Sunday, January 6, 2008

Blues for Buddha.

For 15 or more years, I have lived in a Black and White World. I was a student of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. There was right and there was wrong. There was proven and nonexistent. There is something fundamentalist, however, in a view that defines the world strictly in terms of black and white. We are surrounded by Extremism today; from the Middle East to our own Nation's Capitol. I began to realize the fundamentalist nature of the black and white world I was striving to live in. All that philosophy was obliterated by my experience in New Jersey. If I felt that as strongly as I did, if I chose to accept that experience, I could no longer think in the same way.

An important book from my college days was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. After my discovery of Objectivism, I looked back on it as bunk. It wasn't shades of grey, but it fuzzed up the black and white. I have long wanted to reread Pirsig's book; just to see. Recently, I did. I feel my eyes are wide open again. Much of the book matches my current thoughts and the way I am _actually_ living my life.

Some of my early blog posts hinted of this new thinking. As early as April 17,
“If you are carrying around more than you need, that is too much weight. If you are trying to be someone you are not, you can't possibly be happy no matter what you tell yourself.“
Eerily on April 27 "Sometimes, even for an atheist, the universe seems to be sending a message." I don't even remember why I left that in! And even though it was my last post from my old perspective, on December 16, I threw in “All of us could benefit from a daily reflection.”

All this lead to further reading on Zen and Buddhism. I found a copy of The Complete Idiots Guide to Zen Living. In the book, I recognized myself right away. I found great comfort.

The Monks of Myanmar touched me with their protests, though they worked for naught. I was intrigued that these Monks were protesting something seemingly rational, worldly. At an Outlet Mall Bookstore in Perryville, MD I found The Universe in a Single Atom; the Convergence of Science and Spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His book shocked me with his scientific approach to Buddhism. There are many concepts from Quantum Physics that were foreshadowed in ancient Tibetan thinking.

This is not really new for me. As a child I had an experience that was profoundly Zen. I have mocked it in retelling the story. However, I now feel I was looking at it from the wrong perspective. I was walking home from school in the Third Grade; about 8 years old. I was chanting the word “was.” I can't explain that, I was a weird kid, but I remember it very clearly. I had been chanting for a couple blocks. Suddenly, I lost my grip on the the word and the world. For a moment, I stopped, somewhat disoriented. It was as if a flash of light had wiped my mind clear. Gradually, the word, and the sidewalk in front of me, came back in focus. It felt profound; like looking out over the Ocean or the Grand Canyon. In college, I had a bookshelf teeming with books on Zen. In those books, I recognized this early experience in the descriptions of enlightenment; satori and nirvana. In the Dorm, I practiced meditation on and off for a couple years.

The books have been gone for a long time. School finally caught some traction. A career path began to form in front of me. I had a life and my practice fell by the wayside. Years later, discovering the black and white world of Objectivism, I looked at my flirtation with Zen with a chuckle. I remembered the chanting 8 year old with a good laugh. If a kid could do it, how profound can it really be? As I explore this ground again, it is not funny, it may be just that simple.

Further, wanting to sail off and explore the world, listening to Blues and American Roots Music wasn't ever really going to fit my former thinking. I have been in flux for some time actually; working my way back to happiness. Obviously, what I had been doing was not making me happy. I have made an effort to explore where I was when I was last happy. With the help of my Coach, I walked back through my travels and found treasure.

Part of what attracts me to Buddhism is the non-reliance on faith. There is no dogma, no palatial venues for stilted ritual. It is simply a path to a clear mind rooted in the present, free of the agony and suffering of misplaced desires. Buddhism is full of tolerance and compassion. There is no sense of good and evil, only ignorance and suffering. In short, you “focus on your mind, see what is in there, discard what is unnecessary, and focus on what truly brings happiness” [Wade Davis, Light at the Edge of the World, National Geographic].

The Buddhists say that Life is suffering; not in a draconian Original Sin way, but in an honest and direct way. Hey, you're human. You will do things you'll come to regret. You will be hurt by other humans; and even by the big bad world. This is part of the deal. If you can't get over it when it happens, you will suffer. If you are overly attached to material things or dogmatic ideas, you will suffer. If you begin to think that the world is just as you think it is today, and that it will always be, you will suffer. If you clear and calm your mind to develop an honest, open view of the world, you will get better. Let it go and it will be gone.

