August 31, 2009

DN Column - Students & Health Reform

A micro column to go with a full page of opinions on health reform, pro, con, and some graphics and facts. It's really more like a staff ed or an article. Look up the accompanying opinions (here and here) if you want more.

Health care reform is less likely to impact students


August 30, 2009

Living Out Loud

The hazards of living your life in public include, among other things, running the line between hilarity and embarrassment.

"Someone got on my Facebook the other day when I was logged in on a DN computer," Jake told me. "So my mom read my status and sent me an email wanting to know why I sucked."

"Oh, yeah I remember that," I distracted replied, reading the latest email to the editor.

"Yeah, you commented on it," he confirmed.

"Didn't I tell you to hang in there?"

"No, you wrote 'whatever makes her happy,'" Jake reminded me with a smirk.

I cracked into wild laughter. "Did your mom read that?" I gasped between shrieks.


"Oh, Jake I'm sorry, but that's hilarious."

Jake just nodded with a rueful smile and we commiserated over the difficulty of writing about romance, relationships, religion, politics, and sex when we know our parents read our columns.

August 27, 2009

Back To School Shopping

"Okay, Monica, let's not go overboard," I warn myself as I see the new four digit balance in my account. Feast or famine, that's how college students live, with a glut of financial aid at the beginning of the semester and not two pennies to rub together by the end. I've lived this way for seven years, and only during the last one had an actual monthly paycheck worth living on besides. That should hold true for this one as well, year eight, my twelfth total year in college. (I worked full time and went to the community college full time on a scholarship during the first four.)

First things first, this semester's dues to my condo association, in a lump sum. Then eight months' mortgage to my Dad, also in a lump sum, plus the money I borrowed from him this month when my car needed new tires unexpectedly. Put more minutes on my cell phone, enough for the rest of the year. Eye examine and contacts and annual physical. Send a couple grand to my savings account, when I can't get at it so quickly. Buy my textbooks and the bits of technology I find so essential to my work. This year it's a big flat screen display, separate keyboard, a wireless mouse, and a spare USB cable. Then, only then, can I actually shop.

There's a little store down on O Street, The Black Market Clothing Exchange. It's not a thrift store, because it will actually buy your old clothes for resale, though I've never been hip enough for them to accept anything I bring in. The people that work there are wonderful, and they recently rented out the back half of the store to The Public, a trendy shoe store owned and run by a kid younger than me. There I got three pairs of jeans (the only three non-hiphuggers they had, I'm sure), four sweaters, an awesome new blazer, a vest, and a crocheted cap for $135 including tax. At The Public I splurged on a pair of shoes (bringing my total up to five pair, including my Wellies) that cost almost as much. They're TOMS Vegan Red Wrap Boot and I'm not usually into shoes, but they are WON-der-ful.

This weekend, I'm going to look for a chair for studio, either a comfy old recliner or an armchair with an ottoman. That means we get to make the rounds to the thrift stores and the antique stores, which is a regular adventure for my folks and I, whether we buy anything or not. Then we're going to Grand Island to fetch my Great-Grandma Peterson's dining set, which I am inheriting. I'm going to use her dining table for my desk and return my Mom's antique gate leg which I've been using less than comfortably. Oh, I guess I better clear it off and clean my apartment a little. And I have to take my own cast offs to Goodwill so I have room for my new clothes.

That's the thing about stuff, as wonderful as it is, it creates as much work as it 'saves.' At the same time, it connects us all. I'm benefiting from someone else's last season tosses and comfy used furniture and someone will benefit from my finally-shrunk-too-much and I'm-tired-of-ironing-this shirts. And I'm determined to find some new use to put my three old pairs of worn-a-hole-in-the-ass jeans to. Yeah, the shoes are new, but I'll wear them until they literally fall apart and TOMS is a cool company because they're committed to giving away as many as they sell, a true one for one deal.

