June 30, 2010

Children & Chaplains

It appears my mother, having found no rational explanation for my choice to move to California and become a Buddhist chaplain, has concluded that I simply do whatever it is I want to do. While this characterization is rather negative, it is not exactly untrue. However, she appended her latest barb with “without caring about the impacts on other people, like mommies,” and then followed up with a short sermon about the selflessness of wives and mothers.

“Well, you wanted to get married. You wanted to have children,” I pointed out with a stinging ego.

She’s not wrong, of course. I am going to California to study Buddhism essentially because I want to. However, I want to because I see this as a path towards selflessly caring for others, much like my mother perceived her decisions to marry and bear children. In her cultural context, marriage and children made sense. They were rational, expected choices. And in all cultures, mothers are seen as nurturing, selfless beings, even more so than fathers.

But chaplaincy? And Buddhist chaplaincy? In a capitalist Christian context (and in light of my career track thus far) these decisions may cause a great deal of head scratching. It’s easy to chalk them up to a whim or a fancy and hope the person in question will someday “see the light.”

Oddly enough I know exactly how she feels, because I view the choice of marriage and children with exactly the same perplexity. I have nothing against either, per se, and intellectually recognize the merits of both. What I do not understand is how people can make them the primary goal of their life, the standard by which they judge their own success and ultimate worth. In fact, given the demands (and dubious successes) of childrearing, I view the entire activity with some skepticism.

Given the chance inherent in finding a good mate (even when you’re looking in the right places), the work it takes to build a successful marriage, the unrelenting effort of raising a child who, after around two decades, will leave anyway (and we call that “success”), and all the things parents and spouses frequently give up in order to create a family – you had damn well better want it! I think very few people possess enough genuine altruism to do it otherwise. And in regards to children, some philosophers will even argue the more altruistic choice, given the dangers and pain of life in this world, would be not to have them at all!

Now, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I am forced to ask: Is having a child essentially a selfless or selfish act? Can it be both?

A recent New York Times article described the switch from marriage and children as givens to “lifestyle choices.” The Atlantic just theatrically (and erroneously) declared “The End of Men” along with the decline of housewives and marriage in general, even among women with children and there are fewer and fewer of them. Countries like Japan and Italy (and perhaps the United States) are actually contemplating a financial crisis as their young population shrinks to the point where it can no longer support their elderly.

Several years ago I met a twenty-six-year-old man who had already had a vasectomy because he had no desire for children. Many people reacted with consternation. A woman is practically forbidden from a tubal ligation before the age of thirty-five. Many doctors will refuse to perform the procedure or provide a referral to the requisite specialist. My brother and sister-in-law are proud DINKs (dual-income no kids), but that is far outside the norm for their age group.

And as I approach my thirtieth birthday, I am forced to contemplate whether or not I ever want to bear a child of my own, given that my window of opportunity is closing. The probability (though still remote) of having a baby with Down Syndrome doubles just between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-five, in addition to other health risks for both child and mother with increasing maternal age. In addition, having examined my limited interactions with babies and children up to now, I am forced to conclude I am not an especially nurturing person. Nor do I have any special affection for children beyond my appreciation for them as individuals, and very strange, difficult to understand individuals who often make me rather anxious being around them at that. This leads me to conclude having a child would best be done with a partner who is a little more heart and a little less head, someone whose own comfort with kids and instinctual understanding of their needs could rub off on me. At this point, I may well have limited my dating pool to single, male, elementary school teachers who are preferably Buddhist or at the very least secular humanist or Unitarian.

I’ll forgo the overly dramatic sigh to once again reiterate that if I do have kids, I damn well had better want them! Because it’s going to take a great deal of luck and effort just to get them, let alone raise them. And from a personal cost-benefit standpoint, I’m not at all sure the scales tip in that direction in light of the other things I want in my life.

I know from a Buddhist perspective it would be nice to forgo all this discussion of wanting this or wanting that. But as some very smart Buddhist teachers have pointed out, desire is a necessary component of motivation. Many Buddhist teachings characterize nirvana or enlightenment as the point where craving is extinguished. They may be right, but one has to want craving to be extinguished before one has the ability to extinguish it. One has to want to end suffering before one can stop wanting and so stop suffering. And isn’t that a fun paradox?

I can let my desires guide me towards the things I am suited for in this life and motivate me to achieve them, but I don’t have to go chasing after them willy-nilly. We say suffering comes from desire, but I tend to think it comes from the mistaken belief that getting what we desire will make us happy (which in turn is born from an ignorant belief in our own ego, etc.). I know becoming a Buddhist chaplain won’t make me any happier than having children made my mother happy, in a fundamental, long-term, end-of-suffering sense. But I do believe she was a good mother because she wanted to be one.

I just hope I’ll be a good chaplain someday and as for the rest, we’ll wait and see.

June 25, 2010

Want Not

“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda, Jedi Master, as written by George Lucas and voiced by Frank Oz

As sometimes occurs when I begin to write, I was looking for something. And as sometimes also happens while I draw the amorphous tendrils of a persistent problem into words, a solution emerges like a ship cutting through the fog, the first clear sight of something within miles, weeks, even years of nothing. Sometimes it is an ahha! moment, sometimes a well, duh moment. And occasionally, like today, the ship is just there and it is up to me whether I choose to board.

