March 31, 2010

DN Column - Goodbye Cars Part 2 of 2

This was supposed to run next week, but as March is a month with five Wednesdays, we scheduled it to run today. All the same references apply, plus The New York Times coverage of the Times Square traffic shutdown, the folks at Park(ing) Day - Sept 17, 2010, folks!, the San Francisco Planning Department's Pavement to Parks project, Jason Peters on Front Porch Republic and his screed "Walk, Damnit!" and my friend and fellow opinionator Jake Meador for sharing it with me, the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, and, once again, thanks to friend and also fellow opinionator the great Joshua Loomis for rescuing my car.

Public transportation benefits residents, environment, more


March 30, 2010

DN Column - Goodbye Cars 1 of 2

Lots of research went into this two part column. (It's really one column that ended up being 2,400 words long.) I'm not going to link to every little thing, but the main sites. If you're interested, the data isn't too hard to find and sources are cited more specifically in the column. First there's the Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration and Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Then there's the Department of Energy and the Energy Information Administration. Add in the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Season to taste with the Texas Transportation Institute, the folk who make videos for Vote Vets, the Department of Defense, Walkscore, and Reconnecting American (the Center for Transit Oriented Development) and their report on neighborhood self-selection and transit behavior. Stir and bake in the back of your mind. Voila, a column! That's just part one. Read part two next week.

Stranded car proves liberating experience, helps break dependence on oil


March 28, 2010

Saying Something

The days when I write something good are the days I have something to say. The days when I write something bad are usually the days I have anything to say. The days I have nothing to say, I write nothing.

That phrase, “something to say,” seems wholly inadequate. It’s not that I want to speak in order to be heard so much as to write so that I myself might understand what it is I’m thinking about. Language is a vehicle. I’m getting in the car not because I want to go the grocery store, but because I want to have coffee in the morning. I write less to be read and more to manifest thought by “saying it aloud,” as we council young children to do when learning their letters.

Today, I thought to say “The world does not exist. I do not exist. You do not exist.” The world, I, and you are, after all, just words. They reflect concepts in my mind that likely do not greatly resemble the things they are supposed to signify. “The world” as I conceive it, is not the world as it exists. Nor am I; nor are you. Yet for all of that, I am writing about the fallibility of language using language. I cannot do otherwise.

I once came across a quote by Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.” (The New Statesman, 1933.)

It made me smile and I wondered, “What if I have no self? Then who do I write for?”

I understand Connolly’s meaning, but Buddhist irony compels the question. Mostly, I write for myself (certainly not the public, if the statistics of my blog are any indication). Yet I also write to escape myself and I write to define myself, both troublesome tendencies. To escape myself I work on any one of my half-dozen unfinished novels and occasionally law down the framework for a new one. To define myself is much simpler. For that, all I need to is write and instantaneously I am transformed. Voila, a writer!

Ah, just what I needed, another definition to cling to. And I do. Oh, how I do!

You see, the title of my chosen profession is proscribed. I cannot be an 'architect' of my own accord. It is a title that must be bestowed upon me by others who have judged my fitness to bear it through the creation of numerous flaming hoops and my willingness to play the toy poodle for their (surely not my own and rarely the public’s) benefit. The same holds true for 'professor' and, to a lesser extent, 'planner.' But as a 'writer' I can define myself in a way that requires no one else’s good graces. I have confirmed my existence independently. I am a writer, therefore I exist!

Now that I have defined myself this way, I constantly seek to reinforce that definition. I need to write and I need something about which to write. I am always on the lookout for something to say and always on guard against saying just anything for the sake of saying something. My facility with language is both my vehicle to understand the world and my great hindrance.

There was a poster hung in the shop when I worked at the mountain center. “You will never be able to reach a non-conceptual state by blocking conceptual thoughts. Take these very thoughts themselves as your object and focus right on them. Conceptual thoughts dissolve by themselves. When they clear away, a non-conceptual state will dawn.” (Wang-ch’ug dor-je, the 16th Karmapa.) I will never reach this state by writing about it, but I will continue to write.

Language is a tool, and for the social animal that we are, a necessity. The Buddha did not teach through silence. However, language can be abused, just a food support gluttony and a soft bed sloth, but to be aware of these possibilities and tread between starvation and excess, insomnia and idleness, is the Middle Way. Or so I’ve been told.

I know how I use writing for good, to seek greater understanding and explore the nature of (non)self, and for ill, to prop up my ego and seek acclaim. I must take care not only in what I say, but why I say it, and naturally how it is said. For although I may write mostly for myself, I do also write for others (thus, a public blog) and I must take care that in my own twisted wanderings I do not lead others too far down a wrong path. For this reason, I’ve always felt it best never to take myself too seriously (and have only occasionally sought to publish outside my blog, at least on matters of dharma) and hope others don’t either.

Saying something is better than saying anything and saying nothing may often be the wiser course.

March 23, 2010

Life Is Not

My last show finished, the heroine’s fate unknown as I popped the ear buds out. The late afternoon sun crossed the window I sat beside, onto the model I had spent the better part of the afternoon hunched over. I set my tools aside and rose carefully, ducking under the four foot high beam that bisects my workspace. It was time for daily hot chocolate.

I don’t go down to the vending machines in the afternoon to seek snacks, but to seek comfort. It’s not the calories I find comfort in, but the casual encounters and impromptu conversations that spring up as I make my was from the Attic to the lobby four stories below, through the main crossroads of the building, the Link. I walk past offices on my way back up, craning my head to find empty desks, but instead of returning to the Attic, I head down the grand Nineteenth Century staircase and out the formal, Roman-arched entry, into the Arts Quad on the west end of campus.