I don't know that there's anything particularly dharmic about any of it, but it makes me happy. Not in the standard shopping high way, but in the 'I know I can afford it, I'm living within my means, so I don't have to feel guilty, and isn't it great to shop where the folks are actually fun to talk to and not at all pushy, and I'm recycling and I'll get a lot of use out of these things, and they all have character, and I'm so glad someone else had the good taste to buy this new first so I can buy it used now, and now I can get rid of those shirts I don't want anymore' kind of happiness. Plus, it makes me happy just to know I'm not going to have to do that again for at least six months.

I'm sure the economists are shuddering in horror.

August 25, 2009

DN Column - Fear (aka Conformity)

My editor and I worried this one was too 'deep' or esoteric, but I think we need to give our students more credit. After all, how many haven't dealt with this, even via denial, in their lives? I hope it's useful.

Students fear conforming and not conforming


August 24, 2009

What Came Up On the First Day of Class

My annoyance is caused by the preconceived notion that Bruce should remember my name, or at the very least, not act as though we have never met before when, in fact, we have shared this college for five years, this attic for twelve months, and I have introduced myself to him, at length, three times over the course of the summer alone. Of course, Bruce, our lone and perpetual PhD student, is older than the dean, so in this instance, my preconceived notions may be even more problematic than normal. Realizing this, I suddenly find myself less annoyed.

My anger is caused by the perception of thoughtless injustice but serves more to both fuel and hide my ego-driven glee at the prospect of a battle waiting to be joined. I giggle over the dangerously outrageous drivel in the ‘competing’ (yes, I use the word in purely malicious facetiousness) conservative student newspaper and in my mind lay out all the so very easy ways I will tear it into little, itty, bitty pieces – in print, of course. I rail against the injustice of an administrative pronouncement and snort dismissively at the fictitious ‘good reasons’ they had for the decision. I let my classmates use me as the sword and shield behind which they all too willingly shelter from the wrath of faculty and staff while encouraging me to fight the battles they know I look forward to. This is a dangerous thing and so I forgo immediate action and allow my ardor to cool. Oh, how I’m going to miss student senate this year.

My boredom in Rodrigo’s Planning Research Methods Class is caused by the fact that Rodrigo is boring. Thus, my only remedy is not to mind that Rodrigo is boring and come prepared with an as yet unread copy of the New York Times. An ‘awful’ class becomes merely a class.

I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer, sans the first word.

August 20, 2009

DN Column - The 'Real World'

Alternatively titled: 'Welcome Suckers.' But either way it's the first issue of the new semester.

‘Real world’ remains a fallacy


August 19, 2009

Shut Up Mind

We’re all about the mind. Have you noticed that? It’s true but it’s also preoccupation. I read my dharma books and magazines, listen to my podcasts, hear teachers speak and it’s all about the mind. Monkey mind and buddha mind and don’t-know mind and horse mind and open mind. We have a dozen different names and categories. But what about ‘shut up mind?’ Where’s that?

“…teaching tells us to break our habit of looking at experience in terms of labels or concepts and instead observe ultimate reality directly. This is done by paying attention to bare seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling in their most primitive state, before you inner narrator names them,” the call-out text in the recent Tricycle article “Disconnect the Dots” tells me.

Uh oh, I think, I’m in trouble.

Well, I knew that. Have known it for quite some time, otherwise I wouldn’t be reading magazines like Tricycle. And if you didn’t know it too, you wouldn’t be reading this. We’re all in trouble.

When was the last time I got down to primitive perception? I wonder. Have I ever? Maybe so, but by this time it’s been so obscured about the stories I tell myself of that experience that I can no longer recall the experience itself. Now, more often than not, I perceive through the filter of how I’ll write about it later. I don’t know what percent of my perceptions (thoughts included) make it on to the page, but the percentage must be minuscule. That doesn’t stop me from seeing the world through writer’s mind though.

I know that isn’t helpful. It’s more of a road block than anything, even to its own ends. I get caught up in the narrative and space off the experience as it is happening. So I castigate myself, Shut Up Mind! Then I shrug it off as an ‘occupational hazard.’ Then I congratulate myself for noticing in the first place. And by then the butterfly/horse/homeless man is gone and I start all over again with Shut Up Mind!

