Friday, September 26, 2008

Hope Abandoned

I cannot continue writing. My brains are scrambled, I miss too many critical things when reading and make a fool of myself, and my moods are too unstable. So farewell, once again, perhaps one day I can return, but I have little hope for it. I will try to keep this up with reposts, at least for a while, but no more new.

Friday, September 19, 2008

REPOST: The Faces Of Worry and Pain 4/2/06

As an inveterate watcher, I observe very few truly happy people over the age of twenty-five. Hot blood, hormones, and a new day practically force some happiness on you in your youngest adulthood. The new days are still so truly new. But nearly every other face I see is distorted with some fantasy of worry, annoyance, or discomfort--never here, never now, never actually prepared to enjoy a new day, the soft and spicy scent of flowering crabapple blooms, a pleasant lunch, or a good joke.

I make a lot of jokes, for I am happy. I have worries, discomforts, and annoyances, but I know that, ultimately, they do not matter. Ultimately all that matters is the new day. I know this because I have endured financial ruin and penury, as well as deteriorated mental health, and have lived to tell the tale.

I also know this because I have been taught to remind myself daily of my approaching death, and because I have received Buddhist teaching both on how to deal with death and how to make use of life. You can read a little bit about it here.

A mind like mine which is always "on", always watching, always fingering the English language like a favored ring, sees much absurdity both in language and in life--and the jokes I make with friends of co-workers come from this.

A joke is a piece of the present moment. You cannot "get" a joke without being here now and shaking yourself for an instant out of fantasy about the past or anticipation of the future. Getting the joke short circuits both of these.

As a jokester, as a motley fool, and as a mentally ill man [which the King's fools of yore frequently were] I know that the glimpse of the present, the now, is not always welcome or appreciated. Many are afraid of the present. It cannot be manipulated like fantasies of the past or the future. There are no self-chosen roles in the present--hero, victim, bystander. There is no autobiography in the present, only biography. Things happen, you react.

A joke happens and you react. Who reacts? Who are you, alone and nameless, here and now, after deserting your worries, and bereft of a self-chosen role? Where are you other than here? How are you other than involuntarily more alert? What are you, really?

These are the questions we are afraid of when we are suddenly tricked into the present. And our fear of them is the true reason we are not happy, and our faces are so full of pain. Hot blood, and the craving for fun that comes with it, fun in bed, fun in a club, fun in anywhere and everywhere, masks the questions for the young, who frequently venture into the present without fear and are generally, if unthinkingly, happy.

When I greet the young, morning shift, fun bunnies--Diana, Amanda, Jake, and Chet--of Starbuck's--where the fun and happiness are packaged in modular components, reassembled from carefully developed plans for each specific location, and polished up to a well-oiled machine of profit--I get a glimpse of my own now tempered hot blood, fast-flowing hormones, and new days.

Amanda is so continuously full of giggles, smiles, and chirping chatter, that once, when I saw her at a bus stop, with her face fully in repose, I literally did not know who she was, and when I found out, I was stunned to see that she was classically beautiful, with the beauty of dark brunette hair, chiseled profile, and delicately shaped lips surrounded by creamy skin and a faint soft down of body hair. If you are old enough, think of the young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, and you will have it nailed.

Diana is in the process of deliberately transforming herself, through diet and exercise, from the plump little small-town girl of high-school into the shapely and sophisticated hair-stylist [her "real" job] that she always envied and admired. It's both fun and challenging, and she still is unsatisfied by the shape of her booty. I understand what she's getting at, but am rather taken with it just as it is.

Jake and Ted are working through the tall, lean goofiness of early male youth. Jake is a little further along. He's handsomer, and already has the patina of confidence that comes to a man who knows that a lot of women are attracted to him. Ted still has to contend with glasses, a little bit of late acne, and a more hazy sense of his fully adult style. But both are surrounded by the atmosphere of half-unconscious sexual tension and possibility that working in the close quarters behind the cash register and the espresso bar imposes on all of them.

At those distances the pheneromes are constantly tickling the nose as the four of them rotate through filling the pastry cabinet to manning the register to swishing the steam through the foaming milk and banging the dead coffee out of the pressure locked cup with the hefty black handle.

