Archive for June, 2013

Second Lap

Let your heart journey in simplicity
be one with that which is beyond definition
let things be what they are
have no personal opinions
this is how everything under heaven is ruled
-Daoist Prayer

[a note on the use of the word “God” in this piece. I could say Dao, gods, Pan, spirit, divine consciousness, etc. etc. And I do use all those words, at different times, in my own conscience. But when it comes down to it… have you ever seen the movie ‘The Great Escape’? Early in the film there’s a U.S. spy speaking German with some Nazis, pretending he’s one of them. Everything’s going groovy until out of nowhere one of the Nazi soldier smashes him in the head. It seems quite arbitrary, but it’s a test: The American spy yells ‘shit!’ – IN ENGLISH… revealing his true identity. When you get hit in the head, you swear in your mother tongue. Same thing with religion (and now I’m drawing from a conversation I had with a regular at my cafe who used to teach religious studies at Loyola who told me about his theory that the religious tradition we’re raised in acts similar to our first language). When life hits you over the head your shout of pain is in your mother-religion. When shit hits the fan, I don’t yell, ‘O Dao’ even though I agree with the ideas of Daoism much more than I do with Christianity. When someone dies or my world crumbles beneath me I shout, ‘God!’]

These days, I pray. Haven’t always. Like most people, somewhere along the way I gave up on God. I remember when. It was the time He failed to fix my broken leg.

I was in fifth grade when I started running cross-country. Then in sixth grade, I poured myself into it, and had some success. After a race at the Junior Olympics, somebody offered to train me. Mr. M, we’ll call him. Mr. M promised me that if I followed his training regimen, I’d be great. A state champion.

The program required me to run forty miles a week, split into six days of workouts. Day 1: Long run, seven to eight miles. Day 2: Two mile warm-up followed by ‘intervals’, 8×400 meters, with minute rest in between. Mile cool-down. Day 3: Five mile run, followed by sprints. Day 4: More intervals, this time 8×200 meters, including three miles of warm up and cool down. Day 5: Tempo-run, 30 minutes fast. Day 6: Intervals again, this time a combination of 200, 400, and 800 meters with minute to two minute rest between. Day 7: Off. Day 1: Long run, seven to eight miles… and so on… all summer.

When fall came it was time to start seventh grade and run cross-country at my middle school. But we wanted to keep up the regimen, so on orders from Mr. M I went to the teacher/coach requesting that I do my own training outside of school, joining the rest of the team for races only. Not surprisingly (but I was surprised and upset at the time) my coach said ‘No’. What did I do? Give up practicing with Mr. M and run with my team? Decide to be a runner amongst runners, a seventh grader amongst seventh graders? No. I decided to run both practices.

I would run my regular cross-country practice with my teammates. Then, my mom would pick me up from school and drive me to Mr. M’s for a second practice. It went like this the whole season, me running ten workouts a week, until one day- three weeks before the state championship- my shin began to feel tender. It hurt bad enough that I couldn’t walk. We went to see a doctor. He asked if it hurt as he pressed on my shin and I winced. He took an X-ray. Something showed up. Stress fracture. Broke a bone from running too much.

This is where God comes in. Or rather, He didn’t.

At the time, I ardently believed in God. I prayed, prayed and I prayed for God to intervene, to heal my leg in time for the state championship. You can probably guess what happened. Nothing. My leg remained broken; I was unable to run the race, much less win. I lost my faith, disappointed in God for failing to meet my demands.

Recently I told this story to a friend and he said, ‘Maybe God did intervene- by getting you away from Mr. M’. Maybe. But odds are the raw physics of the situation: I was a growing boy running long distance twice a day. You throw an egg against a cement wall, the egg’s going to break every time.

Sparing the details… I pray now, but not like I used to. My idea of God has changed. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free-god. I don’t pray asking God to fix my problems. Usually it’s on a very tiny scale like, ‘What should I do next?’ Or, ‘Do you see the crazy shit I’m seeing?’ Or, ‘Come with me’. Other times I just need somebody to say ‘Thank you’ to.

