January 29, 2009


Words are great things. My stock in trade, they are the most wonderful things ever invented, better even than indoor plumbing. Especially written words. They can communicate so much, convey those things which are almost inexplicable. Personally, I always felt the thousand words to paint a picture was somewhat low, but then I’ve always had a problem with brevity.

Yet, lately words seem to be getting me into trouble. Three separate times in two days I’ve managed to completely mis-communicate my message and/or alienate the person I’m communicating with. But you see, the words are just a means to an end, and in these failures, I’m starting to learn a little bit more about exactly why I like words so much.

The other day, I said something to a friend and I knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say the second I hit the enter button on the chat program. “That was unskillful,” I immediately though. “That’s not gonna get me what I want.” But as the day progressed, and I naturally obsessed over the faux pa, I noticed a deeper issue. By evening I was wondering “Is that really how I judge whether something is unskillful or not? What it gets me?” I was stunned by the subtly and monstrosity of my ego. Sneaky bastard!

What I said might have been exactly what that person didn’t want to hear (or read, as the case may be), but it might have been something they needed to hear. Maybe in the short run it wouldn’t help me get what I want, but in the long run it could bear fruit for them. I hope so anyway, otherwise I’ve been doubly unskillful. The trouble is that I don’t possess the wisdom to tell the difference just yet. So maybe I shouldn’t speak at all? Hmmm...

In my latest column, I let my passion carry me away and distort the argument into something that it wasn’t. My rhetoric got the best of me and worked to turn the lock on the minds I was trying to open through an accident of misdirection. Part of what bothers me though is a word choice change my editor made. He replaced a word with one exactly opposite of what I was trying to say, which illustrated more problems than the poor choice of a single word. It shows that I really need to try reading my own columns and looking at them from the perspective of another person. I need to get outside my own head and try to see it how others see it.

Last night I ditched my design competition team at quarter to one in the morning. At quarter past six they decided to cancel the critique scheduled for nine because not only did they feel we didn’t have enough work done, but that we needed to go back and rethink the entire presentation. They may well be right, but I was particularly unskillful in discussing it with them when I got back in.

What I saw was the same kind of existential panic attack that strikes everyone in the wee hours of the morning shortly before the due date, usually around the 72-48 hours-out mark, which is where we happen to be. This is why I don’t do all-nighters. I’ve seen too many classmates rendered completely ineffective due to exhaustion, stress, uncertainty, and just plain being tired of working on the same damn thing for so many hours. You get too close the project and everything starts to look like worthless gibberish and your ability to execute goes out the window.

So, I reacted not so fabulously of Chris’s declarations of “It doesn’t make any damn sense!”

“It’s not supposed to make any sense!” I yelled back. Fortunately, the moment of incredulity which ensued did halt the tirade and give me room to backtrack and make a more reasoned argument. Apparently, my life philosophy of bewildered confusion was not pertinent to the argument at hand.

Eventually, we were able to communicate like adults, understand each other, if not entirely agree, and reach a reasoned compromise, but it was more painful than needful. The thing is that I reacted to my teammates entirely from the space inside my own head. I didn’t stop long enough to try to understand where they were really coming from.

All three of these instances highlight one thing: EGO! In each one, I was clinging to me. What I want. What I am saying. What I see. And I was getting frustrated with people and reacting badly when they didn’t say, do, or see what I wanted them too. I was using words to unskillfully express the needs of my ego, rather than communicate a genuine message.

So in thinking about how I use my words, the question is not really, how can I say exactly what I want to say in order to get exactly what I want to get. That’s just the ego talking. Right Speech is instead understanding when speech is beneficial at all, to what end, and for whom.

I’ve been thinking I could really benefit from a wordless retreat. No speaking, no writing, no reading, watching television, or listening to the radio. I don’t think it needs to be solitary, but it would be a good way for me to come to a greater understanding of Right Speech. It would be a good way to understand how to connect with other people, the ones who are right in front of us, not the talking heads on the moving picture box, and see the urges behind our need to communicate.

