December 30, 2009


Are three callings too many? Is one?

I am a Buddhist, a Writer, and an Architect. This is how I define myself, by those things I am called to do. They are not merely jobs or interests. They are compulsions. I did them before I knew I did them. Once I had names for them of course, I chose to define myself by them, creating an illusion of solidity. Sometimes I think I was building my house on sand. Or perhaps on the San Andreas Fault, where the pushing and pulling of giant forces will shake this house, this life, this illusion I’ve built for myself down upon my head.

Mostly I try to find balance, weaving all three together in a manner I hope makes for a rich life. Maybe “rich life” is just a euphemism for attention deficit disorder. Of course, they complement one another, or so I tell myself. Besides, in addition to what I am called to do there is what I am – daughter, student, coworker, friend, sister, woman, Nebraskan, American, white, young, tall, boss, granddaughter, introvert, cousin, classmate, etc. I manage all those roles well enough, so what’s the big deal about the Big Three?

I can’t say I chose to be Buddhist or a Writer or an Architect anymore than I chose to be a daughter or a woman. I can’t even say I’m more successful at these than others. I’m not a good Buddhist; I barely ever sit and don’t even have a sangha or a teacher. I may write a lot, but I’ve never had anything major published. Legally I can’t even call myself an architect until I pass my exams, which I am beginning to believe I never will.

I console myself with dreams of these things. Someday I’ll move somewhere with more Buddhists and I’ll join a sangha and sit every week. Someday I’ll write a book and find a publisher. Someday I’ll build a really awesome building that I’ll be able to look on with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Someday…there’s no such thing.

But I don’t really think it matters. I heard a quote once: “Better to write for oneself and have no public than write for the public and have no self.” From a Buddhist perspective it is quite a peculiar turn of phrase. What do we strive for if not “no-self?” Who do you write for if you have neither self nor public? That could be a koan, but if it is, I have yet to riddle it out. (Though, personally, I am of the opinion that koans don’t actually have answers.)

Ironically, I don’t believe I’ll ever be a Writer or an Architect, at least not properly, not as my sole profession. I may someday soon add Teacher or Professor to that list. I only get to be a Buddhist because that seems to lack any sort of formal qualifications. Because I feel called to these three things I may not end up doing any of them. Instead I’ll weave my “rich life,” my “middle way” and always wonder what Someday will look like.

I’m not complaining mind you; that’s just samsara and I knew what I was getting when I signed on.

December 28, 2009

Nebraska Winter

Five days with my family and no internet. It went by in a blink.

“Tom, is it okay if I leave a little early tomorrow if the weather is getting bad? I want to get to Omaha ahead of the snow,” I asked my boss on Tuesday. The sky was already overcast and we were predicted to have freezing rain tomorrow morning, turning to snow by nightfall.

“You’d better go tonight then,” he said. “Today is the day for travel.”

“Oh. Okay.” I love my boss.

I arrived on my parents’ doorstep with a bag of gifts, bag of laundry, and a cat in a box, two days ahead of schedule. The cats, my mother’s Lucy and my Isis were segregated. Isis gets the basement, Dad’s cave, and only comes upstairs to the guest room with me, carried like a furry football in the crook of my arm, squalling and hissing all the way, every night. Lucy gets the rest of the house, and doors are carefully closed between them. Neither seemed disturbed by this arrangement. Not knowing how many days I might be snowed in, I declined to leave Isis in Lincoln by herself.

Wednesday brought rain which froze over everything, including snow still on the ground from last week's storm, and turned to snow by nightfall. Thursday was a continuation on a theme, snowing all day, but Mom, as a true Nebraskan working for that great Nebraska institution Mutual of Omaha, was in to work regardless. Mutual has only shut down twice that I recall in the twenty-three years Mom has worked there, even when half of their workers don’t show up (Mom never being one of that half). Dad took me to breakfast at Vidlak’s, one of a very few authentic diners left in Omaha.

“I’m leaving work now,” Mom called at two o’clock.

“Okay, be very careful. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Ten minutes later, too soon for her to be home but soon enough to have gotten stuck or in an accident, the phone rang again.

“Well, hello, Monica!” It was my Aunt Donalee, calling from her place out in Custer County, 250 miles due west. “How’s the weather out there?” We exchanged reports. Her son, Jason, drives truck and had called in to report on highway and interstate conditions between here and there a little while ago, which she passed along. “So will you still be coming out do you think?”

“Well, Mom’s on her way home now, so I suppose we’ll decide when she gets here,” though I strongly suspected we weren’t. Dad had been hinting as much since he arrived home on Tuesday, but Mom is never one to be dissuaded by a little snow, so I left the ball in her court. “I’ll have her call you when she gets home.”

Ten minutes later Mom was on the phone with her sister and the decision was made. We were staying put.

Christmas Day dawned to more snow. Or rather continuing snow, as it had not stopped once in the past thirty-six hours. I was woken by the obscene ringing of the telephone. Both my parents, my mother especially, are losing their hearing and as a result the phone in the guest room/paper crafts room (to distinguish it from the sewing crafts room) makes the most horrible noise. My cat took advantage of my apparent wakefulness (aka full body spasm) to lay on my chest, purr, and bump my hand each time it stopped petting her.

Coming downstairs my suspicions were confirmed. Brandon and April were also staying put, at the very least until the plows in Missouri Valley made it through their alley. Given the size of Mo Valley, that might should be “plow,” singular. From the view from my parents’ stoop, the Omaha plows hadn’t made it into the residential neighborhoods yet either. A similar confirmation came from Grandma around nine o’clock, though she only lived two miles away and her subdivision’s private contractors had been out plowing since Christmas Eve.

“Of course them have,” Mom reported with a snort, after having said goodbye to Grandma. “They get paid by the hour, not by the day or the storm. Her association’s going to be over its budget for snow removal again this year.”

Dad just shrugged, ensconced in the rocking chair in the living room, under a blue lap quilt Mom had made the year before. He set the newspaper aside. “Well, shall we open presents?”

We did. Only Dad had declined to abide by the ten dollar limit for the year. I got iTunes gift cards and Mom got three seasons of CSI. We found gold-toe socks in our stockings in memory of Great-Grandma Peterson, who’d passed away two years before. Everyone had missed her gold-toe socks last year. From me, my family got a toile sack (made from the generous bolt of toile Mom always keeps in the back of her sewing closet) tied with ribbon, containing the best licorice in the world from what may be the only store solely dedicated to its sale, which just happens to be found in the Lincoln Haymarket, chocolate oranges, and an assortment of odd pins attached to the fabric. Dad displayed his “Born This Way” and “Don’t Panic” proudly on his tee shirt, while Mom laughed at “Logic has no place here.” Isis and Lucy got a new cat toys, the classic feathers on a stick.

Lunch was eggs, sausage, and toast to which I added canned peaches and orange juice in a feeble attempt for balance. And the rest of the day simply passed. Every couple of hours I would put my book down and wander downstairs to visit Dad and Isis, but always left quickly in the wake of the Gilmore Girls marathon taking place on his fifty inch flat screen. Every once in a while, Mom would look up giggling from one of her Terry Prachet Discworld books and explain in great detailed glee about Igors or Golumns or Dwarves or Vampires.

My hero had just been reunited with my heroine after a twenty-year separation and little bit of time travel when Mom called for me to come upstairs.

“It’s a Youtube,” she said, clicking play on the little video, chuckling as she watched the second time, as the little rat terrier hung his stocking and set out a plate of cookies for Santa, then waited in increasing agitation, before a ribbon wrapped bone was quietly delivered, after the little fellow had fallen fast asleep, of course.

I watched over her shoulder and smiled, then turned to harass Lucy, who was supervising from my parents’ bed. I leaned my head down to her and we bumped noses, then I buried my face in her fur and growled. She only rolled over onto her side and patted my head with her big paws, looking at me curiously when I came up for air.

After the sun went down, I bundled up and headed out, not that there is anywhere to go. My parents live in the middle of a suburban wasteland. But still, there is something about snowy nights that is inviting, peaceful, and somehow invigorating, even in the cold. The wind was blowing from the north and it was still snowing, but I tramped resolutely down to the playground at the end of the block and back, following the ruts made by tires with deep treads, pausing now and then. The plow still had not come, but a few hardy folk had ventured out anyway.

The city is pink and quiet in the snowy night, save for the wind, which is only a hushed murmur, finding the smooth snow a good acoustic baffle. The trees, bare of leaves and laden down, don’t even speak. The birds, what silly few remain during a Nebraska winter, are all safely tucked in for the night, along with the squirrels, rabbits, possums, raccoons, foxes, and deer. Teenagers and college kids, being the only other urban wildlife likely to be about, are well corralled by their extended families and the drifting snow. I ventured out for a little walk every night after dark, much to Mom’s amusement.

