October 20, 2003

Zafu, Zucchini and You

I know that you have all been eagerly awaiting a progress report on my home remodeling project. You probably are wondering how Merry and I are enjoying sitting in our new spacious living room in front of our new glowing fireplace. Guess what? IT’S NOT DONE YET!!!!

I am sure that this surprises all of you. I am the first one who has ever had a construction project not finished on time. The contractor said it would take nine days. Today is the beginning of week six and it will not be done this week.

Fortunately, I am a flexible kind of guy. Complete disruption of every inch of my home does not bother me a bit. Instead I am concentrating on the Principles and Skills of Loving and I am sending loving vibes to my contractor, wherever he may be. I would even enter into a quiet meditative state if I could just find my meditation cushion. I think it is called a zafu. Maybe if I wander around the house yelling, “Here zafu,” it will reappear.

I saw an important announcement on the community bulletin board outside my health food store. It advertised a “Veggie Playgroup.” That sounds right up my alley. A raving lunatic like me should be forced to mingle with zucchini, summer squash and radishes. I even have experience. At the Couples Festival this summer I was in the Asparagus group. Finally, Shalom training is good for something!

In between rants I came across this in my reading: “If you are going to live at the cutting edge, you better expect to bleed a little.” Does that mean that if you are bleeding you are living on the cutting edge? Probably not. I am bleeding but I do not think of myself as a cutting edge guy. I am more like the guy who sells used computer equipment and advertises that he is “on the trailing edge of technology.”

Lately I feel more like I am lodged down in the throat of a funnel. I am slipping down and being washed over by life. But I am starting to climb up and am moving toward the top of the funnel. Even funnels have a cutting edge.

I have made my progress “with a little help from my friends.” I can hear Joe Cocker singing the old Beatles tune. Left on my own, I would stay in that swirl at the bottom of the funnel. But with help, with intimacy, with relationships, I am stronger than on my own.

Hank, a longtime Shalomer, recently wrote on the listserv, “I am awake again. I cannot promise I will not go to sleep again. I do gain satisfaction and peace in knowing that there is a community for me where not everyone is asleep at the same time. Therefore, each of us awake can pray for those asleep to wake up and pray for us next time we go to sleep.”

I am offering a deal to some lucky listener. To the eighth caller who prays for me, I will pray for you when you are at the bottom of the funnel. And to the caller who predicts the correct year that my remodeling project is finished – you will receive Shalom beatification along with Mother Teresa. And maybe also a zucchini to talk to.

September 24, 2003

Too Many Tables

My life is a mess – a literal mess. I am living in the middle of disorder which I have caused. I came home yesterday to a big hole cut in the side of my house. My contractor will soon slide a wonderful fireplace into that hole, but it was disconcerting nevertheless. I do not like holes in my house and I do not like holes in my life.

We are doing a little remodeling, turning two rooms into one. In order to do this magic trick, two rooms of furniture and the contents of three closets have to disappear. But, they do not really disappear. They are just redistributed to already full rooms. The new additions to my office are two couches, two chairs, seven lamps, eighty four tables, and six hundred and thirty three priceless framed objects of art. I hardly notice they are here, if I close my eyes.

As I opened my birthday presents this morning, I realized the disorder in my life is not limited to the construction project. My birthday was six days ago. But my wife and I have not had time to sit down together to open the presents. We have been in the midst of moving her mother from her home into assisted living. And last week a day trip with family to Cape Cod was detoured to an emergency room and five days for her father in intensive care.

Reality has intervened. in my life. Sometimes I schedule it, but it is the unscheduled realities that cause me the most trouble. Just when I think I have aligned the stars correctly, reality intervenes. The joke on me is that each time I am surprised. In "The World According to Jim," life is supposed to be smooth without hidden speed bumps. All of my planning is based on this. But reality is never smooth. If it were smooth, it would not be reality.

Faith has always been an important matter to me. I have searched over the last few years for my definition of faith. The traditional Christian definition, “belief and trust in a good and gracious God, as know through Jesus Christ,” just does not work for me. With a little bit of help from Pure Land Buddhism, I came up with my own definition: “I entrust myself to reality as is.”

My faith is being tested. I really do not want reality as is. I want reality as created and controlled by me. I do not want five thousand nine hundred seventy seven end tables in my office. I do not want parents to age and be sick. I do not want to age.

I want order in my life. I want to line up the nice little piles on my desk. I want to carefully arrange the furniture of my life. No one and no thing should move them. Then life would be peaceful.

