Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sir Lancelot and the Irishman

You start your career, naively or not, wanting to be kind to everyone.  You go and put it into practice, and it feels good.   You feel a part of chivalry and courtly tradition, receiving a stranger as if he or she were Sir Lancelot in disguise, or if you were.  How could a professional life be any different, separate from kindness itself?

But you know in your own mind that there were times when all the kindness within you didn't get to come out, went misused, then maybe misplaced.  And so, naturally, the mind focusses on such occasions, assesses what went wrong.  And maybe doing so will help you figure out what it is you are doing wrong in your own career now.  You may have wanted to then put all your kindness to good use, but things went wrong, and you yourself are a good deal to blame.  Not to dwell on the past, but just to guide yourself in the present.

"One way ticket to Palookaville," someone close to me commented, wisely enough, early on in my ostensibly 'professional' career as hard-working barman.  And, like a fool, I didn't exactly listen.  I said to myself I wanted to be a writer of some sort, and that to get by, I would tend bar at night.  In so doing, repeating the same mistakes I always make as far as implementing the deeper kindness within, manifesting it in humble form in the world of passing strangers.

Fool small town country boy...  what did I know, when I was making my choices.

Shakespeare makes the point another way, to ramble on.  Just where you'd like your own kindness to come forth most, Hamlet's for Ophelia, for one important instance, it somehow goes completely wrong, as if fated to.  And the same for Lear, although he doesn't realize he, as a king, is capable of much kindness, love for the daughter that loves him.  Why all the misunderstanding, why all the being trapped in roles and ego?

And now, kindness becomes more and more of a cyber charade, a matter of Facebook, someone making money off of it.

Early on in a shift, before the gypsy jazz guitars have started playing in the corner, a man walks in and sits down at the bar.  He smells of cigarette smoke, has a motorcycle/chopper-buildout kind of mustache, and says he's going to have dinner, likes cabernets, with a New York Irish accent.  He's down in DC to take his high school son to a homeland security student seminar at a local 4H.  He's staying at the Holiday Inn, has walked the town pretty well from here to the Capitol.  Down from Western Mass, the Springfield area, he's happy to be here.  He looks at you brightly, squarely, and somehow it's a good deal refreshing to have him in (as it was to have the NYFD Irish New Yorker kid who survived a 9/11 stairwell collapse) after the initial semi-nervous summing up of a different from the norm and assertive person, yet one who reminds me of people who are people.  I let him taste the Bordeaux, the Pays D'Oc Malbec, and the Pic St. Loup Syrah.  He likes the Syrah.  It will be great with lamb, I tell him, as he loves lamb.  Staten Island growing up, touch of red in his hair still, in possession of physical vitality, bars in Hells Kitchen as a young man, I could picture him digging the NY subway.  I would go have a drink with him, and for an anti-pipeline tree hugger liberal who cries over the thought of how Appalachia, wondrous area of Eden, oldest mountains and biodiversity unparalleled, was so clearcut and destroyed by outside interests (don't we ever get it?), I'm cool with him, and he's not a crazy you would have to worry about, as retrospection might make you wonder about some folks you've given rides to back to Oriskany Falls, New York.  Salt of the Earth.  A guy like, if one were to get sentimental, the original Peter.  One you'd trust.  One who doesn't give a shit over assholes and the self important.  An undershirt, a good sweater, white, probably from a Marshalls somewhere, and a tight fitting jacket,  a trip outside for a cigarette, enough to keep such a fellow warm.  Nothing gets this guy down.  We all can get along, I don't care where you're from, his main message.

He's a talkative guy, the foreman of crews for a big energy company, travels quite a bit, Ohio, PA., Texas.  Goes to gym to keep up, as he deals with young knuckleheads, I don't doubt.  I ask him about the blizzard, and about New England in general.  2 labs, 2 kids, 2 cats, a snowblower, one wife, he likes his life, he has a philosophy.   He doesn't live out in the country, by any means.  (An hour to drive to get a pizza and it's ice cold by the time you get home?  No way.)  "I'm a city boy.  You can't teach an old dog new tricks," he says.  A good conversationalist, a friendly guy, he has his refrains.  "I tell my son, it's all about getting out and talking to people.  And you're nice to people, people will be nice to you right back.  I keep telling him..."

