Saturday, November 22, 2014

My interviews with the old barman continued.

"If you ever look at pictures of Lincoln--take him as a clean-shaven lawyer in his prairie years--you can see it, the demons haunting his psyche.  The sad emotional things that would sit on his brow or somewhere behind the eyes or in the crook of his lips and the mouth behind them.  What it was, we don't know.  We can speculate.  What made it hard for him to commit to Mary?  Why did he pull away from his decision to marry her, initially?  What was it that would lay him up like that, bad weather, the time he felt like giving up on it all and they took care of him back at Speed's family home?  Was it a particular thing, a number of things, a fluke of genes and psychological tendency?  But there he was, great joke teller, great story teller, great with words, saying things precisely, a command over words, we see even before the legacy of his great oral compositions.

"I got into this line of work to support my writing.   But now I wonder at this mature age if a lot of that wasn't so much as a reaction, a reaction to things that brought me, when I thought of them, and I had trouble not thinking about them, things that brought me pain, a psychic spiritual pain, one that affected me physically.  And one which was a kind of a feedback loop.  Maybe it was in some ways healthy to keep the wound open and try to write it out, but then I guess, or rather I began to see, that to keep writing as I was, and really, I must admit, thinking of the same sad things on a daily basis, which is why I see in Lincoln's eyes and face and even deep in his stature the pain of sad things, things that cut deep, that hit you as a man where you are a man, that can really kick you in the ass, well, thinking those worn thoughts, even he used that particular term, the worn ruts of them worn threadbare and joyless--what a great sense of humor he had--those worn thoughts weren't doing me in any good.

"Maybe this is why Hemingway writes of bullfights or the artillery shell coming his way and opening up like an oven, to kind of personify or encapsulate the thousands of things that make you feel bad and fire your adrenaline with nowhere to run.  Later on in his work we see more the endurance figure, the old fisherman...

"Well, eventually, you got to step out of all that.  You got to go and find meaning, above all that.  And first maybe you have to realize something, which is that you are in pain, and that you are doing things that bring a temporary numbness, a way of escape here and there, and I was very familiar with them, and even when I did not overdo it always, or all that frequently, I drank wine to numb the pain, to medicate myself against it.

"Now mind you, I know good and well that anyone who's been through a long goddamn shift of people riding you, picking at you, you know that glass of wine is going to taste pretty good, immediately soothing.  And it will give you some energy when you're running out of it, so you can get through the last chores all cleaning up.  I'm not going to blame anyone or myself for that.  And I might say, that being poor I didn't have the funds to go out to a bar after work, as good as that might have been for a man in my circumstances, for then I could at least be around other people sort of in the same boat as myself....

"But I went to a therapist and she gave me a book and I started reading it, something about "The Happiness Trap" and "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy," and I saw that really you have to accept, more or less out of being natural, just the way we're built and survived this long as a species, that you have a lot of negative emotions.  Well, I know I did, and maybe that's the meaning I take from my own little personal view on someone like an Abraham Lincoln, someone subject to a whole lot of melancholy.  And I'd done my yoga and more importantly my meditations, where you sit in some form of the Lotus Position or Corpse Pose and let all your thoughts go and just be consciousness.  I knew about that stuff, and I more or less came to practice that, as if I knew I had to. But the book was really quite a help, to let you accept those bad feelings, the heartbreak, the sense of not knowing where my life was headed, you know, as being a barman it's always more or less get through the next month or so, which ain't a great way to live... You accept that stuff, take the step of realizing that this is your mind, your thinking mind talking, tell you a tale, and that you also have to accept such things, not try to hide, but rather expand.  That's the term the guy used.  Expand.  Take in all your pain, breathe, allow space to grow around the painful areas.  And maybe for that it helps to have that Buddhist sense of vast amounts of time, kalpas, and the subtle mind's nucleus tiny within us with all this great space all the way into the depths of space and the stars we can see, huge space.

"And maybe that brings me to think of how poor old Lincoln found, had to find, some kind of meaning in life.  Maybe in a way he found that by being expansive.  I mean, he always was, expansive over people and critters, kittens and birds, but the small maybe coincidental evidence that he thought less of pork barrel and more of the expansive notions of a nation conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which is pretty good stuff for a practical, intensely practical and calculating politician such as he was.  He could feel a lot of pain, and in his maturity he survived by expanding...  And by finding meaning.

