Sunday, December 31, 2006


A year of loss: as 2006 slips into the wormhole of time, I reflect on a year in which I lost both my father and my job. One may be soon replaced, but certainly not the other.

Returning to the subject of spiritual materialism, we tend to look to our practice to soften the blow of life's losses. Although we vow to accept all consequences of our karma with equanimity, the trouble, the materialism, comes in when we look to our spiritual practice to anesthetize the pain of our losses, to cushion us from the rough blows of life. We imagine the Buddhas and patriarchs to have walked around like saints, untroubled by pain and by misfortune, and then we try to emulate their behavior in our own life. For surely, we imagine, if we just don't acknowledge our pain and suffering, if we just ignore it, it might just go away and we'll be rescued from our misery by our practice.

But the fallacy here is that we look at our practice as something outside of ourselves, something separate that can, in turn, rescue us. We're also looking at our pain and suffering as something separate, too. And as we get locked into accepting this duality of self (the one that suffers) and other (both the suffering and the practice that will bring an end to suffering), we're merely reinforcing our sense of separateness from all other things and hence our need to protect ourselves. And as we try to insulate our separate selves from this separate suffering, the downward spiral continues and we find ourselves suffering all the more.

So what can we do? If we can't rescue ourselves, what does that leave us?

Surrender. Just give up. Stop trying so hard and just be there with the pain when things are painful, and be there with the happiness when things are joyful. And the technique to begin this letting go is sitting meditation (zazen), or more specifically, "just sitting" (shikantaza).

I've long ago realized that there is no "goal" or "purpose" to shikantaza (otherwise it wouldn't be "just" sitting, it would be sitting with a goal or a purpose), but it's taken Arthur's wise counseling (and Greensmile's reminder) to show me that there also is no "goal" or "purpose" to the broader picture of spiritual practice. If we burden our practice with a goal or a purpose, we commodify it, we perceive it as something separate from us, and this materialism diminishes our practice.

So what does that leave me with? I grieve the passing of my father, and I worry about my lack of a job and all its attendant anxieties. I observe and feel my restlessness and frustration with these quiet holidays and I feel gratitude for the occasions when the idleness passes. But having said that, neither do I wallow in self pity and amplify my pain, nor do I ignore it and pretend not to feel.

Easier said than done.

Tonight is one of those opportunities to leave the house and feel gratitude for the opportunity to be doing something other than watching the mailbox for an offer letter - the New Year's Eve celebration at the zendo tonight. So Happy New Year's to everyone, and Happy Birthday, Jackie!

Saturday, December 30, 2006


At least today I got out and ate some paella at a restaurant down the street. Other than that, however, it's been pretty quiet.

The slug-like level of inactivity I've been experiencing lately should come to a conclusion soon - tomorrow's both Sunday and New Year's Eve, so I should be spending both morning and evening at the zendo. The next day, Monday, is my usual evening service, and Tuesday night I'm giving a short presentation on Atlanta's proposed Beltline zoning overlay to the neighborhood planning association. At least a few little events to begin to give some structure to my days.

I have been catching up on my reading, both back issues of The New Yorker (I'm all caught up now, thank you) and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night," an interesting novel recommended and lent to me by my friend Andrea. My friend Arthur r. & l.'ed a Buddhist book titled "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism," and I got a start on that today and even brought it with me to La Fonda Cantina to read over my paella.

"Spiritual materialism" is defined as ego-driven pursuit of spiritual goals as a commodity or a goal to be obtained. If enlightenment, the goal of the spiritual quest, were something to be attained or achieved, then it also must someday end, as all things created eventually destruct. But if the spiritual quest is instead approached as a process of letting go of the ego-based attachements and obstructions that keep one from directly experiencing the enlightenment that was always there, then, well, that's different. I'm sure I'll be posting more on this later as my reading continues.

But what's been interesting me more at present are ideas of consciousness and dualism. It seems I can't escape this issue wherever I turn. I've been watching a borrowed copy of the three-disc super-expanded version of "What the Bleep Do We Know?" (Come to think of it, I'm borrowing a lot of books and DVDs lately. I wonder what that means.) The content of the Bleep DVDs are all about this issue. and this week's The Economist, of all things, has a lengthy special section on the mind and consciousness. Are the self and the mind one thing or two? Are they a function of the brain, ir do they just come to reside in the brain? And what exactly is this thing we call consciousness?

In "What the Bleep," various quantum physicists try to explain that at the tiniest subatomic level, at the so-called Planck Scale, all matter is really just waves, which raises the question, waves on what? "Consciousness," according to at least one physicist, all matter is just waves on a sea of pure consciousness. Which implies that either consciousness is something outside and more fundamental than the mind, or that the mind, by creating consciousness, also brings all matter and the whole universe into existence.