The Buddhists don't hang on to their troubles. They acknowledge them and let them go. Let it burn through you but burn out. The Blues is very Zen in this way. People who don't understand the Blues think that it is a sad music. The singer sings about his troubles, but the Blues is happy music; just ask B.B. The music has the same function; wallow in it in a song, acknowledge it – even celebrate it - but let it go. The joy returns. When B.B. King sings "You upsets me, Baby" or “The Thrill is Gone.” He is not decrying her or even what she did/does to him. He is celebrating the joy of being human. He brings it back by holding up his troubles and then burning them down with visceral, gut-level music.

I am starting to see the outline of the answer in the fog. Happiness didn't come from the stress and the striving of the rat race. Happiness is wanting what you have, in loving where you are. Buddhism is not such a long leap from from where I was. Still I'm not sure where I'll end up exactly, but change is underway. Nevertheless, my slogan “Eat When You're Hungry, Work When You're Broke” is a profoundly Zen statement. Part of me was there before I was.

Right now, I feel like I've climbed too high in a tree. I am swaying in the thin branches, high at the top. Part of me is still holding tight to past thinking, like the last large branch. Another part of me knows that if I just let go, I will come to rest gently on the ground. I am not yet sure where I will land. As I read and practice, it will become clear. I know, when I'm ready, I will let go of that branch, soon. Some of this feels shocking. Some of you are lifting your chins off of your keyboards. I have a ways yet to walk, but I feel I am coming home.

What is the sound of one hand sailing?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Three new posts, actually

My web access on the road is still intermittent, but I've been stuck in Thousand Palms, CA for two days. See below for new material.

Also, don't forget! Commenting is now turned on. Please feel free to chime in.

Have a Great New Year!

Mojave Desert to Oakland.

As I drove through the desert of Arizona and California, the clouds had cleared. Stars! I could see stars! It has been a long time since the clouds, urban lights and my schedule had all allowed me to see the stars. Off to the Southwest, a bright light; probably a planet. Dead ahead, Orion. He has always been my favorite constellation, though I'm not sure why. Off in the dark to my right, railroad track runs parallel to the highway. There are often huge trains of containers going by. Tonight, the moon reflects on the shiny top of the rail; burnished by all that fodder for American Consumerism. Reflecting on the rail, the moon spot chases alongside the truck like the mechanical rabbit at a dog track.

As the sun slides into dawn, the desert shrubs begin as clumps on the hills and then splotches in the darkness as it crosses from black to charcoal grey. Supposedly, there's elk around here; signs have warned since Flagstaff. I haven't been privileged to meet any. In the early light, the desert is white tufted with brown and tan scrub grasses; like a meringue.

Morning breaks and I'm crossing the mountains, passing Bakersfield and coming down into the San Joachim Valley. I am just blown away. The sheer size of all this agriculture is astounding. Fields, groves and cultivation surround me and go to the horizon in all directions. I've lived in Michigan, Indiana and Florida; seen big farms and groves, but the magnitude is different here. There is cotton, oranges, corn, pecans and almonds; I smell garlic or onions. It goes on for 200 miles.

Coming up out of the valley and then down into Oakland, even the hills are shaped different around here. They seem to be tufted and folded rather than the rolling hills at home. There are wind turbines all over the place. They say that Texas is like a whole other country, well California certainly is too.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Two New Posts!

My web access on the road is still intermittent. I have a new provider, but I'm still getting used to changing my routes to accommodate it. See below for new material. I am working on a couple more.

Also, don't forget! Commenting is now turned on. Please feel free to chime in.

Have a Great New Year!

Holiday 2007

Some of you, Dear Readers, will be shocked to know my reading list for the last couple weeks. I have read "The Universe in an Atom; the Convergence of Science and Spirituality" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I am reading "The Complete Idiots Guide to Zen Living" and rereading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig; a book that almost ruined my sophomore year at Michigan State.

Pirsig's book will make you think harder than you have in years. I did almost nothing else but read and talk about it in the Winter of 1983. I mentioned the Midnight Heathen Philosophes obliquely some time ago. My dorm friends and I stayed up to all hours saving the world many years ago. I miss that too. Pirsig has an interesting argument for a layer he calls "Quality" that comes before intellectual or scientific understanding. I've wanted to reread the book for some time.

I have long been a Scientific Materialist. If you couldn't touch it or smell it or prove that it was there, it didn't exist; an Atheist by default. This has not been completely satisfying for a number of months. I am not prepared to walk away from my previous sentiments, but I am exploring if they are enough. It seems a bit like cooking without salt or that blanket that is just a bit too small. My cold toes have been hanging out the bottom in recent months.

