Recently in life itself Category

Top ten books -- because you asked for it

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People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid -- or perhaps, naive -- in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.

Problem is, I can't bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let's give it a try anyway:

(1) Nietszche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.

(2) Juliet Schor - The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.

(3) Duke and Gross - America's Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.

(4) Mathieu Ricard - Happiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.

(5) Michael Pollan - The Omnivore's Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.

(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.

(7) Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently -- a couple years ago. I think it's one of the finest novels I have ever read.

(8) Haruki Murakami - 1Q84. It isn't just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don't know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet... universal? "Remember: there is always only one reality." Really?

(9) Don deLillo - Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.

(10) Terry Eagleton - Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them -- a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I'll call Fred -- he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a "Catholic Marxist," i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

Running another Philadelphia marathon

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I never expected this. For over 20 years I was a typical jogger, going out two or three times a week for about four miles at a leisurely pace. With no goal other than fitness and enjoyment, I was unconcerned about going farther or faster. Suddenly I was 55 years old and lacing up my shoes for my fifth marathon.

It started in the winter of 2008, when a friend with marathon experience invited me to join him for a half marathon in Central Park, and I discovered that I enjoyed running nonstop for two hours. The idea of a marathon, hitherto almost inconceivable, became attractive. In the fall of that same year I ran Philly in 3:51, and loved it. I had the appropriate attitude of humility and respect for the distance, running a disciplined, well-regulated race the likes of which, ironically, I haven't been able to match ever since.

Next was New York in 2009. By now I had moved to South Orange and fell in with a delightful gang of experienced, enthusiastic, and talented distance runners known as The South Mountain Running Collective. I became ambitious, and wanted to meet the Boston qualifying standard of 3:35. Like a fool, I went out too fast, and had to struggle and suffer to hang on over the last 10K, attaining the goal with only seconds to spare. Going out too fast is the classic mistake in distance running, though you might think it would not be so difficult to avoid.

But this performance got me to Boston in 2011, where I repeated the same error, albeit not as drastically: another positive split, but I beat my goal of 3:20 by five seconds, and easily qualified again for Boston in 2012. (Runners call it a negative split where the second half of a race is faster than the first, and it is well established that it is far more effective than the reverse.)

And how could I resist going back to Boston again? I could not, and trained with a view to another personal record (or PR, which is also a verb in runnerspeak) of about 3:17. But the temperatures were in the high 80s that day in April. We were forced to revise our plans and focus on simple survival. Hence my disappointing 3:43, 13 minutes short of Boston qualification (BQ) for my age group.

By now I was thinking it might be nice to get off the crazy train. Marathon training is a time- and energy-consuming pain in the ass, and try though we might to keep it tucked away in its own discreet little compartment, it inevitably has an impact on other people in our lives. And sometimes those people don't like it. But could I really go out like that, credible excuse notwithstanding? With a 3:43?

No. In November 2013 I was back in Philadelphia again to settle accounts with the marathon gods. This time, however, the training cycle had been more challenging. It is not unusual to encounter setbacks of some kind during 20 weeks of training. Sickness, injuries, family dramas, the demands of work — in short, life — sometimes interfere. I had successfully navigated through bronchitis, a death in the family, and other challenges in previous training cycles. But this time injuries cost me a week and a half in August and several more days in October, and I was not able to get all the mileage I would have liked.

Even so, when I walked up to the line, I felt fit to run a successful marathon. The key workouts in the final stage of training had gone well. My injuries had subsided, the weather was fine, even my pre-race jitters seemed noticeably less severe than in the past. This time I did not have a fixed, specific goal. I thought 3:15 was conceivable, but decided anything up to 3:17:30 would be acceptable. And I had a plan, known as 10 + 10 + 10: go out relatively conservatively for the first 10 miles, i.e., at a 3:17:30 pace; pick it by a few seconds per mile for the next 10 miles; and for the last 10K, be in a position to pick up the pace even more, possibly enough to get me there in 3:15.

Once we got underway, embarrassing though it is to admit, I am not really sure what I was thinking. I do recall making a conscious effort to hold back initially. Over the first mile, traffic was congested, and I decided to go with it rather than fight. My first mile was a 7:42, but that was perfectly OK. A slow start was desirable; there was plenty of time to make it up.

For the next 18 miles or so, it seemed that nobody was in charge. The data on my GPS watch says that mile 2 was 7:18; mile 3, 7:08. For miles 4 and 5 I dialed it back to 7:24, but that was still about 8 seconds per mile too fast. The next few miles included a couple of moderate ones, and my average pace for the first 10 was around 7:30. The pushing and pulling continued over the second 10 miles, but the average overall was around 7:25 — consistent with the overall plan, yes, but too late because I had already blown too much energy in the first 10. By around mile 17 or 18 I was still feeling OK, but tired enough to predict that after 20 miles it was going to be hard to maintain the pace. Miles 22 to 25 were 7:40, 7:44, 7:48, 7:56, 7:55.

Crossing 26 with the crowds screaming encouragement, I was able to pick it up to a 6:53 pace, but over the last 10K I averaged about 7:48 and came in at 3:17:23. (The gory details are published at

This marathon experience was different from the previous two in which I was seriously trying to reach a goal. In New York, the last 10K were hellish, but my addled mind had enough command of the numbers to understand that I would meet the BQ threshold if and only if I ran like hell. This motivated me to fight hard against the fatigue. The same was true in Boston in 2011: I knew the 3:20 mark was still within reach, but I had to dig. In this race, the goal was comparatively vague: sub-3:17:30, hopefully something closer to 3:15. For the last 10K I felt fatigue, but it wasn't especially painful — I simply couldn't convince myself to run faster. But I also felt pretty sure that the 3:17:30, and certainly the PR, was in the bag. That complacency probably hurt my cause; a bit of drama, pressure and anxiety might have provided helpful motivation.

3:17:23 represents a PR by over two minutes, and a Boston qualifier with over 22 minutes to spare; it was also good enough for 16th place among 319 men in the 55-59 age group. Maybe I ought to be happy with that. And although I am not completely disappointed with the bottom line, I am pretty disgusted with myself for not having better discipline. The objective numbers demonstrate that I had the fitness; the subjective experience of how smoothly the whole 26.2 went by, weak finish nothwithstanding, confirms it. I am almost certain I was physically prepared to run at least one, maybe even as much as two minutes faster. But I positive-split it by 1:22 and squandered this splendid opportunity.

Why is it so hard to slow down in those early miles? For me, I think one problem — if it can be considered a problem — is that proper marathon training really works. On race day you are fit, tuned up, but also tapered and rested — not to mention jacked up with the excitement. When the gun goes off and you start running, it is extremely difficult to believe that running can feel this easy and still be fast enough. It seems like you should be exerting at least a little bit. Even the minutes and seconds your watch displays at the mile markers do not convince. So, for me, the lesson is: believe it, bitch. It may even be that I could run a faster marathon next time by setting out to run it slower. Then there might be enough gas in the tank at the end to finish strong enough to get a better result.

Wait — did I just say next time? Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Which brings us back to where we started. I said I never expected to be running marathons, much less running them this fast. I said I would like to get off the crazy train, and maybe I will. But it isn't easy. When you're an athlete, you enjoy the challenge of seeing how well you can do, so you keep trying. Eventually the inevitable effects of age overcome the positive effects of training, but that's no reason to give up prematurely. Another factor is that running marathons (and shorter races as well) is really cool, and fun, and profoundly rewarding. It gets into your bones and becomes part of your identity: you're a runner. What's the use of trying to be anybody else?

Remembering Nancy F.

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It has been just about a year since a good friend died at a mere 57 years of age. I observe this anniversary by publishing the eulogy that my evil twin gave at her memorial, with just a couple of minor edits. Whereas he spoke of the legendary SDNY Courthouse Follies in the past tense, I have changed it to the present tense. That's because at the time, Nancy's colleagues were too stupified with grief to think seriously about doing the Follies without her. Not long thereafter, they came to the realization that the Courthouse Follies is too good not to continue, and that there is absolutely no better and more appropriate way to honor Nancy's memory than by putting on the show.

Good evening.

We are all going to die. That simple, self-evident fact is perfectly easy to accept as an intellectual, objective proposition; it is much harder to come to grips with on a deeper, emotional and psychological level.

I've come to believe that one of our most important tasks in this thrilling, unpredictable, supremely delightful, horribly painful game known as life is not to obliterate our fear of death, but rather to learn to live with that fear — truly live with it — and be free at last from that ever-present undercurrent of anxiety and fear of our inevitable death. If we accomplish that, we have a chance at genuine happiness, and liberation: the freedom to live our life exactly as it is right now, rather than worrying about losing it.

This is much more easily said than done. In Buddhism they have a word for it: they call it Practice.

Nancy was not a Buddhist — not any kind of -ist as far as I could tell. But she surely had a Practice. I am convinced that on some level she understood and embraced the kind of worldview I'm describing — especially as she approached the end of her life, in which she was short-changed by who knows how many decades. Rather than trying to mention her many wonderful achievements and attributes, I will emphasize this: she had a fabulous sense of humor. Underlying that splendid humor was deep wisdom: though she was no stranger to pain and loss, she knew how to live and enjoy life. She knew how to appreciate life's offerings. She knew how to have fun.

Over the 20 years I worked as one of the staff interpreters in the office she managed so ably, I must have had hundreds of conversations with her that followed a common pattern: they would begin with me poking my head into her office to discuss something or other, usually office business. She would always look up from her monitor and keyboard to greet me with her characteristic warmth. "Yes, mon cher?" Then one or the other of us would say something funny. And the conversation would end with both of us laughing. You know the way she laughed, with lots of nasal involvement.