Ken Wilber says that we all want peace and our vision of serenity is floating on a smooth ocean. But he says that our vision is wrong. Serenity is learning to surf. Well, I have learned what causes those damned waves. It is reality, dreaded reality. I am trying to learn to surf, but lately it has been one helluva storm. Sometimes I would like to get down off my coffee table and take a nap. If only the couches were not piled up to the ceiling!

July 20, 2003

Street Farts

The fashion police have arrived in my neighborhood. They have chosen this summer as a time to review my entire wardrobe.

It will not take them long. I have a friend who has a great changeover of her summer and winter clothes in her closet and bureau. I have no need for that. I can barely fill the space I have with my entire wardrobe.

My closet does have arrangement. A few pair of pants and then a long line of t-shirts hang neatly. These are my short sleeve summer dress t-shirts, as opposed to my short sleeve summer anytime t-shirts which are scrunched into one corner of a drawer. My winter t-shirts are in there too. Any piece of clothing worn under something else does not deserve a hanger.

Further down at the end of my closet, which you have to stretch and stumble to get to, is my “almost never” wardrobe. A dark suit for weddings and funerals. A navy blazer for weddings and funerals of people that I do not know well. A few shirts with collars to wear to weddings and funerals. And three ties to cover all seasons of, well, weddings and funerals.

My real wardrobe challenge this summer has been about socks. Socks are a much neglected item in a man’s wardrobe. Specifically, I am having trouble with my white socks. Since I only wear dress shoes at, well, you know where, I mostly wear athletic shoes. In the United States a male must wear white socks with athletic shoes. I think it is a law or maybe even in the Constitution. I cannot tell you what a faux pas it is to wear dark socks with tennis shoes. Just go up to Old Orchard Beach in Maine and watch all those French Canadian men prancing around in dark socks. It hurts the eyes! It jars one’s sensibilities!

But even after I get the color right, there remains the question of length. When I was growing up in the fifties, there was only one length: long. Women wore these little shoe liner things, maybe called peds. But real men wore high, white socks.

Around 1980 I played in a gold tournament with Brother #2 in Florida. He and his friends all had on those little peds. I can recall vividly how much fun he and his friends had ridiculing my high white socks for the entire weekend. I of course knew how superior my socks were to their sissy socks, but their remarks made an imprint.

As our culture moved forward, sock rules changed. Golf and the running boom moved the tops of socks lower. I like to fit in and I have adapted. I do not wear those silly peds, but I do wear low cut, heavy, manly socks.

However, I do have one little quirk. I like to wear these socks with my sandals. I just do not like the feel of sandal on my feet. It is sticky. Rocks get caught in there. Ouch! Socks with Birkenstocks is definitely counter cultural.

My other brother, Brother #1, takes great glee whenever he catches me in my socks and sandals routine. Fortunately he also lives in Florida so I do not have to be the brunt of his comments too often. But he got me to thinking. Maybe I was going too far with this protect the feet thing.

This year I decided to initiate a bold experiment. I would go sockless with sandals. It felt alright for awhile – for about a hundred yards. Then the bottom of my feet started to heat up and stick to the sandals. And then my right foot started making this sound. I was mortified. My feet were farting! I was looking for street smarts and all I got was street farts!

The experiment ended quickly. I have decided to grow up and stick by my guns or at least by my socks. I am old enough to choose my wardrobe without fear of ridicule. At least if I am not in Florida. And my walks are much quieter.

May 20, 2003

The Power of Later

Eckart Tolle’s book The Power of Now seems to have caught the attention of many in Shalom Nation. I first learned about it eighteen months ago from an interview with Tolle in The Sun magazine. It made me want to read more and I ordered the book from the library. Well, I tried to read it. I forced myself through a few chapters but it just was not holding my attention. I could not focus enough on it to get anything out of it, so I abandoned Tolle and the “power of now.”

That is probably a bit of an overstatement. In order to abandon something you have to have been in its presence for a time. I cannot say that I have ever been “in the now.” It really is a simple concept to grasp, but it is much harder to implement.

This was not the first time the “power of now” has been brought to my attention. Many years ago I devoured Be Here Now by Ram Das. I thought it was a great idea back then. And I still think it is a great idea. A great idea for others. I see no sense in embracing this idea for me because it is a complete impossibility that I will attain the ability to be present in the now.

