Archive for September, 2013

Who Nose

I have a small nostril. That means little air gets through and when it does it makes a ruckus. One alternative is to breathe through my mouth instead. A short-cut with a major drawback- although I’ll breathe quietly, it’ll be shallow and from the neck up.

Once, I thought the problem was a deviated septum. At the time I was on (my parent’s) excellent health insurance, and so decided to have the septum removed via Rhinoplasty. To have a few millimeters of stuff taken off that thin plate of bone and cartilage separating your left and right nostrils comes to a total of $10,000. That’s a lot of money, enough to pay for a life-saving operation that one of my fellow human beings without health insurance probably couldn’t afford. Such an operation would surely be unjustified, unless it actually made it easy to breathe for the rest of my life.  THAT would be worth $10,000.

But no. As soon as I came off the anesthesia, I realized the operation didn’t do anything. The tiny hole isn’t caused by a deviated septum, but is actually further up my nasal cavity, beyond the reach of surgery. All the operation did was make my septum thinner, vulnerable to being broken, and prone to pain in icy weather. All that, for just ten thousand bucks.

Despite the surgery, I still struggle to breathe. This is where the story gets good, if by good we mean positive, uplifting, and mildly instructive. If only for a moment…

The small nostril has led me to develop a meditation practice. I specifically focus on breathing from my stomach, using the diaphragm to take long, deep breaths. That way, even though the chimney up above is narrow, the bellows far below take in and push out vast quantities of air. I guess you can say this is a model for transforming a problem into a practice. But the truth is that there is another technique for me to breathe easier which is far less austere.

If I take the heel of my hand and press it against my cheek, sliding my face toward my ear, the nostril opens up. I can breathe as quietly and efficiently as any normal person. If I did this, I’d have no need for either surgery or meditation. But I would have to walk around with a hand planted on my face and my elbow jutting in the air. I would perpetually look like I rested my head on my fist and forgot to take it off. In short, I would look eccentric.

But I FEAR being eccentric. As much as I want to be unique, different, I fear being outright strange. And as much as I crave attention I don’t want THAT type of attention. I don’t want to explain all the time how in order to breathe I need to apply pressure to my face with my hand. Not to mention, I enjoy having use of both of my hands. So far, a daily practice of meditation seems less difficult than doing all that. But maybe one day I won’t give a shit, and you’ll see me walking with an elbow in the air, smelling the roses.

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That Best Portion

It’s not impossible to be in the city and find yourself in nature. The other day I was taking a stroll through Rosehill cemetery, the largest one in Chicago. It’s six blocks by six blocks wide, meaning when you’re in the center the noise of the city is outside banging ineffectively at the door.

The most notable thing I saw made by man was a tombstone that read,
‘That best portion of a good man’s life
his little nameless unremembered acts
of kindness and of love’.

On the western edge of the cemetery is a small forest. I saw a thin dirt trail leading in and followed it. There appeared a pond. A crane heard me and flew away, heavy and silent. Ducks floated across the pond, trees surrounded it, I sat down. The sun was shining from behind, illuminating half the pond through trees rocking in the wind. Just in front of me a half a dozen catfish lazily swam through their motions, eating fallen leaves off the water’s surface and resembling the logs they playfully swam over. Tiny water spiders hopped across the water’s surface. To them the water was solid ground. The splash of a catfish or the sucking sound of its mouth. Their tails caught in the light turning transparent like the leaves in the trees shaking in the wind, louder and more noticeable now, now that they are dry, and the cicadas are gone.

There’s been talk of selling this section of Rosehill to the city and turning it into a park. That means kids throwing rocks and fishermen. That means more foot traffic and the pond becoming an Attraction. Right now it’s nothing. No signs point to it and nobody knows about it except people like me lucky enough to find it. For now, the catfish can swim thoughtlessly in shallow water.

I sat, my bum on the muddy ground. I saw a beer can and some plastic in the water, thought about the long-term damage they might have, disintegrating in the water, but chose not to remove them for the sake of the pond’s short-term peace. A squirrel noisily ran up the tree next to me carrying a big green nut in its mouth like a watermelon. It climbed up a branch and started chewing. Hunks of seed fell around me, sounding like human footsteps approaching on the ground.

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Grow Through It

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sow;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

-Ecclesiastes 3

One of the best parts of fall is having something to blame depression on. During the summer it’s the worst, you have no excuse for feeling bad. There’s almost 20 hours of sunlight a day and the weather’s terrific. This means guilt and even more depression. Not so with autumn. As the leaves fall, it’s our duty to feel depressed; it’s a time to reflect on the past year, the passing years, and the melancholy truth that everything green loses its color. It’s great.

