Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Sanity saved by Bing and the Andrew Sisters

Music in my head:

Cole Porter

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don't fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in.

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies.
On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise.

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can't look at hovels and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in.

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies,
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don't fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise.
Ba boo ba ba boo.

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in.
Poppa, don't you fence me in

Late breaking answers

Answers to Siona's ( very original :) ) questions:

What made you become a Buddhist?
It started when I was trying to get some control over migraines, back in my mid-twenties. I decided to see if meditation could help. I picked up a book entitled The Meditative Mind, which described all kinds of techniques for meditation. I sort of latched onto Buddhist techniques, because they were the simplest, just follow your breath. Later on I read The Miracle of Mindfulness and The Tao of Physics. The latter book got me into Taoism, the former into Buddhism. It seemed to me that Buddhism said qualitatively what science said quantitatively.

How did your fascination with computers start?
Originally, I was going to be a veterinarian. For various reasons that didn't happen. However, at the county fair there was a booth in the commercial building for a vendor of Apple computers. On the computer was the program "Trek", one of the first computer games that involved moving the Enterprise around in space and blasting Klingons. It was the most fascinating thing I'd ever done, and it warped me (pun intended) for life. I wanted to know everything about computers, how they worked, how to build them, how to program them, the works.

What would you have become if you couldn't have been an engineer?
I probably would have been a programmer, which is close, but not the same. I actually looked at tech schools. Their big selling point was that you studied just technology and you got your degree in only two years. At the time, I didn't know what an Associates degree was. When I looked at the jobs you could get with such a degree, you could be an "assistant" this or an "associate" that. Somehow, it didn't appeal to me. I thought that, one day, I might want to be in charge, so I decided to get the full degree. I ended up with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. It is telling, though, that I now have a Master of Science in Computer Science.

Music in my head: Still have Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in my head. It's been there for days now. I really like it, but still. Tried to purge it with some Beethoven yesterday. May have to try some sad folk music, like Bill Morrisey or Richard Shindell. Or jazz. Or watch children's television.

Sunday, November 28, 2004


Thanks for the recommendations! I'll have to check those out! Now, to the questions.

First, from Zenchick:

favorite secret junk food indulgence?
That would have to be a Chester's Ice Cream Sandwich, a made-in-Vermont concoction, which is a vanilla frozen custard between two chocolate-chip cookies. Yum!

if you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who?
Thomas Jefferson, Nanci Griffith, and Richard Dawkins

what have your migraines taught you?
This is a big subject, should probably dedicate an entire post (or two) to this. But, I'll hit a few highlights: We aren't in control of our lives as much as we think we are. Our connections to other people are very important. There's a lot of human kindness in the world. There is value in simple things. Attitude plays a large role in suffering.

Next, Mike's questions.

If you could pick the next president of the U.S. who would it be?
Howard Dean, with John McCain as his running mate

If you could change or initiate one law what would it be?
I would allow gay people to get married.

Who are the five most influential people in your life not counting friends or family?
I guess this would have to mean people I have not met or become friends with. So: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Jefferson, Shunryu Suzuki, Frijtof Capra, HH Dalai Lama

Next Alan's questions:
The Eskimos are supposed to have over a hundred words for snow; How many do you have for headache?
Technically there are a lot, I don't know the exact number, but probably around three dozen different ways to describe pain. For me, though, there are just a few: stabbing, pressure, ache. Also, pain is measured on a scale from zero to ten, with zero being no pain at all, and ten being the worst pain you can imagine.

Many, many, many, many moons ago, you asked the following question, and it stuck with me. So I'll ask it right back: We now have a base 10 numbering system; What base numbering system would we have if we all had 6 fingers/toes on each hand/foot?
We would probably have a base twelve numbering system. We would have twelve different symbols or digits, and the number 10 would actually be the value twelve rather than the value ten. There are several number systems in use besides the decimal system. For example, computers use the binary system, for which there are only two symbols, 0 and 1. So, the number 10 in binary is the value two. How does that work? 0 is zero, 1 is one, and now we are out of symbols, so we start a new column, and 10 is two. Another number system used in computer science is hexadecimal, or base sixteen, where the symbols are the numerals 0-9 and the letters a-f, and the number 10 has the value sixteen.