I’m sure this sounds familiar by now. I’m sure this sounds like what we’ve all found on the cushion. And I can’t help but wondering what happens when someday I tell my mind to shut up (with infinite gentleness and unbreakable firmness, of course) and it actually does? Nirvana? Or tomato? Are they the same thing?

In that same issue of Tricycle, Anam Thubten talked about coming to the United States and opening his mind to the tomato. He avoided it for a long time. They looked like blood and he feared they were gross. Now he loves them, avocados too. “The truth is similar to that,” he wrote. “We just don’t open our heart and mind because we haven’t experienced the benefit of that.”

It sounds to me like a classic Catch 22 (which I learned recently could have been named ‘Catch 18’ or any one of a dozen other numbers – oh, yeah, Shut Up Mind!). We’re not open because we don’t realize how great being open will be because we’ve never been open before because we’re not open. Gee howdy, that’s crazy.

I’ve often wondered if the characterization of the neurotic Buddhist is a cause or an effect. I used to believe it was no wonder we were so neurotic considering how much time we spend looking at our own minds. Then a friend pointed out it wasn’t that we were any more or less neurotic than others, we, as Buddhists, just noticed it more. Now I tend to believe both are true. It’s like staring into the abyss was said to drive one mad, except that we carry the abyss around with us wherever we go.

Yet, perhaps ironically, we are also already enlightened beings. We’re just on siesta. We’re napping and when we wake up we’ll be the enlightened beings we truly are yet again. In the meantime we look at our mind. We label it and categorize it just as much as we label and categorize and narrate the world around us. And sometimes we think to ourselves in frustration Shut Up Mind!

One day maybe it will, or not.

August 18, 2009


I’ve been in Chicago for four days. I have enjoyed my trip. The architecture has been fabulous and I have had the chance to visit with some friends I don’t see too often. However, I am vaguely ambivalent. I find my judging mind is working too hard. I judge the buildings, the city, the people. I find them wanting, though I have little reason to judge them harshly for they have been well enough to me this entire trip.

I have visited many larger cities and most I have concluded I could be quite happy in. Denver, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, London, Milwaukee. Now Chicago is only the second, added to Phoenix, which I find I dislike. I would not wish to live here, if I could live elsewhere. It would not make me unhappy, because I don’t think a place has the ability to make me genuinely unhappy, but I should rather be someone that contributes to my desired lifestyle rather than takes from it.

I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is that I find disagreeable about Chicago. The weather is not so different from what I am used to. Everything is taller, narrower, louder, dirtier, and more crowded, but I expected as much. These things in and of themselves are not so bad. But there is a harshness here. The people have stone faced gazes, although when I have had opportunity to interact with strangers they have been nice enough. Servers are quick and helpful. People hold the door open behind them. They don’t cut in line on the ele. People still say please and thank you with a smile. But only when they must needs interact. Otherwise they are very much in their own worlds, talking on their phones, listening to their music, looking dutifully away from every other stranger on the crowded street.

Strangely the city shows both signs of neglect and care. Every transit stop is manned by one or more CTA workers, yet many stops are also dirty and run down. I have been to other cities where no one is minding the station, but it is well kept. Security is everywhere. Not merely police, but every building, every entry, every park, every transit area, is patrolled by private attendants and guards.

At the new Modern Art Museum expansion (just praised in Architectural Record, though it reminds me somewhat forcefully of a cage or prison) a pedestrian bridge connects an upper deck sculpture gallery to Millennium Park. It is guarded at both sides by uniformed attendants, but to what end? “Are we allowed to go on the bridge without admission to the museum?” Yes, we are. “Are we allowed to go into the sculpture garden?” Yes, we are. Then why do they guard it? Are they afraid someone will harm the bridge in some way? And if so, what does that say about the value the citizens place on the public institutions of their city?