Maybe this summer, and in the meantime I’ll just write about it some more…

DN Article - Founding Words

Already getting feedback on this one! One gentleman did make a good point, but I tend to think it illustrates a flaw in my rhetoric more than my arguement. I never meant to imply that health insurance was an unalienable right - only that we shouldn't apply it differentially to citizens and legal immigrants.

Oh, and I'm fine with letting people keep their guns. In fact, my views on gun control are strangly entirely contradictory to my pacifism in that they are extremely right wing. (I often find my inner libertarian arguing with my inner socialist. I think it's healthy.) I take the right to bear arms just as seriously as any other. I'm all for less restrictions, with the exceptions of convicted criminals.

Immigrants deserve same rights as citizens


January 26, 2009

The Sea

I stood on the shores of a great inland sea,

a sea so old

it had sunk beneath the sand,

a sand so still

it had been covered over in a grass,

a grass so restless

it devoured the desert which had once claimed a sea.

I saw dark clouds spill over the hills,

bringing flat rain to wash away bridges,

sharp hail to destroy gardens,

and black funnel clouds to roar with laughter,

at the strongest things human hands can build.

I heard the thunder wake the sea,

which bubbled up into marshes and creeks,

and colored the desolate brown land

in lush green ribbons

that whispered all the secrets of the wind,

and told the story of the sea.

I stood in the waves of a great inland sea,

waves of grass lapping at my knees,

the sand sweeping away my footprints,

the wind swallowing up my heartbeat,

the light washing away my mind,

it devoured the ego that had once claimed to be.

January 25, 2009

Mood Swings in Nirvana

My back hurts like a bitch, I’m cold, tired, and I want to go home. Other than that, it’s all nirvana. Right?

I’ve been thinking about my so-called practice this week. I don’t sit. No matter how many times I’ve tried or renewed commitments I’ve made or how far I think I’ve come. I no longer hate meditation. From time to time, I even enjoy it, but I still don’t do it. I read a lot. I have a half dozen Dharma books I’ve read half way through and a couple I’ve bought but not made it past the first chapter. I have better luck with the memoir and anecdotal ones, the ones with both plot and Dharma. I tend to finish those. I read the blogs and the magazines. I write a lot, but have had very little direction lately. Even my many book projects have languished.

So what exactly is this “practice?” I can tell myself that every moment is practice. Every moment is an opportunity to be mindful. Which is certainly true, but also something of a cop out. Every moment is practice, so I don’t really have to have a structured ritual, do I? So actually, nothing about my life has to change. I can stay safe in my everyday habits.

I still don’t have a teacher. I’ve been thinking for years that I probably need one. I’m just not much good at kicking my own ass. Yet the sought after teacher has not emerged. Not that I’ve been doing much active seeking, mind you. I’ve just sort of been waiting, going on as I have been and figuring that sooner or later my karma (or hell, just random luck, if such a thing exists) will drop what, or who, I’ve been looking for right into my lap. Maybe I need to take a more active role, but how does one go about doing that? Send out applications?

Every once in a while I start to feel antsy like this, as though I’m not making any progress. So I pack up and head off to some center or another to take some class or other and I learn a lot and I connect with people, even if I’ve yet to really feel that connection with a particular teacher. For a while I feel good about myself and fulfilled in my practice and then slowly, inexorably, I fall back into my habits. In the end, very little ever changes.

Well, so reading books doesn’t do it. Practicing in every moment doesn’t do it. Dharma vacations don’t do it. What does that leave? Hmmm….sitting? Actually practicing? Maybe with some chanting thrown in for good measure? And getting serious about my vegetarianism? And maybe giving a real shot at letting go of my tendency to procrastinate? I suppose it’s worth a try, right?