We're talking a lot this evening about Courthouse Follies because the deservedly legendary show was one of her signature achievements, possibly the most visible and well-loved. Entertaining as it is, the show is about so much more than just amusement. No, it is a matter of utmost importance to us all. As Nancy sometimes liked to quip, comedy is serious business. (Not sure whom she stole that line from.) Our job can be brutally stressful. We witness suffering and pain every day. We are all duty-bound to remain stuck in our rigidly defined roles, even at those times when our humanity cries out for us to do otherwise. Nothing is more important to our collective mental health than the Follies. At least once a year we need to sit in a room together and just laugh. Nancy was the leader of that noble project. It was she who put it all together and made it happen. (If this were a federal Sentencing Guidelines analysis, she would get an enhancement for being a leader, supervisor, manager...)

I remember one time when she addressed the cast just before a Follies performance, back stage. She gave us a pep talk in which she reminded us to pay attention and be where we were supposed to be at the appropriate time (incorrigibly ragged band of amateurs that we are, drinking our wine backstage before going on, she had to remind us of that!). She closed these remarks by saying something like: last but not least, have fun. Have fun.

Thank you, Nancy. Thank you for making such a positive contribution to the world and enriching our lives.

You know how she loved comedy. I'll share this with you on condition of the strictest confidentiality, all 200 of you my closest friends, lest I incriminate myself: I sometimes do judge imitations. Especially when I'm just back from a courtroom assignment with a judge's idiosyncracies still fresh in memory. Nancy absolutely loved laughing at these imitations. She would sometimes come up to me, eyes ablaze with that childlike, gleeful enthusiasm of hers — and urge me to to entertain the assembly with my imitation of Judge So-and-So. I would comply, and she would laugh and laugh, hoot with laughter.

I usually prefered to launch into an imitation spontaneously, that is, whenever the Muses moved me to it. So there were times when she would ask me to do an imitation, and I would decline on the grounds that I wasn't in the mood, or some such nonsense. I now understand, and have learned this valuable lesson from Nancy: life is too short not to "do" one more judge. Even on demand.

marathon report in 17 syllables

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for twenty weeks we
train for Boston only to
get burned by the heat

I survived the 2012 Boston Marathon

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In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.

For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men's 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 -- preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.

At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well -- mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an "experience."

I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify -- until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful -- even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.

We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race -- I'll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren't just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other's success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.

The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.

The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.

Our friend and coach -- let's call him Bill Haskins -- was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner's pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.

Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.

By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it's called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.

A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.

All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.

Turkey -- a poem by Master Lin-chi

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As I enter the kitchen
turkey! the human is

making sandwiches.
I leap onto the counter.
she hisses at me
in her language
and pushes me off

she will change her mind
(or turn her back)
I leap again.

Highlights from 2011

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Here are a few salient events from another interesting year:

  • I won myself a trophy for third place in my 50-54 age/gender group in a half marathon in Monmouth County, NJ. This is remarkable because it was not long ago that the very idea was inconceivable. The trophy itself is hideously ugly, but I am glad to accept it nonetheless.
  • I ran my third marathon, in Boston. In short, it was a successful and rewarding venture. See this report if you want the gory details.
  • I won my age group in not one but two local 5K races -- small ones, but still... The second was noteworthy because I was actually disappointed in my performance, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable and posting a slower time than I thought I should. Winning my age group and still not satisfied -- have I lost my mind?
  • My stepfather died at the age of 93, in March. He was an accomplished astronomer who led a long and productive life, and is remembered with great admiration and affection by hundreds of people.
  • In May I crashed the shit out of my car, with two of my kids in the back seat. It wasn't good, but could have been far worse.
  • My uncle died at the age of something like 88, in August. He too was a smart man who managed to get through his long life pretty much doing as he pleased, founding and running a successful aerial photography business.
  • One of our cats, Master Lin-chi, used up a couple of his lives. First he disappeared for a full week, during the summer. He had us grieving and stapling flyers to trees all over the neighborhood. Then he walked into the house, skinny and filthy but very much alive. We have no idea where the hell he was.

    As if that wasn't enough, he then surpassed this performance by surviving an encounter with a car with nothing more than some bruises and abrasions. I took him to the vet (and what a splendid vet he is, Felix Escudero at the emergency clinic in Bloomfield, NJ) who pronounced him OK.

    I don't remember if it was before or after that incident that I called him to come home one evening, when he hadn't been seen for 24 hours. When he still didn't show up I called a little louder, and heard a faint whimper in the distance. Following the sound, I located him in the back yard two houses away, trapped in what's know as a "Have a Heart" trap -- a cage that automatically closes when an animal enters to get at some bait, stepping on a metal plate in the process. It seems that our neighbor had set it to to catch some other creature that had been giving him grief, and then saw fit to leave for the weekend. Thus Lin-chi sat with no food or water, next to a little pile of his own shit, until I rescued him. I got him out and otherwise left the trap as I found it, shit included.Master Lin-chi

    (You may say, obviously this cat should live entirely indoors, and I wouldn't disagree. But it's not an easy policy to enforce, and I am of two minds about the issue of letting cats go outdoors -- a topic for another day.)
  • Like so many others on the planet,we endured extreme weather, including tough snowstorms, a brush with a hurricane in late August, and a seasonally inappropriate winter storm in October that left us without power for a full five days.
  • Our four kids got a year bigger, all them thriving and developing and fascinating my wife and me.
  • My lovely wife and I observed another wedding anniversary, and are still crazy about each other. It's a glorious thing.


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when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse

to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes

and even the cats look at you
as though you've lost your mind:

you will ask
why am I doing this?

because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.

My fabulous car crash

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post_crash.720x540.jpgSo I'm driving along a two-lane highway in upstate New York on a pleasant afternoon in May, with two of my four kids in the back seat: Josie, my stepdaughter, almost nine years old; and my daughter Gabriela, eight. One of them says, hey my iPod battery has run down. Let me see that, say I, and start to fumble with the iPod and a charging device. Now I look up and see I have drifted into the left lane and say oh shit -- steering wheel in my left hand, iPod in my right -- and overcorrect to the right. Next thing I realize is that we are going off the road, and I have enough time to think, ok, we are going off the road, what next? Next is that terrible sound and sensation of thud. Then I realize that we are upside down, and I am thinking, ok, this isn't good, and start trying to figure out how to extricate myself, having forgotten for the time being about the girls. That's the last thing I remember until an indeterminate number of minutes later, when I'm on my back being questioned by paramedics.

According to what I've been told, another motorist driving behind us saw the whole thing and came to our aid. We had gone into the ditch on the right of the road and rolled one and a half times. She helped each of us out through the holes where the windows had formerly been. I am told I was conscious and talking, though I remember none of this. She then got my wife Amy's phone number from Josie, and called her. Amy set out driving the five-plus hours to where we were, with our other two kids coming along for lack of any child care.

I can remember having trouble reciting my address when asked by the paramedics, and being told that we would take a helicopter ride to a hospital better equipped for head traumas than the nearest place, which happened to be half a mile from the site of the accident. Josie and Gabriela were taken there, and got lousy care. Josie had been briefly unconscious and had a gash on her leg below the knee, good for ten stitches; Gabriela had some cuts on her hand but was otherwise relatively unscathed. The personnel attending to Josie should have had the sense to follow standard protocols for kids who have likely concussions, but did not. We got her proper follow-up care after we got home.

The girls told me that as we were about to be loaded into our respective ambulances, I gave them the thumbs-up sign. It's gratifying to hear that I tried to give them some proper parental reassurance.

I recall some of the helicopter ride, such as lying on the floor as the paramedics cut me out of my clothes. Have you ever had the thought -- or had someone tell you -- as you were getting dressed, that you should wear nice underwear in case you get into a serious accident? As we were preparing to leave for this trip -- the return trip following a weekend at my parents' house -- I was looking around for clean underwear, and had trouble finding some. So I said the hell with it, and pulled on my jeans. It's a safe bet that the paramedics were unfazed by the sight of my dick.

As we flew along I said to them that I usually had plenty of snappy jokes but was sorry that I could not come up with anything at the moment. They said don't worry about it. It seems that when we're in crisis, sometimes our minds want to cling to normality. I have this image of myself as affable and funny, so I wanted to be affable and funny.

I was thirsty and asked them for water. They said, sorry, we can't give you any because you might have to go right into surgery. I thought it unfortunate that they couldn't give me water because I was thirsty; I was indifferent to the prospect of surgery. I asked whether the girls were ok, and recall hearing one of paramedics remark to the other that it was the third time in ten minutes I had asked that same question -- the point being not that I was annoying but that I had a head injury.

There came a moment in which I thought, this is what is happening and I do not like it, but I don't have to like it. Just be present to what is. That's what we call Practice.

The first few hours at the hospital are vague. Someone gave me a phone and I spoke to my wife, and ex-wife, crying into the phone with anguish at having rolled the car with our kids in it. I was assured the girls were OK. I remember being presented with the standard forms on a clipboard, and a pen. I was trying to read, lying flat on my back with the clipboard blocking my light, and no reading glasses. I was particularly interested in finding the agreement to pay clause so I could cross it out and initial it, this being my invarying practice. I tried to sit up to get better light, and got into a bit of an argument with my handlers, telling them I do not sign open-ended guarantees to pay arbitrary sums of money for yet-to-be-determined services, insurance notwithstanding. (In fact, no one should ever agree to these terms, but should resist in self-defense and as protest against the broken healthcare system.) They finally said forget it, don't sign.