I can hear you saying, “Take small steps. You will make progress.” No I will not. I will not make progress. I will not take small silly steps. Instead I am embracing an easier method of personal advancement.

Welcome to The Power of Later, soon to be my best seller. I thought about calling it The Power of Yesterday, but I could not identify with that. I do not spend much time reviewing what happened yesterday. I know that some people do, and perhaps they will write the book. For me the future is the thing. The future is everything.

I have done a scientific study of the patterns of my mind and ninety eight percent of all of my thoughts are about the future. Of course, some of that, and I cannot reveal the exact percentage, is thoughts about sex in the future. The other two percent is about sex in the past. I am so future oriented that my anxieties have completely taken over. In fact much of my time is spent worrying about my future anxiety.

I need relief. The Power of Later will provide relief. Every time that I find myself worrying, I intone my new mantra, “Later, dude.” This allows me to put off my worrying time until later. But the brilliance of the idea is that later never comes. It is always put off. Is this a win/win situation or what?

Later, dude.

March 7, 2003

Umbrella Heart

Mr. Rogers is dead. Long live Mr. Rogers! A royal sendoff is necessary for Mr. Rogers. To me he was that big. And he is not really gone, because he left so much behind.

He has a first name, Fred, but I do not use it. He will always be “Mister” to me. I met Mr. Rogers in the 1980’s in my living room. I watched him first with my daughter and then with my son, and I loved Mr. Rogers from the beginning. He came in every day and changed from his suit jacket and shoes to a cardigan sweater and sneakers.

My father did the same thing. When I was a small boy I would wait for him every night at the train station at the end of his commute. He would jump down from the train with a wide smile beneath the brim of his hat. As he walked down the platform with long strides, I would skip to keep up, while eating the half bag of peanuts that he always saved for me.

I chattered all the way home and followed him up to his walk-in bedroom closet where he changed out of his dressy work clothes. His suit, tie and dress shoes came off. His starched white button down shirt remained. Added were a maroon cardigan, brown work/play pants which were once part of a suit, and some old shoes. He was then ready for whatever exciting after dinner activity I could coax him into. Our evening together had begun.

So when Mr. Rogers changed his clothes it brought me back to my place as a small child. Although I would not get down on the floor with my children, I took my place beside them. Only small children watch Mr. Rogers. Only they understand him.

I loved his wonderful puppets with their simple story lines. It evoked a much younger and simpler time. I loved Lady Aberlyn, who reminded me of my next door neighbor, Mrs. Ellis. And the puppets King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday. Everyone on the show was nice.

“Nice” is not necessarily in vogue these days. Eddie Murphy did funny and vicious skits on Saturday Night Live showing what Mr. Rogers would be like if really deep down he was not nice. And that was fair too. We all have some darkness in us and I am sure that Mr. Rogers was no exception. But for thirty minutes a day, nice was good. As a jaded adult, I needed the reminder.

When I think of Mr. Rogers I think of his smile and his gaze. I knew that he was looking at me – right at me. He was focused on me and I liked the attention. It turns out that it was not my imagination. I was seeing and sensing the real Mr. Rogers.

Tom Junod reported on his experience of interviewing Mr. Rogers in Can You Say…”Hero”, originally published in Esquire and reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, edited by Philip Zaleski. It is an inspirational portrait.

He thought that he was doing the interview to learn about Mr. Rogers, but he quickly learned that was not Mr. Rogers’ agenda. Mr. Rogers wanted to learn about Tom. Tom reported, “There was an energy to him, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy, and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me.” They spent several days together and Junod watched him do this over and over with others.

I had a similar experience last Fall when I interviewed Jerry Jud, the founder of Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center. I went to the interview to pick his brain for information and wisdom, but what I received was the fierce, loving presence of the man. He was intent on getting to know me and he focused all of his energies on doing so.

Mr. Rogers was a religious man and his goal was to live heaven on earth. He told Tom, “The connections we make in the course of a life – maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us. I’ve just met you, but I am invested in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

Being with Mr. Rogers changed Tom Junod. He wrote, “All I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.”

People like Mr. Rogers and Jerry Jud challenge me. They challenge me to bring back the amazement and love of a small boy for a father. To have a child-like mind. To go back to that place before all the fear of connection was learned. They challenge me to encounter others with an umbrella heart.

February 18, 2003

Hide and Don't Seek

During one of the exercises at the last Gathering, the question was asked, “Why are you here tonight?” I answered truthfully, “Because I am supposed to be here.”

