Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Teachers' Day dinner

[Clearing out some backlog. I wrote this on October 14, 2010.]

The faculty all went out for the Teachers' Day dinner, at a charming little banquet hall. I sat with the same people I always sit with: Oscar, Ximena, Sara, Gladys, Pamela, Jorge, José.

We eventually developed an extremely heated discussion, mostly between Oscar and Jorge, about the Chilean educational system--universal agreement that it's broken, but there's lots to discuss about why, and how to fix it. After joining in for a while, I broke it up with a toast:
"I'd like to offer a toast: the thing that strikes me, is that you all care. This all matters to all of you, and that's what's important."
That started the toasts, including this gem:
Que nunca nos enamoremos; si enamoramos, que nunca se casemos; si nos casamos, que nunca nos engañemos; si nos engañamos, que no nos importa.

May we never fall in love; if we fall in love, may we never marry; if we marry, may we never cheat on each other; if we cheat, may we not care.
After another one, I said that I had an Irish (I think) toast, which of course I had to translate (into Chilean--other dialects won't use pololas):
A nuestras esposas y pololas: que nunca se conozcan.

To our wives and girlfriends: may they never meet.
They collapsed, laughing.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I've been reading a lot of nerd stuff for work, but...

Friday, August 26, 2011

emergency stepdad action

Anna got called away to help with a friend, so I left work early and retrieved J for the afternoon. I'm not sure where to start.

To begin with, he had a standard-issue meltdown--declaring that he's so sad he can't move, and flopping down on the ground--right when I got him from a friend's house. I think this was partly because Anna wasn't there, but he also (at least in that moment) misunderstood when the custody schedule was changing and thought he was going to Daddy's house today. He expressed that as an irredeemable sadness at Anna's betrayal, because after all, if he thought he was supposed to go to Daddy's house, that must have been what Mama told him, because otherwise he wouldn't be sad.

(Don't look so smug. We all do this, we're just less obviously ludicrous about it.)
"I'm so angry at Mama for this."
"It's not her fault. Her friend needed help."
"Then whose fault is it?"
"It's nobody's fault. Sometimes stuff just happens."
"It has to be somebody's fault."
"So I know who to blame...who to complain to, when something happens I don't like."
This went on for a while.
"I'd rather go anywhere than Mama's house, because a day at Mama's house is like a hundred days to me."
Since I asked, there was a discourse on the relative merits of Mama's and Daddy's houses. (Daddy's temper somehow never makes it into that analysis.)

I touched on the idea that his lashing out makes people feel bad, the same way he feels bad when one of the adults yells at him

For a while I wasn't letting him do drawing practice in return for Wii time, not being sure of the protocol...he got progressively more annoyed, and I'll grant that this was a violation of the usual contracts. (Recall that as an Aspie kid, J has only limited tolerance for an unannounced change in routine, and honestly this might have annoyed anybody.) I was getting sort of worn down by the noise.
"You're just the stepdaddy, so you don't overrule Mama."
I'm not proud. And hey, he's got the label down.

Everything went smoothly once I texted Anna and there was Wii time. He did his passive-aggressive thing around dinner choices:
"Now, Chris. There is a kind of pizza I like."
"Really? That's interesting."
"Yes, I like that kind--there are two kinds of pizza I like."
"Wow, maybe you'll have pizza someday."
"So I could have pizza for dinner sometime."
"I could have pizza for dinner tonight!"
"Nope, you're having macaroni and cheese."
(Food has become a bit of an issue recently. The kid eats 6 things, refuses to try anything else, and now complains about how bored he is with the 6 things he's willing to eat. He's also exploring being annoyed with having the same morning and evening routine every day, notwithstanding that one morning Anna did things out of order and J broke down in tears.)

