Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ambition Redux

Ambition is considered an excellent quality in children as they grow in stature, measurable in inches and achievements. I was recently sent a photo of my grand-nephew proudly holding up his diploma at nursery school graduation. Already media-savvy with a director's eye, his little hands held up the paper at just the right angle for the camera to capture it contents properly. This 5 year old was beaming with pride, his brown eyes shining as little girly girls gazed upon him adoringly.

My great-aunt's heart was relieved to see a healthy, happy face downwind of the family lineage. Thank god, I thought to myself, we've got a really bright one coming down the pike. But another part of me went in a more cynical direction: if graduating from nursery school is such a big event, then what is there to look forward to, unless of course the kid drops out of kindergarten or elementary school before those graduations. Not unheard of, upwind of the lineage Grandpa Phil never made it past third grade because child labor was in fashion for the lower classes, when he was a boy growing up in a depressed area of the Bronx.

Or take the case of my daughter, when at age 5, everyone in her soccer team was given the same exact trophy at the end of the season. Never mind that she spent her time on the field twirling her curls and looking at cloud patterns as the ball whizzed by unnoticed. Or that the Israeli girl who kicked the ball into the net time and time again got the exact same trophy.

The current trend of rewarding achievement en masse does has its benefits. After all, no one wants to be a loser in this post-psychoanalytic age. But the group reward theory is caught in the grip of a societal oxymoron: the further we get from the tribal council with its emphasis on the collective, the more distinct the individual has become and the more ego-centered the ambition. Real go-getters might even achieve the prize of great gain - a You Tube video gone viral. (For the uninitiated, it is not something a hacker does to your computer to give it the flu.) 

The 'let's reward every child model,' contrasted with the Darwinian values of Americana once one enters adulthood, could be downright crazy-making. Small wonder that prescription meds and snow white heroine are flourishing in the burbs as the menace of adulthood looms large.

While self-worth forms the cornerstone of healthy ambition, banking solid core values takes more than group trophies and degrees that prove you didn't flunk out of nursery school. Real time, money, and attention from more or less enlightened grownups is what will give the next generation the will to "do" and not to become undone.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Let Them Eat Pita

Asma al-Assad, the 38-year-old British-born mother of three and wife of the current Assad, was feted in the February 2011 issue of Vogue for her panache in designer drag. The European Union soon after clipped her wings for condoning state-sanctioned human rights abuses. Bummer. Not allowed to leave Syria, she eluded authorities by shopping online, recently purchasing $16,000 in crystal from Paris as the rest of the Treasury was spending her leftover cash on chemical weapons.

This woman, whose countenance could earn her the privilege of being Princess Diana's second cousin thrice removed, was the hope of the Western world. Although she was born to Syrian parents in London, she could pass for a thoroughbred Caucasian. This morning on CNN, a rather naive reporter said she was hoping that Asma would flee the country and her dictator-murderer husband, somehow assuming that the pale skins are always on the side of justice. After all, Asma does resemble your average upper-class American/Brisith/French urban woman with a wardrobe to die for.

In this same news-in-between-commericals blip, George Bush Jr. crawled out from under a rock to make his first go get-em boys statement since leaving the Presidency, characterizing Assad as "making mischief." BTW dear George, we apply the word "mischief" to boys who toilet paper houses after the Junior Prom. But then again, language was never your strong suit. 

Jimmy Carter issued a quote stating that unless the US acted militarily in conjunction with the UN or NATO against Syria, our unilateral action would be in violation of international law. (Sadly, the word "our" is used in the previous sentence as I pay taxes, invest in the stock market and vote.) Nice thought, Jimmy, but international law hasn't stopped the USA from overthrowing many a good foreign leader, illegally, for our own material gain in country after country around the globe.

Appearances versus reality. Twin zeitgeists in direct contradiction that live together as fraternal siblings, born of the same mother but quite different in nature. The faces of governments and their inner workings are a macrocosm of our personal microcosm. We live with an identity, a face to the world, that telegraphs a story about what we were, what we are and what we hope to be. This version of reality is sometimes duplicitous, in the case of sociopaths, but the average Joe or Jane really believes that the job they have (or don't have), the religion they espouse, the dwelling (or sidewalk) in which they park their bodies , the car they drive (or don't have), the family they have (or don't have) are a reflection of their worth. This 'appearance' in our materialistic world is almost always a universal weight and measure system.

The reality is different. Underneath the exterior of a king or a pauper or a middle class suburbanite, there is a human being with fears, hopes, loves, beliefs, that may take radically different forms on the outside but are based on the same basic human drives for safety and love. The tragedy of human existence is that we don't recognize our universal drives and help each other to attain them.

"Pure vision" is a phrase used by my Buddhist compadres to denote a mindset that understands all people to be motivated by a core need for love, despite outward appearances to the contrary. Seeing with pure vision means that one understands the nature of strife and conflict stemming from ignorance, not evil. Thus, any person can be viewed with compassion if they have lost their way in the labyrinth of not-knowing. Although this tangled web of misunderstanding has produced horrors upon horrors, still it is our duty to confront this Gordian Knot and cut through its entanglements to be free at last.