But since I watch, and watch carefully; since I listen, and listen closely; I know that happiness in Starbuck's is compelled to meet actual corporate standards: how quickly you are greeted, whether your name is remembered and mentioned, when the baristas know it, and whether you have been wished a "nice day" as you leave.

Heidi, the manager of the Starbuck's I frequent, is very much the corporate maven, even at 22, and is always explaining this to job applicants and new employees at one of the tables while I sit in the overstuffed armchair listening to the hip music on Starbuck's own satellite radio channel.

They think of everything.

All this is, perhaps, why you see so very few Starbuck's baristas over the age of twenty-five--there is too much to worry about with the demand to be happy for the sake of the corporation, and worry itself eventually takes the bloom off the cheeriest greeting.

Think about it. How would your day go if you constantly had to ask yourself if you were happy enough?

Heidi herself is what the French call gamine, a little flittering sparrow with a cap of close cut dark hair, a delicate-boned face with a narrow chin, and a head that cocks slightly to one side or the other as she wishes you the nice day. She is friendly, in the classic Starbuck's way, but there is already hanging over her heart the veil of corporate worry.

I very much hope that she moves into middle management quickly. To the eyes of hyperacusis that I own, the strain of store management is already beginning to steal tiny fragments of her happy youth, week in and week out. She has the management skills to climb the ladder. Her Starbuck's is one of the best run that I have ever encountered and is a showpiece of the Starbuck's ethos. But the demand for constant and unwavering happiness at the register or the espresso bar is a harsh taskmaster.

It is sad to think that all these fine young folks are highly likely to become what I see everyday in the lobby of the building where I work or the sidewalks of the street where I catch my bus. To turn into a bleach-blond fortyish woman with a red slash of lipstick on a habitually downturned mouth, totally unaware that the blood red lips make it perfectly clear to the whole world that she is fundamentally unsatisfied with her life and her job. To transform into the balding man with the hunched shoulders in a badly fitting suit too cheap to be enjoyable, wondering if the latest proposal will drop like a lead balloon, just like the last one.

In people such as these I see the heros, villains, and bystanders of ten minutes ago, ten hours ago, ten days ago, ten years ago. I don't really see anything else except a body slowly stiffening into a permanently unhappy old age. And I certainly don't see the least hint of what they were at the age of my favorite baristas.

Essentially, we are what we worry about. But if we learn that our worries are futile, we can finally stay long enough in the present to truly become ourselves. I have taken a vow to cultivate endless compassion and loving kindness toward anyone I encounter. Hence I use my fertile mind, and the still mercurial moods of a medicated bi-polar, to make people laugh.

I know that behind the laughter is great fear, and that constantly terrifying people with themselves may not appear all that compassionate. It really is. And to refrain from it merely because convention says not to frighten people, even with laughter, is what my teachers very literally call "idiot compassion".

In my life, no "idiot compassion" need apply. Since my young friends behind the espresso bar, can see that I am with them in the present when I walk in the door, ready to savor the real happiness, for all it being carefully planned and corporate, since it is truly their youthful happiness, I look and behave toward them like few my age.

I look and behave just as I do here, with a deadpan face and a twinkle in the eye since I smell the pheneromes, too.

Add to that my bushy grey beard, my leather wrapped cane with the three blue beads dangling from it, an occasional daffy hat, and my Buddhist prayer beads that are commonly wrapped around my left wrist--ready for me to sit quietly somewhere else in the building and do some Buddhist practice--and I am, for the kids, a "character" who undoubtedly is laughed at, gossiped about, and cherished for eccentricity, when he is not present, and the trade at the cash register slows down.

Friday, September 12, 2008

How Can You Possibly Know

As a Buddhist, if someone asks me, “How can you possibly know you’ve been reincarnated?” the only reply possible is “How can you possibly know you were born?” I certainly don’t remember my birth, do you? And how many of our earliest memories are truly our own, and not made up from repeated second hand testimony to us when the family photo album comes out at Thanksgiving? I have never seen my face, I have only seen the changes it makes in a mirror or a camera. If there really is a true “me”, why do I have to accept so much about it on second hand testimony? The past is only a memory or a story, the future is nowhere to be found, and the present slips through our fingers whenever we try to grasp it. By the time you notice it, the tick of a clock is no longer there.