I had a concussion, cervical fracture and scalp lacerations. The neurosurgeon told me I was lucky, which struck me as rather a strange remark until I realized that he meant relative to what might have happened. Curiously, these injuries haven't been particularly painful. People kept offering me morphine, and I would say, no thanks, what for? I wanted to be lucid to enjoy my wife's eventual arrival. Finally she did, no thanks to the utter lack of signage pointing the way to this primitive outpost in rural Pennsylvania. She stayed with me as much as she could, and spent the night on a chair in the waiting area when they kicked her out of the ICU.

A guy punched staples into my scalp, in a scene reminiscent of the movie The Wrestler. It was painful, so I was joking that it didn't hurt, and was that the best he could do? As he finished the job, he said he was done but he could give me another staple if I wanted. Not really, I confessed.

About 24 hours after I was admitted, some physical therapists got me out of bed, walked me around the ward and pronounced me fit to leave. My wife drove us all back home to New Jersey, where I convalesced for a month.

Staying out of work was a pleasure. The first few days were difficult, because I was banged up, but the rest was a joy. If retirement is like this, I'm ready. My neurosurgeon told me we could not even discuss running for two months. After nearly fainting from the initial shock (I am a devoted distance runner), I recovered almost immediately, resigning myself to reality and realizing that worrying doesn't help.

I spent my days shuffling around the house, gradually doing more activities like housework, and taking advantage of the free time to do more zazen than usual. Paperwork and phone calls about insurance and medical bills also consumed substantial amounts of time. The financial impact of lost wages, replacing the car, etc., is non-trivial but tolerable.

Spending ten hot summer weeks in a neck brace also sucked, but I tolerated it without complaining overly much. I came out of the neck brace in early August; at the end of September I ran a half-marathon within the moderately ambitious goal of 1:40:00 that I had set, finishing in 1:38:48. This result is far from a personal record, but coming just a few months after being airlifted away from an auto accident, I accept it with gratitude.

for Victor (1918-2011)

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in the dead man's closet
trying on his clothes
not bad

South Mountain, November 2010

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we run before dawn
two pairs of feet trotting along
dark silent streets,
then up the mountain.

a few feet off the road
three deer
foraging in the woods

silhouetted in the dim cold
they look up for a moment
then ignore us

as we continue down the road
the horizon now swelling pink
through the bare trees.

Why I am a de facto semi-vegetarian

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The short answer is The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I was already generally aware of the atrocious ways of meat production in the United States: extreme cruelty to animals; adverse impacts on human health and on the environment. But the gory details were sufficient to compell me to decide not to participate any longer. There is no excuse for treating chickens, pigs, and cattle the way large industrial producers do, and I refuse to be complicit in a system of which I so strongly disapprove. Indeed, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise.grilling_veggies.jpg

That doesn't mean I am a full-blown vegetarian. Homo sapiens is one of those animals that eat other animals in order to survive, and I have no problem with that in principle. If you can serve me a piece of pork that was once a pig who was raised and killed in as humane and environmentally sustainable a way as is reasonably possible, I will happily eat it, mindful of the pig's sacrifice. A roasted rabbit, who led a natural bunny life hopping around and eating and fucking until dispatched so skillfully that Mr/Ms Bunny never knew what hit her or him? Bring it! But getting that kind of meat requires substantially more expense and effort than does the supermarket kind, and as of yet I haven't made the effort, so I have gone without eating the flesh of cattle, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and so forth.

Fish is another matter. Figuring out which kinds are harvested in an environmentally responsible fashion also takes some homework, and they have faces, and they probably don't like suffocating any more than you or I would. But I am content to rationalize that a sardine does not have the cognitive functioning to realize how bad it's getting fucked before it ends up in a can. Maybe I will eventually change my position. For now, I need protein and don't want to depend solely on nuts and tofu. So I eat fish with some qualification.

One might say, let's see you kill and butcher that animal yourself, and then see how you feel -- as Michael Pollan did. I would certainly be willing to give it a try some day -- killing my own food sounds kind of cool, in fact. But for now I am a creature who lives in the suburbs, works in a city, and going hunting with my crossbow is not really a practical alternative. The idea is certainly not forever foreclosed, but for now I am content to allow someone else to kill my food animals for me.

Opting out of industrial meat has not required any difficult adjustments in my diet, because I was already eating a lot of vegetarian meals, rarely consuming red meat, and increasingly eating fresh and local food. I have had to renounce that Cambodian style noodle soup from a Cantonese place near my office, a delicious concoction made with sliced and ground pork as well as shrimp and egg noodles in broth probably made from ducks who undoubtedly fare no better than the pigs.

As for eggs, we generally buy the most environmentally correct ones available, and willingly pay a premium over the industrial kind (think of it as insurance against salmonella poisoning courtesy of a mass producer in Iowa who churns out millions of eggs a week -- you don't need to be a Slow Food connoisseur to see the problem inherent in production on that scale). But that's also a tricky game, since what you read on the carton -- "cage free," for example -- may be bullshit. But I eat salads from a deli near my workplace, sometimes containing a hard-boiled egg about whose origins I know nothing. I am not a purist; I compromise. When I eat my kids' left-over pepperoni pizza, I peel off the pepperoni and eat it, unconcerned about the pizza being tainted with pepperoni residue. And maybe -- maybe -- when Thanksgiving rolls around I will decide to go along with the program and partake of the turkey. We'll see.

The result of this modest dietary change is that I feel fine both ethically and physically. I like to burn a lot of calories running, and have kept on setting personal record times since quitting the meat. Over time, I suspect our family will be eating still more local and fresh, and adjusting our diet according to the seasons in New Jersey. The rest of the family might even phase out the industrial flesh consumption. For now, this is working well for me.

South Mountain, May 2010

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feet and ground
through the damp spring air
infused with honeysuckle

Walking out on sesshin

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I signed up for a sesshin, or retreat, at a place called the Zen Mountain Monastery upstate: a week of lots and lots of sitting in a formal and disciplined monastic setting. I wanted to experience someplace other than the one zendo which I have attended exclusviely since I started practicing, and be an anonymous face in a large crowd. I also wanted to hear what the teachers had to say, after being deeply impressed with a couple of talks that I had read online. Two people I know who had trained at ZMM encouraged me to go. One of the founders, now deceased, is regarded as a major figure in western Zen -- John Daido Loori.

[An aside for readers not familiar with Zen as practiced by most Western lay people: the core of the practice is sitting, or zazen -- seated meditation. It's important to sit every day, and it is likewise important to do intensive practice as often as your schedule permits: that is, all-day sittings, or zazenkai, and multi-day sittings, which we call sesshin or retreats. During these extended sittings there is no talking, reading, or fooling around with phones or computers. There are periodic breaks (sometimes barely adequate) in the zazen schedule for things like meals and sleep. The idea is to keep practicing around the clock. Sesshin tends to sharpen your skills and, ultimately, make you more acutely aware of where you are and what you are doing. This is also known as being awake. It can be said that Zen is for those who would dare to wake up.]

So I drove up to Mount Tremper, NY, on a rainy Monday afternoon, and sesshin began that night. The next day at about two o'clock in the afternoon I packed my bags and walked, deciding that this was not a fruitful use of my time right about now.

The place had about it a slight fragrance of psychopathy mingled with the incense.

My mattress was seriously fucked up, and made my back hurt. The ratio of showers to people was too low to expect more than one shower over the six days. The schedule was 3:55 a.m. rise, and lights out at 9:30, with a number of short breaks and only one one-hour break for all your rest and exercise. Breakfast and lunch were taken as formal oryoki, an extremely elaborate ritual involving lots of chanting and drumming and bells, folding and unfolding cloths and arranging bowls and utensils in a very particular way.

Maybe I gave up prematurely. I was uncomfortable and got but little sleep my one night there, and sleep deprivation has a pronounced negative effect on my mood (so it is for everyone, but I seem to do worse than most). My lower back ached, although not bad enough to be a crisis. There came a point in the oryoki ritual in which you put a bit of rice on the handle end of your little wooden spatula as an offering to your supernatural imaginary friend the Hungry Ghost. That's when I realized this was not for me. I deliberated over the next hour or so to give myself a chance to reconsider, but that was pretty much the turning point in which I said fuck this.

If this sesshin regime were a prison, Amnesty International would have something to say about the inadequate opportunities for sleep, exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and bathing. But it is by no means a prison. You go in on a purely voluntary basis for a limited time -- and although it is discouraged, you can get up and leave, as I did.

I packed my gear and took it out to the car as people were assembling in the zendo for the next round of sitting, following lunch. Drove down the driveway and found there was a gate that I was going to have to open in order to get out. When I got out of the car, I saw one of the monks walking towards me, and understood that I was going to have to speak to her. I had half-tried to tell myself, prior to escaping, that walking out and hitting the highway was going to be a satisfying act of self-liberation. But when I realized I was going to have to explain myself to someone, I felt a sheet of emotion extending from somewhere around waist level to above my eyes. She asked whether something had happened. I explained as best I could that this just was not for me, not now. She said, why did you come? I knew the question was not rhetorical. She wanted me to consider why I had come in the first place. Unable to recall any reason, I said it sounded like a good idea at the time. She tried gently to dissuade me from leaving, suggesting that I might try hanging around for the afternoon, talking to one of the teachers. I pictured myself re-entering the building with my baggage and re-installing myself in the room, and found the image intolerable. If she had said, come on, I will help you get your stuff back inside, it might have been a closer contest. I told her, as respectfully and tactfully as I could, the same things I just said here. I am attached to my bourgeois lifestyle, and have trouble tolerating a week with scarcely a shower and a bed so uncomfortable that it will take my back days to recover once I get home. She said, we could do something about the bed. I said, I am a wordly and unspiritual sort of dude for whom offering blobs of rice to supernatural beings is not the way I want to spend time that I could otherwise be with my wife and kids and cats. I said I understood that walking away from the commitment to stay till the end was not approved of, and could accept it if I was banned for life. She was perfectly gracious about it, and said on the contrary, I was welcome to come back and try again any time.