Last weekend, despite my earlier post, I ended up having a wonderful holiday in New Jersey with my cousin, Sherry and her family in their beautiful house. Thanks to my sister, Amy, for setting the plan in motion. Sherry's husband took me sailing through the magic of a beautiful radio controlled boat he made. Their son kept me jumping with Wii Video Games and Guitar Talk. Sherry's wonderful and delicious hospitality was only overshadowed by the joy of being able to just hang out with them for a while.

We were headed into town. Sherry was walking the dog when a old song that her Dad liked began running through her head. Ben had lost a video game disc behind the entertainment center and was fishing around for it. He found a CD and set it on a shelf by the TV. As I pulled on my coat, I saw the CD laying there; Neck and Neck by Mark Knoeffler, x-Dire Straits, and Chet Atkins, country music guitar legend. I said something like "Hey there's some good music." The song that Sherry had been humming to herself just minutes before, was from that CD!

We took the CD with us and listened to it on the way into town. Sherry said her Dad must have wanted me to have the CD and gave it to me. Even just weeks ago, I would have gently scoffed at the concept, but I felt immediately that she was right. And I was comfortable with that. I even felt some relief, as if I was a little less unforgiven for what I described in a post last year.

Thanks again, Sherry, Ed and Ben. It was a great weekend!

I have been in flux for some time. My reading is way out in left field for me. There are many things I am thinking about in new ways. Stay tuned, this fertile ground for blog posts.

Friday Afternoon in Nashville, 2007/12/21

The Friday before Christmas, I treated myself to an afternoon in Nashville, TN. Not JUST Nashville, but Broadway St. Nashville! Home of the Honky Tonks. Tootsie's, Legends Corner, Bluegrass Inn, Station Inn, Ernest Tubbs Record Store and Robert's Western World. Robert's sounds like a Tack Shop as much as a Honky Tonk, but its the real deal. However, you can also buy a pair of cowboy boots there.

Thursday Night in West Memphis, I did some research on the web. Roberts has no cover and the burgers are cheap; works for me. I parked at the TA Truckstop right next to LP Field across the river from downtown. I filled up so I could get a free shower and clean up. Yellow Cab sent a hack in around front by the resturant.

The Cab Driver was of western Middle Eastern extract. Armenian or Lebanese; maybe. We talked shop; I asked him how business was and told him that I drove for Yellow Cab in Florida fifteen or so years ago. He asks me whether I like driving a truck better than driving a cab. I explain that I've worked several different jobs since then. It is nice to be in the same city all the time and be home at night, I tell him. He agrees.

We wind through Nashville after crossing the bridge. There is a Double Tree Hotel and the funky looking AT&T building with double spires. We go by Khan's Mongolian Grill and a Greek place. Greek sounds good. Anything sounds good, I've been starving myself in anticipation of a Honky Tonk Cheeseburger. Nashville is on a knoll. We go up toward the rise and then turn left and head downhill. There's the Ryman! And we've arrived at Lower Broadway. It is about 4:30 in the afternoon so all the neon is lost on me.

Stepping out of the cab, I am assaulted by music from three directions. Not super loud, like South Beach or Daytona, but definitely right at me. I walk into Robert's Western World. On Lower Broadway, the band or singer/songwriter, is always out front with their back to the windows. Robert's is basically just a storefront bar. The band is on the left just inside the door. On the right, the wall is full of framed photos of Nashville's finest musical craftsmen. On the left, shelves full of boots. There are benches on the side and a few round tables up near the band. The benches aren't really boothes but look almost like couches, but more like school bus seats. The bar is on the right with utilitarian but comfortable stools. There are more benches back toward the back. At the back, the restrooms are on the left and stairs to the right go to an upper bar that isn't open on a Holiday Friday Night. I sit down and order a PBR and a menu.

The waitress is a heavy set goth; I think named Rayna, but I didn't really catch her name over the band. She is very sweet. She has a Topless Mermaid tattooed on her left shoulder and a Sailor-Jerry-esque Cowboy Girl on the right. There is an Irish Claddagh on her chest and something on her lower back but I don't want to stare. I ask her for a cheeseburger with onion rings and another PBR. "My two beers for the month," I tell her. It's hard to be a drinker AND a truck driver, I explain.

The cook is named Spider. He has 70's short hair; like the blond Duke boy. Is that Bo or Luke? I couldn't keep track of them and I loved that show. I would just have them straight and Daisy would come on screen and I would forget what I needed to know about the boys. Spider has a grey goatee and a tattoo on his neck. It might be a spider. His neck tattoo is old. I didn't think they were that popular until recently. Spider makes a mean cheeseburger!