The Buddha taught that consciousness existed in six forms, each related to the senses: sight consciousness, hearing consciousness, smell consciousness, taste consciousness, touch consciousness and mind consciousness. The latter, of course, is what most people are referring to when they speak of consciousness, but the Buddha trivialized it to a degree by classifying mind consciousness as merely the awareness of thought, just as sight consciousness is the awareness of vision. And the six consciousnesses arise from memory, which arises from ignorance. But he did not go on to define consciousness much further, as it is beyond the grasp of the mind to comprehend, just as the hand cannot grasp the fist.

So which came first, consciousness or the mind? If consciousness arises from ignorance by way of memory, does this not imply that the mind creates consciousness? But if all matter is created by waves of consciousness, what gave rise to the mind?

More on this at a later date - my brain hurts thinking about it now.

Friday, December 29, 2006


A week without borders: unaccustomed as I am to not working, the days begin to lose structure and I find myself lost without priorities.

A typical day has been to sleep as late as I like, and then read a while in bed before getting up for coffee. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon watching a bunch of surfing shows on tv before noodling around on my computer for a bit, and the highlights of the day were getting my mail, dragging the trash cans up the driveway and going to the market to buy replacement light bulbs for the kitchen. All this between naps, mind you and, oh yes, blogging. The days end in the early morning hours, as, too under-exercised to get to sleep, I stay up late reading some more.

The first several weeks of December were so busy that they still felt more or less identical to employment. The week before Christmas had enough unique events planned that time still seemed to pass normally. But since the holiday weekend began, days and nights have blurred into one, I find myself losing momentum, and I'm reluctant to jump into consumerism to pass the time out of a desire to conserve money.

It hasn't helped that all this is occurring during the winter holidays, when business is slow anyway, and the normal routines of society are slowed to a standstill.

I check the mailbox each day to see if an offer letter has arrived yet. If one doesn't come soon, I'll have to come up with a more sustainable plan on how to pass the time.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I Think This May Be Important

According to a report in the journal Science, tiny microbes have been discovered living in acidic drainage water from a mine in Northern California. The microbes, members of an ancient family of organisms known as archaea, formed a pink scum on green pools of hot mine water laden with toxic metals, including arsenic. In their paper, the scientists call the microbes “smaller than any other known cellular life form.”

The discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life. It may also influence the search for microscopic life forms elsewhere in the solar system, a discovery that would prove that life in the universe is not unique to Earth but an inherent property of matter.

The tiny microbes came from an abandoned mine at Iron Mountain in Shasta County, California, which produced gold, silver, iron and copper before closing in 1963. Today, rain and surface water run over exposed minerals, producing sulfuric acid. The mine is one of the largest Superfund cleanup sites. Starting in 2002, scientists obtained drops of the acidic slime and searched for genetic signs of novel microbes.

The microbes are about 200 nanometers wide — the size of large viruses, which scientists consider lifeless because they cannot reproduce on their own. Bacteria average about five times that size. The scientists must do further tests to confirm that the organisms are the smallest ever found, and that they can reproduce. If those analyses hold up, they said in their Science paper, “it may be necessary to reconsider existing paradigms for the minimum requirements for life.”

So life on this planet is much more prevalent that previously thought. This implies that the web of life is larger, richer and more pervasive than we had known, and that life of earth isn't confined to the flora and fauna of our childhood education.

If each one of these microorganisms is considered a unique individual life form, then by sheer numbers most re-births and prior incarnations would be exotic microbes of one sort or another, making the occurrence of a human birth all the more remarkable. If the mass of organisms is not considered to be an aggregation of individuals, but one large reservoir of living bio-mass, it makes one question where the line is drawn between individuals and living bio-mass, or if we need to re-think the concept of individual lives.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Beats working: today I went downtown to meet with the state environmental agency concerning a new, potential client. Since I'm between jobs right now, as it were, I did this on a pro bono basis to keep my clientele (don't tell anyone - I don't want the word to get out and wind up working for free for everybody). Later, I went over my friend and Zen teacher Arthur's house for dinner and talk. After we discussed my situation from every possible perspective, we watched Kung Fu Hustle.
Meanwhile, we're all still getting to know the new group of Congressmen we elected last November. I'm sincerely sorry to note that new Senator Tim Johnson (D. - S.D.) has suffered a brain hemorrhage and is recovering from surgery. While his health and his family are of course the top priority, it is worth noting that if he has to be replaced, his successor will be chosen by the state's Republican governor, likely upsetting the Democratic majority of one in the Senate.
Meanwhile, we've found that we now have more much-needed diversity in Congress. Most people know by now that new Rep. Keith Ellison (D. - MN) is the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, thanks largely to stupid comments by Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) objecting to Ellison’s intention to use the Koran for his swearing-in ceremony. Actually, the fuss is over nothing - members of Congress take their formal oath en masse and don't put their hands on anything. But they use Bibles (Ellison will exercise his religious freedom and use a Koran) for the publicity photos they take to record the event.

But most people haven't realized that the new class of 2006 also includes two Buddhists. And my love/hate thing with Georgia continues, on the love side, as I note that one of the Congressmen, Rep. Hank Johnson, is from right here in Atlanta (the other is Mazie Hirono from Hawaii).