The city is segregated into discrete neighborhoods, but many of the old ethnic enclaves (which have changed hands over the years, so that a church with German carvings no sports Spanish banners) are now being gentrified and yuppy-fied and hipster-fied. And the white kids who move in and think they’re being ‘good white people’ by not insisting the neighborhood change to suit their demographic, do nothing to contribute to it either. They live there because they are poor, often unemployed, and appear more interesting in ‘defying authority’ (aka partying and breaking things) than actually mixing. They decry the new bars setting up shop and changing the character of this ‘family neighborhood,’ yet if it is so ‘family oriented’ why do a bunch of single kids want to live their anyway?

I stayed with a friend at a place in Logan Square known as the ‘Cunt Collective,’ a large flat home to six permanent and many roving queer anarchist youth. On the one hand they are brilliant people because they are so skeptical and questioning, shaking up society’s normative values. They have a lot of energy and a desire to create change. But on the other hand they are intolerant and aggressive, verging on (if not tipping over into) violence, against both people and property (although whether one can perpetrate violence against property is debated). This worries me deeply, both for their safety and wellbeing and for that of the people they may unintentionally (or intentionally) harm. I see a great deal of selfishness masked as ‘service’ (fulfilling a role as a necessary force to redress gross societal wrongs) and responsibility exchanged for blame (screwing over the system because it has screwed over others). Yet they were kind and welcoming to me, good people at the core, and involved in many vital causes.

I have enjoyed my time in Chicago, but I am glad to be going home today.

August 16, 2009

People in Transit

We spoke for four hours. We didn’t even exchange names for the first two. We talked about movies we had seen and books we had read, science fiction, Civil War reenactment, fencing, SCA fighting, horses, dogs, cats, tigers, lions, and bears. We discussed high school, college, our families, places we had lived, our ancestry, languages we studied, and people we had known.

We had missed the train, arriving simultaneously seven minutes too late, with the doors closed and the gate abandoned. The next train wouldn’t be for three hours. We walked through Union Station, got food at the little corner bakery. I had a wonderful sandwich and orange juice. I gave him my chips. He had a root beer and a chocolate bunt cake. Over food we exchanged names. When the train came, we sat together in the front row and talked for another hour. He turned in his seat to face me directly, leaning his shoulder against the back. Then suddenly, this was his stop. He almost realized it too late and we exchanged hurried goodbye’s and good luck’s.

It is a wonderful thing, the transitory nature of human relations. We never exchanged last names or phone numbers or emails. I think that is for the good. We can form these wonderful relationships and let them go again and be the better for it.

So, good luck, Daniel, wherever you are.

August 15, 2009

DN Column - Leaving Nebraska

Last official column of the summer. Fall DN starts next Thursday. Classes start Monday after next. Yeehaw.

Passion to explore world shouldn’t be hampered


August 11, 2009

The Survivor

I woke up crying. That’s new. I dreamed of a survivor, who was a survivor and not much more. They had come through hell together, the three of them. And now that they were out of hell, she had no more purpose. She couldn’t focus without the adrenalin, couldn’t succeed unless the stakes were life and death, couldn’t relate to the petty problems of life, burst out at those around her and then apologized in horror at herself and wept in shame.

And she wanted to go back. In guilt she wanted to go back to that place where she had felt useful and alive and … good. Where the terror of death was simple and sweet. She didn’t want to survive only to feel herself fall. And the old soldier and the young soldier who had been there with her tried to help her. She had survived something she had never been intended to die from. Accident had put her there and struggle had brought her out and know she didn’t know how to stop struggling, to live in a world with nothing to struggle against.

She cried and I woke crying and didn’t want to sleep again.

August 10, 2009

DN Column - Color Court Building

Sometimes they let me dabble in the features section. Thanks to Robert from WRK for the props he gave the DN during our interview. Just goes to show you can butter up the press. And to Lincoln Green by Design for putting the whole thing on. And BVH Architects (hire me!) and Weitz Construction for their hard work. Keep it up!