I am two weeks behind in rewriting my thesis narrative. Since the first of June, I have struggled to complete this task I manifestly do not want to do, and all the mental whining and nagging that entails. I have turned away time and again in favor of more immediate, more easily accomplished tasks. But the time for “thinking about how I want to do it” is long past and the time of “doing it” is swiftly slipping away as my June 30th deadline approaches.

The anger still simmers and all the reasons I “shouldn’t have to” fester in my mind like an evil. All of this is weighted down by a to-do list that only grows with the urgency of moving and other projects for other professors yet left undone. Yes! I tell myself I want that diploma. I want to be free of this sword of Damocles and move forward into my new life without these burdens. But the angry bit, the resentful bit, the whining bit incessantly whispers “what’s the point?” A Master of Architecture isn’t exactly a prerequisite for chaplaincy. All the while I pin my hopes on the stubborn in me being stronger than the “don’t wanna” and “shouldn’t halfta.”

As my mind spins on thoughts of samsara and suffering and desire, a wheel turned by a engine whose gears are labeled “thesis” and “expectation” and “packing” and “frustration” and “motivation” (or maybe that one’s missing), I realize that all this want and don’t want amounts to nothing at all. There’s nothing that says I have to do what I want to do or don’t have to do what I don’t want to do. I am free to act irrespective of my own desires. They are not bullies in a schoolyard to push me around with sheer brute force.

The ship has arrived. In my mind it takes the form of the Zeitgeist, a two-mast sailboat with a dark red hull we saw in the fog of San Diego harbor during vacation there last September. It made me laugh. Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age” is an oft heard word in the architecture history classrooms. It was a catalyst for German modernism and the Bauhaus, the school which set the stage for this modern architectural education I am now enjoying (tongue in cheek) so well. Truly, she makes a better ship than pedagogy or architectural concept.

And it is up to me whether or not I will board her, with Master Yoda’s words ringing in my ears. Yoda was, of course, referring to Luke Skywalker’s will, that he couldn’t lift the x-wing only because he thought he couldn’t lift the x-wing. I can’t write my thesis not because I think I can’t. Quite the contrary. I know I can. I just don’t want to. But, similarly, wanting need not correlate with doing.

Want not. Do or do not. There is no want.

June 18, 2010


“Thus, we rationalize the taking of life, and of our own moral decay and lack of self-dignity, calling it ‘freedom,’ while forgetting that freedom includes having the discipline to be able to take the road less traveled.”

This was the response from RW to LM’s link announcing the FDA’s Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs unanimously voted to recommend a “morning-after” anti-conception pill that is effective up to five days after intercourse. The European Medicine Agency approved the drug, called “ellaOne” in 2009. It is likely the FDA will take the recommendations of the panel and approve the drug, but not certain, and pro-life groups are rallying to stop its approval by claiming it amounts to abortion, which is legal anyway, and that “men could use it to exploit women by slipping it to their unknowing partners,” according to Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women of America, per a June 18 CNN article.

Now, I am conflicted on the subject of abortion. As far as I can tell, life begins at conception. However, I have a very difficult time thinking consciousness exists in anything without a single brain cell. (Although some argue conciousness if not a product of the biologic brain.) Human embryos don’t even attach to the uterine wall until seven days after fertilization. The drug works by preventing progesterone, a key reproductive hormone, from reaching receptors in the body. The hormone prepares the uterus to accept implantation of an embryo and decreases the maternal immune response and contraction of the uterine muscles. (Wow, déjà vu to junior high biology class.) Progesterone levels are typically at their lowest point during menstruation and drop at the onset of labor.

So that’s the science. And RW wants to moralize about “Powerful scientific advances in the hands of an ethically irresponsible society: we have gotten too much technology without complementary ethics and attention to personal responsibility.”

The implication, intended or not, is that women who use this drug are irresponsible. I don’t know if he believes this irresponsibility stems from not using premeditated birth control or just having intercourse without the desire to procreate. To the first point, I can only ask “Have you read the statement on the back of a condom package?” A three percent chance of pregnancy is a larger risk than I’m willing to take. And most premeditated birth control takes a month to even be effective, in addition to requiring an expensive prescription, which necessitates a costly annual physical exam and laboratory tests.

Now, I should point out RW is male and thus has likely never had to consider the financial and temporal hurdles one must overcome in order to even get a birth control prescription. Effective drug-based male birth control is still a long way off (mostly due to a lack of motivation, I believe, perhaps unfairly). Perhaps RW believes a six week waiting period (two weeks to get a doctor’s appointment and four for the birth control to be effective) should be mandatory before having sex with a new partner, just to be sure you're really sure. Or perhaps women should follow the Boy Scout model and “be prepared” by remaining on birth control at all times, even if they are not currently involved in an intimate relationship, despite the financial and physiological consequences.

However, his rhetoric regarding the “taking of life” leads me to believe RW has neither considered any of the above nor would admit to its validity at all. Rather his is concerned only with branding this new drug an abortificant and further branding abortion as morally wrong. And his recommendation is to “have the discipline to be able to take the road less travelled” and that this is a defining characteristic of “freedom”?

What does that even mean?

Does RW believe the majority of women (the hypothetical road more travelled) are running around getting abortions (or abortion-inducing drugs) willy-nilly? That the majority of women are in a state of “moral decay” and lack “self-dignity”? Therefore, to exhibit our “freedom” we should rebel by choosing the moral path (the hypothetical road less traveled) by accepting the burden of an unwanted (possibly forcible and/or unhealthy) pregnancy and the potential of spending the next two-decades (or more) raising a child we were ill-prepared for? We should use our “freedom” to subjugate our own moral autonomy and responsibility to his or others of like-mind?

