The pull toward minimalism.

Have you ever looked around at your stuff and wondered, “What if I were to get rid of it all?” I have. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been seriously thinking about getting rid of everything.

Okay, not everything. Just a lot of things. I’ve actually been lurking around the idea of minimalism for quite a while now… for years, in fact. I’m now realizing that it’s time to do it.

I look around at things I don’t need and will never use, and I’m thinking, why is that stuff still here?

I write a post about a falling-apart article of clothing, and I’m thinking, why am I so attached to it?

Knowing, right, how ridiculous it is. For one thing, as a Buddhist, I’m fully aware that attachment to material things makes no sense at all.

I’d thought about it before, but I really started to feel the pull toward minimalism since that post about the ancient sweater I couldn’t trash. That was back in February. I wrote that post. Then I wrote the KSJO t-shirt post. Then I had to sit and examine my life choices.

I should just get rid of stuff.

Why do I develop emotional/sentimental attachment to things?

One part of my mind says “keep this” as another part says “but why.” It mostly boils down to sentimentality and “I would want this if….” But what I want more, now, is to break away from such attachments.

Three months after the sweater post, I took my first step in the minimalism direction when I overhauled my office to create as empty and blank a space as possible. Now I’m looking around wondering how I can empty the space even more. I’ve discovered that my creative energy has more freedom to flow in the absence of physical distraction.

Now it’s three months post-office-overhaul, and I’m ready for the next step. This is how I know I’m not making an impulsive decision. I tend to make big lifestyle changes slowly, in increments. (Have I ever mentioned that going vegan was a six-year process for me?)

There are degrees of minimalism, and the degree I’m going for isn’t a drastic one. I don’t aspire to a life that can fit into two suitcases, but I do plan to pare things down much as possible. I should add that I’m talking about my personal possessions, not household-type items.

Too, there are categories of things I won’t touch. At this time, anyway, I won’t even consider getting rid of books. I have books in three different rooms, on shelves, in closets, on the floor. There are hundreds of them, and they’re staying right where they are. I won’t violate my book collection with minimalism.

 

Books: exempt from minimalism

 

We’ll see how things progress from here!

All-day anniversary date! (Firing range + samurai armor.)

Wednesday was our wedding anniversary. The sub-title of this post could be: “We’ve been married for 6 years and to celebrate we went out and Did Non-Everyday-Things.” Callaghan took the day off so we could spend it together.

The first exciting thing that happened was the doorbell rang and a minute later Callaghan called out, “It’s a package for you!” as he came into the bedroom where I was getting dressed, and he dropped the package onto the bed and walked out, leaving me to think, “He got me something for our anniversary??” (We’d agreed no cards, no gifts.) So I opened it and found a Black + Decker 16v cordless hand-vac, which I’d been wanting for the longest time, and which I grabbed while running to the other end of the house all like, “Baby!! THANK YOU SO MUCH for the hand vac!! Best surprise anniversary gift ever!!!!!” as I jumped into his arms, to which he replied, “I didn’t order you that.”

Long story short, we found out that my parents ordered it for us for our anniversary, knowing that I had my eye on it. It’s been one of those things that I wanted, but never wanted to spend money on.

Anyway, still. Best anniversary gift ever! Best parents ever! The hand-vac has already changed my life.

The reason we didn’t exchange cards or gifts was that we had an expensive plan for the morning: going to our favorite firing range to rent weapons and practice shooting. Even with Groupon, the whole thing cost us $140.00, and that was only for 40 minutes of shooting. Seriously, how do people afford to do this on a regular basis?! I suppose, for one thing, they own their own firearms. We never will, so we rent them when we want to shoot. Firearm rental is expensive. Ammo at the range is expensive (unlike at Walmart). Hence, the firing range is a special-occasion date activity.

In the afternoon, we went to the Phoenix Art Museum for our second date activity: the “Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” exhibition. We’d known that the collection was there, thanks to some of you! We remembered it while finishing up the first season of Fargo not long ago, when we had this conversational exchange:

Me: Oh, look. Good old Lester married a submissive Asian wife.

Callaghan: I thought that was what I got when I got married.

Me: Ha! So what did you get? The English Rose?

Callaghan: No. I got the Samurai.

Then he quickly added, “And it’s perfect!”

And this, my friends, is one thing I appreciate about Callaghan so much. Seven years together, six years married, and the guy is still making me laugh. I have no complaints.

Such as it was that we went to the Phoenix Art Museum to see the Samurai exhibition.

 

“Cultivated Warriors” – (Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection)

 

 

If you can get to the Phoenix Art Museum before July 16, I highly recommend that you go check out this exhibition! It is spectacular.

The first thing you see when you enter the gallery is a large statue of the Buddha. The sight of the Sakyamuni Buddha entrances me instantaneously, so I had to linger a few minutes before going in… and, of course, take a selfie with the Buddha.

 

With the Sakyamuni Buddha at the Samurai Armor exhibition, Phoenix Art Museum 2017

 

Worth mentioning right now: the strategic play of lighting and shadow fluctuates throughout the gallery, and you’ll see this variation in these pics. Here at the entrance, it’s extremely bright. That white square on the top left of my shirt? That’s a sticker that reads “Samurai” in black letters. The light was so bright, it washed out the lettering completely! (I didn’t even try to bring out the lettering with filters or anything like that; I left these pics as-is.)

You can see the lettering here, though, with just a slight change in distance and angle:

 

Me, Callaghan, the Buddha. Not in that order.

 

Let me tell you, it took a lot of finagling with the phone camera position to get the three of us into this shot!

The reason the Buddha invites visitors into the samurai gallery is that Buddhism and its philosophies and motifs informed the design of the warriors’ armor and weaponry to a great degree; the religion was a part of samurai culture. “Buddhism was widely adopted by most samurai,” says one of the plaques inside the gallery.

Despite this fact and the fact that Buddhist warrior monks developed a deadly martial arts system that engendered all of the martial arts schools in East Asia (many of which are prevalent in the public eye today, as they’re included in an MMA artist’s arsenal), there’s still this myth that all Buddhists are strict pacifists, and that pacifism defines Buddhism. This may be due, in part, to Buddhism having become widely New-Age-ified in the hands of western seekers.

The myth may also come from the fact that Buddhists are not a war-mongering people, in general. There is a difference between being a warrior and being a war-mongerer. Being Buddhist and being a warrior are not mutually exclusive.

And so the Buddha welcomes you into the samurai warrior gallery. The exhibition consists mostly of armor, but you’ll also find weaponry and other objects particular to samurai culture. Truly, everything in this gallery is an exquisite work of art.

[click to enlarge if you wish to read the plaque]

 

Helmet

 

Like this one, many of the helmets and masks were adorned with Buddhist symbols. One plaque explains: “The adornments are influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism, a religion that greatly inspired Japanese warriors.”

Another plaque says of its subject: “The shape of the helmet is reminiscent of the cloth headdress (tokin) worn by Buddhist ascetics and warrior monks (yamabushi) who lived in remote mountain areas.”

Here are a few more pics, to give you more of a taste of the exhibition:

 

War drum

 

Family portrait, haha!

 

Did you know that samurai warriors battled with firearms as well as with bladed weapons and bows and arrows? I didn’t.

 

On samurai weaponry

 

Another plaque explains: “Though archery eventually gave way to the use of firearms in combat, the bow continued to be venerated, and archery remained a martial art that every samurai was expected to master.”

And another: “Shogun Takugawa Leyasu described the sword as the soul of the samurai.”

The exhibition includes chest plates with bullet marks and traces of sword-slashes. (Impressively, the bullets did not pierce the armor.) I didn’t take pics of those, though, for some reason. I did get some of the mounted warriors:

 

Mounted samurai

 

Even their horses sometimes wore elaborate masks!

 

I wouldn’t want to meet this guy coming out of the fog.

 

WHY SO SERIOUS? ~Of course I had to get a selfie with a samurai warrior lurking in the background.

 

Remember: this gorgeous and awe-inspiring exhibition will remain at the Phoenix Art Museum until July 16!

Happy Friday, All.

“Self”-contemplation (or, selflessness in Buddhist thought.)

Lately, I’ve been increasingly wary of the words “self” and “myself.” I finally wondered, “how could I replace those words in my internal and external dialogue?”

I thought, well, it’s not possible to get away from first-person pronouns. “I” and “me” are unavoidable, so why not use those words instead of “self”?

Just as an experiment, I tried for a day to remove “self” in the first-person context. It’s surprisingly hard.

For instance, “I’m doing this for myself” vs. “I’m doing this for me.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself” vs. “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy.”