When I’m depressed it’s really hard to do anything. Or maybe, when I can’t do anything I become depressed. Either way, depression’s marked by dormancy. One of the best remedies I had this summer was my garden. I have a 4’x8′ plot in a community garden across the street from my apartment, where I grow herbs. On afternoons when I didn’t know what to do with myself, when idea after idea proposed to myself was shot down by myself, when I despaired that the end of day was coming and I was doing nothing worthwhile, I would realize that my plants could use watering, and do that.



It helped. It’s hard to be depressed when you’re taking care of something. Especially when that something grows before your eyes, is unable to criticize you, and tastes delicious. My herbs, though, were really taking care of me. They didn’t need to be pruned, weeded, and watered that often. They’d be fine left alone. But by doing these things I occupied myself for about thirty minutes, just long enough to snap out of my funk and make use of the rest of my day, my beautiful summer day.

The other sweet thing about having a plot at a community garden is the people walking past. My neighbors remember the property used to be vacant land filled with hunks of broken brick, glass, and abandoned appliances. Now it’s neatly lined with three dozen garden plots just like mine. When they see you bending over eating a sprig of basil they smile because the entire scene is different than the dilapidated norm and you smile back and you say Hi to each other; they ask what you’re growing and you give them a piece of basil to munch on too, and now you’re not alone in your over-heated apartment over-thinking life, but outside interacting with other people and the depression’s gone— for today. But that’s all that matters.

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The Catherd

A friend said to me, ‘Being accountable to yourself is like herding cats’. Not having ever attempted to herd cats, I didn’t know what he meant, and imagined myself on the steppes of ancient Spain herding cats, gathering my drifting kittens with a miniature crook with a hot-pink-fuzz-ball hanging from the end of it, not unlike a modern cat toy. My friend snapped his fingers, waking me from my fantasy, and told me what he meant: Being accountable to yourself is hard, nearly impossible.

I can see how it’s true, for me at least. Almost always, I’m lenient with myself. For example, if I say to myself that I’m going to clean the toilet by week’s end, and it’s Sunday and I don’t have bleach or brush or inclination to get on my knees and scrub, I’ll say to myself, It’s OK. Do it next week. Besides, you live alone. If you’re OK with a dirty toilet, I’m OK.

On the other hand, if I had a roommate, I would be much more inclined to clean it. Because if I didn’t, they would make a hullabaloo, either by direct confrontation or by passiv-aggresiv methods such as buying bleach and setting it on the tank, and then asking innocently if I did my weekend chores, yet.

Basically, we will be much more flexible with ourselves than we will if others are involved. I will bend over backwards for myself, accommodating excuses, alibis and rationalizations like I’m the 4 Seasons of Enablement. I’ll let a hideously stained toilet be hideously stained. One and only one thing will prompt me to act. Company. The threat of company using my disgusting toilet makes me feel ashamed. Alone, there is no shame. Or not as much. Hence, being accountable to only yourself is as hard as herding cats.

Of course, there are instances of prodigious self-discipline. But then the question is: what aren’t you doing?  You may be head of the neighborhood council, the most active employee at work; your home and lawn may look immaculate, the ledger on your budget may be as balanced as a Soviet gymnast, and yet- you’re still avoiding whatever it is you’re afraid to do. This much-feared task might be easier and less significant than all the other stuff you’re doing, and yet: you resist and it persists. I find when I’m “being hard on myself”, I’m actually compensating for not doing whatever it is I’m supposed to do, which is usually not all that impossible, just unpleasant.

No, I need other people. I need to tell somebody, ‘My toilet is stained yellow. The inside of the upper rim is unmentionable. I’m gonna clean it this week, I swear!’

Now, if they’re a good friend, they’ll hold me accountable. And later that week when they ask me if I did the thing I said I was going to do, either I’ll say Yes thanks for Following Up, or No but I Swear I’ll do it Tomorrow or, admittedly, Why don’t you mind your own Fucking Business! (Sigh).

Of course, the ‘toilet’ we’re discussing is a metaphor for any shitty situation we’re avoiding. I’m speaking from experience. I practice evasion like a cat purrs. It’s easy, since I tend to live alone (with my problems). Practically the only way I can stop hiding and start cleaning life’s toilets is to invite people inside my head, have company, share problems with other people and become accountable to them. It’s like herding sheep, which we can imagine is much easier than herding cats.

But really, I do have to clean my toilet. This week I swear.

PS- extending this to relationships, it seems the ideal partner would want the toilet just a little cleaner than you do.