I let him play around in the bath for a long time.
"Hey, kiddo. You've got about forty minutes until bed, and you can divide that between more bath time, or reading, however you want."
He starts doing his dramatic moaning-and-flopping.
"Um, what are you sad about?"
"I'm so sad because you're saying I have to get out of the bath and go to bed without reading, I'm so sad I don't think I can get up--"
I touched his hand to get his attention.
"Okay, if you listen to me, and ask me what's going on, you'll discover you have choices. In forty minutes, you have to be in bed with the lights off. If you get out and dry yourself off, you'll have about thirty-five minutes to read."
Back to smiling. "Oh! Okay!"
Bedtime was peaceful.
"I love you so much, Chris, that you get one hundred snuggles tomorrow, just for today."
I think I did okay.

Monday, August 22, 2011

a visit from angry Chris

I don't get full-on angry very much. You probably haven't seen it, at least not recently. I'll get annoyed, which is a form of anger, but the full monty doesn't happen much. You'll know it if you see it. I've speculated for some time that J was eventually going to do something that would evoke that response from me, and it finally happened.

A few weeks ago, I watched J for a few hours while Anna went and did something. The usual sequence goes like this:
  1. He starts to be kind of an ass about whatever.
  2. You say, "I'm getting frustrated, I need you to do this thing and I'm not sure how to get your cooperation."
  3. He makes his well-practiced but unconvincing moaning noises, says "Don't talk about that, it makes me sad," and collapses on the floor in a melodramatic floppy pile.
  4. You stuff him in his room, while he simultaneously giggles and gets angry at you.
He likes to push boundaries, and he opened the door a couple times, once to say, very rapidly, "ChrisI'mjustopeningthisdoorverybrieflytotellyouIhateyou" *SLAM*.

He opened the door again, and I went over to tell him to shut it, to discover he was pointing a pair of Nerf pistols at me.

I can be comfortable with toy guns aimed at me when we're having fun. Pointing weapon-shaped things at me in anger is not okay, and out came a voice I've been preparing for years but I don't think I've ever needed.

I used his full name and, for lack of a better word, bellowed. "YOU PUT THOSE THINGS DOWN RIGHT THIS MOMENT."

Stunned, he dropped the pistols and started bawling. I gathered him up and he curled into a very sad ball in my lap, as we explored why I reacted that way and how my getting angry was similar or different from his experience of other adults getting angry (his dad, uh, gets angry fairly often). (Biggest difference: most adults don't let the anger go immediately and give him a hug.) We got it settled, I think, though he needed reassurance that Anna wasn't going to leave me when she suddenly found out I can get angry.

Strange as it was to feel and use that anger, I think it turned out okay. I think if I had exerted myself, I could have avoided yelling at him; it felt like half a decision, as though I recognized I was getting angry and it was a lot easier to let it come out as yelling.

Last week, he was fiddling with my motorcycle helmet and dropped it, both of which we'd already gone through the process of communicating how it was off-limits, receiving explicit acknowledgement, etc. I growled, he did that fast and nervous "Sorry" thing that people do when they're used to being around (and afraid of) angry people. But I didn't yell at him. He yells a lot when he gets angry, and I hope he remembers that other responses to anger are possible.

It seems simple, to recognize that I'm angry, and to pause and choose a response instead of the first thing that comes to mind. You know how hard it is, though: we've all looked back on times when anger seemed to take us over, and we're left saying things we regret. This is why we practice, whether it's Zen or aikido or something else. It's not about becoming some unreachable ideal of perfect calm. It's about caring for relationships. We're in relationship with others, with ourselves, with people starving in Somalia, with stars on the other side of the visible universe. Everything that is, exists in complete interdependence on everything else: everything comes into being together, everything passes away together.

Taking care of our relationships is taking care of other people, taking care of ourselves, taking care of the whole world. That's why we practice.

every which way at once

I'm occasionally not sleeping so much, either waking up at 2 AM, or, like now, taking some hours to fall asleep.