What is the one thing that gives you the greatest pleasure (Family/ friends notwithstanding)?
That would have to be experiencing "natural" phenomena. But that's a pretty broad area, and can range from watching birds to having sex to walking in the woods to listening to thunder.

Now for Karen's questions (not my wife Karen):

How do you think your migraines have changed your life?
This, too, is a big topic worthy of an entry of it's own, but I'll answer it here as best I can. Perhaps the biggest impact is that is has made me slow down. I was really a type A person who, when I couldn't finesse my way through a problem, would resort to brute force. Migraines have made me face many aspects of my life that I simply avoided before. I appreciate simple things; I notice things that I didn't before, including things I took for granted. They have made me aware of how self-centered I am. So, they have broadened my awareness.

Why are all the really interesting women named Karen?
There have been a number of interesting Karens in my life, so it wasn't surprising that I married one. One of the best electrical engineers I've known was a Karen. (I'm sure she still is, somewhere). I've had Karens who were teachers, I think. I guess it must have something to do with the name, it shapes a person somehow.

what question do you wish someone had asked?
What made you become a Buddhist? How did your fascination with computers start? What would you have become if you couldn't have been an engineer? Oh wait, that's three.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Audience participation

Happy Thanksgiving! Would you believe I just heard thunder? How odd!

Anyway, this was taken from Zenchick, who took it from Kat:

(A) First, recommend to me:
1. a movie
2. a book
3. a musical artist, song, or album

(B) I want everyone who reads this to ask me three questions, no more, no less. Ask me anything you want.

(C) Then I want you to go to your blog/journal, copy and paste this allowing your friends to ask you anything & say that you stole it from me.

Update: I'll make Part (C) optional if it'll get more response, 'cuz I know some of you don't have blogs. Will answer questions this weekend, so keep 'em coming!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Details on Fallujah shooting

You can read more details on the shooting at the Fallujah mosque I mentioned earlier from the blog of the cameraman who shot the video (I had it wrong - al-Jazeera got it from the news pool, it was a free-lancer working for NBC who got the video. Maybe you know this already).

I think it is important to get the words first-hand of what happened. Anyway, it makes for somber and powerful reading.

Thanks to Luminous Heart for the link. I want to echo Mahala's statement and sentiments here:

I wanted to leave comments, but decided to stay silent. Sometimes there's wisdom in silence when you know you can't be heard, when what you say will only fan the flames of anger. But I'm uneasy with that wisdom.

You're not alone.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Pain today, knife twisting, unrelenting. Nothing to do but wrap ice packs around my head and listen to Bill Bryson read his book A Walk In The Woods. Made me recall my hiking days. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

(I have to admit, this is the kind of day I expected most days to be like when I went off the pain meds. It hasn't turned out that way, so I find it pretty hard to complain.)

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sunday evening

It seems that al-Jazeera caught a US soldier on tape shooting an injured man lying helpless outside a mosque in Falluja last week, and that has the Arab world talking about it. I wonder if this is what our president has in mind when he talks about winning the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people?

November weather has finally arrived, cold, wet, and dreary. Neither Karen nor I have felt very good today, feeling mostly tired and drained. I've had a mild headache most of the day. I did get out of the house for a bit to visit my in-laws, dropping off stuff and picking up stuff, but it's been mostly a lay-about Sunday. The woodstove has warmed the house so well I finally had to open a window to cool things off.

After a month hiatus, I finally got an entry written for Theme and Variations.

I've been listening to music a lot lately, going through a stack of CDs of new and familiar works. This has been in lieu of sitting, which I still haven't felt comfortable doing. I really miss my meditation practice, but the weird feelings in my arms and joints just won't let me sit. This coming Wednesday I have a follow-up appointment at Dartmouth, maybe they can explain the problem and even help. I have noticed that the problem is getting less; before, I had a hard time sitting and reading, but I can do that now, for short periods. And, I can be still while music plays. I'm almost positive this is withdrawal symptoms still rearing its ugly head.

