July 31, 2009

Ebb and Flow

I cannot always chart my emotional course, but I can predict where the current will take it. It is a familiar river with familiar landmarks. Half the waxing moon is not a good day. It involves the selfishness and indulgence that come with feeling mildly miserable, but being in too little pain to forget the ego, which insists on futilely pointing out certain biological injustices. A few days later, a slow crawl of loneliness and depression sets in, easy enough to forestall during the busy day, but creeping into the mind as night falls. The full moon brings a wild energy and passionate desire, and sometimes frustration, but is far more welcome. And between the full moon and the new moon, well things are almost…normal.

Tonight was not that night. Tonight the moon is only three-quarters full. I finished my book, bought and read in six short hours, too little distraction. I thought to work, but sat instead and lost at solitaire, while Matt Dusk sang Two Shots Happy, One Shot Sad. I was almost relieved when the storm called. This time I grabbed my jacket from the hook by the door. As much as I longed to feel the storm, I wanted to stay out in it. This was not a night for high-flung perches and revelry. Tonight I needed to move.

Rain was already falling. I pulled the hood up then pushed it back. It cut off too much, the wind, the thunder, the feel and taste. I stood on the south steps of the capitol for a time, watched the uniformed State Trooper walk through the door directly below me without ever looking up, but I was too restless to stay. Tonight’s storm was different. They are all different. It was subtle, almost gentle, not quite ominous. Even as I turned my back on it and headed north, I felt its soft presence with me. The hard south wind of the afternoon had become a playful north breeze across my face, but above and behind me, the clouds still rode in from the southwest.

I gave in at last and tucked my rain soaked glasses into my pocket. The cloudscapes where so wide across the sky, I didn’t need them to see clearly the backlit tapestry. There is something about rain, something distinct and different from any other form of being wet. The way it patterns slowly and beads and rolls, the smell of it, the taste, the feel on the skin. Rain is its own thing, not like the water that comes from a tap, not like a lake or river or ocean, distinct.

The capitol is four square blocks, eight in perimeter, two laps around equal three miles. I came around to the wide north steps, the grand entry, almost a block wide at the bottom step. I was almost three-quarters past when I turned and headed up. Looking up at the solid stone block of the north entry, I was in awe. After all these years, still in awe.

Oh, Bertram Goodhue, you got it right. So very right, I thought as I followed the steps up to the second story terrace ringing the stone base. At the top, beneath the arch and the brass doors, I slipped my glassed back onto my nose, but somehow the monolith lost its intensity as I became able to pick out details, shapes, break down the constituent parts of the grander whole. I quickly slipped the glasses back into my pocket.

That’s what we do, isn’t it? Break our lives, our worlds down into their constituent parts, their petty details, their easy to understand shapes and ideas. We lose the intimidating majesty of the blurry monument beneath the racing storm set on the vast diamond-studded plain of warm summer night full of seething ambiguous emotion. We feel too small to hold it all, so we cut it up, discard the unendurable, keep what we can, rolling them over and over again in our minds, clinging to them like stones in the flood.

I lapped the terrace, pausing to watch the storm and the shine of the rain falling into the spotlights. I walked slowly back down those wide north steps, gray, smooth, and distinctionless to my unfocused sight. I could feel the unease burning off, ebbing and flowing, receding but not gone. Enough energy spent I could let go of the struggle of struggling at least. I finished my outer lap, and as I turned to home, the storm gave one final blinding burst, greater than all the others. I staggered. The thunder came, rolling then crashing, like the heavens might truly fall and continuing from one corner of the sky to the other, first before then behind me.

Everything after was epilogue. The wind became still, the rain gentled and slowed, the thunder gave only distant grumbles, like a child reluctant to go to bed but too tired to stay awake. I returned home. I striped out of my wet clothes and pulled the smooth red kimono from its hook. I set the kettle on and reached high for the bottle of Jameson. I keep it on the top shelf. It is still mostly full.

I’m sorry Marilyn, though I tried, I could not quite inherit your love of Scotch. There is just something about whiskey that pleases me to no end. Even the smell of it. I brewed my coffee and added the Irish.

Then I wrote this. Why? I don’t know. Not really. For the same reason the summer storms roll in just after sunset. The same reason rain is more than mere water. The same reason whiskey makes me smile and Scotch makes me think of her.

I unwound my mala from my wrist and set it on the desk beside me. I sat in the dark and sipped my whiskey-laced coffee and wrote. And nothing changed. Nothing went away. Not even the storm. One thunder-cell followed another. The emotions remained, untouched.

And everything changed.

July 30, 2009

Ghosts of Architecture Hall

Architecture hall has stood silent all summer, filled with no one but ghosts. And the occasional foolish grad student, which is much the same thing. Every time I walk the Link I expect to see a too-tall student sacked out on the too-short expanse of the Barcelona chairs on the second level balcony, one flip flop fallen to the floor, face hidden below a sweat-stained baseball cap. I expect to find a gaggle of forth-years on the main level, with all the tables pushed together so they can stare at someone’s misappropriated flat screen and go over the three-dimensional model of their group project, their overlapping voices echoing up to the third level, where small group of third-years gathers around the white tulip tables in the hard, curving tulip chairs to pore over some statics problem they just can’t figure out. I expect to run into professors who’ve stopped in the exact wrong spot on the mid-level landing to talk, forcing people to squeeze against the railing to get around them. There should be some misguided second-year weaving yarn in and out of the metal railings and fire sprinkler pipes in some intricate but essentially meaningless pattern as an attempt to study the manipulation of three-dimensional space. There should be sixth-years hurrying from the attic all the way down to the lowest level basement to check the project the laser-printer is spitting out and then all the way back up again, pausing only for yet another cup of coffee at the vending machines in the entry level. In the fat, square Corbusier chairs of the below-stairs lounge I expect to find an officers’ meeting for one of the half dozen student organizations which attempt, in vain, to ensure students in this college have a social life discussing studio culture or printing problems or what to put on this year’s tee-shirt, as if we all needed another. I expect the attic to be filled with the desperate punching of computer keys, the overlapping click of panicked mice, random cursing, and the muffled strains of music from dozens of different headsets, but eerily quiet for all the otherwise frenzied work going on within.

Instead the attic is dark and genuinely quiet the way only empty places can be. The Barcelona and tulip and Corbu chairs are empty. The media center and the computer lab and the wood shop stashed away in the basement are all locked up. Most of the faculty have run away for the summer, just like their students. All of the yarn sculptures and plastic bag experiments and post-it note collages have been cleared away. The Link and the Stacks are empty, the people gone.

But I still see them out of the corner of my eye. I still hear the echoes of their voices. I still keep a wary eye out as I round the circling stairs, watching for wayward professors. We get so used to things being a certain way, they become ingrained within us, habitual, karma. We keep expecting them to be the way they were. When they inevitably aren’t we feel as though somehow the world is wrong. Intellectually, I know it’s summer and the people are gone, but subtly it still feels like it should be otherwise. This soft sense of wrongness underlays every sight, sound, perception, and thought.

Now take that feeling and copy it a hundred fold. That’s life. That’s samsara. Nothing ever is quite the way we expect and fewer things yet are the way we want. Mostly, but not always, we want things to be as we expect because we think that makes it easier for us. It doesn't really.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can let go of these expectations. First we have to perceive them, all the subtle and not so subtle ways we fight against reality. Once we see them, we think to ourselves how silly that is. After all, there’s nothing actually wrong with there not being an exhausted student asleep in the Link. It just feels like there ought to be one because there usually is. When, in fact, it probably a good thing not to have exhausted students sleeping in the building. Then I can let go of that feeling of wrongness and move on without it nagging at me.