Emphasis is placed on the self: “I, myself, have a habit of hitting the snooze button” vs. “I, too, have a habit of hitting the snooze button.”

“I’m getting myself a glass of water” vs. “I’m getting a glass of water.”

The word popped up when I thought of defining who I am: “I feel like myself again” vs. “I feel right again.”

Grammatically speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away from “self.” We need the word in the first-person context in order to communicate. Psychologically speaking, it’s hard to think away from it. So much of our popular conversation revolves around the love, care, improvement, maintenance, scrutiny, reflection, actualization, esteem, and empowerment of the self that the idea of it has become ingrained in how we imagine we should perceive and move through the world. Pseudo-psychologists have been spawned, and they have written books (and made millions): “Self-help” has become a genre. We’re a culture obsessed with our selves. We are self-centered.

Self-importance and self-hood. Is it possible to be an individual without being selfish?

“Love yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” “Be kind to yourself.” “Value yourself.” “Do something nice for yourself.”

The problem is that such commands have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve. In being encouraged to wonder why we’re not doing these things, we’re being called upon to focus on ourselves relentlessly. Those self-help gurus have made fortunes off of the insecurities they’ve managed to establish in us (so that we’ll buy their books/tapes/retreat admission tickets/etc.).

“If you (insert action), you’ll improve your self-esteem.” Self-esteem! So much focus has been concentrated on self-esteem that we’ve almost stopped looking beyond that, as if self-esteem is the end-all, be-all of our collective existence. Would it be possible to navigate life detached from our esteem of our selves? It seems that the more esteem and concern for esteem we direct onto ourselves, the less we remember to place value elsewhere.

The exercise of replacing “self” in the first-person led me to realize the extent of the importance we’ve allocated to the self: we’re hyper-aware of ourselves, and I, for one, am keenly cognizant of this. I’m socially awkward, which I think is partially because I tend to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness is almost never used with a positive connotation; it almost always refers to an uncomfortable state of being.

Self-consciousness and self-confidence aren’t mutually exclusive, though, fortunately. Self-confidence is critical. We need it to live in society with assurance; we need it to be successful. We even need self-confidence to stay safe. Predators looking for victims watch for indications of an absence of self-confidence.

In art, the self-portrait has been a genre since antiquity, and an important genre, at that. The selfies we take today fall in a sub-category of the self-portrait. Vanity notwithstanding, many of us enjoy documenting and sharing photos we take of ourselves with those who find value in them.

I’ve been revisiting this train of thought not as an armchair psychologist, but as a life-long Buddhist, pondering the subject again following the recent death of my cat. The Buddhist service I did for her prompted me to think back on the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned from the time I started attending Dharma school at seven years old.

Because of the teachings of the Buddha, I grew up knowing that an ideal endeavor in life is to strive for selflessness, but I never made earnest attempts to live in accordance with the principle. Such an endeavor has never seemed more important than now, in this time wherein self-esteem and emphasis on the self has been given highest importance.

We are all out for ourselves. We feel that we have to be in order to survive.

The Buddhist principle of the Middle Path is that “both extremes, self-affirmation and self-denial, are simply forms of self-preoccupation and self-attachment.”

This is what I would like to try to avoid.

Coming back to my exercise: it’s good to be “self-reliant,” I thought, but being “independently capable” is the same thing. I started to see that making an effort to direct my thinking away from terms of self might allow me an unexpected measure of peace. It’s a starting point, at least.

 

 

 

Nounours: Noon rising. (Kitty updates.)

It’s time for a kitty update, and I don’t know where to begin.

It’s been an emotionally turbulent summer.

We wanted to do everything right for our cats, and in the end, it was recommended that we allow our beloved Nounours to be an Only Cat in a household with no other cats.

But it’s not “in the end.” Because for him, it’s the beginning. It took weeks of gentle encouragement and sometimes bizarre twists and turns as we navigated our confusion to come to terms with this, and I’m still grieving his absence from our lives.

It started in June when I called a Feline Behaviorist to ask one question: “How can we get Cita to stop growling?” We thought there would be a straightforward answer to our straightforward question, but she asked more questions about each cat, which led her to focus on Nounours.

Her questioning took us back to the beginning. Nounours loved his Ronnie James (Wrah-Wrah). Wrah-Wrah had been ill the whole time we had them both, though we didn’t know it until he arrived at his last nine months as a cat.

What we mostly saw – and what we mostly remembered – was Nounours nurturing his brother during that time of advanced illness. We remembered the depth of his grief after Wrah-Wrah passed. We remembered his magical love that he continued to express by cuddling with Wrah-Wrah’s urn. Our hearts broke even more as we saw that Nounours’ heart was broken, too.

Nounours’ boundless love and caring for his brother crowded out other memories. We didn’t remember things like Nounours always trying to eat Wrah-Wrah’s food, and taking over playtime so Wrah-Wrah would be chased out of the game, and pushing Wrah-Wrah aside to make room for himself on our laps, even though there was more than enough love and food and playtime and lap-time to go around.

Our expert consultant explained that these things weren’t the little, petty things we thought they were. They were indicators that Nounours would be happiest in a house with no competition, and we should let him have that chance. She explained how we could enter him into the best no-kill shelter with the best adoption placement program in Arizona.

Both times I had this conversation with her, I sobbed, and both times (and in emails, too), she reminded me that none of this was about us, Callaghan and me. It was about Nounours, and what would be the right thing for him, rather than for ourselves. We had to leave ourselves and our own desires out of the equation.

So Nounours has embarked on a new journey. Sending him off was one of the most difficult things I’ve – we’ve – ever done. I have never done it before, and I never thought that I would.

I wrote my last kitty update post in the middle of July, and the next day, we put Nounours into the arms of a compassionate woman who assured us that he’ll be matched with the perfect family for him. We went to the vet first so we could deliver him with a complete copy of his medical records. We gave a monetary donation to the organization on his behalf. I asked if I could write Nounours’ blurb for his gallery profile, and they told me that I could. I was grateful to be able to do.

Nounours is staying in a new, state-of-the-art cattery, where he has a small room all to himself with a revolving door of volunteers and visitors who go in to lavish attention on him. We were very, very lucky to be able to secure this space for him. He is not in a cage. He is not on death row. He is not unloved or forgotten. But neither is he with us, and selfishly, I wish that that could be different.

Hindsight is the cruelest beast. If we could travel back through time, the one thing we would do differently is we wouldn’t have adopted Nenette. We adopted her for Nounours thinking that giving him another sibling to love would help to ease the pain of his loss. We made the wrong decision with the best intentions. Had we not adopted Nenette, Nounours would be the Only Cat he needed to be. We mistook his despondence for grief and loneliness, but it was just grief. We didn’t know then what we know now.

Unfortunately, life is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book where you can go back to change your decisions if you don’t like the ending you got. You can only go forward.

We always promised Nounours that we would make sure he’s happy and safe. I didn’t think that honoring that promise could ever mean giving him up for adoption. No matter how true it is when someone says, “You have to do what’s right for him,” or “You have to take yourself out of the equation… it’s not about you,” I still feel like we failed him.

We miss Nounours beyond words. We miss our big teddy bear who is such a formidable armful of cuddly love. But now it’s someone else’s turn to hug him, kiss him, and stroke his pink nose. We had our turn, and we have our memories, and we’re grateful.

We’re grateful to have had Nounours for the time that we had him, and we’re grateful for the beautiful facility that took him in. We’re grateful for the Feline Behaviorist whose compassionate wisdom, counsel, and encouragement helped us through this difficult realization and process. We’re grateful for the love and understanding of those of you who already know about this.

This might seem like a silly comparison, but it’s meaningful to me, since I’ll always only have furbabies: As an adopted person, I now have a renewed and stronger sense of empathy, appreciation, and respect for my mother who put me in a foster home when a social worker told her that it would be the best thing for me. I now have an inkling of how she must have felt. She relented to let me have a chance at a better life, and I am eternally grateful to her for having had the strength to allow for that.

I did not feel strong when we took Nounours to see him off. I fell apart.

No one but Callaghan and I can know what we all went through in the making of this heart-wrenching decision. No one can possibly know or understand the complexity of the situation, the extent of it or the history behind it. There’s much more to our story, and it’s too much to recount here.

All anyone can know and trust is that we did as advised to complete Nounours, and that it was tremendously hard, and that we did it with tremendous love.

We requested to have Nounours addressed by others as “Noon” because it’s less confusing and easier to pronounce. He can answer to it. We didn’t want the sight of his name to stymie visitors. But that’s neither here nor there. We were told that with his outgoing personality, Nounours will be adopted, no problem. Socially outgoing cats attract would-be cat parents much more readily than skittish cats who are fearful of humans. Nounours is a lover-boy who adores everybody, and he’s afraid of no one. These traits make him very adoptable.