There are lots of people about at this time in the afternoon, mostly students. I find a place in the sun and stand sipping. I think of the letter I opened this morning from Cornell. At least they had the decency to spring for a stamp. I think of the winding paths crossing the quad and the people moving in every direction. The wind has shifted to the north and feels cold on the back of my neck, ruffling my too short hair I wish now I had never cut. The almost too-hot chocolate coats the inside of my sternum in pleasing pain on its way down. I look at the buds on the trees.

I think life is not a metaphor, turn around, and go back inside.

DN Column - Hawkeye & The Duke

We don't do it very often, but sometimes it's nice to write a column that is more of a life story than an opinion on an issue. This is partly based on an earlier post, inspired by a Speaking Of Faith podcast.

Silver screen role models shape real life character


March 19, 2010

Internet Idiot Compassion

People are trying to be nice to me. I don’t really appreciate it much. You’d think people trying to be encouraging and positive would be more welcome, but the methods being employed are the kind that create blame, feed delusions, and prop up the ego. Some Buddhist teachers have called this phenomena idiot compassion. (Not to say my friends are idiots, but we all have the ability to act that way sometimes.)

“University of DUMB!!! There are bigger and better things for you.”

“Meh, they're stupid anyway!”

“thats ok u dont need them they need you . its their lose. [sic]”

Maybe I’m just sad and taking out my bad mood on these friends who cared enough to send warm thoughts, but every time I read one of these comments I feel worse, not better. It doesn’t help to think the faculty at the schools I was so looking forward to attending are all idiots. Nor do I necessarily think it’s their loss. I’ve seen the profiles of the PhD students at these schools. They’re awesome people, with lots of great accomplishments, well traveled and well educated. I really can’t compare myself on paper to a lot of these folks. I’m confident in my own potential and intelligence, but I simply don’t have the accomplishments or experiences of some of these folks.

I’m not going to try to promote myself over them. I’d like to think the person who got the spot is better and more qualified than I am and they’ll make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given. The universities have a lot of experience sifting through these applications and choosing the right people. Design has the ability to make a positive impact on the world and I want our designers to be the best people for the job, not just the people who want it the most.

If I’m not admitted to any of these schools, that’ll be okay. I’ll be disappointed, but I can go out, get some work experience under my belt, and try again in a few years. It might even be in my best interest in the long run to do just that, which more than one professor has suggested.

There have also been some good remarks from my friends, things I take heart in.

“Well good that you are starting to hear back from some of the places that you've applied. I'm excited to hear what happens!”

“One door closes but keep an eye out for another opening. Just remember it might not look like a door at first. [smile]”

“Sorry girl; MIT is one of my dream schools - keep your chin up ;)”

My favorite so far, from my friend Lacey was beautiful in its brevity – “:(“ – like an emoticon haiku.

I have yet to hear back from Cornell and Penn. I always felt Cornell was a long shot. I’m trying to avoid pinning all my hopes on Penn. I have a notification from them saying I can log back into their application system at noon on Monday for my answer.

In the meantime, back to building this model.

March 17, 2010

Truth & Utility

A thing may sound true for one of two reasons: 1) it is true and 2) we want it to be true. These two reasons exist entirely independent of one another. I believe Buddhism is true. I also want Buddhism to be true. I want to believe I have the seeds of enlightenment, buddhanature within me. I find this very comforting.

I want to believe my suffering is solely within my own control and no other’s. If I am responsible for my own suffering, then there is no reason to be angry, to blame, or to hate. Anger, blame, and hate are themselves forms of suffering. Because I am not angry, do not blame, and will not hate, I suffer less. Because I suffer less if I believe I am responsible for my own suffering, I believe Buddhism is true. This is what I call the utility of belief. (I don’t know if there are other names for this in other people’s philosophy.)

It does not have to be so. In fact, I may be utterly incorrect.

Take the example of God. I cannot say for certain whether or not God exists, but I do not believe God exists. I could be wrong. However, I can see how belief in God could be comforting to another. To know that a being exists who loves you unconditionally, watches out for you constantly, and has a greater purpose for your life and the universe itself than you can discern can be of great value. It answers many questions which might otherwise plague us. Moreover, God is a basic mechanism for morality, helping ensure the more or less smooth functioning of society. Many argue that the fact that we exist at all, that good exists in the universe, is evidence of God. Nothing comes from nothing.

Although there is a utility to belief in God, this utility does not point to the truth of God anymore than the utility of belief in buddhanature points to buddhanature. There was a time when I wanted to believe in God. I envied the comfort others took in that belief, the sense of direction, the clear morality. However, in the end, I could not believe in God. I found something else to believe in – myself.

However, Buddhism also teaches the self as we perceive it does not exist. At first blush, this does not sound true. How could it possibly be? The self obviously exists. Descartes is irrefutable. And indeed, Buddhism does not say a self does not exist, only that the self is not what we believe it to be – solid, immutable, eternal, independent. Rather it is an interdependent aggregate of causes and conditions constantly reaffirming itself.

If I cannot believe in God, because nothing comes from nothing, including God, then I cannot believe in the solid self. All is subject to cause and condition, God and myself. All is interdependently co-arising. All is empty of inherent existence. This is the mechanism by which suffering ceases.

The root of suffering is found in the delusion of self. “I” suffer. If there is no longer an “I,” there is no longer something to suffer. To see that we are an aggregate of cause and condition is to be able to see the cause and condition of suffering – and to choose another path. This path is nondualistic.

“Form is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than Form. Form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness is exactly Form. The other four aggregates of human existence – feeling, thought, will, and consciousness – are also nothing more than emptiness,” says the Heart Sutra (Wikisource).