We expect to feel complete, whole, and unified. We expect our world to become tidy, just for us, and bring us "closure". The craving for “completeness”, for "closure", is part of the problem. It asks for something that the world gives no one, for the world is inherently essenceless, with no definite end or beginning. We are also inherently essenceless, with no definite end or beginning. And no boundary can ultimately be found between us and our world.

Buddhist teachers tell you to look directly and squarely into your own sense of incompleteness–there is something living and precise and splendid about it, of which we normally can only get glimpses. My tradition calls it “basic groundlessness”–the discovery that there are no permanent reference points anywhere for anything. When we think there are, these are merely bits of second hand testimony we’ve created or been given.

A really good psychological shock [the classic one is the abrupt and totally unexpected discovery of a cheating spouse] can sometimes knock all of this “evidence” completely away from us at a stroke, leaving only the groundlessness behind. We make everything all back up again, of course, and get on with our lives. But we really wouldn’t need to. We could just stay there, totally aware, without anything to be aware of and no one to be aware of it. In Japan they call this “the face you had before you were born”.

A Buddha is someone who doesn’t need the reference points, not even the ones so subtle we don’t even know they exist until we probe directly into our incompleteness like, as they say in Japan, a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball.

The Bitter Dregs

One of the most disturbing things about my bipolarity is the change in the relations within my memory. Certain events, people, or circumstances have taken on an elephantine presence all out of proportion to their actual relation to my history. Others have shrunken to the size of an overcooked green pea, accessible, if I work at it, but leaving an empty space where once they existed in proper size and relation to everything else.

I am certain that this is a function of the illness. For it was not so until I became ill and I cultivated my memory with thorough and conscious care for more than thirty years before this--I relied on it as the second most valuable tool a professional intellectual could have. The most valuable was observation, for as Sherlock Holmes tells the Dr. Watson in all of us, "You see, my dear fellow, but you do not observe." My memory and my observation were my life, and I kept them shipshape and spic and span.

The Mother of the Muses is Memory. She has left me. They remain, and shake my shoulder urging me to sing--Walter Savage Landor

The walls of those empty spaces left where memories have shrunken are coated in bitter dregs. When I stumble into them I cannot help wiping my finger along the walls and putting it to my mouth to taste them.

Where are you now, Artemis? Weren't you once solid and definite in my memory? Whole and complete? You were Pierrette incarnate, a flirting minx, an untouchable will-o'-the-wisp, who hid a mind like a razor and an ambition of steel springs and thick leather, behind the airy tinkle of your inconsequential laugh.

You taught me to French Kiss, and none I've known French Kissed better than you, your delicate fingers searching out the sensitive fascia just below my shoulder blades, leaving me all hot and bothered for the better part of two hours after you would dance away so lightly. You were my Cruel, Fair Maid and you cracked my heart in two.

I came upon a Child of God, he was walking along the road, when I asked him, "where're you goin'", this he told me... Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

Wrapped over all these fragments is the color shifting Super 8 footage of my long dark hair and my all white shirt and trousers [I had a young man's Mark Twain fetish then] in a Spring so perfect that it burned the nerves. It was my first year of college, I was headed from a class to the monumental, limestone slabbed Main Library, where I always hid in the cool, dark bookstacks, among great and interesting books, pages sweet smelling and foxed, that I did not yet know of, but was determined to find, read, and conquer.

I turned a corner, lost in studious thought, amidst a cloud of fragrance from old, old flowering quince bushes, long since chopped down. Then I looked up, and saw the tear gas canister explode within three feet of me. And headed toward me was the solid marching phalanx of grey coated, polycarbide helmeted Ohio Highway Patrolmen, billyclubs at ready. Four were shot dead in Ohio, and that seemed overwhelmingly important for years, but we, ourselves, have turned the corner of a new millenium and have left it all behind.

But the Patrolmen still stand there, for all the world like Greek legions painted on a tall, red-on-black Amphora filled with wine or olives. Or perhaps as sober and dark as a wall in Washington, decorated with names of men who died by violence in Southeast Asia.