"That's what I'm looking for now.  Meaning.  Not for the same old escapist stuff and not coming to grips with the stuff that brought me sorrow, those bad voices in the head telling me bad things that sort of compounded upon each other in the sensitive mind...

"But honestly, every time I'd go in to tend bar, every single night, I hated going in and I felt very sad, each and every time, kind of like, seriously, dragging a cross with me.  And the only way out of this, and out of my own craziness, all these thoughts and memories gnawing away at me like demons, the only out of it and to get through those shifts was to expand, to make believe, faking it, that there was this large self that could go and do that.  Unfortunately there were no real laurels, no great amount of achievements and money piled away for the poor beast that had expanded each time he fearfully went off to work.  Other than finding that this was the only way you survived, that rewarded your getting up out of bed every day.  And maybe that is what's meant by 'thou shall earn thy bread by the sweat of thy face,' come to think of it.

"Oh, all that pain.  No wonder I drank.  No wonder I felt like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.  Same damn thing for his character, Rick, the poor guy expanded, found a meaning, hard as that is most days."

"He was braver than I, Lincoln.  He had fortitude.  He got things done.  He didn't hole up like I did sometimes, not wanting to get up out of bed before I had to to shower and get ready for work, though part of that is the imposition of the schedule of working night shifts.  He worked on, through is pain.  Sure, he acknowledged how things went slowly for him, how he worked slowly, things taking him a long time to get;  and people would observe him staring off into space or lying on a couch reading from Shakespeare...

"I'm too much a literary guy, more an Ichabod Crane when it comes to these things.  Demons get to a chicken like me, I guess.  Too sensitive or something.  And work was at least at times a vicious cycle of not feeling good and then drinking a bottle of wine to feel better but all the while not getting to the root of the problem which was not understanding my values like I needed to, not in a grown-up way, and maybe just trying to fit in, get through one more day of the faking it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Okay, just report what happens.

"Ali was the cousin of the prophet Mo'hamm'ed.  He was married to a daughter of the prophet, so, being son-in-law, and then not elected as the succeeding leader in a vote over five or seven, well, that's where the difference comes from, the Fifteenth Century, Sunni versus Shia.  Ali didn't get the vote, but, hey, that wasn't right, given who he was.  Or was it.  Sunni, believe in the vote, and Shia in the lineage of Ali.

"The old Sunnis under Saddam of Irag, the Baathist party, this is one side of the political reality.  The old Shias, those in Iraq, want power, so, they have Hezbollah in Lebanon.  And again, the big difference between Shia and Sunni, and this is where some of Syria comes in, or rather, the story of the Assad regime, are you following me?  Because the Assad paternal line, being of (something that sounds like) "Alowite" persuasion, a sect agreeable over the lineage of Ali believing in Ali's continuation of the prophet Mohammad's wisdom and message as opposed to, if you follow the logic, what must be the point of those Sunnis, who believe in the power of the vote...  So,  the father of Assad is, in a way, family friendly to the Shias of Iraq, and thus receives support from the important neighbor who is Iraq... There is also Turkey in the mix too.

"More of the game as it is played:  The US gives lots, lots of money to Jordan, and this is another part of it.  Jordan is perfectly happy receiving lots of US money, and it builds royal courts, and has a great time, and a lot of money disappears and the same people as the poor who are stuck in the roadblocks etc. that Israel sets up are in Jordan quite happy and for the status quo just as it is.  A lot of US tax payer dollar disappears, a lot of people live absolutely lavishly, and the poor Lebanese still are stuck. Five road blocks a day.

"Here's another important part of it all:  The Saudis, they do not care.  They spend more than a trillion on U.S. arms, so the U.S. supports their decadence.  They don't have much to do with Islam.  They'd have nothing to do with it.  Disdain those who do.  But, they don't like Iraq, the growing Islamist power in the region, and one of a particular stripe.  The Saudis like their economy and their world, and are content with their wealth, and really want nothing to do with anything beyond that.  It makes great sense that they do no like the Islamist, but, this doesn't want to make them fight, therefore having to take a stance now does it.  As if, happily, anointed, the ineffectual power of the region out of natural resources, out of what?, out of moderation, has no will to do anything.  Do the Saudis look around and wonder, what's going on around them?  Do they?