This answer was honest. I attended in great part out of a sense of duty. A voice in my head says that I am the leader of this group, Shalom Seacoast, and therefore I should attend all Gatherings. They are not a choice for me. I must attend unless I am out of town. Add this to the list of “shoulds” in my life.

The truth is that I was not in a very loving space that night. Fear had been ruling and running my life. I was in a lot of pain and the last thing in the world that I wanted to do was go to the Gathering and reveal that I was hurting. So I had to go, but hide. The closest I could get to the truth during check-in was to say that I was feeling “vulnerable.” Such an understatement. I was a riot of feelings, mostly pain.

I make no apology for being dishonest at the Gathering. I did the best I could that night. That night I needed to stay in hiding. Fortunately, others at the Gathering were not in hiding. They showed up with honesty and true vulnerability. They gave me hope for me.

I am sure that I was not the only outlaw in hiding that night – not the only frightened soul on the lam from the truth. I bet that some others at the Gathering were also hiding. And others were hiding at home in front of their television sets or tucked early into their beds. I believe that all of us were doing the best we could that night, wherever and however we were.

By the end of the Gathering I was glad that I went. It gave me something. I walked out into the brisk night air changed, carrying some small shard of new possibility. I received that just by being in the presence of others.

I long to really show up. It is so hard. It is so hard for me to put out my real self – beautiful and nasty, ecstatic and in hopeless desperation. I want to be all together, but I am not. In fact, at times I feel more unraveled than ever.

I am glad there is a place I can go on a regular basis, even if it is only to hide. Maybe my self-imprisonment is moving closer to the barred door which I have erected and locked from the inside. Maybe I am moving out.

January 24, 2003

Penquins and Sex Part 2

The penguins are at it again. I seem to be haunted by penguin stories. It must be one of those past life things.

I am sure that you will recall my report in this space last Spring of the plight of the male Emperor penguins. In Antartica, which in the cold air of today feels close by, the females lay their eggs, hand them off to the males and then take off for the winter. The males are left standing there on the ice with their buddies for the entire winter with no food. At the time, this story distressed me.

Well, I was not alone. After my exposé, word of this travesty reached the penguin population of the Untied States. Protests have been mounting in zoos and aquariums across the country. Until recently the people in charge have been able to keep the information under wraps and away from the media. But the story has become too big to contain.

Last week USA Today reported on strange happenings at the San Francisco Zoo. On December 24, six Magellannic penguins were transferred from Sea World to the zoo. They joined the existing penguin population at the zoo who normally spend winter in their burrows, coming out for an occasional swim. Within two hours of their arrival, the new kids on the block reportedly “convinced the entire flock to leave their burrows” and fifty two penguins began swimming laps around the pool in unison for hours and hours.
They have confounded zookeepers. “We’ve lost all control,” one said. The keepers attempted to regain control by emptying the pool for cleaning. The penguins just jumped in and started marching around the pool.

The zoo claims that the behavior of the penguins is a mock migration. I know better. I know a protest march when I see one. I recognize solidarity. It was only a matter of time before the world wide movement lamenting the brother penguins in Antartica exploded. There is no turning back now.

Some interesting side issues to this protest movement exist. Breeding season begins next month for the penguins at the San Francisco Zoo and the zookeepers are worried. “It may be a very stimulating breeding season,” one said. “Stimulating.” Now there is an understatement. These little penguins are jazzed. The brothers are angry. They are on fire. This could be an interesting melding of the protest movement and sex.

It is no accident that this movement has broken out at the San Francisco Zoo. This zoo manages the “studbook” for all the penguins in facilities in the United States. While doing research for this story I discovered that this zoo is the epicenter for animal sex in this country. In addition to maintaining the studbook for penguins, it holds (in their words) “widely popular Sex Tours.”

The “14th Annual Valentine’s Day Sex Tour” is coming up. It is billed as an “engaging event” and features “up-close encounters with animals.” Do I dare say more? Do I dare try to guess what this Sex Tour is all about?

I am worried that the penguins will use this year’s Sex Tour as a platform for their burgeoning protest movement. What better time to shine the light on the bondage of male penguins? What better time to unite the brothers of the animal kingdom and beyond?

Fortunately, we on the East Coast are far away from this mixture of protest and sex. Also fortunately, everything in California eventually makes it to the East Coast. But until then we will have to limp along on our frozen, puritan ideas of fun.