This is my dream.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pavlov's iPhone

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine in 1904. Among other discoveries, he observed in his experiments that dogs salivate before anticipated food is actually in their mouths being masticated. He called this "psychic secretion" and this observation had such a ripple effect that his name has been immortalized in the lexicon, i.e. "When I pass a boulangerie I salivate like one of Pavlovs' dogs." Thanks to this psychic phenomenon, a baguette will always transform itself into a fold of fat around my middle, as the whole point is that an ingrained association in the subconscious mind will trigger an overt response or action.

Pavlov's findings were embraced by generations of experiment-prone psychologists, including two therapists who were married and put their young daughter Lucy in a cage, demanding that she salivate before being let out to chow down. They were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1960's when the miraculously full grown Lucy related this story to me, face to face, without drooling.

Pavlov's findings are not exclusive to food alone. It can apply to any one of the five senses, where a previous conditioned association can create a current, palpable feeling. When I was 13 and got kissed for the first time by my boyfriend Jeff after he had downed a pint of Scotch, my first thought was, "He smells like Grandpa did in the morning."
It seems that Grandpa was a serious alcoholic, but as a child of innocence my tiny sense buds registered it simply as his smell. Only in my teen years did this quasi-romantic olfactory information give me insight into Grandpa's not so unique odor.

Which brings me to the subject of the iPhone and its multitude of ring choices. For the last few years I have had the same ring for everyone who calls, caring not to discriminate and wanting to test my psychic abilities before reaching the phone. Would it be my sister? My daughter? One of my sons? My business partner? A desperate person who couldn't get me on the landline? For sure it wouldn't be my husband, because he assumes that our mind to mind connection has already communicated the necessary data, although to be fair he does call daily when he is more than 10,000 miles away on a different continent.

Today I resolve to designate a unique ring for each of the most frequent callers in my life, simply because of certain associations that have been built up over time. The ever-anxious mother, I certainly won't assign the Alarm ringtone to any of my children's phone numbers. Having survived their teenage years, my Pavlovian conditioning is still in force when I see their names showing up my screen. So for them I choose upbeat tones that remind me of their best and brightest qualities. For my sister, a Bach masterpiece that reminds me of the household in which we grew up; our parents were closet concertizers that chose safe, money-back guaranteed occupations over their real passion, chamber music. My current business partner on a money-starved documentary gets the ring tone of a smash TV series that still rakes in royalties the world over, 50 years after the fact. And for my beloved, the song "Happy," even if he is only on another continent away from me twice a year.

We shall see how the experiment goes, and if true to Pavlov, maybe my new ringtones will help to change some of my past stale thought patterns...that is if any of the person's mentioned in this blog ever call me again after reading it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Don't Shit Where You Eat

One of my favorite kind of days is the chance to be at home ignoring errands, bill paying, cleaning up my desk, exercising, driving even one mile for any reason whatsoever, or cooking meals. (No, I don't spend the day watching television.) Thankfully, my husband has been lured by the charms of Trader Joes' array of prepared foods, usually the fare of singles. He has used his wiles to survive gastronomically despite my sloth; thanks to his generosity of spirit in this regard, we are still velcroed together since our marriage 29 years ago. Otherwise, if "the way to a man's heart through his stomach" aphorism were true, our marriage would have been jettisoned long ago.

In the big picture, my self-imposed isolation is a luxury of the need-less. Microcosm reflects macrocosm. How do we as Americans live in the world happily,  taking up 25% of the world's resources with impunity while ignoring the impact to Mother Earth and the millions worldwide who toil to supply our wants? Like the Dolomedes spider that eats her young, uber-wealthy USAers now live off the sweat of the poor on their very own soil as well. Wall Street, Congress, and multi-national corporations might well pay attention to another food aphorism, "Don't shit where you eat."

I might add, don't shit on anyone else's territory either, where real human beings are in want of clean drinking water, good sanitation, healthy food, medical care, a chance at education and a livelihood of dignity.

Even if we recycle, drive electric cars, use solar energy, buy local organic, use bio-degradables, bicycle and so on (we all do that, right?) there is a collective responsibility that most of us pretend to forget as children of the convenience culture.

Please forgive me for offering the following advice, elephants around the world - you are awesome beings: the only solution that comes to mind is hidden in the gruesome and politically incorrect joke, "How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." 

So on those days when I hide out from the world, I wonder. What could I do differently while keeping my American citizenship?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

War is Not For the Intelligent

Having had gone through the American educational system, I have large gaps in my knowledge of history and geography. To make matters worse, the revisionist text books offered by our schools rewrite the past to make the American way look as pure as virgin snow.

When I decided to home school my daughter for high school, the district required that she study the same subjects as her former fellow prisoners at Agoura High School. The grade 10 history curriculum was American History of course, for the umpteenth time since kindergarten. But I was damned if I was going to get one of those 300 glossy-paged tombs that handed out the same pablum that she had been fed up until then. So off I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

The horrified look on her adolescent face was priceless as she read the chapter on Columbus discovering the new world; how he committed genocide on the Caribbean Indians, graphically documented in a first-hand account by a Jesuit priest inhabiting the territory to convert the heathens, albeit in a less deadly fashion. After all those years she had experienced glorious Columbus Day -- festivities at school, replete with miniature models of the Nina, the Pinto and the Santa Maria; crepe-paper pioneer costumes; Columbus Day parades on Thousand Oaks Boulevard riding her bicycle with banners "blowing in the wind" --  there were no answers forthcoming as to why history's annals had so betrayed its participants.