Type Os accumulate stress.  They have a hard time getting rid of adrenaline and noradrenaline.  It takes a certain amount of dopamine to convert and break the stress response down, which is why I have a hard time going to bed when I get home from a shift.  I suppose smoking cigarettes is a way to get around the ups and downs, particularly when waking up when you haven't gone through the whole long calming down and the whole long sleep.

He talks of going to Ireland with his son.  Cork.  Just go, don't plan.  Me and my son.  Let it happen.  The man has a lot of refrains.  I like him.  He doesn't like the soup special.  (I take it off his check.)  He loves his lamb, has another glass of Languedoc.  He get to work early, leaves later, and keeps up with a lot of younger guys on his job, work crews doing things probably related to pipelines and fracking.  His attitude on protestors:  some people just protest, that's just what they like to do, it's part of human nature.

Irish music works, I think, because of its refrains.  The Old Triangle.  A Freeborn Man of the Traveling People.  "One summer evening drunk to hell, I lay there nearly lifeless..."  The pikes must be together at the rising of the moon.  I'm the last of the Irish Rover.  Oh Danny boy...  It was down the glen on an Easter morn to a city fair... The foggy dew.  Mnemonic device to cool the brain.  Jack and Bobby.

And the refrain of words, the pattern, to hold on to, I think it helps enormously to deal with the stresses of modern life.  And you could easily say, 'the product of a sick mind, all this talk of rebellion, poets, drinking glorified.'  This is the gift of Irish music, though.  It gives a refrain, a kind of mantra to repeat by which to dispel the pains of work and odd hours and the crippled personal lives that result of them.  (Which we all have in common.)  And goddamn if it doesn't work.  You need something to divert a part of your brain to clean the house, put some Irish on your head phones.

And to top it all off, who has done better than The Pogues' lyricist MacGowan, to revive the ancient art of giving us a body of ballad and refrains to sink teeth into and identify with.  The words seem to slide easily out of him.  "Bless me father, I have sinned.  I got pissed and I got pinned.  A guy can't help the state I'm in.  There's a Tesco on the sacred ground, where I pulled her knickers down."  He has the same brain problem a lot of us have, a lot of the Irish have, a lot of us blood-type O people have.  A way to calm down in a very complicated world that isn't doing well as far as nature or anything else is concerned is.  (Even Hells Ditch, the famous downfall, yields wonders.  And indeed, one wonders, where did all those riches come from, given the reports of how difficult it was to deal with MacGowan in those times.  Song after song, even as they are partly slurred, even as their notes are pure.)

I must admit to myself, reflecting over the decent guy at the bar, with his sayings--"Supporting a family, you got to do what you got to do, you know"--that there is an elitist part of me, or rather, more accurately, a part that believes in Buddha's truth.  And because the Buddha's truth is so high, so out there (so it seems) it leaves one less with the tendency to be 'involved' in the world, because we are here to see the truth, to represent the truth.  And the truth is bigger and higher than pipelines.  (Don't get me wrong, I like my heat just like the next guy.)  It could well be that the world is largely run by meddlesome idiots centered on their own particular selfish interests, and such a world will never run harmoniously, were it not for the very underlying Buddha nature of everything that is a natural check on things.  Anyway, after a week of tending bar, isn't it a joy and a comfort to read The Threefold Lotus Sutra, lines of how we are all meant for the enlightenment of Nirvana.  This is probably how I keep my calm.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Literate part of the mind that dogs me, were I to engage in dualism--what the Buddha tells us not to do--I might be down on things myself.  A poor effort.  Laziness.  Foolish idle years.

A friend of a friend comes to the bar, wine tasting night.  A very quiet Mardi Gras;  we get to chat.  "You're an intellectual," she says.   "You get to watch people interact, watch people open up, start to talk."  She's put off by the cheekiness of the man who sat down next to her, an Englishman in a ribald mood who has just completed a big project.  But there are good conversations, that aspect aside, about people and their own intellectual history, a hint of their spiritual life.  People who hang out in bars are quite intelligent, Shane MacGowan says, from the talk, from spending time in their own heads, while other people go about professions and things like that.  "You're an observer," she tells me.

And later on, when she leaves, I think her for helping me feel okay with my job of serving people.  She's lived in different parts of the world, Russia, England, France, Alabama...  She strikes one as wise, and that helps too.