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James Dean, Robespierre, and Buddha walk into a Bar…

The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel worked tirelessly to show the inherent limitations of something he called absolute freedom. Absolute freedom is the license to be free from any and every external limitation, for example, the laws of government, the mores of society and the demands of others. The problem with this, contends Hegel, is that little word, from. If I am free from something, then my freedom is defined in opposition to that something; my freedom is a ‘negation’ of that something. Thus, says Hegel, absolute freedom- to be free from any limitations- is essentially negative freedom.

Let’s talk English. Say you have a teenager. The teenager wants to do certain things that you do not allow. Smoke weed, stay out past curfew, etc. “Not under my roof” The teenager experiences your law as a hindrance to her freedom. What does she do? She breaks the rules. And by breaking the rules she experiences freedom- freedom from you, the external limitation. We have, ladies and gentleman, a rebel. A rebel does exactly as she wishes. She is absolutely free. But it is still a negative freedom. Why?

Because what happens when our little rebel moves out? She was defining herself in relation to her parent, the enemy. But without that external element she lacks any real motive. She’s now free to do whatever she wants- but all of a sudden realizes she doesn’t know what she wants. We now have (say it with me) a Rebel Without a Cause. AKA Negative Freedom.

Depicted wonderfully by James Dean. The angst he displays on screen is the angst of somebody experiencing negative freedom. The result? Tragedy. Not one but two meaningless deaths.

Hegel saw the French Revolution the exact same way (yes, I’m comparing the two). The revolutionaries wanted everything and the kitchen sink out the window: the king, the church, the aristocracy, the church, even the Gregorian Calendar. They wanted to be absolutely free from any limitation in order to set up an ideal society, free from everything they believed was fucking it up before. Well, they got rid of all these things, even the calendar, beginning again with year zero. After they did they looked around asking, What next?

Like James Dean, they didn’t have a clue. They started killing each other. “We need to be free from counter-revolutionaries”. The revolution turned in on itself (it became an involution). Why, O Why?

It was inevitable, says Hegel, because from the beginning the revolution defined itself in the negative, in opposition to other forces. At his most poetic, Hegel describes the end result: a human head, removed as easily as “a head of cabbage”. A meaningless death, just like James Dean’s.

By now you might be asking, well what the hell is the alternative? You probably guessed it, positive freedom. Which is? … Again it comes down to a single word. ‘Positive freedom’ is the freedom to. Two letters. T-O. To do what? Freedom to… love, paint a picture, go fishing, fulfill yourself, etc. Quite the rosy picture, right?

Wrong. Ultimately, where Hegel is headed that true positive freedom is the freedom to follow the law. In four words: the freedom to submit. “Free to submit” sounds like a paradox, if not a contradiction. But let’s return to the teenager example.

What if the teenager worked with her parents to reach some sort of compromise? She wouldn’t smoke weed but could stay out late, etc. For this to happen both sides have to give up something, neither side gets to be ‘the master’. The result? Our teenager now feels that she has a part in the rules she must follow, and freely chooses to do so. This, says Hegel, is called Reconciliation. In the German, Versöhnung. We’ll come back to this crucial term… but for now…

If you smell in the phrase “free to submit” something proto-fascist, you may be right. While Hegel’s philosophy definitely did not cause the rise of Hitler, you can correlate the two. Hegel’s logic does not give the individual absolute freedom from the group. The particular is “liquidated” in the universal.

It’s not that the individual can’t rebel, it’s that in an ideal society there would be no need to rebel. You would not feel alienated from the law. Still, I think most of us have a gut reaction against any law, be it taxes or speed limits or social norms. But look at it this way: you need rules in order to play the game. In chess, if a rook could move diagonally, or as many spaces as the player wills it, then chess would cease to be possible. Same in society. There are certain rules we must follow.

Now, you may still not be convinced. You may still hold that true freedom is to be free from restrictions put upon you by other imperfect and self-seeking humans. “Fine” says Hegel “human law is just one level of my argument. I’m also talking about divine law”. That is, nature.