Hers was an expression that one might have had upon discovering a rotting, dead rat in the kitchen pantry. Or realizing the treachery of all-powerful parents when it turns out that Santa Claus never did or ever would exist. The truth shall either set you free, depress you, turn you into a political animal, crush you into a couch potato, or befuddle you in some other manner.

Akin to my daughter's rude awakening was the piece of history I came across the other day. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Churchill realized that the Nazis would soon have massive sea power, given that the battleships of already conquered nations could be used against Britain, Hitler's next target. Churchill asked the French to send their warships to safety in British ports, but the French declined, saying that they would scuttle their ships before ever letting the Germans take them over. (Perhaps the centuries old battles between France and England made them a bit queasy about bunking down with the British.)

Churchill had no faith in France's resolve and decided they had to play the game his way, with a behind-the-scenes nod of approval from FDR. He surrounded the French fleet moored in an Algerian port and when the French Admiral refused to command his ships to safety on England's shores, Churchill gave his captain the order to fire upon the French fleet, thereby sinking their ships and and killing more than 1,100 French seamen in an act of mass fratricide.

One of the only surviving French sailors not only made it through this horror, but lived on to be stationed aboard another French battleship when the Germans tried to take it over. True to their word, the French blew up their own ships to avoid them falling into Nazi hands. This same hapless seaman, who had swum through burning oil to escape his sinking French warship in Algeria, then faced the blows of German soldiers when he abandoned the battleship he and his buddies had just blown up.

He was left pondering all this useless carnage in his old age, which he miraculously reached despite his travails. Reflecting on the egoism, power plays, murderous behaviors, miscommunications, suspicions and sheer madness, he concluded, "War is not for the intelligent."

Amen, brother.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Mask With Two Sides

 One of the most mind-boggling stories of the Holocaust is that of Rudolph Hoess, the Nazi commander who oversaw the construction and daily operations of the largest killing field ever created, the concentration camp Auschwitz. Personally coordinating the extermination of 2.5 million people in World War II, he was seemingly an even-tempered, happily married family man of Catholic faith. He enjoyed the semblance of an ordinary family life with his five children, in a grand house replete with a swimming pool, stables, and dog kennel (German shepherds of course). Literally right outside his lovely walled compound with a decorative see-through iron gate was the death camp. His villa had a view of the crematoria chimneys from the upper floors, and Hoess had a row of trees planted outside the compound walls, gratis the prisoners, that screened out the barbed wire walls of Auschwitz.

I can't fathom why someone of his stature would want to live so close to "work" when his children had to wash human ashes off the strawberries from their garden before ingesting them. Perhaps commuting was disagreeable to him...or he enjoyed a morning and evening stroll to and from his place of impassioned activity.

His wife sometimes expressed frustration that his workaholism kept him on the job more than she preferred, but all in all he was the loving husband and father (except when he cheated on his wife with a female prisoner, but never mind; when the affair was over, he sent her to the gas chamber). When Hoesss was captured and hung in 1946, his only regret was that he didn't spend more time with his family. This is his final letter before he himself turned into ashes.

11 April 1947
"You, my dear, good children!

Your daddy has to leave you now. For you, poor ones, there remains only your dear, good Mommy. May she remain with you for a long time yet. You do not understand yet what your good Mommy really means to you, and what a precious possession she is to you. The love and care of a mother is the most beautiful and valuable thing that exists on this earth. I realized this a long time ago, only when it was too late; and I have regretted it all my life.

To you, my dear children, I address therefore my last (beseeching) request: Never forget your dear good mother! She has constantly taken care of you with such sacrificing love. How much of the good things in life has she sacrificed for your sake. How she feared for you when you were ill and how painfully and untiringly did she nurse all of you. Only for your sake must she suffer now all of the bitter misery and poverty.

Don't ever forget this throughout your whole life. Help her now to carry her painful fate. Be loving and good to her. Help her as well as you can with your limited strength. In this manner pay her part of the thanks for the love and care she gave you during the days and nights.

Klaus, my dear boy! You are the oldest. You are now going out into the world. You have to now make your own way through life. You have good aptitudes. Use them! Keep your good heart. Become a person who lets himself be guided primarily by warmth and humanity. Learn to think and to judge for yourself, responsibly. Don't accept everything without criticism and as absolutely true. Learn from life.

The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn't dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me. Walk through life with your eyes open. Don't become one-sided; examine the pros and cons in all matters. In all your undertakings, don't just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.

Much, my dear boy, will not be understood by you as yet. But always remember my last advice. I wish you, my dear Klaus, all the luck in your life. Become a competent, straightforward person who has his heart in the right place.

Kindi and Püppi, you my big girls!

You are yet too young to learn the extent of the hard fate dished out to us. But you especially, my dear good girls, are specially obligated to stand at your poor unfortunate mother's side and with love assist her in every way you can. Surround her with all your childlike love from your heart and show her how much you love her ...

As fundamentally different as you two are in your character, you both ... have, however, soft and feeling hearts. Retain these throughout your later life. This is the most important thing. Only later will you understand that and will you remember my last words.

My Burling, you dear little guy!

Hang on to your happy child disposition. The cruel life will tear you, my dear boy, soon enough away from your child's world. I was happy to hear from your dear mother that you are progressing so well in school. Your dear father is unable to tell you anything more. You poor little guy have now only your dear good Mommy left who will care for you. Listen to her with love and kindness and so remain 'Daddy's dear Burling.