Rep. Johnson served as DeKalb County Commissioner before taking Cynthia McKinney's former seat for Georgia's 4th Congressional District. Johnson is a graduate of Atlanta's Clark University and his top legislative interests include transportation, health care, and education. A supporter of abortion rights, he favors increased funding for health care, especially for community health centers. He lists "Buddhist" under "Religion" on his web site, but does not elaborate any further on this private matter.
For the record, he'll be using a Bible for his swearing in photo op according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tosui was a well-known Zen teacher of his time. He had lived in several temples and taught in various provinces.

The last temple he visited accumulated so many adherents that Tosui told them he was going to quit the lecture business entirely. He advised them to disperse and to go wherever they desired. After that no one could find any trace of him.

Three years later one of his disciples discovered him living with some beggars under a bridge in Kyoto. He at once implored Tosui to teach him.

"If you can do as I do for even a couple of days, I might," Tosui replied.

So the former disciple dressed as a beggar and spent a day with Tosui. The following day one of the beggars died. Tosui and his pupil carried the body off at midnight and buried it on a mountainside. After that they returned to their shelter under the bridge.

Tosui slept soundly the remainder of the night, but the disciple could not sleep. When morning came Tosui said: "We do not have to beg food today. Our dead friend has left some over there." But the disciple was unable to eat a single bite of it.

"I have said you could not do as I," concluded Tosui. "Get out of here and do not bother me again."

Monday, December 25, 2006

Some Christmas Thoughts

Christmas day passed without major event. For the most part, it was a quiet and reflective day, and in the evening I opened the Zen Center for only one participant, but was glad that I was there for the one. It's not the number that matters, but the sincerity of the practice.

In other news, at 4:19 am Christmas morning, a Mac user in Portland, Oregon Googled the somewhat improbable words "theories not yet proven cut chemist" and managed to become the 90.000th visitor to Water Dissolves Water. I point this out merely because at my current hit rate (21 per day), it will be a long, long time before I get to the more significant milestone of 100,000 (significant at least to our base-10 numerical system).

But back to Christmas. What, you may ask, does a Zen Buddhist care about Christmas? In response, I ask if am I supposed to ignore the holiday hype, the gift giving, the lights and the trees and the sometimes forced merriment? I'm often amused to observe my Jewish friends try to pretend that they don't acknowledge the existence of the holiday (even though, I notice, they still take the day off from work). Christmas is a cultural event as much (some argue more) than a religious holiday, or as Richard Dawkins, author of "the God Delusion" put it "understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas."

And finally, R.I.P., James Brown.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

Why not try doing something different this coming Christmas?

If you've already stuck your head out the window and into the snow wearing nothing but a thong and a shortie tee, consider coming to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center tomorrow night for an evening meditation service and informal chat.

Tomorrow night, Christmas evening, I will be leading the daily Zen service and you are invited. Meditation starts at 7:30 pm until 8:30, followed by the chat until whenever. If you have no experience with meditation, I will be offering free lessons to anyone who shows up anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes before the service begins.

Learn the ancient tradition of zazen (sitting meditation) as passed down through generations of patriarchs and masters. Learn to transcend all dualities, space and time. Learn to change the pH of a glass of water by one full unit using only your mental abilities. Or maybe just come on down and sit facing a wall for a while.

All are welcome. No rsvp required.

What: Evening meditation service.
Where: Atlanta Soto Zen Center, 1167 Zonolite Place, Atlanta, GA
When: 7:30 p.m. (newcomers please arrive between 7:00 and 7:15)
Cost: Free

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

My enthusiasm wasn't quite as high.

Last night, I went over to visit my friends Nick and Andrea for dinner and some movies. Andrea cooked up some tasty pizzas, and Nick rented a DVD of "Little Miss Sunshine" for the evening. For the record, I brought the wine and a borrowed copy of the three-CD "expanded" version of "What the Bleep Do We Know," entitled "Down the Rabbit Hole."

LMS had two directors and that might lay at the heart of the problem - it seemed to want to be two separate movies. The movie starts off promisingly enough, introducing a cast of characters that comprise a dysfunctional family. There's the father, a failed motivational speaker. His son, an emo kid, reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he enters Flight Academy. The son-in-law is a failed academic (once considered the top Proust scholar in the country) who attempted suicide after losing his grad-student lover to the number two Proust scholar in the country. Grandpa's a rebellious, dirty-mouthed old man who was kicked out of his retirement home for taking up heroin as a hobby ("At my age, you'd be crazy not to do heroin."). The daughter has delusional aspirations to be a child beauty contestant, despite her nerdy looks, weight and apparent lack of any discernible talent. I wondered aloud what the wife's character flaw might be, and Andrea suggested it was being married into this family.

Anyway, the movie starts off as a kind of dark and bitter-edged ensemble comedy, something along the lines of "American Beauty," giving each character a chance to spout off a few choice lines, usually at the expense of another character. After getting all of their dirty little secrets out onto the table, almost literally over dinner, the plot then revolves around getting all of these characters into a Volkswagen mini-bus for a road trip from Albuquerque to L.A., and this is where the movie starts to change tone.