There are certain limitations put on us by nature. We can’t breathe under water. We can’t fly. Of course, being humans, we find ways around these laws, and invent ways to be free of them (scuba gear, the aeroplane). Some laws, however, cannot be broken. They are the big three: sickness, old age, and death. (what Buddha called the divine messengers, for their all-too-truthfulness) No matter what you do to prevent these from happening, they will. You, I, we cannot be free from them. Negative freedom, finally, has met its match.

Does this mean we should smoke cigarettes etc. to get sick, age quicker and die? No, I don’t think positive freedom makes sense here. What does make sense is that word we came to above- reconciliation, Versöhnung, or its closest synonym: atonement. At-one-ment. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from)

Can I reconcile myself to sickness, old age and death? Can I be at-one with the cosmos that demands my eventual dissolution? Sure. I can be at peace with it, accept it. But as soon as I do or shortly after I’m still here, alive and healthy and disturbed again by the specter of death.

So I must keep reconciling myself to the laws of nature that allow me to play the game.

This is hard, because so long as we’re not dead, we have to keep doing it again and again. Hegel said the same thing about history. Again and again, there is tragedy, loss, nihilism. But at each stage there is some sort of reconciliation, whereby the mistakes of the past are incorporated and surpassed. Are forgiven.

That’s our personal history, a clash of forces, an experience overflowing with struggle and resolution. One day at a time.

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Dad

I was maybe ten years old driving in the car with my dad. On the dashboard was a button that said “AC”. I asked him what it was. Looking concerned, confused and curious, he said he did not know. “Press it” he said. I did. And when I did I jumped because the car horn honked. He looked surprised, too, and even more worried. Tentatively, I reached my finger and pressed AC again. Honk. I pressed it three quick times. Honk. Honk. Honk. My dad asked me what was wrong. I asked him if it was supposed to do that. He said he didn’t know, but probably not, maybe the car was miswired. After a while, I pressed the AC button again, this time holding it down for half a minute. The whole time the car horn wailed. I grew more and more confused until my dad told me to look, motioning toward his hands. One hand was on the wheel, the other was discreetly braced against the car horn. He told me to press the air conditioning button one more time and when I did, he honked the horn.

Once in 4th grade there was to be a boat racing competition. Our assignment was to go home and build a small boat, which would then be put in a small pool of water with everybody else’s and be blown by a fan to the finish line. I enlisted my dad’s help. First we made a design. Then we went into his woodshop and cut all the pieces, sanded them and glued them together. After that we spray painted it gold. The final design had a rudder and a mast, to which we attached a sail made of linen. On the day of the race I set our boat in the water and it sunk. I said to the teacher that we needed the fan to be on for it to work. Cooperating, she turned on the fan but still our boat sank as soon as I took my hands off it. Didn’t even make it out of the gates. The winner ended up being this one girl whose boat was just a big chunk of styrofoam.

When I played little league baseball, a few seasons my dad was the coach. Most kids, I think, liked playing for him. For one, he played every kid nearly equally, something other coaches did not do (instead giving the best players the most time). He was also goofy; he told us to steal an inordinate amount of time- sometimes even before the pitcher threw the ball- just to screw with the other team’s heads. It was also fun because he’d stress that every player had something to do every play no matter what. If the ball was hit to right field, the center fielder had to run to back up the short stop and the left fielder had to back up the center fielder while simultaneously keeping an eye on third base in case something went wrong, etc. He never favored me because I was his son. In fact, I might have gotten the short end of the stick because I was his son. I don’t remember if that made me angry, then, but it makes me proud now.

I remember watching a football game on TV with my hockey team and everyone’s dads. Other dads were making misogynistic remarks about the cheerleaders, and I felt ashamed that my dad wasn’t, too. I thought he wasn’t masculine or something. Holy shit was I wrong.