Saturday started with only the occasional flurry. The plows had come in the night, and the contracted snow crew had made it to my parents’ drive by midmorning. We had Christmas dinner then, among family, ham and potatoes and green beans, etc. I handed April one of her presents before Grandma arrived, a small white pin with dainty script that read “I wouldn’t mind an orgasm right about now.” She cackled with glee and tucked it into her shirt, out of sight.

Dean called at some point, my mother’s brother. They were snowed under in Colorado, too, but he and Jim had still been out to feed the cattle, not an optional activity no matter the weather. We’ve made a slight game of it these last few years, but this time he knew who he was talking to right off. Once we talked for half an hour before he finally stated “This isn’t Dayle, is it.” I’m told I sound like my mother, particularly on the phone.

We made it to our traditional afternoon movie, Sherlock Holms, with an entirely too handsome Watson, all piled in to Mom’s four-wheel drive Jeep, my long legged brother squashed in the middle between April and I. He didn’t complain and I turned my head out the window to ignore their giggling canoodles. Brandon and April stayed to watch the latest Doctor Who on BBC America, which only Dad gets on his fancy HD cable. Dad slept through at least half of it, while April and I discussed the mythology, merits of the various companions, and vociferously agreed that David Tennant is the best Doctor to date during the commercial breaks.

Dad may not be a Doctor Who fan (or even conscious of the phenomenon), but he likes having us around and happily announced to Mom that everyone was coming back next week for the two-part conclusion.

“So I suppose I better plan something for dinner,” Mom replied, in a voice of put upon resignation, which all parties concerned routinely ignore.

“Or we can order pizza,” Dad said with a shrug.

Sunday dawned with no snow. The streets were plowed and we ventured forth for pancakes and then to the second hand bookstore (having already made the required trip to Barnes & Noble earlier that week). We headed home in the midst of a few flurries and I loaded up my bags, boxes, cat and all, and headed back to Lincoln. The drive was uneventful, at least until I’d made it to my block, where I promptly high-centered myself in the entry to the alley, breaking my lifetime record of never getting myself stuck in the snow.

A minivan came up the alley toward me.

“You might as well back out the other way. It’s well and truly stuck,” I told the girl with the piercings behind the wheel, waving back to my car.

“We’re gonna hook on and pull you out,” was her swift reply.

By the time I had trotted my cat upstairs and returned with a snow shovel, they had the nylon strap hooked under my bumper and the younger of the two women was down on her knees, flashing her ass and fishing under the minivan with the other hook, while a crusty older woman with short hair and an black jacket with Army patches watched. She reversed and I accelerated to no affect, until the older woman got behind the wheel, gave a little slack to the rope, and then reversed with a sharp jerk. I shifted into low gear and the two vehicles moved with spinning tires back up the steep drive.

“Thanks a lot! I appreciate it!”

“Don’t forget your shovel!”

By the time I’d parked on J Street (at the other, less steep end of the alley) and made my second trip out to my car, two African men in a black sedan had gotten themselves stuck at that end. The dozer that had been slowly moving snow from the lot across the street to the state lot next to my alley where trucks would come for it later, was patiently waiting for the men to sort things out. I set my laundry bag back in my trunk and returned to them, as they peered at the underside of their car.

“Time to push,” I said. “It just can’t get any traction,” I added, when they appeared to be baffled as to why the car wasn’t moving, exchanging puzzled sounding words in a language I didn’t know. At that, the driver waved me into the seat and with a good push and the proper combination of low gear and gas, we got it out. I wondered if that was their first Nebraska winter (they really ought not to have gotten stuck in that spot if they’d known how to drive in snow) as I lugged my laundry back of the alley, in the deep grooves left by the dozer.

All of that accomplished, my cat and I settled in for yet another lazy evening (after fetching the shovel).

December 21, 2009

I See You

My father and I saw Avatar on Saturday. It was, in a word, beautiful. It will get some criticism for seeming cliche. It is, but that is only because it's a story we've heard a dozen times before. It is history repeating itself, with flavours of Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, Wounded Knee, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, Zulu and a dozen other stories both fictional and historical. They are lessons we should have learned long ago, which in Jame's Cameron's hands become a warning. What if we haven't learned those lessons?

The effects are unmatched, wonderful in every sense of the world. They serve the story, to reinforce, advance, and depict without distracting. The characters are good, if predictable. The plot is almost too well known, well-articulated, and even though we can see where this is going (we've been there before, after all) it doesn't detract from the excitement. It's not Terminator, Aliens, or The Abyss, but it's definately Cameron. It's not Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but I think it will stand the test of time.

"I see you," is the Na'vi greeting. Maybe this will help us see ourselves.

December 18, 2009


Between is a relationship. Often we think of it as a state of existence, a fixed time or place, but it is not. Anything between is only such in relation to at least two other things. Between, like all else, is empty. It has no inherent existence. It is only dependently co-arising.

I feel very between. It is very groundless, yet also anchored. There is a light tug back and forth, a shifting of gaze, place, time, state of mind between two (or more) things. These are not things I have to decide between, choosing one over the other. I do not have to fight against them. In an interdependent world, “freedom from” is an illusion. I am never free of the things I am between. These things are like navigational beacons, showing the way without prescribing it.

Frank Lloyd Wright always designed an elaborate entry sequence to his houses. One turned at least twice and sometimes as much as half a dozen times – onto the path from the sidewalk, up some steps onto the stoop, into the front door and out the vestibule, into the hall, and finally entering the grand living room with a large fireplace opposite windows and views. This way was clear, elaborated by steps, planters, views, doorways, and columns, between this space and that, but never absolute. There was always the opportunity to see the other paths and to take them, turning into the backyard, the dining room, down the hall, yet the intended route was clear.

Life is not always so unerringly defined. I was born between, raised between, have lived between, and now plan a future that is between. I live between east coast and west, great rivers and great mountains, hot south and cold north. I was raised in that time between feminism and the history books about feminism. I can read a map and ask for directions. I’m not poor and not wealthy. I’m preparing to leave and preparing to arrive at the same time.

Life is very between. I don’t even think we realize it most of the time. We default to a view of life that “is” failing to see the life that “is between.” There is life between myself and my family, my friends, and my coworkers. There is life between everyone I know – life I can sometimes step through, sometimes watch, and sometimes step away from. Spaces are only ever between – one wall and another, the building and the street, the tree and the fence, floor and ceiling, earth and sky. Time is only ever between – the past and the future, history and the master plan. Sometimes we lose sight of that and see only me, only here, only now. Life does not exist that way.

The universe exists in relationship to everything within it, even if (especially if) those relationships are unseen. We will always be between things and things will always be between us and something else. The trick is not to get whiplash trying to look both ways at once.

In the forest there is always a path. Most people can’t see it. They are looking for a thing, some kind of easily identified symbol or marker, a red flag or blaze on a tree, but paths are often more subtle than that. We think paths are intentional objects made by people, but lots of beings live in the forest. They make their own paths. The trick to finding a path in the forest is to look not for the path but for the relationship between things, trees, shrubs, flowers, rocks, hills, light, and even wind. Then you simply walk the way that seems to be between. You may find yourself at a place where the path disappears, but just stop and look calmly, and find the way between again.

Life is like this, but often we don’t, or feel like we can’t, stop and look calmly. We think we are searching for an object, a “me,” a “here,” or a “now,” and because of that we don’t pay attention to the things we see that are not “me here now,” so we don’t see the between. Between is where we fit, it is the path, and exists only in relation to the things that are not “me here now.”

We are never “me here now,” we are only ever between.

December 10, 2009

Bye, Bye Shampoo

I found this thread over at Treehugger today about ditching hair products. Given that I've only just shaved off the last vestiges of my long hair, I might give it a try. The sides are now about a quarter inch with an inch long on top. I've never washed my hair more than once every couple of days, and it always looks better on the second day, once the natural oils have had a chance to replenish.

It may be time to give up the consumerist myth that I 'need' to use hair products at all.

December 09, 2009

Thought Break - Feed Me!

I noticed the shakiness in the shower. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the first I’d been vertical for any length of time that day. I’d slept in that morning, then spent the rest of it either on my couch or at my computer, sitting still, allowing my resting heart rate to border on sleep. That is fairly normal, as is the dizziness and clouding of vision upon standing. It takes a while for my heart to catch up and pump the necessary blood to my brain. As someone with naturally very low blood pressure (I think my systolic has been recorded over 100 once in my life), I’ve grown quite used to it. But the shakiness in the shower is a tip off that I’ve been neglecting myself.

