Are You Dead Already?

In my last post, I mentioned that I am visiting my father soon. His health is lousy.

My dad and I share many traits–our curiosities, skeptical and questioning natures, our reverence for life, our ability to cry in public. He is my best friend. I don’t want to lose him and scarier, I don’t want my child (due later this year) to be without a grandfather. My last few days have been shot through with paroxysms of grief.

Permitting grief is new to me. Historically, my default emotional response to hard emotional situations is go numb until a threat passes (the odd bouts of congenital sobbing notwithstanding).

I thought I was doing pretty great, breaking down as I was, allowing myself to feel. Feeling is good. It’s real.

While this emotional latitude was, in some sense, a breakthrough for me, it was also missing something: my dad is not dead. Sure, he’s going to die eventually–hopefully later than sooner. But so will I, my wife, every one of my friends…even you. I saw there were two foci I could apply to this terminal condition called life:

  1. Focus on death as loss. Think about the lousy time when we will all be dead, when we will no longer share each other’s company. It’ll probably suck and be really hard.
  2. Focus on life as opportunity. Sure, we have a finite time in these bodies (fraid’ I’m not a big believer in the Singularity stuff). So what? What are we going to do with the time we do have? As Ben Franklin put it, “Dost thou love life? then do not squander time; for that is the stuff life is made of.”

I realized there was life all around me. My wife is having a child. A good friend of mine got a great job. We got some wonderful news at my work. Yes, all of these triumphs will die, fading into memory and dust, but in the meantime there’s magnificence in witnessing the cycles of life as they occur.

I also realized that I could still call my dad, which I did. There will be a time when I cannot do that, but that time is not now.

BONUS ASSIGNMENT: IF YOU DIG MY WRITING, PLEASE ‘LIKE’ ME ON FACEBOOK PAGE. I’M TRYING ON THIS WHOLE SELF-PROMOTION THING; THE NY TIMES ARTICLE HAD ME ALL WRONG.

How Meditation Messed Up My Life

Learn thyself.

“Between stimulus and response is our greatest power—the freedom to choose.”
Stephen Covey

Quotes like Covey’s are like spiritual Sweet-Tarts, sugary rushes of wisdom lacking real nourishment.  Who hasn’t gotten inspired by Goethe’s “whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”  My root chakra tingles just writing it.  I want to do all the things I’ve been too much of a puss to do.

But what happens after the axiomatic rush?  Doesn’t it always get subsumed by habit?  No matter how clever or true, few quotes can match the power of habit.  Habits are our neurological earthmovers.  We can hear and believe that love is the answer and that our bodies are temples, but if we are in the habit of being hostile to our parents and eating McDonald’s, those axioms mean nothing—they are spiritual marshmallow fluff.

I subscribe to Covey’s quote about choice in principle, but often find myself veering from it in practice.

Most of us exercise little or no choice to the various stimuli in our lives.  We are almost totally on automatic, reacting to situations without any awareness as to why. Continue reading “How Meditation Messed Up My Life”

Have an Unispired Week!

Waiting for inspiration is like waiting for Shaq to grant you three wishes.

“Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.”
Woody Allen quotes

After opening my computer to write this morning I read emails for 10 minutes, typed a couple replies and emails for 10 minutes, searched for a vacuum cleaner for 30 minutes, searched for parking lots around LaGuardia for another 15 minutes, searched for a new pair of cycling shoes for 10 minutes, made several pitstops on Facebook for a total of about 15 minutes, read a blog post about Raghava KK for 3 minutes, watched his TED talk for 18 minutes, took a crap for 5 minutes.  After nearly 2 hours of extraneous mental activity, my mind felt totally sapped of inspiration.  I didn’t want to write the words you are reading.

In the summer of 1997 I rode my bicycle from Boulder, Colorado to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Maine.  I started the trip physically unprepared, getting exhausted after riding a few hours.  This would have been easier to endure if the weather hadn’t been so shitty or if there were any people in Wyoming, the first state I passed through.  Instead, in addition to an incessantly throbbing body, I contended with temperatures in the 40’s, grey skies presaging frequent bursts of freezing rain, epic winds and desolate roads leading to few towns, whose populations seemed indifferent to my arrival. Continue reading “Have an Unispired Week!”

Don't Look at the Dead Rat in the Living Room

My dead and rotting spiritual master.

I was hanging out at home the other afternoon when I noticed a distinctly rat-corpse-like form on my floor.  When I first noticed it, I was chatting with a friend.  I chose to table issue until he left.  As soon as he did, my fear was realized:  there was a dead rat with splayed guts on my floor.

I’m not particularly squeamish, but this freaked me out.  Rats are dangerous.  They carry disease.  They’re fast.