When dualism is removed suffering is nothing more than nirvana, nirvana is nothing more than suffering. Suffering is exactly nirvana and nirvana is exactly suffering.

“All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases. So, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no imagining. No plane of sight, no plane of thought. There is no ignorance, and no end to ignorance. There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to suffering. There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain.”

This may sound like nonsense, but it is no different than e = mc2. Energy is nothing more than matter and matter is nothing more than energy. Neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed; it can only change state. This is Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Heart Sutra is simply the Sanskrit version.

I am an aggregate of matter and energy. I am an aggregate of collections of matter and energy we label eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. I am also an aggregate of time, all the moments of my past (of all past) forming the causes and conditions which bring me to the present moment. This is not determinism, though it may be called karma.

Karma is action. It is cause and condition, as inexorable as a pebble rolling down hill. Karma is Newtonian. For every action there is a reaction. Objects in motion with remain in motion and objects at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Karma is the “acted on.” You and I and every living thing and every movement of nature and burning star and turning world are the “outside force.”

To believe in the present moment I have free will is to deny karma. It is to deny the aggregate, everything that has come before, all the cause and conditions. It is to affirm the “I” who has free will and in so doing deny buddhanature and the ability to be free from suffering.

However, to deny my freedom to act is also to deny my ability to be free from suffering. It is freedom itself in which our buddhanature is lodged. “There is free action, there is retribution, but I see no agent that passes out from one set of momentary elements into another one, except the connection of those elements.” These words are attributed to the Buddha. This is the Middle Way, which recognized both karma and freedom simultaneously.

Karma will embody itself is our habitual patterns. These patterns push us towards the familiar, towards suffering. All beings suffer. However, at some time in the past, the seeds of liberation were planted. The buddhanature, the fertile soil, is there, and when one hears the dharma, then one also accumulates the karma necessary to break from habitual patterns. Flowers bloom.

The Theravadans believe this process is slow and requires resolute intensity of effort. They dedicate their lives to steadfast morality so that someday their so-called positive karma my overcome beginning-less habitual patterns leading to suffering. The seek individual liberation from endless suffering.

The Vajrayana believe this process can come like a thunderbolt from the blue, awakening in a single moment, a brilliant end to ignorance and delusion, the roots of suffering. They cultivate techniques designed to bring about this thunderbolt within the short span of a single life.

The Mahayanists believe this process is interdependent – no one being can achieve an end to suffering. As we co-arise together so too does our suffering and our happiness co-arise. Our karma interacts, and the division between one being and another breaks down to the point of nonexistence. So they vow to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and upon it’s grace lead all beings to nirvana.

They are, none of them, wrong. But are they true?

Morality, cultivation of the mind, and care for others are all honorable, useful things. The beliefs on which they are based are therefore useful things. Yet one further thing Buddhism teaches – that all beliefs are false. Or rather, they are moot, fundamentally mistaken. These things I have discussed – suffering, buddhanature, God, the self, interdependence, emptiness, karma, The Middle Way – are part of the practice of Buddhism. They are to be understood as methods, not beliefs. Yet, as discussed, we are all products of our pasts and Western thought provides a language for what is and is not to be believed, so the troublesome word persists and perpetuates.

To believe is to be caught in the net of dualism, in “this, not that.” It is conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking can no more describe the nature of reality than one blind from birth can describe blue. “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon,” is the warning. Reality can only be experienced, not conceived. The Buddha demonstrated we are not blind, only asleep. Thus he was given the name “Buddha,” Awakened One, for he opened his eyes and saw for himself.

Ultimate truth cannot be taught; it must be realized. “Gone, Gone, gone beyond, Gone Completely Beyond. Praise to Awakening!” the Heart Sutra extols. So to know truth I must go, go, go beyond, go completely beyond, and in praise awaken.

Maybe tomorrow.

March 16, 2010

Second Stone

Exactly one hour and thirty minutes after being turned down by the University of Illinois, I was turned down by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


My Stone

I read the email, then read it again. “Get up, Monica. Get up,” I tell myself. “You have a thesis to finish.” It didn’t take long, less than a minute. I got up. I went and glued a few more pieces of my model, carefully fitting each and wiping the excess adhesive from the joints. I handled the basswood with care and intensity. I would not cry. I set it aside for the glue to dry.

People had been asking me for weeks if I’d had any news. I sat for a while with my cursor blinking in the empty white status box. It all came down to a simple statement, so in the end, that’s what I typed. “Monica was turned down by the University of Illinois.” A bald, impersonal fact. But it’s not impersonal, or so the sinking feeling in my stomach told me as I stared at the email header in my Inbox, refusing to open and read it yet again. It wouldn’t change.

I felt sure when applying that Illinois was my safe bet, a bet nonetheless, but with reasonably good odds. It’s a large public institution with the largest program and the most faculty of everywhere I applied. It doesn’t have the daunting reputation of the Ivy League schools. There were many faculty who I estimated would be interested in the research I proposed, not just one or two, as at other schools.

As the rock of Illinois sunk into the depths of my abdomen, it pulled down all the others with it. Even as I try to fish it out with logic and reason – I can’t take this as a personal affront; there are too many variables beyond my control to quantify: the other applicants, each professor’s workload and interests, diminishing availability of aid, etc.; this isn’t a prediction of the other universities’ decisions – it sits there in the dark. Only time will wear down stone. It may look solid, so heavy sitting there, immutable. It's not.

Meanwhile, the world goes on. This architectural model still needs building. This thesis still needs finishing. These degrees still need completing. It’s best to focus on what is in front of me and let the rest sort it out as it may. It’s out of my hands anyway. Isn’t that how people deal with death? “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Where reason won’t do, perhaps a bit of chivvying will help, a little ornery, a little stubborn. How egocentric to equate this with death. How silly, how trivial. It’s merely a rejection, and a politely worded one at that. I’ve handled many such before and I’ll handle many such again. I’ll survive. Yet I still grieve over the contents of that short email.