The road movie portion starts off consistent with the opening portion, with caustic observations about the frustrations of American culture and each down-on-his-luck character getting an additional kick in the teeth, but soon too-implausible "only in the movies"-type coincidences began to distant this viewer from the film. The film then sort of swings back and forth between dark comedy and pointless side trips (literally in the case of the Dad's dashing off alone on a scooter to Scottsdale to confront his agent), and finally ends in a goofy, "Napoleon Dynamite"-style dance number. It's fun stuff, but doesn't live up to the promise of the opening sequences with their hints of meaningful insight into our human weaknesses as played out by these dysfunctional characters.

The dichotomy between the two films LMS tries to be is apparent in the marketing. I first saw previews for the film at a local art cinema (the movie's produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.), which showed much of the opening dinner dialogue, and then cut to everyone getting into the VW bus, thereby only suggesting that the movie features these characters on a road trip. Theatrical marketing for the "American Beauty" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse" audience. However, the television ads for the newly released DVD skip the dinner dialogue altogether, and focus on the more madcap moments of the road trip and the ending dance sequence. T.V. marketing for the "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Jackass" fans.

So at this point, you may be concluding that I didn't like the film. To the contrary, I enjoyed it and, in fact, enjoyed it a lot. My only disappointment is that it could have been a far better film if only it had made up its mind and stuck to one style, or possibly one director.

Friday, December 22, 2006

And now for your moment of zen . . .

While I don't normally look to Ziggy for my spiritual inspiration (I can't take a bald-headed cartoon character of indeterminate gender too seriously), I have to admit that Tom Wilson nailed it with this one.

The duck was a nice touch, too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

This is a bit dated, but I had meant to write about it before the feces hit the fan:

Cities Compete in Hipness Battle to Attract Young
By Shaila Dewan

ATLANTA, Nov. 24 — Some cities will do anything they can think of to keep young people from fleeing to a hipper town. In Lansing, Mich., partiers can ease from bar to bar on the new Entertainment Express trolley, part of the state’s Cool Cities Initiative. In Portland, Ore., employees at an advertising firm can watch indie rock concerts at lunch and play “bump,” an abbreviated form of basketball, every afternoon. And in Memphis, employers pay for recruits to be matched with hip young professionals in a sort of corporate Big Brothers program. A new biosciences research park is under construction — not in the suburbs, but downtown, just blocks from the nightlife of Beale Street.

These measures reflect a hard demographic reality: Baby boomers are retiring and the number of young adults is declining. By 2012, the work force will be losing more than two workers for every one it gains. Cities have long competed over job growth, struggling to revive their downtowns and improve their image. But the latest population trends have forced them to fight for college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds, a demographic group increasingly viewed as the key to an economic future.

Mobile but not flighty, fresh but technologically savvy, “the young and restless,” as demographers call them, are at their most desirable age, particularly because their chances of relocating drop precipitously when they turn 35. Cities that do not attract them now will be hurting in a decade. They are people who, demographers say, like downtown living, public transportation and plenty of entertainment options. They view diversity and tolerance as marks of sophistication.

That disparity was evident in a report released this week by the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which showed Atlanta leading the pack among big cities, while other metro areas, like Philadelphia, hemorrhaged young people from 1990 to 2000. (In this competition, surveys that make a city look good are a favorite opening salvo.)

In that decade, the Atlanta study said, the number of 25- to-34-year-olds with four-year college degrees in the city increased by 46 percent, placing Atlanta in the top five metropolitan areas in terms of growth rate, and a close second to San Francisco in terms of overall numbers. Charlotte, N.C., also outperformed Atlanta, with a growth rate of 57 percent, the second highest in the country after Las Vegas. (Demographers point out that Las Vegas started with very small numbers and still ranks last among major cities when it comes to the percentage of its 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree.)

Atlanta did particularly well with young, educated blacks — a boon for employers seeking to diversify their ranks. The city’s report zeroed in on people like Tiffany Patterson, 27, who on a recent Thursday night was hanging out at Verve, the sleek new Midtown bar and restaurant that is one of her marketing clients.

The place was thrumming with young African-Americans in leather jackets, stilettos or pinstripe suits — the kind of vibe, said Ms. Patterson, who is from Dallas, that made her stay in Atlanta after college. “If I go home, women my age are looking for a husband,” she said. “They have a cubicle job.”

In Atlanta, Ms. Patterson said, she can afford a new town house. A few years ago, she decided to leave her financial sector job and start her own business as a marketing consultant. “I thought, I can break out and do it myself,” she said. “It really is the city of the fearless.”

The recent study, based on census figures and conducted by Joe Cortright of Impresa Consulting in Portland and Carol Coletta, president and chief executive of CEOs for Cities, a nonprofit organization in Chicago, showed that Atlanta won its net gain in educated young people by luring them from New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

“What we’re seeing is the jury of the most skeptical age group in America has looked at Atlanta’s character and likes it,” Sam A. Williams, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said. But Mr. Williams acknowledged the difficulty of replicating that phenomenon on purpose. Had the chamber tried to advertise Atlanta, he said, “we might have screwed it up —because they’re much more trusting of their own network than they are of any marketing campaign.”