I was dizzy, almost nauseous, hungry but not really interested in food, and focusing my eyes seemed far too tiring. I made it through the quick hot shower and the long process of dressing. Putting on clothes in winter is a ritual unto itself. I’m always cold, even in the best of seasons. Air conditioning seems to be a torture device designed specifically for me. It is likewise related to my low blood pressure, a byproduct of poor circulation and poor heat distribution throughout my body. Even putting on twenty-five pounds since graduating high school hasn’t helped. So I dress in layers.

Underwear first, then long socks, then tights over the long socks and a second pair of socks over the tights. Jeans go on over the tights, then on top a tank top, long-sleeved tee, and today a turtle neck and long knit wrap sweater, the kind that’s half shall and I can toss the loose ends over my shoulder. I top it all with my mala and glasses, wallet sliding into the back pocket of my jeans.

I had planned to head straight up to campus in order to keep working, but instead I plunked myself back in front of my computer with a can of non-caffeinated cola and bag of guacamole flavored chips. I wanted a little sugar in me. I shared the chips with my cat. After the Daily Show was over and the Colbert Report had started I got up to make some ramen, but to my chagrin found myself out of even that. Last night around six I’d had a sandwich I’d picked up at Walgreen’s, along with some of the chips and a cola. Around ten that morning I’d had a cup of coffee. It was now three in the afternoon. I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, but that’s normal.

I have a stress reaction to food – I don’t want any. I’ve suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for literally as long as I can remember, since we lived in Tripp and we moved from there when I was four. IBS flares up in response to triggers. In my case, those triggers were movement (such as physical exercise or riding in a car), stress, and food. Eating literally made me sick. My particular set of symptoms were extremely painful and debilitating. I was basically a forced anorexic for the first fourteen years of my life.

When I was fourteen I decided this was not normal and told my mom to make an appointment with our doctor. I was easily diagnosed and prescribed Levsin, or hyoscyamine, tiny white-pills that when taken at the beginning of a flare up quickly ease the symptoms of IBS. I could finally eat as much as I wanted. I gained ten pounds in a month. Later that year, I grew another four inches, reaching my full height of five foot eight inches by the time I was fifteen. While I now had a treatment that worked, and was cheap, a thirty count bottle only costing seven dollars, the syndrome remained unpleasant, if no longer debilitating, and my relationship with food remains cautious to this day.

Very early on my doctor had suggested a relation to stress. After journaling my eating, exercise, and stress levels for several months revealed no correlations, I shrugged and simply did my best to avoid my other triggers and treat each flare up as it occurred. That is, until I moved out. I mean, moved entirely out, on my own.

My brother and I had bought our house from our parents when I was nineteen. They’d moved to a low-maintenance townhouse a few miles away and a batch of our friends moved in. Tenants changed over the years, eventually even my brother moving out to go live with my now sister-in-law, but I stayed in the house with at least four other roommates until it was time to start college in Lincoln. We sold the two-thousand plus square foot house that summer and I moved into a five-hundred square foot condominium a mile south of campus a few weeks before my twenty-fourth birthday.

Things changed after that. I refilled my prescription before starting school, then a month later like normal, then two months later, then six months later. I wasn’t having flare ups and I wasn’t using as many of my pills. Moreover, I loved living alone, loved it with a passion I’ve usually reserved for important things like architecture or science fiction. I wondered if the doctor might not have always been right, but the low level stress of always dealing with other people had been too constant to be discerned at the time.

It’s been over two years since I’ve filled my prescription, not since I worked at the mountain center for a summer of communal living, yet some habits remain. I don’t eat when I’m sick or sad or stressed. During the end of semester rush, I often stock up on Slim Fast. It makes a good substitute for food, full of vitamins and protein. Necessary calories can come from bagels and ramen. It’s easy on the stomach and opening a can amounts to a two second pause in the work-flow.

I haven’t done that this semester. It’s been cold and I’ve been busy. Between the heavy snows, over twelve inches in twenty-four hours, yesterday’s forty mile an hour winds, and the drift my car is currently buried under, getting to the grocery store hasn’t made it to the top of the priority list. Thus, the shakes in the shower.

After the cola and chips got me together again, I set out to school, walking halfway and catching the bus at the State Office Building. I fished the sandwich I’d saved out of the refrigerator in the graduate student lounge and bought a milk from the machine in the lobby. Adding that to some hot tea and naproxen has made me feel almost human again, even if my brain isn’t functioning quite at full drive. My neck and shoulders hurt and my jaw aches, a new stress reaction I’ve only developed these last few months. I can’t believe I’m grinding my teeth. I’ve never slept deeply enough for that, but I have been known to frown in my sleep, so clenching my jaw can’t be that different.

I am, all things considered, amazingly healthy. I’ve never had a broken bone or stitches. I’ve only been in the hospital once, for impetigo combined with a bad reaction to amoxicillin, and then I was so well drugged that I didn’t really mind. I’ve always been slim if never athletic. I have strong healthy hair and nails which grow like crazy. Low blood pressure is something I’ve learned to deal with and the flip side means I’m unlikely to ever suffer from heart disease or stroke. The women in my family tend to live an amazingly long time. I’m expecting no different, busses willing.

But that doesn’t mean I can just take this body for granted. It too will age, become sick, die, and decay. There are dangers everywhere, disease and injury. A bad bicycle accident one day could cause me to lose entire parts of it. And neglect, like the twice yearly end of semester stress-fest, can cause all kinds of damage to mind and body alike. After all, the two are not separate entities. When my body suffers, my mind suffers. It’s one of the reasons I prize my sleep so dearly.

However, I can’t take time for granted either. My time is finite and my health is not invulnerable. I may occasionally let myself be lulled into the idea that things will never change, but I know this isn’t so. It takes episodes like today’s to bring that home sometimes. I may be occasionally worried or troubled, but the prospect of age and death doesn’t really upset me. I have better things, better emotions to spend my time on.

When I am reminded of my own transitory nature, I’d like to think that I take the time to reflect on attachment, interdependence, change, and selflessness, but the truth is I don’t often bother. I read Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. During the later portion of the book he spends a year like he’s dying, doing all the things he’s wanted to do, getting his affairs in order, visiting friends, and preparing for his death. At the end of the year is says goodbye to his family and symbolically dies. But how often is death like that? How often do we get to approach death with a sound mind and strong body? How many of us get to put our affairs in order and say our goodbyes?

My Great-grandma Peterson was one of the few who had that opportunity, I believe. She was ninety-three and cheerfully forecast her own death, only wishing everyone would have a chance to come visit before she went. She got her wish, but she was certainly not of strong body there at the end. She was old, withered, and frail, in a wheelchair attached to an oxygen machine. But her mind was there and she was content.

Marilyn died in drug-hazed pain, wracked by tumors growing in her body, her children weeping beside her. She would have been weeping for them, and no doubt had in the days prior, if enough of her mind had remained. The last time I saw her, she was not there. Neither was my Grandma Elaine. She was like a tiny decaying doll my father could barely bare to see for a few minutes. I don’t think she had made peace with her own passing, not even the measure of peace Marilyn had made during the long months of her illness, despite Grandma being eighty-four.

In the next few years I’ll undoubtedly lose my remaining grandmother, then my parents, likely my father first. My mom swears she’s going to live to be a hundred and thirty just to make my life miserable. She may manage it, but she has also declared she wants to go out like Grandma Pete, and I’ve no doubt she’s the will to do it. My brother is likely to be a widow someday. My sister-in-law has already had heart trouble in her early thirties and her family has a history.

Someday, busses willing, I’ll follow them. I may not have a year’s warning, or even a single day’s. I’d like to think I could go tomorrow and I’d be fine with that, but I’m not. Most people would wish for quick and painless, but I’ve seen that. It leaves the most grieving, the most pain behind, shock and confusion. I wouldn’t want that for my family. I would want them to have time to prepare, to say their goodbyes. Maybe in the long run that doesn’t lessen the pain, but I would hope it might.

That’s a large jumble of odd thoughts, past and future musings, all from a little shakiness in the shower. However, I’ve often felt it’s those kinds of little things which spark great realizations. In the movies it’s always the life or death experience, the near miss, the great trauma, but if that is what it takes to wake most people up, then most of us will continue to walk around in a haze our entire lives. Maybe it’s just wistful thinking, but I’d like people can wake up just where they are, even if only by small degrees.

I think mainly it helps me bring my brain back on line, pull out of the work-work-work rut I’ve been running in these past few days, remember the other things like eat, talk, think, walk, laugh, and eat some more.

And speaking of, if I’m ever going to die, I ought to get on with the business of living and eating.

December 04, 2009

Ode to the Nascent Academe

The time arrives when one becomes cognizant of one’s own academic overindulgence.

Realizing this paradigm shift creates a new existential reality.

Conscious became subconscious as archaic modes of behavior lost relevancy.

New philosophies blossomed from the academic archetype upon which post-modern pedagogy has modeled one into a fine representation of itself.