I could turn to optimism. Something better may be just around the corner. After all, every time I’ve ever left a job, a better one has been waiting. My life has always been on a upward trajectory, or so I tell myself.

I can remind myself of the dharma, suffering, samsara, attachment, desire. I grieve for this loss now because I wanted it so badly, and doubly so because I expected to get it. It’s better not to want and not to expect, or, not to be attached to the outcomes of those desires and expectations. It’s better to be free, to let go of suffering. That’s all I have to do; let go of this stone and watch it fall away.

My friends are there for me. I appreciate that. “University of IlliDUMB!!! There are bigger and better things for you,” one comments. It would be easy to lean on them. We could go out and get drunk together and I could sob into my seven-dollar martini. I’ve earned it, haven’t I? Look at all this hardship and disappointment I’ve been through! I could even blame Illinois, make them the bad guy. Yeah, they’re just a bunch of idiots. But then, why did I apply there in the first place? It would be easy, but not better, were it so simple. The truth is, I don’t think I’ve earned anything – not the right to be angry, not the seven-dollar martini, and certainly not admission to the University of Illinois Department of Urban and Regional Planning PhD program.

Yet, there’s still comfort to be found, earned or not. Like Linus reaching for his blanket, I reach for my computer, pulling up the London Symphony Orchestra playing the Star Wars Trilogy by John Williams. I open a blank document and I begin to type, pouring out into invisible one’s and zero’s little bits of stone, wearing away at the weight in my middle. After a bit, I’ll go down and get a hot chocolate. It comes from a vending machine, but I still like it. I’ll take a deep breath, sit down at my work table, and start gluing this model together again.

The one thing about this stone is it’s my stone, not the University of Illinois. They didn’t put it there and they can’t take it away. Nor can reason, chiding, optimism, dharma, friends, alcohol, anger, blame, or even John Williams.

I may not be able to let go of it just yet, but I can let go insisting it go away.

Facebook Is For Ranting

I've heard many people, particularly folks older than myself, dis social media. They think it's some sort of game, the ultimate time waster. I don't know how anyone who watched Obama sweep the 2008 election (no matter which way they voted) can think that. Some of the best conversations I have are on Facebook, often with my fellow opinionators from the paper. The groups I belong to, pages I follow, and what I choose to be a 'fan' of are all very selective and usually issues based. (Okay, being a fan of LEGOS and squirrels may be a little silly, but hey, I'm allowed.)

That being said, I couldn't prevent myself from the following rant when friends of a friend commented about health care reform. If the damn 'costs to much' argument wasn't likely to get me stirred up, the wanton patronizing of college age adults managed it.

"Zach is tired of seeing these 'Stop Obamacare in Wisconsin' ads put up by Mark Neumann, former Congressman and current Republican gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin. His ads are yet another example of the Republican healthcare plan: Die quickly." Two people liked this.

Andrew commented "How much is Obama's plan going to cost us, the tax payer? If it is not a good plan, why should the congress approve it?"

Zach commented "It is a good plan. And it will save you money. Premiums in the individual market: down 7-10%. Large group market: down 3%. That's with conservative estimates of cost controls like the excise tax on expensive insurance plans, bundling of Medicare payments, the phasing out of fee-for-service, etc. Moreover, the deficit is decreased by over 100 ... See morebillion dollars over the next ten years, and by over 600 billion dollars in the next twenty years. To solve America's deficit problem is to attack healthcare, the number one problem with our long-term deficit.

"Beyond that, the plan covers 31 million people, who won't walk into emergency rooms and receive free care passed on to the taxpayer--another savings. It cuts waste in Medicare: specifically reductions in overpayments to hospitals and private insurers (Medicare Part C), and examination of many mispriced Medicare procedures (imaging is one example).

"It prevents insurers from excluding on pre-existing conditions, or recissions on care. It prevents insurers from jacking rates up without due cause (like in California earlier this year) verified by the exchanges, a marketplace where people can buy health insurance in a similar manner to, say, car insurance, where you can compare quotes and services offered. In short, it's a good plan.

"Now, is it the best it could be? No, it could have much more cost control, but Congress doesn't have the stomach. It could have a public option, but the same rule applies. But it's a reshaping of a health care system that spends nearly double what other First World countries do."

Cherri commented "You sound well informed Zach...but have you ever had to handle insurance claims or manage your own health care? Health care definitely needs fixing but there has to be a compromise in there somewhere...I think starting with regulating/standardizing the costs of common procedures is a good place to start."

Then Monica (that's me) had to jump in with: "I have had to handle my own claims and manage my own health care. In 2004 I got a job with the university I am attending - not a student worker position an honest to God job with benefits in everything. Then when I saw the amount being taken out of my paycheck every month for health insurance, I got a second job, and eventually a third. (It cost more and provided less than the plan I'd had at the bank.) And when open enrollment came around again, I dropped the damned employer health insurance and got on the student plan for half the price (just to me, let alone what my employer had been paying). That being said, to a broke college student that $900 deductible (of the first plan) was just as insurmountable as no insurance at all. I skipped routine checkups, ignored doctor's advice, didn't fill prescriptions.

"The bottom line is - not having health insurance kills people. I was good friends with a 32 year old man who dropped dead of a heart attack. He hadn't been in for a physical in a decade. Why? No health insurance. He left a widow and kids behind. Emergency room care isn't good enough. There's no such thing as an emergency routine mammogram or cholesterol test.