My dear Annemäusl

How little was I permitted to experience your dear little personality. Your dear good Mommy will have to take you, my dear Mäusl, for us into her arms and tell you of your daddy, and how very much he loved you. May you be for a long time Mommy's little ray of sun and continue to give her much joy. May you, with your sunny ways, help your poor dear Mommy through all the dreary hours.

Once more from my heart I ask you all, my dear good children, take to heart my last words. Think of them again and again.

Keep in loving memory, Your Dad." 


Is there anyone on earth who can explain this man's psyche? Or the mind of the supposedly normal Kansas City postman, married with children for 30 years but alternately the infamous serial killer that terrorized the city for decades?

The explanation that perpetrators can function like normal people because of "compartmentalization" is far too mild to understand their behaviors. We have seen this phenomena over and over, to varying degrees, in every culture on every continent since recorded history.

My final solution to this conundrum runs deep and might border on paranoia if not for a realistic apprisal: our subconscious carries within it all sorts of passions, prejudices and potential behaviors. With the right fertilizer, seeds will sprout that develop the positive qualities of human behavior such as empathy and compassion. With a more noxious brew, ill winds will sweep to the surface all sorts of twisted thoughts. The encouragement of opinion-makers turns these thoughts into actions and destinies are created, for better or for worse.

My own real power is a total honesty to look within myself and own the anger, fear, hatred and biases that surely are encoded in my genetic heritage, if not stimulated by direct life experiences. And to deal with them the way a bomb expert defuses a live grenade - carefully, deliberately, and with tools appropriate for the job.

A reporter once asked the Dalai Lama if he feared Chinese spies in his midst. He answered vigorously, something to the effect that he welcomes spies because he has nothing to hide. Then he added, "I even spy on myself! Always!"

Now that is a work ethic worthy of emulating.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Leave "Names" Out of This

Disclaimer: it doesn't matter whether you attribute the love, compassion, light and grace in your life to God, Allah, Buddha, the All-That-Is, Great Spirit, Infinite Light or any of the thousands of names that tribal peoples around the world may have...or simply refer to these noble qualities as our intrinsic nature (my preference).

Thoughts come floating across my brain on a second-to-second basis and are subjective projections that form my truths. But whatever motivates a person within his or her private universe to become a loving and kind type of human gets my vote. It doesn't matter what you named it when it was born.

And yet, I still have this question for people who believe in an all powerful God: why does so much really bad shit happen if there is One Almighty Power watching over us?

Tea Party members need not reply.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Godless Compassion

Some of you might have heard a recent news story about a bookkeeper at an elementary school who talked an armed-to-the-teeth psychotic young man out of shooting everyone in sight. Between her and a 911 operator, he was successfully massaged from the heights of Armageddon grandeur down to a prone position on the ground, hands behind his back, waiting for the police to get him -- all the while explaining that he hadn't taken his meds that day. Sad lad.

The key to this happy outcome, at least for the unshot, was the bookkeeper who kept saying, "I love you honey. Everything will be OK" to the angry young white man with weapon. She was so convincing and heartfelt that when Anderson Cooper swooped in for his exclusive interview, he said to her with a childlike expression, "Can you say that again?" referring to her sweet phrase that saved the day. She looked him straight in the eyes and said, "I love you honey. Everything will be OK." Anderson's face visibly lit up, his body twitched like a puppy being stroked and he smiled. Genuinely. Even I could feel the love oozing through the television screen.

This lady was not parroting a good line that had worked in a pinch. She was able to connect with that feeling in her heart - even on a CNN news special - on cue - for a famous journalist - without blinking an eye. Why? Because she knew that love transcended time and space and that she could dip into that well anytime she so desired. She credited this ability to God and to hearing a sermon in church just a few days before, about calling on Him when one is in a difficult situation.

And this is where she lost me, because she was giving credit away in a vacuum. It was SHE (meaning the selfless identity, not the self-centered ego) that was the generator of that love, it was SHE who has the psychological understanding that this mixed-up fellow needed to be heard and assured, it was SHE who used her brain to navigate the trickiest of death-infested waters to get to the other shore of life.

The Dalai Lama does not believe in the existence of God and yet he is one of the most revered people on this earth for his compassionate nature. Nelson Mandela does not believe in God and yet his example of forgiveness and reconciliation under remarkably difficult challenges has made him an icon world over.

Compassion and love need not be attributed to God. It is built into our hard wiring. Neuro dudes even know where the center of compassion lies within the brain and it is right in its epicenter. Could someone please invent a device akin to a pace-maker that could keep the compassion center sending out its signals to the rest of the behavior-ridden human being? Soon?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Don't Try This At Home

The common laptop bears an odd resemblance to the human body. As it ages, it becomes slower and less responsive, unable to move its parts nimbly or switch topics without a long pause. Steve Jobs, the god of laptops, was brilliant at re-creating them to be faster, brighter and better. Us humans are less fortunate, however, as no one is upgrading us every two years. We are faster, brighter and better at the beginning and decline steadily over time. Perhaps we should pray to the Almighty to a cut a deal with a Chinese slave labor factory that can genetically engineer our DNA, turning us into shining star athletes and models of ingenuity as we crest at age 100.