I was practically in tears as I drove away, because leaving was an anguishing decision, and I felt -- rightly or not -- a certain shame and humiliation from the failure. It took the rest of the week to process and get over it.

It isn't necessary to justify myself, but I am gonna do it anyway and state for the record that I am not a one who typically quits when faced with adversity or difficulty. I have done week-long sesshin a couple times before, with schedules that were perhaps not as grueling as this one, but certainly not leisurely -- and walking out was never under serious consideration. I have kept other tough commitments in this life, like training hard for 20 weeks to run a New York Marathon at a Boston-qualifying pace even when the last 10 kilometers were brutal.

So what happened here? I think this experience can be seen as analogous to a computer crashing under excessive load. Too many hats: father; stepfather; husband; computer programmer; professional court interpreter; distance runner; single-payer healthcare activist; ....Zen monk? Crash!

There is only so much you can do at a given point in your life. You can stretch the container pretty damn far, but we all must reach a limit at some point; then you have to choose between this and that, not both. Far be it from me to find fault with this style of practice. I might even go back and try it again some day, as the monk kindly suggested that I could. For now I belong on my mat at home and zendo, and in my supremely comfortable bed with wife and purring cats.

The Annual Wrap-up

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As a committed Zen student whose ego is dropping away just as sure as shit, I like to celebrate myself whenever an excuse arises. What better excuse than the end of the Gregorian year, when it's natural to look back at all one's noteworthy experiences over the last trip around the calendar?

  • In February I moved out of my apartment in Jersey City and moved into Amy's house in Maplewood, NJ. After some 14 years of living in Jersey City, this was a significant transition. I went from living alone (i.e., with two cats and my daughter three nights per week) within a 90-second walk of a 12-minute train ride to downtown NYC to living with my de facto spouse plus her three kids plus my one kid part-time plus two cats plus the semi-full-time live-in babysitter in a three bedroom house in the suburbs, an hour and forty minutes from my workplace. Living in my delightfully disorderly shithole in JC was wonderful, but it was time to move on. Adjusting to the commute was a bit of a challenge, but I handled it. I used to complain of not having sufficient time to read. So I picked up a copy of David Copperfield and made good use of some of those hours on NJ Transit.
  • In May, Amy sold her house, and together we bought a bigger one in South Orange. Then we moved into it. Big enough for all our kids, with a home office in which Amy shrinks heads when she's not caring for children or doing laundry. This 1920-something beast is full of surprises, some of which were overlooked by the home inspector. We marvel at how previous owners could have done the lazy stupid incompetent things they did. But the place has its charms -- not the least of these being the people who inhabit it -- and within a couple of decades I'm sure we will have everything fixed up to our satisfaction.
  • For my birthday -- also in May -- I got me a nice little pneumonia. I left work so weak I could barely walk to the train, but I was too cheap/stubborn/in denial to take a taxi. Collapsed into bed, lay there trembling and hurting for a night, then woke up with the worst of it over. A few days and a few doses of drugs later, I was as good as status quo ante (only slightly older).
  • In June I underwent a vasectomy. Too much information? Gee, I'm sorry. But it's a pretty cool procedure, recovery is quick and complete, and from then on life is more convenient. (Over six months later, the facility where the procedure was performed is still waiting on Blue Cross Blue Shield to "process" their claim, but keep reading.)
  • In October I participated in civil disobedience actions along with other single-payer healthcare activists at the offices of UnitedHealth Group in Manhattan and at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Newark, NJ. Getting arrested in Newark was a breeze; we were in and out in a couple of hours. Getting arrested in New York was another story, as we went through the system and spent the night in jail at the Tombs. Why do this? Because I reached the point where complaining, going to legal demonstrations, donating money to organizations like, writing emails to elected officials, and so forth, just wasn't enough. I had to do something more to help rid our country of its disastrously inefficient and rapacious profit-driven private health insurance industry and replace it with single-payer national health insurance. Did my getting arrested help further this objective? I don't know. But lying down and giving up is not an option.
  • In November I ran the New York Marathon in 3:34:43, fast enough to qualify this 50-something male for the prestigious Boston Marathon. The first third of the race was a test of discipline, and I failed. I got too amped up, ran too fast, and spent too much fuel. The last third of the race was a test of character, and I passed. I had to summon the fortitude to keep up the goal pace even with the tank on empty.
  • In December I performed in our organization's annual Follies for the 17th consecutive year. The show makes fun of the judicial and political system, and modesty aside, we have some talented people and put on a truly funny show. This year I sang a country and western tune, playing the guitar in front of an audience for the first time in over 20 years. For someone who used to play concert repertoire like Bach, strumming a few chords is less than trivial. But I took it seriously and practiced in order to make sure it looked easy.

No doubt about it: I am a lucky bastard to be living this interesting life.

Running the 2009 New York Marathon

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I had the privilege of running the 2009 New York Marathon on Sunday, November 1. This was my second marathon; the first was Philadelphia in 2008. I trained for 20 weeks using a program from specifically designed for a 3:40:00 marathon. In the final week of training I decided to reset my goal to 3:35:59, which qualifies a male in my 50-something age bracket for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

The NY Marathon is a logistical tour de force, with its 40,000-plus runners. Organizers clearly went to great lengths to keep everything moving and avoid excess congestion. Thus the start was divided into three waves, and these in turn were further partitioned into separate routes that only merged several miles later, where the streets were wider and people were naturally spread out more than at the start.

The streets were lined with hordes of cheering people. The atmosphere was highly charged, and despite the fact that I knew better, and even as I knew what I was doing, I committed the classic marathoner's mistake known as going out too fast. Instead of running around 8:14 per mile, my pace over the first 10K was 7:53.

Gradually I calmed down and ran the middle third of the race at a more reasonable pace. But you can't change the past, and by mile 18 I knew I was going to have to pay for my earlier lack of discipline. I had taped to my left wrist a timetable showing how much time had to have elapsed at each mile if I was to attain my goal time, and from consulting it I knew I was ahead of the pace throughout the course. But by mile 20 I was fading and the margin of error was getting slimmer. I concluded that I had nothing left, therefore nothing to lose. I would ask myself, can you stand another six miles of this? Yes I can. At five miles to go: can you stand another five? Yes I can. And so on.

The split times over the last six tell a tale of alternately fading, then fighting back. Mile 20, 8:22 -- too slow. Mile 21, 8:28 -- even slower! Mile 22, 8:12 -- excellent, two seconds ahead of the goal pace. Mile 23, 8:10 -- great. Mile 24 which is largely uphill, 8:49 -- despair! Mile 25, 8:04 -- heroic. Mile 26, 8:22 -- too slow, but we're almost home. For the last 0.2 I was running at an 8:35 pace -- definitely fading fast.

When at long last the great sign that said Finish came into view, I was so spent that it took me a couple of beats to comprehend what it meant. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 3:34:44: success.

Weaving and unsteady on my feet, I was accosted by a volunteer who led me to the medical tent, where I ended up lying on a cot recovering for about 25 minutes. On the adjacent cot was a guy named John from New Zealand, apparently in his 40s, who had also nailed his BQ (Boston qualifier) at 3:17 -- and who had likewise spent everything he had and then some, and landed in the medical tent like me. In a shared state of total exhaustion and elation, we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of this amazing thing known as marathon running. It was a highlight of the whole experience.

During this conversation with John I had an insight: a marathon is at once both a communal, public event -- a grand party, an orgy of thousands running through the streets! -- and at the same time, as intensely personal and intimate an experience as you can have. It is absolutely solitary, but in a way that is neither good or bad. You drop down into ever deeper realms of your own consciousness and find out about who you really are. Think ten years of psychotherapy compressed into a few hours. Or, for you Zen practitioners, think of a week sesshin crammed into a single morning. No wonder the marathon game isn't for everyone. I believe that many marathon runners are motivated by nothing other than a search for the Truth. We intuitively understand what Master Bassui teaches: the Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind.

Second-guessing myself, I speculate that I could well have attained the same result or better if I had run a more disciplined, strategic race. It would have been more elegant if I had conserved energy in the first half and had a powerful finish, running the last miles faster, not slower, than any of the preceding. But as experiences go, what actually did happen cannot be surpassed. It was a marvelous adventure.

Going to Jail for Health Care for All

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On October 15, 2009, I participated in a nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to demand Single Payer health care and an end to the profit-driven private health insurance system. Supported by some 50 legal protesters in the street, 14 protesters entered the lobby of One Penn Plaza in midtown Manhattan, a building that houses offices of the insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, and sat down on the floor. When we refused to leave, police arrested us and loaded us into paddy wagons.

Our group consisted six women and eight men. Of the men, two were in their mid-seventies; one of these was a retired Episcopalian priest, whose bearing and clerical color gave our group an air of respectability and gravitas; the other happened to be a Quaker.

Most people who do civil disobedience hope to get what is known as a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT), where the police take you to the precinct, check your fingerprints for warrants, and if they find none, hand you a piece of paper like a traffic ticket and send you on your way. The whole process takes typically four to eight hours, and is perhaps only slightly more (or maybe less!) unpleasant than typical airline travel, where you are in a sense imprisoned, and your patience is tested. But we were not so fortunate. It was determined -- I don't know how or by whom -- that we were to go through "the system" with the rest of humanity in all its wretchedness. Some of us speculated that this determination may have been political, i.e., someone powerful made a phone call and said that protesters should be discouraged and not given any breaks.

