Archive for April, 2014

The Way of Chuang Tzu, Part 2


Writing these stories proved to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable. For me it was an exercise in making sense of my world by drawing two things I love, Taoism and coffee, closer together. Not so much coffee as the people who make it- baristas. The heroes in Chuang Tzu’s stories share a lot of qualities with baristas: they work with their hands, are irreverent, and possess a nuanced understanding of the word “failure”.  Many of the baristas I know and work with are terrifically talented  musicians, artists and actors. But most are unable to support themselves (financially) through their art. However, from a Taoist perspective, this is just fine- it’s better to live the good life in relative obscurity than to rely on the opinions and patronage of others, whose taste is always fickle and often false. Besides, what is “success”, anyway?

A quick note. These characterizations are not based on anyone, living or dead. Mostly I just translated the characters from their ancient setting into a modern coffee shop. A prince becomes a CEO, a butcher a dishwasher. A hollowed-out turtle shell used in the emperor’s divination chamber a sought-after white tea…

Silver Needles
(formerly, The Turtle)

Dan Tribeck was covered in espresso dust, humming a tune and dialing in the espresso. Just then, two executives from Starbucks walked in. They looked proud and satisfied with themselves.
Dan said, ‘How can I help you guys?’
They said, ‘Well, Dan, we know who you are and we want to make an offer: we want you to run one of our new stores. In fact, you may have the opportunity to be the regional manager of all the Starbucks in this zip code. What do you think?’
Dan held a pitcher of milk in his hand, staring at the crusty milk that had dried on the outside. ‘Let me ask you something’ he said, ‘That white tea over there, Silver Needles, it came all the way from China. It came from the earliest growth of the tea plant at the very beginning of spring. It was plucked, dried, cooked, stored and brought here where we charge $7 a cup for it. It’s highly valued, apart from all the other teas. But what do you think- would it rather be here on the top shelf in a glass jar, or in the soil, covered with sun, rain and mud?’
The executives looked at each other and said, ‘Of course it would rather be in the mud’.
Said Dan, ‘Then let me grow here in the mud!’

The Useless Job

(formerly, The Useless Tree)

Two baristas were standing next to each other making drinks. One said to the other, ‘I hate this useless job! I should be doing something with my life. It’s not my passion, it won’t become a career, it’ll never be great- this sucks!’
The other barista nodded sympathetically then said, ‘Have you heard of a college professor who lectured for years, kissed all the right asses, and published great work- only to have her tenure denied?
Have you heard of a politician who worked his ass off to get a bill passed- only to be hated by the whole country?
Have you heard of a thirty-something landing a corporate job, making tons of money and not worrying about rent- only to find themselves uninspired?’
Now, have you heard of a barista who was ever denied tenure, hated by the country, or lacking in inspiration? Of course not.
Our job might be useless, but it’s not something anybody’s going to take away from us. Relax. Make drinks. Do what you truly care about when you’re not at work. Besides- wherever you go, people are going to want coffee.’

Doing Dishes
(formerly, Cutting up an Ox)

A seasoned barista was in the back doing dishes. It was poetry in action. With a scrub and a rub the saucers, mugs and cups became absolutely spotless. She moved so fast that in 10 minutes 5 bus tubs were completely cleared, cleaned and sanitized. What’s more, she hadn’t broken a sweat and appeared to be dancing.
The CEO of the company was standing nearby watching the whole time. When she finished, he went to her and asked, ‘How did you do it?’
‘How? I don’t know how’ she said, ‘When I first started nine years ago, I just saw a big stack of dishes, and it filled me with dread. After a few years, I started to see the individual dishes, one by one. After a few more years, I stopped seeing the individual dishes, and only saw what’s on them, the parts I need to clean. Now, I don’t even touch the dishes with my sponge- with a WHOOSH! SNAP! POW! I clean the dishes without an ounce of pressure, and all the muck falls to the ground effortlessly.
See my sponge? I’ve used the same one for five years. Do you know how many dishes that is!?’
She held up the sponge. It looked like it had just been removed from its plastic wrapper. It smelled like lemons.
‘My God!’ said the CEO, ‘my dish washer has just showed me how to run my company!’