Sometimes we get angry when things aren’t the way we expect. Something ought to be this way or that way, for what we perceive as very good reasons. We feel like the world is unfair, like we’ve been cheated. Well, maybe we have and maybe not, but being angry about it certainly won’t magically make the world fair or the cheater stop cheating. That is easy to see, but most of our expectations are much more subtle than that.

Most are the ghosts of Architecture Hall, but these ghosts are my ghosts, so I’m the one who can either hold on to them or let them go.

July 26, 2009

Reality & The Hammer

Concepts are tools. A hammer is a tool that can help us build a chair, but a hammer does not resemble a chair. Suffering ensues when we confuse this relationship. If we mistake a hammer for a chair, the outcome will be quite painful, probably involve a trip to the emergency room, and add another object to the hospital worker’s collection of objects removed from inappropriate orifices. That may seem like a painful exaggeration, but pause and think about your life for a moment, and all the suffering that has occurred throughout its long or short term. Seems a little more pertinent, doesn’t it?

Concepts are not bad anymore than hammers are bad, but they can cause suffering when we ignorantly and intentionally mistake our concepts about reality, for reality. Moreover, while a hammer can be used to build a chair, concepts cannot be used to build reality. But because we are all essentially tool-using monkeys, we fall back on our evolution. We use our concepts to build a reality, which is often contrary to the reality. We need to find better ways to use concepts to understand reality.

I like to take a deconstructivist stance. The more I study a concept, the more I see through it. The more I categorize my world, the more unnecessary categories become. Through a very slow process of elimination, I am seeking what reality is by discarding what it is not. This approach is often described as a way to understand non-self, by continuously breaking down the self into its component parts and then asking “Am I this?” In the end we are left with emptiness (so I’m told), which is an basic form of interdependence. These things, too are concepts – perhaps, essential, even, but we must understand them as such.

Stop sitting on the hammer.

July 25, 2009

Get 'Rich' Quick

Some days it baffles me why we even bother with grocery stores. Oh, I know why they were invented, or at least I have my own personal theory. They seem to be typically American things. Like the old general store in the frontier town where everyone could find their necessities, shipped in via rail, because there weren't yet enough farmers to support the booming population. It seem like in Europe and some older American cities, the old markets still exist, the every day, all day stalls. But out here we have grocery stores and "supermarkets." They're just nowhere near as fun.

Oh, I got a haul this morning. It just makes me want to chortle with glee. It makes me feel rich, even though I only spent twenty-eight dollars. I might have even been able to get more, in terms of bulk, for that price as Russ's down the way, but I wouldn't have liked it as much. I got a bag of cherry tomatoes, three different fat croissants (the almond one is yummy!), a jar of grape jelly, a bunch of small carrots, two ears of sweet corn, two small white bell peppers, three small sweet onions, a small loaf of rye bread, and a handful of big green beans. That, combined with the granola, nuts, milk, butter, yogurt, noodles, and rice I have at home will keep me all week. They had some really big vegetables and fruits, watermelons too, but I always pick the little ones

My friends Noreen and John are coming down to visit today, so for Noreen's five small dogs I got a small bag of pet treats. A little silly, I know, but Nor will like it. And I spent an outrageous amount, three whole dollars, on a fabric cat toy. It was worth every penny in the first three minutes as Isis rolled around on the floor with that little red log with the red ribbon tassel. Now she's pleasantly stoned, drowsing on the rug upside down.

I find the key to feeling rich lies in two things: generosity and smaller boxes. It's fun to shop for other people. There's never any buyer's remorse. You don't have to get them expensive things, just cute, funny, thoughtful stuff. Sometimes you don't have to spend anything at all. I love the homemade cards I get from my mother. I keep them all, along with all the paper letters my grandmothers' ever sent me. And I don't consider three dollars for a cat toy wasteful. Animals deserve generosity, too. And the organic catnip growers and pet toy makers deserve a little generosity. That's what buying is, after all, just people giving to each other. Sometimes the "fair" deal is overrated. I paid a dollar and a quarter for the tiny bag of dog treats, but that's generosity that spreads too, from me to Nor and back, from Nor to her dogs and back again.

My fridge is on the fritz again. I spent so long finding that fridge, something close to normal sized but small enough for my pocketbook kitchen. It's a ten cubic foot model (most are eighteen to twenty two). It keeps breaking down and I've already spent as much as I paid for it to fix it once. I have a small dorm fridge to do me in the meantime. I realized, that looking in my small dorm fridge, which is full, is so much more satisfying than looking in my big fridge, which was always almost empty. Unless of course it was full of old leftovers I had yet to toss. No room for that in the little one. And for simplicity sake, I've started keeping my vegetables and dry goods on top of the little fridge, so they don't get lost in the back of my cupboards. So the top is somewhat crowded as well, dominated by a big wooden bowl full of today's haul, the potatoes I got last week, an apple and some bananas from the supermarket. Next to it are the cereal and granola, and next to that the bread and pastries. And crowding the top of my microwave are boxes of tea and coffee, tins full of nuts and noodles from the bulk section of the organic co-op, and a giant jar full of white rice. I'm very rich indeed.

A few years ago, I moved all my clothing from my walk-in closet into the little closet in my bedroom. One two-foot rail holds my suits, dresses, and costumes, the other my every day shirts, skirts, and jackets. That little closet is full to bursting, so I never feel like I need to go shopping. I got rid of my two big dressers for an old antique piece I really love and a little set of painted drawers I keep all my unmentionables in. When I had the big house in Gretna, I was always looking for the next thing to fill it up - a painting to go on this blank wall, an area rug for that room, a curio cabinet for that corner. Now I look around and wonder what I could take to Goodwill this week. Everything I have means something, beyond just what sale I picked it up at. My parents' gave me the antique map chest I use as a coffee table as a birthday gift. My 'desk' is my Mom's old gate-leg table, that she's had for longer than she's had me. The quilted flower hanging on the door is something my Aunt sent me for Christmas. Half the books in the bookshelves I stole from my Dad.

It's the best, worst-kept, get-rich-quick secret in the world: generosity and smaller boxes.

July 24, 2009

Thunder Birds

Lightning called and I answered. I always answer. Three silver birds danced around the spot-lit stone. The peregrines, I imagined, whom we had worked so hard to raise on those man-made cliffs. They had rewarded us in their yearly return. Now they taught their chick to play in the eddies rising from July-warmed stone into cool night air. The clouds were thin behind them, soft gray patches against the deep blue of newly fallen night. The lightning caressed them pink around the edges. The birds wheeled and dove, so close, upon The Sower, the great bronze statue, arm outstretched, atop that golden dome ringed round with many-colored Thunderbirds.

They could be pigeons, I thought, only my fanciful mind labeling them royalty. The thunder rolled in at last and the screeching call rang back, soprano to its bass, and I knew them for what they were. Calm became rush. The peregrines danced on the storm, unafraid against the flag-snapping wind. They spiraled each other, coming close for a kiss, then ranging far, like leaves in an eddy.