Pursuit of symbolic cultural capital served as a forcing mechanism for remold an individual consciousness.

One’s habitus irrevocably evolved into a distinct new doxic environment.

This evolution is unseen until jarring realization strikes.

Subconscious becomes conscious until a single conclusion remains:

I think too much.

December 03, 2009

Pay Attention

I leave the hall later than my usual habit. It is quiet, except for the relentless hum of the city. It's the sound of cars and trains, not close, but not far away, and the continuous breath of living buildings. Then above it all rises the cry of geese. I turn just in time to see the massive V flash above the red-brick bulk of Architecture Hall, lit like commets from the city below, glowing gold against the starless night. Then they're gone and only the full silver moon is above, directly overhead.

I watched it rise six short hours before, just after twilight fell, over the white monolith of the Sheldon Art Museum. I paused for a moment on the grand steps of the hall to admire the sight, before hustling out for food and then swiftly back to my work.

On the way home, the wind is with me, blowing down from the north at my back, pushing me along like a strange two-wheeled sailboat, my sail a crow-black coat and my pennant a polar-white cap, rabit fur down snug against my cheeks. The clock at 11th and O Street read 12:27 AM, 25 degrees Farenheight. A trio crosses the street where I stop at the light, two white girls and a black man, two pushing bikes alongside the one who walked, all bundled tight against the chill. They are laughing.

My teeth hurt from the cold and my glasses fog with every breath, but I don't mind it. I realize for all my wining, I wouldn't rather be anywhere else. The fact that I'm here is enough evidence of that. It's Hell Week, the week before Dead Week, two until Finals Week. Hours are long and tempers are short, yet everyone is oddly cheerful. It's that time of semester where we all get a little punchy, but no one takes offense because we haven't the time or energy to bother. Besides, we've all been there. We all know. We snap and smile and quip, all forgiven in the blink of an eye.

If not for the late night, I'd not have had the geese or the moon or the laughing trio. If not for being overstressed and underfed, we'd not have the camraderie. There'd be no war stories to tell, no scars to show where we got our first (or fifth) set of stitches from yet another 2:00 AM exacto knife accident. We'd not know, and the next time someone got a little punchy with us, we might just punch back.

That's how compassion works. And gratitude. And beauty. It finds us when we lease expect it. Not when we're sitting on a cushion or chanting a mantra, saying our daily affirmations or reading the sutras, but when we most need it.

All we have to do is pay attention.

December 01, 2009

DN Column - Always 'In' Style

Thank you Gary Stevens for presenting Bourdivin sociological theory so neatly for me in your book, The Favored Circle. Thank you Kansas for making great music.

Cultural capital and style affect impressions of others


November 28, 2009

Telling Stories

The rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, at least in much of what I've heard, forbid them from handling money. They were not allowed to even touch it, let alone use it, and thus spent much of their time begging for their bread. Later, once Buddhist clergy began to own property, monasteries had laypeople to handle money for them or the rules were relaxed. It was the fact that the great monasteries of Sri Lanka were feudal landholders in their own right which allowed them to survive for so long, through any number of dynastic upheavals, barbarian invasions, and religious schisms. Of course, they also contributed to more than a few of these themselves, different sects supporting different kings when it came time for succession, whomever they thought might benefit them most. Tangible wealth is definitely a two-edged sword.

My sword caught up with me today, in the form of a hand-delivered summons from the county court on behalf of one of my two defaulted credit cards. I honestly hoped they would dither for another year or two, by which time I might be in a position to settle with them. As I continued with my day, the story wound itself out in my head. Why I had the credit cards, how I managed to wrack them up, how I couldn't pay them, what I might say to the attorney when I call on Monday, as per the summons. As if I didn't know all of that already? I was telling the story in order to reassure myself, as you might tell a kid a fairy tale to distract her from the scary thunderstorm right outside the window.

But I'm not a little kid. We tell ourselves these stories all the time, and as we tell them over and over we begin to believe them, twisting our conceptual thoughts, creating habitual patterns, changing our perception of the world until we're innocent Little Red and the credit cards are evil Big Bad.

Have you ever met that person? The one who, no matter what happens, it's not their fault? They can come up with a story, right on the fly, from the moment they run into your back bumper, about how it's not their fault. Half the time, we are that person. Maybe we tell the story about how it's not our fault, or how we're not afraid, or how we're so smart, so cool, so strong. We're the hero of our own epic poem.

Of course, sometimes we also tell the dark stories. We tell stories about how our life sucks and it's not fair how people don't feel sorry for us. We tell ourselves we're stupid or worthless or fat, dark and twisted thoughts fit to do Poe proud. But they're all just stories. Good or bad, they're all just words we make up in our heads.

When we were little we used to chant "Sticks and stones..." But words can hurt us, our own words more than anyone else's, especially the ones we never voice. They cloud our perceptions, prevent us from seeing the world as it is, build up our ego and let it run free.

So today when I was starting my story, letting myself get all worked up, fearful and threatened, I felt myself falling into that habitual pattern and I cut it off. I cut it out. Of course, then I just started telling myself some other story, but I managed to disconnect that one as well. Instead I thought about how monks weren't allowed to handle money, and if anything about that teaching could be useful to me now, even though I can't live by that stricture (or, more accurately, choose not to).

I feel better than I would have under other circumstances. A couple of years ago a summons like that would have sent me into a tailspin for the rest of the day, or days. Today, I thanked the nice man with the five-pointed star on his belt who delivered it, read it top to bottom, and set it front and center on my desk so I'll remember to make that call come Monday. I don't need the story. And I don't need the other stories to distract me. (Really, I don't! Go away!)

I'm still sad and that habit is still lingering in the back of my mind, ready to pounce, but, you know, I have better things to do than tell myself stories all the time.

November 25, 2009

Life Ain't Crappy Enough

There was a blog post the other day over on GOOD about how bad moods make us better writers. Even as a teenager I noticed how I write best when I’m feeling down, not clinical depression mind you, just rather cynical and pessimistic about the entire proposition. Well, Professor Joe Forgas as the University of New South Wales Psychology Department, actually has the empirical studies to back it up. “In all cases, the sad folks produced arguments that were more concrete and therefore more persuasive than the happy campers.”

Apparently these moods help us pay attention and think critically. “The most likely explanation is based on evolutionary theorising—affective states serve an adaptive purpose, subconsciously alerting us to apply the most useful information processing strategy to the task at hand. A negative mood is like an alarm signal, indicating that the situation is problematic, and requires more attentive, careful and vigilant processing—hence the greater attention to concrete information.”

Within the Buddhist cosmologies (this relates, I promise) many realms are depicted – hell realms, hungry ghost realms, animal realms, the human realms, and various heaven realms and god realms. It is said that enlightenment can only be obtained in the human realm because in the realm below were are too caught up in suffering and survival to be able to perform any higher reasoning and in the higher realms we are too happy to care. Although the happiness in the higher realms in transitory, fleeting, and still lined with suffering, those dwelling there just can’t dredge up motivation to seek true freedom from suffering.

It’s no secret that many people come to Buddhism from suffering – a messy divorce, a crisis of conscious, traumatic illness or injury. This suffering prompts them to seek relief and in so doing, they find the Dharma.

I’ve often wondered if this is what prevents me from deepening my practice. I don’t sit because life just ain’t crappy enough. Well, I could try to add some angst to my otherwise fairly peachy life, but Forgas warns “Direct conscious attempts to change/control moods usually do not work well—otherwise we would presumably be happy all the time, which is clearly not the case… The effects we found occur without people being aware of them, and as you note, instructions to control these effects are not very effective.”

Luckily, I don’t tend to agree. I find that conscious attempts to control strong emotions do work, but only with repeated practice, which is what sitting is all about after all, getting to know your mind and its emotional states. Of course, I probably haven’t done enough sitting to consciously make myself miserable, and unless things change (which they inevitably will), I probably won’t be motivated into regular sitting anytime soon.

Ah, how ironic that people can be too happy to be happy.

November 23, 2009

Value & Power

How do I value myself? It’s a conundrum. I’m always on the lookout for ego, arrogance, self-centered thoughts, words, and deeds. I’ve spent a long time learning to fake confidence, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I want to be honest and forthright about what I can and cannot do. I don’t want to get in over my head. I don’t want to fail.

Yet at the same time, I do have a certain level of confidence that is not at all fake. Call it basic goodness, buddha nature, wisdom, or what have you. I’m smart, and at the risk of being immodest, I know I’m smart. If I don’t know something or how to do something now, I have confidence in my ability to learn. I understand the type of work I’m suited for and the type I’m not. I’m not afraid to ask for help.