Color Court Building signals step in right direction


August 09, 2009

Rainy Day Letter to the Dead

Dear Marilyn,

I think of you at odd times. February 2, the anniversary of your death, came and went this year almost unnoticed. Yet at other times I catch myself thinking “Marilyn would love that,” or “I wish I could talk to Marilyn about this.” It would be nice just to have someone to catch up with. You know, an exchange of how-are-you’s in which each party actually cares about the response.

So how are you? Besides dead?

I don’t suppose I’m going to get any response. I could make something up. I’m good at that. I could create a whole new life for you, or a continuation of your current one, say as a ghost or on some alternate plain of existence, heaven, if you like. However, I think it somehow defeats the purpose.

I’m still here. Still living in the same little apartment. Still taking the same classes at the same college. Still have the same cranky cat. It’s going well. I’m looking forward to a swiftly changing future and I wish I could talk to you about that. You always had great practical advice. Mom advice without the burden of mom expectations. I wish we could commiserate about our love lives (or lack thereof) like we used to. Better yet, I wish I could be happy for you about finally finding that great relationship you always wanted.

I’d like to tell you about my day, the little quirky details that used to make you smile. I ran into Colonel Bolin in front of Canfield the other day. He’s still got the same big smile and booming voice I remember. He’s filled out a little now that he no longer has obsessive PT requirements to fulfill, but his hair still stands at attention. It was kind of odd, almost surreal, since I’ve been working on a piece of fiction with a character closely based on him. I should be working on my Buddhist architecture paper for Rumiko, but I can only do that for so long before I find myself switching back over to this book. I’ve got about eight chapters, not all sequential, and an outline now. Maybe when classes start again, I’ll send it to a publisher or two just for giggles. Can’t hurt, right?

I saw Paul a few weeks ago and we talked about you. He’s doing well. He misses you, too.

But you know, it’s all in a good way, the missing you. Because when I miss you, I think about you, and when I think about you I am reminded of so many good things. Some of them aren’t really good. I remember how angry you could be sometimes, angst-ridden and frustrated. I’m not to the point where time has glossed that over and made it nostalgic quite yet. But it was valuable for me to know that part of you, so the memory is still good. Maybe that’s selfish, but it’s true.

I wonder if I’ve changed. I’d like to know, to have an objective opinion and I could always trust you for that. I wonder if you’d have changed if you had more time. I think that’s the only thing I regret, that you didn’t have time to become happy within your life. You became happy within your death in a way, because it forced you to let go of so many notions and attachments, but that’s not the same thing.

I realized the other day that Brandon is going to outlive April, buses willing. Our family has a history of being long lived, on both sides. April’s family does not and in the last few months she’s had some heart problems. My brother is going to be a widower someday (buses willing) and I hope it is a long, long time from now. I wonder if he has realized that.

When our Grandpa Dale died he cried. I never did. We never saw our mom, Aunt Donalee, Uncle Dean, Uncle Dave, or Grandma Del cry and it bothered Brandon. I understood it, but I don’t think he did. I hope we will be the kind of family he needs. I hope I will be the kind of sister he needs when our parents die. I hope April will still be here to support him when that happens. She’ll bawl her eyes out. Mom has vowed to live to be a hundred and thirty just to make my life miserable, so I don’t know.

I suppose it’s inevitable that I related you with death. Not fair, though. It makes for a depressing sort of letter. I’d rather be cheerful and make you smile and laugh, but things just didn’t work out that way. I guess you don’t mind, eh? I hope you’ve found happiness and freedom from suffering.

I love you.


Lotus Zen Temple

Today I finally found myself at the Lotus Zen Temple on 19th & Ryons Streets, just one block south of South Street. The temple is in a lovely two-story arts and crafts style home. I have been intending to go for quite some time, but today I was finally successful. I arrived a few moments before ten thirty and sat with a young man named Patrick in a living room full of art, books, a piano, and a stately old organ. A few other people arrived and after a bit Fa Jian, the master of this particular temple came down and ushered us up into the second floor meditation room.

