don’t have to. It makes the whole activity much lighter, and more enjoyable." -- Writer David Guy on Shambhala Sun Space

Is a starving artist more authentic than a "successful" one? Is the successful artist just lucky? Is success the same as justification? Do we need really either?

I'm thinking not really.

October 28, 2008

Ohhhh!

CRPL 820 on Thursday from 3:00 to 5:40 pm or PHIL 814 on Thursday from 4:00 to 6:30....Grant Writing or Philosophy of Mind....Ahhhh!

It's just not fair! (falling to my knees, pulling my hair out dramatically and weeping)

October 25, 2008

That Place

Yesterday, I wondered where that place would be. Today I realized that's a silly question.

I bet you it's right here.

Attention

Have you ever really paid attention, just paid attention to the way your fingers fly across the keyboard? To the way the words just appear upon the screen, crawling across letter by letter from left to right? Have you ever felt the depression of key after key beneath your finger pads and the swift pressure of the space bar on the edge of your thumb? I always press the spacebar with my right thumb, never my left. Why is that? Is it because I’m right handed? Or is it just some fluke? Is it genetic? The same way some people can role their tongue and others can’t without ever knowing why – only that it is something that can be neither taught nor learned? Have you ever listened to the soothing tap tap tap of the keys? The soft sounds they make, the rhythm in time with your thoughts, the same rhythm of language? I wonder if when people type in other languages if the rhythm of their hands on the keyboard conforms to the rhythm of their spoken words. I would assume it does. Have you ever been picky about your keyboard? Have you ever discarded this one because the tactile sensation wasn’t just right? Because the keys required too much or too little pressure? Have you ever chosen this other one because you liked the clicking noise it makes? Have you ever enjoyed the simplicity of a paired down keyboard over the complication of those fancy ergonomic ones with the tilted keeps and thumb ball mice and squishy wrist pad? Have you ever taken sensual pleasure in using one you like and disdained all others? Have you ever derided the handheld writing device as crude and far too slow? Far too slow to keep up with swiftly flowing thoughts. Far too slow to move at the speed of the mind, to move at the speed of language, of speech, of conversation? Have you ever lamented the invention of the mouse? Keyboard shortcuts are so much faster. The mouse wastes unnecessary time by forcing the hand to move from the keyboard to the mouse and back again. All of six inches. Have you ever derided GUI interfaces and wished for the simplicity of DOS based codes which let your fingers fly? Have you ever felt the ache in the tendons of the index finger of your right hand from click after click of that inefficient mouse? Have you ever worked your keyboard until certain keys come unglued and pop off, to go flying into the dark recesses beneath the desk, breaking your concentration with a moment of startling humorous irony? I’m always loosing the letter V. Have you ever figured out the little trick and wiggle to put the keys in place again? Have you ever missed the rattle of a trusty old dot matrix printer? Which would never send you nasty little messages to change the toner when the printing looked perfect? The kind of printer that would keep printing even when the ribbon had run dry just because you told it to and for no other reason? Do you keep and old word processor in your closet because you like the tactile sensation and the satisfying thwap thwap thwap of the typewriter keys striking paper, actual paper, as you scrawl word after word? Do you like winding that paper in and pulling it out again and seeing your words stark black on the white paper which you can hold in your hand? Which you can crumple up and throw? Which you can light on fire and watch burn and smell the ink as it melts? And then start all over again? Do you like knowing your words have a physical presence, that they can be created or destroyed, that they aren’t just some nebulous bit of zero’s and one’s floating in a computer monitor and disappearing into cyberspace? I do, which is why I save my word processor for special occasions. I like to type letters on it. It feels like a gift. Like I am making something tangible, something of myself, something special and wrapping it up in a little bit of paper and sending it off. Like a child drawing a picture or making a bad pottery bowl for their grandma because they know she’ll like it. I even pick pretty stamps which I think they’d like. Have you ever read your own words over and over? Fallen in love with them? Hated them? Forgotten them? Rediscovered them? Cried for them? Laughed for them? Gotten angry at them? Gotten turned on by them? Have you ever looked at the words on paper and have them look like chicken scratches? Like Greek? Like nothing intelligible at all and wondered how these marks on paper can have so much power? Can convey so much meaning? Have you ever looked down at the marks on the keyboard, which spell no words, which come in no order that our eyes can discern, which have no meaning and seen the entirety of human history summed up in this apparatus which we have created for no other reason than to write the summation of human history? This bizarre little contraption which feels so good beneath our flying fingers which we use to talk to one another when spoken words will not do? When distance and context separates us? When we can’t bear to see the other’s face? Bear to hear the other’s voice? Bear to know the other’s opinion? But when we desperately feel the need to spread our own? To record it for posterity? To know that it was there? Have you ever felt the bones and joints in your fingers flexing and taken that as proof of your existence? Proof that you’re alive? Proof that you matter and that you have something to say even if you don’t know what that something is? Have you ever sat down to type with nothing on your mind and let everything pour out through your hands all the while concentrating on nothing but the feeling of your fingers moving? No guidance. No preplanning. Just observation. Watching all the myriad twists and turns without hope or judgement. It is meditation this. My cushion is a desk chair. My shrine is a glowing screen. My meditation room is a darkened office, lit by streetlights from outside. My bell is the rhythmic click. My breath is the flexing of those fingers, and my thoughts, my never ending, never minding, always flowing, always watching, always being watched thoughts are pouring out on to the paper which has no more substance than they do. Which is no more real than they are. Which will exist both infinitely longer and infinitely less time than they do. The words on the paper may stop. My concentration on the flexing of my fingers may waver, then return, then wander, then return again. The words on the paper will stop, but my thoughts will go on and the words will remain fixed, while my thoughts never will. The words are not me, because I changed, and I am not them because they remained the same. The same words, different meanings, because they aren’t my words anymore. They belong to the person on the other side of the glowing screen, reading them now. A person who may just go off and find an actual cushion and feel their actual breath and watch their own thoughts flow, like words across paper as imaginary as this. Have you ever really paid attention to the sensation of typing?