Like Anna, I've been feeling a bit adrift these past few months. I have a challenging job with very few reference points or feedback for gauging my effectiveness. I live with a woman and child, which is, to put it mildly, new. In theory I'm sewing for monk ordination and studying for the GREs, though mostly I do neither. I'm running regularly again (my resting heart rate appears to be about 50), but I'm struggling to participate in my aikido dojo and my Zen sangha. We had dinner with another couple last night, and I realized that it's been a long time since I've made new friends; Anna correctly points out that it's a challenge to maintain the relationships I already have. She also points out that before she and J moved in, I had a much easier job, and even then I dedicated the majority of my free time to aikido and Zen practice.

Running again has been great, and pretty easy because I can do it whenever I have time. Aikido is more problematic, but there are two dojos in Mountain View, and when I'm pressed for time, I can go to the one that doesn't suck. We'll see how that goes, but it's better than not training.

I need to find a way to spend time with J, as well: we had a couple of unfortunate incidents last week that Anna thinks may be his way of signaling a need to connect. My poor underused motorcycle needs an oil change, and he was over the moon just about helping me put the license plate on, so I'll get the stuff ready to do that this weekend and I'm sure he'll be thrilled.

Also, apparently I'm getting married. At least we've moved. We have a bedroom! And an enormous couch. It is glorious.

I don't think I've ever had this much stuff going on, pulled in so many different directions, and feeling like I don't have time to do anything well. I am not a fan.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

making friends

You may have heard this story. It's one of my favorites.

2005 was a dry year, by which I mean I didn't date anyone and I was going a little stir-crazy trying to fill the time. I took a lot of awesome classes, including many months of ceramics in Palo Alto.

One of the students was named Randy, and he wasn't strictly a student because he was about as good, if not as encyclopedic, as the teacher. He made beautiful, beautiful work: I have one of his bowls, and I'm looking forward to having a place to put it. It's thin and light, perfectly formed, with a stunning sparkly blue glaze that he developed himself.

Randy is also an abalone diver. Abalone is a large (more than a pound) mollusk that lives off the Califoria coast. They're severely restricted due to over-harvesting, because once you slice them into half-inch steaks and pound them with a hammer for ten minutes, they're delicious. You can only harvest a few each season per person, and it's illegal to wear scuba gear when harvesting, so you free-dive down with a special prybar. You have to surprise the abalone when you pry it off its rock, or else it clamps down and it's all blood and badness and using up the precious oxygen you have carried in your lungs, down there in the water with all the tidal currents and sharp rocks of the California coast.

Abalone divers are insane.

Randy and I got on well, and he invited me to a campout on Memorial Day Weekend with a bunch of abalone diver families who had been gathering for years. They were all insane, too.

There were a few guys nearer my age, in their early twenties. Friendly bunch. One of them was playing with pouring diesel fuel on the fire. (Diesel burns rather than exploding like gasoline, so while this is very male, it's not as bad as it could be. Somehow, women never find this reassuring.) We were getting along just fine, but they'd known each other their entire lives, and I was the new guy.

After a few more beers, Diesel Fuel Kid starts throwing a hatchet at a stump a ways from the fire, and not hitting it. The others tried too, with failure after failure. (What are they teaching these kids in school?)

Finally, I think. something I'm good at!

(I'm not sure if I'd ever thrown a hatchet before that moment. I had thrown knives, and I knew that hatchets were often easier. They've got a good weight to them, and the spin is easier to control. Ask me sometime, I'll show you.)

I judged it in my hand a few times to get a feel for it.


That broke the ice in just the right way.

I haven't spent much of my life being good at normal guy things. But if you're with the right people, you can do amazingly well being the guy who has a couple of beers and then throws an axe 15 feet into a log on the first try.

some other points of view

I think I sometimes write and talk about Zen practice in a cavalier, glib sort of way. I know that's shocking, because I never talk about anything else that way. </sarcasm> I do know that at least a couple people in my sangha have found it a bit frustrating or discouraging that I talk about practice as though it were simple or easy: "When I start getting angry, I just notice I'm getting angry, and then I choose how to calmly and carefully respond." I'm not sure that's actually useful to anyone, and every day I learn how to communicate in more meaningful ways. It's hard because it is simple. It is literally simpler than we can imagine, but that doesn't mean it's easy. In fact, I'd argue that being engaged and present, and able to create appropriate and spontaneous responses to events, is the most important thing I do in the world. (More on that later.)