The other day I was at my friends and he was complaining that his dryer was leaking gas, that he smelled it. They asked a girl we were with, because she was slender, to squeeze back there and take a look. She tried, but became claustrophobic, so quit. I said I’d try. They said I wouldn’t fit. I wedged myself in there between the dryer and the wall (it was one big unit, a washer and dryer taller than me) and slammed the dryer against the opposite wall hurling myself to the back. It’s the kind of maneuver that either works or ends terribly, reliant entirely on raw will power. Learned it from my dad (it worked)

My dad grew up on the south side of Milwaukee. As soon as he graduated highschool he was basically on his own. In a short time he found a wife, a career, and began a family. By the time he was my age now (24) he had a kid and soon another on the way. My experience seems a lot different. After high school, I had my parents pay for my education at a private university where I studied philosophy. Then I went on a long trip, ending with me moving back in with my parents. Now I am employed, practically self-sufficient, but rather than change diapers I take long strolls sipping tea, writing, and otherwise satisfy myself. I can’t imagine having two kids, now. But I can, on the condition that my current life- as I know it- ends.

Sometimes when I say a joke at work totally dead pan like ‘I didn’t know the Beatles were from England’ and stare at my coworkers in disbelief, I feel like my dad. When I break the act with laughter I feel like my dad. That’s good. Sometimes I don’t even think it’s me, but him. And it’s not even him, but his dad. Puts less pressure on you, cus you’re not you.

I’ve had several father-figures, whenever I entered a world my dad had never been. First it was hockey, then running, then philosophy. In each case I found men I thought superior to my own dad, because they were familiar with a world he was not. And each time these role models proved vacuous or worse. I’m learning late in the game that I’ve had a solid example before me my whole life. Especially as an example of humility and acceptance. I used to avoid these like they were herpes or something.

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Lessons

I’ve had a lot of teachers in my life. I may not be in contact with them all but they continue to impact me.

For example, as I was walking out of the apartment my roommate handed me a book entitled ‘The Universe’ and asked me to throw it away because it had fallen into the fish tank and was ruined. It was a huge coffee table book with pictures of nebulae leaping into the air and galaxies spinning through the cosmos like Frisbees. It was awesome, in the true sense of the word.

As I walked down the steps toward the dumpster, I had a vision of myself running down the street ripping out page after page handing them to people shouting “This is the universe! This is the universe!”

Instead, with a sigh, I chucked it into the garbage. My mind went to a memory of a teacher I once met who had crazy wisdom. On the surface he was mad. But I could see in the light of his eyes that he knew what he was doing. He would have followed through on the vision, despite what people would have thought.

Example number two. I arrived in Philadelphia by train. I was walking into town and saw a group of people gathered around a figure. As I got closer I saw the figure was a man in the most uncanny position. His forehead was planted on the concrete. His legs were half bent. He balanced like a tripod. Unconscious. Stiff. Turning red, deep purple, blue…

As others had their cellphones out wondering if they should call for help, I had a vision of me putting my hand on the man’s neck to see if he was alive and then laying him out on the ground to  give him some air or at least an honorable death while giving a direct order to the person next to me to call 911 now. Instead, looking at his bulging muscles and afraid that if he came-to he’d attack me, I slinked away.

My mind went to a memory of a teacher I once met who knew that death is part of life . He wouldn’t have been weirded out by rigor mortis, but would have handled the body humanely.

I was wrong. That’s all I’m here to say, today.
But I don’t mean to say my teachers were supermen, that I need to become them.
I’m here to thank them for showing me another way of being, and to say that I’ll do my best to act on my own vision, next time.

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Beauty’s not decoration, it’s salvation


[This link (http://dharmapunxnyc.podbean.com/2013/05/27/brigthening-the-negative-mind/) takes you to a short talk given by Josh Korda, a practicing Buddhist based in New York. The gist is this: your brain was designed to be scared as hell in order to survive; however, because we’re the dominant species, we don’t need to be scared as hell, anymore. He also shares techniques for how to harness the positive in life. Basically, savor good experiences- because your brain is programed to forget them, and remember the miserable…]

 

This weekend I went to visit cousins in the suburbs. After dinner, I felt sluggish, so I decided to go on a walk.