October 24, 2008

Places & Reasons

Bits and pieces are lots, falling away like a crumbling bit of clay within the first few hours. Other parts remain vivid. Those will continue to remain vivid. Like showing our wedding pictures to friends and family. I remember the dress I wore. It was more like a skirt suit of cream, ivory, and gold. Quite unlike me, as a matter of fact. He wore a dark blue suit. I remember looking into his face, dark eyes so wide, and hearing clear as day, he telling me he loved me. I remember holding our baby. I remember waking up, that startling clarity of being awake, totally and completely awake, as awake as I felt just a moment before when I was asleep. Awake from a dream that was too real, remembering every moment, every color, every nuance. I remember lying in the dark at 4:23 in the morning on the third of the bed I’d carved out for myself and feeling the heat of the big body beside me. I remember lying there and waiting to go back to sleep. I remember carrying these memories with me for days now and saying nothing, waiting for them to fade.

It wasn’t the first dream I’ve had about a man. In point of fact, it wasn’t about just one man. Each scene, each moment, was a man with a different face. The first one, the face of the man lying in bed beside me. The second one, Barak Obama, which I blame on the media for plastering it everywhere. Not the first time I’ve dreamed of a celebrity (though usually they don’t talk) and probably not the last. The final one, a man with no face that I could recall. It wasn’t the first time I’ve dreamt I was pregnant, though it was the first time I actually had a baby to show for it.

I realized something the day before, as I walked alone on the trail from the house to the dining hall. I’ve stopped going to the mountains for the reason I started going. Now I go there to see him. I wouldn’t call it the wrong reason, though maybe it is, just a different reason. I wonder if this is what the Buddha would consider an unnecessary distraction on the road to enlightenment, or a good learning experience on how to be with someone without clinging. Is that what I’m doing?

He asked me once if I thought being with him prevented me from seeking other relationships. I answered no, swift and sure. After all, I wasn’t exactly playing the field before we met. I do feel something within me has changed. I feel like I’m more open to being in a relationship. I used to wonder if I gave off a vibe that just said “Don’t bother. This one’s difficult.” I am less wary now, less guarded. Yet nothing’s really come of it. We were apart nine months. And after nine months we picked up right where we had left off. This time we were only apart a few weeks.

I’m at ease with him. Like I’ve not been with any man. I can sleep in the same bed with him, which I can’t even manage with my relatives who I’ve known all my life. We can just sit together, being totally separate, him playing a video game and me reading a book, and neither one of us feels like we’re neglecting the other, but we’re pleased the other is there. I asked him the same question and he gave me the same answer.

