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Posts Tagged ‘family’

On A Train

I’m writing this while sitting on a train to Boston. My family from Ohio is up here with us and that means doing touristy things. This and the snowboarding lessons tomorrow are the two big highlights of the trip. Yesterday, we went around Portland and I showed them some of the things that make it such a great city. As often happens when entertaining guests, rules about eating are relaxed a bit and I had some things I wouldn’t normally eat. I didn’t want to get on the scale today but I did. I was happy to see that my weight wasn’t impacted by indulging in fried foods and cheeses and white breads. It looks like the exercise is already paying off.

It’s great to see my family again. I hadn’t seen my dad since February and my brother since March. I’m very fortunate to have them here and it is a great reminder of how much they mean to me. It’s so easy to lose sight of what’s important in life as we get caught up in the demands of day to day living. Why does it take something so big as a vacation and a trip on a train to keep our priorities straight?

Take some time to think about what’s really important to you. Stop the madness and the rush of living and focus on the important stuff. It’s good for your mental health and well being and it reminds you of just how wonderful your life really is.

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Ever since I saw Tron: Legacy, I have been more aware of people’s search for perfection and the lengths they will go to achieve it. The desire to create a perfect system, and the impossibility of doing that, was one of the driving factors of the conflict in the plot of Tron. Maybe it’s also a seasonal thing: everyone always wants to have the perfect Christmas so it’s a theme you see popping up in a lot of television and movies that we see this time of year.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this is the tyranny of Martha Stewart rearing its ugly and perfectly sculpted head. For example, I caught the last ten minutes of a cooking show a few weeks ago where a chef was searching for the perfect Peking duck recipe that could be made at home. I was happy to see that he achieved his quest before the show ended because he kept failing to get a crispy skin of the right texture and flavor and everyone knows that Peking duck is all about the skin. The solution was simple too. It involved removing the skin from the duck and sewing it on to a rack and then smoking it in an oven for almost an hour. Simple, huh? Anyone can do that right? Even at my most adventurous and ambitious carnivorous period, I would never have attempted to reproduce this chef’s “solution” to making the perfect Peking duck at home. Seriously, how many people have ever thought to themselves, “If only I could sew this skin onto a rack and then smoke it using wood chips in my oven, it would be just right”? Personally, I would never get past the “sew the skin” part of the equation. But, hey, perfection is a demanding mistress so we do what we can.

I found myself doing something similar late at night on Christmas Eve. I had bought my wife a new printer so she could print photos from home instead of having to go to a store to have them printed. She’s old school when it comes to preserving memories and a photo in a book just feels more permanent than a bunch of ones and zeros stored on a disk. I can’t blame her since I’ve seen enough digital data disasters to be concerned about preserving our photos and movies. I found a great printer that I knew would do everything we needed and I couldn’t wait to see her open it in just a few hours. I wanted the wrapping on the gift to be as perfect as it could be. After all, this was a gift from the heart and I wanted the wrapping of said gift to reflect that. Before I go on with this story, I should add that I’m just not that good at wrapping boxes. I guess I missed the class on how to fold paper over a box and make it look good.

Anyway, I measured and carefully cut the paper managing to mangle it just a bit with the scissors. I had freed a sheet of wrapping paper from the tube! To thank me for freeing it, the paper kept trying to give me a hug. While I appreciate the affection, I just wanted it to lay flat. Was that asking too much? I didn’t think so, but it was. This paper kept rolling up every time I tried to make it go in a straight line. It just wanted to bend and curve where I wanted it straight and folded. After a bit of struggling and fighting I was able to get it wrapped around the box only to find out that the “measure twice and cut once” rule is a bunch of BS. There was a gap of about an inch between the start and end of the paper. I think this was the first time I actually started swearing. It wasn’t the last.

There wasn’t enough paper left on the tube to start over. I would have to improvise. I ended up cutting a strip of paper out that was a little bigger than the gap and carefully taped it over the gap. Then I realized the pattern on the strip was upside down in relation to the pattern on the paper around the box. Oops. The little Christmas trees were pointing toward me on the little strip while on the big sheet they were pointed away from me. This would never do. I started to remove the strip and that’s when the thin paper started to rip and tear. This was the second time I started to swear out loud. It’s a good thing I was in the basement.