"The U.S. has spent more than one trillion on the war in Iraq."

"And then, as far as the war on terror, traveling, being on airplanes, going through customs, what's it like for, say, for someone from the Middle Eats, the general area, the sirian, when along comes the home intelligence troopers serving all of us  through the security forces of many official nations, looking for means to sustain all its employment and resources, that of course must grow and meet further projections and thus find guilty people out of the straight, vulnerable almost in particular those straight and good people who are the connective tissues of different societies, the decent, the well-educated still trying to conduct some kind of normal business.  They find something on you, some soap powder, and then you're lucky to not wake up in Guantanamo. "

In this conversation, and always a bad sign, arriving after 9:45, Dennis.  Dennis is surprisingly sober, and with a tale of giving his father's eulogy, a week and a half ago, shit.  But you'd be proud of me, T.

It has been a busy night.  It will not end easily, but, it might be interesting in some way.

"And then there's Reagan.  Reagan, who believed, contrary to the very spirit of the good American nation, that public education should not be free.  Reagan, gutting the great public university of the California system which produced so many bright and well-educated and finished people. The great actor, acting, making his statement, the act that he was 'helping the general public,' when really, as he knew quite well, he meant to benefit the eager rich who wanted more riches unto themselves, personally, more, and to hell with public education and the great raising of the public minds, which would only be dangerous to the special interests.  What a great actor he was.  And many bought into him, and still believe in him today.

"His descendants in a Milton Friedman mood privatize.  Privatize the decisions of foreign policy and war.  It will drive the economy after all.  And so, who makes money now out of war, out of any war, war on drugs, war for oil, war against supposed weapons of mass destruction during which Dick Cheney's Halliburton makes a lot of money.

"Privatize what used to be the general public good, the general welfare, all of it, education, the penal system...  Where does it stop?"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lord knows, thinking can hurt.

I guess I know how a dog feels.  It's wine tasting night, I'm up there by myself, and the parties come in, largely unannounced, unpredictably.  A few faces, of course, I recognize.  The shift starts hungover, as I ran out of wine as I cooked in the night and pulled out the Fernet-Branca liquer, the current shot of choice, and a decent one, of the DC service industry.  Herbs, many of them, kind of like Yaegermeister, without the annis, something like that.  I should have stuck with wine, or just gone to bed, but, the mind seemed to have needed a blank place to relax, and psychologically I am working on improving this tendency.  Anyway, a regular customer shows up with a 2005 Morey St. Denis to have with dinner at the bar and he has me try it.  The next people come in, and I mumble about the free wine tasting and the bottle discount, all of which seems to make me appear like a madman, offering something unexpected and perhaps inexplicable.  But the night goes on, and I judge how far to render my schpeil accordingly.   To offer a free wine tasting, of course, is to open a can of worms.

So the ladies come to dine, they come to catch up with each other, and I know this and try to be helpful and as unobtrusive as possible.  Would the malbec go with the curried chicken, I don't know wouldn't be my choice (New World jamminess), but here you go and here's a sip of two other wines.  I've got time, and otherwise, really, my job would be too boring and generally pathetic if I didn't take some pedagogical interest in wine and service.  Don't take it personally, I'm not trying to be too kind or anything or too friendly.

But this is the world of being a servant.  You come over to a table, stand around, try to figure out what the fuck people want or why they came here, and you hope they will at some point reveal the nature of their mysterious presence, their relaxed attitude.  One table, three sisters and a friend, I recognize the sisters, are talking about serious stuff when I approach to offer the free tasting.  I might like to talk about how Beaujolais is a beautiful place, appropriate neighbor to the gastronomic capitol Lyon, how Anthony Bourdain was seen swilling down the stuff with the great chefs there, or maybe a note about the granite soil Pinot Noir doesn't do well in, but that sort of thing is immediately rendered unnecessary and trivial when people are talking about, say, melanoma, a health issue that comes with aging.  (And a barman never really knows what kind of stuff might be going on in people, and not understood the last encounter with a man who looked puzzled and a bit out of it, not saying something, that he would soon pass away.)