*Sigh* This wheel just keeps turning. How many renewed commitments can I make until I just chuck in the towel? I’m probably just cranky because my back hurts, I’m cold, tired, and I want to go home. If all else fails, I can blame it on hormones.

Who knew nirvana came with mood swings?

January 24, 2009

Monkeys in the Library

There are monkeys in the library. They are little grey monkeys with soft fur in all shapes and sizes and types. The library is their home, a giant endless library full of light and millions of colorful books, hundreds of monkeys. People watch the monkeys and pet them and play with them. People come to the library to see the monkeys, to watch them jump from one tall shelf to another.

Then someone left the door open. The monkeys all ran out. We chased after. People were screaming and jumping out of the way, even though no one seemed to mind them when they were in the library, but in the cafeteria people sent chairs and tables scattering as they scrambled away.

“Stay calm!” we yelled, dreadfully frightened that some of the smallest monkeys would be trampled. “Don’t run, hold still, don’t scream. They won’t hurt you. Help us catch them.”

I move forward swiftly, but cautiously. I managed to catch two small monkeys and stuff them in my shirt, which I then held closed with one hand while I scooped up a small baboon with the other. I carried them back and deposited them carefully in the library. Others were bringing more monkeys and order was slowly being restored. The status quo was settling in again.

When I woke up, I realized no one ever bothered to read the books. How metaphorical is that?

Drinking Game

We didn’t have a strong vision. We lacked passion. We had some good ideas, but no clear driving concept. We held the critique anyway. We probably should have held it two days earlier. Naturally, they called us on our shit and happily pointed out our lack of vision, but also pointed us on a path out of our quandary. What was that path? “Go out drinking. Write down all your ideas and figure out how to make it work tomorrow morning.”

Yes, Mom and Dad, I’ve paid thousands of dollars in tuition and you’ve paid thousands of dollars in taxes, so the faculty of the largest university in the state can advocate alcohol as a method of creative problem solving. Of course, the particular faculty in question are German, so maybe we should cut them some slack, but I didn’t here the Americans or the Indian voicing any objections to this particular piece of sage advice.

And you know the funniest thing? It worked! We went straight to Barrymore’s, the boys loaded up on rum and coke while I indulged in an Irish coffee. We stole all the cocktail napkins. Jay had retained enough presence of mind to bring a Sharpie which we put to liberal use. The solution, the vision we collaboratively created, is bold, innovative, aggressive, and definitely pushes the boundaries.

It is definitely an architect’s solution. It is not a planner’s solution, as our planners pointed out. Ideologically, I hate it. It is anathema. Yet, I am also impressed by it and unwillingly fascinated. Kinda like a gruesome car wreck on the interstate at rush hour is fascinating. So I can get into it, I can invest my time and mental energy in it, and enjoy playing the game and figuring out how to make it work. It will be a fun way to spend the next week and at the end we can raise a toast as we imagine the stumped, stunned, and finally powerful expressions, for good or ill, it is likely to evoke from the competition jurors.

The thick pile of cocktail napkins are carefully stacked and safely stuffed in my coat pocket. Later today they will be dutifully scanned to incorporation into the final display boards. (Napkin sketches have a long and venerable history in the profession of architecture. Entire books have been published on the subject.) I must say that we carried out the letter of our professors’ advice, if not the spirit, as we broke up soon after and were all home by nine o’clock.

Now for the “tomorrow morning.”

January 21, 2009

January 20, 2009

Right Speech in a Shit Shovelling World

I'm sitting in the basement of the student union, in the messy offices of the Daily Nebraskan, waiting for tomorrow's proofs to come out so I can read them, correct them if needed, and go home. Or, not home, but rather back to architecture hall, where my team is still working mid-charrette on our design for the Urban Land Institute's Student Design Competition. It is 10:30 p.m. I can feel my practice going quietly off the rails.