I made the decision to forge ahead and try to keep the offending strip on the bottom of the gift so that it wouldn’t be visible while sitting under the tree. I only had one more step left in the battle of the wrapping paper: the sides of the box.

I’ll spare you the gory details here but needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. I believe this is where I finished my rum spiked egg nog in one gulp and threw myself back into battle with the fierceness of a mongoose fighting a cobra. Remember how I measured twice and cut once? I really didn’t think there should have been a gap in the paper and while picking the box up to get at the sides I realized that the paper had folded over on itself while I was wrapping the box and now I had an extra inch of paper on one side. It was an extra inch that was creased and ugly and totally out of place in the location it was. This is when I contemplated giving her the printer still in the giant yellow Best Buy bag. I realized this would be tacky and I couldn’t let a piece of paper beat me. I moved ahead with the cutting and the folding and the creasing and the taping and eventually, I had a box that looked like it had been wrapped by a bunch of hung over elves coming off a three day bender. It looked like shit. Once again I told the box and paper what I thought of it and then moved on to wrapping the special photo paper that I had gotten to go along with the printer.

I’d like to say that the smaller boxes of photo paper were easier to wrap but they just mimicked the mess I’d already made but on a smaller scale. Eventually, I brought three poorly wrapped boxes upstairs and wearily placed them under the tree.

The next morning my beautiful children, oblivious to my suffering and pain and struggle the previous night were kind enough to allow us to sleep in until 5:00 A.M. I think the neighbors were woken up by the sounds of their protests as they were told, under penalty of death, not to touch the gifts or disturb us again until 7:00 A.M. Eventually they accepted our bargain of being able to keep their gifts in exchange for letting us sleep another two hours and left to do hard time in their rooms.

7:00 A.M. came faster than we thought it would and the kids were in the room in time to watch the clock roll over to 7:01. Our time was up and the madness would now commence.

It was an amazing flurry of paper and ribbons and boxes and hugs and “thank you’s” and cats. The poor cats. They had no idea what was going on. The little still gets jittery every time he hears paper crinkling. As things began to die down, it was time for mom to open her gifts. She went over to her poorly wrapped big box and, without stopping to critique the wrapping paper or notice the creases or bad folds or bulges of paper in the corners, opened her gift and was overjoyed by it. The paper I had fought so hard with was nothing more than a crumpled up ball on the floor soon to be moved into a trash bag. The battle was over and I had won.

Other than how bad I suck at wrapping, what have we learned from this story? For me, I learned that perfection is another one of those illusions that we love to cling to. My desire for the perfectly wrapped box led me to behave in a way I’d never behave in public. It drove me to drink. My wife never noticed all the little imperfections that stood out to me because they were different than my mental image of what it should look like. To her, it was a wonderful gift that was thoughtful and perfect. See that word in the last sentence? She thought it was perfect. I couldn’t see the perfection of the gift because I was too fixated on the appearance of the wrapping paper. She focused on the gift itself and the thought that went into it. That was where the perfection was to be found.

The entire idea of perfection is an illusion. It’s a lie we tell ourselves is attainable. One of the major foundations of Western thought, the philosophy of Plato, is built upon the desire to obtain “the Platonic ideal” of perfection. We build our cultures, our society, our lives on top of these lives and then we cling to them as if they are the supports holding up the structure of our existence. I see and hear the idea of making something “perfect” every day. I’m seeing more and more how that is only laying the groundwork for further suffering.

Sitting in meditation, I begin to shatter the illusion of perfection and it becomes easier for me to accept the messiness of life. Real life can be ugly. Reality can be harsh. Reality is anything but perfect. And this is OK. Really, it is. Doing nothing in the face of demands for perfection is the appropriate response. Anything else will end in suffering as perfection is grasped at only to slip away. The next time you feel the need or the desire to be perfect, remember this. Accept the reality of the situation and set aside the desire to be perfect. I’m not saying don’t do your best at whatever you do: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Just don’t get upset if the results fall short of your expectations. Release your expectations and take joy in what you have made or done. You’ll be better off in the long run and you will get more joy out of living life just as it is.