I ask Rayna and Spider if Gruhn Guitars is a guitar shop. They tell me it is and think the store is open until about 6:00. Spider tells me there are better places to go that are cheaper. Gruhn's is on the strip and a bit touristy. When I tell him I just need a new capo and I came to town in a Semi; to Lower Broadway in a cab, he thinks Gruhn's will work just fine.

Robert's Western World has music 6 days a week from 11:00 am to 3:00 am; yeah 16 hours a day. I had checked out the band schedule on the web Thursday night. However, with the holidays nearby, I really lucked out. Heath Haynes has the afternoon gig at Roberts. Most of his band, Heath Haynes and the Cryin' Shames, wanted to be home for the holidays, so Heath recruited some friends who have their own bands for today. Heath played the acoustic guitar and sang. He had a great stand up slappin' bass player whose name was so normal I don't recall it. The electric guitar player was Chris Cerrillo(sp?). And halfway through they were joined by a drummer. Heath introduced him as a lifetime friend. While I was trying to figure out if that meant "life partner" or anthing, I missed his name too.

Heath Haynes is great. He can sing anything with the help of an enormous vocal range. He sang as Elvis and Johnny Cash and then sang Buck Owens and some high and lonesome bluegrassy stuff without missing a beat. His guitar chops are very strong as well. While he looks like Michael Moore just out of bed, he was rockin'.

Chris Cerillo is just a fantastic country lead and fill guitar player. He looked for all the world like Paul Simon in a pompadour and a western shirt. His cheeks pulled in and lips pursed when he concentrated exactly like Simon's; especially in the "If You'll Be My Bodyguard" video when Paul was trying not to laugh at Chevy Chase. Cerillo played lightning fast leads and subtle fills. He had a vintage yellow Telecaster with the black sparkle pickguard and faceplate. At one point, I thought he had kicked on a synthesizer. He was playing notes with no attack. They just kind of bled into the melody like a Moog. Looking closer, I realize that the pinky of his pick hand was working the volume knogb on his guitar. He was creating the sound all himself. This is more amazing than you non-guitarists think. He was having to strike a note early for the delay in working the volume knob from zero back up. So as he was playing a melody, with the rest of the band going, he was picking on one beat and the melody was on another. I was freaked out. There were all kinds of Nashville Cat telecaster tricks; little chimy picks with his fingernails; bowing the whole guitar rather than the strings. He had a huge vocabulary.

Close to 6:00, I tipped the band and headed down the block to Gruhn's. Of course, I didn't just get out of there with a new capo. I bought a new tuner as well [thanks, GG and Grandad]. I've been wanting one for a long time. It tells me when my strings are in tune by the frequency of the vibration rather than the sound. It clips to the neck and "feels" the strings. The capo is one of the low profile spring jobs. I've needed one of those for a long time. I've still been using an elastic one that must be 25 years old. It was all stretched out.

On the way to Gruhn's, on the sidewalk on Broadway, there was a homeless looking guy with a nearly new Gibson Acoustic. He was playing some raw blues. His dog wore a leather jacket. Not like a dog wears a dog jacket. This dog, a Weirmaraner or so, was sitting perfectly still with a leather jacket around it shoulders and it's front legs in the sleeves. Further down the block, two guys who looked like they just left an office were each playing and sang together. I walked down past the Cotton Eyed Joe tshirt and souvenir store; crossed the street and went by an abandoned looking irish pub and along past Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. I crossed over to Legends Corner. There is a great big guitar out on the street with Willie, Patsy, Buck, Johnny, George, Waylan and a host of other Golden Era Country Stars painted on it.

I walked around a little and then went right back into Robert's Western World. After a couple more beers, I called Yellow Cab from the hall by the bathrooms where it was a little quiet. They never answered! I went out on the street and walked in the direction of the Truckstop, assuming I would find a cab along the way. I walked up and over the hill through downtown. I saw one Taxi; occupied. I was only wearing a polo shirt and jeans because the afternoon was warmish. Now after dark, with short sleeves and bald head, it was cold! I ended up walking all the way back. It was a mile and a half or two miles. The last bit was over the river and down into the neighborhood where the truckstop is. That last quarter mile was probably not the best place to be alone after dark. I have found, however, if you walk briskly [it was cold too, remember] like you know where you are headed, most people won't bother you. I went down a staircase off the bridge into an empty lot, under an overpass and across a couple parking lots to the truck. It hadn't been running so I had to warm it up. I turned both heaters to BROIL and sat there with my jacket on for a while. What a great afternoon!

The Cop and the Corn

I’ve written before about the DOT regulated hours I have to track as a truck driver. I can drive for eleven hours a day, but once I start,...