It’s Like This

(Here’s what I hope is the end of my delayed-onset mid-life crisis.  You think  you’re  tired of this?  I’m so tired of it I’m down to thinly fictionalizing it.  Anyhow…)

Travis stood in front of the aging refrigerator.   Inside and unseen: ice cubes wet and shiny; ice cream almost drinkable.  He knew how therapy worked.  He was a therapist–or at least had been one–down on Wall Street for almost five years.  He’d given it up because he preferred working with addicts.  He didn’t know that at the time.  He thought he just didn’t like working alone in that big room with no furniture other than the two grim chairs, the small end table with ashtray  and the empty desk near the windows, working for clients who seemed to thrive on their inabilities to make decisions outside of the workplace.  He  preferred functioning as part of a team, the situation at Rescue House, a residential therapeutic community for adults in The Bronx where he’d  now been social working for almost 15 years as one of an ever-changing assortment of directors, case managers, vocational specialists and medical folks.  Anger management, bereavement, parenting skills, relationships, even meditation–done in groups, seminars, workshops and one-on-ones.  They named it; he did it.

At work his strength was his openness.  At this moment, however, too much was simply too clear to be ready for additional possibilities.  Therapy to Travis was an ultimately simple and spiritual practice.  It’s implementation was no more than the art of compassionate listening without judgment, making sure the client knew you were doing so, then patiently letting that client discover Self as a byproduct of rambling on. And he was good at it, so no sense in hiring it out.

The therapist who treats himself  has a fool for a patient.

But Travis was not a stupid man nor was he naive.  He was blessed and knew so.   His life for quite some time had been measured by the number of times he’d–unprovoked–look up and whisper “thanks.”   He loved the wife who loved him right back.  He loved not only his work with those addicted to drugs, alcohol, street life and, more recently, institutionalization, he even loved the addicts.  Every day on the job was new and challenging. Every day ended with enough satisfaction to wipe out any frustrations including those lingering from his own 25 years of daily drinking and drugging.

His health was adequate despite some  recent and treatable difficulties.  He rode his bike in traffic and now had the gearing to tackle those Bronx hills included in his daily commute.  As back-up he was quick to quote the words of the woman, a racer back in the ‘70’s, who was president of his cycling club when he rode well enough to be a member and was his hero for no reason other than her willingness to state in public:  “ I never met a hill” (here she’d smile sweetly) “I couldn’t walk up.”  What was her name?

If she knew it was you, she wouldn’t answer the phone let  alone the door.

Travis lived in gratitude for all of it: friends, family, music, sex once in a while, the weather, travel, reruns of The Simpsons, pizza and, to be sure, health insurance.  His strategy for putting this attitude into action came straight from the rooms of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.  He lived one day at a time.  Whenever asked how he was doing, he’d smile a smile not unsimilar to that of that cycle club president say “Couldn’t be better” and actually mean it.
If he had a philosophy, underlying this attitude and it’s manifestations as behavior, it was it re-enforced three times:

● Travis had been brought up to believe that whatever life brought him, well, that was God’s will, and who knew better than God?

● In his late 50’s he began serious study with the Buddhists.  Leaving God out of the equation entirely, they taught him that reality was perfect.  Yes, they and subsequently he  recognized the discrepancy between this belief and what their eyes beheld on a daily basis.  The need to resolve this conflict, they agreed, was what empowered their meditation.   Hence he was provided with both a source of madness and a method for combating it.

● Finally, coming from–of all places–his clients, at least once every day for the last 20 years, a much more fatalistic yet no less profound, “It is what it is.”
On the flip side of all this apparently healthy adjustment and echoed by so many in his age cohort lay the increasing inability to find loving acceptance for the changes in own his body and what they suggested re mortality.  Ironically what he was going through now was clearly minor,  nothing more than a knee problem, one which had done well with ambulatory surgery and without physical therapy.  Sad because he loved PT, especially, one suspects. for all the pain it provided him the opportunity to endure.  This not to be unexpected from a man who, though never a real athlete in any sense of the word, had been able to bicycle up long hills without ever losing his smile.

“It’s not what I do,”  he’d say by way of explanation, “but the lack of attitude I do it with.”  He’d then make a joke about ending a sentence with a preposition, an acknowledgment of his education and his rejection of the social class it bespoke.  Travis’d been one of those lower middle class kids who’d  scholarshipped his way into an ivy league school.  Like climbing hills, he was drawn to it by the challenge.  Once there he did it because it was there , and, once completed, he forgot it.

Gee Mister, you sure know a lot!