"Zach is right about the costs. I've read the reports. But even if it cost twice as much, I'm not going to say my pocket book (or the whole damn nation's, in terms of the deficit) is more important than a person's life. We passed the military spending bills to fund the war on that very premise, to buy body armor and safer vehicles because money isn't worth our soldier lives. Why should it be worth our citizens? Because they're poor? Pah!

"Imagine the last time you went to the doctor about something, even something little and routine (you hope). Now imagine making that choice if you didn't have insurance, $100 dollars in the bank and still had to buy groceries for two weeks. Would you want Obamacare then?"

I didn't even get around to the fact that the Democrats have spent the last year trying to compromise the hell out of this bill. It's hard to compromise with a colleague who only knows one word. You can guess it.

Nor did I to mention cost controls or tort reform, which went the way of the dinosaurs early in the process. I don't know what they're all so afraid of. Nebraska has for a long time had limits on lawsuits and medical malpractice awards beyond incurred costs. There's a cap on pain and suffering that prevents multi-million dollar awards (beyond covering actual damages, even should those damages include lifelong care). As a result, insurance and health care in Nebraska is still reasonable (which is to say only mildly outrageous) compared to the rest of the country. Now if we could combine that with what Massachusetts has, and seems determined not to share, I think we could really get somewhere.

The longer this drags on, the more and more I think Republicans are just selfish, compassion-less, greedy, fearful, ignorant, lying, back-stabbing assholes who honestly don't care if poor people die (they might prefer it that way since poor people vote Democratic), and that's not a very productive way to think about one's fellow human beings. Not to mention, less than true. I know some very thoughtful, compassionate Republicans and conservatives. And my sympathy for the plight of the insurance companies has dwindled to the point where I wouldn't believe a thing they say. How can I make an informed opinion about what this bill will do to them when I can't tell the difference between wolf and truth? Plus I'm pissed off at the media for always framing the health care debate in a political argument. "What will this do for the Obama presidency? How will the Dems make out in November if they do/don't pass this?" Who the hell cares? I want to know if Sally down the street is going to be alive next year because she was able to get health insurance to cover the biopsy of that troublesome mole that may or may not be malignant melanoma before it spreads to her internal organs.

Am I the only one who has the unfulfillable urge to give the nation a collective smack upside the head?

March 14, 2010

Raise A Glass

I bought a small bottle of sake last week, about ten ounces (less than a can of pop), just to try the brand. I had sake when I was in Chicago in the middle of February, for the first time in a long time, probably since Marilyn died. It was Gekkeikan, warmed, and it was very good. However, I did not get the chance to savor it properly, or even finish it. Good sake, it seems, is wasted on your average college male. And some Germans.

I had ended up by chance out on the town with a group from Erhard’s studio, including Erhard himself. Most of the table ordered carafes of sake. For me that’s enough to last through appetizers, entre, desert, and several hours of good conversation. However, as the restaurant was rather expensive, the boys decided just to have a drink in the bar before moving on. (Apparently interest in the restaurant had been generated more by the unique, three-story glass façade, than the food or drink.) Having not had any dinner yet, I also ordered the chocolate hazelnut torte from the desert menu, which I shared around to table to much appreciation and wonder.

Many of the young men had never had sake before. Some appreciated it more than others. However, I fear they failed to learn there is a great deal of difference between sake and mere liquor, just like there is a great deal of difference between cake and torte. (Or perhaps I’m just a snob, but nevertheless.) In a half hour they were ready to go, their carafes empty. I quickly realized this wasn’t going to work out and as they headed north in search of a mythical burger joint on the river (over a mile away yet), I headed back towards the hotel, stopping to pick up a turkey sandwich on the way. (Apparently they later got drunk enough to vomit in front of their professor. Lucky them.)

When I returned to Lincoln, I determined to find a good source of sake. The only places I had it prior were at a few of the nicer Japanese restaurants in Omaha. With Marilyn. February 2, 2007, was the day she died.

So I went to Jake’s Cigars, which also carries a fine stock of bottles. That’s where I buy my whiskey. They didn’t have Gekkeikan, but I found a small bottle of Nigori Genshu the clerk recommended. It’s a little sweet to my taste, but a descent enough start. I’ve been drinking a little each night, as I know sake, like wine, doesn’t keep. Tonight I cautiously tasted the cloudy liquid, after swirling it thoughtfully in its bottle. It doesn’t go bad precisely, it just oxidizes and loses its flavor, becoming harsh and astringent. I poured it out, the remaining half of the bottle. A shame, yes, but it hadn’t cost too much. I might even be persuaded to buy their more expensive variety for the next get together I hold.

Instead tonight I returned to my staple, Bush Black, Irish whiskey from Bushmills. I drink it neat, and never too much, generally less than once a week (and usually in conjunction with a hot bath). I find the idea of ice or water in whiskey mildly offensive. (Though sometimes it is good in coffee on a particularly cold night.) If it doesn’t trigger one’s cough reflex on the swallow, it doesn’t qualify as whiskey. Even with that reflex, there’s something about whiskey I find unaccountably appealing. Marilyn preferred scotch, but as much as I could share her appreciation of sake, she was never able to impart her enjoyment of scotch or beer to me.

I think I had a very unorthodox education in alcohol. At the age of nineteen I found myself surrounded by a group of thirty and forty something people, all of whom had their own well developed predilections. (“A drinking club with a fencing problem.”) While I was never chided over my featherweight status and preferences for moderation, I was also never excluded due to my age or legal status. I was introduced to the finer intricacies of various beers, which I never developed a taste for having tried almost every kind, good Merlot, which I actively dislike, mead, which I actively enjoy, sake, scotch, Chianti, port, martinis and their various vodka bases, margaritas and frozen drinks, numerous sours and other mixed drinks, and any number of other red and white wines, as well as champagne. That long list being what it is, I spread my tasting strategy out over several years, so that by the time I came to UNL, alcohol had long since lost any excitement it might have held and instead earned the respect and appreciation it deserves (if it’s good).