First we were taken to the 9th Precinct, in the East Village, where we were divided by gender and kept in two cells for over 10 hours. For the first five or six hours, morale was high. We had lively and stimulating conversation, got to know one another, sang songs, had some good laughs. After seven or eight hours had elapsed and we still had not been provided water, much less food, we began to complain. Ironically enough, the priest had headed a commission some years ago that promulgated a set of reforms for the New York law enforcement and penal system. Among these was a regulation that any prisoner detained for over five hours between midnight and 7:00 a.m. had to be provided food and water. When the priest pointed this out to one of the officers, she argued that the rule applied only to Corrections and not the NYPD. The priest insisted that it wasn't so, and encouraged her to consult her supervisor. Eventually, she offered to take a few dollars from us, go to a vending machine in the building and bring some bottled water. I don't think it took much effort. Shortly thereafter one of the support team was allowed to send in a bag with refreshments: more water, some fruit and energy bars.

In the meantime, the police went through an arduous process of fingerprinting us one by one with a scanner that kept failing to recognize our fingerprints. Whether it was software or hardware that was defective, or both, the machine balked if your fingers were too oily, or not oily enough, or if you were simply too old and your prints were too faint. The cops muddled through with commendable patience for the several hours that it took to fingerprint all 14 of us.

It was approaching 10:00 pm when we were transported downtown to a place known as the Tombs, in the basement of the courthouse at 100 Center Street, too late to appear in night court and be released. The place was packed, and we all stood handcuffed in a slow-moving line for over an hour to be photographed one by one, and finally, around midnight, admitted as a group to one of several large holding cells.

Some of us were still wearing white T-shirts with black lettering that said "Victim of Private Health Insurance" on one side, and "Medicare For All" on the other. We were repeatedly asked by both police and prisoners why we were protesting, and we seized every such opportunity. People were overwhelmingly receptive. (Only the intake photographer at the Tombs was hostile, but then again, from what I was able to observe, he seemed to have hostile attitude towards everyone.) Thus the system handed us an opportunity to promote our cause and continue the very sort of work for which we were arrested.

The Tombs was not particularly pleasant. I was grateful not to have known in advance what it would be like, because if I had, I might have hesitated to get arrested. We were in a windowless rectangle with a built-in stainless steel bench along three walls (the fourth being the bars). There were a lot of miscellaneous arrestees, people sleeping on the floor or on the benches, overwhelmingly black. A group of kids, whom I found vaguely menacing, had apparently been arrested together for drugs; they monopolized one of the two phones. Shortly after we arrived, the guard announced a feeding and let us all out into the hall to collect little boxes of corn flakes and milk. When we returned to the cell there was a confrontation, basically about territorial boundaries. Another prisoner struck one of our group in the face, breaking his glasses and giving him a black eye. Another of our group yelled for the guards, who came promptly and removed both victim and assailant to different cells. This was how our evening at the Tombs began. (Note to those considering doing CD who have an aversion to violence: this incident could surely have been avoided had we exercised a bit more caution.)

A guard came to the bars to ask witnesses about the incident. A couple of us went over and provided a narrative. Then there was some grumbling in the cell about snitches, and I had some fears of getting my white ass beaten. But the whole affair seemed to blow over, and the hours dragged on.

And on. After so many hours under flourescent lights with no windows and little sleep, the time of day reported by my watch became a meaningless abstraction; there was no discernible difference between 4:30 a.m. or p.m. There was a water fountain in the cell, but I distrusted the foul-tasting water and drank sparingly. As for food, it's too painful to remember and I'd rather not talk about it. Seriously, though, the nourishment provided was evidently designed to keep us from starving and no more. For a good meal you should look elsewhere.

At some point, a handsome, well-dressed, articulate black man was brought into the cell. He and a like-minded friend began to lecture the assemblage about God, and His purpose for us all, and what we had to do to attain true manhood. "Gentlemen," he said, "there are four attributes that you do not find in a real man. A real man is not a gangsta, a pimp, a thug, or a playa." This seemed to be directed at the vaguely menacing kids. Eventually, there was a genuine conversation to which everyone who was not asleep appeared to pay attention, many of them participating. We discussed spiritual and philosophic issues and basic personal values. Where we could find common ground, we did so. When our well-dressed friend argued the inferiority of women, we called him on it. It was a remarkably fruitful exchange of ideas. But the preachers outlasted us, and the dialogue degenerated back into a one-sided lecture that became oppressive.

Our Episcopalian priest had been placed in a separate, more private cell -- presumably because of his age and status. Towards morning, they put him back in with the rest of us. His appearance apparently humbled the two lay preachers, as they finally quieted down as soon as this real clergyman arrived.

The morning wore on and became afternoon, according to my watch. At last the guards started pulling small subsets of us out to go to court, where a judge released us on our own recognizance. Mine was one of the last three bodies -- as we call humans in the judicial/corrections trade -- to be summoned. Our lawyer, a volunteer who enjoys representing protesters, stood up for us in court without having had a chance to talk to us beforehand. The prosecutor offered Defendant Yours Truly a plea to Trespass Violation, the lightweight version of the misdemeanor Criminal Trespass, and one day of community service. Community service? Excuse me, I have been serving the community big-time for the last 32 hours. For our septuagenarian Quaker, who has more of a track record than most of us, the offer was seven days in jail. Apparently he is deemed a danger to society and in need of some deterrence. Fuck that. The UnitedHealth 14 will be holding out for much more favorable dispositions.

My brief encounter with the system was sufficient to underscore what I already knew: we live in a profoundly racist society. There can be no justification for the extreme overrepresentation of minorities and the poor in the jail population. If patterns of law enforcement have a disproprortionate impact on non-whites, which they undoubtedly do, that is inexcusable; and if dark-skinned people in fact commit crimes at a greater rate than light-skinned people do, then they must be disproportionately affected by inequality and social problems that make it so, and which must be addressed. Most people would rather make a living wage than spend the night in the Tombs for shoplifting cosmetics from Walgreens.

The experience also reinforced my feelings of gratitude. I knew I was lucky to enjoy a bourgeois life, but after being released from the can, sleeping in a comfortable bed next to my warm and yummy wife, with the cat Master Lin-chi curled up purring next to my legs in all his astounding furriness -- this was delicious beyond description. I slept like a god.

When I awoke, the first thought in my head was this: Patients, not profits. Medicare for all. I realized my determination was now all the stronger.

* * *

Since you've been good enough to read all these words, you can now be rewarded with pictures and video. An excellent YouTube piece is at, and there are still photos at -- scroll down past the silly HCAN stuff about the meaningless public option to see some great shots of the UnitedHealth action.

And yes, there is something you can do: The struggle is far from over and we have no intention of giving up.

for Amy

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this morning I saw
you standing in the shower:
a naked godess

Training for the NY Marathon

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This afternoon I was doing speed work on a treadmill as part of my training for the New York Marathon on November 1. I am preparing to run the 26.2 mile course in 3 hours and 40 minutes, or 8:23 per mile, and this is the 16th of 20 weeks of training. Today's assignment, according to the program I am using, was to run seven one-mile repeats at 7:28 per mile, alternating with .25-mile periods of recovery at an easy pace, then finishing heroically with a final quarter mile at nearly full pace.

The magnificent thing about this program is that it works. It gets gradually more demanding, calling on you to run farther and farther, run fast for progressively longer periods, run uphill for miles at a stretch, and so forth. And you do it. How? With your feet, one step at a time. Left right left right left right. At the end of week 17 there is a 23-mile run, then you taper off into a more merciful and gentle regime designed to let you recover from that exertion while staying well tuned until race day.

Cranking out the one-mile repeats on the treadmill I experience a remarkable sensation of freedom and power. Sure, it's hard work, but this body -- miraculously -- rises to the occasion and not only does it, but does with confidence and relative ease. When the third and fourth repeats feel lighter and easier than the first and second, it seems as though one is getting stronger even while expending energy.

Today I had a weird and moving experience while banging out the last quarter mile at something close to as fast as possible. As I heard my feet drumming and felt my lungs working, there came to mind an image of a virtuoso pianist performing the closing measures of some fabulous show piece, perhaps Franz Liszt. The pianist dressed in formal concert attire, hands flying everywhere, her whole being absorbed in concentration, the music filling the darkened hall like thunder, the audience absolutely entranced. Nobody even thinks a thought, there is nothing other than music. I had the feeling that there was no difference whatsoever between that and this, this and that. Tears came to my eyes.

And the music was over. I pressed the "Cool Down" button, finished sweating for a few quiet minutes, then went and took a shower.

What is the Way?


Ask the cat.

New Jersey Transit, March 2009

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Ride the train towards the suburbs
in the late afternoon.
Sit by the window looking out
into the rainy dusk:
parking lots and shabby buildings,
trees in the distance
blending into fog.

Inside, the train's flourescent light is harsh
Outside it is subtle
dying a quiet, elegant death.

Is there any contrast?

Both inside and out
belong to the undifferentiated whole

Inside and out
form a single reality --
incontrovertible, flawless.

Comcast, PSE&G, and don Adilio: thieves

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Once again, my friends, it's time to review an important teaching: people will steal your money if you let them.

I had three different entities try to reach into my pocket in the space of about two weeks. First it was the management of the building out of which I moved. The building manager Alberto presented me with a check for my security deposit -- without interest.

"Dude, it's with interest, I explained. "This isn't just me; it's the law."
"Oh, well we don't do that," he said.
I repeated, "that's the law of New Jersey my friend. Interest."