Huh. I recommend RW look up “freedom” in the dictionary.

“I. The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty. 1. a. Exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; = LIBERTY n. b. fig. Liberation from the bondage or dominating influence of sin, spiritual servitude, worldly ties, etc. c. Exemption or release from the obligations of a contractual agreement; spec. release from a marriage, divorce. 2. Nobility or generosity of character, magnanimity. Cf. FREE adj. 3. Obs. 3. The state or fact of not being subject to despotic or autocratic control, or to a foreign power; civil liberty; independence. 4. a. The state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint; liberty of action. Freq. with to and infinitive. b. spec. Liberty in respect of a particular sphere of life or action, as freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of the press (cf. press freedom n. at PRESS n.1 Compounds 1a(b)), etc. c. As a count noun: a particular type of freedom (sense 4a), esp. when regarded as a right; a civil liberty. Usu. in pl. 5. The fact of not being controlled by or subject to fate; the power of self-determination attributed to the will. 6. Readiness or willingness to act; keenness, enthusiasm. Cf. FREE adj. 15. Obs. (Sc. in later use). 7. The state of being free from a defect, encumbrance, disadvantage, etc. 8. a. Frankness, openness, familiarity (in conversation or social interaction); outspokenness; (occas.) an instance of this. b. The overstepping of due or customary bounds in speech or behaviour; undue familiarity; an instance of this, a liberty (esp. in to take the freedom (to do something). Now rare. 9. Facility or ease in action or activity; absence of encumbrance or hindrance. 10. Boldness or vigour in conception or execution, esp. of a literary or other artistic work; the fact of not strictly observing conventions of style or form. Cf. FREE adj. 13. a. Exemption from a service, obligation, charge, or duty; the state of being so exempted; an instance of this; an immunity, a privilege. Cf. FRANCHISE n. 2. b. Immunity, exemption, or privilege possessed by a city, corporation, etc.; an instance of this.” – The Oxford English Dictionary Online

Believe it or not there is nothing in the definition (which I slightly abridged) in reference to either responsibility or morality. Freedom, it seems, entails neither by default. Now, that isn’t to say it shouldn’t. In order for all to be as free as possible (but never as free as we think we are) restrictions are necessary in order to prevent one person’s freedom from causing another person’s loss of freedom. In this case, I assume RW believes the freedom of the embryo to live trumps the mother’s freedom not to be pregnant, bear, or raise a child.

It could easily be argued (and has been) that the embryo is essentially not a human being and therefore not entitled to the freedom we grant each other as (supposedly) independent sentient beings. Or that the mother’s freedom to make her own medical decisions must be upheld (the legal basis for Roe v. Wade).

At that point, we could easily rebut with the immorality of killing. But killing what? Anything? Plants, animals, or only human beings? What constitutes a human being? If a fertilized egg is all it takes, why not then an unfertilized egg? Under those circumstances, every menstrual cycle in which a woman does not become pregnant and therefore wastes an egg could be considered killing a human being. If killing human beings is immoral, capital punishment will surely have to go, along with war and the use of deadly force, right?

The purpose of all of this is not to justify abortion, but rather to point to the essential difficulty surround issues of women’s reproductive rights. As I stated at the outset, I am conflicted. Personally, I could never see myself aborting a viable fetus in the course of a healthy (or even moderately risky) pregnancy.

But here’s the crux of it for me: I believe freedom entails the freedom to be wrong. If we are only free to be “right,” we are not free at all. We have the freedom, and must have the freedom, to act stupid, make mistakes, and even act unethically at times. As a society we make laws to mitigate the negative effects of these actions on others, but we will never truly ameliorate them. The alternative is totalitarianism. As Americans we’re free to vote for the “wrong” candidate, eat the “wrong” food (hello, obesity epidemic), watch the “wrong” movies (can you say “perpetuating a culture of violence” three times fast?), choose the “wrong” profession, and even marry the “wrong” person (divorce rate is at 40%, yay!).

Therefore, in ambiguous situations where harm is difficult to define, and especially where the moral basis for a decision is primarily religious, we must favor the risk of being wrong over the certainty of being less free. If we abridge the freedom of others based on our own moral conviction without objective proof (as much as such a thing exists) of the harmfulness of their actions on others, we open our own freedom to being so abridged. In such instances, the minority will suffer, freedoms will be restricted and restricted further, until such time as we suddenly realize we are all in the minority. When Patrick Henry valued death over loss of liberty, he was pointing to the essential risk of freedom. To be free does not mean we will always be safe or always be right.

As for the drug, I just like knowing I can still enjoy the emotional and physical intimacy of a relationship with another human being without having to be pregnant, bear, and possibly raise a child, fight for child support, and give up large aspects of my life if I don't want to. Men have that choice (aside from the bit about fighting for child support), “wrong” though it may be. Men can walk away the moment the deed is done. No one is trying to legislate their medical or lifestyle choices. I only require the same for women.

Everyone should have the freedom to be wrong.

June 17, 2010

The Blogisattvas

The Blogisattva Awards have been revived by some intrepid buddhabloggers. I am happy to see this as the awards were a great way to discover interesting blogs, great writers, and fellow practitioners. And no this isn't a plug. (Okay, maybe it is, but I'm telling myself it's mostly not and really, really working on that whole ego thing.) But if you haven't seen them, check it out and explore prior years' winners.

And tell me, what other blogs do you read?