But there are other ways to practice. Chop and carry wood. Do laundry and general cleaning. Even walking meditation is a possibility I haven't explored. Daily life can be daily practice, if done mindfully. I need to keep reminding my self of that.

Music in my head: Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Music in my head:

When You're Smiling
Shay, Fisher, and Goodwin

When you're smilin'....keep on smilin'
The whole world smiles with you
And when you're laughin'....keep on laughin'
The sun comes shinin' through

But when you're cryin'.... you bring on the rain
So stop your frownin' happy again
Cause when you're smilin'....keep on smilin'
The whole world smiles with you

Oh when you're smilin'....keep on smilin'
The whole world smiles with you
Ah when you're laughin'....keep on laughin'
The sun comes shinin' through

Now when you're cryin'.... you bring on the rain
So stop that sighin' happy again
Cause when you're smilin'....just keep on smilin'
And the whole world gonna smile with

The great big world will smile with

The whole wide world will smile with you

Friday, November 19, 2004


Darlene Cohen has the following to say about ecstasy in her book Turning Suffering Inside Out:

Experiencing ecstasy from time to time is very important for our general health and well-being. By ecstasy, I mean that timeless, boundless feeling we have whenever we lose our ability to assign more value to one thing than another, to make judgments between this and that, to rate one thing or person or experience higher than another. The critical mind that oppresses us all the time is gone. Everything we encounter is just itself, not more worthwhile than anything else. We're completely immersed in our activity and surroundings; we're taking it all in, ever wondrous detail. Our discriminating mind is gone, taking with it all differences in the values of everything we're aware of. Now as we look around us, everything we sense and feel is just as fascinating and beautiful as every other thing we sense and feel. Everything has equal value. That's ecstasy.

We all need to get out from under our critical, judgmental thoughts from time to time and enjoy the freedom of being able to look at things with fresh eyes, with a view unencumbered by our usual opinions. What a flush of relief and refreshment! Thus, it becomes important to notice this experience when it happens to us spontaneously and also to actively cultivate it - that is, to set up situations in which it may occur.

We hear the word
ecstasy a lot in connection with religious or spiritual matters, or, more recently, in connection with what are called "peak experiences" brought on by psychedelic drugs or mind-expanding exercises that induce a sense of boundary dissolution. Our usual unconscious or vaguely uncomfortable feeling of being separated from the people and things around us is suddenly dissolved, and we feel at one with everything. What being "at one with everything" actually means is that we no longer perceive ourselves as more or less important than, or separate from, everything else. Usually, we have a vertical value system with ourselves at the top and our friends and concerns in descending order. When our boundaries have dissolved, our value system is suddenly horizontal, completely inclusive. Everything we perceive has the same high value. Our experience has an immediacy, an intensity, that is missing from a mind that assigns relative value to things according to their usefulness of beauty. This is indeed an ecstatic feeling, and having that feeling tends to make us very loving, generous, and expansive.

Ecstasy is an important kind of pleasure because it challenges our ingrained habit of thinking of ourselves as a separate entity forced to satisfy our needs in a not-always-safe "outside world." As soon as we make the distinction between self and other, we assign a higher or lower value to our self compared to everything else. How we perceive the "outside world" is very dependent on what our agenda is, what we need from the world, what out there we wish to avoid. It can be educational, not to mention exhilarating, to have the boundaries between "us" and "the world" dissolved.

Music in my head: More stuff from Bruce Hornsby

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Lookin' up!

It's really hard to beat getting a full night's sleep!

And yesterday was a really great day, a real turn-around, a pick-me-up sort of day. My appointment with my pain management doctor went well, with only one surprise at the end of it. Somehow summarizing the whole experience, just getting it out from beginning to end in every detail, seemed very helpful. When we talked about how things are going now, I told her how the pain seems to be about what it used to be, but things that are supposed to help that didn't before are helping now. She pointed out that now, without the meds, I am more invested in alternative treatments. Before, they were secondary techniques and they didn't have to work; I always had pain meds as the primary treatment.

With about fifteen minutes left I got the "atta boy" I was looking for, followed by the surprise; "Now, what about Karen?"