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The Cosmic Joke – Laughing Before the Punchline

I was sitting on the beach watching the waves. Next to me a man was sleeping, his family swimming in the water. A Sea Gull landed on the man’s blanket and started to investigate. It took interest in the contents of his open book bag, especially a small plastic package containing three peanut butter crackers. The Bird removed the package from the bag and endeavored to open it.

Since we’re of the same species, part of me felt loyalty to the man, his family, and their crackers- I thought I should wake him or scare the bird away myself. But part of me rooted for the Bird, and was captivated by its struggle to open the wrapper.

The Sea Gull used its beak like a bayonet, viciously stabbing the plastic wrapping. After it made an opening at one end, it started to lift the bag up and drop it. Lift the bag and drop it. Then it would stab it some more, then lift it up and drop it. Finally, one cracker squirted out. The Bird pounced on it and tried to eat it but couldn’t because the cracker was too big and too hard.

So the bird went back to the package and lifted up again, stabbed it some more, lifted up again, and soon the second cracker fell out. Same thing; the bird couldn’t eat it, so it returned to the wrapper to remove the third cracker. Same process, same result. Now the Bird had three crackers at its disposal. It began to impale them repeatedly, hoping to break them into smaller portions.

During its labor, before it could eat a single morsel, a dozen other Sea Gulls landed on the blanket, grabbed the three crackers, and flew away. The man woke up and looked with squinty eyes, confused.

The original Gull that broke its back removing the crackers stampeded around screaming and raising its wings to fight. It was pissed. That after all that desperate labor everything was gone. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think it felt anguish. I laughed.

Why did I laugh? I laughed nearly the whole time. Part of me was nervous, because I felt like I should be doing something but wasn’t. Also, I laughed because this entire event just sort of unfolded in front of me.  But I laughed most of all at the end when this bird, whose expenditure of calories was surely in the thousands, lost everything.

The Germans have a word for that (of course they do). It’s called Schadenfreude, which means the malicious joy at another’s misfortune.

But why is it funny? Probably because I could identify. It’s a cosmic joke, common to all species. I started making human comparisons to the Sea Gull’s plight.

Imagine a farmer in the backwoods of Austria in the 17th century. This guy builds a beautiful home. Inside his walls are an orchard, a vineyard, a well. He toils beneath the sun, cultivating the Earth, breeding animals, and raising his family. Then, a group of unpaid unfed soldiers off from the Thirty Years War find his little estate and eat everything, burn everything, kill everything.

Not as funny, now. The Germans have another word for this, Weltschmerz, or ‘world-grief’.

Imagine a family who took out a loan on a house with high interests they thought they could pay- until the economy crashed. The value of their home plummets until its worthless, worth less than they originally bought it for. They’re in debt, have to foreclose, and considering homelessness for the first time in their life.

One way to look at the Sea Gull situation is that she lost what was rightfully hers. But they weren’t her crackers. One can also say that the farmer didn’t really own the land. He tended it, cared for it, but ultimately the life processes of all the plants and animals have their own sway; he merely facilitates it. Same with the homeowners. By signing a deed there is indeed a public ceremony recognizing the family’s right to property, but ultimately it’s abstract and a human construction that doesn’t guarantee anything.

And it’s the same with me. I am, if not struggling, striving to maintain my existence.  That means money, food, security. That means saving money so that one day I can take care of myself even if unable to work due to infirmary or old age. But no matter how much I try, no matter how secure I supposedly make myself, nothing guarantees that a bunch of sea gulls won’t land on my blanket and take everything away. Or that I’ll get a brain parasite and die. I don’t own life- it’s something I partake in.

My goal today is not to be bleak- it’s to reach the simple conclusion that, as the Buddhists say, “I will be separated from everything dear to me”.

That’s why I laughed. Because it’s a hard truth to swallow. Almost as hard as a giant peanut butter cracker. There’s two basic reactions to this news. On the one hand, you can hunker down, do everything you can to ward off disaster. You can stockpile food and money and safety nets to ensure your survival. But eventually, this strategy fails, because death is inevitable. The other reaction we see is a blasé “so what” in response to death. These people act (and live) as if it doesn’t bother them that everything will fall apart. Again, I think this is a failure to confront death- because detaching from the gravity of the situation seems to ignore a crucial attribute of life- that it’s not easy to let go.

OK, there’s a third option. A middle way. We can be mindful of the fact that every peanut butter cracker we wrestle free from life will eventually disappear. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle. Rather, we’re implored to cherish every taste.

Sometimes laughter, sometimes grief.  

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