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Wow. That’s about all I can say at this point. It’s been an amazing week full of family and fun and lots of opportunities to practice right action and be mindful about what I’m doing. Wow. I’ve just returned from a great week in San Diego with my family. We spent Thanksgiving there and had an amazing time. We went to Legoland, Los Angeles where I met Stan Lee, Disneyland, the USS Midway, the Gas lamp District, the San Diego Zoo, the Air & Space Museum, the Old Globe theater to see How The Grinch Stole Christmas and hung out with family enjoying one another’s company. It really was a whirlwind of a week.

Now, I’m home in the crisp winter air of Maine where you can see your breath and the frost has finally found a home on the ground. My ears haven’t handled the return flight too well and I’m dealing with quite a bit of pain from them and I think I’ve gotten bronchitis and I’ve lost my voice but I’m too happy to care. Suffering happens, I’m not going to make myself any better by moaning and being depressed about my state. That’s the clarity that I’ve gotten on this trip.

One of my main concerns before I left was being able to eat well while I was gone. Except for the days I spent traveling, things were very easy for me. California makes it very easy to be a vegetarian. Everywhere we went to eat there was something vegetarian on the menu. The best thing was, it wasn’t something that sucked either. In California, having a good selection of vegetarian entrées is a necessity for most restaurants. I had the best vegetarian burger I’ve ever eaten at a place that really was more of a “how many things can we do with a cow?” kind of establishment. Even Thanksgiving dinner had some really good vegetarian options. My aunt made a curried lentil dish special for me and another family member who is also a vegetarian. She gave us the recipe while we were eating it and at the moment we both had a fork full ready to go into our mouths revealed that she uses two cans of chicken broth when making it! We both kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and popped it into our mouths. My aunt is not a vegetarian and made a mistake that many non-vegetarian cooks do by using something derived from meat and still thinking the dish was vegetarian because it didn’t have any visible chunks of flesh in it. Since neither of us is militant about it we embraced the thought behind it and enjoyed it anyway. We both had seconds on it and loved every bite.

I was also able to exercise a lot while I was there. The hotel’s exercise center was just down the hall from our room and I was able to use the elliptical machine and the treadmill on three different mornings. The other days we spent a long time walking around. I used a pedometer on my phone to track how much walking we did at the zoo and by the end of the day we had clocked in over three miles of walking around. I don’t even want to think about how much walking we did at Disneyland yesterday. It had to be more than the zoo by at least a mile.

I have a number of things that I will be writing about over the next few days but don’t have the clarity of mind to do it now. Any day where you see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans is a long day and I’m feeling it. Tomorrow morning we pick up my cats from the cat-sitter and we check on our hamster who is nearing the end of her life (that’s another blog entry altogether). I have pictures to clean up and publish and I’ll be writing a lot both here on the blog and on another project I’m working on. Spending the week away from home has renewed my enthusiasm for a writing project that I’ve been working on for almost a year but haven’t touched in the past few months since I was too busy doing other things. There’s nothing like a change of pace and perspective to really help you get your priorities in line. Now, I’m going to go get reacquainted with my zafu and then it’s time for bed.

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Sunday night we had quite a wicked storm blow through. It was a classic New England nor’easter and the rain and wind were amazing to see. Around 11:00, my wife and I heard an enormous cracking sound followed by a crash. We did our best to see what had happened but it was too dark to tell. With the aid of a powerful flashlight, we finally saw what made the noise: one of our beautiful trees had come crashing down in the storm. This tree was probably 50 feet high and thankfully fell away from the house. If it had fallen towards us, our bedroom would have been destroyed and we could easily have been hurt.