Forked power snapped out from The Sower to me. Hair stood on end as I clung to the metal rail, against all sense. I would have climbed to the edge, had the wind been any ounce less, or assailed the heights of the stone tower itself if I could, to thrust myself at the sky. Perhaps some time soon, I will answering the call for the last time. Not tonight. The clouds graced me with cold kisses. I watched the cyclists peddle furiously below, trying to outrace the storm. They should know better. In winning the race, they lose the glory.

It is for nights like these, I wish there were a God. I would like to share this with him. The silver-lit birds disappeared behind the stone and did not return, tucked tight against the night. I stood and watched for them, strained to see, half blinded by light and dark. The thunder rolled without release, like a stampede, a thousand hooves upon the earth of the sky. These things above all others I shall miss when I am gone from here – the stone tower, the fearless wild things, the sunset thunderstorms.

But no matter where the wind takes me, I shall always answer when the lightning calls.

The Health Reform Quest

I look upon this task with a certain amount of dread, yet I am resolved to see it through no matter the personal peril. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to try to understand health care reform.

My only guides are Rand Health COMPARE by the Rand Corporation, the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Reform Portal, HealthReform.gov an Obama Administration website, the Congressional Budget Office, and my most steadfast of companions – Google and Wikipedia. My only weapons are the strength of my will to see it through and the power of my mind.

I think I’m in trouble.

July 20, 2009

DN Column - Bigotry in the Senate

I think I like Rachel Madow's take on this: "Oh no he di'unt!" Sources for this column include her shows from last week covering the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, the coverage on C-SPAN, and several articles from the New York Times, including a complete reprint of Sotomayor's 2003 speech.

Confirmation hearings prove bigotry still exists


July 17, 2009

Family History

“Oh, we found great-grandpa Sanford,” Mom told me as I scooped up her cat and plopped down on the couch in her living room.

“Was he lost?” I asked. I scratched Lucy’s ears and she chewed on my knuckles.

“Oh, yes, for a long time. We knew he’d come down from Canada and we thought his name was Pierre. Turns out it was Predaux. We didn’t have a lot of information about him because his wife, Catherine, divorced him after Delbert was born and married G.W. Johnson, who basically raised Delbert,” she told me quite cheerfully, happy with herself for having solved the puzzle.

“And Delbert was grandpa Choln’s father, right?” Grandpa Choln being Dad’s father.

“Right. Well, Grandma Elaine said she’d gotten a letter from a lady in Canada trying to trace Predaux after he moved to Cherry County, but nothing had ever come of it. After Elaine died I found a return address among her papers for a lady in Ottawa so I sent her a letter to see if she was the one looking for the Sanfords. She sent me this back,” Mom handed me the neatly typed three page letter. Lucy bit me one last time and jumped down.

Therein was a tale fit for any modern soap opera. Predaux Sanford had married a lady in Ontario and had four children with her. However, after she entered the asylum for the last time, he left his family in Canada and resettled in Cherry County Nebraska under the Homestead Act. Some time later, he married Catherine (without the benefit of a divorce from his first wife, who was still living) and they had Delbert. Catherine left him for being an abusive drunk when Delbert was little. She did get a proper divorce and then married a very nice man, G.W. Johnson. This was all kept very hush, hush, although it is obvious now that Delbert was aware of Predaux’s other family, as they sold his property upon his death and split the proceeds and accounts (rather generous for the time) between the five children. Delbert’s share was still enough to he and his bride, Zoe, to buy a ranch of their own just south of Valentine along the Niobrara River.

I looked up at my mom. “So Great-Grandpa Delbert was a bastard?” I asked with a grin.

She shrugged. “I suppose, since Predaux never properly divorced his first wife, he couldn’t properly marry Catherine, but it didn’t really work that way back then. Anyway, Marian Hofman,” the author of the letter, “and her husband, also Roger, are going to be in Lincoln in June and we’re going to meet them.”

“How are they related to us?”

“Well, Marian would be your father’s half-second cousin.”

“Hoffman? So is she related through Grandma Elaine’s bramble bush of a family, too?” Everyone is, it sometime seems.

“No, it Hofman with one f, not like Grandma’s Hoffmans. Although with that family, you never know.”

Spring rolled into summer and June came around. Mom and Dad drove down to meet Marian and Roger in Lincoln. We all had dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant two blocks from my house. Marian and her husband are both retired and they were traveling across North America. Roger had driven from Ottawa to Calgary, where Marian had flown out to join him. Then on to Seattle and across the Rocky Mountains, finally to Nebraska and on from here through Iowa and back up to Ottawa by way of the Great Lakes.

They were lovely people. Both Mom and Marian had brought fat file folders full of photographs and family trees. They were like peas in a pod. Marian’s father and Grandpa Choln, both grandsons of Predaux Sanford, had an interesting resemblance and both had been gadget men, loving radio and electronics and cameras. They sounded very much alike. It turned out that Predaux was himself descended from Simon Girty, who fought in the Revolutionary War.

“Well, he and his brother were stolen and raised by Indians when they were little. They Simon worked as an Indian scout and liaison with the British Army. When the revolution broke out, he was on the side of the rebels, but he didn’t like how the American’s were treating the Native tribes. There were some massacres and such. So he decided the Indians would be better off under the British and joined the Torries. Well, after the revolution, he couldn’t stay, so his family emigrated to Canada. He really wasn’t on either the American or British side. He was on the Native’s side,” Marian explained.

Marian even had information on G.W. Johnson and Catherine. One a trip a few years before, they had stopped in Valentine and a nice lady had taken them down into the basement of the courthouse to browse through the old records, which were just moldering away down there, stacked willy-nilly. She had not found much information on Zoe, Delbert’s wife and Choln’s mother. She couldn’t locate her in the Nebraska census records from any period before her marriage to Del.

“Oh, well, she was out in California before that,” Mom told her. “Elaine once told me she was a secretary to Zane Gray. But then, you know how these family legends are.”

Mom told our family stories of the Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and the Mayflower. There were other connections as well. Marian and Roger were somehow related to the Anesleys, a family that had settled in Nebraska from Canada a few generations ago. The Anesleys were known to my Mom’s family, the Oatmans, as their ranches had been in the same area near Ainsworth, Nebraska. And, of course, the Oatmans and their ancestors had also fought in the Revolutionary War, some tracing back to well before that, having come to America in the Seventeenth Century.

I related the story of visiting my friend Eman, who is from Sudan. She had some other Sudanese ladies over to her home and they chattered on about other people from Sudan recently come to the United States. “Where is your family from?” they asked me.

“Well,” I said, ticking off the list on my fingers, “England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, at least two Native American tribes, and some of them came by way of Canada. So we're related to everyone.” Although, to be truthful, we are woefully lacking an Eastern European, Mediteranean, African, Asian, or South American ancestry, or at least any we have traced.

They had simply stared at me. “How does that happen?” Eman’s sister asked.

“Well, I guess when you’ve been in this country as long as we have, everyone just sort of mixes together.”

Marian had laughed at the story and Roger, a quiet man with a kind face, had smiled. “Isn’t that the true,” she agreed.

Marian and Roger said their goodbyes after posing for pictures with their new “cousins” from Nebraska. Now we have family to go and visit in Ottawa sometime. Both couples talked about how they would love to vacation in New England in the fall in the next few years, so who knows what will come of it. We didn’t find Great-Grandpa Sanford. After all, he was never really lost. He’s been buried in the Valentine cemetery all this time. We did find an entirely new family who are just as fun and quirky as us. I suspect, if we dig back far enough, everyone is family.

Now, if we could only act like it.