June 16, 2010

You Know When...

You know you've been working with data for too long when you can write jokes in Excel function syntax.

=IF(Head Diameter > Opening, No Problem, IF(Common Sense => Average, No Problem, IF(Beer Consumption < 3, No Problem, LOOKUP(“Jaws of Life”, Yellow Pages, Phone Number))))

How to read: =IF(test criteria, value if true, value if false) and =LOOKUP(lookup this value, look in, return value)

If you understand this joke, I am very, very, very sorry. You and I should find new jobs.


June 15, 2010


A beautiful, beautiful, beautiful video from Japan. Eight minutes to still your mind.

Hayaku: A Time Lapse Journey Through Japan from Brad Kremer on Vimeo.


June 14, 2010

Theo from Salt Lake

My head came up, my gaze sweeping over top of the screen that had absorbed my attention as the miles rolled past. I took a deep breath in through my nose as I scanned the lounge car. Whiskey. I definitely smelled whiskey and it sang to me like Odysseus’s siren. It had been a long day.

I’d come into the lounge car just before the train began rolling east out of Denver under the threat of dark clouds and a ribbon of red sunset. Two groups of young men played competing beats drowning beneath animated conversation. An older couple played cards. A lone man typed steadily away on his shiny, white MacBook. Kids half a car up were alternating between a portable DVD player and finding their own fun using the fixed lounge furniture as a jungle-gym.

It was all a far more welcome scene than the dark, quiet, closed coach class seat I’d been assigned three cars back. The one that smelled like fast food from the dinner brought on board by the large guy in the next seat, the one who advised me, I’d better let him have the aisle because he tended to get up a lot in the night. I didn’t feel like being trapped in those confines between him and the small window, so I swung my pack back up onto my shoulders and hugged my sleeping roll close as I made my way forward.

Now it was night. I’d watched the scenery roll by, industrial at first, then suburban, then just the empty plain of eastern Colorado. I’d scanned the sky for lightning and watched the spectacular sunset between dark mountains and darker clouds. Then I’d opened my laptop and begun to write. I wasn’t writing anything in particular, just letting my mind rest in the steady tap of keys, reinventing the story of my life yet one more time.

I noticed when the gentleman came and sat down facing me, one booth other. He had white hair and a tall, trim build. From his bag came a little black notebook, which he soon became as absorbed with as I with my digital version. So we wrote in companionable silence (but for the noise going on around us), until that telltale smell tickled my nose.

I considered for a few minutes, inhaling that sharp perfume, then got up and made my way forward, careful of the rocking train. I refilled my mostly empty water bottle, but that was mostly an excuse. As I made my way back, I noted the small bottle and an actual glass tumbler of amber liquid, and I stopped facing him.

“What are you writing?”

“Oh, just journaling,” he commented, without any surprise at my interruption.

“I was doing to same and wondered if you were, too. But the smell of whiskey got my attention.”

He smiled. It was Lagavulin, as it turned out, Scotch. And would I like some. I slid into the booth opposite him. He had noticed me when he came in, just as I had noticed him. We had recognized each other as writers from the start. We raised our glasses in a toast.

We talked about where we were from and where we were headed, family and writing, jobs and hobbies, books and authors. His name was Theo and he was going from Salt Lake City to New York. After decades of teaching high school in California, he had retired, married, become the instant father of teenagers, and moved to be with his new family in Salt Lake, where he’d been invited to join a writer’s group.

“What do you write?” I asked, genuinely interested.

“Mostly memoir. I’m not so interested in getting published as the other members of my group. Right now I’m working on this piece about a painting I bought, a portrait of a woman.” He told me about the portrait and how his fourteen-year-old stepson though it was spooky.

We passed a comfortable hour just chatting. This seemed to be something of an adventure for him, taking the train just to see what could be seen, to meet his brother and sister in New York and say at his sister’s place in Manhattan for a while. It sounded lovely. To take the train that far is a journey of some days, and to be worth anything at all, one needs to be willing to make friends. Trains are good places for that.

We bid our goodbyes and thank you’s after a time and I returned to my seat. Theo continued his writing for a while yet and waved me good night on his way forward towards the sleeping cars. A bunk costs many times more than an airline ticket, so only someone interested in travel for its own sake (or a deathly fear of flying) bothers with them.

I never saw Theo again. After a time, I went downstairs and stretched out in the quiet lower lounge. I wasn’t so deep in sleep that I needed the three o’clock alarm I’d set. I cancelled it a few minutes before it went off and rolled up my sleeping roll, making my way back to my assigned seat just as the familiar streets of Crete began to roll by. Shortly after that came Lincoln, my stop, and I hoped Theo was getting a better night’s sleep than I.

I’ll probably never see him again, but I’m glad to have met him.

June 11, 2010

Why Nebraska?

Because if you pull up to a stop sign at the same time as another car crossing the intersection, most likely they’ll wave for you to go ahead of them. And most likely you’ll do the same for them. And yes, eventually everyone gets across the intersection without too much lag.

Because it’s not flat. Okay, parts of it are flat, and if you drive on the interstate you’ll see all of those parts. But trust me, it’s not flat.

Because I’ve never felt scared walking home at night, even when I knew I should. Of course, that could just mean I’m naïve.

Because the Sandhills is the last majorly intact prairie ecosystem in the Great Plains.

Because we don’t have an accent.

Because if your car gets stuck in the snow, and it will, three perfect strangers will stop and help push you out.

