Feet of Clay

A few years ago I interviewed a Buddhist teacher that I had come to admire. I’d heard this person give a number of dharma talks and liked the way he blended traditional Zen teachings with modern poetry and gleanings from other lineages. I asked him if I could interview him for a magazine devoted to Buddhism and he agreed. He wanted to know if he could see what I was going to publish before it went to press, and seeing how it was a Q&A, I didn’t see a problem. That was my first mistake.

All went well with our first interview. He was, not surprisingly, wise and funny about his past and what brought him to the place where he is now. The editors liked the interview but asked for more; they had questions about an old controversy at the center where he taught and wondered if he might address them. He was agreeable, when I finally reached him (corresponding with Buddhist monks can be a lesson in patience) and I showed him an edit of the first Q&A, which he seemed pleased with. I asked a few more questions, he gave me some good answers and I added them to the final piece, which the magazine rushed into print (though “rushed” is a relative term for any spiritual publication).

Then the teacher asked me if I could see the final version and I told him it was too late; they hadn’t even given me a chance to review it but presented the story to me in a PDF, fait accompli. Not that there was anything to complain about; it was a laudatory feature about a guy doing good work, illustrated with beautiful photos of him in nature. But when I told him that it was too late, but not to worry, he blew a gasket, called me “deceitful” and “manipulative” in an email–fighting words where I come from, and where he comes from, too. (He was raised in what we would today call a conflict zone.) I envisioned kicking the monk’s ass, which is definitely not the way I thought this assignment was going to turn out.

I still see this teacher occasionally, and while I admire his teachings, I’m aware that as a human being, he’s as fucked up as I am. I was reminded of this today when reading Jack Kornfield’s new book, No Time Like the Present. Not being up on my Buddhist gossip, I was surprised to learn that Jack had been divorced, after 30 years of marriage. I’ve heard him speak a number of times, have sat with him and read his books, and just assumed his life was perfect.

“I had to let it all be okay and realize that it does not define me,” he writes. “‘How could a teacher of mindfulness and lovingkindness be getting divorced?’ I was asked.

“Like a human being, that’s how.”

Reading that helped me let go of my still simmering resentment about the teacher I interviewed years ago. Now I have only a few thousand more resentments to go.

Mind Makes Heaven Hell

I was on the west coast of Florida a few weeks ago, not really a vacation since my wife and I were working most of the time – that’s what passes for vacation these days.  Still, I could see the Gulf waves rolling in from where I sat in a little bungalow on Casey Key and I would have been a fool to complain.

There must be a lot of fools there then. The weather was unseasonably cool for a few days – in the sixties my last day there, with the sun struggling to come out – and I heard a lot of grousing among the other wayfarers I met.  It was as as though Florida owed them something and they wanted to give the state one star on Yelp! (“Was this review helpful to you?”) –  forgetting what the weather was like where they came from: A friend wrote me from Madison, WI when I was there, where it was four below, and after Florida I went to NY where it was in the twenties every day….

Our capacity to make ourselves miserable in the finest of conditions never ceases to amaze me.  Before we went to Casey Key, a barrier island in Sarasota County, we were seeing my wife’s parents in Sanibel, a popular tourist and retirement destination south of there. More than half of Sanibel Island is made up of wildlife refuges, and thanks to the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan of 1974, it has not been developed to death. How could you not be happy there?

I saw a local about my age tool by in a purple Fiat Spider, top down, and I envied him his choice of locale, to say nothing of his car… until he passed me and saw his bumper full of hate stickers.  They happened to be anti-Obama though you never know in Florida: This was the state that gave us the George W presidency (you could argue that the Supreme Court gave us the George W presidency) but they went Democratic in the last election – a swing-state in the truest sense. And it’s not just Republicans who become unhinged when the other party is in the White House; I know a lot of Dems who were reduced to sputtering, quivering contempt after eight years of Bush.