July 16, 2009

MASH and Dharma

This week on Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett talked to Diane Winston, a professor at USC who teaches about religion and the media. They spoke specifically about television shows and touched on Lost, House, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and others. They also chatted briefly about what television shows they watched growing up, things like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie. It made me think of M*A*S*H.

I am a story-junkie, no doubt about it. I love television, movies, and novels. My tastes are very broad. I love the niche and offbeat and the big blockbusters. I am pickier in my novels, preferring science fiction and fantasy, but every now and then I'll dive into something else. I love good plots. I love fiction. I rarely read biographies or true stories and I couldn't care less if a movie was "based on real life events."

I have often wondered if this is some kind of failing in a Buddhist. After all, we're all about present moment, ultimate reality, right here, right now, waking up from samsara, etc. And here I am happily dreaming along either making up my own stories or immersing myself in someone else's. But then I remember how I got here, and I listen to people like professor Winston talk about exploring ethical questions, normative value setting, and the shared experience of being human.

I got here by watching shows like MASH. It was my mother's favorite show and even when I was grounded and without television privileges, MASH was always the exception. My mother liked it too much to forbid it. Now that I think about it, I wonder why she was ever surprised I was such a cheeky little brat growing up with the likes of Hawkeye Pierce as a roll model? In a way, I guess that's a hint at the power of stories, of fiction. Mom never expected me to take after Hawkeye because she knew he wasn't real. But sociologists have studied the impact of shows like Will and Grace on normalizing certain character types within society and proven they do have an impact. Television can create society as much as reflect it, in this way.

MASH is one of the longest syndicated televisions shows ever made, with eleven seasons to draw on. It was on for an hour every evening for as long as I can recall living with my parents. It was set in a war. A comedy, one of the best comedies, set in a war, and as funny as it was, they never let the audience forget that war is ugly and brutal. Yes, I laughed, but I also watch it with this strange fascination and wondered - why, why, why?! Why were they fighting this war? Why did even people like Hawkeye, who hated it so much, stay? He could have gone AWOL, run away to Canada, not easily or without penalties, but it could have been done. Yet in one episode, when he'd fought so hard for some R&R in Tokyo, as the choppers came flying in, he set down his suitcase, took off his hat, and went to scrub up. My questions were always his questions. Why couldn't anyone else see the awful truth of it? Why couldn't they end it?

It's easy to dismiss entertainment media as valueless, meaningless, and I'm sure some of it is, but I never saw it that way. For me it was always the way of exploring questions nobody bothered to cover in junior high school classes. As a seventh-grader, I read Dennis McKiernan's books, full of Elves and Dwarves and Halflings. He explored questions of God and evil and creation. As a teenager I loved Star Trek The Next Generation, the loyalty and fidelity of the crew, and Star Wars with its themes of sacrifice and redemption. As an adult I love Doctor Who. I suppose The Doctor is very much like Hawkeye Pierce, a cheeky pacifist who never the less runs into the danger and tries to save everyone. I love the unapologetic ridiculousness of Doctor Who, the fast past, the shouted demand (not request!) for the suspension of disbelief ala Monty Python. Suspending disbelief is to suspend belief and when we can do that, we can start to ask the hard questions.

And I think of the Odyssey, Beowulf, the Bible, Canterbury Tales, the Jataka Tales. These weren't ever just for children. Human beings love stories. We learn from them. But it's true, we also escape in them. Entertainment media can be just that, if we let it. We need to seek the Middle Path in this as in all things. Stories have a power that sermons and dharma talks lack, however profound, - the power to be both eternal and subversive. We tell stories because they are entertaining, and we pass them on, one to another. If we take an ethical view of story-telling, if we look to find something true within the fiction (and what is the dharma but "truth?") stories can be very powerful tools.

I'm hooked on stories of suffering and sacrifice. I love the unlikely hero. I love the fighter, the one who simply won't give up, won't turn away, even when they could. I am fascinated by ideas of free will and choice and the willing acceptance of pain and sorrow. And I love a good line, a catchy witticism, the tongue in cheek jest, the innuendo. I clap when things turn out different from what they seem. I can't stand to see anyone embarrassed, and I even close my eyes and cover my ears, in sympathy with the imaginary person on the talking picture box. I love the characters, the deeper, the better, and decry the use of red-shirts, the throw away death, the disposable extras. I like it best when characters grow, morph and change and learn. I don't care about the odds, or the accuracy, or how many times they save the world. I've been watching science fiction long enough that I've seen all the plots: time loops, body switching, invisible person, supernatural possession, the ticking bomb, the test of faith, and the great battle. As long as they're done with heart and the characters have depth, I don't actually care.

It doesn't matter how many times the story has been told, because each time it is a new person telling it and a new person listening. This is true even for the same people. I watch MASH entirely differently now as an adult than I did as a child. I get the dirty jokes I missed and see the darker places I never really noticed. If I had never watched MASH as a child, I don't know that I ever would have found my way to the dharma, or if it would have resonated the way it does.

Maybe television rots my brain, but it also speaks to my soul, and how's that for the willing suspension of disbelief!

July 15, 2009

The Net

Today on Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor quoted Iris Murdoch, who wrote (as one of her characters) in her book Under the Net "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something we can never get close enough to, however hard we may try, as it were, to crawl under the net." Keillor then adds, "'the net' referring to language itself."

This is the shedding of conceptual thoughts, so tied up as they are in language, and the direct perception of reality.

July 14, 2009

Stupid Questions

There are stupid questions. Your second grade teacher might have told you otherwise, but she was lying. Don’t hold it against her, for she had the best of intentions and the lie served a definite purpose. She might also have believed it when she said it, but it’s still wrong. Having spent the better part of three decades locked firmly within the grip of the educational system, I can say unequivocally that there are stupid questions.

They fall into two categories. First, those to which one already knows the answer but prefers to pretend otherwise. And Second, those for which one doesn’t actually care about the answer. This is also neglecting the fact that in addition to stupid questions there are also wrong questions, those asked because one either doesn’t want to ask or doesn’t know the correct question. Wrong questions can still be useful if they lead to the right question.

The college hosts internship interviews every spring. The suit-and-tie crowd always ask “Why do you want to work here?” And I always bite my tongue and spew something pleasant, usually just regurgitating their own self-promoting language from the company website. I can usually find one or two projects in particular to praise. The old “I’ve heard good things from other interns” or “your firm has a good reputation” always go over well. Most of the time I even mean it. Every firm has its redeeming qualities or they wouldn’t still be in business and I’d never apply for one which I’d heard awful things about or disliked their work intensely.

What I really want to say is: “I don’t know that I do want to work here. I’ve never worked for an architecture firm before and I’ve never so much as seen the inside of your offices. That’s like asking a twelve year old whether they prefer white or red wine after reading the labels on the bottle. Give me the job and ask me again at the end of the summer. I’ll give you a detailed dissertation as to why or why not I want to work for your firm.”

It’s both a stupid question, because they’re just looking for some bland sort of praise anyone can throw back at them, and a wrong question because it has little bearing on how good an intern someone will be. Providing they don’t absolutely hate the firm in question, of course, and I don’t know anyone in my college quite that self-sacrificing. Architects, like artists, being a somewhat finicky and temperamental lot (we hide it better) generally find themselves unhappy at work due to either unforeseen circumstance or the utter boredom that comes from being too low on the totem pole.