Sadly, as the Almighty doesn't always do our bidding and Steve Jobs is now in some etheric realm with god knows who, I have to take matters into my own hands. My baby, a three month old uber super duper laptop with all the trimmings, is already getting uppity with me, telling me it has no more space on the desktop for the latest round of Gigabytes it is being fed. So I shell out yet more bucks for the latest hard drive with 4 Terabytes (OMG) and resentfully transfer data from babycakes to its new home where my alternate universe is now tethered to its mother ship.  But babycakes is still pouting and dragging its feet despite a phone consultation with the doctor-technician who can only read a manual while placing me on hold for 15 minutes.

Yesterday, a visit from my 25 year old daughter inadvertently triggered a brilliant new discovery, only slightly less important than Louis Pasteur's experiment gone wrong that proved mold can morph into penicillin. She, like many others, has found out that our healthcare system preys on the weak, the sick, the broke, the elderly and anyone who has visited an acupuncturist or chiropractor for minor back pain. At the moment not employed by a busyness with group coverage, she is attempting to resuscitate her health care as the Cobra snake had just slithered back into the jungle.

We sit at the kitchen table with our mommy-daughter laptops and mommy-daughter scowls on our faces, googling the healthcare universe to find a good match for her. The prospects are dour, as in  'pay me big bucks and I will give you the opportunity to spend yet more big bucks for inadequate health care.' A rude awakening for this young adult who was once a child princess but now refers to our house as "the Westlake Four Seasons" and lives in an apartment in the real Los Angeles, with a roommate and the roommate's 92 pound pit bull that shits everywhere but outside.

Tensions mounting, I hasten to a make another cup of coffee from my uber super duper coffee maker that grinds the beans automatically and dispenses fresh coffee into a cup (naturally with beans organically grown and free traded, little bundles of dynamite courtesy Trader Joes). Now my Mother Bear instincts are out of control; mindfulness and one-pointed concentration are ghosts lurking in the subconscious while my conscious mind is a tornedo of debris. Flinging my cup down on the table, it misses the proper upright position and tilts with exacting precision onto my laptop keyboard, decorating its entire square footage with a perfect mixture of espresso, almond milk and stevia.

My mind is an amazing piece of multi-tasking hardware. With the swiftness of a cat being chased by a coyote, I grab a dish towel while turning the laptop upside down while wiping the liquid away while thinking how I can convince Apple to fix my computer because it was their fault. Simultaneously, my daughter reprimands me in a voice reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz: "From now on, no more drinks near the computer." Now I am the two year old and she is the mother. Never mind.

Taking cues from the time I took a long bath wearing my water-resistant Omega watch, I race upstairs with babycakes to blow dry it, hoping beyond hope that the heat will evaporate any lingering moisture before it drowns. Apparently, it has not drowned, as it starts talking to me in a loud voice, reciting every frigging last detail of what is on the computer and where it is stored. HAL gone mad.

Because I have a deep love of computers, truth be told, the aphorism "love conquers all" proves correct in this case. I sit patiently with babycakes, tenderly examining all the ins and outs of its delicate little software system, making the requisite tweaks, and find to my relief that it is not only still alive but positively vigorous, kicking ass with new agility, speed, and accuracy.

I am gobsmacked by this wonderful turn of events, but my ever-calm husband remains philosophical. He simply remarks, "Your computer needed a little caffeine, that was all."

As this is a public forum, my lawyers have advised me to post this warning:
"Don't try this at home."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

To Live or Not to Live

My mother's modus operendus was an attempt to foresee potential danger lurking in the future and plan a strategy to avoid it, thus earning her the nickname "the General." Averting unseen disasters meant that I was not allowed to snow ski, or, as an avid horseback rider, take a horse over a jump. Too dangerous. After all, why tempt fate when one could play the piano or read a book.

Thus, an exuberant childhood activity such as turning a cartwheel was out of the question lest I freeze midway and break my neck. My mother's fears infected my psyche like lice to hair in a kindergarten classroom. So when my doctor called me one spring day in early March 2011 to tell me I had cancer and that I had to come in right away, my reaction was atypical: "I am leaving for South Africa in two weeks for the premiere of our new documentary, then going to Switzerland for the premiere there. I can't come in until early April." Sensing an intractable patient, he feigned patience and replied, "OK, but don't wait any longer than that. You need to get into treatment soon."

Off I went to South Africa and Europe with cancer still an abstraction that belonged to someone else. Who'da thunk I would be so good at compartmentalizing, but then again we don't really know ourselves under normal circumstances. Under duress, the boomerang effect of the perfectly synchronized universe will deliver to your threshold plenty of demons, angels, and other neurotic sub-personalities, if having children isn't good enough for that purpose.

With the joyous overseas ride over, I woke up the morning after my first PET/CAT scan to the news that the cancer had already spread to a lymph node. Suddenly the compartment walls dissolved as I stared through a dirty kitchen window at distant hills, not really seeing them but rather viewing my interior landscape. The big question "to live or not to live" rose up with a gray softness that was undramatic, neutral and pervasive. I have heard that one "fights" cancer, that people are "survivors," as if the war for freedom and democracy had been projected onto a cellular event.