And here he was now in the middle of a warm and clear Sunday afternoon.  The missus had gone to church and then to a movie.  He, still slowed by the surgery, had strolled up Amsterdam Avenue through 10 blocks of a half-baked and repetitive street fair carrying a camera which never left his pocket.  He considered a 10 minute chair massage, looked at the $5 watches, bought a chicken kabob for $4, and returned home to eat it and wonder how to fill up the rest of the time until she returned.  Six months of unread Smithsonian Magazines, two hundred five tv channels, more than six hundred CDs on the computer and a cell phone address book filled almost to overload: still the afternoon promised no more than nothing.
He opened the freezer.  A sigh.  Two front-runner choices: pistachio ice cream and ice.  Throughout the last 25 years the consistent choice had been the ice cream–safe, comforting and with patience he could walk or ride it off.  For the 25 before that the ice, placed in a double old-fashioned glass, then floated in tequila.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
There are three endings to this story:

1. Travis took the ice cream.

2. Travis picked up a glass, filled it with ice, and walked over to                                     the tequila   in the hutch.

3. Travis closed the freezer door and killed the rest of the                                                 afternoon on the computer.

Here’s a comment from Ezra which couldn’t go into the usual comments because you can’t post a photo there:

Option Number Z – Travis closed the freezer, grabbed a large bottle of water and a comfy chair, and spent the afternoon staring out the window.

The only reason for the email as opposed to a comment was to show you something I’m sure you would appreciate. “The view from my porch” as an attached picture. The only thing it’s missing is my feet (smile).



Published in: on May 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm  Comments (7)  

Maybe I think too much

There’s an article in Sunday’s New York Times talking about the internet like it was a middle Eastern souk–one particularly corrupt–teeming with competing merchants boasting a vast variety of quality and honesty lining streets roamed by an undetermined number of both the helpful and the hurtful.  Another analogy would be the American wild west: farmers, ranchers and land grabbers, miners and claim-jumpers,  card sharps and preachers, some of them perhaps soul sharps, Miss Kindly and Miss Kitty–the full variety of human beings all out there and waiting with a vast variety of motives for me and you.

The article then goes on to describe apps  as those agents of safety and righteousness who stand between us and them, the bold scouts or tour guides–maybe ultimately pimps–who go out into the uncharted and unregulated world of the world and, our shopping lists in hand, carefully select that safe site which most resembles what we believe we want, leaving us securely at home to play Sudoku or read best sellers or order Chinese food from the place we know and trust until they return with the goods.

Guardians to protect us from the world we say we want while insuring we get what we want from it at no risk to ourselves.

Well, yeah.  Who the hell wants to get directions from 76th and Amsterdam to 77 Montrose Street up in Hartford and end up with a virus that takes all the consonants out of everything you’ve ever written on Wordperfect or some guy in the Ukraine knowing stuff about you you wouldn’t even tell yourself?

Trust me, I do understand this.  I just installed Google Chrome as my new browser because that same New York Times (albeit an earlier edition) told me that it was much less likely to be invaded by the bad guys than Firefox–my previous choice–or Internet Explorer–my even earlier choice which I deserted in favor of the at- that-time-safer Firefox.  Thus an afternoon devoted to selecting Google Chrome  Extensions, literally thousands of, yes, apps that I might add onto my computer to make it do more specifically what I want it to do.  With maybe two clicks I could enable myself to get maps, to enlarge the little pictures of themselves people paste on Facebook when they don’t have dogs or infant children, tell the weather or translate or copy an entire page or even know what each Google search entry was really about before clicking on it.  And, yes, I turned down virtually all of the ones I’d selected when I found out that they’d have full access to all the personal information and browsing history I’d posted anywhere on the web.

Omygod, please don’t let them find out my nickname growing up was Dick and that I’ve spent more than an accidental moment looking at naked women, the political views of  the Tea Partiers and, in looking to see if the Students for a Democratic Society still existed, came upon the website for the Society of the Divine Savior–and found it interesting.

Yeah, O.K.,  so there’s some conflict here.  There’s a whole bunch of me that, like most middle class folks, is utterly comfortable playing it safe.  There’s another part of me  though, the one left over from dropping out of Graduate School back in 1965 and then fleeing to NYC to live in what hadn’t yet  become Alphabet City, working as a short order cook in a bar around the corner from my apartment on Avenue B at 11th Street, consuming significant amounts of drugs, spending short periods of time with women who’s names I didn’t know or much care about, and walking home alone at 4:23 in the morning in snowstorms with the stuff in my pocket.

So what’s this got to do with right now?  Part of it has to do with chronology.  There are times when I think,

Hell, I’m getting toward the end of it.  I don’t have to protect anything and, frankly, I don’t have a helluva lot to protect.  Let me just hang out and deal with whatever comes.

