Archive for December, 2013

The Man Who Couldn’t Cry

My New Years Resolution in 1999 was to not cry. I was eleven years old, and apparently had had enough experiences where I cried in public and was humiliated for it. To avoid further humiliation and shame I made a solemn resolution not to cry. Like all resolutions it didn’t last. A few months later I cried, felt ashamed, and what’s more felt anger toward myself for failing to keep my resolution.

When you think about it, crying is a strange phenomenon. It’s basically water coming out of our eyes. It’s the first thing all of us do when we are born. As we grow up, however, it’s discouraged. Especially for males. Big Boys Don’t Cry. The ability to withhold tears is equated with stoicism. And in this society, for whatever reason, stoicism is associated with masculinity. By the transverse formula of meaningless mores, not crying is a mark of manhood.

Probably has something to do with eleven year old me committing not to cry. I didn’t want to be a girl. I didn’t want to be a boy. I wanted to be a man, a man capable of great suffering- who didn’t show it. Sure enough, eventually my tear ducts ran dry. Sometime in high school, I stopped crying. Sure, there were exceptions, but only on account of physical pain. When it came to emotional pain I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry. I was numb.

And in college, I took an active role in making myself numb through a number of chemical avenues. I recently caught up with a friend who knew me at the time. He recalls a conversation (I don’t) in which we were both high and drunk. I told him in dead-pan declarative sentences that I needed to cry, I wanted to cry, but had no idea how. That’s pretty sad- someone incapable of crying. But really it was a success story- I finally kept my resolution to not cry.

That’s all changed in the past two years, since I’ve gotten sober. Like a flower gone dormant during winter I am awakening to emotions I haven’t felt for years, if ever. As a result, sometimes I cry.

Some of the emotions are not embarrassing at all. There’s this one type of melancholy-happiness that occurs when I look deeply at the ones I love while realizing we’re all going to vanish one day, and I get to appreciating my time in the world and I start to cry. There’s another non-embarrassing type of tears that happens whenever I meditate about ten minutes in; just a few tears as my chest unclenches.

But then there’s the not so proud crying. Like how I cry at sappy movies now. The lamer the movie, the more uncontrollable I am. But even that’s not so bad. Not as bad as the episode where I was back to being an eleven year old boy humiliated by his own feelings.

This was about a month ago. I was working on a home improvement project with my dad. Things were going good, then we took a break for lunch. After lunch I wanted to take a nap, but we had to keep going.  That was the first trigger. Next, I was climbing the ladder to nail something into the wall but saw from my perch a wonderful view of the neighbor’s yard dappled with the red leaves of a tree and a field of straw extending in the background. I wanted to draw it with crayons- it would of taken me only a minute, but I had nailing to do. Trigger number two.  I was losing focus of the project so my dad took over and I was left being his gofer, holding the ladder and fetching him tools. I became bored, apathetic, disengaged. Trigger number three. Then, as my dad was smacking a nail with the hammer, I imagined the nail was a human jaw and the human jaw was being shattered by the hammer and the owner of the human jaw was experiencing unpronounceable agony. This is a thing I do whenever I watch somebody use tools or power tools (imagine the tools used in the worst way possible). Ever since I was a kid. It makes me feel horrible. Trigger number four.

A combination of all these things: the fatigue, the apathy, the drawing I didn’t draw, the feeling of subordination and fear of physical torment, boiled over into hostility at my dad. I started to pout. He looked at me and said ‘What’s wrong?’ I wouldn’t say. He laughed at me and said ‘Come On’.

At that moment the tears started to come. They rose up from my stomach up to my heart, up to my throat and then- they stopped. It happened in slow motion. On the one hand was my will that refused to cry. It argued that there was no real reason for crying and that I was just being a baby. On the other hand was the Voice of Reason, that voice that doesn’t speak very often but when it does it’s plain as poo It said to me, Cry. It would be very healing for you right now to just cry in front of your dad, for no reason other than you can.

But I didn’t. I choked back the tears and they stayed there in my throat.

I regret not crying then. I did it to protect myself from humiliation and shame, but the price was not expressing how I felt, even if that expression would have been inarticulate, childish, dumb.

So my resolution for 2014 is to be more honest about my emotions, and if that means not using my words, so be it.

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Processing my resentment toward people on their cell phones with you

There’s a Taoist parable by Zhuangzi about a praying mantis in the woods. The praying mantis is about to eat a fly, but while its attention is on the fly, a bird swoops down to eat the praying mantis. Then, as the bird is about to kill the praying mantis, the bird is unable to see nearby a hunter aiming a bow and arrow at the bird. The hunter just so happens to be Zhuangzi himself. He is so focused on the bird that he doesn’t notice a game warden approaching behind him (Zhuangzi is on private property hunting illegally, I might add). Before releasing his arrow Zhuangzi pauses for a second, sees the warden in time, and then scampers away to safety.