At this point, the best course of action was to get the kids downstairs and out of harms way. While we were doing this, I heard another crack and crash that seemed even more ominous than the first. I looked outside just in time to see a big blur in the window. The trees I could barely make out were shaking in a way that was far worse than if it had been caused by the wind alone. I knew we’d lost another tree and I feared it was The Oak. The Oak is an enormous and magnificent tree that stands proudly in our side yard. It’s the one the kids have a rope swing in and that gives shelter and safety to countless birds and squirrels. If The Oak couldn’t stand up to the wind, we were going to have to move to the basement for safety. This was the first time I felt scared of the strength of the storm.

Knowing what I do about what these storms can do to our power, I made it a point to unplug our electronic equipment. That’s how I realized that my worst fears were unjustified. The Oak stood strong, its branches and trunk moving in the wind. That was the good news. The bad news I quickly realized was the top of the tree that sits outside my bedroom window was gone. I could barely make it out lying in the yard. Once again, I was thankful that nothing hit the house when it came down.

In the morning as we assessed the damage we felt both relief and sadness. The second tree to fall was the one we saw each morning as we lay in bed. Now, there was a gap in our view like a missing tooth. This tree broke about halfway up and both of its trunks had snapped. This was our favorite tree and it provided shade and shelter and helped us feel as if we lived in a tree house. Our cats loved to sit in front of our window and watch the birds and squirrels play in it. I used to joke that it was” kitty TV”.  Now, all we have to look at are two broken trunks that will soon come down. It was the saddest part of our day as we realized that we had lost something we loved.

I have written a lot about impermanence here for a number of reason. One, because our desire to cling to things and keep them from changing is a major component in why we suffer. Secondly, it is important to understand how impermanence effects us on a daily basis. The thing that struck me was that while I knew that these trees wouldn’t go on forever, I always assumed that they would outlast me. These were tall trees that had lived a long time and should be around for many years to come. When confronted with their demise, it caught me off guard. These weren’t supposed to go away before me. Trees don’t do that. If only that really were true. Since I’ve been in this house, we’ve lost three trees. Two to the storm the other night and one to a construction crew that felt removing a perfectly innocent little tree and garden on the corner of our yard would somehow help them work on the intersection outside our hose. Personally, I don’t think it served any purpose other than to open up my front yard to more noise and visible cars going by, but what do I know about civil engineering. Nothing is permanent; even mountains wear down and erode. When confronted with the reality of change, we have two choices: we can accept things and move on, or we can fight it and bury our heads in the sand attempt to ignore it. Actually, this is just the illusion of choice since one is an action based on reality and one is just actions spurred on by clinging to a desire that things were not the way they are. These trees are gone. We can plan new ones that someone 50 years from now can enjoy the way we used to enjoy the ones we had. Eventually, those trees will fall too. That’s the way life is. The only constant is change. The only permanent thing is impermanence.

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That’s My Girl

As I’ve said before, my daughter has my sense of humor. When I got home from the retreat yesterday, I found out just how similar we really are. On Saturday, I dropped her off at a friend’s house before I left for my trip. Unknown to the rest of us, she had stolen a pair of her brother’s underwear. She proceeded to stuff and sew them into a pillow with the help of her friend. When I came home, I found the most amazing pillow that had been specially made for my son. Apparently, when her friend’s mother asked her where she got her sense of humor from my daughter simply replied, “From my dad.”

How my daughter puts her arts and crafts knowledge to good use.

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This past weekend I was in the woods at a retreat with my Sangha from Northern Light Zen Center. It was a great experience and I am very glad that I went. It’s amazing what spending two days in meditation will do for your clarity of mind. This retreat was a mixture of sitting meditation and walking meditation. The walking took place outdoors in the woods and was an opportunity to see a lot of beauty in the autumn trees, the moon and the stars and the sunrise and sunset. It was also a time for me to experience practicing through some hardship. I’ve already gotten a post about that half-written but didn’t want to publish it yet since I want to focus on the positives of the experience before I start speaking about the challenges I had to overcome.