I know you became a lawyer, Artemis, driving a trade in San Francisco, and are quite well off now. I know we talked once, briefly, over the phone, seventeen years ago when I was there on a visit, but the lunch appointment fizzled as our schedules got too tangled to meet. We had a couple of brief e-mails a year or so back. You have two lovely children to send to college, a beautiful Victorian home, the same good solid guy that you married, and, like me, some more weight to carry. Then I slipped into one of the periods of my dead, dry darkness, and we lost touch.

I still don't quite have the full memory of your face.

I can call forth the components of your face so long ago, the touseled auburn Betty Boop curls, the pursed little bow of a mouth with the faint hint of a mustache at its corners, the exact hue and shade of the Blush you always lightly brushed on your cheeks, and the flirting brown eyes behind the large, square, wire rimmed, and rose-tinted glasses.

But your face as a whole has left me. Your story as a whole has left me as well. There are only fragments.

She didn't look hard. But she looked like she'd heard all the answers and remembered the ones she thought she could use sometime.--Raymond Chandler

I heard some of the answers, and all but one of the men who gave them to me have died. There was the famous photographer, a pocket spiritual guru just before they became fashionable, a tall man with a mane of glowing white hair, floating lightly through the last years of his life with Death constantly sitting on his shoulder, whispering in his ear.

You gave me the answer of how you did this, though it was in a locked box of your words which I could not open until I had made my own key by constantly seeking conversation with Death, and sustaining it unafraid.

You are more present, more real now than you were thirty-five years ago, looming over me like some double-scale Baroque marble statue, so filled with the energy of arrested motion that your very stillness could shatter in an instant, like exploding glass.

This image of you overwhelms and absorbs the actual facts of our brief history of teacher and student. I wrote those facts down once, and it's a good thing, because I could no longer make a full narrative of them now.

What senses do we lack that we cannot see a whole other world before us?--Frank Herbert

I left that whole other world 15 years ago. It was a world of stucco and adobe, a sun that was always warm and bright and only occasionally truly hot. It was a world of mountains and full double rainbows and of a horizon where you could see 3 or more separate thunderstorms at the same time. It was a world where the smell of roasting green chiles saturated the late summer air, where the jewelery exhibited at the state fair could contain turquoises as big as your fist. When you looked up at the sky in October, it could be full of balloons as vivid a gumdrops. When you looked down from the mountain top, the whole city was barely visible under a cloud of brown gunk.

That world shattered in fragments a month before my dissertation defense, and I didn't even know it until seven years later. The people who triggered it really do not matter, nor does what they did to do it. The cracks in my mind had been lengthening for years. Occasionally one of them shows up in my dreams as a little wisened old man, though his hair is still mostly black, and he keeps asking me where did I go, the first to take a Doctorate and the one who vanished tracelessly after.

You can look but you better not touch, boy! You can look but you better not touch. Mess around, you'll end up in Dutch boy! You can look, but you better not, no you better not, no you better not touch--Bruce Springsteen

I touched you and you touched me, didn't you Kay? Touched me with coarse dark hair and dripping wet where I wanted it most as you rode me like the horse that you dreamed of as a child in Texas. The phone call is still there, the one where you told me our love child had miscarried in the earthquake. The sweet and sensuous travels are still there; the dinner on Cannery Row where we watched black waterbirds trolling for the same sanddab fish that were hot and breaded on my plate; the perfect white bowl of sand called China Cove where you scorched your skin to cherry red and I could only touch you that night where the tank suit had covered you; and the night stroll in the New Orleans that is now gone, heavy with Magnolias, creeping and rustling ghosts, and the memory of Oysters Rockefeller but an hour before.

Then there was the second phone call, where you could not quite bring yourself to tell me that you had made the choice of loving women only instead of both women and men--and I had to tell it to you and say goodbye.

All fragments, all lost, all slowly disintegrating as my body ages and my mind lapses into the dark places. And all lost for good when Death takes me, leaving only the karmic stain for when we meet again.

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.--Shakespeare

One of my hobbies was Astrology, and the peculiar thing about them all is that they were all born within the same 3 day span in mid-July. Almost chilling that is. Almost chilling still.

REPOST: The Encounter with True Silence 2/18/05

The free floating cloud is back. For the clinically depressive, the worst part is that you are not depressed about anything, so you can't act on what is depressing you. These days, the cloud comes and goes on its own schedule--about 2-3 hours in duration, instead of whole days, so I can function through it.