I believe the current drinking age of twenty-one precludes the kind of educated introduction I had. Most nineteen-year-olds don’t have so many older, well educated friends. In fact, most of my classmates started drinking in high school on cheap beer, vodka, and Everclear. For them, alcohol was merely a quick means to a bad end – getting shit-faced drunk. They didn’t have the moderating influence of wiser, more experienced minds. Most teenagers are actually reasonable individuals. It’s when they travel in packs, as they tend to do both by inclination and design (i.e. high school), things get dicey. I was always surrounded by a number of people, many of whom did not drink, and I always had a safe ride home or spare bed to roll into should I need it.

It would be far wiser, and more mature for the nation as a whole, to return the drinking age to at least eighteen, if not sixteen. Make it legal. Bring teenagers out of the dark and into places where they can be kept safe. Allow them to drink in the company of their parents and older relatives and friends. Bad behavior naturally surrounds anything that is taboo, be it alcohol, raves, prostitution, or any number of illicit activities. The wiser minds needed to moderate such atmospheres would not be found in them in the first place because of their illegality.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I recognize I had a good introduction to alcohol, so I don’t see why others can’t. Because of that I now associate drinking not with getting drunk, but with good times with good friends. So I don’t drink to get drunk and I don’t use alcohol recklessly because I have not built that habitual pattern. I was actively encouraged not to build that pattern, even as my friends did offer me alcohol. The two are not mutually exclusive by any means.

So tonight I’ll raise my little glass of whiskey in thanks to Marilyn, Ian, Sue, Don, Jake, Noreen, Melissa, John, Dale, Andy, and all the others who ensured I would live long enough to learn to appreciate it.

March 10, 2010

The Attic

It is always dark in The Attic. Even at midday, light is reluctant to penetrate too far into the cavernous space. Great timber trusses break the long room apart, like angled stalactites and stalagmites. Just walking across the length of the space is a dangerous task, and unwary heads have paid the price. Where the great trusses meet the floor, some are bolted down with old iron bars, which protrude to catch the unwary ankle.

Between the great trusses are dozens of desks, some newer plastic desks one might expect in an office or a classroom, some the tall old drafting tables it still takes two strong young men to move. The young men are available in abundance, and a slightly smaller number of young women. The Attic is home to the sixth-year thesis students of the College of Architecture.

“Home” is meant in a literal sense. In December, at mid-year critiques, a good number of students were weeded from the ranks of the aspiring, sent back to serve the remainder of their sentences in vertical studio with those smart enough not to have attempted a thesis in the first place. Into the opened space the remaining students moved a couch that has been floating around Architecture Hall longer than most of them, bouncing from faculty office to studio to who-knows-where and finally ending up in the Attic, where it had to be lifted over the angled trusses as the path in the floor was too narrow to roll it through.

An old television and laptop cum DVD player appeared from somewhere. Three tacky paintings were rescued from various dumpsters, cut apart, nailed and glued back together and hung above the sofa on a truss (there being no actual walls in the Attic). A few loose filing drawers were herded together as end tables and a coffee table. Finally a number of the ubiquitous experimental chairs were rounded up and added to the mix.

It is a long standing challenge to architects and designers of all sorts to create a chair. It seems an odd task. If humanity hasn’t gotten the chair right in the last several thousand years, history seems to indicate a bunch of overworked students at a little known public university in Midwestern American are unlikely to make the critical breakthrough. Moreover, the inability of architects to design a comfortable chair is something of an ongoing joke, amply demonstrated by the number of iconic and infamously painful chairs dotting Architecture Hall’s many lounges and landings.

In any case, enough were available to create a living room of sorts and next to that all that was required for a bedroom was a magenta queen-sized air mattress. Most already keep a mat, blanket, sleeping bag, and/or pillow stashed in their space. The kitchen, of course, was the first thing installed at the beginning of the year, its sink, microwave, and dorm fridge supplemented by any number of individual coffee makers, hot pots, and additional refrigerators.

Each student then inhabits a space. They are provided with a standard desk, drafting table, and chair, which they may, and do, rearrange to their liking. They bring their own computers, monitors (usually multiple), printers, scanners, tools (power and hand), shelves, books, building materials, art supplies, food, utensils, toothbrushes, spare clothes, and the aforementioned bedding and appliances. It has also become the thing this year to hang a black sheet from the rafters to cordon off one’s own space into something even more cave-like. And, of course, no one ever turns on the lights.

There are two entries into The Attic, one at each end, both with a combination lock. The east door is at the bottom of a set of narrow stairs in the east gable dormer, one of the few sources of daylight. The door opens onto the third floor of Architecture Hall, otherwise known as Landscape and Planning territory. The west door opens onto the fourth level balcony of The Link, a modern atrium that connects the original portion of Architecture Hall to the Old College of Law. While The Attic is technically the fourth level (east), The Link actually has eight levels, as the east and west sides of the building are each on slightly different elevations, thus creating yet another nickname for Architecture Hall as “The Building of a Thousand Steps.”

Students start in The Barn, the fourth level on the west side, where they have to share desks. If they survive the first two years and pass the application process into the third year, they are relegated to the lowest level of The Stacks. The Stacks are a cramped, older addition on the north side of the Old College of Law that began life literally as the stacks of the law library. After the 1967 coup d’état (a much more interesting description for Law’s decision to move to East Campus in search of more space) that saw the building transferred into the hands of Architecture, The Stacks were turned into dedicated studio space for the architecture program. As a student advances each year, they also move up The Stacks. In the sixth year they may choose to finish their degree with two more ‘vertical’ (combined fifth and sixth year) studios or try their luck at a terminal project, known in other colleges as a thesis.