The Buddhist thought I’ve been reading and discussing for the last 50 years and practicing for 9 informs me that that attitude isn’t so much a product of age as it is of reality.  In the words of my clients, “It is what it is.”  Whatever…

Recently, especially this past week at home recovering from knee surgery and watching  my body get older has had a significant impact on my thinking.  The truth be told, these thoughts have occurred to me more than once before since I spend my days among the hundred forty or so younger–if not young–folks who’ve given over their lives to drugs and the street.  Like the rest of us, they too play  it safe by sticking with the familiar dangers.

Please God, let this stuff be good and take me away from the horrors I’ve been carrying around since I was a kid.  Let me keep focused on nothing but getting money, copping, getting high  and maybe getting laid once in a while.  I can handle jail.   I  just don’t have it to live sober.

So where does all this leave me now?  I wish I had a neat  and lovely answer, but I don’t.  When I started to write this, I was all ready to brag about my pre-Alzheimer’s boldness, my willingness–no! eagerness–to take chances with what’s left to me.  I was truly ready to make myself sound soo cool.  Then the conflict part came up, but I was still ready to resolve it in true heroic fashion.  Now, closing in on the end of this post, I  find myself out of my image and back in the heart of my soft, mushy humanity.

My home turf nowadays is such a mixture of impulses and habits: an ultimately delightful chaos of mysterious spontaneity on the one hand and the deep-rooted  desire for order and dependability on the other.  What I now realize is that neither will win, and my job is to accept that…to accept it all.  My desire is to accept it with a smile.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Comments (6)  


Medicine Buddha

Right now being in my body feels like an old bicycle, a bicycle old enough that no matter how well I treat and maintain it, it’s still falling apart.  There’s “give” in the frame.  The brake pads are worn, the chain stretched and the gear teeth rounded.  One or two may be missing.  Even the paint job is no more than a symbolic sign reading “needs paint.”  But enough of the analogy.

Two days ago I had relatively minor knee surgery, the repair of a torn meniscus.  I was scheduled at the last moment, did a brilliant (no stops, no falls, no horns honked at me, no cursing on my part) bike ride from Samaritan Village in The Bronx to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital for pre-admission testing by competent and friendly folks from all over the world.  All went as smoothly as my ride and the following day I was admitted and the surgery performed hitchlessly.

So far pretty good, huh?  Yeah, I thought so too.

Eventually the O.R. anesthetics wore off and some pain showed up.  Good Dr. Hobeika had prescribed Vicodin, a trademarked brand narcotic analgesic product containing hydrocodone and paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen.)   Never having been actively addicted to down-heads nor to anything else for the last twenty-five years, I had no hesitation using the pills for a day and a half and then stopping.  Was there a high?  Yes there was.  Not with the first or second dosage, but the third left me perfectly content to sit on the couch, knee elevated, staring into where space probably was.  Did I like it?  No.  Nor did I dislike it.  It simply “was.”  Which brought this to mind, a mailing I’d received earlier in the week from Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine:

One night when I was still new to meditation, I lay awake for hours in agony from a badly sprained ankle. Finally I decided to see what would happen if I meditated with the pain as my object. The result astounded me.

I recalled a teacher’s suggestion: “Get curious about your experience.” I had never before stayed with pain long enough to be curious about it, much less to investigate it. Whenever my knees or back hurt during meditation, I escaped into counting breaths or repeating my koan. I might notice when the pain stopped, but I noticed nothing of its nature. Was it burning, stabbing, throbbing, dull? Was it steady or intermittent? Were my muscles clenched or relaxed? What thoughts did the pain trigger?

Lying in the dark that night, I greeted the pain as a sensation I’d never met before, and explored each flutter and twinge. In time, the pain eased, and I drifted off to sleep.

– Joan Duncan Oliver, “Do I Mind?” (Summer 2007)

This in turn brought to mind a fragment of written correspondence from 1961 between Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the USA, and Karl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst.  In it the two agreed that the addict’s quest was a spiritual one, a search not necessarily for God by that name, but for the serenity, safety, security and satisfaction which define spiritual existence.

Sitting on the couch, leg and brain high, I didn’t feel serene, safe, secure or satisfied.  Nor, for that matter, did I feel their opposite.  Quite frankly (a phrase I’ve always wanted to use) my pain had never been all that great that I was prepared to escape it at all costs. (Trust me on this one, escaping through addiction is escaping at all costs.) And my pleasure in everyday  life at this point?  ‘Couldn’t be greater!  As we say at Samaritan Village, I had done more–unintended–research and again discovered that drugs are not for me.