It has taught me a few things. By taking away my favorite pleasures--books, music, crisp sunny days--it has shown me the futility of trying to use anything as a crutch to prop yourself up with, and evade your depression. I did this with these things for years.

But nothing will work as that sort of crutch forever, and the rebound from the biochemical basis of your depression is devastating. I completely burned out on these favorite pleasures from trying to use them that way. Reading went first, then music, and now even my favorite weather has dropped away from me. The disorder chewed them up, spit them out, and left me only with the cuds.

It is so strange to read prose or listen to music with absolutely no emotional affect. Most of the time, there is even no affect reading my own prose. With music comes an utter indifference, except for mild to serious annoyance at the noise. The only thing left is my emotional response to content, when there is content: lyrics or issues to get involved with, exercised with, and concerned about.

Peculiarly, in the absence of emotional affect, I am writing better and easier than I ever have in my life. The words rattle in my head constantly, and it is a major relief to put them to paper or to direct blogging.

I engage content sparingly, for all my recent prolificness in writing. For I fear developing the same indifference to even this level of involvement. Another affect gone would not only leave my world flatter and grayer, it would also silence my voice when all who can speak in defense of the values I hold dear, are vitally needed against the dark ideological onslaught, manipulated by cynical and indifferent wealth and power hunger, which we face in this country.

When I was in New Mexico, I made frequent trips into the high desert backcountry. There I heard, for the first time in my life, true natural silence. No place in the eastern forests, farmland, and prairie is wholly silent. In the country there is always rustling, chirping, chittering, and the dopplering sound wash of passing automobiles.

There is even, if your ears are sensitive enough, and the background quiet enough, a constant, almost subthreshold hum of alternating current in any nearby wire. And some wire or other is always nearby.

In the high desert, you can finally be miles from the wires, the fauna are few and far between, and so are the autos. So, normally, you hear only the wind, and, when the wind lays, you can finally hear nothing. Natural silence. The only comparable experience I have ever had in the East was a heavy snowstorm on New Year's Day morning, with three-quarters of the town sleeping off their drunk, no one running appliances, and the snow pack and very low clouds deadening most of the background noise.

I crave that silence. It would probably move me emotionally again, and would certainly heal and relieve me. For with the regular return of the cloud of depression on my mind--even though shortened and dissipated by the meds--comes a chronic hyperacusis of hearing, making discrimination the content and meaning of live human voices nearly impossible in a room with a chattering television. The sentences alternate between the live voice and the electronic voice in my mind, turning the mixture into paragraph salad.

It also weighs me down with every random background noise: conversation several cubicles away, the copier or fax machine running, file drawers opening, or my co-workers chewing a snack.

The high desert is truly still there, though the West is filling up, and it is much harder to find that silence, or even to find only the sound of the wind. You must drive further and wait longer. But, if you can, go find it and listen. For even if I never hear it again in this life (and the odds are I will not), I can still feel pleasure, though who knows for how long, at the thought that somebody else might hear it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Returning To The Empty Sky

It is now over a year since I kited this blog out. A year of exaggerated mental health ups and downs, no computer, too many crises, some good news, and one glorious event: the US tour of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa. The good news referred to is that I have finally been able to obtain Social Security Disability, Medicare, and Medicaid because of my bipolar disorder. It took three years and parts of it may take four, but I now have control of my time and a new computer and I'm going to try to write again. I have been doing finger exercises here and there, such as on my old friend the Anchoress' blog, and I have set myself the goal of five new articles before I drop anyone a line to say I'm back in business.

I hope to stay largely out of politics, which is why I have not revived my old blog. There is really not much more to say than that I support Barack Obama. For he has said it all himself in his acceptance speech. I was of the + or- 40,000 who saw it live. My hope is for a President Obama, 60 Democrats in the Senate, and enough time to fix the damage the last eight years have done. I have little new to say about the last eight years that I didn't say on the old blog. Reading it over again, I see little I would change or add.

If you stumble upon my articles before I advertise this blog more widely, my best welcome to you. Check back in a couple of days. I hope to sustain at least two posts a week, and maybe repost some of the better non-political writing. Until then, bonne chance.