“You can’t fake it here,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t.”

In addition to Atlanta, the biggest gainers in market share of the young and restless were San Francisco; Denver; Portland; and Austin, Tex. The biggest losers included Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles.

Studies like Atlanta’s are common these days. From Milwaukee to Tampa Bay, consultants have been hired to score such nebulous indexes as “social capital,” “after hours” and “vitality.” Relocation videos have begun to feature dreadlocks and mosh pits instead of sunsets and duck ponds. In the governor’s race in Michigan this fall, the candidates repeatedly sparred over how best to combat “brain drain.”

But determining exactly what works is not easy. In Atlanta, focus group participants liked the low cost of living, an airport hub that allowed easy travel and what they perceived as a diverse and open culture.

And Atlanta has some strong advantages, of course. There are some 45 colleges and universities in the metro area. The Cartoon Network is based here, as are scores of companies in the technology and entertainment sectors. The music industry is another draw for the creative class. And the city has large international and gay populations, considered strong indicators for popularity with the young and restless.

“Atlanta’s just one of those mixes,” said T. J. Ashiru, 30, a Nigerian who chose Atlanta over New York for college shortly after the 1996 Olympics were held here, and stayed to begin his career in finance. “The Olympics was basically the catalyst for what Atlanta became.”

I had read about the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce study in the local newspapers, but didn't give it much mind - I assumed that it was just local tub-thumping - until I read about it in the journal of record.

My tie-in to all of this is my involvement in the Atlanta Beltline project. If by participating in the increase of this city's transit infrastructure, and the quality-of-life improvements that the associated parks, trails and greenspace will provide, as well as the civic planning, I will have helped make this city more livable and more attractive to the post-Boomers. I will have contributed to the migration of the 25- to 34-year-old black demographic, and that will be a good thing.

The Beltline will be a 22-mile transit loop (the transit authority is now leaning toward modern streetcars) around the heart of the city, with parks, multi-use trails and greenspace along the corridor. It is already attracting new development along its proposed path, even though the first inch of rail has yet to be laid. It's an exciting proposition, and i feel privileged to be working on it.

Speaking of "work," I had my first formal interview today to find new employment. It went very well IMHO, and I was told that if I fax my application in tomorrow, I can expect to see an offer letter in the mail as early as next week. While nothing is guaranteed, it is somewhat satisfying to note that my job search may have consisted of making one single telephone call.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Georgia: Board Yields on Evolution Stickers

Published: December 20, 2006

A suburban Atlanta school board that put stickers in its high school science books saying evolution was “a theory, not a fact” abandoned its legal battle after four years. The board, from Cobb County, agreed in federal court never to use a similar sticker or to undermine the teaching of evolution in science classes. The parents who sued agreed to drop all legal action.

"We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States." - Clarence Darrow

Great. The Scopes Monkey Trial was, let's see now. . . 1925 (thanks, Wikipedia!). In 2006, Georgia finally catches up to the Roaring Twenties, but at least it seems that we've gotten over the Civil War, at least for now.

The parent who led the drive to put the stickers on in the first place, a Ms. Marjorie Rogers, said that the stickers were needed because science books discriminate against people who believe men were created by God, not through a slow process of natural selection. "My problem is that only Darwinian evolution is presented. None of the criticism is presented," Ms. Rogers said.

Georgia is 49th in the nation in education, as measured by SAT scores. Without a proper education, how does the Cobb County school district expect students to "critically consider" their own textbooks? Ask a preacher? Of course, a critical lack of education goes a long way toward explaining Ms. Marjorie Rogers.

The basic problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way science uses the term "theory." Cobb County's logic is seriously flawed - evolution is a theory in the same sense as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease.

This is what scientists mean by "theories:" in the scientific hierarchy, theories are higher than fact, because theories explain facts. Facts are simply individual, isolated, verifiable observations or experimental results. Evolution is a theory that makes sense of millions of facts of natural history -- the age of the earth, the succession of fossils in the fossil record, the genetic capabilities of organisms -- and as such it ties things together in an extraordinary way that has been equaled by few theories in biology.

Should evolution be critically examined? Yes. Everything in science should be critically examined. Science is critical examination. If the disclaimer were to urge that all scientific theories should be critically examined with an eye toward the evidence and contrary points of views and so forth, it would have my complete agreement. However, the Cobb County disclaimer singles out evolution as the only theory that should be critically examined in science.

There are counter-arguments to just about everything in science. The mistake of the disclaimer is to single out evolution for special attention and special criticism as if it alone among scientific theories is uniquely weak, uniquely shaky or uniquely suspect. That is definitely not the case.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cobb County school district incurred legal fees of $276,402, and the fees could have gone as much as $100,000 higher had the school system's attorneys not taken on the appeal in U. S. District Circuit Court pro bono.