Because people driving on dirt roads wave to each other as they pass, whether they know one another or not. And they generally do.

Because people passing each other on the sidewalk make eye contact. And they usually nod and offer the “I acknowledge your presence” half smile.

Because summer thunderstorms are the most beautiful event in nature. Period.

Because there are no six degrees of separation. There’s just two and a cousin. And there’s always the cousin.

Because if you leave, wherever you go, you’re unique.

Because when you meet another Nebraskan outside Nebraska, it’s like coming home.

Because it means you always have someone to argue with who’ll still invite you over for pie later. It’s only polite. And because there’s always pie.

Because Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the best in the world. Seriously. Over 17,000 animals representing 962 species is some of the largest indoor habitats, including jungle, desert, and swamp, in the world. Rocks the socks right off San Diego and any other zoo I’ve ever seen.

Because the ice cream shack on the corner of Highways 2, 71, and 20 in Crawford (population 1,107) makes the best loose meat sandwiches in the world. They smoke them in the shed next door. And make their own barbeque sauce. Sigh.

Because Sandhills cranes simmer like a silver storm in the sunlight.

Because we have the only unicameral legislature in the country. There’s no point in paying twice as many politicians to do half as much.

Because the wind in the grass is as unrelenting and as uncaring as the waves in the sea. It reminds us.

Because you’ll never be more than twenty-minutes from a really good steak. Unless you’re in certain parts Cherry County. And don’t feel like butchering that steer standing next to the road yourself.

Because Nebraskans epitomize practicality.

Because what other people call gossiping, we call visiting. And it’s only polite.

Because someone as poor as me can still afford a view of one of the seven wonders of the architectural world (circa 1927).

Because the State Capitol building is completely open to the public. And there are no metal detectors or security checkpoints.

Because Shakespeare on the Green is free.

And because it’s home.

June 07, 2010

Six Boxes

Sometime around dawn, the apartment finally cooled enough to make a light cover necessary. Of course, the bedroom, where the air conditioner had been running full blast all night, was much cooler. But it was also infested with some kind of mites coming in through the cracks of the window thanks to the pigeons who insisted in nesting on the sill. Not even a long day of vacuuming, heaving mattresses about, laundry, scrubbing, bleaching, powdering, and pigeon-defense installation could make me tired enough to get a good night’s sleep on the couch in the too-warm living room.

I like to sleep cuddle up in a blanket. Not naked and exposed to the constant breeze from the overhead fan, even if it was enough, just, to keep me from sweating. All these thoughts ran through my mind as I swung my feet over the edge of the couch and looked at the clock on the VCR – 8:03 a.m. They were purposeful distractions from today’s unpleasant mission.

I dressed quickly, brushed my teeth, and fed the cat. There was no point in putting the kettle on. In a vain attempt at detox I had not replaced my last tin of coffee when it ran out. Instead, I slipped into my shoes and began shifting the six boxes stacked in a tower almost as tall as myself out into the hall. Isis took advantage, skittering out onto the worn, orange and brown carpet and heading for the potted plants clustered at the end of the hall near the south-facing window. I moved the last box, creating a new tower by the back door, and then went after her. We played a leisurely game of cat herding before I scooped her up and set her back in the apartment, grabbing my keys, purse, and hat on the way out.

I live on the third floor and the boxes had to be carried down one at a time to my car. They are full of some of my most prized possessions – books. On a discouraging note, these six boxes only represented four shelves, which means I have a long way to go. But six was about what I could manage without pulling a muscle and about what fit comfortably in the back of my car. They are the first step towards clearing out the apartment and getting it ready to show. After the final trip down the two flights of stairs, I sat in my car and dialed my parents’ number. I was almost relieved when the machine picked up, but Dad caught it just after the mechanical voice had kicked in.

“Hi. I’m on my way to Omaha.”

“Okay, you want us to wait for you?”

“No, you guys go to breakfast. It’s gonna be at least forty-five minutes.”

“Well, I’m not even dressed yet,” the deep voice rumbled back. It was an excuse. He dressed about as quickly as I did. My car was already full and the clock on the dash only read 8:26.

“Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit then.”

The drive to Omaha was uneventful. And I mean uneventful. It’s sparsely trafficked interstate almost all the way there, making it easy on a wandering mind with only NPR to keep me from stressing too much. I’d begun and discarded more than one email in the past few days. This was a conversation to have in person.

I let myself in the front door when I arrived and greeted Lucy as she came over, whirring and purring and chirruping. Mom was on the couch reading a book and Dad was at the dining room table sifting through the paper, but he got up to put on his shoes as I came in. I was oddly disappointed when we pulled into IHOP twenty minutes later. I had been counting on a light breakfast, a yogurt parfait at McDonald’s or something. I made myself eat as much of the two-egg breakfast as I could, but Mom polished off the bacon, Dad stole two pieces of toast, and there were still hash browns on my plate. I did cave and order a cup of coffee, which I took my time nursing through family gossip and small talk. Mom and I even managed not to argue about politics.

A traditional Saturday morning is breakfast and a trip to the used bookstore. Once we were home, before Dad could disappear into his basement and before Mom could get to work in her craft room (which, like a conquering army, now encompasses parts of all three of the upstairs bedrooms), I called a family meeting.

I told them about the surprise garnishment on my checking account. I told them about the need to file for bankruptcy not at some mythical future point, but now, this summer. Of course we went over and over the preliminaries. Call the bank. Change your checking account. Get the garnishment paperwork. Find out when they went to court and what the judgment was and why there wasn’t a notice.