I guess I’m marveling at the vitriol. On the nice days you see people looking for shells on the beach (“shelling,” in the local parlance), eyes downcast and shuffling like old-school zombies. It is the picture of carelessness. No matter what your political stripe, doesn’t the whole pursuit of happiness clause mean you should give the need to be right (or left) — and always enraged — a rest once in a while? The wave I got from my neighbors when I went running on the beach was not just the one-per-center wave of recognition (though being able to be there in March by definition puts me somewhere in the upper class bracket); it’s an acknowledgement of our good fortune. Hey there, says that little wave: Ain’t it good to be alive?

I Give Up, Too

Taking a page from Alec Baldwin’s remarkable manifesto in New York Magazine – which was to free-floating hostility what Ella Fitzgerald was to scat singing – I have decided to resign from public life as well.

I’m back in New York as it happens – and why is really none of your concern – and I notice the change when I go out the door. As soon as I try to leave the food market they start with the questions:

“Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“Do you want to buy a bag for ten cents?”

“Do you want your receipt?”

It used to be you could go out on the street and be left alone. Like many rubes from the provinces, I marveled at how, the first time I came here in the eighties, people would walk right by me when I tried to ask a question. Then, over time, I came to understand that most people asking questions are a) trying to hustle you or b) too stupid to be real.

Or as the fellow said to the cop in Times Square, having asked many strangers: “Is there any way to get to the Statue of Liberty without fucking myself?”

You could count on people to leave you alone. I remember, having seen Eric Bogosian in one of his one-man shows the night before, walking past the monologist on a street in Soho. “Hey, great show last night!” I shouted. He looked at me like he wanted to call security.

Note to Alec: I don’t think Bogosian has many strangers bugging him these days.

Not that I’m saying Alec was overreacting but I did see him once on West 12th   Street. I happened to be on the phone and smiling about something when I made eye contact with him and he looked at me like I owed him money.  So paranoia may just be his Pepsodent.

But back to me. It used to be, here in Fort Greene (and wouldn’t you like to know my exact address?) you could count on no one asking you for nothing. Okay, there was that crack head that offered to blow me but she did call me “Sir.” Now total strangers emerge from the subway in the summer and ask, with a French accent, “Where is ze flea market?” Really, pal: Do I look like Fodor’s?

Which is why I’m moving to California. Actually, I moved to California last year – When? I don’t think’s that’s really any of your business – and the energy has changed in the Bay Area. Where people used to ask you inappropriate questions all the time – “How’s it going?” “What’s up?” – now most people are content to interact with their phones and leave you alone.

Except for the homeless people. They’re still asking me for money.

So if you want to find me you’ll have to use the phone book (“What’s that?” I hear you say) and then drive around my neighborhood and hope to see me out walking my dog.

What kind of dog? The nerve of some people.

The Great Compromise

John Prine was on Stephen Colbert’s show last week (and a doff of the hat to my brother Ethan for alerting me to his appearance) and it was great to see the old boy again. The host is clearly a fan and gave one of America’s great singer-songwriters the respect (and time) he was due.

Prine returned at the height, or depths, of the Iraq war to remind us that some statements are timeless, as is some stupidity. In concert he trotted out one of his songs from his first album by saying, in his rusty twang, “Here’s a song George Bush requested. Well, he didn’t request it, but he’s sure been askin’ for it.” Then he sang “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore/It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war…”

I found myself wishing Prine would bring his act to the White House now and sing another one of his Vietnam War era gems, “The Great Compromise” to our current president.

“The idea I had in mind was that America was this girl you used to take to drive-in movies,” he wrote of the tune years later. “And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”

Prine’s narrator doesn’t react when his date ditches him, even though some call him a coward. “I’d druther have names thrown at me,” he sings, “than to fight for a thing that ain’t right.”