We’ve also been assured that the adoption placement program’s protocols include the screening of potential cat parents. Nounours will start his new life in a healthy and stable environment; he will not be given indiscriminately to just anyone.

We will be notified when he’s adopted.

Finally, we’re comforted to know that Nounours’ new life will save someone else’s. Nounours is truly magical. His love and purrs have powerful healing properties. Some lucky person or people will hug him and kiss him and snuggle him and bury their face in his fur and come to know that power, and they will have it in their lives to cherish and be grateful for, as we were grateful. As we’ll always be grateful.

 

Nounours-Noon.

Nounours-Noon.

 

Garage gym updates and Tae Kwan Do techniques!

Coming back around to the promised garage gym update! Since our initial setting-up in January last year, we’ve made a few additions to the garage to further its transition into a small but functional training space. We also cleared out the relics that came with the garage when we bought the house – old cans of paint and such.

Now we’ve got the basics: 63 square feet of mat flooring (we added a couple of rows of rubber tiles to enlarge the floor), a standing punching bag, an MMA dummy on the floor, a mirror (thanks to Craigslist), a few sets of dumbbells, and speakers (for blasting dub-step, rap, and metal during boxing and Muay Thai training, of course). It’s a great space for the two of us, but as many as four people could train in there at once. Maybe five. Maybe six, depending on what we do. It’s small, but it works.

The South Korean flag still hangs in the corner. When I go in to practice Tae Kwan Do, I’m entering a do-jang  (the Korean equivalent of the Japanese dojo). There’s no music during a Tae Kwan Do session. Because of the quiet and the concentration required, I find that it’s akin to a moving meditation practice. I feel at peace. Perhaps more than anything, the flag carries sentimental value, as my Tae Kwan Do master handed it down to me before he moved out of state years ago.

Another thing – unrelated, but useful – is that I upgraded my phone last week, so now I’m equipped with a camera that’s much better than my old one!

(I’ll be honest… I only upgraded my phone to get a new camera. I was content with the phone, itself, but I wanted to take better pictures, and I didn’t want to invest in an actual camera. I was eligible for a phone upgrade, anyway, so it worked out well.)

So, with this new phone camera, thinking of how I could show what the space can accommodate, I decided to record myself doing a Tae Kwan Do form (hyung in Korean; kata in Japanese – this is TKD, so it’s hyung). I recorded the video on Sunday afternoon and used “pause” and “the snippy tool” to get the slew of Tae Kwan Do technique selfies posted here.

But first, observe the quality difference between my old and new cameras!

Old camera (Samsung Galaxy S4):

 

Home gym in the garage, one year later.

Home gym in the garage, one year later.

 

New camera (Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge):

 

Walking up to start...

Walking up to start…

 

I clipped this shot out of the video, so I’m blurry in movement, but notice the colors! The lighting in the garage was exactly the same in both images, and as per usual, there were no digital shenanigans involved to alter the pics. I’m in love with this camera. The phone part is pretty great, too, and yes, I’m totally raving about a Korean phone in a post about Korean karate. Coincidence.

Without further rambling about cameras and phones, here are a few of the Tae Kwan Do blocks and attacks I clipped from the recorded video:

 

Horizontal front chest block

Horizontal front chest block

 

Double-fisted groin block

Double-fisted groin block

 

Stomp attack with downward block (prep)

Stomp attack with downward block (prep)

 

Back fist (prep)

Back fist (prep)

 

(My striking fist did originate from further inside, but it looks awkward at this second of transition… )

 

Jump attack (prep)

Jump attack (prep)

 

Jump attack

Jump attack

 

Block to sides

Block to sides

 

Left hand groin attack (pull at the end of the technique)

Left hand groin attack (pull at the end of the technique)

 

Finished.

Finished.

 

Note that my feet are slightly too far apart in that finish.  I saw ALL of my mistakes while watching the video and pausing on the techniques, which makes the recording a valuable practice I should continue. You may see more training pics here in the future.  Just a head’s-up.

 

(walking back to stop the recording, haha)

(walking back to stop the recording, haha)

 

Anyway, our garage gym figures beautifully into my New Year’s resolution to get stronger. We’re going to add three or four sets of dumbbells to our little collection, so we’ll be able to get in some effective full-body workouts. Gotta love Play It Again Sports! We’re also going to add what we need to keep the space tolerable during the hot months.

Ronnie James’ paw print, healed (and while I’m at it, here’s a look at some of my other tattoos).

One month ago last night, my heart disintegrated. It shattered into the ether, and the fragments fell and settled into an urn, the dust of my heart together with Ronnie James’ ashes. Well, Ronnie James is my heart. They are the same, and they are in a little box, and I still haven’t figured out how to navigate myself from here.

Our three hearts are broken… mine, Callaghan’s, Nounours’. I took a picture of Nounours last night at exactly the time of his brother’s death:

 

Nounours with Ronnie James, one month later.

Nounours with Ronnie James, one month later.

 

It’s like that urn is alive with Ronnie James’ pulse. We all feel him; his spirit and love are so strong.

Meanwhile, my tattoo of Ronnie James’ paw print has healed. I thought it was beautiful before, but now I can see that it’s an exquisite work of art. It’s smudgy and unevenly pigmented, looking, in other words, perfectly real – like Ronnie James left it there, himself. I’ll always be able to see the paw print of my (precious-angel-baby-bunny-dragon) Ronnie James, my petit Wrah-Wrah, my son who could never get enough cuddles or kisses.

 

My new tattoo has healed and transformed into an incredibly realistic imprint of Ronnie James' paw.

My new tattoo has healed and transformed into an incredibly realistic imprint of Ronnie James’ paw.

 

I’ve never loved a tattoo more, and that’s saying a lot, because I have a lot of tattoos that I love. My collection of tattoos spans three decades; I had my first one done on my 18th birthday in 1987 (it was before tattoos went mainstream, a “bad girl” thing to do at the time, but I didn’t care what anyone thought), and this last one was done three weeks ago. 90% of my ink is on my back, though, where my eyes can’t reach. Every once in a while, I stand at an angle in the bathroom and admire what I can see in the mirrors.

I’ll show them to you, while I’m on the subject. I took the ones of my arm – may I just remark how awkward it is to take a selfie of one’s arm? – and Callaghan took the pics of my back. All of the pictures were taken yesterday, and they’re just of my arm and back. (Not pictured: pelvis tattoo, anklet tattoo.)

 

While the wind blew! Here's a string of outlined hearts spiraling up my left upper arm. Callaghan drew them, and then I had them inked over by the tattooist.

While the wind blew! Here’s a string of outlined hearts spiraling up my left upper arm. Callaghan drew them, and then I had them inked over by the tattooist.

 

The inside of my lower left arm... and now you know one of my favorite numbers.

The inside of my lower left arm… and now you know one of my favorite numbers.

 

I took those at lunch. We did the rest when I got home from work. This selfie was the last picture I took as the sun was setting (the window is behind me):

 

I took this by fading daylight in my home office. As usual, I did nothing to the picture... the alignment of the string of lights on my hair was a total fluke that I discovered after the fact.

I took this by fading daylight in my home office. As usual, I did nothing to the picture… the alignment of the string of lights on my hair was a total fluke that I discovered after the fact.

 

And here are the back tattoo pics Callaghan took before that (I put on my very lowest-rise jeans for this, since the tiger at the bottom goes quite low):

 

It looks like a single piece, but I added to the work over time, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010.

It looks like a single piece, but I added to the work over time, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010.

 

My poor mother strongly disapproves of all of this ink. Close your eyes, Mom!

 

Here's a clearer view. The Sanskrit script at the base of my neck reads, "om mani padme hum," my favorite Buddhist mantra.

Here’s a clearer view. The Sanskrit script at the base of my neck reads, “om mani padme hum,” my favorite Buddhist mantra.

 

The dragon was my second tattoo (1988), and the first one to be done on my back. It was touched up by a different tattooist in 2010.

The dragon was my second tattoo (1988), and the first one to be done on my back. It was touched up by a different tattooist in 2010.

 

A talented friend designed my horse, which represents freedom and fortitude to me. I wanted the horse to be facing forward while looking back.

A talented friend designed my horse, which represents freedom and fortitude to me. I wanted the horse to be facing forward while looking back.

 

I’m kind of fascinated by how my phone’s camera managed to pick up little beads of sweat on my spine!

Happy Friday, All.

Phenomenon: Nounours with his beloved Wrah-Wrah.

