February 26, 2009

Another interesting commute

So, there was another lunatic on the subway this evening. On the way home from work, I boarded a half-empty train and found a spot standing in the aisle facing out towards the windows. As the train flew through the dark tunnel, the reflection in the window revealed a grizzled, disheveled gentleman sprawled across the row of seats behind me, with his belongings sprawled across the row of seats ahead of him. Before the train had gotten very far, he began sputtering and grumbling. I continued watching in the reflection as a fellow commuter noticed, shifted, and moved to the other end of the car. Despite his apparent weirdness, the lunatic had the presence of mind at the next stop to gather himself and his belongings into one row of seats and offer the row he emptied to some new passengers.

As the train continued, the volume of his mutterings increased until it became clear to us all that he had a serious issue with air travel. "Don't fly the goddamned airplanes up in the sky! I don't unnerstand you people, why you wanna fly? God said keep your feet on da ground! I'm tryin' to save you, like Jesus Christ, I try to save you!" All of this tumbling out of his almost toothless mouth in the most gravelly voice I've ever heard. He'd occasionally become more excited, at one point standing and leaning over between the two people in the row in front of him. One of the two, commendably, remained calm and quietly urged the lunatic to take a break, telling him that we understood, it was ok, he should sit down. It worked. He gradually calmed a bit, telling us again in a lower voice that he loved us and just wanted to save us.

As always in these situations, my attention shifted between the lunatic and the reactions of the people around him. On a few of the faces nearby, I sensed alarm, annoyance, stifled giggles. Most, though, stoically gave no indication that they noticed anything at all out of the ordinary.

On and on the guy went, standing and waving his arms, sitting back down and grumbling, then standing again to exhort us all to stay outta the goddamned airplanes up in the sky. I wanted so badly to turn around and ask him what he thought of cars. What held me back? Sure, a part of me was apprehensive of further setting him off, uncertain of how close he might be to whatever line kept him from physically accosting any of us. But I think a bigger part of me feared something else. What if he didn't understand the question? What if he flat out ignored me? I honestly think I was afraid of being rebuffed by a lunatic.

After a while, he again quieted down and sprawled back in his seat, letting out periodic low cackles. I glanced up from scribbling at one point and happened to catch his eye. A moment later I heard him mutter "What's she writin' over there? She writin' a book?" A young couple a few rows up captured his attention then and he began babbling about how nice it is to have a girlfriend. Next minute, though, we heard over and over about how the girlfriend had been kidnapped, and that "They gonna kill da white girl on tv." But he was an equal opportunity lunatic, because very soon "They gonna kill da white man, too..."

Thirty-five minutes after I boarded, when the train reached the end of the line and we all got off, he stayed sprawled and rambling in his seat. I can picture him now, riding into the night, warning his fellow subway passengers of the dangers of "the goddamned airplanes." Hopefully, at some point, his mind will let his body rest.

February 22, 2009

Ain't there one damned song that can make me break down and cry?

David Bowie sings that line in Young Americans, which is a pretty intense tune in its own right. I was recently reminded of the one song that always has that effect on me, and it just so happens to be another of his. I go through long periods during which I forget about this song, then I'll hear it somewhere, on the radio, over a store intercom and... it'll hit me. An emotional reaction that I feel all the way down in my toes. I have no idea what it is that does it-- the lyrics are profoundly meaningful, the vocals are beautiful and evocative, and both are perfectly complimented by the softenings and swellings of the music. But dozens of other songs contain those same elements. Bowie somehow combines them all in a way that never fails to put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. The statement at the end of the video is apt, Bowie does indeed rox.


I still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I'm much too fast to take that test

(Turn and face the strain)
Don't want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware what they're going through

(Turn and face the strain)
Don't tell them to grow up and out of it
(Turn and face the strain)
Where's your shame
You've left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can't trace time

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace I'm going through

(Turn and face the strain)
Oh, look out you rock 'n rollers
(Turn and face the strain)
Pretty soon now you're gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can't trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time

February 21, 2009

Random babblings: Spring fever

Spring fever has begun creeping up on me yet again, with its usual symptoms of restlessness and agitation. I'm digging through cds and pulling out old music for a change of pace, having flashbacks in my mind's eye to summer bike rides and the scenery that accompanied them, and itching to hit the road for far away places. The winter's chilly grip is loosening, leaving me with a need to sweat. A hike in the woods or flowing yoga routine just won't cut it, I need to get out on my bike and really make my body work.