The way I talk about Zen practice has a lot to do with how I started, which is:
  1. I discovered Zen when I was 14,
  2. didn't do anything but read books until I was 22,
  3. failed to develop a meditation practice,
  4. drifted away and got more and more unhappy until I was nearly 30, and then
  5. BAM! it was time to start practicing, which I did, wholeheartedly and without angst.
I'm not sure it was obvious how unhappy I was before I came to Zen practice, and of course the Zen people only know me from that time on, so I think that without the context of the earlier decades of angst, I sometimes act or sound like I just skipped all the difficult early stages that most people experience.

For some other perspectives, I've added some other Zen blogs in the sidebar there, who all happen to be practicing at San Francisco Zen Center:
  • Zen Beginner - Someone in their first year or two of practice.
  • compassionate teacher - A third-grade teacher.
  • The Ino's Blog - Currently written by Shundo, who has been practicing for many years and is currently the SFZC ino, or head of the meditation hall, responsible for most of the logistics around the temple.
I'm enjoying their writing, and I hope you do too.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

settling in

Anna has been doing some massive unpacking and organizing. We need some furniture, like a bookcase or two, and something new to do with the television, but overall we're in pretty good shape to be ready for the coming of the Epic Couch, whenever that is. The spare room bears the brunt of the unpacked bins, but they have to live somewhere, and hopefully we can cull out a bunch of stuff.

We had some drama around getting Internet access, since the DSL tech showed up and basically went "WTF?" and left. There's a phone junction box outside on the next building, but there's also a junction in our front hall closet, and it appears AT&T naturally ran their circuit to the outside box, except it's the closet junction that connect to our internal wiring. I know, it bores me, too. At any rate, DSL Tech #2 came on Friday and ran a network cable from the outside junction box, around the building, in the ivy groundcover, through our window. It's very fast, and hopefully when AT&T comes to run a new circuit, they don't break everything.

The new place is amazing. We have a bedroom! With a door, that closes! Also, hardwood floors, granite countertops, gas stove, and a porch. It's a good change and we like it.

It's not been a restful weekend: my teacher gave dharma transmission (see next paragraph) to a student, yesterday was a one-day sitting to welcome a new teacher. It was a particularly rough schedule, so I was beat last night, and today was shopping and going to a celebration dinner. Nowhere near as much slacking as I'd like.

Dharma transmission is a Zen ceremony where a teacher gives full teaching authority to another teacher. This something to do cautiously, because for better or worse (Eido Shimano, Dennis Merzel), it can't be undone. My teacher especially feels that some people receive transmission too early in their lives and their practice, so right now it seems likely she'll only do it twice, and this was one.

There's a lot of romanticism around dharma transmission, usually making it out to be some magical anointing with pixie dust that lets you bestow enlightenment on people. The original story goes that the Buddha was speaking to an assembly, and held up a flower. Everyone was confused, except for Mahakashyapa, who smiled, and that connection between them was the first "mind-to-mind transmission". It's not something that happens, though. It's a recognition by the teacher that this other person sees the Dharma, Buddhist practice and teaching, the same way as the teacher; that the student will carry forward the essence of the teacher's teaching, with their own individual stamp. Certainly true in this case. So, yay!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


A year or two ago, someone died when Caltrain hit them. This is unfortunately normal, between 1 and 4(!) times per month, and it's almost inevitably suicide, or occasionally stupidity. I mean, the train didn't go out of its way to hit you, right? You know exactly where it's going. It doesn't deviate from its track, and it takes about a mile to stop. To not get hit by a train is not rocket science.

This one was a little different, a driver who maybe misjudged and got stuck on the tracks when the lights turned and the gates closed. Why didn't he get out of the car? An old acquaintance, James, insisted the guy was a fool.