I went on to suggest that at 2% per year the interest should be something like $50 for $1500 over a year and a half. This took place in the back office of the small supermarket that occupies the first floor of this building in beautiful and historic downtown Jersey City. The old Cuban gentlemen who owns most everything on that block was sitting at his desk witnessing this, and my effrontery apparently upset him. He went into a screaming rage. I did my best to ignore this and waited for Alberto to write out another check, accepted it, and bid them goodbye. The encounter was sufficiently unpleasant that it took tens of minutes for its residue to leave my body -- those chemicals that tell you to fight or flee.

I have been considering how much of his tenants' money don Adilio González has had on deposit for how many years. From a little consultation with don Google I see that he has been lauded as a hero of entrepreneurial capitalism, received honors and awards, for building his business up from very little. I wonder how much money he has cheated his tenants out of. He certainly didn't like it when I refused to let him cheat me.

Next up, Comcast. I called to shut down the service in the first days of February. They said I was subect to a $150 early termination fee. I said fine, so what's my final balance going to be? A hundred sixty-one dollars and change. Thank you very much. Imagine my surprise -- I was simply shocked, flabbergasted! -- when a few weeks later Comcast billed me for $293. Sarcasm aside, I was mildly astonished, speaking of effrontery, to read the invoice and see that on its face it plainly showed they were charging me for services not rendered. The itemization said termination, February 02, followed by the service for the following month. In other words they acknowledged it was shut off and yet continued to charge. Does it surprise you to learn that it took over 30 minutes of voicemail menu navigation, holding, and grappling with so-called customer service personnel before the matter was finally straightened out? Now, suppose I had gone ahead and paid the extra $132 they tried to overcharge me. Maybe they would have eventually detected their mistake, and said oh gee we're sorry Mister Bludgeon, here's your refund. I rather doubt it. Indeed I doubt it was a mistake. Closing an account is normal, routine business operation. A corporation of their size ought to be able to handle it properly on the first try, don't you think?

Next up, PSE&G, the electric and gas utility. Service at this apartment was discontinued early in March. So they sent me an "estimated" bill for $86 for the last few days of service. Please note that in the entire history of the account my bill never once exceeded $53 and change. Odd, isn't it? Does it surprise you to learn that I had to call them on the phone to turn it into $12? Again, do you think they'd have refunded my money if I had simply paid them?

Comcast, PSE&G, don Adilio: shame on you. I only wish you would find a means of livelihood that doesn't involve stealing from people.

These cats

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These cats
one black and white,
one orange and white
come in the night to sleep in our bed.
warm and furry beyond reason
they slither under the covers in cold weather

Or install themselves above our heads
as if to coronate us
there to purr in all their regal magnificence
and sleep untroubled like gods.

Until they get hungry!
then they start knocking
shit off the dressers, upending lamps
they trash the place like vandals
and claw our flesh without mercy.

goddamnit, cats! all right. you win.
we will go downstairs to the kitchen
and eat some cat food.

Hazelnut-flavored coffee: yuk!

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Coffee is sublime. It really is one of the greatest things ever invented, isn't it. Coffee is great. Everyone knows that. And the smell of quality coffee in unsurpassed.

Hazelnut -- well, it's inoffensive in and of itself.

Flavored coffee is an abomination. Let's face it: it is disgusting. The flavor of coffee itself is marvelous, and needs no assistance. The very notion of "flavored coffee" is insulting. Get that shit out of my face, please.

But hazelnut coffee, apparently the most popular flavor of all flavors for flavoring coffee: to say that it sucks is an understatement. It is utterly revolting. Nauseating beyond words. Horrible. A tragedy if ever there was one. It could almost be considered a crime against humanity.

2008, year of firsts

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In 2008,

  • I got my first divorce. You know what they say about divorce: the first one's the hardest. Let's hope so. Anyway, the hard parts were accomplished in 2006 and 2007. In '08 a judge signed a piece of paper.
  • I sold my first piece of real estate, which was also the first and only one I have ever bought. We (ex-wife and I) sold it after property values peaked, but a couple months before they collapsed. The new owners must be pissed that they paid so much.
  • I bought my first Toyota Prius. Indeed, this is only the fourth car I have owned in my 50 years. I am thoroughly satisfied. Now all I have to do is read the manuals and figure out how to work all that fancy shit. Don't hold your breath.
  • I ran my first marathon, and found it extremely enjoyable and satisfying.
  • Come to think of it, I ran my first half-marathon. That's what got me addicted to distance running.
  • I took my first week-long vacation in Aruba with Amy. We enjoyed it so much, we just might go do it again.
  • I had my first colonoscopy. Too much information? Sorry. Anyway the preparatory purging and fasting was not nearly as unpleasant as I thought it might be. And being knocked out cold by an anesthesiologist is always great fun. First you're there, then you're --- not anywhere.
  • I jumped off a 36-foot diving platform -- twice. Can't recommend it enough. Nothing like a good blast of pure, naked fear to wake you up.

Happy new year.

Buying Long-Term Health Care insurance: oh, fun!

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My parents -- all of whom are old -- have Long Term Care insurance. For years I felt that it was almost their ethical duty to have this insurance, although I myself had no obligation to insure myself. Apparently my unexamined assumption was that they were old and getting older, and would get infirm enough to require care in their final years, whereas I was young, and therefore would never become old and infirm, and thus never need LTC insurance. In my 50th year this delusion has begun to dissipate.

Then I had to overcome my reluctance to get involved in one of the uglier products the insurance industry provides in our capitalist economy. Profitting from old age and frailty is reprehensible. A civilized society should care for its weaker members at government expense. (Call me a socialist, that's fine.) But I persuaded myself that this is the way it is, and the longer I delay, the higher the premiums will be.

I went to the site of a company that provides LTC policies to federal employees, and began the process of educating myself in the bewildering jargon and options. Within 30 minutes I was a veritable expert -- compared to 30 minutes before -- but I still had questions. You can choose between a three-year, five-year or unlimited term of coverage. Of what use is this if, for example, after your three years elapse you still need to pay someone to empty your bedpan? The website encourages you to call if you have questions, so I called and was promptly connected to a knowledgeable and courteous gentleman. He explained to me that the majority of people who require LTC are dead in about 2.7 years. Fifty percent of policyholders therefore choose the 3-year option, thus placing a grim but rational bet against their survival. Another 30% take the 5-year option. And what of the other 20%? They are generally in two categories: either they have high enough incomes that they just don't care about the higher premium, or else they have a nasty family history of longevity and Alzheimers.

Much as I would like to fancy myself a clear-eyed and courageous realist, having to make this choice is troubling. The temptation is to choose "unlimited", almost as if doing so would make my lifespan unlimited. On the other hand I am disgusted at the idea of giving more money than necessary to a for-profit venture that benefits from human beings' decline into helplessness and death. I sat in front of the computer for a while, playing with different options in their interactive rate-quoting thingy.

A few days later I came across a blog entry by Jane Gross describing how large insurers like Conseco have been fucking their LTC policyholders -- I paraphrase, to be sure -- by wrongly denying claims and erecting all manner of bureaucratic obstacles in the hope that the customer will die before they have to pay. The program I am considering involves different companies, but the current financial meltdown teaches us that even the largest and oldest of financial services companies are subject to collapse. By the time you need to file a claim, they may have disappeared; if not, they may fuck you.

This dirty business is emblematic of the orgy of greed and incompetence that has been dragging these United States down the toilet. People like Gore Vidal have been telling us for years that the American empire is in decline. Kevin Phillips compares our collapse to those of the English, Spanish and Dutch empires of centuries past. Perhaps these closing days of the Bush administration are the final movement of some glorious symphony of decadence and corruption, the fantastic scandals of Governor Bagojevich and Bernie Madoff exploding like great fanfares of brass and tympanies.

As it turns out, however, there is nothing to be gained by failing to procrastinate about buying my LTC policy until the eve of my next birthday. Rates are tied to age, but a 50.01-year-old is treated the same as a 50.99-year-old. So I can wait until my next birthday approaches, well into the Obama administration. If I don't get hit by a bus, and if Obama hasn't established the socialist utpoia that the right so dreads, I will deal with LTC insurance in the spring.

Why run a marathon?

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For over 20 years I have been running for recreation and fitness, anywhere from about .8 to three or four times a week for distances of 4 to 6 miles. I have rarely been concerned about performance or proving anything. I was in it for fun and fitness. Suddenly, at age 50, I am signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23, 2008, and training seriously. How did this happen?

The influence of a running-fanatic friend was a factor. He encouraged me to try a half-marathon organized by the New York Road Runners back in January. This was the longest distance I had ever run and I was not properly trained for it. I was sore as hell for days afterwards, but I loved it. Five thousand pairs of feet trotting through the cold air of Central Park, a kin-hin line writ extremely large. I decided I would meet the NYYR requirement for entry into the New York Marathon in 2009 by running in at least nine races in 2008, and thus open the option of doing a marathon.

Then my running friend got into my head again: Why don't you do Philadelphia in the fall? It's open to anyone who pays the registration fee. I thought this over for a couple weeks, fretting over the difficulty of fitting training into an already busy life. Then just said fuck it, hit the website and did the deed.

Now I am embarked on a formal training program (from the Running Planet) that prepares you to complete a marathon in four hours. I felt irrationally attached to the four hour number even before arriving at it rationally. It's a nice round figure, and four hours of continuous running is quite enough, thank you, so let's get it over with. It's a fortunate coincidence that my running history is such that the four hour goal does appear to be reasonable and attainable. So I am going at it five or six days a week, getting up before dawn to trod the pavement and run around Liberty State Park as the sun comes up, hitting the treadmill at work, exerting myself like never before in my life.