Two weeks passed in this demilitarized zone. Into week two, my sister flew in from Boston for what had previously been planned as a birthday visit but now was transformed into a "let's get ready for the cancer" love fest; two former New York super Jews with at least two Ivy League degrees between us. We researched doctors, diets, and blenders, whilst dancing around the island in the kitchen like cannibals over a boiling cauldron shouting, "Yes we can!" with raised fist.

But I still hadn't decided whether I wanted to live or not.

Rinpoche once told me that his teacher told him, "May you die with no unfinished business." If having adult children meant unfinished business, then no, I didn't want to leave the mortal coil so that they could sing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." My husband of several decades would miss me but I could already see the line of 50 something women queueing up for an audition. Did I have to keep on living just so that no one would be sad for a year or two and then remember me fondly?

I remember the exact moment that the dice rolled to a stop and the outcome read 'stay.' I was on the phone with my then thirty-four year old son who is wiser than me. He wasn't trying to convince me of anything but he listened. A spark ignited somewhere in the depths of my body cavity and I knew there was more to learn. I hadn't cracked the code yet of how to live in joy.

I still have no idea why I am here, but that is exactly why I decided to stay. As the person who always reads the last pages of the book before starting at the beginning, as the person who always wants to know how the movie turns out before I see it, accepting the moment is a huge challenge to that demoness who needs to know the story from beginning to end.

If I ever find out I won't tell you, because I don't know anyone else who reads the last pages of the book before they start at the beginning.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sleep Jamboree

The mysterious activity of the full moon kept me awake last night, way past the witching hour when all good girls are fast asleep with sugarplums dancing in their heads. I tried the usual trick of circling mantras in my skull like a dog chasing its tail, to no avail. Often this strategy lulls me into oblivion; the Buddhist version of counting sheep. When I confided this to Rinpoche (Tibetan term for an esteemed lama that means "precious one") he looked askance and said, "Mantras are supposed to wake you up if you do them properly."

Sheepish in external demeanor, my inner voice dismissed this truism with the desperation of an addict. Without a good night's sleep, the world is a dismal place where people places and things drift by my window-to-the-world like disembodied spirits.

As I could never fall asleep with a ticking clock within 100 yards of the bed, and the light of the digital ones disturb my autonomy as if being watched by a pernicious  and omnipotent HAL, there is no way to tell what time it is in the middle of the night unless I turn on my iPhone that hides out in the folds of my sheets. After flailing about and finally laying on hands, it takes its damn time for the glowing apple to emerge from deep space. When my squinting eyes finally rest on the tiny numbers that say 1:30AM, I react with an "Oh shit" and head post-haste to the bathroom to find sleep aids. Decorum prevents me from disclosing what type they are but let's just say I need a doctor's prescription for the little gems that insure a rock solid night's sleep.

Fast forward to the next morning. Repeat of the iPhone activation routine. Glorious god in heaven, it's 8:44 AM and I have managed to log the requisite hours to make my life liveable on this sun-stroked day. The phone's green squares and blue squares also reveal vital information: in a unique convergence, every social engagement planned for the week has been canceled due to various and sundry circumstances not of my making.

Pre-cancer, this might have been a coitus interruptus experience. But now, at this wonderful hour when a multitude of industrialized people have already drunk their first cup of coffee sitting in their cubicles flooded with flourescent light,  I feel anything but thwarted. My body sinks even deeper into the afterglow of a solidly drugged sleep state, and I am thankful. The turtle need not stick its neck out of the shell today.

Who is this new person who likes to hide out and do nothing but wander through her garden watching the plants grow...who talks to the plants with the voice of a Southern person of color, astonishing her husband who one day happens to be passing nearby and says with bemusement, "You're talking to the plants?" Glad he didn't notice the accent of my alter-ego who loves digging in the dirt with her hands and tending to the sickly or the tilting ones, who has gotten over the agony of using precious water so that she can foster green things sprouting from the earth.

For an underachieving overachiever, it's all a brave new world and as long as I can be content with not knowing what the next hour will bring, the world is a beautiful place.

Multi-One-Pointed Concentration

Gurus, sages and seers of the ages talk about one-pointed concentration as a fundamental skill on the road to enlightenment. Construed as a must for meditators, the ability to focus also applies to the requisite brain power needed to learn secret practices such as flying, dematerializing, drying wet sheets with body heat as they are wrapped around emaciated yogis' bodies in the Himalayan winter, shapeshifting, walking on water, or simply turning into a rainbow when the breath says its final goodbyes to its used up shell. With the cost of funerals these days, achieving rainbow body might be a practical alternative to the lay-away plan or dumping god awful expenses on next of kin.

It seems wasteful to make coffins that look like the latest model Cadillac, with polished mirror-like mahogany encasements, brass trimmings and padded white satin interiors that look like Eva Gabor's bedroom set. Of course funeral homes and coffin makers need to make a living, but think about the environment and all those trees that had to die for our sins, only to be reincarnated as holding tanks for worm food.

Given my recent brush with death, I am prone to contemplating these details, although truth be told we all destined for the dust bin one way or another at an undisclosed time...undisclosed, that is, until it isn't. Just wrap me in one of my 100% Egyptian cotton 1600 thread count sheets and stick me in a blazing over-sized oven, but make sure I am really dead. Not that I am paranoid; my genetic memory still zings in harmony with the crematoriums-in-action that dotted the European landscape during the last century.