What I am afraid of is that others will not perceive me as I wish them to. They will expect too much or too little, leading one or the other of us to disappointment. Therefore, the question has become increasingly critical as to how I value myself and how I present that value, as honestly as possible, to others. It is critical now, because I need those others to give me something – a chance.

I am once again a petitioner to power. I never really spent a lot of time contemplating power before these last few months, what it is, who has it, how it’s wielded. It seems to me now that power is the ability of one person to make decisions which affect another. To some degree, we all possess power. However, I am coming to contemplate more and more the meaning of power imbalances.

These people to whom I petition have the power to grant my admission, provide financial support, offer me a job, etc. I cannot dictate their decision making processes. I can only hope to anticipate, persuade, or inspire.

I feel to large degree that I am coming into this blind. I’ve never been good at other people, whether that is remembering their names, showing an interest in their lives, reading between the lines, or understanding their motivations. I’ve learned to cultivate extroversion, but that does not make me an extrovert. I understand on an intellectual level the interdependence of all beings, and occasionally I can even know it experientially. I value others very highly, but that doesn’t mean I always relate to them well.

A professor chastised me last week for appearing apologetic of my experiences. It was not my intention, but that makes her perception no less true. If I present myself in a way that indicates I’m not certain how valuable my knowledge, experience, and expertise is, then how can expect others to see value in it? Perhaps I was presenting myself that way subconsciously in order to fish for external affirmation. Is it more important that I feel my experiences are valuable or that others confirm it to me?

Yet the truth is, I do not know whether others perceive my experiences as valuable. Because of my inability to read people, I simply cannot perceive or anticipate such things as well as I would like. I have to ask the blunt questions, and when I’ve been put into doubt, those blunt questions become a sign of insecurity. After all, if she’s as smart as all that, she ought to know how to pursue valuable experiences and as a result know that her experiences have value, right?

In the end, because I cannot know the minds of others, their own experiences, their prejudices, preferences, and what they do or do not value, (not for certain, at any rate, though clues tend to litter the ground like confetti if I can spare the time to look and the wit to see) I must make those decisions myself. At the very least, I must vale myself if I ever expect anyone else to.

However, I must also judge the line between offering that value honestly and self aggrandizement. It is true that I can say I worked for two years in the residential construction industry, but I spent half my time simply making photocopies of building plans. At what point am I leading others to believe I have more experience than I do in building construction? If I add the obligatory ‘but’ to that sentence I immediately devalue that experience. That being the case, why bring it up at all? At the same time, I did learn a lot about the industry, more from observation than participation and more about how and why people make the decision they do than how houses are actually built.

In truth, I believe all my experiences have value. They have all informed my work, have led me to be asking the questions I am currently asking, seeking the opportunities I am seeking, opportunities others now have the power to grant or withhold. I can see the chain with the perfection of hindsight.

The California marketing company hired to write commercials had more influence on the homes that were built than the Nebraska buyers who were purchasing them. A single homeowner asking if you can vault the master bedroom ceiling was easy to ignore (especially for the largest cookie-cutter home builder in the metro area), but if you’re paying a high powered consultant thousands of dollars you feel obligated to listen to their advice.

Working for the mortgage company showed me how well banks lie, bully, and intimidate, while making sure to cover their asses by telling the absolute truth (buried somewhere in the paperwork). They like to make arbitrary rules which determine who can and cannot buy and what they can and cannot be bought, which have no basis in reality. They hold a great deal of power (wielded like the proverbial swinging cat) but very little expertise.

The men and women in the Military Science Department taught me you can still respect people you completely disagree with and that similar motives can lead to very different choices. There power was codified by strict rules, absolute but also limited, and respected both by those who obeyed and those who wielded it. It had a purpose which is absent from so many other manifestations of power, where it is accumulated for its own sake.

Later, I would find jobs and experiences more within my field, but these first few things I learned were no less important to where I am now than they are. I need to learn to value that and present it so as to demonstrate my value of it in a way that makes others opinions of its value if not unimportant then at least unconcerning. After all, I can’t change my past.

It is a search for genuine value free of ego-centric posturing. Even to say that I hope if I believe it, they will believe it demonstrates insecurity. It includes the negative ‘what if.’ I don’t think I’m going to be able to simply erase that from my emotions and thought processes over night, but maybe I can be a little more sanguine about it. So what if they don’t value my experiences? Do I really want to study or work with them in that case? (But what if they don’t value my experiences because they misunderstand them because I’ve presented myself poorly? – This could go on and on.)

Insecurity is a self-perpetuating perception. What-ifs multiply like evil killer bunnies. It is a spiraling thought process I need to nip in the bud from moment one, which is where mindfulness come in. I’ve trained in mindfulness. I’ve trained in basic goodness and resting in groundlessness and letting go of attachments to outcomes. It helps me when I remember those things and apply those trainings.

Maybe if I can’t always find value in myself, I can at least find value in that.

November 22, 2009

Adventures in the Ivy League

"You should also be looking at second teir schools," the lady sitting across from me said, "just to keep your options open. Cornell may not be the place for you."

I can't say I wasn't dissapointed, although I wasn't entirely surprised. I don't think she had anything against me personally, but being from Nebraska is somewhat like being from Mars. Nobody at Cornell had ever met a Martian, therefore they are a complete unknown, their education and recommendations null values in the hypothesis. Kind of like the error you get on a spreadsheet "DIV/0!" Not good, not bad, just meaningless.

Michigan they recommended, Illinoise at Urbana, North Carolina State, Kansas State, Texas, Colorado. Maybe I'd be happier in California?

Perhaps I would, but I like the East Coast better. It has more cool old buildings, convoluted urban structures, more history and better terrain. It has the things I like to study represented in a rich cornucopia of life. I'm from the MidWest. I've spent time in the Rockies. Been there, done that. I'm not interested in the south, be it east, west, or central. California might do, but no further south than San Francisco if you please.

"You need to work for at least two years. You really wouldn't be considered a serious applicant without work experience," she told me in a clipped Australian accent. She was in a hurry and had me pre-judged before I sat down. I didn't have a chance to explain the work experience I had achieved while in school.

Other professors, less hurried, seemed reassured when I was able to elaborate on my work experience. After that meeting I specifically asked, how important is this and does what I already have carry enough weight?

"Well how old are you?" another wondered. I didn't equate age with work experience, but maybe they were looking for something more indirrectly, like maturity. "You're not too young," she assured me. "Twenty-nine's not too young."

But she gave me some great books to read, the hurried one, scribbled down in red pencil on a couple of sticky notes I carefully saved in the back of my notebook. I found one text in the library. It's on the sociology of architecture, not buildings and not architects, but the field of architecture as a whole. And the author has a sense of humor, which I always take as a good sign.

Penn was nice, though the School of Design was, regrettably, a 1967 Brutalist echo, though it thankfully seemed to have more windows than most of its architectural first cousins. The next door 1881 Fischer Fine Arts Library, in red-brick Gothic complete with gargoyles, more than made up for it, especially as it houses some workspaces for the planning program.

The freedom offered by Cornell's program was tempting but the interdepartmental cooperation at Penn may be more helpful to my studies. More than one faculty advised I take a second look at MIT, hinting that their doctorate program is more creative and less technical than their graduate program appears to be.

Ithaca reminds me of Boulder. I like them both. The college is on a hill overlooking the town, caught between two stone ravines with cascading waterfalls. The trees were brown with November, but I had enough imagination to see the colors of spring, summer, fall, and winter on the rolling landscape. Two boys on the Commons sang made up songs to us as we walked by, one with guitar and one with drums.

"There go two happy people. One of them in a blue scarf. Blue is my very most favorite color. For scarfs. And there is a pointing child. He looks sort of puzzled..."

People in Philadelphia were helpful and friendly. I had been afraid they might not be so. The East Coast has that reputation (at least in the MidWest where everywhere that is not here has that reputation). I could handle people being rude or unhelpful for me, but I so wanted them to be nice to my mother. The lady at the ticket window at University City Station came back down to the platform with us and kindly asked the conductor if he could do her a favor and let us hop back on as we got off to early.

"A favour for you?" he asked. "Don't know if I can do that."

"Please," I asked, with my nicest I'm-just-a-helpless-little-girl smile.

"Now for her, absolutely," he said with a grin.

I don't pick up sarcasm well, but he had just been joshing with his coworker and I'm sure would have let us on reguardless. The trolley and bus drivers were similarly helpful. The owner of the Castle B&B where we stayed was a peach, giving us two rooms at my one room reservation price because she'd had a cancellation and now had the space. Her cats made us feel right at home. One puked on my rug and the other purred then bit me. Perfect. The students working behind the desk at the University of Pennsylvania library let us stash our luggage there while I went to my meeting, before we got to the B&B.