More compellingly, I want to get out on my bike, the first I've had that feeling in months. Knowing that the weather's oh-so-gradually warming up means it's time to get the bike cleaned and ready. I won't spring-clean my apartment, but I will give the bike a thorough going-over-- removing the chain and lovingly wiping down each link, polishing up the frame with a bottle of aptly-named Bike Lust, cleaning and adjusting the components to the best of my ability. This year, inspired by #4 of the How to Ride a Bike Forever manifesto, I've decided to remove the computer from the bike. I'll be doing this with a high level of trepidation. Despite riding statistic-less for the majority of my life, I quickly became addicted to entering those numbers on a log. None of them were particularly impressive by "serious" cyclist standards, but my left-brain was tickled pink by logging, reviewing, comparing, and analyzing. But I feel strongly that it's time to get back to right-brain riding for at least a while, so left-brain's just gonna have to handle its numbers withdrawal as best it can. Besides, getting all those wires out of the way will make cleaning the bike just that much easier.

On the subject of the increasingly run-down looking apartment that I hate to clean, it's becoming a major source of dukkha. After re-painting half of the place a few years ago and then having the bathroom somewhat professionally remodeled, I'd been planning to begin tackling other things in increments-- new dishwasher and refrigerator, then new flooring in the kitchen and sunroom, finally finishing the re-painting job... But $12,000 of veterinarian bills over the course of 2008 completely side-tracked those ambitions. Meanwhile, the list has continued to grow even as the money has shrunk. While I was in Vegas on a 10-day business trip last summer, the cats tore down a chunk of wallpaper in the kitchen, which means that room's just that much closer to needing a complete remodel. A crack in some small component of the furnace is being monitored at bi-annual maintenance checks, in the hopes that it won't necessitate a whole unit replacement for a few more years. And, more recently, I came home to find that some numb-skull left my storm door unlatched while distributing menus for a pizza place that I'll never call. The wind apparently then caught the door and blew it back against the wall of the building, yanking the retracting door closures out of the door frame and breaking the wood of the frame. I should be glad it didn't shatter the glass of the door, but as I picked screws, bolts, and other assorted parts off the ground, all I wanted to do was punch the un-thinking doofus in the face (for which I'll certainly spend another lifetime in samsara, if the whole Hindu/Buddhist reincarnation thing really holds water).

The houses we lived in when I was growing up always had the same hodge-podge, borderline decrepit feeling my place is beginning to take on. My father is a fairly competent, energetic handy-man, but he's also easily distracted, never fully completing any of the projects he begins. I'm in some sort of handy-person limbo, myself. I can swap out a door-knob or hang a curtain rod lickety-split, but was flummoxed in my attempts to remove and replace a worn-out kitchen faucet. And my only excuse for not getting back to re-painting the rest of the apartment is pure laziness. Painting's fun for about two hours, and then I can't take it anymore and want to just go play. I'm to the point that I feel like I need to begin sketching or writing poetry, just so I can absent-mindedly look around the place and shrug, using the excuse that I'm too busy being creative to worry about mundane things like the appearance of my home. It would be better than this feeling that I'm too broke and/or lazy to do anything about it.

Fuck it all, I'm outta here. It's flipping cold outside, but the woods are calling.

February 15, 2009

Spreading the sanity meme...

Got this from Jim over at Unholy Rouleur (who is smart, thoughtful, and funny, so go read his stuff):

What can you say to that? It just makes too much sense and should be required viewing by everyone. (To give credit where it's due, here's where Jim snagged his link.)

February 6, 2009

Recent readings: Chocolate-covered understanding

Zen... is nondoctrinal, concrete, existential, and seeks above all to come to grips with life itself, not with ideas about life, still less with party platforms in politics, religion, science or anything else.
(Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite)

Merton's description of Zen fairly well sums up the point of Brad Warner's latest book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. Brad uses himself and the chaos of his life in 2007 as a visceral example of the ways in which Buddhism, Zen specifically, is misunderstood. Now, I should say off the bat that Warner's writing is not for everyone. Near the end of the book, Brad describes himself as "too shy and indirect." That may be so in person, but his writing is blatant and direct, sometime vulgar, and very often goofily funny. His books tend to hit you like a Three Stooges poke in the eyes. After you rub the shock away, you can't help but see things differently.

Now, for that misunderstanding. I'll admit, I immediately fell for the neat little myth that Buddhism brings an all-encompassing calm to one's life. I mean, heck, folks like the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron are always shown with happy, almost impish, grins on their faces. That's how we're all supposed to end up after enough time on the cushion, right? Wrong, at least where Zen is concerned:

The Middle Way was not some kind of spiritual path designed to make us all holy with shiny pink halos on our noggins. It was a way to live a life that wasn't a piece of shit. It was a way to find happiness and stability in an unhappy and unstable world. That's really all any of us are looking for, when it comes down to it. The stability of the Middle Way comes in our practice of zazen [meditation], which is the actual physical and mental practice of stability and happiness. A bit of zazen... radiates throughout the rest of the day and night and makes everything better. That's all there is to it.

And yet:

You may be wondering why, with all my Zen training, I would still feel this kind of tension. If you are, I understand. When I first started all this meditation stuff I also believed that it would fix me so that I'd never feel a bad feeling ever, ever again. It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid.