As with all Zen retreats, this one was designed to push the body and mind to their limits in order to quiet the mind so that it could focus more easily while in meditation. I think I spent at least five hours in sitting meditation this weekend and another four in walking meditation. I would have done even more had I been able to attend the full retreat but I had to arrive late because my wife works on Saturday morning so I stayed home to watch the kids while she was at her job. I arrived at the perfect time at the retreat though: right after lunch. I met my Sangha as they were walking back to the yurt we were using for meditation so I was present for the entire afternoon and evening sessions.

At first, I had a hard time concentrating on sitting because I’d had a hectic morning trying to get ready to go and deal with the logistics of everyday life and then trying to find the camping site in the Maine wilderness. Once you leave pavement behind, a GPS becomes a little less reliable when trying to reach a destination. Let that be a warning for you if you plan to come to Maine. We have a lot of unpaved roads up here. However, I did begin to finally quiet down my mind and began to focus. About three minutes after that, it was time to get up to begin walking. We spent 20 minutes wandering through the woods and I realized that even though I am in much better shape now than I once was, I’m not much of a hiker. All of the exercise I do is as low impact as possible so my feet are not used to being picked up and put down over and over as I exercise. This meant that I was pushing my body in a different way than normal and I began to wear out more quickly than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, it was only a 20 minute walk and then we were back to sitting for 20 minutes. My body was worn out so it took me about 15 minutes to finally calm down and get back into the calm state that is conducive to sitting meditation. Five minutes later, time for a walk. This went on for a few hours: sitting, walking, sitting, walking. My body didn’t quite know what to do and my mind was mirroring the state that my body was in. That evening, after dinner, my mind and body were quite worn out and in the last sitting meditation session, I found that I achieved a level of calmness and focus unlike any I’d ever experienced. My mind was at a point where it was too tired to wander around as my aching butt sat on the cushion.  I actually came out of that sitting session feeling better than when I had going in. I had turned the corner just in time to go on an evening walk under the stars.

The night sky was amazing. The moon was full and so bright in that clear sky that it hurt ones eyes to look directly at it. We didn’t even need our flashlights it was so bright. I’ve never seen shadows cast by moonlight as clearly as we had them on this evening. As we looked up at the stars (facing away from the moon), we could actually see space debris and satellites moving slowly in orbit around Earth. We even saw a few meteors flash across the sky as they burned up in the atmosphere. It was a perfect way to end the evening. My mind felt as clear as the sky we were looking up at. After the walk, we had a brief period of chanting meditation and then went to bed. I was asleep before 9:30. I was probably asleep before my kids at home had gone to bed.

The next day started at 5:00 A.M. I’m not sure why Zen retreats start so damn early but I think it has to do with keeping the body and mind worn out. That, or those who run the retreats are just a bunch of sadistic bastards. However, since I know the leader of our Sangha isn’t a sadistic bastard, I quickly dismissed that hypothesis. The day started with 108 bows. Once again, I entertained the thought about sadistic bastards but dismissed it again. Last week I did 108 bows for the first time. I was thankful that I had done it because I knew what to expect from this session. I did 107 half-bows and did the final one as a complete bow. This helped me from getting too sore but it was still murder on the muscles in my neck and back. We then spent time in sitting meditation and, once again, I was amazed at the clarity of mind I still had. We went out for a morning walk and then went back for a longer session of sitting while interviews were conducted.

On a Zen retreat, if you are with a Zen Master, you will be given a koan to answer. Since the leader of our Sangha is not a Zen Master, the interview process is a bit more laid back. For me, it was a time to see that Colin, our leader, was concerned about how I was handling the schedule and concerned that my being gone from home for a weekend wasn’t causing any problems for my wife or family. He was very concerned about this and he shared some stories about how he had to face the stress that came with going away for a weekend when his children, now in college, were young. After I had my interview, I was able to go back to the meditation yurt and spend the rest of the interview session in sitting meditation. That was about 40 minutes of uninterrupted sitting. It was the most amazing 40 minutes of meditation I have ever had. I was able to be present in the moment, with crystal clarity of mind and really feel my connection to the world around me and see my true self a little more clearly. This isn’t the self that we normally relate to, but our real innermost self. It was a liberating experience for me to know that I was having this experience without extending any effort as I had no energy left to extend. I see now, more clearly, why Zen stresses the importance of sitting just to sit and not being attached to thoughts or feelings or perceptions or impulses. Now, my goal is to learn how to achieve this state of calm without having to go away for days. The challenge I now face is to not get attached to that experience and to try to force myself to have it again. I cannot repeat the past and the next time I have this experience, it will be different. It will be a new and different experience but will be just as amazing.