PAUSE – COME UP WITH YOUR OWN INTERPRETATION OF THIS STORY BEFORE PROCEEDING, please

OK. My interpretation is that we all have a blind-spot. And that blind-spot gets a whole lot bigger when we’re focused on one thing. I have an example of this in my life, and though it doesn’t entail hunting birds in Ancient China, it still makes sense.

I have a bad habit of looking at people on their cell phones. ‘Looking’ is a nice word. I glare.

The people I’m referring to are not just anyone on a cellphone, but the ones who stumble around the sidewalk oblivious to their surroundings.  Especially the ones with a kid with them they ignore or a dog they’re walking that they’re not really walking or just when the day is beautiful and they don’t notice it, like this one guy I saw so engrossed in his cell phone that he didn’t notice a humming bird hovering over his head.

I was excited the first day this winter below freezing because I thought it would stop people from walking and texting because their hands would be too cold and they’d have to wear gloves that made it impossible to text, but then I walked past a chalkboard sign in front of a store advertising “Texting Gloves” for sale. Somebody less judgmental (and more savvy) than me recognized a need and filled it. I on the other hand (pun intended) continued to burn in resentment, fixated on these texters like a praying mantis about to eat a fly… while I was riding my bike…

… BAM. I ran into a car! No, not really. But I almost did. It would have been a very painful lesson (and a better story)- but like Zuangzi I looked up just in time to brake. What happened was I was so pre-occupied with somebody else not being aware of their surroundings that I lost track of my surroundings. Simple enough. But the question still lingers- why do texters piss me off so much, anyway?

I have a few answers, but I’m more amazed that I’m even asking myself this question, because it puts me on the defensive. For the longest time I just took it for granted that they were idiots and deserved my silent ire- if not an outright confrontation. Actually, I fantasized about standing right in front of the woman walking her dog and saying HEY DON’T YOU REALIZE YOUR DOG DOESN’T KNOW WHERE THE FUCK IT’S GOING!? But I didn’t. And I still haven’t answered the question at hand: why do they piss me off?

THEORY- it’s human to recognize each other and when someone’s glued to their phone there’s no chance for mutual recognition- THEORY- there’s a thing in each of our brains called mirror neurons that allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (fact) so that while they do something we ourselves imagine ourselves doing it even if we’re motionless. Mirror neurons are the reason we enjoy watching high-caliber athletes perform amazing feats of physiology, because we get a sense of their finesse. On the flip side watching someone hold onto a pile of Christmas presents awkwardly also triggers mirror neurons making us nervous and wobbly ourselves. Extend this principle to the texter, plodding along unawares, crouched over their cellphone, tense at the shoulders and neck, and we feel that same tightness and uncomfortably in ourselves, and want it to stop, yet can’t look away- THEORY- I feel bad for the neglected dogs and babies in strollers, I feel bad for them, the texters- THEORY – I think the world is an infinitely beautiful place from moment to moment whether it’s a humming bird or something mundane and that to not bear witness to this essential beauty is to miss out on a cosmic gift we get only one chance to enjoy – LAST THEORY- I simply enjoy feeling better than them.

As if I never stumble around texting; as if I never move in the world without grace; as if I don’t have blind spots; as if I don’t ignore the beauty in every moment. Of course I ignore the beauty. I got shit to do and it takes a lot of energy to pay attention to anything else.

Wrapping this up, if I can glean anything from today’s talk it’s this: the point isn’t to see everything, but to become aware of the fact that we don’t see. Over and over, again and again. What I could do, rather than glare at texters, is to stay present myself. And maybe guide them along by example…

But that’s my interpretation. Circle back and re-read the parable to see what resonates in you. Share below! Lennon said it best, ‘I’m not the only one (who has a resentment toward people on their phones)’.

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A study in faces, hands and captions

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They Buried their Pharaohs in the Food Pyramid

I went into the Whole Foods to find some produce that hadn’t been treated with pesticides. I can’t stand the thought of my vegetables being sprayed with a synthetic chemical. I imagine a giant tractor driving along a massive, corporate farm field, spraying from a huge hose with a sprinkler-like attachment on it a steady stream of clear-yellow liquid. Poison.

The guy operating the hose making sure to get every single plant- tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, etcetera, he douses the whole plant: the stems, the leaves, the fruit, he drenches them with the yellow liquid to make sure the roots are soaked with pesticide. He makes sure to get every plant so that not a single one runs the risk of being attacked by bugs and thus, be unavailable for sale.

His orders are to douse the vegetables in so much poison that bugs cannot have a bite. The only ones to have a bite are people, people at supermarkets buying vegetables for their kids because they want their family to be healthy. But they’re not. The food is straight out of Rachel Carlson’s worst nightmare, and the kids of these well-wishing parents develop nausea, ADHD, anxiety disorders, anemia, depression, autism, cerebral palsy, early onset diabetes, early early onset Alzheimer’s, mood swings, debilitating indigestion, cirrhosis, itchy skin, cancer and stunted growth.

These kids are the most well-fed children on the planet. By all external appearances they’re healthy. But on the inside they’re rotten, as rotten as a tree being eaten from the inside by termites. Inside are chemicals that aren’t even meant to be consumed by insects, let alone a growing human being.

