Friday, May 28, 2021

They are Not Your Friends

Must See TV. That's what NBC called their Thursday night line-up. Seinfeld. Mad About You. Friends. ... It wasn't all that long after the Army. Our days were filled with university classes, and Tuesday & Thursday nights were filled with Aikido practice ~ and on Thursday nights, folks were quite intent on class ending on schedule so they could get back to their TVs in time.

It was entertaining, sure ~ all of the comedy of a certain flavor and era. It wasn't necessarily worth missing a few extra minutes on the mats, but with everyone else rushing to get back, ... well, Aikido practice isn't quite the same when performed strictly as shadow boxing.

Somehow it was a cultural phenomenon, and ~ no ~ cultural phenomenons and I have never quite gotten along ~ mutual misunderstanding or irreconcilable differences, I suppose. I'd be quite alright missing the Friday morning water cooler chatter, thanks.

Fast forward abit through the VHS tapes and on to digital recording on to on-demand streaming. With the new cellphone plan came "HBO Max," and with HBO Max came the "Friends Reunion Special." Hell, why not? A little nostalgia for my wife and me over dinner. I hit play...

The regret built solidly over the next 90-minutes or so. I knew nothing about it ~ figured it was a one-off comedy with story and throw-backs as these things tend to be. I was mistaken. This was bringing back the six main characters to have them revisit the set, read key scenes, and be entertained by cameos some 20 years later.

And somehow, Lady Gaga singing "Smelly Cat" was not the worst of it. At one point, to highlight the reach and impact of the television series, there were snippets of people from around the world saying how much the show meant to them ~ each somehow identifying with the characters or even voicing the sentiment that these Friends were somehow their friends too.

I held the deep hope that this past year's pandemic would have been the opportunity for society to reconsider certain habits and reset certain perspectives. Instead, there's an apparent rush to return to "normalcy," to fire up those well-tread economic engines backed by the proven models. Who knows? Maybe shifting the Public's attention back to new Hollywood "content" will replace identification with those Must See Characters and their Stories of Social Media that we've come to love, hate, or identify with around the clock.

Not mentioned anywhere in the evening's show? From a CNBC story: "It’s estimated that each actor was paid $2.5 million for participating in the special." 

 * * *

In other news, the 17-year cycle has the Brood X cicadas in full swing. As the sun warms the day, each individual male insect is climbing a tree and humming for a mate. Collectively, the noise is outrageous and amazing.

... well, not every male. Some woke too early. Others will wake too late. Who knows? Maybe others simply won't understand. Or maybe they do.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Carthusian's Cell. The Buddha's Mind.


As a Catholic school graduate, I was well-versed with different religious orders, but I have to admit that it was a recluse trying to leave a dark past behind, that introduced me to the Carthusians.

Drew MacLane was compelling to me, as was his description of the Carthusian life: priests living largely as a community of hermits ~ living individually in spartan "cells," each with a place to sleep, a place to pray, a place to study or work, and an individual garden inside high walls. Three times per day they gather together for common prayer; otherwise, they are alone, holding individually to a common schedule and tended to by a second order of brothers who deliver the meals to their cells and so forth.

And it was David Morrell who introduced me to Drew MacLane in his novel, "The Fraternity of the Stone." David Morrell was a prolific writer, probably best known for "First Blood" and a few others introducing the character, Rambo. I raced through this paperback and many others while in the military maybe five or so years after its release ~ keeping my mind occupied in some idle, alone time in the pre-Internet Era. While there's little I remember about any of this novel in particular ~ let alone any of the larger collection I left to the unit's day room on my departure from the unit ~ the character and the Carthusians stuck with me.


Arguably, there was a thread in my father's life that was unfinished, and arguably that thread repeated itself in my own ~ though we branched in different directions. My father was studying in the seminary to become a priest when he injured his back. In pre-Vatican Council II days, that injury was sufficient to disqualify him from selection and ordination, and he diverted to a life married with children instead. Similarly, while in college, I considered turning toward the life of monastic priesthood ~ contacting different orders by ordinary mail, including an order of orthodox eremitics living in a desert hermitage, but when my father died my own life detoured, first to the military where my own back injury diverted me once again, this time toward a life married with children.

On the advent of social media, I used to use the tagline "failed hermit," but the words didn't quite convey what I sensed entirely accurately: I wasn't a failed hermit for having a family anymore than I was a failed father or husband for sensing a draw toward spiritual or solitary life. If I was one, I'd failed at the other; so, how could I reconcile these thoughts of who I am and maintain some semblance of sanity?

It seems kind of silly, no? Thinking of how best to explain, a cool breeze blows through the screen door; which one of me zips up the the sweatshirt?