Why do this? I have long been vaguely curious about the experience of completing a marathon and thought it might be interesting to try it some day and find out if I could do it. Then I noticed I was 50 years old. Now seems like a pretty good time to get started, rather than waiting until 60 or 70.

Yes, but that's doesn't answer the question: why do this? I read some place that there are as many reasons as there are runners, but that's another evasion.

Am I trying to outrun the grim reaper? Well, no, I fully expect to die. But first I would like to run a marathon.

But why? Am I trying to prove that I am disciplined and tough? Maybe a little. I don't think I need to prove that I am fit, it's a pretty simple and uncontroversial fact. But I will rather enjoy showing my medal to people. I guess that would be about ego gratification.

Why? Why go to so much trouble for ego gratification, or whatever it is? I don't know. Yesterday I was in Urban Athletics buying gear, and had a chat with one of the co-owners. When I raised this question with him, he simply said, cross the finish line and you'll know why.

I am reminded of something my Zen teacher once said to me: Ultimate truth cannot be known. But it can be experienced. Perhaps Jerry from Urban Athletics was saying the same thing.

Update: A few days later, Sensei was not impressed when I told him this story about the above remark from the guy at Urban Athletics. Ever the consummate Zen dude, he said: why ask why?

On turning fifty

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I had the honor of turning 50 the other day. My girlfriend (not quite 42 years old) generously hosted a back yard party at her house. There were about 25 delightful people, flawless spring weather, splendid food and drink. Had I been invited to say a few words to mark the occasion, I would have said something like the following.

I have no scruples about making a big deal out of my 50th birthday. If multiples of ten are noteworthy, multiples of 50 are huge. Living 50 years is an accomplishment one usually does not repeat. It's a good time to take a look at one's life and notice how it is unfolding, developing, changing, and to savor the pleasures of getting older.

When you get old enough, your past becomes so long that it can be considered history. When I turned ten the year was 1968. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a couple weeks before, and cities were burning. Robert F. Kennedy was to be assassinated in June, as Hillary Clinton so tastefully reminded us the other day. The United States was mired in a catastrophic imperial misadventure in Viet Nam, where what is known as the Tet Offensive was in full swing. The Pentagon and the CIA were in a power struggle over lying to the American public about enemy troop strength. Grim and bloody news of the war came to us daily through radio, television and print media. Many young people were rebelling and doing a lot of drugs. I was in fourth grade and my friends and I would ride around freely on our bicycles with neither supervision nor helmets.

At 20 I was a music student, working diligently and with determination to become a classical guitarist. Remember the Jimmy Carter administration?

At 30 I was a fairly accomplished classical guitarist and quit the business in favor of "real" full time employment. Late Reagan era, Bush senior about to ascend to the throne.

At 40 I was well established in a reasonably honorable and well-paying career, a homeowner, married, no kids. The Clinton years.

At 50 I am in the same job, the divorce very nearly a done deal, my daughter recently turned five, the house about to be sold (profitably, housing collapse notwithstanding). I live peacefully and contentedly in good health with two superb cats, and things have never been better. I am immensely grateful for my good fortune. Meanwhile, as Barack Obama prepares to defeat John McCain in the fall, the human race has probably never been in greater peril. Will my daughter's planet be inhabitable when she is approaching fifty?

* * *

In our society a lot of us have a troubled and complicated relationship with aging. We lie about our age, or we snicker and chuckle and joke about it. "You look much yonger than fifty" is considered a high compliment. I can't help but think that underlying that attitude is fear of nothing other than death. We grasp and cling to life and run like hell from death, we generally avoid thinking about the inevitable extinction of our selves and our loved ones -- until it's too late. Life is replete with unspeakable suffering, and then, in the best case scenario, you get old age, sickness and death for your trouble. That being the case, what -- if any -- is the purpose, value, meaning of anything? Is "I don't know" a satisfactory answer? Does it matter?

I am convinced that the time to face the large questions is now, when you can still reasonably expect to have a couple decades to work on it, not when you're in the hospice with three days to live. And the most important way to work on this little side project is to stare at the wall every day without fail. If I have to confess to having a goal or objective in practicing Zen, it is this: keep stilling the scattered, chattering mind and use the tools Zen provides to help us face facts. When it's time to go, be prepared. In the meantime, enjoy living life instead of worrying about losing it.

Having money -- more or less

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The wisdom that he who knows he has enough is rich dates back at least as far as Laozi, a/k/a Lao Tsu. Countless studies have since established that material prosperity does not equal happiness. And while it is one thing to nod your head and say yes I agree with this proposition, it is quite another to acquire direct knowledge of it through experience.

I have had the good fortune to suffer enough of an economic reversal to be able to learn about having less money, while at the same time not having my essential economic security -- food, shelter -- seriously threatened. And I am pleased to report that you can be happier with less money in your pocket. Having bills come due with my checking account balance running as low as $124 is inconvenient, but it is little more than an inconvenience. Again, especially when one is still gainfully employed and can expect some relief at the next paycheck, within a couple weeks at most. One comes to appreciate that other aspects of life truly are more valuable and important than your checking account balance. Indeed, having that balance plunge and not caring is immensely liberating.

One also learns something about fear and anxiety. I stand in the very situation that terrified me couple of years ago when it was an abstract possibility: having to make do with less, paying a hefty child support obligation while also maintaining my own household in an area where the cost of living is high. And yet here I am, and not only is it OK, it's a good deal better than OK.

I am reminded of something my teacher once said, à propos of anxieties that come up during zazen: we should be grateful for them, because we often discover that the thorny problem we were so worried about is not thorny, or if it is, the thorns are not as dangerous as we thought. The logic is rather subtle -- why does that mean we should be grateful? I suppose the reasoning is that you should be grateful for the teaching that eventually comes out of those anxieties that arise while you are studying the paint on the wall.

So it is with having less money than you previously did. I like to joke that if I had a more abundant money supply, I would permit myself two self-indulgences. One is that I would buy a great wheel of high quality parmesan cheese, far more than I need. This would be for pure greed and amusement. I think it would be a kick to have that much cheese in the house. I would give away big hunks of it. The other eccentricity I would indulge in is reading glasses. I would buy perhaps a thousand inexpensive pairs and scatter them everywhere: every surface of every room, every pocket of every garment. That's because I frequently misplace them. The reading glasses market is highly volatile in my household, not suitable for the risk-averse. My reading glasses portfolio can gain and lose large percentages of its value in a single afternoon. I start with two, then I have seven, then one. I would insulate myself against those shocks by owning a large reserve -- very large.

So there you have it. Not having a lot of cash to spare is not bad. If I had more, the only things I would change are my parmesan cheese and reading glasses inventories. But I don't, and am quite happy to buy these items in modest quantities.

Grits or homefries

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When I saw this sign I thought of a couple of people who would appreciate it, so I went back later with my camera to take this snap. "We served grits or homefries." Past tense. Ha ha ha. Get it? They are ignorant, I am superior. How are they going to attract customers with a historical trivium such as this? And an ambiguous one at that: does "grits or homefries" mean they don't know which they once served?

The joke was on me, as the photo turned out to be strikingly beautiful in its own right.

"Either you real or you ain't"

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The other day one of the teachers in our zendo gave a talk in which she likened the practice of zen to classical ballet: one of the most painfully demanding of disciplines. Dancers must show up for a 90 minute class every single day without fail, no matter how experienced and accomplished they are or think they are. Always showing up, always striving, tuning, preparing for the stage -- that's what it's about. So it is with the Zen practitioner. You show up at the zendo for formal zazen as often as you possibly can, regardless of whether you feel like it or whether it's convenient. Formal zazen is essential, a necessity. LIkewise, extended sittings such a as zazenkai and sesshin are not optional add-ons. They are what you do when you're a Zen practitioner.

This idea was reinforced by a scene that I recently saw in an episode from the fifth season of the venerable HBO series The Wire. During a prison visit, the incarcerated father admonishes his son to apply himself with greater diligence to his work in the drug trade. Either you real or you ain't, he says. Irony notwithstanding, this paternal advice underscores a valid point. The teacher's talk was evidently aimed at students who she thought needed to hear it. She might as well have said, either you real or you ain't.

I was reminded of something my family has said about me over the years: you are a fanatic, an addictive personality. When you set your mind to something, you go at it relentlessly, obsessively. I have always tended to think, well, ok. When they suggested that going away for a week-long sesshin last summer was an example of my fanaticism, I figured, whatever. Now I am not so sure. Sesshin is what zen practitioners do. Why do this at all unless you're serious? Either you real or you ain't.


Looking at the above three months later, I see the fallacy in the argument "I am not a fanatic; sesshin is what Zen practitioners do." Sitting in meditation several hours a day for a week is extreme -- fanatical, even. Dedicated Zen practitioners are fanatics.

MLK's Mountaintop Speech

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There was a good piece on NPR this morning about Martin Luther King's last speech, in which he said he was not concerned about longevity because he had been to the mountaintop and looked over. Just the night before I had been pondering the koan from which the phrase "All is vast and boundless" is taken. While listening to King's speaking voice coming out of the radio in my kitchen 40 years after the fact, it occurred to me that King himself must have realized that all is vast and boundless. It doesn't matter what you call it.

On being burgled

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I came home the other day to find that one of the two windows in my bedroom had been shattered. My apartment is on a third floor; the fire escape is accessible through these windows, and vice-versa. At first I thought, that's odd. A window broken, yet everything seems otherwise intact. The previous day had been a holiday for us public sector workers and I had devoted nearly all of it to cleaning and straightening out this apartment, so it was exceptionally neat and organized. Computer equipment and sexy skinny TV, still in place. Beautiful flowers on the clutter-free dining room table.