We stopped in a small town called Lisle on the way up. It was an antique store, a furinture store, a used bookstore, dance studio, fire hall, town offices, and a few houses squeezed up along the flat area beside the highway. We chatted with the shop ladies and sat on a bench by the road to eat the turkey sandwiches we had packed.

Mom doesn't take direction as well as Dad, who let me navigate in and around San Diego to my heart's content, while Mom and Brandon politely declined to back seat drive. Walking and riding transit around Philly was a new adventure. Mom can read maps and is used to giving direction, so she's a little less trusting in my ability, but we worked it out and after the one false stop on the way in, managed the rest of Philadelphia and the drive up to Ithaca and back without getting lost.

In five days together, Mom and I managed not to argue about politics once. Although, we have since made up for it when I went home on Saturday to go with Dad to the long awaited New Moon. We argued about health care and poverty and fearmongering, starting as soon as I came down to make my coffee in the morning. That's always a lesson in patience and keeping a leash on my tongue and temper.

While I never came right out and asked, wherever we visited I wondered what it would be like to practice there. When I spotted Japanese caligraphy of famous monks, Tibetan thangkas of boddhisattvas in faculty offices, an Asian import store on the Commons or a dharma wheel in Chinatown, I was reassured. It made the atmosphere seem friendlier somehow.

I very much want to deepen my practice wherever I end up. I want a sangha and a teacher. I want to not feel like I'm burdening my Christian friends every time I go on a bit too long about Buddhist philosphy. Heck, maybe I'll even start sitting regularly. You never know.

What I end up learning wherever I end of landing - that'll be the real adventure.

November 11, 2009

Reward and Punishment

Today over on the Shambhala Sun blog comedian and writer Doug Shear muses on karma after his unfortunate experiences in saving people from drowning. The first time he got attacked by a stray dog and not thanked my the child in question and the second time he was yelled at by a lifeguard and again not thanked by the young lady he helped.

"But I’m as confused as ever. Is it true that what goes around comes around? Or is it true that no good deed goes unpunished? Is there a loophole in the Law of Karma?" he writes.

Karma isn't there to reward our good deeds, or even punish our bad deeds. Karma is, in fact, completely neutral. Actions causing actions completely devoid of good and bad distinctions. However, the cause and the effect are inextricably linked, one often has the characteristics of the other. Thus suffering begets suffering and happiness begets happiness. Don't laughing babies make us smile?. Good and bad are labels we add after the fact. After all, if everything that makes us smile was on the 'good things' list, heroin would be legal.

Doug was pissed off because not only did he get attacked by a dog and yelled off by a lifeguard but, most egregious of all, he wasn't thanked. In other words, he didn't get his reward, his gold star. However, he did get a couple of object lessons in how to work with anger and deal with angry people. Was that of no use whatsoever?

Naturally, of all the players in this story, I felt bad for the stray dog and would like to school Doug in canine etiquette and go find the poor curr, feed it, bathe it, and teach it some manners. But that's just me.

In the end, Doug decided that "in the future, if I ever come across someone drowning, in a canal, in the ocean, perhaps in their own troubles, I’ll still try to help. Because I know what it’s like to be under water, under attack, and wish that somebody, anybody, qualified or not, would offer a helping hand."

So long as compassion trumps a desire for reward, I think we're on the right track.

November 10, 2009


I saw a photograph today at the Great Plains Art Museum among a series of black and white "environmental portraits" by John Evasco. In between the stalwart faces of weathered cowboys and country dames, was a young man in a phone booth. There were three booths, old fashioned and made of wood, two tall and thin, one wider with the phone set lower. The photograph neatly framed all three and there, crunched down in the bottom right-hand corner, sitting on the floor, his foot up on the partition, his hat reaching just below the level of the low phone in the third booth, was the young man, speaking into the black handset. The photograph was called "Lazy Conversation."

That word struck me as interesting - lazy. Why did the photographer the young man was lazy? Simply because he was sitting down, all scrunched up in the phone booth? Maybe he was tired? Maybe he isn't lazy, but had worked so hard and so long, he would take any rest he could find. Maybe he had partied too hard. And when are where was the photograph taken? Where can you find old fashioned phone booths like that anymore? Especially handicapped accessible ones? The booths looked to be built long before the advent of ADA laws. And where was the young man's cell phone? They all have cell phones.

"It is surprising, however, what a crucial role ambiguity does play in art. This seems largely an issue of appeal: if art is not open enough to appeal to a wide variety of people over a broad span of time, it will be insular and occasional, too tied up in a particular time and place....It is not just openness, however, that lends the ambiguity of art such power: it is also its inability to be analyzed. Something that we are confident we comprehend is of no interest," a blog post by Amy Cannon at Evangelical Outpost states, summarizing the thoughts of Terry Teachout over at the Wall Street Journal summing up a recent study by a couple of London blokes, among others. (And isn't that a strange string, even without by friend Jake who shared the post via Google Reader.)

"In general– as Teachout says–we live in 'a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation.' Great art is experienced as transcendent in part because it does not yield itself easily to explanation."

It reminds me of The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, Which Liberates Upon Seeing. It is said to do so because upon first site the stupa fails to fall within any of our preconceived mental categories. It shakes up our world a bit and makes up question the neat order of our mind. Maybe all great art is like that. Anything that evokes "don't know mind" is a little bit of dharma.

Artists are all telling us to wake up without even realizing it (or maybe they do).

DN Column - Facebook Fights

I put it to a group vote on Sunday at the weekly opinion section meeting. I could right about dirty coal or expensive nuclear power, following up last week's column on the senate energy legislation. Or I could write about this fight I inadvertently started on Facebook. So, you can see which way I went. I am posting here in it's entirety the fight (sorry for the formatting), with identification removed. It's funny, but also a little sad and one of those things I wish I could change for the better, but am not quite sure how.

Facebook enlightens about friend dynamics


Monica Sanford Why am I here? October 26 at 10:33am

L V R M Why are any of us here??? Ahhhh!!! October 26 at 10:35am

Monica Sanford I don't know. Where are you? October 26 at 10:37am

L V R M in class. i'm here to get a degree. so i can make money. so i can have an easy life. but why? what's my purpose? why????? October 26 at 10:54am

Monica Sanford oh, well, not to be depressing, but i suspect none of us actually have a purpose - at least not imposed from without - but we can create a purpose from within if we want to October 26 at 11:06am

L V R M yeah...but what's the point? ha. and i agree - none of us have a real purpose. we exist because something has to. October 26 at 11:09am

Monica Sanford time to get comfortable with the fact that there isn't a point - and i don't go in for that 'life is what you make it' fluff either - life is what it is, which is kinda grand all on it's own, no deeper meaning required - cool thing about the lack of a grand plan means we get to figure it out as we go along :-) October 26 at 11:14am

E B Oh Monica.... P.S. I am having a throw-your-hands-up-and-shout "meaninglessness!" kind of day myself. October 26 at 11:23am

R R Hurray for questioning the meaning of life. I'm rather fond of the Kurt Vonnegut explantion, we're here to fart around, don't let anybody tell you different. :P October 26 at 11:43am

L V R M i just have no idea what i'm working so hard for. i'm still gonna die. October 26 at 12:12pm

J G Only what can exist does exist. If nothing existed there would be no notions of existence, therefore the concept of discussing non-existence is illogical. October 26 at 6:15pm

L V R M the "discussion" of it isn't illogical. Just because we do exist doesn't mean we can't ponder what doesn't. It's just thought. Also, no one was talking about non-existence. We were talking about the fact that we DO exist - but why the fuck for? October 26 at 6:34pm

J G I was talking about, "we exist because something has to". That's not true, we are just incapable of comprehending non-existence. And I didn't say you can't think about it, I'm saying it's illogical because there is no conclusion to be drawn- in other words wasted thought. But yea, we serve no purpose. October 26 at 6:41pm

L V R M All thought is waste. We're just twiddling out thumbs until we die. Our lives are like a gam

e of solitaire, really. Just something to do. October 26 at 6:53pm

J G So are you calling the suicidal lazy? October 26 at 6:54pm

L V R M Naw, just impatient. October 26 at 7:04pm

J G Those who are uncomfortable are usually impatient. October 26 at 7:06pm

Nancy Do any of you have children? Billy is my reason for getting up in the morning...he makes the sun rise I swear :) And do any of you believe in God? This life is hell! I can't wait to go live with my maker in heaven :) When my purpose is fulfilled in this life I will go one to another and live for ever in the most wonderful place :) for that I am greatful! October 26 at 7:35pm

L V R M Well, if that were the case...I'd still have the same question. What's the purpose of Billy's life? And if our purpose in this life, is to get to the afterlife...what's the purpose of the after life? There's no real point to any of this. This question can never be answered - I don't know why I keep asking. I'd get depressed about it, but I'd just be a sad person with no reason for existing. October 26 at 7:40pm