Now, look. I know I've been leaning on her a lot the last few years, and especially the last three weeks. There's a lot of rebuilding to do. But couldn't my shrink have given me a little time to bask in the glow of accomplishment? But, whether in gloom, despair, or glow, I've spent a lot of time on me and it's now I need to look outward. I need to C-O-N-T-R-I-B-U-T-E, to be an equal partner again. Give and take needs to be part of the regular flow and not just in the fits and spurts when she's tired or sick or inconvenienced. And above all, we need to have FUN!

Have I mentioned that Vermont is a small state? On leaving my appointment I ran into an old girlfriend coming out of the elevator. We had essentially not seen each other in ten years. "Belinda" and I had not parted on the best of terms (an understatement). Still, a decade can cover a lot of pain. We chatted for a little while (she was running late). What surprised me was how good it felt to see her, to talk to her. She looked good, sounded good. This wasn't some old-flame rekindle kind of thing; more of the feeling one gets from not seeing someone after a long time and finding that they are doing well. I hope it is a true impression.

In the afternoon was the first meeting of the next pain management group, for which I may have mentioned I will be volunteering. This is a smaller group than they have been in the past, which I think works better. The group is run by my pain doctor. She mentioned to the group that I was now off pain meds and only using the techniques to be taught in the group (not exactly true, I use more techniques than that, but maybe I can pass them on), setting up some expectations and proving once again that noone is completely useless, they can always serve as an example.

As has happened when I volunteered before, I left the group with a searing, splitting headache, and, this may sound strange, but it actually felt good. As I drove home I reveled in the stabs and throbbing, which desisted shortly after I got home. I know why this happens; during these meetings, I tense up. I have to remind myself to relax, and I'll do OK. But, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was doing something, however small, helping someone else with similar problems, reaching out of my little pain cocoon, making connections with people.

Music in my head: The Way It Is, Bruce Hornsby

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

My fascination with Arabic culture

Ah, the wonders of insomnia.

Several years ago I became fascinated with Arabic culture. I didn't get to the point where I learned the language (I'm not good with languages). But I did get an English copy of the Koran (or Quran or Q'uran or ...) and read it and figured it loses something in translation, at least in the translation I read. And I read a few books which were surveys of different Arabic nations.

Unfortunately, this is too often how I learn things. I didn't travel to Egypt or the Middle East or anything like that. I read books. It's how I learn things.

Like most Americans, I when I thought of Arabs I thought of the PLO and terrorists. It was just natural, I guess; in the news and movies and media, it was to terrorists that I was exposed. And it was terrorism that brought me to wonder about Arabs. What was it about Arab culture that made them terrorists?

It didn't take much research to discover that it's a bit simplistic to refer to something as "Arab culture." What we're talking about is a diverse group of people who have in common the Arabic language. And while most Arabs are Muslim, not all are; some are Christian, some are even Jewish, and I wouldn't be surprised to find nearly all of the world's religions represented by an Arabic speaker.

Early on I learned, too, that most Arabs, most Muslims, are as appalled at terrorism as we are in the "West." Extremism is not the norm in the Arabic world, but it gets a lot of airplay. In fact, tolerance for other religions is one cornerstone of Islam, something some of our Christian folk could stand to adopt over here. And while the American South may have a reputation for hospitality, it has nothing on the Arabs.

Arabs get portrayed as being somewhat backward, but it is my understanding that some of their cities and nations, such as Bahrain, are just as modern as Western cities. While Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, it was the Arab world that was keeping alight the knowledge of science and mathematics, and the writings of the ancient Greeks. When you go to write a check for the rent or the mortgage, you're doing it with Arabic numerals.

Crime, particularly violent crime, is a bigger problem in America than it is in the Arab world. Many people believe this is due to the sharia, the Islamic code of law which calls for draconic measures to be taken as punishment for a crime. But the sharia is practiced in very few of the Arab states (to my knowledge, only in Saudi Arabia, though I think Sudan has or has had it). I think it is a cultural difference that leads to less crime; it just isn't done.

Again, let me state that these are my impressions. I don't know these things from personal experiences, but they seem to be consistent from the sources that I read. I won't claim to be an expert, but I feel pretty certain that we don't get a clear picture of the Arab world. We get movies like Hidalgo which are not very flattering of Arabs (and in fact are down-right racist, some of them).