The Boss and the Barista
(formerly, Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright)

The owner of the cafe was sitting down reading a book of philosophy. Skylar was at the bar, making a latte. He finished the drink, set it on the bar, and called out the name of the customer. He set down his pitcher of milk and said to the owner, ‘Sir, what is it you are reading there?’
‘The experts’, he said, ‘I’m reading the experts. Great philosophers: Heidegger, Nietzshe, Adorno, Kant.’
Skylar asked, ‘Are they dead or alive?’
‘Dead!’ laughed the owner, ‘They’ve been dead for a long time.’
‘Then you’re only reading the trash they left behind.’
‘What!?’ said the owner ‘What did you say? You better have a good explanation- otherwise you’re fired!’
‘Well, let’s look at it from a barista’s point of view. When I steam my milk, I have to do it just right. Remove the wand too much, I get too many bubbles. Put the wand in too much, I don’t get any foam at all. If I am too soft, it does not work. If I am too forceful, it does not work. If I am neither too soft nor too forceful, it comes out just right.
Now, how can I share this knowledge with another person? I can try to tell them with words- I can tell them everything I know- but they must feel it for themselves. I can’t even show my boyfriend how to do it.
Furthermore, when I die, no one will know how I do what I do. It’s the same with the philosophers- everything they knew they took with them to their graves. All they left behind was- trash!

Ten in the Morning
(Formerly, Three In the Morning)

The shift-leader came out to the floor and said to all the baristas, ‘OK, we’re starting breaks at 10:30. But before that I want you to finish the list’.
All the baristas clamored and beat their chests. They said, ‘No! No! We want breaks now!’
The shift-leader thought for a second, not wanting to lose his authority. Then he said, ‘OK, OK. How bout this: We start breaks at 10:00, and then after that you finish the list.’
All the baristas shouted with glee.
What happened? The two scenarios were identical, in that everyone had a break, and all the work would get done. But in one scenario the baristas were happy, and in the other scenario all the baristas were displeased. What happened was the shift-leader was willing to give up his own personal agenda to meet the demands of the group. In so doing, he lost nothing.



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The Way of Chuang Tzu, Part 1


If my apartment was on fire and had time to grab one book (in addition to my cat) it would be ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’ by Thomas Merton. Here’s a passage:

Flight From the Shadow
There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.
So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed the failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps. (Merton, 155)

To get some meaning out of this parable, don’t interpret literally. The shadows and footsteps I take to mean our actions, words and thoughts. If we aren’t happy with them- acting more, speaking more, and thinking more- will not help. We need to stop. Every day there are conversations I walk away from wishing I said something different, or wishing I hadn’t said anything all. I obsess over the scenario, playing it over and over in my head, beating myself up; I plan what I’m going to do next time. Like the man who hates his own shadow, I run away. Why not sit still, accept what has happened, and practice being comfortable with being uncomfortable?

The story is a good example of Taoism and a good example of the Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. The man who runs so much he dies is hyperbole, ludicrous, and used to comic effect. At the same time, we know people who go to extreme measures to avoid sitting with themselves. They work all the time, they drink all the time, they shop all the time. They do all the time. Taoism is a philosophy of not-doing. It’s not necessarily a philosophy of passivity and inaction, but rather a philosophy of moving when you need to move, sitting when you need to sit.

Thomas Merton didn’t know a lick of Chinese, or at least not enough to perform a genuine translation. In his words, “The rather special nature of this book calls for some explanation. The texts from Chuang Tzu assembled here are the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation. The notes have in time acquired a shape of their own and have become, as it were, “imitations” of Chuang Tzu, or rather, free interpretive readings of characteristic passages which appeal especially to me. These “readings” of my own grew out of a comparison of four of the best translations of Chuang Tzu into western languages, two English, one French, and one German. In reading these translations I found very notable differences, and soon realized that all who have translated Chuang Tzu have had to do a great deal of guessing. Their guesses reflect not only their degree of Chinese scholarship, but also their own grasp of the mysterious “way” described by a Master writing in Asia nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. Since I know only a few Chinese characters, I obviously am not a translator. These “readings” are then not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation.”

Got that? He didn’t stay faithful to the original text, and in so doing, stayed more faithful than anyone who did.