Additionally, my Tibetan Buddhist teacher tells me that while I might appear dead, my consciousness could be lingering for as long as three days after breathing stops. And who wants to watch themselves being roasted like an large mammal being readied for a barbeque?

The above perspective might be offensive to some and since it is even making me slightly nauseous, let's rejoin the topic at hand: one-pointed concentration. In this new age, it has taken an interesting twist. If one has ever watched a table full of twenty-somethings at a restaurant with their iPhones in one hand and margueritas in the other, it is evident that they have developed the marvelous oxymoronic feat of multi-one-pointed concentration. They can text significant others while simultaneously including their 500 Facebook friends and Tweeters too, as well as communicating with their six best friends at the table as they imbibe the elixar of the nervous.

Once only the capability of an alien in a science fiction flick who could watch 100 television sets and take in all the information at one glance, this generation of 21st century dwellers has redefined the word concentration. The jury is out on whether the new technologies decrease social interaction because of their dearth of physicality and the concommitant loss of communication hardware built into the human being, such as body language and facial expression...or whether it more resembles the neuronal pathways of our brain in which the more pathways are used, the bigger the brain becomes and thus the more intelligent. Perhaps sign makers can starting mass producing a new one to add to the old standards such as STOP, DANGER, or NO SMOKING, and it would say, CAUTION NEUROPLASTICITY IN PROGRESS.

So maybe physical death isn't the only thing that awaits us. Perhaps our genes will mutate into new bodies that follow the consequence of 21st century dwellers and their multi-one-pointed concentration. The future human may have a huge frontal lobe like a dolphin and a tiny body that procreates in a flash of fiber-optic glow.

In the meantime, weeds are growing in my garden and this dinosaur must use the time-honored practice of one-pointed concentration to scout their location and uproot them from their natural environment, thus proving the point that humans are forever sacrificing natural laws to suit the designs of their own creation.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Post-Cancer Twist

Yesterday I went for a swim at a friend's house, situated in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles – the very town that was the breeding ground and inspiration for a movie about over-privileged teenagers gone amok. One needn’t see the movie; the trailer will do if you can handle the nefarious monetizing strategy from the cyber-galaxy that makes You Tube as annoying as television, a.k.a. advertising before being allowed to watch the desired video.

As I slide into the 96 degree cement lagoon of chlorinated water, I thank god that my friend is a nice Jewish Princessa who appreciates Caribbean-style water temperatures; some of my other Los Angeles buddies come from hardier stock: the Bel Air doyenne whose Norwegian husband likes the refreshing assault of an unheated pool; my Welsh companions in Malibu who keep their pool under-heated because of its brisk shock-to-the-system quality -- not to speak of the Pacific Ocean itself, potentially bearable one day out of the year.

One could do an entire reality show on LA swimming pools and how they reflect the character of their owners, but why spoil David Hockney's innocent and painterly vision of those blue spots? And aren't there enough reality shows already, moveable feasts that entice the young and other miscellaneous voyeurs to drool over someone else's shopping sprees, pedicures and emotional train wrecks?

I muse. My days are significantly different than two years ago when I was diagnosed with stage 3B cancer that had slipped into my system undetected, growing steadily while its host innocently did her tra-la-la through life. Once treatment got underway, I couldn't sit up, leave the house, or talk for more than one minute at a stretch, thanks to the chemo and radiation that eventually killed the cancer and almost killed me along with it. But if I took the prescribed pain-killers, thoughts formed in my brain and spilled through my mouth like a torrential waterfall of verbiage, transforming the more taciturn me into a chattering bird-like creature hopping hither and yon picking at any glittering things in the environs.

Cancer, or rather surviving cancer, gave me a new perspective on the meaning of life. And my conclusion -- there is none.

So where does that leave me? Drifting from swimming hole to swimming hole like a water buffalo seeking the perfect mud-to-water ratio? Stimulating the five senses and tricking them into a version of reality so subjective that it is hard to believe I have anything in common with a Saudi jihadist or a Malawi orphan or an Albanian goat-herder? Am I just a middle-class third generation American-born Eastern European Jewish Tibetan Buddhist Atheist Princess-Pessimist living on the edge of affluence, whittling away the hours until the Grim Reaper finds a better excuse to whisk me away?

An ephipany came to me from an email that landed in my Inbox with the phrase "the magical display of appearances" in the signature. Thanks to the wise and compassionate lama who coined the phrase, its meaning springs forth from a middle ground that neither denies the existence of reality nor affirms the existence of reality. 

Metaphor helps to elucidate this paradox: endless and unique waves arise from a vast ocean, only to melt back into the depths indistinguishable from their former arising; the invisible balance point on a bicycle that keeps it straight upright even as a left foot and a right foot take turns trying to woo gravity in their opposite directions; the coin flip of the gambler, heads or tails, two sides with different pictographs that can determine a destiny even though the coin is a unified whole. 

Once one is surprised with a life-threatening illness, and once it melts away like a tidal wave retreating from an inland forest, a unique wreckage presents itself out of which new growth must occur. How and why and when new creation comes into being is a moment by moment event. I am watching, along for the ride, and occasionally marveling at this magical display of appearances.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Radical Acceptance

In the beginning of 2013, a French journalist was captured in Syria and held for ninety days before being rescued by an opposition group opposed to an opposition group that was opposed to another opposition group in an ideological hall of mirrors. Most of the time shackled and threatened with death, but for the last stretch allowed to wander in a secured yard, the now freed journalist was asked how he maintained his sanity -- or if he maintained his sanity for that matter.