"It was a big waste of money," David Chastain, a Cobb school parent and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Cobb County, told the AJC. "There are a lot of other things we could have done with the money, like buy more textbooks or fund more programs for students who don't speak English."

The school district spent $14,243 to have the stickers scraped off the books after the judge ordered them removed in 2005. They reportedly paid students and teachers $10 an hour to get the job done and equipped them with sponges and solvents.

For the record, I moved out of Cobb County in 2004.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The last couple of days have ranged from the chronically uneventful to only mildly eventful.

Sunday, my enthusiasm had hit rock bottom, and I stayed home all day, barely venturing out of the house. I composed Saturday's post on Sunday morning, but other than that, I can't think of anything positive that got accomplished that whole day.

Monday, I had a sort of pre-screening for my first official new job interview. Specifically, I got a call from a senior manager for the firm whose CEO and owner I'm meeting with Thursday. Actually, the senior manager is an old friend of mine, and when he had heard I was meeting with his boss on Thursday, he called me and suggested lunch. We met, we had a good talk, and I'm encouraged that there's mutual interest on both sides regarding my employment there, but although I'm not superstitious, I'm not saying anything more about it right now.

Last night, of course, was my night at the Zen Center. Three people showed up (not bad considering the imminent holidays) and one stayed after the service for a long talk about, of all things, employment. Speaking of synchronicity. . .

I had lunch today with a good, close friend who's still at a firm at which I used to work. She had heard about my situation through the rumor mill (I was wondering how fast the word would spread) and called me giving me what-for for not telling her about it earlier. Anyway, we met for lunch today and she caught me up on all the things going on at the company I used to work at, and inadvertently reinforced my opinion that I definitely did not want to go back there.

Speaking of rumor mills, I also started getting unsolicited telephone calls from head hunters today, but it will be a long time before I'm desperate enough to go that route.

I worked about three hours on Monday, and only one today. Things are ramping down, no doubt about it, and the reality of my situation is becoming more apparent all the time. It's not long before I am out of excuses not to box up everything in my office and move it all on out.

This evening, or late afternoon or whatever you want to call the period from 4:00 to 6:00 pm, was the first meeting of the citizens' advisory committee for the Atlanta Beltline. We spent most of the time just introducing ourselves and getting to know each other, and most of the business discussion regarded the committee by-laws, but I'm hopeful this might be a meaningful way for me to participate in the future growth and shaping of this city. I'll post more on this later when I'm not so self-absorbed with my own situation.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

On What I Want To Do When I Grow Up

Last August, I discussed a telephone conversation that I had with an interesting person I met through the internets. The August post was about her advise concerning dating, but there's something else she asked me that's been on my mind lately. After she had asked me what I did for a living, and I had told her that I was an environmental consultant, she asked me if I enjoyed doing that. I replied that I must, "I've been doing it for over 20 years." She then repeated her question by asking if that's what I loved doing or if that's just what I've been doing out of long habit.

I didn't have an answer.

As a younger man, I was consumed with the idea of creating a career for myself in consultancy and had blurred the distinction between working life and non-working life. I worked typically 12-hour days and still brought work home with me. I socialized primarily with those in the same business as I, tightening and expanding my professional network, and professed that I saw no difference between "work" and "play."

This is not untypical of a man in his 30s. As the years passed, however, I developed other extracurricular activities, beyond the usual distractions of family and leisure, culminating in starting a formal Zen practice in early 2001 and extending into my involvement in civic activities over the past year. These latter interests were not mentioned during my dismissal, but to a degree part of the reason my contribution was not what the company had wanted was that I had become more well-rounded as an individual, and was no longer a one-dimensional, full-time (i.e., 24/7) automaton. Je ne regrette rien.

So life is short, as they say (a ridiculous statement if you think about it: life is the longest thing you will ever experience. Anything longer than your own individual life is just your imagination, not direct experience - you will never know anything longer than your life). But anyway, why squander this precious life doing anything other than what you love? Or to put the question to myself more specifically, why not use this opportunity to move my career from what I've always done to what I love to do?

I see a couple of problems there. First, don't assume that I know what I would love to do. I've not been harboring an urge for all these years to, say, drive a big rig across the country or to write a book about Tuscan vegetarian recipes. And while I obviously love my Zen practice and my civic activities (I wouldn't be doing them for free if I didn't get some satisfaction from them), I'm not sure that these are things I want to do exclusively and for a living.

Also, I think that setting oneself a goal of doing what one loves can quickly become doing only what one what loves, and thereby increase one's dissatisfaction with any moment one finds oneself doing something, anything, other than that beloved activity. The Buddha said that not getting what one wants is suffering and dissociation with the pleasant is suffering. Focusing your goal on doing only what you love sets yourself up for disappointment, longing and suffering.