I was also confused.  While I’d had mice run through my place, a big rat, much less one with protruding and bloody innards, seemed anomalous.  It must have gotten in via the two floors above me, which have many entry points.  It’s guts must have burst open due to some disease, parasite or cannibalistic rat.

However it got there, I had to deal with it, which proved challenging as I could barely look at it, much less handle it.

I put on some full-fingered cycling gloves, got a large, stainless steel kitchen bowl, and neared the corpse.  With eyes averted, I slapped the bowl on top of the rat and scurried away, pulse high, breathing short.  At least I didn’t have to look at it anymore.

I worked up the courage to approach it again, getting a magazine and sliding it under the bowl to scoop the body up.  Fortunately, it wasn’t sticking to the floor, nor did it seem to be moving.  Part of my fear was that it was a zombie rat—half-alive, ravenous for human flesh.

It was now trapped between the bowl and the magazine, but I still had to deposit it in the garbage, which would require lifting the bowl and looking at it (I thought about doing the whole operation with eyes closed or blindfolded, but the prospect of missing the garbage and picking it up again was too much to deal with).

I also half-recognized that this might a great opportunity for growth.  It didn’t matter how the rat got there, it was there, and like all of my fears, it could either be addressed or ignored; either disposed of or left to rot under a bowl.  I wanted to be someone who went through life choosing the former route.

I took the trash bag near the bowl, breathed a few deep breaths, averted my eyes to view as little of the rat as possible, and lifted the bowl.  Before depositing it, I quickly noticed some strange details out of the corner of my eye.  First, the blood hadn’t smeared on the magazine.  The guts were still red, so it should have been running.  Next, there seemed like a distinct lack of detail to the rats entrails; it was more of a general mess than an exposed anatomy with intestines, kidneys and other organs.

The reason for these strange details was that the rat wasn’t real.  It was rubber.  A houseguest, my good friend Doug Campbell, had put it there as a joke that morning.  After a chuckle and a mock-angry text to Doug, I started to breathe again. Continue reading “Don't Look at the Dead Rat in the Living Room”

Killing My Inner Child

That was supposed to be me up there.

My first and last bike race started with a clatter and ended with a whimper.  I was fourteen and had entered the Illinois state road championships months before.  This would be my first outing on my coveted and crinkled US Cycling Federation category-four license.
The race would mark my ascent to cycling greatness.  Soon I would be among cycling legends:  Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, American Greg Lemond, who had just won his second Tour de France by eight seconds that day.
In preparation for the euro racing circuit, I dressed like top pros for my premiere race, wearing my PDM jersey (then the most powerful cycling team in the world) and a “hairnet,” a leather and soft-foam head covering that offers about as much protection as its food-service namesake.
My older brother, who also had an interest in cycling, drove me to the event in his beat up 83’ Toyota Celica.  My race started at 8:30 in Bloomington, a Podunk town two and a half hour drive from our place in the south suburbs of Chicago.  We arrived around 8:25. Continue reading “Killing My Inner Child”

Halloween Special

Though not me, a boy after my own heart. Pic via nerdyapplebottom.com.

The first time I dressed in drag for halloween was in the fifth grade.  My mom, exercising the good judgment befitting someone in an alcoholic free-fall, helped me put together my outfit.  She lent me a frizzy pink wig, a black halter top, some high heels, pantyhose and to finish the outfit, she sewed me a black vinyl miniskirt.  Thinking back on it, my choice of costume might have been ill-advised.
The previous year, my quasi-stepdad Dave died of a heart attack.  When it happened, we were living in a large house with an in-ground pool in a nice, white Chicago suburb called Flossmoor.  We had moved there two years before as part of a great white migration from the town I was born in, University Park.  After Dave’s death, my mom could no longer afford to live in the house with the pool, and because she never sold the University Park place, her and I moved back.
It was 1986 and gangs were becoming more prevalent.  The year before, in the fourth grade, much to the dismay of my teachers, I had my ear pierced.  Their displeasure was nothing compared to the daily beatings I received at my new school in University Park, the victim of mistaken gang-affiliation.
It was not a good year.  I felt pretty alienated being one of four white kids in my fifth grade class.  My sensitive nature and stylish wardrobe didn’t help either.  Getting my ass kicked daily for the most arbitrary reasons sucked too.
And things were not much better at home.  My mom reaching the nadir of her alcoholism in the wake of Dave’s death.  Beside her more quotidian debauches, I had to call the ambulance twice that year to pick mom up from alcoholic catatonia.
And yet, somewhere in the din of this social isolation, violence and domestic chaos, I had the idea, “Why don’t I dress up as a hooker for Halloween?” Continue reading “Halloween Special”