(First things first for you English-speakers:  Nounours is our other cat, as many of you already know, and his name is pronounced “Noo-NOO’orse.” I’m afraid that’s the closest approximation I’m going to achieve in writing. The second two parts – the vowels – flow together quickly, pronounced as one syllable. “Nounours” is French for “teddy bear.”)

In the wake of Ronnie James’ departure, Nounours has been grieving along with us this past week. We feel badly for him. We’ve been trying to console him, giving him as much love as he can handle. He and the Wrah-Wrah were extremely close. They were attached close.

 

Two proverbial peas in a pod, Ronnie James and Nounours.

Two proverbial peas in a pod, Ronnie James and Nounours.

 

Nounours holding Ronnie James' hand. Now, we believe that Nounours knew things we didn't know.

Nounours holding Ronnie James’ hand.
Now, we believe that Nounours knew things we didn’t know.

 

Nounours took such good care of his  brother.

Nounours took such good care of his brother.

 

Nounours always nurtured Ronnie James.

Nounours always nurtured Ronnie James.

 

Easy-going Nounours is a big goofball, and a lovable goofball he is, too. We often affectionately joke that he isn’t “the sharpest blade in the drawer,” but there are different types of intelligence. Nounours’ intelligence, it turns out, is other-worldly.

For instance, Nounours is the lone feline in the house now, but he doesn’t lie by the front door anymore, as he was wont to do when Ronnie James was away in the hospital. (That, in itself, was indicative of Nounours’ sixth sense. He otherwise never planted himself by the front door.) The reason? He knows that this time, Ronnie James isn’t coming home. He knows that his brother will never come through that door again. Nounours was with us when Ronnie James died. He was there and he witnessed the whole thing, and then he approached and sniffed the Wrah-Wrah’s lifeless little body. He understood. He knew.

However….

Two days after Ronnie James’ death, his cremains came through the door. His ashes came home to us in an urn – a small, locked box – last Saturday afternoon, hand-delivered.

 

A little padlock hangs  beneath the heart name-tag, and there are two keys for it taped to the underside of the urn.

A little padlock hangs beneath the heart name-tag, and there are two keys for it taped to the underside of the urn.

 

And somehow, Nounours understands this, too, at what seems to be a very deep level.

There’s a large, flat cushion lying in the inner corner of our sectional couch, a relic from the love-seat we had when we were living in Austin. We brought the love-seat with us from Texas to our apartment when we moved back to Arizona, then donated it when we moved into this house and got a new couch. We kept this one cushion, though, along with the matching ottoman. The two pieces add a touch of muted color to the beige-on-beige thing we’ve got going on in our living room.

In the last weeks of his life, Ronnie James loved to rest on the cushion when I was sitting next to it… and only when I was sitting next to it. It started because he would sit near me along the top of the backrest couch cushions. One day, when he was up there by my right shoulder, I set this oddball cushion down in the corner. He came down and arranged himself on it immediately. He wanted to be near me at all times, if not actually touching me or lying on me.

The cushion became Ronnie James’ special spot when I would sit on this section of the couch, and it’s still there today.

 

Stretching out on the cushion and touching me with his head and hands. He loved to be in physical contact with me, and he never touched me more than he did in those last three days of his life.

Stretching out on the cushion and touching me with his head and hands. He loved to be in physical contact with me, and he never touched me more than he did in those last three days of his life.

 

Nounours, on the other hand, never paid attention to the cushion. Its purpose was always decorative, so no one ever sat on it but Ronnie James once I set it down in that spot a few weeks ago.

 

Ronnie James sleeping next to me on his cushion on May 14 - his last day in this world.

Ronnie James sleeping next to me on his cushion on May 14 – his last day in this world.

 

We were steeped in grief when Ronnie James’ urn came home on Saturday, but we were grateful to have it so soon. It’d been less than 48 hours since his death. We received the urn and then left to attend a friend’s evening wedding – a welcome distraction, focusing on someone else’s happy occasion! When we got home, we sat next to each other on the couch. I was in tears again. Ronnie James’ cushion was terribly vacant next to me. Without really thinking, I set his little urn and his collar on it.

Then Nounours came out from the bedroom and went directly to the corner of the couch.

Nounours appeared when I set the Wrah-Wrah’s urn and collar on the cushion, and we couldn’t believe what happened next.

Nounours, who isn’t a cat who does things deliberately, like Ronnie James did (they were opposites… actually, Ronnie James was like me, whereas Nounours is like Callaghan), walked straight to the corner of the couch and jumped up to Ronnie James’ cushion. He found his brother’s collar. He found his brother’s urn. We’ve never seen him so curious, interested in or focused on anything.

 

First, Nounours discovered the Wrah-Wrah's collar. He pulled it close to him before turning his attention to the urn.

First, Nounours discovered the Wrah-Wrah’s collar. He pulled it close to him before turning his attention to the urn.

 

We couldn’t believe it.

 

Watching this, our hearts broke all over again.

Watching this, our hearts broke all over again.

 

Rubbing his face on the urn...

Rubbing his face on the urn…

 

Flipping it over...

Flipping it over…

 

He seemed to be confused and almost frantic trying to get the box open.

He seemed to be confused and almost frantic trying to get the box open.

 

Callaghan and I were floored, to say the least.

 

It looks like Nounours is reading the label on the bottom of the urn. It's printed with the Wrah-Wrah's name and the date of his cremation.

It looks like Nounours is reading the label on the bottom of the urn. It’s printed with the Wrah-Wrah’s name and the date of his cremation.

 

After pawing at Ronnie James’ urn, hugging it, rubbing his face on it, turning it around and flipping it over twice, he pushed and nosed it into the corner of the couch and rested his face against it. He seemed sad at first, but then he started to purr.

 

Resting his head on the Wrah-Wrah's urn, purring.

Resting his head on the Wrah-Wrah’s urn, purring.

 

Callaghan and I were dumbfounded by this astonishing and obvious display of recognition. Nounours somehow knew that his brother had something to do with the urn. I picked my jaw up from the floor as I reached for my phone to catch a few seconds of Nounours purring with his brother’s ashes.

Apologies for the bad quality of this video… I don’t have the equipment or the experience to make good videos… but here it is, nonetheless:

 

 

Last night, I captured a second recording of Nounours snuggling with his brother’s cremains. He does it every day, no matter where we’ve placed the urn. In this video, they’re on the futon in my office.  (Please excuse not only the bad filming, again, but also the airplane noise cameo at the end! We’re in downtown Tempe, near the Sky Harbor flight paths.)

Also, it just so happens that Ronnie James died one week ago in this exact spot.

 

 

We’ll often find Nounours sitting or lying with the Wrah-Wrah’s urn, hugging it or just touching it. Or, we’ll find him curled up with his brother’s collar, or actually holding the collar in his paw.

He misses his Wrah-Wrah so much.

A second phenomenon is that Nounours has taken on some of Ronnie James’ traits since Ronnie James died, including cleaning himself more, talking more, giving us eye-blink kisses the way the Wrah-Wrah did, walking near us to brush our lower legs with some part of his body, and occupying spaces and places in the house that Ronnie James used to occupy.

 

Poor Nounours.

Poor Nounours.

 

He looks so sad.

He looks so sad.

 

Sometimes, we find Nounours lying on or next to the cushion, arm outstretched, paw resting on his brother's urn.

Sometimes, we find Nounours lying on or next to the cushion, arm outstretched, paw resting on his brother’s urn.

 

And sometimes, we find Nounours just sitting protectively over his brother, like he used to.

And sometimes, we find Nounours just sitting protectively over his brother, like he used to.

 

It’s not just the cushion, either. Nounours will find and snuggle up to Ronnie James’ urn and collar no matter where they are.

 

When I placed the Wrah-Wrah's urn and collar at the foot of the bed, Nounours went to them. We found him like this, holding the Wrah-Wrah's collar close to him.

When I placed the Wrah-Wrah’s urn and collar at the foot of the bed, Nounours went to them. We found him like this, holding the Wrah-Wrah’s collar close to him.

 

This is the last picture taken of Ronnie James and Nounours together:

 

Ronnie James absolutely adored his Nounours. This picture was taken the day he died.  It was the last time Nounours got to nurture his brother.

Ronnie James adored his Nounours. This picture was taken the day he died. It was the last time Nounours got to nurture his brother.

 

Last night marked one week since Ronnie James’ death.

Nature Walk at Dusk

Yesterday was hella hard, guys. It was just one of those days, like we all have from time to time.