And finally, there's materialism. Due to my previous karma, born of my own ignorance and greed, I find myself currently in the third year of a 30-year home mortgage, the second year of a five-year note of the Lexus, and other financial obligations. Various entities expect me to live up to the financial obligations that I've made, and as a result I have certain minimum salary requirements I have to meet. As Tyler Durden pointed out, "The things you own, end up owning you."

Of course there are ways out of these obligations (I can sell the house, for example). But the easiest way I know of to satisfy these obligations is to continue on in the career path that I've initiated. And since momentum is everything in consulting (the consultant who disappears from view for an extended period of time is an ex-consultant), if I don't continue on this path, it will no longer exist.

Those of my generation might remember certain juggling acts once featured on televised variety shows like Ed Sullivan, where the juggler has several plates spinning on the ends of long poles, and needs to keep shaking one pole after another to keep all of the plates spinning. Tension is created as it always seems that at least one plate has lost all of its momentum and is about to stop spinning and crash to the floor, but at the very last possible moment, or even what appears to be one micro-second past the last possible moment, the juggler finally grabs that pole and gets the plate back to spinning again, even as another is starting to slow down. And even after he has all of his several plates up and spinning, and is quite busy jumping from one pole to the next to keep them all in motion, he incredibly, impossibly, sets up still more poles and plates.

It often seems to me that our lives are like this - we're constantly working on keeping at least one plate spinning, and then have to jump to the next just before it crashes, and then the next and then the next, all while life keeps setting up more plates on poles for us to maintain.

So while the question of whether I am doing that which I love is an interesting one, and one that everyone should ask themselves once in a while, I tend to agree with the Taoists who would advise to keep following the path you're on, and true contentment will come when you learn to accept who and what you actually are. I further agree with the Buddhist amplification of this idea, that true acceptance of who you actually are is total acceptance of everything, including acceptance of your aspirations and goals. In other words, it's okay to have aspirations and goals, just don't get too attached to them.

So what then would I love to do with the next few years of my life?

Friday, December 15, 2006

"What We Got Here Is a Failure at Unemployment"

I woke up this morning and discovered 22 weeks of salary directly deposited into my bank account (16 weeks severance and 6 weeks unused vacation). The unemployment fairy had obviously visited last night.

Concerning my still-busy schedule, predominantly at the very firm that recently let me go, Greensmile (aka the Data Doctor of Operation Democracy), noted "You are a failure at unemployment in that you have failed to actually be unemployed." Humorous point, but it has me wondering if my enthusiasm for wrapping up projects and putting my clients first has under it the psychological motive of denial of my current situation. It's been over two weeks since the axe fell, and i have yet to clean out my office, and I've only told a very small handful of people about my situation (excluding, of course, the entire world through this blog). To all outward appearances, I'm still gainfully employed as before, showing up at the same office, producing project reports, sending email, and so on and so forth, while still drawing a paycheck (on an hourly basis, albeit at 1.5 times my old salary). It could be that the contrarian in me is relishing showing management that they're wrong about my contribution to their operation, or it could also be a form of denial concerning my termination. But whatever, I'm too busy to worry about that now.

Jon Mayo, who synchronistically has found himself in the same situation as I, wonders, "Isn't Zen exactly about kicking away habits and concepts that keep us away from the true perception or reality and, in the end, of ourselves? What better for that than being kicked from a job?" Interesting thought, and as I had noted earlier, for years my profession was a large part of my sense of self identity, just as a marriage is a large part of a husband's or wife's sense, and a child is a large part of a parent's identity. Divorce or the loss of a child is so traumatic partly because it also challenges one's concept of the ego-self. The loss of my job takes me back at the essential question of who or what I actually am, when all role models, societal functions, et cetera are stripped away (pop quiz: tell me who you are without mentioning others). Zen does not offer an alternative role ("Roles give you cramps," as the Au Pairs once sang), but is a direct pointing to the emptiness of existence, which is not as bleak as the existential associations you're probably putting on that phrase right this minute.

I am not Melissa's father, although I may or may not have fathered Melissa some 19 or 20 or so years ago (an interesting post for some future date). I am not my former company's employee, especially now that I've been let go, nor am I their ex-employee. (Not to confuse the issue, but I am also not not their ex-employee, nor am I not not possibly Melissa's father.)

Anyway, today I took it easy. I got up late, and after noticing the deposit in my bank account, decided not to go to the office. I replied, remotely, to a few emails and talked with a prospective client about a new project I hope to bring to my next firm, whomever that might be (I have interviews next week). I watched some cable movies on daytime t.v. I still have a few things that need to be done in the office, but they can easily wait until Monday. Meanwhile, there's no reason I can't just sit back and be myself, or just sit (shikantaza) and be.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

So I Got Axed

Doesn't mean I'm still not busy working.

Even as I was being told that I was being let go, my mind was wondering how I was going to complete my commitments to clients. Can't write a report if I'm not there anymore.

For that reason, I accepted the offer to continue on for a "limited time" on an hourly basis to wrap up some of my current projects. The irony is that December has turned out to be one of my busiest times in the last couple of years. I had been telling management this was coming for a while now, but I guess the message didn't get through.