Today a university administrator asked us, for the umpteenth time, “You all plan to stay in Nebraska after you graduate, right?” I almost laughed at him. It’s not that I’m in any terrible hurry to leave (or perhaps I am) or that I dislike Nebraska. Quite the opposite, I like Nebraska very much, but Nebraska is just Nebraska and as such a very small part of a very large world. I’m an architecture student. Travel is vitally important to my profession. There are just so many wonderful buildings out there I’ve yet to see! The students I was with are journalists. I’m sure travel is every bit as appealing to them as to me.

I could say without a hint of regret “No, I’m applying to go to Japan next year,” which neatly smoothed over the hesitant monosyllables of my colleagues. The questioner could assume to their heart’s delight that it was merely a one-off, a study abroad from which I intended to return “home.” All the legislators and educators talk about the brain drain and keeping graduates in Nebraska. Why? Why don’t you try luring out of state graduates

here? Make it a one for one swap. This is a mobile, and quickly globalizing, generation. We like to travel and live in new, interesting places. They say diversity is important, but its only lip service, because what they really want is Nebraska for Nebraskans. I’ve met several international students who said they came to Nebraska because they’d never heard of it before and it was about as far away as they could think to go. Capitalize on that. Don’t let social fear and cultural ego lead to unreasonable expectations for today’s students.

By the time I graduate, I’ll have spend three decades firmly anchored in Nebraska. Isn’t that enough? I’d like to be nomadic for a while after I graduate, spend a year in one country, two in another, a few more elsewhere. Who knows, maybe I’ll return for my final three decades. The Sandhills can be awfully peaceful.

In the meantime, maybe people will stop asking questions they don’t really want the answers too.

July 11, 2009

Sickness, Pain, & Cartoon Dharma

It was a Saturday morning like any other, though uncommonly cool for July, and I rode down to the farmer’s market. I stopped on the way for coffee and a cinnamon roll. Sitting on the terrace, I watched the families arriving and walking down into the bricked streets of the Haymarket. I read a book chronicling the lives of real American cowgirls, research for something I myself was writing. I noticed the ache in my back while reading about a ‘locoed’ heifer, then I noticed that, in fact, everything between my sternum and pelvis ached and cramped.

I pushed aside the delightful cinnamon roll with regret and fished through my bag, but all I had with me besides the book was a deck of playing cards, a few pencils, and some loose change. By this time, I had begun to sweat and felt the first creeping twists of nausea. My small bottle of assorted pills must be elsewhere. I sat quietly and attempted to judge my state, which only seemed to be growing worse by the moment. I mentally cursed the tide of sickness, more for its inexplicable arrival than anything else.

With reluctance I left my not even half finished roll and coffee and carefully slung myself back onto my bicycle. But where to go? Home was much too far. I angled instead for the rising brick block of Architecture Hall, just visible from the terrace. I had to ride a block down to pass beneath the viaduct ending the interstate in the heart of Downtown, then back up.

I put my bicycle in first gear, peddled slowly and steadily and tried to breath as my body began to shake, while cold sweat pooled on my skin, and the nausea crept up my throat like a living thing trying to escaped. I passed the small office in the Stadium Parking Garage which serves as a staging point for the University Police. I thought if I needed to pull over and puke, that would be an ironically appropriate place to do it, though it seemed unoccupied and as deserted as the rest of the campus. Of course, in my condition I felt more likely to fall over than pull over, but I pushed myself on.

I made it to the bicycle rack at Arch Hall and did manage to dismount of my own design, but knelt there in the mulch, bowed over face down. The wood chips dug into the tops of my feet folded beneath me and I lowered my head, letting my cap fall away, as I pressed my forehead into the bar of the bicycle rack. The cool metal felt good. When I felt reasonably sure I wouldn’t puke, though not certain by any means, I rose and wove my way unsteadily towards the doors. Fishing in my back pocket for my wallet, I passed it before the black box, which opened the doors with an obedient beep and pop.

Stairs, I wondered to myself, why does this building has so many damned stairs? In the bathroom, I dropped my bag, still empty grocery sack, hat, jacket, and helmet, scattered on the tile. Oh, it hurt, my head, back, stomach. I shook and fevered and sweated and chilled. I tried to move my mind elsewhere, searching for a mantra, though I had never been much of one for such practices. I wracked my mind to remember one, just one, but it skipped like a record or a stone thrown across dark water. Finally I settled on Om Mani Padme Hum, the simplest of phrases. It seemed like it had taken hours to puzzle it out, though it had been but minutes. I don’t believe there are power in such mantras, but I believe there can be vast relief from suffering when physical pain is not dwelled upon too deeply. I could curse my pain and wallow in it, or accept it and concentrate on something else.

After a short time I emerged, my belongs gripped unsteadily in one hand. Stairs, I thought, why so many stairs? I climbed to the second level and lowered myself onto the only slightly tilted surface of the Barcelona chairs on the second floor balcony. The building is dotted with famous chairs designed by famous architects. They are, each and every one, uncomfortable, but it felt wonderful just to be horizontal and still. I drew my light jacket around my now cold body and rested my head on the bag with my book.

I closed my eyes and listened to the building breathe. I tried not to linger on the sick feelings that still plagued me and instead contemplated the building, something I had done many times before and will likely do many times hence. One can judge the health of a building by the way it breathes. That is, how well the air systems work, how well they were designed and have been maintained. When once listens, it is easy to pick out the sounds of the building from the sounds of people.

Walking in, upon cursory inspection, one might believe the building empty, but upon listening, I found it was not. One can single out the sounds of air and water moving throughout the systems, wind as it pushes against the walls, the creak of materials expanding and contracting due to humidity, and the groan as the building settles into its foundations. Architecture Hall, being an old building is more silent than most, having settled into its stately bearing long ago. I could just make out the very fainted sounds of an occasional footstep and music from somewhere within the old College of Law, which Architecture took over and joined with the old hall almost thirty years ago now. The two old buildings sit side by side, and I rested between on the second floor balcony of The Link, an open atrium which captures and reflects the sounds of both.

I lay with the unnatural stillness of the ill or the dead, my limbs very loose and heavy. After a time, I pushed at the bag beneath my head, rearranging the deck of cards I had finally felt digging into my jaw, but otherwise I was motionless. I entertained myself with these thoughts while the sickness ebbed leaving me feeling only drained but for a splitting headache. Though the sound of the metal door opening in the link was loud, I did not startle and it took some time to rearrange my thoughts enough to connect the sounds I heard with the presence of someone either entering or leaving.

I finally pushed myself up and called out, then gathered more strength and called again. Bret stopped on the stair behind me and took his ear buds out.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, an amused frown on his narrow face. It was not unknown for students to sleep in the chairs or even spend the entire night passed out in some part of the building after having one too many at some Downtown bar. But I had never been one of those.

“Being sick,” I admitted, as I fished for the strap of the bag and tried to decide if standing was really such a good idea.

“Have you been here since last night?”

“No, I was going to the farmer’s market and I just felt sick, but home was too far.” Apparently standing was acceptable. Though I still felt shaky and tired, and the headache continued to pound, I was not longer feverish or nauseous.

Bret chuckled in sympathy. “Doesn’t look like you got your shopping done,” he said, noting my still empty sack.

“No. Did you drive here?” He nodded. “Can you take me home?”

“Sure.” Bret is such an asshole, but he’s a good asshole and there when you need him without complaint. I was passing fond of him and more so in that moment. He reminds me of my father’s side of the family, especially the uncles. “Can you make it to the parking garage?” He asked as we walked slowly out of Arch Hall.

“Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna throw up any more. I’m just tired and my head hurts. For a while there, I wasn’t sure I’d make it here, I was so dizzy and sick.”

“Did you have too much fun last night?” he asked.

“No. I wish I had. Then at least I would feel like I’d earned it.”

“Well, builds character, they say,” he commented, clearly a fellow fan of Calvin and Hobbes.

“Yeah, suffering allows you to feel compassion for others who suffer,” I agreed.

“Or feel superior to them,” Bret commented, just to be contrary, but I suppose in a sad way he’s right.

We do get caught up in the stories of our own suffering, don’t we? We like to scoff at others and think that we’ve had it worse so they shouldn’t complain, which always struck me as entirely unreasonable despite that fact that I know I’ve done it myself from time to time. Those of us who live in Architecture Hall (not just visit it like students of other colleges visit their halls but live in their dorms) tend to do it more than most, making us, by and large, an insufferable lot.

We paused to lock up my bike, which I hadn’t bothered with earlier.

“Wonder what people thought seeing you weave around on that bike,” he commented.

“Well, no one was here, but I suppose I probably was weaving,” I agreed, trudging slowly along. He shortened his brisk, long stride for me without commenting on my snail’s pace. Bret must be at least half a foot taller than I and thinner than even my scarecrow-like brother if that’s possible.

We chatted idly on that slow walk, which I felt was for the best and he didn’t seem to mind. I told him where I lived as we pulled out of the garage. I examined the scene out the window as we passed the hulking gray mass of Memorial Stadium and then around the recreation fields and parking garages on the north edge of campus. Cook Pavilion, one of the two indoor practice fields build for the football team, had the doors rolled open and I could see a geometric formation of people within.

“Oh, cheerleaders,” I commented, keeping up the meaningless flow of words.

“Cheerleaders? Okay, that’s it, you’ll have to find your own way from here,” Bret told me. “I’m going in.”

“You’re gonna have a hard time explaining to the cops why you drove your car into Cook Pavilion.”

“Yeah, let alone how I got convinced two cheerleaders to get in the trunk.”

“The trunk?”

“Well, cheerleaders aren’t exactly good for talking to, are they? They’re good for other things.”

I smiled. It was sexist and crude and entirely stereotypical, but I smiled anyway. “Sorry to ruin your Saturday,” I said instead.

“Yeah, well, I was just going in to do some work for Gordon, but now I can go home and have the breakfast I missed by rolling out of bed at the crack of ten.”

“Is it that late? Is your clock wrong or are you lying to me?” I asked, staring at the clock on his dash which now read four minutes to ten, which meant it was four minutes to eleven by his reckoning.

He chuckled again, “Lost a little time, did we?”

“I guess,” I murmured. I don't know how long I had listened to the building breathe, amusing myself with the fanciful notion that buildings breathe at all.

Bret dropped me at home with a rueful smile and I thanked him again and wished him a good breakfast before forcing myself up the two flights of stairs. I don’t really remember unlocking the doors. I do remember glancing at the clock, which read exactly eleven, as I took of my pants and fell back into bed. My head pounded as the blood flow changed in response to the horizontal position. I pushed myself up again with a groan and went to the bathroom to find some naproxen. My cat regarded me curiously and entirely unsympathetically as I lay in bed once more. I was sweating again, the fever having roused itself a bit after my exertions, and I could feel my heart beating entirely too fast. After a time, I dozed off.

What a strange day, I thought, good and bad, suffering and pain, ego and compassion, breathing buildings and cartoon dharma – yes, a strange day.

July 09, 2009

The Boiling Soup Method - Or How I Design Architecture

Yesterday, I sat in the cold, cramped department conference room during architecture theory class and half listened to my professor while skimming one of the assigned readings I had failed to read before class. In the middle of that, when my attention is suspended over the chasm of boredom between the two continents of attentive listening and attentive reading, when the pot boils. I have a lot of pots and I leave them simmering on the back burners of my mind. I occasionally toss in new spices, extra vegetables, stir the contents, sniff the steam, but ultimately but them back on low heat. I’ve found that turning up the flame usually doesn’t help the contents cook any faster.

This particular pot is labeled Windhorse/Architecture. I have been intentionally neglecting it for some time. The architectural phase of my thesis for Windhorse Retreat Center in Wisconsin won’t officially begin until Fall semester and I don’t want to get wedded to one idea too early. But the pot boils when it boils, when all the necessary ingredients have been added, whether I’ve been paying attention or not. Each ingredient is a thought, idea, knowledge, data, picture, experience, sight, sought, or phrase someone spoke when I was only half paying attention. They mingle together in unknown and subconscious ways until, POP, just like that, they boil.

A design blossoms fully formed in my mind, geometric shapes and arrangements and relationships, tectonic manifestations in solid materials and spaces, traffic flow and compass directions, movement of light and wind, and changing of seasons. I see it all in three dimensions and the train goes barreling away willy-nilly, unfurling a banner of potential solutions behind it. And even though I’m envisioning formally (as in ‘forms, shapes,’ not ‘proper, strict’), in terms of cubes and cylinders and serpentine shapes that defy geometric description, each one responds to a specific series of non-formal criteria. “Oh, this set of forms would describe the entry experience!” or “This relationship between spaces would be ideal for service deliveries,” or “This shape would allow light from above and create a stack effect to help passively regulate ventilation,” and “This is how it would sit on and integrate with the site.”

While I’m sketching it out, mentally, I can’t possibly explain all of the ways in which this design satisfies all of the (sometimes contradictory) requirements of the design program, which went into the pot as the basic broth months ago. But it’s all in there; it hasn’t boiled off. I get the shapes, then I get the relationships, then I get the tectonics, then the aesthetics, then the temporality, then the process, the theories, the metaphors, the poetry, but I also get them all at the same time. It’s not a condition where I get the shapes, then have to revise them when the relationships don’t work, then have to revise the shapes and relationships when the tectonics don’t work, so on and so forth. Everything comes as part of a cohesive whole.

This is how the Shambhala Dining Hall came into being. It boiled during mid-morning meditation of the Shambhala Level III training program. I waited a long time after that before I wrote anything down, put anything on paper, because I wasn’t sure the design would hold up. I didn’t trust my experience because I hadn’t had it before. I thought something else might occur to me. After I wrote it down and showed it to my professors and classmates, I held my breath and waited for it to be ripped into tiny, little, itty, bitty pieces. Because that had been my only experience up until that point. But in the end, there were only a few minor critiques and changes. The design proved to be robust, fundamentally workable. At final review, it essentially represented those first few sketches. Even the most critical of professors were hardly able to deny it did exactly what I said it should do, or that what I said it should do was fundamentally correct. They looked and said “Okay, that’s works. I get it,” and they left scratching their heads because that was an experience they had seldom had before.

What I find is not unknown to me. Like any good soup, we can identify the individual tastes, spices, and ingredients that create it. I saw that bit in the latest magazine, found this idea in a book, pulled that from the mandala principle, saw that on the building site, heard about that in a dharma talk, discussed this with my friend, dreamed that the other night, have always admired this in another’s work, etc. It just amazes me how the mind functions without our being conscious of how it is working at all.