My work day ended at five, as usual, and Callaghan gamely came to get me, as usual. We had to run some errands at Tempe Marketplace, so we went there and did that. Then we were almost home when I suddenly felt the need to feel the earth under my shoes… I mean, the actual earth, as opposed to pavement. I wanted to feel and hear the gritty crunch of desert as I walked. Callaghan is always up for my whims – spontaneity is a part of his DNA – so we swung a right on the Mill Avenue bridge and went over to Papago Park, because why not? It was right there, five minutes from home, and it was dusk, the ideal time for a little nature walk. It was around 6:30pm.

The second I stepped off the pavement and onto the desert ground, the aroma of creosote seeped into my senses, even though it hadn’t been raining, or wasn’t about to, and I was exactly where I needed to be. The sunset progressed as we made the gradual ascent toward the red rocks, picking our way over fragments of jumping cholla. When we were almost there, we paused to look out west.

 

Dusk over the Phoenix skyline (Papago Park, Tempe, 2/19/2015)

Dusk over the Phoenix skyline (Papago Park, Tempe, 2/19/2015)

 

We stepped aside as a couple of guys toiled past us on their mountain bikes. Higher up, we could hear the quiet voices of others who likely had the same idea… tough day, long day, the desert calls, the desert heals.

When Callaghan turned around again, he found me sitting on the ground. I’d planted myself on other the side of the trail, and I did not want to get up.

 

Hi. I'm not about to get up.

Hi. I’m not about to get up.

 

No, REALLY! I'm staying right here.

No, REALLY! I’m staying right here.

 

But I was thinking about how I’ve lived in Arizona longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere… about how I moved here with almost no possessions after my military service, and how I built up my life here over two decades. I was thinking about how I left for two and a half years and then one day woke up with every atom of my being aching to be in this desert again. I was thinking about a poet teacher I knew who’d moved to Arizona after his parents died in a plane crash. He said, “I came to the Southwest in ruin. Both real and metaphorical deserts have helped me recover my life.” That’s a part of the magic of living here… you can come to Arizona in ruins, with nothing, and you’ll find yourself gathering the desert’s power and rising up from the ashes of your former life, just like our city’s legendary namesake. Phoenix.

I know I’ve said all this before, but I think it even more than I say it. I think these thoughts often, and I’m so grateful.

I had to get up eventually, of course. We headed back, and I felt blessedly centered and calm. Walking in nature is my favorite way to soothe frayed nerves, even if it’s just down the street from home.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I’m SO glad it’s Friday! Happy Friday, everyone. =)

The Darkest Hour, Part 2

I’ve been wanting to continue on the theme of my Darkest Hour post, and I have to confess that I didn’t give it as much thought as I would have liked – but even as I finish writing this, sitting here on my lunch hour at work, I realize that it’s useless to try to compact the mysteries of nebulous life problems away into neat little lines of text. So this is just me, not being a psychologist or a counselor of any kind – there’s my disclaimer! – rambling a little about life and crises and regret and goals and action.

Mainly what I want to say is, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.

You know how when you stare at something really hard, your vision blurs until the thing becomes obscured? Or how, after searching frantically for something, you give up, only to later realize that it was sitting out in plain sight all along… it was right there, but you couldn’t find it? The answers to the biggest questions in life are often like that, I think. They’re maddeningly invisible in their obviousness.

In fact, it seems that quite often, issues arise the more we try to see, look for, search for or find things. When using variations on the sense of vision doesn’t help us to figure things out, it might be time to change strategy.

Furthermore, when searching for “what I want,” that (whatever it is) often turns out to be a mythical beast, and why waste time and energy chasing something that may not even exist? Our hearts’ desires are often illusory in the sense that sometimes, we think we know what we want, but when we get it, we realize that we want something different!

For me, the more worthwhile challenge is to open my mind to knowing what I want – more in a process of discovery, rather than a searching for. If I (at least) believe that I know what I want, I can take steps toward getting it. I can set goals and strive to make things happen. Motivated by the ambition to reach my goals, I’m exempt from the struggle to find the answer to ultimately meaningless questions like “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and the tedious preoccupation with “finding myself” that I’ve seen bog people down until they’re lost in the confusion they’ve made of their existences. I try not to overthink my life and myself.

And as much as I like to joke about it, I don’t think I actually believe in the concepts of “mid-life crisis” or “identity crisis” or “existential crisis.” There’s just crisis, and the practice of labeling it and applying definitions to it only gives us more tools of procrastination we don’t need.

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-merriam-webster-crisis

 

A difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.

Of course we all experience crisis, but everything can’t be a crisis. Just because we’re dissatisfied doesn’t mean that we’re “in a crisis.” There are degrees of difficulty and danger, for sure, and it’s always good to be aware (stay alert to stay alive!), but funneling our energies into taking the situation apart from the inside out usually doesn’t lead to anything but mental and emotional fatigue and frustration. We end up building apathy into the self-defeating cycle we’ve created, and that’s where we get stuck.

It’s blissfully liberating to realize that we can use that same energy to fuel our own productivity… and on our own terms.

It’s worth endeavoring to become a creator and collector of goals, both long-term and short-term. It’s worth trying to become a dedicated collector and keep those goals in sight, lined up all nice and neat.

Success, victory and triumph are personal, even intimate degrees of measure we construct for ourselves. It’s not just the day you win at a competitive event wherein everyone can witness your badassery. It’s more meaningful the day you can say, “Hey! I’ve finally stopped making that one mistake.” It doesn’t matter if you had to make that mistake five or ten or a hundred times before that. The growth still happened. You developed as a person. YOU did that for yourself, and in doing that, you gained freedom from old restraints.

Regardless of where I am at any given moment, as long as I can look back at my own life and note progress happening somewhere, in some realm of my being and existence, I feel successful.

And what of regret? I want to address this briefly, too, because it’s another thing that can drag us down.

Regret doesn’t have to be a spirit-crushing specter overshadowing our lives. Aside from the inevitable random moments of thoughtlessness in which we speak or behave carelessly (if we’re human, there’s no avoiding these moments – all we can do is learn how to handle our blunders with grace), there are difficult times during which we’re likely operating in “survival” mode, meaning that our thinking is foggy, or we aren’t thinking, at all. We’re distracted and worn-down by an onslaught of challenges that causes us to see everything as a threat. We’re propelled to action, and sometimes, in the urgency of the situation, we misdirect that action, making decisions we might later wish we hadn’t. We can make bad judgment calls regardless of the goodness of our intent. It just happens sometimes.

But it’s easy – too easy – to look back on these moments years later and feel regret, guilt or shame when we’re no longer under duress. Berating ourselves from that detached standpoint isn’t fair to our past or current selves. We can wallow in regret, or we can grow from our experiences by taking away lessons offered through them.

Regret is something we can manage by recognizing any mistakes that may have caused it and accepting that we made them, with gracious allowance for the external factors that comprise “circumstances.” Then we can gather our hard-won nuggets of wisdom and relish the satisfaction of a more mindful moving-forward. We can proceed with a purposeful energy infused with something akin to defiance and rebelliousness, that revitalizing energy that allows you to be the surfer standing on two feet at the crest of the wave not only with determination, but with joy, as well. We can commit acts of joyful courageousness on our quest to attain our goals. There’s a sense of liberation there, and the view is stunning. 

This brings me to the subject of balance, but I’ll save that for another day.

I saw American Sniper. Here are my thoughts.

Somewhere around October-November, we found out about the upcoming film American Sniper. It was set to open on Christmas day. We were looking forward to it, and I liked the idea that two years in a row, the newly released movie we’d see on my December 27 birthday would feature Bradley Cooper.

As it turned out, the movie’s release date got pushed into January, so we didn’t get to see American Sniper on my birthday. Interestingly, though, the holiday movie we did go to see on December 27, Big Eyes, also featured an actor from last year’s birthday movie: Amy Adams! We saw American Hustle (Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper) on my birthday in 2013, and Big Eyes (Amy Adams) on my birthday in 2014.

I like Bradley Cooper. It’s not a crush. I’m not obsessed with him, and I don’t race to the theatre just because he’s in a movie, but I am a fan. I’ve never seen him flounder in a role, and I’ve never seen a film of his I didn’t enjoy or appreciate in some way. Bradley Cooper in a movie usually means that I’m going to like the movie, and this is also true about Amy Adams and a few other actors (Jake Gyllanhaal comes immediately to mind); Callaghan and I are almost always on the same page, which is good. It’s more fun spending money on movie tickets if we strongly suspect that we’ll really like the movie.

So we saw Big Eyes on my birthday, and we enjoyed it, and we continued to anticipate the release of American Sniper. When the day arrived, we went to the theatre with our favorite action-flick movie-watching partner-in-crime, Jason, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. Somehow, I had the idea that the film was about a veteran who was using his lethal military skills for some grand operation in the civilian sector. I didn’t know that I was walking into a war movie. Neither did I know that the story was based on an autobiography/events that happened in the life of a real person.