“Yes, I know all that,” I repeated, trying to hold on to my temper. I wasn’t angry with them, just frustrated with the entire situation. When I get frustrated, the emotional response is not helpful. I needed to be clear-headed now, not a watering pot. I was also, as predicted, ashamed, guilty, and afraid by turns. Ashamed of not being able to handle my own life according to their standards, guilty for having to ask them for help (again), and afraid for my future.

I took a breath. “I know what the next steps are. I need to know about the longer-term. What I need to know, is whether or not I should still be planning to move to California. Will you help me?”

“Well, if you stay here and work, you’ll just have to start repaying your student loans,” Mom pointed out.

“Yes, I know. And there’s no telling if I’ll be able to find a job that will allow me to afford that. And if I do, it probably won’t be enough to pay those loans and save to move, even if I could find someone to hire me for six months or a year, knowing I planned to leave. To get a good job, I’d have to be disingenuous to my employer. Make them think I intended to stay. I don’t want to do that.”

We went around and around a little bit more. Finally Mom conceded “Yes, plan to move to California. We’ll get you there. Somehow, we’ll get you there.” She wasn’t happy about it.

Dad went upstairs, more to cool down a little than to move the laundry into the dryer, I think. When he came back down, he had a few more questions.

“If we help you, can we count on getting paid back? Say in three to five years?”

That hurt my feelings more than anything else. “Well, of course you’ll get paid back. I’m not asking for you to just give me money. I’m just saying that I’ve always been able to pay you back within six months in the past and this time I don't know.”

“Yeah, but that’s always been small amounts.”

“I can’t guarantee that this time because I don’t know what my living expenses or income will be like in California and I don’t know exactly how much I’ll need to borrow. But yeah, I should definitely be able to pay it back in three years and certainly five.”

It was in the back of my mind that we had also defaulted on the second mortgage for the house in Gretna. That was twenty-thousand dollars my brother and I had “borrowed” from them in the form of a gift of equity which had counted as our down payment on the house. We’d made payments on it for as long as we’d owned the house, even after Brandon had moved out to be with April, now my sister-in-law.

But then I’d gone back to school and we’d taken out the second mortgage because I didn’t qualify for financial aid. Then the second year, Mom had gotten a PLUS loan (for the parents of students) for me. But the mortgage and the PLUS loan still hadn’t been enough, so I’d fallen back on my two credit cards – one of which was now somehow garnishing my checking account. It wasn’t until the third year I was finally old enough to qualify for any kind of student aid. I was finally twenty-four, and finally, by the standards of the federal government “independent,” despite the fact I’d been supporting myself since the age of eighteen and owned my own home since I was nineteen. Ironically, that was the same year I broke down and tearfully asked my mom if I could move back in with them, admitting that even with four roommates, I couldn’t afford to keep the house and keep going to school. And the sale price left no room to repay them.

Moving in with them had proven temporary (thanks to the bank foreclosure and short sale of my current condo, the one I am now preparing to clear out), but school appears to be permanent. With no prediction of any kind of future earning potential and now this untimely garnishment, my hopes of someday being able to repay those defaulted credit cards are dashed. It’s time to call that bankruptcy attorney.

But first there was the inevitable talk with my parents. Money for college is a sore spot with me. I don’t want to have to ask for it partially because I want to take care of myself and partially because I don’t believe my mother, and never have, when she says she can’t afford to help. But it would be disrespectful to refute her statements about her own finances. It would be easier, I think, if she just took the principled stand – that she’s not obligated to help. I’m an adult and should be self-sufficient, like her.

I don’t want to have to care about money. It’s not something I place a great deal of value on, which seems counterintuitive considering money itself is supposedly a measurement of value. However, when it becomes a sore spot, subject of a rift in my family, a source of stress, I resent the entire idea of it. Why does asking for money have to be such an ordeal? Why can’t we live in a society where generosity comes as naturally as breathing? Why can’t we all live by the rules we learned in kindergarten?

Whine. Whine. Sniffle. Cry.

But the truth is, the world is never what we want it to be. As much as I want to accept things as they are, I also want to change them into what they should be (or what I think they should be). Detaching from the outcomes of those desires is fiendishly difficult and the source of much of the current suffering.

My parents want me to be entirely self-sufficient. They don’t want me to need their help. I want the same thing, but it’s not the reality of the situation. I considered not asking them. Scrapping my plans to move west and continue my education, finding a reliable job, paying by debts. I could see myself back in that cubicle where I worked at the bank before I went back to school, in some similar type of dead-end, bored-to-tears job. I dodn’t want that either, but perhaps it would have been the more altruistic choice.

In the end, I just don’t see money coming between us, not really, not in the ways that matter. I’m very grateful for that. Besides, I know they’ll get it out of me in the end. I know they worry about their retirement sometimes, but I never do because I know I’ll be there to take care of them. Of course, that all assumes I’ve gotten my act together by then.

In the meantime, I was home by noon to work on my thesis, six boxes of books taking up space in my parents' garage and six more empty boxes ready to be filled.

June 02, 2010

Life Sucks: Deal

While at Shambhala Mountain Center, I took ruthless advantage of my “staff” discount and the broad selection of Buddhist books in their gift shop. I took home four. What struck me was the dearth of books who’s titles promised happiness, in one way or another. “How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life,” “The Happiness Project,” “How to Be an Adult in Relationships,” “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life,” “The Ultimate Happiness Prescription.” On and on and on.