Yes, I definitely went to the mountains for a different reason. He always asks when I’m coming back. He makes disappointed sounds when I tell him I don’t know. He makes happy sounds when I talk about maybe working for the same company in Boulder next summer. He doesn’t come to visit me. No car. Little money. Dislikes the MidWest. All good solid reasons which nonetheless leave things feeling a little lopsided. But lately he’s been talking about visiting his dad in Milwaukee sometime when I am also there to visit my thesis client.

I wonder about things. Not just nebulous possible future things. I wonder about the judgmental cultural stereotypes we are forced to operate under. I wonder why my mind resists when I try to drag up the courage to say “I love you.” Our society teaches us that there are three possible responses to that statement: the other doesn’t say it back and it hurts, the other says it back but doesn’t mean it and it hurts, the other says it back and means it. Two out of three ways to be hurt isn’t very good odds. It makes us afraid.

But you know what? They’re wrong. I told him that I loved him. He smiled. He said I’d never told him that before. He laughed and said he knew there was a reason I put up with him. The moment was good. It felt good and it made me happy. He didn’t say he loved me. I didn’t even care. I didn’t even realize until later that it didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until watching some sappy primetime drama that I realized that, according to society’s norms, it should bother me.

Well, society is stupid, but it’s strong too. I haven’t said it again and I kind of regret that. Our leave taking was hurried. He left for work an hour after I had woken from my dream, just as I was drifting off again. I stopped by later to give him a hug farewell, waving at his coworkers over his shoulder, then I walked away.

I feel like I’m always doing one of two things: waiting for that man or walking away. Of course, the waiting part isn’t unique to him. I’m a horribly punctual person and I generally feel like I’m waiting for everyone. I’ve noticed it with every friend I’ve ever had, male or female. It’s strong with him though, this impatience. As though the very idea that I’m waiting on a man somehow makes me weaker. As if it makes me into some desperate, simpering miss. I generally tell that feeling to shut the hell up or I’ll kick its damned ass through its frigging brainpan.

The other feeling, the walking way – is that just a different type of clinging? Do I stick with this relationship because I know it’s safe? Because I know I can walk away? Because I can always put him on a five-hundred mile stick if things get a little bumpy? Am I attached to being able to walk away?

It got a little bumpy summer before last. He felt crowded. I felt uncertain. He promised to come through and then blew me off three times in one day. I let him. He ignored me for a week. He once made me cry without even noticing; not that I help, the way I bottle things up inside and refuse to let anyone see, even myself. But that was early in the summer. There was nowhere to run to and we hung through. Now, I can see the changes in him. Everytime. He’s calmer, more patient, more understanding, and he pays more attention, takes less for granted, gets more excited about things, more engaged, doesn’t shut the world out. Not that I can take any credit, of course. I was gone for nine months, after all. I might be in the right place for the wrong reasons, but he’s definitely in the right place for the right reasons. Maybe sometime soon, I can be too.

I wonder where that will be?

October 23, 2008

October 20, 2008

Blogs I Love

This is probably as close to a chain letter as I will ever come. It humbles me and, I can’t deny, gives me a lovely little ego boost that I am assiduously trying to ignore. (Or, more accurately, be aware of without allowing to cloud my actions, thoughts, or speech.) I would like to pass on the favors of Rev. Danny Fisher and Dogo Barry, the Urban Monk, for listing my blog among their favorites and I would like to return the favor. Thus, in no particular order, my favorite blogs are: (drum roll please)

  • The Urban Monk – Beautiful, thought provoking, and a little edgy.
  • Rev. Danny Fisher – I don’t think he sleeps either and I must confess I cannot always keep up.
  • The Tricycle Blog – Which keeps me up to date on Buddhist news and also stirs my soul.
  • In Limine – A yoga blog with great wisdom and insight from a tradition separate, though strongly related, to Buddhism.
  • No Impact Man – My personal environmental guru and also a fabulous writer.
  • WorldChanging – A witty cadre of writers and thinkers who offer in-depth insight on a broad range of topics.
  • Radical Seeks Enlightenment – A blog that constantly makes me aware of things I had never bothered to consider. Also a close friend of mine and an up and coming writer/documentarian/activist.

What’s not to love?