An architecture thesis has very little in common with those of another college. For one thing, it is not a research but a design project. The output is primarily a design board and physical or, lately, computer model. While at the end of the process, passing thesis students will compile their work into a bound volume for the appeasement of academic sensibilities, none really look on that as the culmination of their scholastic career.

No, that culmination comes at Final Crit. Architecture students live, or die, at crit, otherwise known as formal critique. Students pin up their work and before their peers submit to the public review and criticism of the faculty. Ostensibly, other students are also encouraged to speak up and provide feedback, but this is generally seen as an unwise move. Only those few graced with the title of “TA” or the random thesis student specifically invited to an undergraduate critique would even dare. It is well known that the crit, in fact, is the place for the faculty to shine, not the student.

Any crit one can walk away from without crying is a good crit (and a few tearful ones as well, so long as a passing grade is obtained). Architecture students are encouraged, no, demanded to think in big ideas, concepts, forms, meanings, movements, and schemes. These big ideas are then ripped and torn into itty-bitty fluttering pieces and sent scattering to the wind long before they can escape into the real world and do harm to anything besides one’s ego. It is an oft repeated process and though some never really seem to grow a “thick skin” they do at least learn how to fake confidence very well. If a scant few actually posses this rarest of qualities, it can be difficult to tell, and harder still to discern if that confidence is earned from honest capability or merely born from arrogance.

In any event, if thesis students are not in crit, formal or informal, or class they are invariably holed up in The Attic, where the frantic clicking of mice resembles the compulsive counting of an obsessive in a tile shop. Snoring may be emanating from some dark corner or another and faint strains of music escape dozens of pairs of headphones. Desk lamps glow like stars against the dark of space, as the overhead lights simply appear too much bother to turn on. It is possible thesis students prefer the dark so as to baffle any natural circadian rhythm they may still possess, causing it to whither like a houseplant kept in the closet.

The Attic, like the rest of Architecture Hall, is never unoccupied, even during winter break when the building heat is turned off during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Faculty are as workaholic as the students, encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle from day one. No one ever really chooses architecture. It comes as a default setting. Those who spend their lives in this world do so because they simply can’t not.

The people here are the ones who started drawing building plans in notebooks at the age of six and owned fifty gallons worth of LEGOS by the time they were ten. There may have been childhood dreams of being a ballerina or a basketball player or a paleontologist, but nothing ever rang true the way “architect” did. So when it came time to go off to university, they found themselves here, in Architecture Hall. Little did they know when they arrived that they would be living here.

Architecture students, and architects to some degree, spend their hours (waking or sleeping) in places like The Attic. They may travel widely, visit Europe and Asia, spend a semester in Germany (hunched over a schreibtisch in an atelier). But in terms of day to day living they seem to do very little of it, something the rest of the university (the student body, at least) is well aware of. To share your dorm with an architecture student is to have a single. To be an architecture student is to live tucked away in some dark corner never actually intended for human habitation. Places like The Stacks or The Attic are the norm for studios the world over.

There is no end to irony in the fact that those who spend their lives designing the world so infrequently get out to see it.

March 09, 2010

The Myth

A few nights ago I dreamed I was admitted to both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois doctoral planning programs. I hope I am prescient. However, I have a feeling the dream was merely a sleeping manifestation of a daytime fantasy. I am a planner. I love to plan. I design my future life from the classes I’ll take to the way I’ll arrange the furniture in the apartment I have yet to find to how I’ll make great new friends in whatever city I land in. It is, of course, all fictitious, and I try not to spend too much time on it.

Yet even as I remind myself I’ve miles to go yet before I rest, and six classes to pass (including my three incompletes) yet before I graduate, I find myself consistently coming back to the myth. It’s like the mind wandering during meditation then being noticed and brought back to the breath. My mind wanders from the work it should be focused on and must be reined in. Usually the mind wanders to many things – lunch, something someone said, my next column, a nearing due date, the rain – but lately it has been returning to this one thing over and over again, like a dog worrying a bone.

At this point, I’m not just moving. I’m remaking my entire life. I think about the clothes in my closet and what I’ll leave behind and what I’ll replace it with, a new look. I think about starting to search for a sangha in earnest and what denominations I’ll find, a new practice. I think about greener pastures, finally putting myself out there, and what men I’ll date, a new relationship. I think about finding a new exercise regime, what classes or sports I’ll take up, a new body. I think about the great professors I’ll find and what subjects I’ll study, a new mind. The myth just grows in the telling, even though I keep trying to stop telling it.

It is probably a good thing I do not know where I’m going yet. I can’t actually do much. There’s no use shopping for housing online. I haven’t been too ambitious about putting my own place up for rent or sale. I don’t know where I’ll find a summer job yet, as those applications are likewise unanswered. It’s too early to start packing up my books; I might still need them. So I just tug on the reins, give a gentle “Whoa!” and return to the task at hand.

The myth still grows regardless. It is an addiction now even pervading my sleep. My dreams reflect my desires or my stresses, which are really just desires to escape the things that trouble me. However, usually, the object of desire either remains out of reach or comes in an unexpected form.