Now Obama seems to be betting on Syria agreeing to give up all their chemical weapons, a solution that Russia is pushing. (I don’t know why but when I think of our president in the company of Assad and Putin I recall Pinocchio in the company of the fox and the cat, headed off for Pleasure Island…) Until this morning, Obama seemed poised on the verge of launching Tomahawk missiles at Syria, while we were left to contemplate the meaning of the words “right” and even “fight,” in this case.  His administration is downplaying the scope and potential of any US attack – an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” Secretary of State John Kerry called it yesterday. Which is a little like the dentist saying, “You won’t feel a thing.” But the consequences of our actions can’t be predicted. Ask anyone in Iraq.

Then there’s the question of what’s right. The whole world should be condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But the whole world is not. England, France, even the Arab nations are kind of mumbling about what to do. Kerry could not name the nations who stood with the US on attacking Syria yesterday, but he assured us they were there.  This reminds me of Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”—which included such army-less states as Palau and Micronesia. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with ghosts.

Obama is clearly a rather reluctant warrior. In his speech and his body language he reminds me of the kid going to fight in the parking lot because someone called him out, marching to battle (or at least to throw a few punches and maybe get his ass kicked) when he’d rather be in chess club, or reading poetry. Consider that next move carefully, o Commander in Chief. Listen to your inner poet. Or borrow a line from Martin Buber, whose songs are still in heavy rotation in my house: “When a man has made peace with himself he will be able to make peace in the world.”

And not before.



Arrested Development

I was watching Arrested Development when my sister April called to say that they had found Pat’s body. Our older sister had gone missing a few days before and everyone feared the worst: she had tried suicide in the past, botching the job with a razor, and her house was filled with letters and packages addressed to different people. She was organized to the end; in life she often sent her Christmas presents in November and death wasn’t going to change her habits. But it wasn’t until the sheriff found her body in a hotel room that we knew she had gone through with it this time. These are the only circumstances in which suicide can be seen as a success.

Our friend Paulette was staying with us and was watching Arrested Development with me. The jury was still out on the new season of the black comedy, released online by Netflix; it seemed less agile and clever than the previous seasons and we were braced for disappointment. I took the phone call from April in the yard while Paulette sat in the living room, watching TV by herself. When I came back in I sat with her stupidly for a while, looking at the show and not knowing what to do.

Pat had been the one to call and tell me that our father had killed himself, about eight years earlier. I was working for a magazine in midtown Manhattan and Beth, the editor in the cubicle next to mine, must have picked up on the gist of the conversation—he had been sick and depressed and we had shared stories about difficult fathers—for when I stood up she stood up with me, like two puppets escaping the show. “Do you want to go outside?” she said.

I called my wife first and gave her the news; she suggested I meet her at her office and we could go home together. It was almost the end of the workday and it seemed important to beat the crowds at Grand Central. We walked up Sixth Avenue for a bit and I remember feeling lost in the canyons of buildings. Between the little cubicles and the towering skyscrapers there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put the feelings I had, no place to take the news.

I told Paulette what had happened and she said she was sorry. She knew Pat was missing, and feared the worst. She’s lost a few loved ones of her own, most recently her husband to cancer, and she doesn’t expect that much comedy anymore. But she still likes a good laugh.

Pat died on June 5th of an overdose of Nembutal, a drug I had only heard of before in the Clash song about Montgomery Clift, “The Right Profile” (“Nembutal numbs it all,” Joe Strummer mumbled darkly, “but I prefer alcohol!”). It’s illegal in the US but like most illegal things, it can be got for a price and with a little persistence. I’m starting to learn more about the suicide clubs out there online (Pat belonged to one) and wondering what to do with that knowledge. I have written about Pat’s death and its aftershocks on the site Purple Clover, and they have been great, taking whatever I hit them with. But when I finally met the editor in Venice last week I asked him if I could do anything differently in my columns.

“They could be happier,” he said, allowing that a suicide in the family really brings the conversation down. I don’t want my own development to get arrested while trying to grapple with my grief, but can’t put down the death mask quite so easily either. Two faces have I.