We sat in the Zen style, around the perimeter of the room, facing inward, on zafu and zabuton. I sat uncomfortably on a zafu, leaned back against the wall, and tried not to let my nagging back get the better of me. A period of sitting meditation was followed by a period of walking meditation, the daily blessing, offering incense, and a Dharma talk. Fa Jian is a tall, gray-haired, gray-bearded man with a soft German accent and rimless glasses. Since there were a few new people that day he spoke about restlessness and meditation posture, which are good topics no matter the audience. Afterward we adjourned downstairs for tea in the cozy kitchen and the lady who appears to live in and care-take the house, Lisa, joined us. So did Ozzie, her gray faced Australian shepherd.

During meditation I sat between a young woman with a round, bright face and beautiful black hair, Kelsey, and a young man, still gangly and thin, Jeff, who had the shaved head and wore the bib (proper word?) of a committed Zen student. Afterward, Kelsey, Fa Jian, Lisa, Janet and I chatted on one side of the kitchen, while another gentleman practiced tai chi movements with Jeff, while two more students watched, on the other side. We spoke about language and travel and generally introduced ourselves. Kelsey is, like me, a student at the university and addicted to travel. She just returned from five weeks in Spain. Fa Jian teaches Latin and Greek for Lincoln Public Schools and confesses that after thirty years here he speaks English better than German. Ozzie soon learned he could count on me for a good solid skritching, no matter how much fur flew from his thick coat.

It was a good group of friendly people. A difference I notice from other sanghas I have met is that this group seemed very calm, open, and low-key. Not lax in any sense of the word, simply unfussy. In a way, they seemed very Nebraskan.

My thanks go to Jeff who shook me out of my self for a moment. He graduated from high school early and has been taking classes at Southeast Community College, but he wishes he could have remained in high school longer. I reassured him that I, too, had skipped out on much of my senior year and he wasn't missing anything.

"But think of all the education I didn't get and I'm going to have to know this stuff anyway!"

I bit my tongue on my inner smart mouth just waiting to point out high school has nothing to do with education. Have I really become that cynical? I wondered instead. No, I already was that cynical, especially in high school, but maybe I aught not to have been. I hope he never looses that.

I think I shall go back next week.

August 03, 2009

Not Knowing the Story

Today, Colin Beavan over at his No Impact Man blog posted a snippet of his forthcoming book discussing something he had once heard from Pema Chodron speaking about groundlessness and not knowing. I won't quote the whole snippet here, go find it yourself, but one bit seems particularly pertinent:

Now, there are a lot of stories we tell ourselves to try to make sense of what we don’t know. We tell ourselves religious stories and family stories and success stories and all sorts of different stories. Lately, I’d attached myself to stories about how every thing will be fine if we just consume less. We tell ourselves such stories because we don’t trust that we’ll do the right thing if we simply accept the groundlessness of not knowing. Another Zen master once told me that this was the entire point of practice: to become comfortable with not knowing.

For some reason the films of Hayao Miazaki come to mind. There are lots of room in his stories for not knowing - not knowing who the "bad guy" is, not knowing where the gods and demons come from, not knowing the boundaries of his fantastical worlds, not knowing how or why magic works, not knowing if you can trust someone. It is one of the things I have always loved about his stories. Not everything is explained and not everything needs to be. Things can simply be accepted as they are.

Of course, they are still stories, but I think there is room for groundlessness even within them.

DN Column - Generation Gap

This is one of those topics I believe I may be wrong about and fervently wish that I am. Sources include the latest report from the Pew Forum on public opinion regarding same-sex marriage and The American Climate Value Survey, as well as a few others that didn't make it into the finished column due to space constraints, but had similar results.

Bridging the generation gap requires discussion

I've written most of the staff editorials this summer, but I haven't been posting them. They are the opinion of the newspaper as a whole and often about purely local issues. But this time I had a specific beef to pick and the editorial board let me run with it, so here is today's staff ed as well.

Media need to revise treatment of racism