This time the dream was simple. I was admitted. I made plans to visit the University of Illinois as I’d already been to Philadelphia, and started sending out housing inquiries to both places and packing up my stuff. It was all very mundane, but it made me very happy. There was a sense of contentment in the dream, of accomplishment, satisfaction, but no great excitement. It was stable pervasive happiness, not momentary jubilation that leaves exhaustion and frantic preparation in its wake. I was not suddenly transformed into a newly beautiful, vivacious person, like someone on one of those makeover shows. I was still me. I still had my old, comfy, warm clothes, and my single woman’s independent mindset.

As much as the part of my mind which is subject to momentary boredom finds the myth so appealing, the deeper part of my nature understands this is just one more step in the path – a step, in the end, I may or may not take and may be happy with or without.

DN Column - Efficiency is More than Half the Battle

Lot's of sources for this one. Thanks to Fox for making it so easy (and too tempting for my own good) to refute the critics. Thanks to the EIA (specifically their electricity and environment sections) for providing the data necessary for the math. The idea came from yet another report on the subject brought to my attention by the folks over at Grist and for links to the McKinsey report. Finally, Climate Progress for links to the Northwest Power report. I'm sure there are others, but I've forgotten them already. Anyway, just remember, this blog is made of 0's and 1's, so please do your best to use less binary code. It's up to us to act for efficiency!

Small changes could make big strides toward energy efficiency


March 07, 2010

Barefoot Buddhist

Oops! It’s happened again. I’ve acquired another label. It was there on the cover of Buddhadharma, sitting on the front of the newsstand at Barnes & Nobel. “Going It Alone: Helpful Advice for Unaffiliated Buddhists.” Well, I guess if the shoe fits…

I’ll own up. I’m an unaffiliated Buddhist, though not for lack of trying. I’ve dipped my toes into more than one pair of shoes in the past years, including spending several months in the sandals of a Shambhala Buddhist. Yet in the end, I’ve reacted to all these pairs much as I did to real shoes as a child, by flinging them off to go running around barefoot. Nothing always fit better than something, anything else.

My mother always told me I would cut up my feet doing that. I am still conscious of her warnings. Practicing alone seems to include a certain amount of risk. There is a real possibility of badly misunderstanding the teachings, of building up ideas and habits of thinking that are more of a hindrance than a help. The path may fade and I may find myself wandering in the wilderness.

Well, I never heeded my mother when I was little (at least, not about shoes), and I still managed not to come to harm. I assume she feared some random shard of glass would pierce my sole, drag in dirt and become infected, proceed to gangrene, and they’d have to amputate. I suppose in a way I did amputate something, but it wasn’t my foot. It was the Christian church when I was fifteen. At that time I certainly wasn’t unaffiliated and had more “guidance” than I knew what to do with.

That is no doubt part of my lack of affiliation now. I tell myself I have nothing against any of the organized Buddhist denominations; I just haven’t found the right fit just yet. But how egocentric is that? To believe that religion should mold itself into a perfect fit for me, like the perfect pair of shoes. (And how often do we really find those?)

But you know, the Zennies are just too hard core. They insist on sitting so, so perfectly still, and getting wacked with sticks. And the Shambhalians are just a little bit too mystical and follower-like. A king? Are you kidding me? This is America. And the Jewel Heart people, well they’re nice, but their rinpoche is in Ann Arbor and I’ve never met him. How do I know these folks aren’t full of crap?

Of course, I can see the benefits of all these practices, stilling the body, revering a teacher, practicing where you can with what you have. Yet I remain unconvinced, still searching for my Yoda. (Who, if I recall was a reluctant teacher to a reluctant student.) I watch the forms, rituals, and costumes like an anthropologist on the outside looking in. The trappings have a purpose, certainly, I’ll concede, but they are still just trappings, and because I see them as such, I don’t need them. I’ve seen through them.

Plus, I have this romantic notion of doing it all on my own, the way the Buddha did. Or actually, didn’t quite. The Buddha studied with many teachers, kept many companions on his quest, learned from many people, and was helped and supported by generous folk, before wandering off to sit under that tree.

I think I’m full of shit. I really do. I can concede there are several perfectly good reasons to wear shoes and then just walk around barefoot anyway? I expect some magical resonance, the perfect fit, before I’ll commit? I think I’m superwoman? Please.

I can’t even claim inconvenience as a legitimate excuse. The Lotus Zen people are nearby, utterly friendly, and have several meetings each week I could easily make. And I haven’t had a class to conflict with the Thursday night Jewel Heart meetings since December.

In considering this, I have come to only one conclusion (other than I’ve full of shit, which we already knew): commitment breeds expectation and I’m just not ready for that. I have enough expectation in my life. Professors expect and bosses expect and family expects and friends expect and coworkers expect and classmate expects and even my cat expects. I really don’t need anyone to expect anything else from me right now, even if it’s just showing up. And in this twisted little mind-game, it doesn’t even matter if they really expect anything or not. I expect for them.

If there is one thing I’ve learned this year, it is the freedom and comfort that comes from shedding expectations. I no longer expect myself to cook, like a good little vegetarian tree hugger should. This is a great relief. I don’t expect myself to take on responsibility for student organizations. I don't feel overburdened. These are all exterior changes though, things I stopped doing. So many other expectations live inside my head. I can continue to try to let go of them on my own, or I can do it within the support of a sangha, one to which it may be helpful to commit myself. I am certain of this – things change. So I’m not too worried, yet.

The great thing about shoes is you can own more than one pair, or choose to forego them all and walk barefoot in the rain.

March 02, 2010

Go There, See This

The most beautiful thing I've found in a long time.

DN Column - Goodbye Twelfth Grade

A tale of woe, with a little bit of light in the tunnel. Plus, I was gonna write about wind energy, but the rest of the opinion writers thought this sounded more interesting. This subject has been covered in several articles recently by the New York Times.

12th grade wastes time, money for most students