They tell us to guard ourselves from ingesting unhealthy things - from food and drink to entertainment and companionship. I am not cooking, but eating out twice every day. I am drinking far too much coffee. And entertainment and companionship has boiled down to a bunch of irreverent, vulgar college students discussing the last time they were drunk (yesterday), masturbating, and quoting South Park. Luckily, I am not easy to offend, so it doesn't bother me. The problem is when I find myself being seduced into participating, out of some misplaced need to fit in and get that extra little ego-stroke.

Maybe I'm worrying about it too much. I find it odd that I don't mind hanging out with people who engage in this kind of behavior/conversation but am disturbed by my tendency to join in. Guess that makes me a hypocrite. Of course, I never say anything about it. What good would that do? It would make people feel less comfortable around me, less free to express themselves. Maybe that's a good thing and maybe not. Maybe somebody needs to tell them they spend far too much time getting drunk and seeking/thinking/talking about sex. Maybe someone needs to shake them up a little bit so they will reexamine their lives. Is that me? If it is, I don't know how to do it.

Of course, that's never stopped me before. I frequently take on projects I have no idea how to achieve. So really, it's more like cowardice. I don't want them to not like me anymore. And something in me kinda likes the fast-paced trash talk, the mildly insulting verbal fencing, the witty, if vulgar, repartee. It's not something I get a lot of. I find myself sometimes swimming in the gutter and then wondering if I'm going to contract some infection disease that will be difficult to cure. Maybe it's not the best idea.

I have an entire semester ahead of me, and probably next year too, here at the DN. I am looking forward to it and I think I can safely navigate the cross-talk. The thing that worries me more is the next two weeks spend in almost constant company with my brilliant ULI teammates - four of the most accomplished shit-shovellers it has ever been my guilty pleasure to know. How do I practice right speech in that situation?

I guess I've got two weeks to figure it out.

January 16, 2009

Back in the Swing

I haven’t been writing much. I’m not entirely certain why. I’m sure part of it has to do with the fact that I’ve been wallowing in escapism. I bought a few books over winter break, borrowed some from my Dad, and finally got a library card. So, I’ve been reading rather than writing. The more I read, the less I write and vice versa. I am addicted to novels. I always have been. Even bad ones. So I’ve been fulfilling that addiction. Now it’s time to drag myself out of the swimming pool by the collar, before I really do drown. I need to crawl back onto dry land and go to class, go to work, go to meetings.

Another reason I think I’ve not been writing is a lack of compost. The more shit life throws at me the more the flowers grow. Winter break was very easy, slow, and domestic. I spent four or five days at my parents house over Christmas and then again over New Year’s. On New Year’s Even I stayed home with my folks and went to bed at ten o’clock. I probably would have stayed up later, but I had finished my book.

I did go out with friends a bit, saw my extended family, and spent plenty of time with my parents. Last weekend, the final weekend of freedom before school started, I had a couch surfer come and stay. Fritz was on his way from California to New York. He got in late on Friday after it had begun a descent snow. The wind was bad on the way across Nebraska, so the next day he didn’t feel like going on to Minneapolis. We spent the day together and had fun. After he told me he wanted to do whatever I normally liked to do, see the places I liked to see, and not the touristy ones like the state capitol, of course, I had to take him to the state capitol because it is so exceptionally cool. We also walked around Architecture Hall and then went down to the new Indigo Books in the Haymarket to while away a couple hours and then to Bread and Cup for a late lunch. On the way home we stopped at First Plymouth Church just to look around and a nice man let us climb up the bell tower, where I had never been. It was actually nice and spacious, cold, but no pigeons or gargoyles, so we thought Quasimodo would have liked it.

My most recent book, which I am allowed to read even though school has begun because it is not a novel, is Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. I had put off reading it for a while despite how much I enjoy memoir/anecdotal dharma books. I figured I had almost zero in common with an recovering addict punk rocker for the west coast, except, of course, the dharma. I was right, but the book is amazingly good and I am glad to have it. I think I will have to pick up his second book when I am done.