And I’m glad. I’m glad that I didn’t know it was a war movie, because I generally avoid war movies. Had I known, I would have dropped American Sniper off my to-watch list, and I would have missed out on an incredible movie.

Yes, I know. I’m a Buddhist and a mostly-vegan vegetarian and I’m all about peace and compassion, but I highly appreciated American Sniper. This might seem incongruous, but it’s really not. For one thing, just on the artistic level, I thought it was a brilliant, finely-wrought film. I thought Bradley Cooper gave a tremendous, nuanced performance. I thought Clint Eastwood’s handling of the project was masterful.

Where can I even begin to try to explain my appreciation beyond that?

I guess I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not motivated by politics when it comes to art. I’m a registered Independent, anyway… my political views do tend to lean in a certain direction (if you know me well, you know what direction that is), but there’s a reason why I won’t join a particular party. Also, I generally stay away from the subject of politics on social media sites. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend to talk politics here today or any day. I get that it’s hard to avoid politics where this film is concerned, but I’m going to try to avoid the damn politics.

Then I should point out that I’m a combat veteran. I spent six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield, Storm and Sabre, from the beginning of December 1990 to almost the end of May 1991. The ground war in January took all of two days, and the whole thing was rather anti-climactic after the airstrikes, but somehow I managed to get embroiled in the only real action American foot soldiers saw pushing through Iraq. I ran Commo (wire, radios) in a segment of a ground ambulance unit, and our convoy was comprised of mostly medics from my Garrison unit in Germany, along with some infantrymen, American National Guardsmen and women, and a few British soldiers. We were ambushed, and it was intense, and I brought that personal history with me going into the movie theatre to see American Sniper, not knowing, as I’d said, that it was going to be a war movie.

Now, about that Buddhist thing, since I know that it’s confusing to many people. I’ve been Buddhist all of my life, and I’ve been a martial/fighting artist for more than half of my life, and no, contrary to the popular opinion of our times, this does not create a contradiction. Buddhism and the fighting arts are not mutually exclusive. If you can understand this, then my admiration of American Sniper shouldn’t seem contradictory, either.

Rather than going into a tedious academic tangent on the principles of eastern philosophy, including the meaning of the yin-yang symbol, I’m asking that you hang with me for a minute here!

Buddhist monks in the Shaolin temple of ancient China were resourceful and inventive. They developed seitan, a popular protein-rich meat substitute made of wheat gluten, so they could avoid eating animals. They also developed Shaolin Kung Fu, a martial art that enabled them to kill with their bare hands and laid the groundwork for basically all eastern martial arts thereafter. What’s more, the full spectrum of the Shaolin martial arts system includes fighting with weapons. The “Buddhist warrior” is actually a thing, and it always has been. I’m not saying that ALL Buddhists are warriors. I’m just saying that warriors in the ranks of Buddhists have existed for ages, at least as long as there have been temples to protect. Long before Bruce Lee, there were the Shaolin Buddhist soldier monks.

Hard to believe that there’s a history of martial arts bad-assery in Buddhism, right?

Enough about me and my background. Returning to American Sniper, I want to talk about the “problem” of the veracity of (every detail of) Chris Kyle’s story. He apparently made some claims in his book that aren’t true. In my opinion, just from my perspective as a literature major, this is normal. Biography/autobiography/memoir/creative non-fiction and, loosely, historical fiction all rely on facts and factual events for the backbone of the stories within, but there’s usually good reason and/or artistic justification for alteration or invention in some places, and authors take this kind of creative liberty all the time.

Take, for example, a staple of children’s literature well-known and loved by most Americans. The Nellie Olson character in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books didn’t actually exist… she was an amalgamation of two real-life figures from her childhood. Because Laura Ingalls Wilder also altered the chronology of her family’s travels (reportedly for the sake of simplicity), she took two classmates from two of her schools in two different geographical locations and blended them together to create the one insufferable character we know as “Nellie Olson.” (The real Nellie Olson was one of the two classmates Laura Ingalls Wilder used to create the fictitious one.)

This is a well-documented fact, and yet I’ve never heard anyone say that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are meaningless because she “made up” the character or “lied” about the trajectory of her family’s pioneering path, nor have I heard of anyone calling her out on any of the other half-truths, embellishments or omissions that resulted for artistic purposes. I never heard anyone say that because of all this, Laura Ingalls Wilder is not to be trusted or believed, and that the attention paid to her stories is undeserved. I never heard anyone say that the worth of other art based on the books she co-wrote about her life – namely, the world-famous Little House on the Prairie television series – was invalidated by her “lies.” I never heard anyone complain that the T.V. show was “mendacious” because Laura Ingalls Wilder changed some things, omitted things, and flat-out made other stuff up.

We know that she did these things, but we still accept her work as autobiographical. That which wasn’t real didn’t cancel out all that was real. Her story is still her story, and Chris Kyle’s story is still Chris Kyle’s story, and just because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tone was demure and so many people dig stories about pioneer life more than they dig stories about soldiering life doesn’t mean that by majority opinion, we can have a double standard. If we’re going to call Chris Kyle a liar, then we’re going to have to call Laura Ingalls Wilder a liar for the exact same reasons, and we don’t want to do that, now, do we?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s think for a moment of how Laura Ingalls Wilder “glorified” and “romanticized” how her Pa decided to drag the family into Indian Territory and knowingly illegally squat on the Native Americans’ land, and how Laura Ingalls Wilder plainly recounted her parents’ racist attitudes and sentiments regarding the “savages” (sound familiar?) – have you ever heard anyone lambasting her for this dubious aspect of their “courageous” pioneer life? Neither have I. Needless to say, the storylines in the television series’ episodes conveniently omit any mention or reference to this part of the Ingalls’ “adventures.” Most everyone still loves the show.

But people are sure enjoying harping on Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper for “glorifying” and “romanticizing” the darker sides of Chris Kyle and his story.

Finally, I want to say that it’s interesting how the people shouting the loudest about how Chris Kyle was a lying psychopath (and no hero at all) are the ones who never spent a day in his or any other soldier’s boots. Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle. I didn’t know him before, during or after his service, nor am I a psychiatrist. For all I know, he could have been a psychopath or a sociopath or whatever other -path you want to call him… but I don’t care. I don’t care if Chris Kyle was the kind of guy who’d help an old lady cross the street, or the kind of guy who’d push an old lady off a cliff. Because what I do know is that combat military training and circumstances change you in ways that civilians can’t even begin to fathom. What you were before is rendered nearly irrelevant. Even emerging from regular old Army basic training (Chris Kyle underwent Navy S.E.A.L. training, which is much more intense), you’re different than you were before you went in.

In basic training, you’re broken down from the inside out, with the whole point being to re-build you into something you probably weren’t before you went in: a killing machine that can be set into action when the circumstances call for it. The mental and physical conditioning you undergo in order to serve in combat is complete. I’m talking about the average person here. Now imagine that instead of being an average person, you were already an expert shot accustomed to taking lives (as a hunter)… and imagine, too, that your military occupational specialty is killing.

Someone’s got to do it, guys. The military is an establishment in which there’s a need for many roles, just like in civilian society, and while all soldiers are required to be conditioned in the basics, everyone has to choose an occupational specialty. Some soldiers are cooks. Others are band musicians. Others work in supply. There are the tankers, the ammo soldiers, the administration office-working soldiers, the morgue soldiers and the medics and the mechanics and the military cops and the JAG (legal) corps and the signal corps, the soldiers responsible for ensuring communications in the field (what I did – my 31K occupational title was “Combat Signaler.”) And so on, and so forth… and then you have the soldiers whose specialty is killing. These are the infantry, the “grunts.”

Regardless of your occupational specialty, though, all soldiers function the same way in combat zones, and again, to reiterate, this is what basic training is for. When thrown into a combat situation, the conditioning deep inside you surfaces, enabling you to automatically act according to the situation, and I’m sorry, but combat situations don’t usually involve making butter, choosing fabric for dresses, or embroidering. Pa Ingalls is not going to bust out his fiddle at the end of the day and make everyone laugh merrily as they sing along to his folksy songs.

When I was 18, I went to basic training and came out different than I was before, because that is what basic training is designed to do. Not only are you different, but you’re also no longer your own person. You become government property, calibrated to respond and operate on a situational basis. The minute you raise your hand and take that oath, the Constitution you’re charged to protect no longer even applies to you. You opt out of those rights in order to protect them. It’s the Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for you!