A few words on Thomas Merton, for those of you interested (and still reading- good for you!). Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. On the one hand, he was a Catholic ascetic committed to the monastic way of life. On the other hand, he was in correspondence with the Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferhengetti, well-read on Foucault, and visited the Dalai Llama in 1968- way before it was fashionable. His life came to an absurd and tragic end just weeks after visiting the Dalai Llama, in a freak accident involving an electric fan in Thailand. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, is his most famous work.

I am drawn to Merton (and for that matter, Chuang Tzu) by his emphasis on the contemplative mind. The contemplative mind doesn’t debate, argue and analyze. It’s can’t even be called rational. The contemplative mind is attunement to life, the concentric circles spanning outwards from the point a rock fell into the water.

Next week, I’m going to provide some of my own ‘readings’ of Chuang Tzu. They will be ancient stories adapted to fit the scene of a café on the north side of Chicago. That’s right. Baristas.



This is a Public Service Announcement (meaning I need YOUR service)



Hello Readers, Writers, Family, Friends and Foes:

Hopefully not many foes. The 100th blog post of Underspecialized is around the corner on May 25th, and I want to com-memorate it with a showcase of my readers (all dozen of you, who, whether through guilt or pity or utter boredom pay some attention to my blog- attention, that essential, cherished resource of such finitude that I really do appreciate it). Because, without you, this blog would just be another tree falling in a cyber-forest without anybody to hear it, and who knows if it really exists, then? This might also be a chance for some of you to meet each other, to make this whole endeavor ‘more real’. Whatever that means…

From you I ask the following: you can send your answers to Answer some of the questions, all of the questions, or even questions I have not asked. Have fun with it. Write in prose or otherwise. Follow your heart- I don’t know where this ship is headed.

First of all- send us a picture! Preferably of you. Preferably fully clothed. Unless it’s tasteful.
Do you have a question for me? A comment? A queery?
What is one topic you would like Underspecialized to write about in the future?
What is your name? How do you know Gopher?
What has been your favorite blog post?
Do you have a ‘ritual’ for reading the blog?
Are you a writer? Do you have a blog- a diary? What do you write about? If not, what do you do (in the broadest
sense of the term, you can tell me what you not-do)?
Any random thoughts, reflections?
Anything you want to get out there, to an audience verging on the 20s!?
Pets- do you have pets?
Pet peeves?
Inspirational words for us all?
In all seriousness (which isn’t a whole lot) thank you so much for everything. This blog has meant a lot to me if only in the manner of regular check-ups with the dentist, removing the plaque of my mind. Thanks for the space of non-judgement and all the encouragement throughout the past two years.


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Ordeal or no deal

Trial by fire– the phrase goes back to the medieval judicial system, whereby someone suspected of a crime would be branded with red-hot irons. Then, after a few weeks, a judge would walk by and appraise the wounds- if they had started to heal, then it was obvious God was on their side and they were innocent- but if the burn marks were infectious or oozing puss, then it was proof that the suspect was guilty and impure. Such was the judicial system at the time.

The words acid test and ordeal denote the same historical practice, and though no longer practiced, we still use all three words to refer to experiences that are difficult, painful, and trying. ‘Acid test’ took on a different meaning in the 1960s with the dissemination of acid, or LSD. Tom Wolfe’s 1968 work of non-fiction, The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, recounts the journey of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they take acid communally in an attempt to transform themselves and the society around them. While considered by some to be a wholesale advertisement for acid, there’s actually a point in the book where Kesey tells everyone to move beyond acid. That is to say: it’s a test. Take it, shatter your normal perceptions, and then return to life.

The first time I took acid was a magnificent experience. It made me believe in inter-subjectivity. It let me see how severely I treat my natural energies instead of allowing them to flow. It brought attention to the most basic things, like Time and my own body. A few years after that, I got hold of some acid again. This time was totally different. I took it for a whole week by myself, becoming absolutely miserable and partially psychotic. It was Finals Week, which for those who don’t know, is the worst time possible to binge on acid. Luckily, I passed all my classes and graduated anyway. These days, if someone asks me if they should take acid, I can’t tell them it’s a bad idea without denying my own ‘trial by fire’. At the same time, it’s my conviction that sober, unadulterated reality is absurd enough, vivid enough, and worthy of astonishment just as it is.