After breakfast, we went on a “five-mile hike”. The goal of the hike was to reach the top of Frost Mountain and to eat our lunch up there. The five miles was actually only the distance to the top of the mountain and didn’t include the five miles back to camp. I’m not going to write a lot more about this here because much of the other post I am working on includes my thoughts and feelings while on this trip. For now, I’ll leave it at the joyous news that I made it to the top and back and received a round of applause from my Sangha on my return to the camp site. Once we got back, we had time for one session of sitting and chanting. Then, it was time to clean, pack and go home. We all agreed that we would love to stay for one more day but clinging to the experiences we’d had on the retreat would not be a good thing so we reluctantly got into our cars and headed home.

I got home and fell into bed and slept until it was time to go to dinner with my family. It was a great dinner and I loved being back at home with them. After putting the kids to bed, I started to work on a blog post but I was still exhausted and went to bed earlier than normal. I was surprised to find that I wanted to sit and meditate before going to bed but I knew I needed to give my body some rest. Instead of meditating, I just lay in bed and watched a bit of a movie and then fell to sleep. Now that it’s all said and done and I’m sitting here with a sore body and a clear(er) mind, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend separated from my family.

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Happy Birthday Sweetheart

There are three days in my life I would consider to be the happiest I’ve ever had. The first one was when I married my beautiful wife. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s a tie for second place between the birth of my kids. Ten years ago today was one of those days. I still remember the day vividly: the hours spent waiting at the hospital, the excitement building as we knew each minute got us closer to meeting our precious baby girl. Then, the real work began of labor and delivery. When the doctor put this newly born, wrinkled, pink and crying creature into my shaking hands I couldn’t believe the waves of joy and love that poured over me. I attempted to cut through the umbilical cord and was so weakened by emotion that I couldn’t quite do it. The doctor gently squeezed my hand so that I was able to complete the cut and she was completely free and on her own for the first time. I quickly handed her over to my wife who was crying from joy and the relief that comes after labor. Seeing the two of them together for the first time is a sight I will carry with me to my grave. For the first time in my life I was truly speechless. I just didn’t have words to describe how amazing and beautiful and wonderful she was. I was madly and deeply in love with this little girl and it hasn’t changed one bit in ten years.

The past ten years have had so many wonderful memories. Watching my little girl grow and learn to speak and walk and jump and run are moments I will never forget. Now, she’s ten years old and such an amazing person. Her ability to sing and play music on the piano after having heard it only once still amazes me. Her voracious appetite for the written word is wonderful. Her sense of humor is so similar to mine that it’s scary. She’s sweet and wonderful and amazing and I am so proud of her and I love her so much it hurts sometimes. Having a daughter brings out the best in me. How else would I have learned the names of all the My Little Pony dolls? Only a little girl can make a grown man crawl around on the floor playing with dolls and horses. As I have watched her grow and mature and become the person she is today, I too have grown and matured in ways I never thought possible. I don’t see how I could have done it without her influence. Sure, it’s my job as a parent to help her grow, but it’s my joy as a parent to grow along with her. In another ten years, she’ll be a grown woman and I will be looking back on this day with fond memories. We’re going to the American Girl store and even though I’m a big, hairy man I’m going to be excited to be there with her today. That’s the paradox of having a little girl: you find yourself feeling like a total and complete man while holding up pink dresses saying “Doesn’t this look CUTE?!” Happy birthday sweetheart. I love you in the way only a daddy can.

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