But it isn't all bad. Recently on Bravo we saw an episode of The West Wing (the only episode I'd ever seen) that dealt with the issue that separated Islam from extremists, and associated Islamic extremists with the KKK (now THAT'S something to which Americans could relate).

But I'm afraid that there isn't any incentive to give an even-handed (to hell with that, how about accurate!?) view of either Arabs (a BIG subject) or Islam (another BIG subject) in the US, and that's why we such tolerance for things like this. Wouldn't it be great if we could get someone like Ken Burns to do a series on the Arab world?

Music in my head: It's kinda quiet up there this morning

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Doctors and vets and shrinks, on my!

Poor Kane has been scratching a lot since the middle of last week. I though it might have something to do with using the woodstove, though this seems to not dry out the air as much as the forced-air furnace does. He also seemed to have some, er, uh, well, rear-end itching, too, which sometimes means worms. So, yesterday morning I took him to see the veterinarian.

The vet ran a comb through the hair on his back. We think Kane may be part Husky, and he has that underfur that Huskies have. She then did something very interesting I'd never seen done before. She soaked a cotton ball with water and daubed the fur with it. She told me that if he had fleas, the fleas suck blood from the dog, and the flea excrement, when wetted, would turn red. Sure enough, a few red dots appeared on the cotton ball. She combed a few more hairs, and looked him over. Neither of us could see any fleas or any flea dirt, but this time, we found a flea on the edge of the table. Ah ha!

Apparently this time of year fleas are looking for any place that is warm. Dogs who are sensitive to fleas need only get one flea on them to get itchy. It's odd; he spends a lot of time outside in the summer and doesn't get fleas, and very little time outside when it is cold. Sneaky buggers, those fleas! But, a treatment of Advantage, and a little Prednisone, and he isn't scratching anymore.

This morning the alarm went off as usual and Karen got out of bed, and I went back to sleep. I woke up when she got back into bed. Uh oh. She'd been sniffling a bit last evening and her throat was a little sore, and last night she awoke with a throat so sore she couldn't swallow. Afraid she had strep, she called in sick, not wanting, of course, to give it to any of her students. I called and got her a doctor's appointment, made her tea and toast, and took her in. We took Kane with us; he doesn't do well in the house when one of us is sick. While she went in to visit the doctor, I took Kane for a walk in the woods around the doctor's office, the first real walk I'd had in awhile. It wasn't too cold, the sky was partly clear, the air was brisk but not biting. All the leaves are down now, and the trees stand stark as does the underbrush, and you can see far into the forest. Kane somehow got some thistle buds stuck to his back. We went back to the car and waited for Karen.

The quick test indicated no strep, but her glands are all swollen. She seems like a run-down clock, or a flashlight with old and worn batteries. I'm going to try to talk her into staying home tomorrow if I can if she doesn't look any better, but she can be pig-headed about these things.

Tomorrow I have an appointment in the morning with my pain doctor, who has been on vacation. We have a lot to talk about. She doesn't know about the adventures at Dartmouth and the aftermath. It was through her that I was being treated with methadone, though she had wanted me to get off it. I know this is dumb - after all, I am paying her for treatment - but I want to see her reaction to all that has happened. Over the last few years when the "wheels have come off" as they have lately her guidance and wisdom has helped get me centered. Things that should be obvious to me she deftly points out, getting me back on an even keel. It is unfortunate that she took a holiday when she did - can you sue a doctor for mal-vacation?

A new pain management group starts up tomorrow as well. I plan to volunteer as a "big brother" to the participants of the group. I have done this once before. Basically, I serve as a contact point for participants, if they have questions about techniques, or the readings, or some such. I call and check up on absent members, and sometimes lead guided meditations at the start of the meeting. In general, I help out my pain doctor running the meetings and discussions.

This is going to be a real test for me. Prior to going to Dartmouth, I knew I was more than ready to do this. If things got nasty, I had the methadone to fall back on. Often the intensity of the meetings would cause me to have pretty nasty headaches. It got so I would just dope myself before I went.