Weird. What’s he doing- smoking a cigarette?

Nobody said that, but I could tell they thought a stroll- at night- was unusual. My little cousin asked if she could come along with her two friends. I said sure. She said that I have to protect them.

From what? There was sporadic rain fall, lightning. It was dark but there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. The unknown, I guess. They kept saying somebody was going to call the cops on us.

I cringed at that: the hostile quality of the suburbs that pounces on anything outlandish. Something strange like a walk. I kept those thoughts to myself, pointing out an especially beautiful looking tree to my cousin and her friends, instead. Its shape was an expansive sphere, emanating from the core. For a minute we stood with the tree.

We were walking down the middle of the road. When the intermittent car came, we moved to the edge of the way. We had a dog with us.  An old, fluffy white dog. It hadn’t a leash, running into yards to sniff and piss. We came to a cross-roads and kept going straight in order to make a big circle back home.

The dog dawdled way behind, when a car came around the bend. I jogged back and signaled to the car to stop so it wouldn’t hit the dog. Then I beckoned the dog off the road, but it wouldn’t budge. The minivan’s spotlights made it hard to see; its anxious engine changed frequencies.

The dog had a collar. I tried to grab it and bring it to the curb but it nipped me. That was strange- did it really try to bite me? I thought I’d be decisive and pick up the dog and carry it out of the way. I scooped its torso but it snarled and scraped my hand, threatening to bite harder. What the fuck.

A woman shouted from the car, “Is that your dog?” I replied, “It’s my cousin’s. It’s unfamiliar with me. Hold on.” I tried to move the dog again but the woman interrupted, with naked anger, “It’s not your dog!?” I tried to be precise in my response. “It’s our dog. But I’m visiting. It doesn’t know me that well so it won’t let me pick it up”. Now the woman yelled with even more anger, “What are you doing here!?”

My fight-or-flight kicked, minus the flight. I drew in a deep breath to say who the Fuck do you think you are to speak to me like that, I’m trying to get this dog out of your goddamned way so how bout you display a morsel of compassion and quit encapsulating all that is fucked with the suburbs in front of these little girls… but did not. Instead, I had the micro-realization that it wasn’t worth justifying myself to this woman, just as it wasn’t worth getting into a fight. I stood in silence. Then- Thank God- my cousin’s friend called the dog, it ran off the road, and the minivan tore past.

“Why was she so angry?” asked one of the girls. “She’s going to call the cops” said another. I didn’t know what to say. I was fuming, because I felt shame for not giving back the hostility the woman threw my way. As I steeped in remorse, anger, and self-pity, my cousin said, “Ben, you said you were going to protect us”.

Like a bolt of lightning I heard what she meant- that I was supposed to prevent encounters with threatening strangers- but interpreted it like this: I did protect them- from myself. My shadow self would’ve loved to shout vicious in self-righteous wrath at the woman in the minivan instead of swallowing my pride and letting it go. If I did that, I’d have given the girls just one more example of unnecessary anger and impatience. I quit my brooding and returned to the magic of the walk.

As we circled back to the house we saw a group of men sitting inside their garage around a table and a few bottles of whiskey. One of the girls said Hi, and one of the men regurgitated a few syllables that meant nothing. We walked on. Again, one of the girls said somebody was going to call the cops on us.

“Maybe we should call the cops on somebody- for being inside”, I said. That was a strange and cryptic thing to say to little women, and didn’t need to be said. What I was trying to get across to them was that where they lived wasn’t normal- despite its love of normalcy. Resentment. Hard to let go of. Even now.

Then, for the second time, my little cousin interrupted my pouting. “Ben, look at that tree!” The tree was old, immense. Its skin looked cut by a giant. The branches twisted this way and that, signaling they’d been through hell on their way up to heaven. The Ancient Tree made everything around it- other trees, homes, us- seem young and naive. “Good work, Linz.”

 

[I left that weekend remembering of the walk only the hostile woman in the car. But by writing this, I was shown how lucky it is that my cousin learned from me how to notice beautiful trees- instead of how to retaliate]

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