James studies Krav Maga, a deeply violent Israeli martial art that prides itself on real-world effectiveness. Maybe a year before, he got robbed at gunpoint in San Francisco. Like any sane martial artist, his instructors reassured him that peaceably handing over his wallet had been the right choice, but he beat himself up about it a bit anyway. James thought that he should have seen the lookout guy down the street, and been more aware of who was around him and what they were doing. He might be right. I wasn't there.

Maybe, on that street, James didn't fulfill his capacity. He didn't seem to understand that maybe, neither did the guy in the car? We're fragile beings: we get distracted, we panic. Sometimes, we fail.

The past couple weeks, I've felt like I'm failing a lot. Zen talks about life being "one continuous mistake", which is one way of saying that we can't tell how things are going to turn out, and we just stumble through, pay attention, and do the best we can.

(When things go the way we want, we tend to imagine a sort of determinism: we planned and worked hard, so of course stuff happened the way we expected. Mistakes are surprises. We dislike mistakes not only because they are often obstacles to getting what we want, but because their insistent spontaneity reminds us how precarious and contingent the events of our lives really are.)

Here are the things, all important to me, that I feel like I've been failing to do with any consistency:
  • sit zazen
  • study for the GREs
  • work on sewing for monk ordination
  • go to aikido
  • go running
  • cook
  • lose weight
  • be remotely as effective at work as I want to be
That's a long list. It's all in my head, of course. It's true that I'm not doing those things enough (or at all, in some cases), but my problem is really the feeling of failure, rather than the reality of it.

Here are things I'm not failing at:
  • being a good husband
  • being a good stepdad
  • being kind and patient with people
See, that's not so bad.

I'm intrigued that the "failing" list is things to do, and the "not failing list" is things to be...


We moved, finally! Last month we punted on buying a house, and pretty much immediately compromised on our ideal place and took a 3-bedroom condo in the same neighborhood as that house. Because of our trip East, we only had about 2 weeks to pack, which I don't recommend.

It turns out we had about a 3-bedroom apartment's worth of stuff stored in our 1-bedroom with garage, and Anna is just very good at storing things. I feel justified in feeling as cramped as I did.

Speaking of bedrooms, we have one now! With a door that shuts! I was working in the bedroom today when J careened in to ask Anna a question (even though she was elsewhere). Anna made the best sign ever for our bedroom door:

the bedroom door

It seems to work nicely.

We did have some adjustment to the new sounds. It's only a 5-unit complex, but various noises, like a guy slamming a front door at 2 AM on a Saturday, sound like they're right in our hallway. Partly it's poor construction, partly the other people are noisy, and partly it's just such a big place that we can't easily localize sounds the way we could before. At any rate, our first night here, we woke up adrenalized in home-defense mode because we thought someone was making loud noises inside the apartment. A couple hours later, exhaustion calmed me down enough to take a nap. Eesh.

It's a lovely place, though. Hardwood floors in the non-bedroom areas, trees outside the windows, a much nicer kitchen. A few weeks ago we ordered what I can only call an Epic Couch, plus an ottoman, currently being built in Los Angeles and arriving in a week or two. Incredibly cheap, as couches go.

Did I mention we have a bedroom?

All the excitement carries a cost, in stress and a bit of money. We're doing well, though.

J, of course, adjusts pretty smoothly to most changes, if you don't tell him first. He used to have these cheap, scratch Bob the Builder sheets, and when Anna would suggest he switch to some nice soft microfiber sheets, he'd say no, he loves his Bob the Builder sheets. I suggested she just go ahead and put the soft sheets on his bed, and of course he laid down and started rambling about how soft the new sheets are and how awful and scratchy his old Bob the Builder sheets were.

That's the human thing, isn't it? We have our idea of how things will go, and it's all imaginary crap until something actually happens.

Anyway. It's good to be home.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Okay, the linkfarming posts are a cop-out. But I read and see so much cool stuff! Some of it's not even gross!
Finally, go watch Stephen Colbert.
"If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition... and then admit that we just don't want to do it."
More of my profound and brilliant writing is coming soon, I promise.