While more American soldiers commit suicide than those killed in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan, this European did not endure the horrors of post-traumatic stress, although he would have been perfectly entitled to it. Instead, he appeared quite normal, although he did admit that he would decline an offer for the same assignment again simply because he might be recognized as that guy who got away. Prudent fellow. But what was the key to his sanctuary of sanity?

Speaking in a matter of fact tone, he revealed his sleight of mind trick. Directing his thoughts to completely forget his past life, which included a wife and three young children, he told himself that this life of captivity was the only one he had or might ever have stretching down the path of uncertainty. With this radical acceptance of the "what is," his reward was a stable mind that escaped the mental torture such an ordeal might hold.

This chap didn't boast decades of Zen meditation or an unshakeable faith in Jesus, or a knowing that the Almighty was with him all the way. While he might have been coy in not revealing a private stash of spiritual tools, his survival strategy revealed a truth about basic awareness and how it functions: be in the moment unabashedly, at one with the experiential reality. Resistance to the "what is" by dwelling in the past with all its concomitant guilt, shame, blame, joy, regrets or what ifs -- or imagining a fearsome future replete with unimaginable horrors -- is a recipe for mental torment that can get one into deep shit. Shoveling oneself out of that stinking pit could be so unpleasant that a nice snort of heroine, an endlessly renewable script for Oxycontin, or a fifth of Johnnie Walker might seem a more pleasant alternative. Truth be told, those strategies more resemble quicksand than the perceived quick fix.

The Sufi saying, "Trust in God but tie your camel first" could be applied to one's own thoughts as well as a camel, goat, horse, or human prisoner. Ephemeral as they may be, thoughts are the ties that bind us, and freedom from extraneous mental baggage is a key to sanity -- if not a deep knowing that crowns consciousness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bing Doc-ing

Binging on documentaries has been my favorite pastime in the past few weeks. Thus, a bevy of marvelous new facts have imbedded themselves in my neuronal pathways. For example, human beings have created 180 new breeds of dogs in the past 150 years; before that, there was just the basic dog, descended from the wolf and made to be our friend and surrogate mate. Also on the menu was one about the physiology of mating. Apparently, sexual attraction and bonding is almost 100% chemical and subliminally based. Did you know that women glow when they are ovulating, thus making them more attractive to the pollinator?
On a more serious note, I watched documentaries about man-made ecological disasters, genocide, corporate thievery and other criminal acts. A few actually discussed how to improve the track record of Homo Sapiens, thus providing a proverbial safety valve that let off the steam in the pressure cooker, despite the horrors documented in so many of these moving pictographs.

After feasting on a smorgasbord of films, it seems that poverty, crime, drug abuse, starvation and suffering of all stripes are not accidental. Karmic cause and effect are the culprits, triggered by people wanting more at the expense of others who have less. This tyranny is often an organized, calculated plan by power brokers running governments and businesses. While these plans may not be as calculated as the Final Solution of Adolph Hitler, leaders at all levels of society have a tendency to brainwash underlings to think and act in ways that bolster self interest at the expense of another culture, race, religion, tribe, country, gender, or class.

Are we doomed as a human race to plunder and pillage and consume our way into oblivion? Or are we adaptable creatures that will come to recognize our common good on this jeweled spaceship Mother Earth, finding brilliant solutions based on compassion and caring for each other? 

Both scenarios are possible and we each have to make a choice which side we are on. As Eldridge Cleaver once said, "Either you are part of the problem or you are part of the solution."

Friday, August 16, 2013


It is 7:30AM on a sunny August day in Los Angeles, California. My husband brings me a cup of Morning Thunder tea and sits down beside me for our morning ritual of 29 years -- telling each other the dreams of the night before. His was an odd one; his dream body instructs him to remember upon waking that "he spent 352 hours on his new computer."

Never mind that he doesn't have a new computer, and why the number 352? Thus intrigued, I ventured into the Google search universe and discovered a website about angels, numerology and other items fascinating to a person the likes of myself.

Duly impressed when I actually found the meaning for the number 352, it seemed only fair to compliment the creator of the site with a "comment." But I got lost in a maze of cyber-clicks and in a case of sheer synchronicity landed as a squatter on a site called An invention within the Google universe, it provides users with their very own blog site, gratis. As Facebook and Twitter don't provide enough bandwidth to develop thoughtful ideas, the blog-o-sphere seemed like a tempting confessional, although the idea of blogging had never occurred to me until that very moment.

Just two years ago, I survived a near-death experience thanks to cancer and chemo. Let's face it -- an event like that causes one to stop and ponder the future of earthly existence and how one will pass the time henceforth. Something in me lit up at the challenge of writing one blog per day for 365 days. Perhaps the motivation sprang from a desire to pour myself back into the world of human activity, albeit in a rather disembodied form.

Living In Between Your Thoughts refers to the empty-full space where there is freedom from conceptual thinking and simple wide-open consciousness. This blog ruminates on the magical display of appearances w
e call our world; a highly personal commentary on the infinite ways we humans live our existence on planet earth.
The Guardian, oil & gold leaf, 36x48" by Carole Wilson

Check out my other family members, listed according to age in descending order:

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