One week into school and I am amazingly, but not overwhelmingly, busy. I wrote a twelve-hundred word email to my parents and didn’t even have time to tell them about half of the things going on. I started a job at the state department of health and human services. It is a graduate assistantship, so the pay is good, and I am very grateful to have it, but the word that I fear will best describe it is “stultifying.” I hope I’m being too pessimistic. All things considered, I believe this will be a good semester and am looking forward to it. I am also looking forward to returning to my writing.

Actually, I’m just cheerful because after a week of -20 degree wind chills, I finally get a day where I don’t have to leave the house.

January 14, 2009

DN Article - The Unlikeliest Student

First column of the semester. Wonder if I'm striking the right tone? :-)

College improves with time, even 10 years


January 08, 2009

Swingers of Birches

Last evening I sat on the dark leather sofa in the large, deep red living room of the home of a vanished professor. I watched an entirely predictable movie on her little flat screen television, my cat, finally wound down for her day long explorations of this new abode, settled in my lap. The screen depicted a coming of age story. The rich boy predictably got into trouble in a small town. He was predictably forced to spend the summer there doing community service. He was predictably gorgeous and tortured and fell predictably in love with a local girl who predictably threw over her high school sweetheart for him and then predictably died of cancer. And it was sad in an entirely unpredicted way.

Boy and girl fall in love over a poem by Robert Frost, quoting softly “So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be.” They speak of childhood innocence which they found passed too swiftly and I felt unaccountably sad, for I too was once a swinger of birches, but I never recall the innocence that poets so often use to describe childhood. I don’t recall the carefree, happy days that people speak about. Nor did I ever lay in a green meadow as a teenage woman with my first heart’s love, or run through the woods laughing, or do all those other silly things which seem so beautiful in song and story.

Yet someone must have done these things, right? To be able to write about them so? Perhaps not. We write about elves and magic and dragons and starships travelling between worlds without ever having done any such thing. Does that mean likewise, this beauty of innocent youth does not exist? Am I not really missing anything at all?

I think it did perhaps exist, for others, and maybe once for me, so long ago I do not recall. I do recall being happy as a child, and na├»ve or ignorant perhaps, but not innocent. I recall worrying about money, about disappointing people, about making someone angry, or bad things happening in the world, even has a very young child. I climbed the trees nine parts of wild exuberance and one part to escape these worries. Still, I do not think I am missing anything, for in the end I had a good childhood, a good youth, a good adulthood thus far. That a poet may be able to instill a momentary wistful longing, a melancholy nostalgia, speaks to the skill of the poet, more so to the imaginary, longed-for past. So, here’s to Robert Frost and his swinger of birches. May we all relive his misspent youth, just in case we missed our own.

Birches by Robert Frost

January 01, 2009

Water & Sunshin

I don’t really do resolutions or retrospectives. The media is full of them right now and so I’ve thought, maybe I should post something of a similar nature – a retrospective, updates on items touched on in older posts, how this year has shaken out for me, what I want to accomplish in the next year, etc. But none of it would really have any more meaning today than it would have any other day. New Year’s Day is just an arbitrary box on a calendar set by some monk several centuries ago. It only has the importance we give it.

I resolve every morning when I get up and hang my mala around my neck to try, just for today, to be a good person. Every once in a while I look back and reflect, trying to learn from my life. I think I’m better at some things, worse at others, struggling with a few, as always. Time is moving forward. Change is happening. Today has one minute more sunshine than yesterday. Starting today we get to spend a few weeks signing the date and then scribbling out the eight and writing a nine instead.

Today is not insignificant, nor was yesterday, and neither is tomorrow. Today is not the day for resolutions or reflection. Every day is that day. Resolution and reflection are like water and sunlight, things for every day. They don’t work if only applied once a year. Nothing flourishes under those conditions, especially my poor houseplants.

So I wish you a Happy New Year, but more importantly, I wish you a happy today and ditto to infinity!