But a dog, take a beautiful chocolate lab bitch, I see her look up at the table, and she wants to eat what we are eating, and she also wants to talk, to be part of the human experience, but she doesn't have the ability to make words as we know them, just a tiny bit shy of that skill.  And when I wait on people I can feel like that, like a child in an adult world, kind of like an overgrown idiot, or simply there being no bridge between my deep human realities and those of the people at any given table.

The dog wants to be with people, wants to leave with them, sit and relax and be a part of conversations and add to the experience, but by and large to do so would be vastly inappropriate.  You share what you can, you answer questions, you try to entertain, and often times in a city full of successful people there has to be a hanging question, what happened to you, what brought you here to wait on tables when you're obviously intelligent, what kind of craziness or bad choices did you fall into, or what failures amounted to the one well represented by the fact of you standing there waiting on people, because, you know, we wouldn't expect someone with brains and talent to be doing any such job, the irresponsibility of it all mounting....  Life reminds one of the Monty Python sketch of John Cleese playing "the village idiot," secretly erudite and aware behind the expectation of babbling he must put on for a passer-by.

But in a way, perhaps it was all staring me in the face, that really and truly the wine bar is a Zen temple for the modern secularized belief-free world, or it can be.  And perhaps at the core of such a truth is something often referenced and often forgotten.  To state its kernel of truth would perhaps be a kind of arrogance, and something we would find basically untenable, unbelievable.  But on a good day, for a brief shining moment, it can be repeated, he who would tend to the least of us would be the greatest, as we move into the spiritual realm, the last citadel of deep truth.  It's the highest person who would get down and wash the feet of those willing to learn.  The act stands for itself.

(But of course we live in such a world where we do not accept the practical physics of it.  For a long time leading up to the Gulf War, those in the know, DC cabdrivers, natives of the region could tell you, plainly and simply, don't go in there, it's three different countries, three different peoples, three different outlooks, and if you go and topple old Saddam, it's going to be a huge unending mess.  But, of course, there was that notion that since we are the greatest we should do something, and not see being the greatest by the spiritual light, a position full of humble duties, almost passive in nature. )

Of course, it rarely ever feels like you are aligned with the best of humanity when you are a professional waiter eking out a living of some form.  There is something, sure, plain and clean and decent about waiting on people.  Maybe it brings good karma, but at a glance it doesn't seem so wonderful a profession for personal relationships and responsible family life, no.

But if one is aligned with the deep truth, then there is not so much to fear, beyond what we all must fear, death, poor health, aging, obscurity, loneliness, anxiety, things we must deal with.  And maybe that is where the Zen comes in, that doing such  a job on a  daily basis really does lead one to understand deep stuff about how the mind must be observed, how meditation helps, that sort of a thing....

Such a circumstance speaks of the molecular goodness of the Dostoevskian, that imprisoned obscure outsider condition, the Siberian penal colony, of the odd life of a gambling writer itself, which was able to imagine that humble purity, that humble situation allowing him to observe the things he was capable of rendering.

The obscure idiot will tonight return to work, have all the feelings the dog does, wishing to engage, wanting to participate, but of course waiting on the master, wordlessly enduring, his thoughts left to himself whilst people cover the infield with talk, lots of talk, lots and lots of talk.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I have one of the most beautiful jobs in the world.  All walks of life.  A natural way to relax, a healthy community, one without judgment.  About the highest thing you can achieve in the world, outside the classroom.  And it opens up sometimes, and reveals itself, if the topic of conversation is real enough, if the people within are being open.  The ease of conversation of disparate peoples, different walks of life sharing the community connection.  A decent bar should receive a subsidy from the adjacent three zip codes.

What happened tonight?  Who came in?  When?  New Orleans, a good topic of conversation.  David Schulman, on electric violin, Eddy on bass.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

And what is the point of these samurai movies?  What is the point of Harakiri/Sepuku of Kobayashi, the great director of that most interesting movie about life which is really about ghosts, Kwaidan?

The point of these samurai movies...  There is something here, very important, a simple point, something we cannot mess with, something we have to accept... The main guy fights in the movie, after he's lost everything, grandson, daughter, son in law, before that wife...