The following morning–this one–I did try meditating on the pain, but, at that point the pain was so subtle (except when I moved awkwardly) that I was unable to find it.  Still nature abhors a vacuum and almost immediately the pain pocket was filled by a set of conditions I’ve been working to ignore, a trio of pain producers which have made eating a generally difficult experience, and a ringing in the ears now exacerbated by the quinine sulfate I’ve been taking to prevent night leg spasms.  What to do?  Bobbie suggested mounting the aluminum crutches and going for a walk.  O.K!!!  Ten steps from the building and the knee hurts again.  This time it’s a sharp pain occurring with each step.

“If it’s really bothering you, we can go back,” she offers.

“Naa,” I respond.  “I’m good.”

A beat.

“Yeah,” I respond.  “This hurts.”

So now I’m here at the keys writing all this out to you.  And guess what?  Right now there’s not enough pain to keep writing about.  Safer than drugs, easier than meditation,

(small fanfare)

Distraction is the cure!

Remember that!

Remember that!!!

Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  

Warning! Mind is Enemy!

No doubt, mind is enemy…

and it never leaves you alone.  Maybe it was because we flew back to New York before the Icelandic volcano trapped so many folks in airports around the world or simply because I  had such a wonderful time with Bobbie in Italy.  Whatever, ever since returning my mind has been doing little other than beating up on me.  Let’s start with the knee.

Most of us, me included, generally don’t think of that precarious joint midway down the leg as being part of the mind.  That’s how it sets us up.  Let me clarify.  Maybe two days before leaving Venice to return home something  happened inside my knee.  Not as the result of a twist or fall or bump or gunshot, not from losing my balance in a gondola or kneeling on cold,wet cobblestones.   Consequently no marks, cuts, no visible anything.  Just remarkably intense pain–the sharp kind that invited (demanded, actually) tears when I stood, walked, sat or lay down.  In Venice the excitement and adrenalin kept me from any preoccupation with pain.  Even the easy digestive process of the trip home kept me from full awareness.  Once back in the land of Coca-Cola (yes,  a Dylan reference) however, things changed, and changed enough to prompt a phone call to the appropriate medical specialist.  When I finally got through I was told that the next available appointment was more than a month away–


See?  It’s happening.  Right here it’s happening.  Right before both our eyes I am becoming one of those old people whose life  has become a marathon of complaints.  It starts off with pain–older folks are breeding grounds for the ouchies (here I echo Ralph Wiggum) and  quickly progresses to medical care, costs, noisy neighbors or those college kids who will be collecting outside the bar across the street now that it’s warming up and they can’t smoke inside and how the whole neighborhood has gotten safe, middle class and dull (without acknowledging but certainly fearing that those three terms also apply to me) and everybody else has stuff I convince myself I don’t even want and seem to live perfectly well without and I have to buy all my clothes at either Goodwill or the Salvation Army and I’m trapped in a rent controlled apartment which means that if I even think of moving I’ll be hospitalized in a rubber room at Bellevue and lose the rent controlled apartment.  All my belongings will disappear and I’ll be released with nowhere to go, nothing to wear or read or put on the internet for you to read or more likely delete until I find an apartment I can’t afford and have to sell all of whatever I have left just to buy the privilege  of putting up with neighbors who ignore me and probably a doorman who knows I really can’t afford to live there and aren’t I wearing the jacket the guy in 16F gave away to charity two years ago?

So now I’m complaining about complaining.  As I said:

Mind is Enemy!

The truth be told, when I’m not being influenced by that evil sombitch between my ears, I know I’m absolutely blessed.  The Buddhists would say that’s just the mind being impermanent.  To the Abramhamics it’s  God wanting me to know the truth.  The difference between them, by the way, is why I’m still loyal to the Abrahamics.  That truth?   I’ve a wonderful wife and job.  I live in the heart of a profoundly exciting city filled with art and music (which I can afford to see live in the Summer when it’s outdoors and free!)  I ride around on either of two (!) bicycles and am surrounded by good friends and good family (both blood and married into.)  Through the structural blessings of limited desires, a rent-controlled apartment and the  resale shops of Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Housing Works I dress as I truly like and am able to travel all over this extraordinary planet of ours and bring back souvenirs and snapshots.  I eat in moderately priced restaurants featuring food from all over the world and even have meditation to help me make peace with mine enemy (Remember Alexander King?) on a daily basis.

And right now  I am right here:

(You can click on it to make it bigger.)

This picture was taken at dawn.  Light never came in at that hour until the large building across the street was constructed.  Three years of construction noise to give me this beautiful light each morning.  Yet another reason for thanks.

We’re right now half way between Thanksgivings.  What are you thankful for when you slow down enough to be thankful?  Click on “Comments” below to tell the rest of us.  Then come back in a few weeks to click on “Comments” again to see what the others  have said.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 10:58 am  Comments (3)