A day or two before Christmas 1990, we were out there in the vast, cold and empty Saudi Arabian desert when we were told that Sadam Hussein had threatened an attack as a “Christmas present” for the Americans lying in wait, meaning, us. We went into high alert for an indefinite period of time. I remember my 22nd birthday very well. I spent the entire day in a foxhole in the biting cold, suited up in MOPP 4 (head to toe chemical protection gear) with a full bandolier of ammo strapped around my chest and my M-16 at the ready, and again, I came out different than I was before, because that’s what happens when you spend hours on end with every cell and nerve of your being waiting to either kill or get killed. Just being in that situation day after day changes you. Even if “nothing happens,” you can’t ever be the same again.

A few weeks later, the ground war started, and we switched gear from alert to action. We convoyed out of Saudi Arabia to follow the front line through Iraq, destination Kuwait. We were a ground ambulance convoy in our Cut-V’s and Hum-V’s, and we saw and dealt with everything you’d expect to encounter on a battlefield. Then we were ambushed. There were Iraqi snipers. There were detonating landmines. There were casualties. Afterward, there were smoke grenades and medevac helicopters. I’m not going to go into the details of what I did and saw, but you can bet that again, I was a different person by the end of it.

Now, take my modest little combat experience and quadruple it and give it another hefty boost for increased severity. Chris Kyle couldn’t possibly have ended up being the same person he’d been before any of his four tours of combat duty, whatever that may have been. He killed people, as we were all prepared to do, as Navy S.E.A.L.S. were expected to do, and I would venture to guess that he saved many more people than he killed. Whether I “agreed” with the Iraq War or not, I’m grateful to Chris Kyle for his service, and for the service of all men and women in uniform in all the branches of the Armed Forces, regardless of the conflict or the reason for it or behind it, or the duration or severity of it, or the number of times they deployed, or my opinion of it or your opinion of it or anyone’s opinion of it, or anything else.

I’d like to think that if I never lived the experience of being broken down and built back up to human war-machine specs, if I never set foot in a combat zone, if I never mentally prepared to suffer and die under chemical attack or by gunfire or other ordnance, if I never swallowed 12 mysterious pills a day “in case of chemical attack”… if I never lived a day of my life serving my country… I would recognize that I’m not in a position to judge Chris Kyle.

Like him or not, Chris Kyle was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who voluntarily raises their hand and swears away their own constitutional rights in order to protect yours is a hero, whatever else they may be, and whether they go to war or not. To try to posthumously shame Chris Kyle for being the lying asshole he maybe was is to miss the point of American Sniper. Deriding Eastwood and Cooper for taking part in “glorifying” anything is also an exercise in missing the point.

Aside from all of this, what’s really important here, of course, is that we found American Sniper to be a great piece of cinematic art in and of itself. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper did a damn fine job, along with everyone else who put their energies into the making of the film. I’m saying this, and I don’t even like war movies!

So, American Sniper? We recommend it. It’s not easy to watch, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it “enjoyable,” but it’s an amazing film.

On that (hopefully cheerier) note, Happy Friday, All!

(Here are some photos I took in the war):

 

The first Hum-V ambulances....

The first Hum-V ambulances….

 

Random tank in Iraq

Random tank in Iraq

 

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

 

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

 

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

 

Thanks for scanning them, Callaghan!

Long-Overdue Yoga Fix Ahead!

Since we’re still on Christmas break at my work, I’m seizing the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. My schedule is pretty well packed during normal life hours, so this is what’s happening this non-normal morning: I’m going to spend 90 minutes twisting my non-flexible self into the various poses prescribed by Bikram, I’m assuming, in a room designed to accommodate the activity (heated to a high enough degree to assist your body with said positions).

This will be my first yoga class in almost 10 years, and I’m looking forward to it. I have a brand-new yoga mat that I purchased last year with earnest intentions, but have yet to use. The day has arrived!

I’m pretty sure my body’s going to hate me within 24 hours of this Bikram yoga class, and it will probably start plotting its revenge faster than you can say “shavasana.” I’m expecting it, hence my plan to pick up some Epsom salts on my way home. I already have the essential oils I’m going to add to the hot bath I’ll take tonight. I just want to be able to give 100% in Body Combat class tomorrow morning, and being able to walk without soreness would help with that. I’m counting on this yoga class to make me feel muscles I’d forgotten I had. Bring it.

Although… here’s a little secret… in the past, I’ve powered through Body Combat class while in pain. I’ve literally hobbled through the parking lot thinking what the hell am I doing, then getting to class and forgetting all about it, feeling nothing but the awesomeness. The secret is adrenaline. Adrenaline is what drives me through Body Combat because mentally I flip into training mode, which my brain is hard-wired to link to my “fight or flight” response. This is the up-side of PTSD. It’s a great natural painkiller. (Yes, I know Body Combat is a cardio class, but as far as I’m concerned, if I’m kicking and throwing punches, I’m training… so I know I’ll be able to get through the class tomorrow, regardless.)

I’m still picking up Epsom salts for a hot bath later. My muscles, tendons and ligaments will deserve it! Plus, I’ll enjoy it. Yeah. I don’t need an excuse!

10 years is a long time, though; I feel like I might as well have never done yoga at all. I remember that my first yoga class ever was at Arizona Combat Sports back in 2002… there was an advanced student there on the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu side who was also an advanced yoga practitioner and instructor. They added a Saturday morning yoga class to the schedule with him teaching it, so I figured I’d try it for a few sessions. I thought it balanced out my Muay Thai training well, so I was inspired to try yoga at other places. I enjoyed it, though I never felt like a “natural” in any yoga studio. For one thing, as I said, I’ve never been particularly flexible.

Random: My favorite long-term effect from yoga is my affection for Deva Premal, who sings Hindu and Buddhist chants so beautifully. It was only because of yoga that I discovered her.

Okay, I’m off to get ready for this yoga class… Happy Friday, All! =)

 

Kitties with their Christmas stocking stuffers! They do yoga every day.

Kitties with their Christmas stocking stuffers! They do yoga every day.

 

Thanksgiving.

T minus 24 hours to road trip to California!

I was thinking the other day that not having human kids means that I’ll never have to feel like the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving when my kid comes home from school brimming over with warm and fuzzy stories about the “history” of “the first Thanksgiving” and I find myself unable to keep from explaining the truth behind the myth. If schools could just limit Thanksgiving holiday festivities to cute finger turkey drawings, then fine, but somehow, I don’t see them omitting the fables of the “Pilgrims and the Indians” being BFFs on “the first Thanksgiving” anytime soon.

That bit of cynicism aside, one thing that’s remained true about Thanksgiving over time is its focus on expressing gratitude for a bountiful harvest, which has broadened to include giving thanks for everything that we have, including our good health and each other. This is the aspect of the holiday that appeals to me the most – its focus on family.

Thanksgiving is this week Thursday, and we’re going to be spending it with my family. When I lived in France, I missed the comfortable proximity to my family more on Thanksgiving than at any other time. You always hear people saying, we should give thanks and express gratitude for our families every day, not just on Thanksgiving, and I agree with this, but still… Thanksgiving.

And I’m feeling so grateful for my family… the family that chose me, the one that I’ve chosen and the one that I inherited just by being alive.

We all have family, even if we think we don’t. If your circumstances are such that your actual family members are absent in the world, if you feel isolated and friendless, as long as there are people in the world, you have family.

In Hawaii, you’ll find this concept expressed openly and naturally by the locals, as the family mentality is a part of the local culture. If you’re walking along the beach and a child is playing in your path, it’s likely that the adult sitting nearby will call to the child, with firm affection, “Come over here, Bobby… let Auntie pass.” And you’ll look over at the parent to find him smiling and nodding at you with respect. Auntie. Think of it! A total stranger will see you coming and say to his child, let Auntie pass. (Yes, this happened to me.)

You are family. We’re all family. Humankind is a human family, and I believe this to be true: When there’s injustice in the world, we have to remember that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we have to allow this to give us strength. Being united gives us strength. Our interconnectedness is an absolute, even in our moments of craving our solitude, even while counting our enemies. To me, Thanksgiving is a time to remember this and to feel our bond and connection with others. Being human also means that we can lose patience and hold grudges, but on Thanksgiving, I want to be mindful of our oneness and feel grateful for what that means. We walk the same earth and breathe the same air. We can help each other and commiserate and make each other laugh and offer comfort and support as easily as we can do harm.

 

Reflecting lights... candle flames on a dark morning.

Reflecting lights… candle flames on a dark morning.

 

Happy Thanksgiving week, All.

Musings in a Laundromat

It’s Thursday, 7:45pm, and I’m in the Laundromat, waiting. I just put two loads into two washers. Each will take 30 minutes. One is an industrial-size machine for heavy things like the large quilt I’d brought, and the other is the next largest size. I didn’t take the time to separate anything by color today… it’s all washing in cold water, anyway.