Later that evening as my four-year-old daughter and I were sitting down to dinner I had the impulse to take a picture. Oops, no digital camera. Hmmm, how about that portable computer that my mom gave me? Also gone. I had been considering whether to report the incident to the police -- what can they do? Is there any point? -- but at this point I decided I would definitely do so, if only to become an official statistic. Let the record reflect that this guy's apartment was broken into one day in February 2008 and his laptop and camera were stolen.

Two Jersey City police officers came promptly, and were impeccably courteous and professional. They summoned two more cops to the scene to look around and ask questions, then they left.

My bedroom was impossibly cold, and my daughter's is closer to the gaping window than the living room is, so I decided my daughter and I would both sleep on the fold-out in the living room that night. I felt curiously equanimous in the face of an experience that most reasonable people find distressing -- "violated" is the word people use to describe the feeling resulting from such intrusions. It was disturbing and inconvenient, but my material losses were modest and I felt I had gotten off easy. We went to sleep.

Ah, but at 3:30 a.m. I woke up a bit paranoid about the window open to the world, and did not get back to sleep. At around 5:00 I decided to get up and do zazen. The blinds rattling in the wind sounded like a person sneaking in, and scared the shit out of me before I figured out it was just the wind. As my mind meandered along, it ocurred to me that next time I come home and put my key in the lock, I will not know what to expect. In the next instant I thought, yes, but you never know what to expect when you put your key in the door. Indeed you don't even know if there will be a door. Welcome to reality. Back to the breath.

I have no ill will against the intruder. I do not want the incident to recur, but that's entirely different. In the days since the break-in I have wondered about the experience from the burglar's point of view. Who is she or he? A drug addict? How old? What race or ethnicity? The intruder evidently exited through the window adjacent to the one through which she entered, because I found it unlatched, and why risk cutting yourself on broken glass? She thoughtfully lowered it behind her, perhaps to keep the cats from escaping. I imagined Vernon and Lin-chi, ever sociable, greeting her warmly as she made her way through the kitchen and into the living room searching for portable items of value. Will you feed us, they must have asked.

You know how it is when you enter someone's home for the first time as a guest. You look around and take in the whole environment. Then, if left to your own devices for a couple minutes, you amble over to the bookcase and inspect the titles. You look at the art on the walls, perhaps the music collection. Looking, looking with pure, normal curiosity for things of interest, points of contact between guest and host.

What did my apartment look like through the thief's eyes? What did she observe? What registered? Anything? Did she notice the photographs on the refrigerator? The zabuton and seiza bench? The childrens' drawings taped up everywhere? Did the intruder form any impression at all of the apartment and its inhabitants?

We will never know, but it makes for interesting speculation.

poetry in the bathroom

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taken away from my
customary diet
I become

stopped up.
struggling to squeeze out
two or three small turds

there is more than
time enough
to examine the poetry

books piled high in
Ann's bathroom

Lin-chi and Vernon rip shit up

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As we predicted earlier, Lin-chi and Vernon continue to kick ass on behalf of VTB Consulting. That's all there is to know.


For immediate release: VTB appoints Lin-chi, Vernon to staff

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Vernon T. Bludgeon Consulting is pleased to welcome two new members to its staff:
(left to right) Master Lin-chi, and the eponymous Vernon T. Bludgeon the Cat. Both the Master and Vernon the Cat bring proven track records in inhaling, exhaling, sleeping, eating, shitting, and unprovoked aggression. We are confident that these two outstanding professionals will make a significant and lasting contribution to our organization, and will substantially enhance the already unparalleled Vernon T. Bludgeon value proposition.

a weekend with the Dalai Lama

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This past weekend His Holiness was in great form (ouch! no double-entendre intended). A friend and I went to five two-hour lectures on abstruse Buddhist texts about Emptiness by Nagarjuna. I am more interested in Zen than I am in the Tibetan brand, but I invested the time and money in this event because I thought I could learn something from someone so highly accomplished. And I believe I did.

But this was not for wimps, no. This was a dense, cerebral exegesis of a difficult and arcane text. Much of it went over my head. It was hard to stay awake -- nay, impossible. I nodded off more than once, especially after lunch at one of those good restaurants on 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth. And magnificent though the interpreter was, I think occasionally the message suffered some in translation, and became less coherent. But in case you missed it: all phenomena are empty, that is, devoid of any independent, intrinsic objective reality. Any questions?

Still, I think all this teaching went somewhere other than /dev/null. Some things are difficult to grasp, and you begin to get it after several passes at it. Moreover, as my own teacher points out, Emptiness is a matter of insight. Therefore, back to the mat.

On Sunday afternoon H.H. gave a "public" talk -- geared for general audiences. He spoke the whole time in English, and was superb. The man has an uncommon gift for connecting with audiences. And he is obviously a highly evolved, wise, compassionate, all-around advanced human being. As are a lot of people. I see no reason to deify him.

Mets' shame and disgrace, Mets fans' anguish

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At least the torture of the past two and a half weeks is over.

Mostly. Now we have to put up with Yankee fans rubbing our faces in this horrific shit. Them in the post-season, us not -- how can this be happening? How? Because we are Mets fans.

But this, this is truly ugly. It would be one thing if we had fought valiantly most of the year and then simply were beaten fair and square early in the playoffs, as we were last year. Or if the reverse had happened: if we had sucked ten kinds of ass all year and then suddenly made a valiant run that simply fell short. That we could handle. But this nightmarish, total collapse, this complete falling apart, folding up and lying down to die on our own turf at the hands of sub-.500 teams, is a slap in the fans' face that is hard to take.

But take it we will. We have no choice. We are Mets fans.

How to fill a paper napkin dispenser

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When I was an student between my junior and senior undergraduate years, I worked a shit job in a Friendly's fast food restaurant. It was, as I say, a shit job, but we had some fun. After hours we would let in our friends, lock the doors, smoke pot, and gorge ourselves on ice cream. No matter how much we pilfered thus, we could not make a dent, a fact which struck us as hilarious as we continued to devour the cold sweet substance until satiation.

I was working in the back room one day when I suddenly found myself charged with the task of clearing handfuls of dishwater-logged coleslaw from the drain of an immense sink, as deep as my arm was long. Undignified and messy though the work was, I regarded it with equanimity because I understood that this was very probably the nadir of my employment career, and from this point forward things would improve. My optimistic intuition has proven correct, sort of. I have since had moments in my working life where I thought I might rather be back at Friendly's with the dishwater-logged coleslaw, but no moments quite as messy in the literal sense.

Besides this insight, there were other benefits to be gained from Friendly's. Early in my short career, one of the other employees explained to me how to replenish a paper napkin dispenser. My instinct told me to stuff it to capacity and beyond, so that refilling would be as infrequently necessary as possible, and began to do so. But my wiser colleague pointed out the correct way to fill a paper napkin dispenser: leave a little space towards the front. If you overstuff it, the napkins cannot easily be withdrawn cleanly, and the customer will inevitably pull not one or two napkins, but an entire cluster. You have surely noticed this yourself when dining at downscale establishments. Besides being wasteful, overstuffing has the ironic and paradoxical effect of making the Friendly's employee have to refill the dispenser sooner rather than later.

Everywhere you go, you see these dispensers overstuffed. Filling them properly is a lost art. Fortunately for me, I have not needed to apply my napkin-dispensing knowledge in the workplace, because as I said, the coleslaw prophecy has proven true. But it has given me the authority to second-guess paper-napkin-dispenser-fillers across the land.

First shit in three days

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See, this is why you need to have a blog. So you can announce to the breathlessly waiting world important news such as this: I took my first shit in three fucking days this morning. Hats off to my dear wife for pushing the Citrucel at me. Not that I needed convincing. What brought on this bout of constipation, you are dying to know? Fuck if I know. I did nothing different; been following my customary fruit- and vegetable-rich diet, with the usual alcohol abuse on the weekends. Maybe it's comes with the territory when you are pushing fifty years of age. Anyway, I am glad the discomfort is over and I know you share my relief.

when your personal life is in the shitter

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When your personal life is absolutely in the shitter;
When all your alarms and sirens are wailing disaster;
When your brain kicks into full crisis mode;
When the pain is more than you can bear;
When your pain is mixed with raw fear of the magnitude and likely duration of the pain itself;
When you keep collapsing in a sobbing heap, and just barely manage to bathe and dress and leave your house for work in the morning;
When you haven't slept adequately more than five times in the last four months;
When you know there are not enough drugs and alcohol in the world to ease your suffering;
When you wish there were some way short of suicide to escape from your own head, but you know there is none, so you can either do yourself in or suck it up:

Isn't it grand to be alive?

what The Red Wheelbarrow means to me

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The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams

so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

I am not a literary scholar by any stretch, so whatever I have to say about it should be presumed amateurish, subjective and naive. But I have wondered about the meaning of this poem for decades. The other day I googled and found this discussion and realized how far off the learned mark I am. The scholars go on and on about the imagery and how "three modest prepositions-�??upon, with, beside--place these barnyard minims in visual apposition, or a kind of contingent spatial rhyme..."

Get the fuck outa here. Sure it's painterly, and the way the words are spaced is no accident. Bla bla bla. But here's what it's about as far as I'm concerned: you can identify a particular thing, or event, or moment in your life as having enormous importance, make it a turning point of the utmost significance. And that event is more likely to have been a random accident than the result of some conscious decision on your part.

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