Now I’m certain these are quite lovely books. I haven’t read any of them, but at least a few are by authors I respect based on their reputation and smaller articles of theirs I have read. And there were just as many scholarly texts next to them, musings on dzogchen and the seven points of mind training and commentaries on historic sutras and their interpretations, so on and so forth. There were also many good “manuals” regarding how to meditate and practice, along with various anthologies, and audience specific books about subjects like women in Zen, masculinity, Buddhist for teenagers, etc.

But no one ever writes a book with the title “Life Sucks, But That’s Okay: Deal.” And isn’t that what the Buddha taught? Life is suffering, this is why, we can handle that, and here’s how we do it. I wonder if this is a recent Western phenomena or a human thing. Do chipper titles sell more books? I mean, who would buy a book with the title “Life Sucks?” (FYI – There is one. It’s a graphic novel about Dave, “a poor vampire working at a convenience store.” Go figure. There are also a small number of books with “life sucks” in the title or subtitle, usually accompanied by “why” and “what you can do about it.” The graphic novel about poor vampire Dave sounds more interesting.)

Given humans’ biological negative bias (we pay more attention to the bad things than the good because the bad things are more likely to kill us) you’d think a cynical title would get a lot of attention. But attention is not the same as “pick me up and buy me.” Even among the self-help market, which sadly seems to absorb and dilute a lot of otherwise good dharma, telling someone their life sucks (even if them believing their life sucks is what got them to the bookstore anyway) is not a way to make friends. Everyone wants to believe their life is good (even if they secretly admit it sucks) because it affirms their choices and reinforces their ego. Some feel guilty admitting their life sucks, because, after all, they live in affluent, middle-class America and theoretically have everything they want (even though Buddha knows getting what we want doesn’t really do the trick), so why should they be unhappy?

So rather than a bundle of books telling us “Yeah, you’re right, life really does suck,” we have a bundle of books telling us “You should be happy because you’re smart/strong/brave/fortunate enough to be depressed/single/healthy/unhealthy/married/young/old and you can use that opportunity to become compassionate/wise/strong/calm/enlightened/happy/fearless/free.” Etc.

They’re not wrong. Exactly. They’re just preaching the choir. Very few people are going to buy a book they think might reaffirm their deepest fears. They want a security blanket and there are plenty for them to choose from.

Now, naturally, people do want to be happy. People do need to know how to deal with difficult relationships, handle depression, and understand their emotions. The thing that seems to unite all these books, however, is not their ability to help you be happy (as I’m sure many of them do), but their promise of happiness. I attribute this not to the authors, but rather mostly the publishers and marketers. And, of course, the people who buy the books based on the promise.

Not everyone is a cheerful cynical like me. Generally, I think life sucks. It sucks very often and very hard for a lot of people. (Although, relatively speaking, mine as a member of the aforementioned affluent, middle-class America probably sucks less than ninety-nine percent of the planet.) And I’m not going to say the fact that life sucks is a good thing. I’m not going to turn it around and say what a great opportunity it is (there are wiser people than me who have done that far more eloquently) and blah blah blah. No, it just plain old sucks. But you know, after a few critical needs are met, like basic food, shelter, and safety from violence, the fact that it sucks isn’t really a problem. (And some would argue before those needs…) It’s okay.

It’s okay not because it’s good or because it’s some kind of “opportunity,” but because it’s fundamentally workable. Because we can deal.

Dealing with the fact that life sucks is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent. The fact doesn't have to bother us. Chasing after promises of happiness isn’t dealing. That’s just attempting to escape the fundamental fact. But we can look long and hard at the fact and realize we’re still here. Bus’s willing, we’ll be here tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. So somehow we must have been dealing all along, right? How’s that?

Well, we all have the capacity to deal. We’re all just savvy enough and just kind enough to one another to have ensured the survival of our socially-dependent and physically-unimpressive species for the last several thousand years. It’s in all of us. And some of us, a precious few, have figured out how to deal so well, the fact stopped bothering them at all. It didn’t go away. They still got old, sick, and died, but they could deal because they recognized the fact life sucks is not fundamentally a problem. The problem is that we want it to stop. And let’s face it – that ain’t gonna happen. But that’s okay. ‘Cause we can deal.

Where’s the book telling us that?

June 01, 2010

Musing on Discursiveness

I thought to myself that my mind is awfully discursive today. Then I wondered what that actually means.

We hear this word a lot – “discursiveness.” I think it means monkey mind, thoughts just rattling around one after the other, uncontrolled, purposeless, and uncontrollable. Discursiveness always feels mildly like a trap we can’t get out of. It is used with a negative connotation. After all, it does begin with “dis” and continue with “curse.” But what does it actually mean? Have we ever bothered to look?

On the one hand it means “Running hither and thither; Passing rapidly or irregularly from one subject to another.” But on the other hand, it is also defined as “Passing from premisses to conclusions; proceeding by reasoning or argument. Often opposite to intuitive.” Or, rarely, “A subject of ‘discourse’ or reasoning (as distinguished from a subject of perception).” (Oxford English Dictionary Online)

So, discursive thinking can be just random rambling or it can be a rational thought process, examining a subject on point at a time in order to reach a conclusion. Do not these definitions seem mutually exclusive?