I don’t think this will be the last time I’m here. We’re getting a washer and dryer for the house, but I’ll likely continue to use public machines for things like the big, heavy quilt.

 

Our neighborhood Laundromat.

Our neighborhood Laundromat.

 

We’ve been doing our laundry in this public Laundromat for the last few months, since our apartment complex tore down their large one in order to re-build. It’s a spacious, staffed Laundromat, and it hasn’t been unpleasant. Laundry isn’t a chore that I dislike in the first place, but also, it turns out that the business of doing laundry in a Laundromat appeals to me on several levels.

I find the layers of white noise in the Laundromat to be soothing. There’s the murmur of the T.V. in the corner, swishing water and turning dryers, clothes spinning and tumbling, the faint clanging of metal on metal and the opening and closing of machine doors. There’s the casino-like sound of change machines and vending machines, video games, traffic on the street outside, the air conditioner and ceiling fans. There’s the sound of random human interaction like people talking to each other and on the phone, phones ringing, children playing and babies making their baby sounds. There are people singing and laughing. Altogether, the sounds in the Laundromat create a unique and comforting acoustic mosaic.

At this very moment, a Mom and her young daughter – the daughter looks to be 10-11 years old – are folding clothes together and singing “These Boots are Made for Walking,” and I can’t stop smiling. They’ve created a bubble around themselves with music, bonding happily and lovingly over a common chore. They’re enjoying themselves, and that joy is infectious.

In the company of strangers doing their laundry, I’m filled with a sense of connectedness. We’re people brought under this roof by the basic need to clean our clothing, bedding, towels, etc. This is a place of purpose: we’re here to ensure our personal comfort and health, and I know that every person in the room is going to leave this place feeling a sense of accomplishment. There’s something fantastically special about knowing this.

The Laundromat draws in all walks of life, yet the space emphasizes our sameness, and I love that. There’s no rich or poor here. The need to do laundry is a great common denominator, and there’s an unexpected intimacy in doing laundry with strangers. When we come to the Laundromat on a Saturday or Sunday, especially, I often see many people wearing clothing that has obviously been designated for Laundry Day. It’s like we’re all in a big house, padding around in our jammies. It makes for a pleasant non-interactive interaction with folks. Somehow, I feel a profound sense of kinship with humanity in the public Laundromat, and that, in a world that can be so venomous, is a blessing.

I’ll close on that note, because my time is up.

Postscript: Happy Friday!

Here’s Ten Dollars; Keep the Karma.

Sometime in the nineties, I started noticing tip jars (often just plastic cups) sitting near the cash registers at certain casual restaurants… specifically, tip jars bearing cute little signs to the effect of, “Tip! It’s good for your karma.” I still see them around, and I always think to myself that if someone is going to use a religious concept as a charming way to get people to leave optional tips, why stop at eastern religions? One could just as easily frame it in western religious terms: “Tip! All your sins will be forgiven,” or “Tip! You’ll go to heaven.”

But I know the answer to that. Western religions aren’t hip and trendy in the western world the way eastern religions are, so the lure of “good karma,” it is. Moral causality. Throw money into the jar, and the act will work in your favor.

It’s a much more serious matter to talk about sin and heaven. Whether or not we Americans believe in karma, seeing the word “karma” on a tip jar isn’t going to pack the same psychological punch as the words “sin” and “heaven.” We’re largely a nation of people hard-wired to react strongly to those words in one way or another. The notion of karma just isn’t culturally ingrained in us in the same ways.

Where “karma” on a tip jar is cute, clever and cool, the words “sin” and “heaven” on the same jar would come across as preachy, flippant or even sacrilegious, and the effect would be adverse because of it. No matter how many ribbons and rainbows and flowers and smiley faces you put on it, a jar labeled with holier-than-thou signage isn’t going to work.

So, fine… it’s cool, cute, hip and trendy to decorate your tip jar with the word “karma.” Here are some examples I found online:

 

Karma: the new currency!

Karma: the new currency!

 

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

 

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

 

It’s light and fun and people dig it. I get that. I myself use the word “karma” lightly, every time I park somewhere and think, good parking karma! because I scored a prime parking spot. Here’s the thing, though. Here’s why “karma” on a tip jar bugs me. It’s one thing to remark and laugh about “parking karma,” but another thing entirely to use the word in an attempt to influence peoples’ actions.

Moreover, there’s this: I usually see the “karma jars” in trendy eateries where you order and pay for your food at the counter. Tips at these kinds of establishments are optional and gratuitous, since you’re not receiving table service. Tipping gratuitously at a counter in this case is simply giving.

Giving, in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism – to simplify, let’s just default to Buddhism, since that’s the trendiest of the eastern religions, and that’s the one I know the best – is dana, which is a Pali word that indicates “selfless” giving. I shall be helpful to others. To give selflessly means that you don’t want or expect anything in return. You give without thinking of what you might get back.

I grew up spending Sunday mornings sitting in a Jodo Shinshu church (Jodo Shinshu is a type of Japanese Pureland Buddhism on the Mahayana side) listening to dharma talks (sermons) and going to dharma class (Sunday school), and I’ve heard countless lectures on what it means to be selfless. From what I understand, putting a sign on a tip jar that says, “Tip! It’s good for your karma” is actually anti-Buddhist in nature. Dropping money into a jar thinking of what you’re going to get out of it later isn’t Buddhist. It’s the opposite of Buddhist. It’s selfish, not selfless, because you’re putting money into the jar thinking of yourself.

I just can’t see it as cute or cool or hip or whatever. All I can do when I see these “karma” tip jars is try to be a good Buddhist and have compassion, but it’s hard when I’m inwardly rolling my eyes and biting my tongue. I am not a good Buddhist.  I’m always trying, but I see where I need to tweak my meditation practice in an attempt to improve.

The proliferation of tip jars asking for money with the promise of something good in it for me has always irked me, as the general cultural appropriation of eastern religions by westerners has irked me (please note that I’m differentiating between earnest students and converts to eastern religions and those who just dig certain aspects of the religions to the point of, say, slapping a “karma” sign on a tip jar while not actually knowing what that means, much less studying and practicing said religion). Buddhism seen as a hip and trendy cultural thing just confounds me. I don’t know what to make of it, really.

I’m confounded by those tip jars.

I’m confounded when people think that being Buddhist means that you have to be a vegetarian. (Unless you’re a monk in certain temples, you can eat whatever you want.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks authoritatively of having a soul. (Buddhists don’t believe in the existence of souls.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks of sin. (Buddhists don’t believe in the concept of sin.)

Buddhist philosophy is difficult and complex, and I’m certainly no one to judge when Buddhist-curious people or admirers of Buddhism or actual converts display ignorance. I’ve been working toward the realization of a higher prajna (wisdom) my whole life, and I can tell you, it’s not easy. I have a stack of books, some of which I’ve had as long as I can remember, as they were passed down to me by my Grandmother, filled with my questions scribbled in the margins, post-its with more questions marking pages, hundreds of my questions that haven’t yet been answered. Karma is just one of many challenging concepts in eastern religions, so the sight of those tip jars with their blithe karma signs written by people who (probably) aren’t Buddhist acting like they care about the welfare of my karma so they can get money just annoys me if I see them when my patience levels are low. What do you know about karma? I want to ask on the days I’m cranky when I see the karma tip jars. Please enlighten me, because I was raised Buddhist, I am still Buddhist, I’ve been studying Buddhism/Buddhist philosophy/eastern religious philosophy all of my life, and I still don’t fully grasp the doctrine of karma.

 

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

 

The truth is, I probably have a decent grasp on eastern religious philosophy, but its complexity is such that some aspects of it seem to elude my understanding the more I study it, and at this point in my life, I just want to enjoy the feeling of serenity and peace I experience when I release my mind during my practice. So I don’t study it as much anymore. I just do my practice and try to live by Buddhist principles as best as I can. I try to “practice intention with detachment from outcome.” I try to practice mindfulness and gratitude, saying “thank you” freely and often, and really feeling it. And I try to be patient, but as you can see from this post, I still need a lot of work in that area. A part of this is that I tend to be impatient by nature (in some contexts).

This tip jar at one of my favorite local restaurants is a welcome breath of fresh air every time I see it:

 

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

 

I’m going to happily continue partaking of their somewhat luxurious fare every once in a while, because the Chop Shop Tempe guys are honest, and honest is what’s cute, cool and clever… plus, their raw vegetable salad with grilled tofu (which I order without cheese) is delicious and vegan and therefore good for my karma! (If you know me well, you know that I’m giggling as I write this.

Carry on.