Nancy God has a purpose for us I don't know his purpose, he is only 6 right now I guess it would be to bring a smile to my face. What???? I would be depressed to if I didn't believe in God. I will pray for you!!!!!!!!!!! October 26 at 7:43pm

L V R M I'm not depressed! Just contemplative. Thank-you though! I'm not saying I don't enjoy life. I enjoy my friends, I feel good when I do well in school but I just don't see a reason for it. If there is a God, WHY is there a God? I just wonder why! Also, sorry Monica for overtaking your status. :) October 26 at 7:48pm

J G No children and I don't believe in God. Alison, you wouldn't be depressed if God didn't exist, you'd be depressed if you thought there was no point to life. That's why you have to believe in superstitions, in order to accept your current reality. When you die, your consciousness will go to the same place it was before you were born- non-existence. October 26 at 8:12pm

Nancy wandering how God felt about creating a world that now think they don't need Him. October 26 at 8:13pm

Nancy I feel sorry for you Jared...God is not a superstition but hey its your life...God gave us the right to free will...if that where the case then I would want to die right now...but hey have fun spending eternity in hell... October 26 at 8:16pm

J G You're actually "wondering", and let me ask you, how many ancient books written by primitive men do you believe are the word of god? Just the bible, or the several similar others that groups of people follow all over the world? That's the best part about Christians, you all want to die in a godless world and yet you obliviously live in one. Do what brings you and your family happiness. That's as good a purpose of life as one will find. October 26 at 8:19pm

Nancy like I said Jared I will pray for you... October 26 at 8:24pm

L V R M "But hey have fun spending eternity in hell..." What a sweet, sweet thing to say. October 26 at 8:29pm

J G Thank you, but I'd rather you play with your son than waste time praying for me. If you think I deserve eternity in hell then you are a cruel, cruel person. Eternity is a long time for my crimes committed over my brief 24 year stay here. October 26 at 8:31pm

Nancy I am not a cruel person! I have never been told that LOL most people think that I am too sweet whatever Dude its like this there is a heaven and a hell if you don't believe then your going to for me I will be in heaven...hope to see you all there... October 26 at 8:38pm

J G The funny thing is, I don't even know you, and I can tell you right now I know 5 times more than you about Christianity. October 26 at 8:39pm

L V R M When we die we go to Candy Mountain. It's true because I just said it. October 26 at 8:39pm

Nancy Won't you be unpleasantly surprised when you find out how wrong you were! I don't know how I'd get through life without my savior, Jesus! That's why your so unhappy...because you have no hope. It breaks my heart. October 26 at 8:43pm

L V R M We're not unhappy! Lol. Wow. October 26 at 8:45pm

J G I never once have said I'm not happy. I'm single, young, attractive, educated, I don't have to follow your ridiculous moral code, and I won't be remembered as the village idiot of society after I'm long dead like you will. October 26 at 8:48pm

Monica Sanford Holy crap, you people! You make me laugh! You get all worked up. :-) Alison is not a cruel person. I've known her since high school and she has always been very kind. So you two, be nice! Alison, just so you know, I have a lot of nonthiestic friends and I hope you will respect our right not to give a damn about god. It's nice that you pray for us, but please recognize that we have the ability to be good, happy people without god. Lacey, why all this angst about the fact that nothing happens after we die? Why does that matter? If that's the case, shouldn't what we do in life have more meaning? (If not purpose, per se.) Jared, get of your high horse before it throws you. You have a wonderful mind. Don't put it to use telling others what they don't know. By this merit may all attain omniscience. May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing. From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death, From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings. By the confidence of the golden sun of the great east, May the lotus garden of the Rigden’s wisdom bloom. May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled. May all beings enjoy profound brilliant glory. The purpose of my life, as I have chosen it of my own free will (god-given or not), is to help others, to seek knowledge and wisdom, and the cultivate loving compassion that I might be of more benefit to them. So long as space remains, And so long as there are beings to be found, May I likewise remain, To wash away the sorrows of the world. Namaste, people! :-) (And Amen to Alison!) October 27 at 9:03am

November 06, 2009


Do you realize that although to us here on Earth the Moon waxes and wanes, rises and sets, on the Moon, while the Earth waxes and wanes, it never rises and sets? The near side of the Moon always faces towards Earth, so Earth is always in its sky.

For us, one cycle of the Moon is 28 days from new to full to new again. It is the same on the Moon, each watching the other, moving together to the same rhythym. How beautiful would it be, to sit on that still surface and watch the Earth wax into multi-hued fullness and then shiver away again into shadow. It would happen over the course of a single day, which on the Moon is 672 hours long.

On the far side of the Moon, while the sun still rises and sets during its 672 hour day, there is no Earth, none at all, for that side always faces away. But on the far side of the Moon, they have the stars, which are otherwise occluded by the the Earthglow for all but a sliver of hours each night when the Earth is new. In those small hours a billion, billion stars shine. How beautiful would that be. The stars from the Moom don't dance or twinkle, for there is no atmosphere to distort their light. They shine steady and true.

Have you ever wondered how all that works?

November 05, 2009

The Path Not Taken (?)

“At first my career path seemed so set, you know. After school I’d just go to work in a firm and get a license. But now, since I’ve been studying planning, with the dual degree, I’ve got so many other things I could do. And the rest just doesn’t seem worth it. I don’t know, what are you thinking about licensure?” Andrea asked me as we walked back to Arch Hall after lunch in the warm November sunshine.

“Well, I used to think that was what I wanted. I mean, I know for certain want what a license will allow me to do, have my own practice, but I’m starting to think it’s not worth it. The typical career path is what, twenty-years doing scutt-work, moving up the ladder until you’re finally in a place to do what it is you went to school for when you’re what, fifty?”

“Yeah, and then you only design for a few years before you get shuffled off into administration,” Andrea agreed.

“And the whole internship process? Three to five years learning what they couldn’t teach me in six or seven years of school and then nine licensure exams? So I can spend most of my time working on construction documents or negotiating contracts or building little basswood models? It doesn’t seem worth it. I don’t know. What were you thinking about it?”

“I’m with you,” she agreed. “It just doesn’t seem worth it.”

Andrea and I are the last two of the dual degree architecture and planning students. There are never many of us, but I haven’t heard of any more coming up the line any time soon. We’re both disillusioned, more so every day, with the current approach to teaching and designing, but we remain steadfast in our love of architecture itself. She remains to us a beautiful woman who has allowed herself to be swayed by others into the tragedy or horrible fashion sense. She suffers from Turrets and speaks only in riddles and profanity, but every now and then turns her face up to the sun and smiles.

I ask myself again and again – why am I doing this? Why am I so much more interested in PhD programs than in practice? Am I seeking refuge in the Ivory Tower as the ‘real world’ looms large and disappointing before me? Or am I honestly convinced that there is more to learn and more good to be done walking a path other than the one I laid out for myself so long ago?

Things change. People change. Is it so difficult to believe that I might? Yet after having been so steadfast for so long, through stormy seas and steep mountains and unrelenting deserts (not to mention melodrama and angst), how can I turn away so close to the goal? Yet the goal now seems further away than ever, behind the barbed walls of the Intern Development Process (IDP) with its deadly paperwork, fiery hoops, and devious check boxes, and the scary Licensing Exams, that nine-headed serpent whose tooth-filled maws grow back if you don’t chop them all off quickly enough.

Of course, I’ve been assured that a PhD is no picnic either, yet I am absurdly looking forward to it. A new place, new city, new home! I get to study and learn! I get to do my own research! I get to figure things out for myself! I get to learn with great teachers and other awesome thinkers! Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll even let me teach. I always did plan to teach, even if only as an adjunct. Yeehaw! (What the hell is wrong with me?)

I keep writing about it and writing about it and writing about. I can usually write a question out, not always to an answer, but at least to an end. The more I think about it the more certain I am that my road leads to yet another Ivory Tower. Yet the more certain I am of that, the more I question myself.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed for doing things for the right reasons. Maybe I took that aphorism about the road to hell a little too literally. I know I’ll land on my feet wherever I go. I know I’ll find a way to do something worthwhile. I always learn something wherever I am. I carry my own happiness around with me in a little mason jar. Yet for some reason this decision seems more important than most.

Well, I may be clued in quickly. Mom and I may soon be flying off to sunny Philadelphia to check out Penn and Cornell. A mother-daughter bonding experience, that college search a decade too late. Mom always wanted to see New England. I need to ask around, see who knows who, where, and network my skinny little (not so much anymore) ass off.

Because walking along in the warm November sunshine, Andrea and I shook our heads at each other in a such way that our skepticism needed no words to express.