When the kids are tucked in at night, after taking their mood stabilizers, after their nightly diarrhea (an occurrence so regular no one thinks it as odd, anymore- just as the weekly headaches, vomiting and emotional pain- all of it normal, now) once they’re tucked in and fast asleep, then, and only then, a giant truck begins to prowl around the neighborhood.

On the top is man spraying from a massive hose chemicals meant to kill mosquitos and their nests, so that families can enjoy a nice time around their brick patio eating fresh vegetables and steak without being molested by the bloodsuckers. The guy handling the hose is instructed to get every single home; not a single property is to be left open to the propagation of mosquitos. The yellowish liquid falls like a cloud on each house, covering their children, their eyes, their necks, and their little faces.

While they dream I am buying organic vegetables at Whole Foods. And that’s only the vegetables. I’ll let you use your imagination for the meat.

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The Giant Beaver, or, How Drinking Tea and Not Coffee Frees You From the Obligation of Building Your Own House— for Better or Worse

I have worked at a coffee shop and I have worked at a tea shop. By now I can tell whether a customer will order coffee or tea as soon as they enter the door. The coffee drinker throws open the door, strides toward the counter and says: two coffees.

They don’t say please. They don’t say Hello. They don’t say “I would like”.

As you start to fill up their cups you ask questions like “cream or sugar? for here or to-go? how’s your day going? that’ll be five dollars, please”. During this time the coffee drinker will glare at you, perturbed by what appears to be you dawdling. But they don’t dare interrupt you because you stand in between them and their fix. That’s what it is, ultimately. A fix.

The tea drinker, on the other hand, nudges the door open and closes it gracefully behind them. They absorb the room’s ambiance, meandering up to the counter. Before talking about what they want they ask you how you’re doing. In fact, they don’t know what they want. You must guide them through all the different kinds of tea: green, oolong, pu-erh. The list is literally endless, all the varieties. What do you want today? Oh, I don’t know. What am I in the mood for? Would you like something grassy and sweet, or how about something citrusy? Ooh, I know. Have this white peony. It tastes like straw with a hint of chocolate spice.

After they select their tea it still takes you another three minutes to make it. After that they will probably linger, staying for one or two more infusions. In all that time you could have served over 30 coffee drinkers.

Our country is decidedly a coffee-drinking culture. Coffee is the emblem of capitalism: powerful, efficient, cheap. It gets you moving to where you need to go fast so that you can do what you need to do soon. If coffee and tea were running for president no way would tea be elected. Coffee is decisive, tea is introspective. Coffee is confident, tea is curious. Coffee is ready to go to war, tea thinks it wants to study art.

Tea and coffee stand for a symbol older and more fundamental than either: yin and yang. Yang is the active force of the universe, the sun that starts seeds to grow. Yin is the necessary rest after a long day, the shade beneath the tree. The ancient Chinese devised this symbol with the understanding that wherever there is yin there’s yang, and wherever there is yang there’s yin. They’re inseparable. Our part is to keep them in balance within ourselves. Harmonize the active with the passive, temper the blinding light with darkness.

My hunch is we are a ‘yang’ culture. Growing up, I satisfied people by always having an answer ready. Even if I didn’t know the answer I had an answer ready. In short, I bullshitted. These days, when somebody asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer- and if I’m keeping good watch on myself- I say, “I don’t know”. And you know what? Some people don’t like it. But it’s a helluva lot easier. And more honest.

I met a guy once form Quebec who said that his people work to live, while most Americans live to work. It’s true. Who the fuck has time? I don’t. Time is like the Giant Beaver that once populated North America, thousands of years ago. We know it used to be here, but it’s not anymore. All we have now are these tiny, pathetic beavers. “I can squeeze you in Tuesday from 2-3”.

Look at the size of these enormous, busy beavers. The size of a modern day black bear, these beavers once fretted about the mundane aspects of daily life across the North American continent.

Look at the size of these enormous, busy beavers! The size of a modern-day black bear, these beavers once fretted about the mundane aspects of daily life across the continent of North America.

But the tide is turning. I think a lot of us see that it’s more important to live a fulfilling life than a successful one. And in some cases that means coming up with our own definitions of success. In order to live the Good Life we’re gonna need a certain portion of loafing, wandering and tea.

I’ll close with a concrete example (just because one of my readers has told me that I’m supposed to start with a concrete example and extrapolate from there). Give a coffee drinker a to-do list and they’ll kick the shit out of that list. But they’ll be worn out by 6pm, and one or two of the things on that list will be done poorly. Give a tea drinker that same to-do list and they’ll pause to reflect and prioritize what really needs to be on that list… without getting around to it.

That’s why we need both together. Yin AND yang. Lately, I’ve been cutting my to-do lists in half— but actually DOING them. I also make sure to put somewhere on there “nothing” or “day dream” and take that as seriously as everything else on that list. Dead seriously. As serious as a giant beaver drinking coffee, busily building a dam while its whole damn species goes extinct.

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