Is this the Toshiro Mufume guy Kurasawa will later use?

But the truth of the samurai comes through, the reality of the skill of the individual, hidden, waiting, mindful.

One sings like a meadowlark alone at night after Saturday Night Live great hits of the 80s, old Irish songs like Greenland Whale Fisheries, no problem, even well.  Songs to dance to, a whole band within, all those songs.  And yet the talent is hidden, used to maintain mindfulness.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Over the years I drifted as a bartender to wishing to be a simple mountain monk.  The world of people comes to you with problems, dissatisfactions, a need to do something with time, a need for distraction, a need for conviviality.  This is what I think sometimes.  Maybe not all the time.  I began to think of a medicine to treat the common ailment, knowing it myself.

I know, wine soothes in the night when you're tired and can't sleep.  Why is that so?  How does it leave you feeling the next day?  It tastes great going down, but maybe the next day one is a little loagy, a little lazy, not so diligent, not so energetic, a few mysterious aches and pains, as if to pay for the feeling of painlessness and freedom of the night before, the quench of thirst, the calm of nerves bought not through meditation but through a certain kind of medicine not without its risks.  Wine is good medicine sometimes, maybe not always.

My genetic legacy if it was anything involved some form of Buddhist thought, maybe Zen, maybe the Theosophical approach my father engaged.  Something to honor.  Something to help determine one's life path.

The bar I worked I regarded as a kind of temple, and anyone could come to it.  There wasn't the intimidating aspect to it, the sense of having to commit to something life changing but rather some form of steadiness.   Where else was there to go, that wouldn't insist on belief or ritual.  It was a profane place, of gluttons and wine-bibbers.  In a way there was something Zen about that, hidden, therefore constructive.  As we all know, the pretensions of 'holy holy holy' can strike one as immediately tiresome, humored for social benefit, but cause for suspicion, a little creepy.  Maybe there was even direct conduct of sin inherent in the place, but at least it was real, and real is where we find the conditions, the conditions of sickness, of our direct ailments, and a better place by which to conceive of a cure to treat such very ailments.  And that is always the tension.  How steeped in illusion, how tied into the perpetuation of the illusions is a place?  Of course a place has many corners, many sub-climates, all going on at once.  What is the basic overriding message, the tenor of such a place?  How many bells and whistles, how much pumping vapid pop music?  A healthy encounter with other beings with different takes and experiences?

Zen is a healthy way of going about things.  An honest way.  A way that goes beyond the usual ruts and assumptions, the dualisms our thinking falls into.

The barman monk is in an awkward spot perhaps.  He fears if he told the truth the customers would dispel, and then there would be no money to pay the, as Thich Nhat Hahn puts it, best wishes to him, the electricity bill, the water bill, the telephone bill.  So the real retreat, the true place of education must be located somewhere off site or in another realm, another dimension, another time.

In many ways I have grown tired of writing.  What is the point of these exercises?  Sometimes they perpetuate the illusions, the countless little offenses and dissatisfactions one whines about when really everything is completely fine and that one never needed to be restored to good order because one never really left it.  It's all how you see things, and the very first perspective to achieve before anything else is the great fineness of the present moment, it's appropriateness, its necessity.

Perhaps there's something a little Heisenberg Uncertainty to it, at the root of Zen Buddhism, that the real gentle-person is found within, right there without having to measure or search or call holy or sacred.  Just you, on your own terms, accepting, appreciating, no need for anything outside.

To be a writer, hah!   This would be a curse, a juvenile misunderstanding of the brain's chemistry.  Sure, one has native thoughts and takes on things that are healthily expressed as they might usually fall out of the boundaries of normal conversation.  But to attempt to be a great writer is the effort of someone attempting to tame his own demons.  And Hemingway himself writes late in life, to the effect, 'why did I listen to all those taste-maker pilot fish of the wealthy telling me my writing was good and wonderful;  indeed I should have wondered what was wrong with it if they praised it so.'

All there is is the teacher component of writing, being able to present thoughts without intimidating someone else.  Addressing the awkwardness of being human.