November 03, 2009

Doing Less is More

The saying goes "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." I'm not sure where it's from. It's one of those random bits of data one picks up from popular culture, but it's commonly billed as a piece of Eastern wisdom. However, I do find that although teachers seldom appear, teachings on the other hand seem to pop out of the blue. Although when I consider, it is more likely that I am simply able to recognize them as teachings at the time I am receptive to them.

So the Fall 2009 cover of Tricycle spoke to me with it's simple title, "Do Less." The author of the cover article, Marc Lesser, warns "...doing less can actually be very hard." Don't I know it. This semester I've had to learn how to say no, a task I am still struggling with. I have committed myself to only three tasks: 1) graduating, 2) after graduation, and 3) the Daily Nebraskan. If the request cannot A) be taken care of in ten minutes or less or B) directly contribute to one of those three goals - then the answer is No. Thus I find myself cutting out student government and student organizations, cooking and reading novels. I thought I would miss these things.

Perhaps surprisingly, after the fact, No doesn't seem so scary. I don't miss the obligations I've given up because what I've chosen to focus on is something I find very engaging. I certainly don't miss cooking and I can use books as rewards rather than distractions.

Naturally, I haven't been entirely successful. I got put in charge of researching and developing recruitment methods for growing the planning program, but I managed to bring my contributions to a conclusion and then hand it off, with a very firm statement that I would not be working on it anymore. Yet when our department head asked me to accompany a muckity-muck to a fancy luncheon with some other students and big-wigs, my newly found No skills deserted me again. Oh well. I suppose I need more practice.

Marc Lesser, takes a somewhat more esoteric approach in his article (which naturally need apply universally, not merely to overworked, Midwestern, graduate students). He talks about letting go of fear, assumptions, distractions, resistance, and busyness - those self-defeating habits we could all do less of. They seemed poignantly relevant to me at this time.

I think I try to keep myself busy out of fear much of the time and a desire to feel/appear important somehow. I think if I engage in all these activities people will notice how valuable I am and if I don't people will overlook or ignore me. When I get overloaded I look for distractions, little tasks that make me feel like I'm in control of my life, but don't actually accomplish anything worthwhile. I can be very stubborn and I've been working for years to let go of the resistance I feel during critique - but as Lesser points out, I can turn that 'limiting belief' into an 'open-ended belief' - yet I am learning and making progress.

Meis van der Rohe, that famous Modernist master (who I generally blame, fairly or not, for almost single-handedly ruining fifty-years worth of architecture) infamously proclaimed "Less is More," to which Venturi (that know-it-all, blowhard who cloaks ugliness with fancy esoteric rhetoric) decried "Less is a Bore." However, beyond this architectural tete-a-tete I am finding that by doing less, I can actually do more, and feel less stressed about the entire thing.

But I'm still working on the whole concept of No.

DN Column - Senate Climate Bill

I'm glad to see they've started adding hyperlinks to my columns. I'll add one more, to the EPA report I mentioned. I'm afraid this column is a little more disjointed than I thought, but I didn't want to rehash the climate science debate all over again, so I took a different track, one I speak about less often because I know a bit less about it, but I had lots of support from my favorite bloggers writing on the subject over at Grist, WorldChanging, and Climate Progress. I perused the New York Times and The Hill for the opposition's take, and did a little Googling to round things out.

Senate energy bill passage remains necessary for global improvement


November 01, 2009

Hinsdale 2009

I should preface this post with the warning that I am drunk. Or at the very least sloshed, which I suspect is the same things. Even as I type, the Hinsdale is still going on. It is the annual costume party held in the College of Architecture. It is named in honor of the largest urinals west of the Mississippi, the 'Hinsdale' in the men's bathroom on the first floor. I have never actually seen the Hinsdale, but every male visitor I bring to the college feels compelled to take a picture of it, so I am assured it is quite impressive.

I digress. Ashley came by. She was drunk too and we talked about the deaths of her parents. They died while she was working on the Shambhala project, which I brought into the college. Her father died while she was at Shambhala for the site visit. I knew about it, but Ashley and I had never talked. She came over to say she liked how that in my space, I have a chair that is always facing away, looking out the window, it's back turned to my desk, and work, and just looking out on the world. Then we talked about her parents. She said she was glad I understood, because I told her about my friend Marilyn, who had died so young of cancer, like her mom and dad. She cried, but was happy, and she was glad she had gone to Shambhala because she had found a measure of peace there. We talked about how other people didn't understand how we could be happy when our loved ones died, happy and sad at the same time.

Jay came over to ask what I was doing. They're all talking loud, about drinks, the party, professors, and projects. But I was sitting here quietly typing so Jay came over to see if I was working. No, I assured him, I am not working. I am not working. I am writing, but I am not working. He seems sure I am writing a column for the Daily Nebraskan. I guess that means they read my columns. I told him I was sloshed and writing about being sloshed, so he announced it to the room, high-fived me, then Fred Flintstone came over and high-fived me, then they went back to their loud talking and Ashley came over to talk and cry with me about the lost one.

The music has stopped pounding out in the link, but I still hear voices, and the group is still here in the attic, chattering away. Jay is throwing up in the sink. It is past time for me to be in my bed, but it is a long walk home. I could try to ride, but I think the liquid in my head isn't quite settled enough for that. So I'll walk the long walk in my high heeled boots, glare at anything that crosses my path, get blisters, and fetch my bicycle home tomorrow.

It's been a Hinsdale, my last, but a Hinsdale nonetheless, and if only we prisoners of Arch Hall really know what that means so much the better.

October 28, 2009

No Victory

I had a mid-term critique on Tuesday before my entire thesis committee. I also invited three other members of the architecture faculty to contribute, though Jim Potter was the only one able to attend. His critiques were right on the mark and well delivered (aka minus the scathing tone favored by some professors). The others were likewise helpful in the comments and then entire critique went quite well. That is not what troubles me.

I presented two designs. The first was a concept of my choosing which I had then articulated in the manner prescribed to me by my guiding professors. Jim presciently pointed out that the resulting schematic building was “trapped by it’s geometry,” to which I wholeheartedly agreed. I had felt trapped by the process and the result it created throughout that entire design and had struggled against it to my and my professors discomfort, even going so far as to question them “Is this process supposed to be so constraining? So linear? Is there another way to do this?” to which they responded with puzzlement or frustration.

The second design was created more or less my own way. Again I had a concept of my choosing, but I decided not to articulate it diagrammatically but rather simply hold it in the back of my mind as I laid out the building spaces. The final result was something which, while I am not nearly satisfied with it, is much more promising. When I presented it to them, I even presented it without any concept diagrams (which I have been chastised for as a big no-no in the past) simply due to technical difficulties which prevented me from printing them in time for the review. Despite this, the critiquers had no trouble understanding my concept as I explained it, showed a few very early concept sketches, and then demonstrated it within the schematic design of the buildings. That is because this concept lived in the architecture, not in some random diagram.

As a result, they unanimously preferred my second design. Their comments for affecting its improvement were very useful to me. However, I do not feel like crowing. I was right all along. I should have just done it my way from the beginning. It all rings hollow. I don’t really feel like I learned anything. I wanted to be wrong, I guess.

I think I may learn something in the result. Rumiko’s talk about hierarchy was spot on and Jim’s references to Frank Lloyd Wright will be useful inspiration. But I didn’t learn much about the process other than the way some people evidently do it doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps I am selling my professors short. Perhaps the first attempt was constrained by a less than inspiring concept rather than the process itself. I don’t really believe that though.

Although I feel more comfortable moving forward, I am disquieted by what has been left behind.

Oh, Wanting, You Sly Devil

I think I am doing a difficult thing. I think I am falling in love with Ithaca. I am applying to four PhD programs, including Cornell. I have been looking at the cities as well as the schools. Ithaca, New York, looks particularly lovely. It is small, just around thirty-thousand people, not including most of the university students, I assume. It has gorges and hills, waterfalls and lakes, trees and rolling greens. And it's only a few hours drive from many of my favorite cities and all their lovely architecture. Today I looked to see how many bookstores it had, the true measure of a healthy city.

As the results popped up on Google, I thought to myself "Uh oh, this could be trouble." What if I don't get into Cornell? What if the mentor I find best is at Berkeley? What if Penn is the one that offers finacial support? What if I visit and it's not half as lovely as I find it from a few thousand miles away?

But the truth is, I want to get in to Cornell. I want to go to Ithaca. I want to study planning and visit Namgyal Monastery and the Institute of Buddhist Studies there. I want to find a cute little apartment in an old brick building with leaky windows and burbling radiators where my cat and I can put down new roots. I want to make space in my life for another person to join me there (though who that might be is less than specific). I want to write a book, or two or three.

I've been making lots of plans, but I haven't particularly wanted any of them over the other. They all have the same ingredients, but the place is less specific.

But now I want Ithaca and that troubles me perhaps more than it should.