Maybe it's enough to leave it at that. Most of the time it's sufficient. I mean, if a karate student asks what the proper aikido response is to an attack, I might just kiai ~ or maybe laugh? Maybe whack him with my jo staff... Maybe hold out my hand? Bow? Who knows... There are so many ways to point to that one point...

... but is showing that one point the actual answer in that moment?

Where is that cool breeze when you need one?

What state can you not be moved from? What state do you always return to? What life will hunt you down while you seek refuge here? When you're free to be anyone, who are you? And when you see who you are, will you accept it?

Experiencing one point? That is one way... So tell me, have you experienced all of the ways?

While I sat in a building on a mountainside facing a blackboard contemplating a theorem, half a world away in a temple a shaved head faced the wall and held a koan, and elsewhere a parent traded in the marketplace to ensure a child had food. No matter how large one's consciousness or how rich his reality, mind has little more than a place to sleep, a place to pray, a place to study or work, and a garden to tend.

How do you experience it? As the one who is none of these things? As the one who is one or the other? Or as the one who is all of these things?

For now, I'll set aside my staff, laugh, bow, and extend my hand ~ after my 4am tea and prayer outside by the garden. After all, the breeze is calling.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Parent's Koan

I have a very strong bias against cellphones ~ so very strong. I'm against them on just about every level. And when money is tight, that monthly bill is the clockwork reminder of the corner we've backed ourselves into -- a reminder like I used to give my grandmother who was still "renting" the rotary phone from the Big Bells when we could just buy a push-button phone for her to own.

At one point, I'd found a way to tunnel my way out: With sufficient technical knowledge to get it done, over time I set up an office phone system in the house. Desktop and wireless phones here and there ~ everyone with their own lines and extensions for pennies. There was certainly no escape from internet service at the time, so the phone system's minuscule bandwidth requirements were negligible. Moreover, inside the house ~ and even between houses for anyone who wanted to participate ~ there was no problem calling one another freely and securely.

And really, how clever was it that my handicapped son ~ who's somewhat of a recluse by nature ~ could reach us around the house by dialing an extension? And if anyone was away from the system, well, his call could forward on to their cellphones. I even did the work to write some software so he could send and receive text messages from his tablet or computer, ensuring he'd have every opportunity to communicate with his friends.

At some new clocks started ticking. My own cellphone was dying for months. A replacement wasn't a priority during the pandemic, but there was an inevitable sense that that expense was going to come due. And somehow that triggered a process in my son, who's relentless hint-dropping escalated toward nagging ~ and as we know, we call it "nagging" when we hear the complaints at precisely the wrong time.

We fought ~ and not for the first time. "Why do you even want a cellphone?!? You don't go anywhere. You don't talk to anyone. I've done all of these things to make sure you could communicate with anyone at anytime ~ what more can you possibly need?!? Why do we need another monthly bill for another toy?!?"

The wrong time ~ beside my own dying phone? My daughter is also on my plan, and I had just received notice that she blew through 32GB of the family-shared 30GB data in one month. The teachers were recalled back to school event to teach the remote students, but the bandwidth wasn't ready ~ so she tethered to her phone and got her job done...

But my son? His muscles are progressively weakened and his tablet ~ as aged and slow as it is ~ is getting too heavy for him to handle. The text messaging system I set up? He doesn't use it much, so I don't make uptime a priority ~ but he's afraid he'll miss that one message. And lastly, of course, is that everyone has one but him ~ we must look down on him as a lesser person to reject the request.

The "solution?" There is no solution. I can tell you how it played out, though: I made the call to check new plans and lower my bill ~ four lines with more data for less than three lines and shared data before. I turned off a wireless hotspot I used to use a lot on business that's declined in pandemic. I found myself a ~$100 phone to replace my years-old $600 phone, and -- satisfied -- I duplicated that purchase for my son.

These "practical koans" really don't have solutions. It doesn't matter how strongly I'm against the mobile technology, how it's payed for and how it's used ~ I didn't escape it nor did I move anyone to think like me. I didn't convince my son to stop thinking of "things" as a measure of anything. I didn't convince my daughter to be mindful of her family when exhausting the data. If anything, I've only bought a little time, kicking the can down the road a bit until the next problem arises ~ like the two calls already with the phone company for screwing up the bills.

There were infinitely many choices to handle the situation, but really only one was going to happen ~ and I'll make peace with that.

There is something about the reflective practice though: It was seeing my own biases and anger, and seeing my own failures and regret ~ but also seeing the resourcefulness in one's approach as well as the deeper concerns beneath another's words. There's seeing my own thread in shaping this situation over 20+ years as well as seeing how it will all continue until circumstances change. And there's acceptance ~ finding how I will tell this story that will uncover some meaning or wisdom, and maybe preserve some measure of my own dignity through these "first-world problems."

No need to dwell... warm jasmine tea and the cool breeze rustling through the trees. Soon we'll all be sending photos of the cicadas to everyone we know.