Is it 'real,' what I do, any more real than anything else?  Yes, and no, or neither.  But, in a comfortable place, I would say, people do open up.  They do share things.  They engage in conversation, talk a bit about their life and experiences, like Jake tells about taking his young daughter on a camping trip to Chincoteague.  Everyone else is cooking hamburgers and hotdogs;  he's grilling a rack of lamb.

I guess that's why I do it, to talk to people, to ask them where they have been or coming from, if they are relative strangers, alone with no one to talk to.  "Ted's the smartest guy here," Jake says, more than once on a Tuesday wine tasting night.  We usually have a chuckle over that, as I deny it, as if it were a secret to be kept to not be off-putting, too far out of place, else society would ground, grind to a halt, here in Washington, DC.

A few words help.  Empowered when I get home, I pick up my mom's book, about Literacy and Women in the Nineteenth Century and letter writing and book collecting, and awake to how excellent it is, and how beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, (even) with all its academic paper references that are necessary to establish its foundation and progress.  And for a time, that intellectual life appears as suddenly quite useful to a society, one dumbed down by constant checking of a ringing, beeping, buzzing, vibrating in the pants pocket.  That life of the mind and ideas, a salvation, light, an endeavor to bring out the full power of the human mind and soul, and to celebrate the beauty of books and correspondence and words.  And maybe that literary light, that spark, shines down even to where I am and spend my time, 'professionally,' beneath the blabber and the rot, the pleasantries, the postures and stances.

Drop me down a rope, mom.  If only as something to hang on to, as the grind of serving plates, clearing dirty ones, getting the glassware washed and put away, the wine served, goes on and on and on and on and on.

(This is part of the secret appeal of Casablanca, that Rick, played by Bogart, is not just a smart guy, but an intellectual.  And also the inspiring beauty of Dostoyevsky, the intellectual life of Karamazov brought to school children, of the same in the context of daily life in a Siberian prison camp.)

How brave she was to go off later in life and get her PhD, to bring out what was inside of her.  Every intellectual life is a journey, like Dante's, like Lord of the Rings, like Lincoln's...

I don't blame anyone for attempting a moment of serenity in this world.  Of course some ways are a lot better and long lasting and fruitful than other ways, like meditation, contemplation of Buddha's thoughts.  There is an intellectual quality to that, I should think.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Japanese Culture.

Enough said.  Great stuff.  Humanity.

But...  the greatest horror of the last century...  the effect of industrialization, of economic competition in the industrialized age...  Japan, must keep up with the West (who has already accepted the fact of war over industrialization, the win and lose battle.)

Japan.  A country of subtle aesthetic, Zen, understanding of the fiber of Nature, the pattern in waves, in wood, in meat, in tea, in people, in time, in architecture, in all things... Nature, nature, nature...

And to be modern, the times are taking such people, and all their culture, and telling them, to add the machine, to add the machine to everything.

The machine is now the bee's sting, the bite of the predator, the fire, the warmth of a robe, the metal of a highway bridge...  no questions asked, must modernize, jump into the newest century...

And so Japan went crazy.  Fought to the death, over industrialization.

And, like the rest of us, now, can only ask why.

Nature disappears.  A little bit left, here and there.  Pathetic, our stewardship of natural resources.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chekhov's long short story, My Life:  It's one of those moments in art when human reality steps forth out of a traditional form, much like Giotto's transformation of the flat Byzantine iconic figure into the world of light, gravity and emotion.  The form was suddenly reduced in importance, and what came through was a liberation, a new freedom of expression no longer bound to the story.  Instead of 'this is holy, therefore it must be flat and distant from every day reality,' there is 'this is real, so let things be round and dimensional, as they really are.'

It is the inner self knowledge, the awareness of psychology, of one's own shortcomings to temptations and laziness, etc., that lets the Buddha face that which is in himself, to withstand, and to gain enlightenment.

An ad hoc quality...  The 'old man' (character's father) beating him with fists...  facing up to the life of disappointment after pissed away potential...  an acceptance of a life without a clear purpose or professional betterment...

It makes one think, or even realize, that Chekhov's life, even Chekhov, the great doctor, who had worked his way up from hard scrabble and mean old man, felt that 'lacking of direction.'  Even Chekhov.

And then you think about that for a moment, and the impetus, deeper level stuff, comes clearer...