Pema Chodron says “When we drop the discursive thinking and open, or communicate, what that basically means is that we contact the moment fully.” (“How to Work with Addictions,” Shambhala Sun) This implies discursiveness leads us to be closed off, incommunicative, and out of touch. She continues, “Often you feel that you cannot let go. But if you have the courage to just experiment with abruptly opening at this time, there is enormous ability to have the mind open completely because there is so much energy. Of course the energy is pregnant with wanting to close right back down into the discursiveness or the mood that you are in.”

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche also appears to dwell on the negative aspects of discursiveness. “The Sakyong describes discursive thoughts as the ‘chatter that constantly clutters our minds, the routine mental buzz… It’s like a low–level hum that obscures our natural clarity,’” writes ‘the girl’ on the blog Auspicious Coincidence.

Another attributes the saying “When we relax our discursiveness, we find that underneath it all, we are already happy,” to the Sakyong.

When a commenter on a dharmawheel.com forum asked ““What does this really mean?” another answered “That actually we were originally happy with our Factory Outlet shirt or dress until someone comes along with a Prada or DKNY....” Is that really discursiveness? Or is that just avarice? Perhaps the thought process that leads us to believe the Prada shirt is better than the Factory Outlet shirt was discursive, but the sudden desire to wear Prada is something else entirely.

In a commentary on the Abhidharma found on the website of the Turtle Hill Sangha (followers of Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche) they discuss the Abhidharma text translated as “What is selectiveness? It is a mental addressing that takes in everything in the wake of intention or appreciative discrimination. It is a coarse mental operation. What is discursiveness? It is a mental addressing which is attentive to one thing at a time in the wake of intention or appreciative discrimination. It is an exact mental operation. It has the function of becoming the basis of happiness or unhappiness.”

In the discussion, the author (unknown) points out “The statement, 'it is the basis of happiness and unhappiness', means that since both selectiveness and discursiveness have a positive and negative aspect, the positive aspect of both ought to be known as the basis of happiness because by the positive aspect, pleasant results occur; the negative aspect of both ought to be known as the basis of unhappiness because by the negative aspect unpleasant results occur.”

Perhaps the modern teachings dwell on the negative aspects of discursiveness because of the semantic connotations of the word rendered in English. Or perhaps it is a reflection of modern culture. It is entirely possible that people are quicker to embody the first definition of discursiveness than the second. However, other modern Western philosophers have mused over both natures, as the Abhidharma apparently does.

“Definitions of the term ‘discursive’ tend to divide into two apparently contradictory senses. On the one hand, the word describes speech or writing which is wandering and disorganized; on the other, it can also mean ‘explanatory’ – pointed, organized around a setting forth of material.

“These opposites are reconciled by the radical sense of motion over terrain; the word signifies going through or going over one’s subject. Whether digressively or directly, at a walk or at a run, the motion is on the ground and by foot, putting its weight part by part onto the terrain to be covered. Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” writes Robert Pinsky in his article “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness.”

This is the second time we have seen discursiveness listed as the opposite of intuition. It was also in the OED definition. Louis Arnaud Reid cites (“Intuition, Discursiveness, and Aesthetic Alchemy”) two definitions for intuition. “One – A.R. Laceys Dictionary of Philosophy – ‘Intuition. Generally a direct relation between the mind and some object, analogous to what common sense thinks is the relation between us and something we see unambiguously in a clear light.’ He adds: ‘The emphasis is on the directness of the relation…’ And the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘Immediate apprehension by the mind without reasoning; immediate apprehension by sense; immediate insight.’

So if intuition is the opposite of discursiveness and discursiveness is traditionally seen in a negative light, then intuition must be good, right? Here I believe, as Reid seems to, we begin to fall into a false dichotomy. He continues: “But there is no knowledge at all – it could not be knowledge – without the presence at some stage of Gnosis, intuition, direct seeing and grasping. This intuition is judgmental, involving a concept or concepts. …if it is true that all knowing and knowledge has an intuitional element, then of course discursive thinking must have it.”

For Reid, to intuit or immediately apprehend something is to immediately judge, categorize, label, and conceptualize. Since we do this to all things as a function of our linguistic nature, by that same nature even the most rational trains of thought involve intuition. Therefore, he warns “But it would be the greatest mistake to be led, by habits of usage, to suppose that what seems so, is so, or certainly that it is necessarily so.”

In essence, discursiveness is contradictory and, as such, both boon and hindrance. In opening my rational analysis of discursiveness with “I thought to myself that my mind is awfully discursive today. Then I wondered what that actually means,” I neatly defined the subject of my musing. It was discursiveness which lead me to wonder what discursiveness was (when I ought to have been doing something else entirely), and also discursive thought which led me to examine the very meaning of the word in a logical (I hope) manner (up 'til now).

I think discursiveness gets a bum rap in modern culture. It’s like The Force. “Is the dark side stronger?” Luke asked Yoda.

“No. No. Quicker, easier, more seductive,” Yoda responded.

“But how am I to know the good side from the bad?” Luke asks.

“You will know... when you are calm, at peace, passive.” In other words, perhaps we will know the difference between discursiveness and discursiveness when we are not discursive. That is, of course, if you believe the wisdom of a small green puppet who speaks in backward English.

But perhaps this is just as Reid notes: “The items in a train of argument must be intuitively seen as related, and when the argument is mastered it can be seen as a whole in a kind of synoptic intuition,” in which case, all is intuition and discursiveness just a fiction which allows us to believe there is a relation between green puppets and Buddhist scriptures. It is the conceptual thinking that can never directly experience reality. Or perhaps I am just supposing that is so. This could go on forever…