The practice does make this kind of stuff easier. But no amount of enlightenment will eliminate all stress and tension from your life. We all have a certain amount of karma to get through, and nothing can change that... The best you can do is learn how to add as little new garbage to the pile as possible. But this in itself is a very significant thing.

Sound a tad contradictory and confusing? What it all comes down to is expectation. Ultimately, the source of all our dukkha, all our squirmy dissatisfactions and outright suffering, is that we expect the world and our lives to be a certain way. We expect to be happy, to never feel emotional anguish or physical pain, to never be divorced or lose a job, to never break a leg or get cancer, and for the sun to always come out tomorrow. But we never see that the problem is the expectation itself. We become so caught up in the contrast between what is and what we were hoping for that just dealing with the situation as it is becomes unbearable. We forget to "...on every occasion ask thyself, what is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing?" (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VII, 36. Those Stoics sure had a lot in common with Buddhism.)

In ZWiKDiC, Warner clarified this for me succinctly, yet indirectly. In describing the questions he was asked during a sesshin dharma talk, he mentions that one participant asked how to avoid expectations in Zen practice. Brad's answer speaks specifically to all that crap I babbled about above:

...anyone doing this practice is going to have expectations. You expect to achieve peace of mind. You expect to deepen your understanding. You expect to get enlightenment.... There's no way to stop having expectations. The best you can do is understand that your expectations will never be realized... Just know that your expectations are only thoughts in your head, and keep on doing what you do.


And speaking of chocolatey goodness, I need to find me some chocolate-covered Pop Rocks. Fizzy popping chocolate. Sounds like awesomeness.

February 1, 2009

Happy (belated) birthday, Eddie.

Today was the final day of the bicentennial edition of Baltimore's annual Edgar Allen Poe birthday celebration. I've attended a few times in years past, but had to go again to laud Eddie on his 200th year. The event took place, as always, at Westminster Hall, which was once Westminster Burial Ground, which is where Poe, his young wife/cousin and his mother-in-law/aunt are buried together. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed during the performances, so I'll have to try to sum it up in words.

The celebration began with the singing of "Annabel Lee" by a female soprano. I'm sure her voice would be considered lovely, but high-pitched female voices make me cringe so I could have done without. She was followed by a very cheesy, low-budget pantomime/puppet performance of Hop Frog, after which the event really got good. Third on the bill was local actor Tony Tsendeas in the role of the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart. Tony's portrayal of this short story has been a recurring part of the annual Poe Halloween celebration at Westminster and this was probably the 5th or 6th time I've seen it. He still had me on the edge of my seat. I'd love to see him do a similar performance of Poe's The Black Cat.

After a short intermission, Jeff Jerome (curator of the nearby Poe House and Museum) introduced the night's special guest, John Astin. It's been several years since Astin's last appearance at the birthday event. When I saw him on that occasion, he was a dead-ringer (no pun intended) for Poe. Tonight, I almost didn't recognize him as he strode up the aisle to the stage. The years have altered him from Gomez Adddams into a bald-pated, white-bearded grandfather-ly figure. Still hearty and spry, though, and dashing in his tuxedo as he sat on the stage in a chair once used by Poe himself. Then, in the unmistakable voice of Gomez, he read some of Eddie's darkest works as if they were bed-time stories, relating each piece to the highs and lows, the few joys and many losses, of Poe's life. I didn't recognize the first piece as it was brief and over too quickly, but the rest of Mr. Astin's selections were:

- "Conqueror Worm"
- The Masque of the Red Death
- "To Helen"
- "A Dream Within a Dream"
- "Eulalie"
- A portion of a letter written by Poe, in which he describes the prolonged death of his beloved Virginia from tuberculosis, and his resultant "insanity"
- "The Raven" (can't leave that one out, especially in Baltimore)
- "To One in Paradise"
- Passages from the prose poem, Eureka, which apparently displays Poe's prescient predictions in cosomology.
- "For Annie"
- '"Annabel Lee" (Astin's reading was much preferable to the female vocalist earlier in the evening)
And finally,
- "Eldorado"

The evening concluded with the annual apple cider toast to Poe and more squirming from me as the female vocalist returned to wail Amazing Grace and Auld Lang Syne. I'd have been happy for things to have just ended with Poe's own words from an 1844 letter, as quoted in the toast:

"You speak of 'an estimate' of my life'-- and, from what I have already said, you will see that I have none to give. I have been too deeply conscious of the mutability and evanescence of temporal things, to give any continuous effort to anything-- to be consistent in anything. My life has been whim-- impulse-- passion-- a longing for solitude-- a scorn of all things present, in an earnest desire for the future."

I'm sure Eddie had no clue just how those of us in the future would come to regard him. I hope it would have brought him satisfaction and a measure of peace.

Memorabilia of the night

Westminster Hall

John Astin signing autographs. The guy would not sit still-