I have no idea how this pot will turn out. I may have to throw it out and start a new batch. That’s always a possibility. This one could still be ripped into tiny, little, itty, bitty pieces. Only time can determine if it is fundamentally workable or not. Either way, there is no reason to get attached, although I know I’ll struggle with it anyway. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Until then, I’d best keep it a secret. No point in giving them a target too early. Professors tend to get annoyed when you can’t show your design process. They tend to want dozens upon dozens of sketches and models and a hundred completely different solutions, just to show that you’ve actively and attentively studied everything. For myself, if I look at something and find it doesn’t work, I don’t feel the need to waste a scrap of paper on it. Most people don’t live their lives so fully inside their own minds. That’s probably a good thing, but problematic when attempting to lend legitimacy to one’s efforts when no physical evidence of such exists.

Professors don’t tend to appreciate the boiling soup method of design.

July 08, 2009

Wanting to Not Want

I enjoy my podcasts. I download and watch or listen to a couple every day. A new favorite is Zencast out of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. So far, all the talks have been given by Gil Fronsdal, whom I enjoy. Yesterday I listened to a talk about the three paths of practice: development, letting go, and no path. It was very interesting and helpful. One thing Gil said struck me in particular, that (paraphrasing) nirvana, the absence of suffering, is the world as it is right now when we cease to want it to be otherwise.

This strikes me as very profound and yet somehow very naïve or perhaps even selfish. Indeed, I can wrap my mind around the idea, that if I can simply let go of all the habitual wants and desires that drive me, I can find peace in this very moment, this very place. But what about everyone else? What about those trapped in the midst of war, famine, and disease? The stories that Buddhist monks and nun have brought over the mountains from Tibet provide examples of how, even under the most horrific of circumstances, a measure of peace can still be found. They show us how one can have compassion even for one's torturers. This provides a glimmer of hope that even those caught within wars and turmoil can cease suffering. But how am I supposed to help them?

I must want to help them, right? So how can I extinguish my own wants and desires, thus ending my own suffering? This is the bodhisattva paradox. A friend once tried to explain that the world is perfect just as it is. I told him “Don’t you go trying to broaden my mind. You’ll ruin my career prospects.” What use is there for architects in a world that is already perfect? What drives action when desire is extinguished? The Buddha sat in meditation to achieve enlightenment, but after that he got up and did other stuff. He taught and travelled and ate and slept and probably sat some more. Did the Buddha want? I think he probably did.

Gil Fronsdal added that it is not necessarily wanting that is the problem, but our attachment to it. This I have learned as a perpetual planner. I always have a plan – what I am going to do today, tomorrow, next week, next year. I plan where I’ll go to school, what jobs I’ll apply for, what columns I will write, what countries I’ll visit. I plan how I’m going to rearrange my living room, build my new house, my parents’ house, a new college of architecture, a new retreat center, a new city, or three. What I have learned from a lifetime of compulsive planning is that it’s only a problem when I actually care about the outcome. When I plan to do my laundry today and instead find myself cleaning up after my cat who took it into her head to knock all the plants over trying to get at a bird just outside the window, I have a choice. I can clean up the mess and bitch at my cat and whine about not getting to do my laundry, or I can just clean up the mess. And usually laugh at my cat because she’s such a funny little creature.

But that’s a simple thing. What about the big things? What about wanting all beings to be free from suffering? How do I let go of my attachment to that outcome? Somewhere in the world there is a woman being beaten and raped right now, probably several, and some of them are probably much closer to where I am sitting than I’d like to think. I want that to not happen, to never happen. How do I let go of attachment to that outcome? I can work with advocacy groups to end violence against women, volunteer in shelters, even teach the dharma, teach love, peace, and compassion to both the current and potential perpetrators and victims of such crimes. Yes, I suppose I can do that. But it seems like letting go of my attachment to the desire that such things never happen in somehow a betrayal. Perhaps it is or is not, but that is what it feels like.

I think sometimes it is this paradox which freezes us into inaction. I’m not just talking about Buddhists or in regards to the dharma. I think the “But what can I do?” syndrome is a great source of apathy within our society. We want so much, for good or ill, that we become petrified by indecision. We look at this complex world and we are frightened. What can I do about health care? What can I do about climate change? What can I do about violence? These are such huge, complex, systematized problems that we can’t even wrap our minds around them, so we sit on our couches in front of our televisions and do nothing. Or in front of our computers listening to our podcasts.

A friend recently asked if I’d ever thought about the Peace Corps. I have only briefly considered it, but always turned away from the idea because I’m too much of a control freak, too much of a planner. I’d want to know where they were sending me, to have a say. And also because I’m scared. I’m afraid of being in a third world country. I’m afraid of being confronted with any amount of real suffering. What if I can’t hack it? What if I just spend every day crying my eyes out? That’s not very useful. But I’m coming around to the idea that I shouldn’t let my fear dictate such things. Do I want to help more than I want to feel comfortable and safe? Which am I attached to more? If I’m going to talk the talk, I should walk the walk, eh?

You see, architecture is a safe profession, a safe way to save the world. Yes, building energy use and climate change are important and yes, design does have an enormous impact on daily life, it can promote peace or anxiety equally. But people don’t die if I decide not to show up for work that day. And when I do show up for work, no one is starving or dying of disease or horrible violent wounds right in front of my eyes. I’m not saying that is what all that the Peace Corps or similar organizations are, but fears are seldom rational things.

And I’m thinking, I am less and less attached to this idea that I need to be in charge, that I need to plan every aspect of my life, including just exactly how I’m going to help other people. The Peace Corps is starting to sound like a much better idea. A new plan is forming in my head (it’s inevitable, really). I will apply for the Fulbright and, if I am accepted, spend a year in Japan. I should know sometime next spring or early summer. When I find out, either way, I can apply for the Peace Corps, which takes nine to twelve months to arrange I hear. You tell them when you’re available to ship out. I can either work here in the states during that time, or I’ll be in Japan carrying out my Fulbright project. The Peace Corps is twenty-seven months overseas, they defer student loans, and provide some resettlement money when you get back. And when I get back, I think that would be a long enough break from school that I would be ready to start the Buddhist chaplaincy program at U of the West in California.

Or not.

July 07, 2009

LOL Monks

Courtesy of my new friend Sean over at Somethingbuddhisty's Blog.

Odd Jobs

Architecture jobs are rather thin on the ground lately. They were thin last year. This year, four of our graduating class (what would have been "my" graduating class had I not added the second degree) found work. Some decided to continue there education, others are stuck in the same dead-end jobs they worked during college, while others are unemployed. Architecture, being tied to construction, is very susceptible to economic highs and lows. Building booms and busts are well know. I was very lucky to get that internship with Rocky Mountain Institute last summer. I can cross my fingers and hope they have something up my alley when the time comes to go searching again. I can also start looking at alternatives.

I am very, very, very interested in the Master of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy at University of the West in California. However, I think I want to get back to work for a while. I've been in college far too long. And a PhD in Architecture, while interesting, sounds too masochistic even for me. Besides, I already have enough student loans to bankrupt three people. I don't even look at the total on the bottom of the statements anymore. I just file them away.

Option Number One remains, of course, the Fulbright Scholarship to Japan which I am submitting for in the fall. But those chances are getting slimmer, just by the numbers. Two years ago, they accepted half of their applicants. Last year, they only accepted a third. I spoke with the adviser about the difference between a research based proposal and a creative proposal. There was some promise there, but I can't count on anyone else seeing it the way I do. The Fulbright would be one of the very few things for which I would jump up and down and squeal upon getting. And I imagine that afterward the economy will have recovered some and I will have a most awesome resume.