And awkwardness, if you listen to it as it comes about, is a good thing.  It helps inform you, guide you.  Mass culture might offer an array of things that strike you as awkward, over which you feel awkwardness participating in, even as there are many people with less cultural distance from the activity.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I guess one makes all the classic mistakes of the young monk, which mainly consist of allowing yourself to be deluded, largely by other people, by attachments and anticipated sensory events in the mind.  You're a Buddha, didn't you know, replete with the six radiant lights of the five senses and the capacity of thought, perfect just as you are, and you only have to realize it.  You simply need to awaken the teacher within, and that's all you need to do.

But this is hard to do in a consumer-based culture.  This is hard to do when you are exposed to constant interruption.  We're taught to be dissatisfied with our natural condition, that we need to be doing something.  People tell you, oh it's fun if you go and do this, get with the program.  You go and do it and it seems like fun, for awhile, but in the end it's a disappointment and you should have simply been doing your own simple studies and reflections, meditating.  Or perhaps they tell you, this is the way to be a scholar, a literary chap.  That's the way to have a good job, right?  This is how to be useful, they say.  But they are doing little more than move things from one pile to another, I mean once they have taught you to open up your mind and be a Buddha, the height of thinking and being human,  and which goes far beyond the realm of the poet, putting poetry into action.  Artist's help, they provide us imagery, but in the end you have to do it yourself, make certain realizations, act with self-confidence, end the confused habits being half in half out.

Everybody's trying to sell you something, it almost seems, not just all the emails and advertisements, but a culture that presses some way of belonging, some way of self-comfort, an identity, I am this, I am that, you should be like this or that, an outside definition intended to make a person dissatisfied with his or her own self.  Don't be weird.  Go and do this and it will be an adventure.  But it all comes down to the simple honest interaction, which is maybe what people find so difficult, which is to communicate deeply about how they really feel.  No matter what the situation, people simply trying to talk, something we are all vulnerable toward and need to do even if we act like we don't need to.  We all can get so crusted with complexes, demons in the eyes of Jesus' psychological understanding of people....  fake things we should rid ourselves of, the things people seem to do with great confidence when really deep down maybe they aren't so sure.

Yes, it's hard to sell a simple life, not knowing the great benefit, the calm it brings, the aid it brings to the beings of the world.  Shift the focus to you.  You are sufficient for all you really truly want to do, to be the true person you are.  The thing maybe is to not be irritated with yourself, intolerant of your self, when you get up and go about your day.  Don't assume such things, the insufficiencies of everything.  Turn all that around. Accept yourself as you really are;  be kind to yourself.  Don't try to be someone you're not, so then you won't have to compensate with silly behavior.

But it's human nature, I know.  You think you've found a new answer, a place to go after work for a drink to hang out with other people in the service industry, a temptation after the morally difficult work of serving people, or maybe morally rich is more what I mean, as it takes a higher being to serve others humbly, at least in some ways.  Yes, being around the temptation presents a moral problem, don't I know it.  Prohibition is not the answer.  The answer is finding your self, finding the beautiful presence of the Buddha within, in your own you know somewhat pitiful self, the glory within the too easily-judged shell.

In the process of writing, I had deceived myself many times over, embarrassingly, attached to particular notions that had little to do with reality.  This speaks of the impossibility of putting life into terms, into dualistic thought.  I had let myself subscribe to many deceptions, whereas in truth the being is complete just as he or she is.  And in some strange way I sensed moving onward into, at last, the position of more the teacher, less the student, as would happen naturally over time anyway.

We all are free-standing good people just as we are.  We don't need anything.  We don't need to long over anything or anyone.  To long for something is to be out of touch with reality; sometimes you have to accept, move on, doing so in the name of understanding your own beauty, your own wisdom, your own self-sufficiency.

It is hard for the Westerner to enter into the monastery situation.  To do so would seem like joining a cult, by and large.  Western society does not take kindly to free-loaders, and will always be skeptical of those who would live off some sort of dole and seem at least to be doing little more  than farming and sitting around.  And so the monastic life, the Zen community, parts of its life, must move on, follow individual lives in different settings.

To reimagine that life of spirituality, without direct opportunity in a sangha community, yes, I think it's natural to explore bonds with other people, other people who read and write, who think, who venture bravely out of the usual report, who craft words for themselves in order to seek a bond of communion with others, with people they know, with intimately known people.