Anyway, my hourly, part-time appointment has led to some almost surreal moments, such as flying last week back to Pascagoula, my second home for much of the summer before last, to assist that client. Today, I had a meeting in the morning with the state environmental agency to plead a case on behalf of another client, then returned to the office to oversee production and publication of a report for a third client, and then I addressed comments on a draft report for still yet another client. Busy day. Meanwhile, I'm still opening the zendo every Monday night and representing the neighborhood on the Atlanta Beltline project.

Who knew unemployment would be such hard work?

Regarding yesterday's post, I was asked, "Has your blogging activity contributed in some way to your present situation?"

I don't believe so. At least it was never mentioned to me, and I never blogged from the office (okay, once or twice over the past three years I might have cut and pasted something I was reading during the day into Blogger for later commentary, but I was always quick and discrete). Also, I've always been careful to never be specific about work, my employer, my clients, and so on. Tony Pierce, author of How to Blog, writes, "Don't write about your work unless you don't care about getting fired." I cared so I didn't, for all the good it wound up doing me.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is I'm keeping busy, I'm still making some money, and I've got some interviews scheduled for next week. Things aren't bad. I get to sleep late, work when I feel like it, and leave when I want. I'm also getting to practice humility and tolerance, and I'm getting to show others that one can still be gracious and grateful in the face of adversity.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

“First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
- Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross

Those of you who’ve noticed by absence from the blogosphere may have wondered where I’ve been and why I haven’t been updating Water Dissolves Water. The truth is, there’s been a lot going on, but frankly, I’ve been too timid to even talk about it, much less blog about it.

I’ve found it difficult to tell friends what’s happened. I’ve found it difficult to admit to myself what has happened. Hell, I’m even having a hard time now putting it into words, but here I go:

I've drawn third prize. I’ve lost my job.

Or, as the Termination Agreement puts it, my employer and I came to a mutual decision that it was in both of our best interests to part ways.

Not knowing who all reads this blog, I had initially decided not to talk about it here. After all, I might somehow jeopardize my chances for a new position by talking about it too publicly. I might add more grist to some imaginary rumor mill (a small part of my mind still imagines that all conversations at which I'm not present are somehow about me). But the more I looked at my motivations, the more I realized that it was just foolish pride that was keeping me from admitting what had happened.

As Tom Wolfe relates in A Man In Full:

“Let’s think about real life for a second. Let’s think about a situation in which you lose everything . . . you lose everything! You see what I’m saying? You lose everything, the house where you live, your income, your cars – everything. You’re out on the street. You don’t know where your next meal’s coming from. What good does a lot of high-sounding ideals mean then?”

The boy said, “Many of Epictetus’ disciples asked him that exact same thing, and you know what he told them?”

“No, what?”

“Have you ever seen an old beggar?” The kid’s eyes were boring right into him.

“You’re asking me?”


“Sure I have,” said Charlie, “plenty of them.”

“See? They’ve gotten by,” said the boy. “They’ve managed to get food to eat, 365 days a year, probably. They’re not starving. What makes you think they can all find food, and you wouldn’t be able to?”

“What kinda consolation is that supposed to be? I’d rather die than go around with a cup in my hand.”

The boy smiled, and his eyes brightened. “Epictetus talks about exactly that, Mr. Croker. He says, ‘You’re not afraid of starving, you’re afraid of losing face.”
And for me, that’s really what it came down to – fear of losing face. Embarrassment at admitting my unemployment. I’ve been continuously, full-time employed since September 1980, and have left every job during those years entirely of my own volition. For years, my profession was a large part of my self identity, until Zen finally got me out of that trap, but now I find myself in a new and somewhat uncomfortable position – out of work and looking for new employment.

There’s really nothing for me to worry about. I was given a most generous severance package – sixteen weeks salary plus six more weeks of unused vacation. It’s not like I’m going to starve anytime soon. In fact, if I find a new job within the next 22 weeks or so, I might even realize a financial windfall.

In addition, I’m now wrapping up some of my old projects on an hourly basis, getting paid at my old salary times 1.5. And yet my mind, conditioned to worry and unconditioned to not being in control, keeps fantasizing nightmare scenarios of the worse that could happen.

“Charlie closed his eyes and tried to imagine it. He’s out on the street. What street? Blackland Road? All he’d get there would be an occasional puff of BMW fumes or a piece of gravel dislodged from a tire tread. So where? Peachtree Street? Nobody even walks on Peachtree Street, and so who’s going to stop his Mercedes or Infiniti to give Charlie Croaker a quarter? Maybe he could take his tin cup into the parking lot at the Lenox Square mall. But they’ve probably got security personnel to chase hooples who come wandering in on foot out of there before they can hunker down on the pavement and set out their sign saying, “Please help me. Need $28 more so I can get back home to Mobile. No advice, enlightenment, or root-causes conversations, please.”
So there, I’ve said it, and I already regret the fact that over the last two weeks, when my life has finally gotten sort of interesting, I haven’t been documenting it here in my journal. Perhaps now I can change that.