However, that still leaves so many possibilities, but also so few. It would be interesting to write for an architecture magazine. But what are the qualifications they would look for and where would I need to live? (Architect is everywhere, after all.) Likewise it would be interesting to work for a newspaper as an architectural journalist, but again, qualifications, and last I checked only a very few large cities bother with such. Plus newspapers are worse off than architecture. I am interested in becoming a client advocate, a go between for a company and an architecture firm, but I think I need some experience working in a firm before that. The idea of teaching architecture history and theory at the high school level is intriguing, except for the fact that I don't like teenagers. (I didn't like teenagers when I was a teenager.) I would love to work for a Buddhist center somewhere as part of a capitol improvements project, but first I need to find one, and then I need to find one that will pay me enough to cover the aforementioned student loans. *Sigh*

There are all of these possibilities, but they are all so tenuous I can't figure out which limb to climb out on.

July 06, 2009

DN Column - Dating

Almost told my folks not to read this one, but even parents have to grow up sometime. I'm a little old to be sent to a nunnery.

Dating not key to happiness


Architects Say the Darndest Things

"Life never stops. The torment of men will be eternal, unless the function of creating and acting and changing, living intensely through each day, be considered an eternal joy."

-Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White, p. 50-51, 1947

July 02, 2009

"We're Screwed"

I really shouldn’t talk to Bret. We see things so eye to eye, so we tend to reinforce each other’s delusions. Plus, we both have twisted and irreverent senses of humor so we tend to descend into harsh cultural criticism. No matter how we keep it mocking and light, we’re both aware that when we say “Yeah, we’re screwed,” we really do mean it. Cynicism wins out.

But it’s nice. It’s good to have that kind of positive reinforcement, to find someone out there who thinks the same things I do, things we wouldn’t even admit to most people. I recognize what I get out of these conversations though – an ego boost, a little high. We get on a roll and we can just keep going, mutually reinforcing each other.

Today we discussed architecture on campus and its dismal bastardized status. We decided we should start a company together which hires out as consultants to tell clients exactly what kind of bullshit their fancy architecture firm is trying to put over on them so as to prevent debacles like these in the future.

“You mean I just get to criticize people and I don’t actually have to do architecture?” Bret asked. “Well, hell, I can do that all day!”

We talked about politics and agreed there is no real, fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats. We shook our heads over the ridiculous obstructionism caused by partisan politics in states like California and New York which can’t get their budgets passed. Say what you will about Nebraska, and how conservative it is, at least our state government works. On a fundamental level, it works, and compared to other states it is small. I am always amazed when I visit other states just how much government they have.

We both admitted to a secret and completely age-ist wish to ban people over a certain age from voting because all they are doing is setting us up for a horrible future which they aren’t going to be around for. Our generation is going to have it the worst, because we can see the storm coming and we’re frantically screaming to change course, but all the people in the back of the boat aren’t listening. And we’ll remember just how good the “good old days” were. It isn’t the same for our grandparents, who grew up in the Depression, made it through the war, and raised their children in a time of ever-expanding affluence.

“We were poor,” Grandma Del told me, “but we didn’t know we were poor. We didn’t know the difference.”

That will be the next generation, the one born into a world in which the myth of social security has already failed, the climate has shifted, deserts have expanded, oil has run out, resource wars have become common places, and every major coastal city has an intricate (and expensive) system of dikes and levies. But us, we’ll know the difference, and we’ll know just how we got there.

The optimist in me still holds out hope that it won’t be all that bad; that surely we’re smart enough to figure it out before then, but the realist just shrugs and agrees “We’re screwed.”

Our parents, those millions of Baby Boomers, tell us we’re spoiled and ungrateful. They’re right. We are spoiled and if we aren’t appropriately grateful, maybe it’s because we know what cost it’s going to have down the road, economically, environmentally, and socially, and we know we’re going to have to pay it, not them. And it’s so easy for us to see (higher CO2 = higher temperatures) that we become frustrated and intolerant, which only exacerbates the problem. We need to find a new, more productive approach, a better way to speak to one another.

“These people,” Bret complained “they just think that growth is the answer. Rising population equals rising consumption and that we’ll always come up with new ways to produce more stuff. But they don’t understand that resources are limited and we’re gonna hit a wall. We’re all stuck on this same ball of mud floating in space and that’s all we’ve got: one ball of mud.”

So we shake out heads at the shitty hand life has dealt us and get our bitching and moaning out of the way so we can go back into the world and try, yet again, to do something worthwhile with our lives. And I feel like an overinflated balloon which has finally had a little bit of the air let out. At least someone out there can see some of the things I see (and hope I’m seeing wrong), but that just reinforces the “we’re screwed” belief.

Yeah, I really shouldn’t talk to Bret.

July 01, 2009

It's All Bullshit

"Hey, Mohamed, why don't I ever hear you speak up in class? You're a PhD student. You should blow us all away," I asked today as we trudged up to the Attic (where they banish grad students to) after our architectural theory discussion let out.

"Well, I'm really busy with my dissertation, so I don't always do all the readings, so I don't know what to talk about," he told me in a soft accent as we passed Bruce's desk, the other PhD student who is older than most of the professor's here.

"Aw man, just BS it. Theory is just BS anyway," I told him.

Bruce laughed and chimed in with his deep voice, "With one sentence she just demolished the entire scholastic institution."

"Nah, I didn't demolish it. I just see the truth of it."

Don't get me wrong. I love theory, and philosophy, debate, history, research, and thought. I'm just not in love with theory. (And people have a long history of loving things which aren't necessarily good for them.) I see it for what it is - which is bullshit. It's all just words. I heard a quote once: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." Well, talking about architecture is pretty much like dancing about architecture, and maybe less illuminating than that because at least dance has certain visual and spacial qualities to it, just as architecture does.

Bullshit isn't limited to architecture theory though. It permeates everything. Hell, ninety-nine percent of what we call "the dharma" is bullshit - not because it's bad for us or wrong somehow, but just because of the nature of it. The word "chair" is not a chair. The word "enlightenment" is not enlightenment and the word "buddha" is not a buddha and won't get you enlightened no matter how many times you say it. Sure, we need the words, but we can't go around confusing the words of wisdom for wisdom itself. We can't conflate the description of an experience or state of existence for that thing.

What I study in my architecture class isn't architecture. If I wanted to study architecture, I couldn't do it in class. I can read about it, research it, discuss it, theorized about it, criticize it, but if I actually want to study architecture, to experience it, I have to get out and visit it. I don't like to criticize buildings I've never been too, or praise them either. I do, of course. It's usually required at some point, but I don't take anything I say seriously, however worthwhile it may or may not prove to be. It's all bullshit, because until I've actually visited that building, explored every nook, cranny, and closet, watched people use it, seen how the light changes throughout the day and the building systems respond to the difference seasons, only then will I really know that building. And even then, anything I say about it is merely a shallow interpretation of that knowledge into the medium of language of something that is made of infinitely more than black chicken scratched on paper.

So, yeah, the dharma is bullshit. It's a bunch of monkeys swinging in the jungle debating the merits of the Sistine Chapel versus Chartres Cathedral. Maybe one day, they'll swing on over to Italy or France and check it out for themselves, but most of them seem pretty content to hang in the jungle (or the ivory tower). I know I like it here.

Of course, if living in the land of bullshit bothered me, I would have flunked out a long time ago.