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Unity Underground

A while ago I wrote about joining a drum circle. It’s now been 5 months. Let me tell you a little about how it works. Basically, we meet every Friday at 7pm at Edgewater Presbyterian church. We meet in a big room that has a piano in it and old books nobody probably reads. We turn off all the lights and light candles. Some of the drummers have rainbow LED lights strapped to their wooden drums. The first time I went, it was at the recommendation of my friend M, who is in AA. When I got to the church, there was an AA meeting happening right at 7. I thought he tricked me into going to a meeting, but he wasn’t- the drum circle and AA meeting start at the same time, down the hall from each other.

Group Spirit

The heart of the drum circle are two senior African American women, Indy and Rose. Indy is fierce; she plays the bongos and tightens the skins as hard as she can. Rose is the free spirit of the group and smokes a cigarette about a third into the night every week. I have become the most consistent member outside of Indy and Rose, and I think from the outside, we make an odd couple. Often I’ll walk home with them after drum circle (Indy and I live in the same building, Rose lives across the street). I carry my djembe in a duffel bag, but they carry all their drums- and stands- in those carts with wheels older people use to get groceries in the city and homeless people sometimes use to hold all their stuff. The only other consistent member is Erik, a polish immigrant, self-identified hermit and phenomenal drummer. He’s the kind of person who makes the effort to make Indy and Rose valentine cards, or text me to let me know whether or not he’ll be there on Friday. Once I asked him what he does at home. He said he thinks. I ask him if he writes any of it down. He says no, just thinks.

The actually playing goes like this. One of us will start hitting a beat. Somebody else will pick it up. Then other people join in. Soon the group is in sync, and together we change speed, volume, and rhythm for about 3-10 minutes before we all stop. Afterward, if it’s a good one, we’ll shout. Sometimes we’ll shout while playing. While it’s not an AA meeting, there is a spiritual dimension. Indy will often talk about how we play to get the stress and fear out of our lives, and how “the devil has no business being up in here”. Usually I go home with a beat playing over and over in my head. On Saturday mornings my hands are bruised, although they’re getting tougher.

Djembe: A large West African population in Edgewater ensures your opportunity of purchasing one of these for under $120. Hand carved, the drum head's made of goat skin. Hitting the middle gives a deep bass, hitting the side gives a snappy slap-slap.

Djembe: A large West African population in Edgewater ensures you the opportunity of purchasing one of these for under $120. Hand carved, the drum head is made of goat skin. Hitting the middle gives a deep bass, hitting the side gives a snappy slap-slap.

Two weeks ago, after a particularly good jam, Indy walked over to me and handed me a plastic LED chord. She told me I was officially in the group. I didn’t even know I wasn’t! I attached the lights to my drum, officially joining the rest of the group in psychedelia. I could tell that both Indy and Rose appreciate having me around. In the past, a lot of the people in the drum circle were sketchy or rude, they tell me. My rapport with them reminds me a lot of my interactions in southern Illinois with the senior Native Americans I hung out with. I’m a breath of fresh air; they keep me in check; I feel mildly guilty and cautious about being white and privileged.

Also two weeks ago, Rose announced (at least to me) that she’d be going into surgery for a triple bypass. Or just a bypass. I don’t remember, nor do I know the difference. She said she’ll be gone from drum circle for at least five weeks. Rose kept saying things like, “if I die you guys will feel me playing through your hands”. Indy yelled at her to stop talking like that. My attitude toward Rose changed when I saw her mortality on her face. For weeks she’s been inviting me to her studio to record something together, and I’ve ignored her. Now that she’s so vulnerable, I’m making a point of going into the studio this Monday. Her surgery’s the tenth.

Together Now

Once it’s a little warmer, we start drumming outdoors on Hollywood beach. A lot more people start coming, I hear. While the weather will be great, I’m a bit apprehensive. I’ve liked meeting all winter in this church living room. Sometimes, people poke their head in the doors, wondering where all the great sound is coming from, and are baffled and pleased to look at us. In the summer, I’m worried people are going to be smoking weed and drinking, and I’ll get drowned out by the group. In the mean time, when Rose stops coming to the group, it will be the first time I’ve seen Indy without her.