And, in the last few days, the headaches have begun to return to their original intensity. I've had three days in the last four where the headaches have been bad enough that I would have treated them with methadone before. However, they have responded to triptans, ice, Advil, and Exedrin (today), where before they would not have. Tomorrow is a busy day, so if I do get a headache, I will probably go the chemical route again.

But I've noticed something has shifted, changed. When I awoke with a bad headache this morning, the thought occurred to me, "You know what? You've got no recourse here. Your safety net is gone. There is no sure-fire relief, there is no way out if this gets worse." And I confess, for a few seconds, I felt panic. But it didn't last. I wrapped the ice around my head and crawled into bed, and felt better. I didn't take anything else, and it got better. I can't exactly say I relaxed, but I didn't get paralyzed, either. After about half an hour, the pain had subsided enough to take care of Karen. Getting outside and walking boosted my spirits to the point to where I was in a pretty good mood.

Oh, my moods are still all over the place. I still have aches in muscles and joints, mostly on my left side (controlled by the right side of the brain, where the emotions are). Still, I feel like I have turned a corner, one I have been avoiding for a long time. Though I've got the stamina of a dehydrated earthworm I feel somehow healthier, more right. I feel that what I'm lacking is some sort of skill, or realization. Maybe it's like I said to Siona once; That I'm already healed, I just don't realize it yet. Though in similar situations I would have considered myself to be in a hole, I don't feel that way now. I'm on a path. Right now I'm lying sprawled and gasping on the path, not moving very fast or very far, but I'm on the path and this time I think I'm on the right one.

Music in my head: Long Way Home, Norah Jones

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The day of the birthday boy

My birthday odometer clicked over to 42 today.

It was a rotten morning. I didn't sleep well. I've been avoiding the sleep meds; I guess maybe I'm gun-shy of meds now, especially those that can be addicting. But it is my birthday and so I'm going to indulge myself tonight.

I think it was in the seventies when those super-balls came out. Anyone remember those? About half the size of a baseball, they were made of some kind of compressed plastic or rubber that was clear, with maybe a swirly thing in the middle. The big selling point of these balls were that you could throw them on the ground and they would bounce a mile high. Well, that described my emotions this morning. They'd smash on the ground, then flip up into the air and then crash into the earth again. I'd try to do something useful and I'd get to feeling pretty good; then my stamina would give out and I'd drop like a rock.

Finally, I decided to just lay down and listen to music. I have a collection of Leonard Bernstein conducting all four of Brahms' symphonies, and I put the Fourth on the stereo and lay down on the couch and let the music wash over me. This isn't light-hearted music. But somehow this symphony can lead me through the darkest of moods and bring me out to the other side; not a side of joy or happiness exactly, but one of relief. It has never failed me and it didn't this time. In fact, somewhere before the third movement I fell asleep. I remember Karen telling me she was going to church and kissing me before she left, then back to sleep I went.

I didn't sleep long. When I awoke, the symphony was over, but the Tragic Overture was playing. I felt a lot less lousy. After the overture, I listened to Brahms' Third Symphony, but it didn't do much for me. This was followed by his Haydn Variations, which I like. Still wanting the emotional crutch, I next played Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. For this I sat in a chair and just closed my eyes and listened. I could feel the heat coming off the woodstove on my right. The sun was coming through the bay window. I could feel the relaxation response coming over my body for the first time since I came back from the hospital, a nice birthday present to myself.

When it was over, I showered and went to my in-laws for a little birthday get-together. We had a nice dinner and cake, and I got some very nice presents. My nieces were wonderful this evening, they seem to be warming up to me. One of them brought me a band-aid to put on her make-believe boo-boo. They both had a great time helping me unwrap my presents.

But driving over there I was listening to Bruce Hornsby, and the song lyrics mirrored my emotions:

Listen to the mandolin rain, listen to the music on the lake
Ah listen to my heart break, everytime she runs away
Listen to the banjo wind, sad song drifting low
Listen to the tears roll, down my face as she turns to go

Coming home, I was much more joyful. Spending time with laughing, happy toddlers did my heart no end of healing. Their smiles, giggles, and playful antics were a band-aid on my spiritual boo-boo.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


I'm wondering if you are getting as tired of reading about my health problems as I am of writing about them.

Just got off the phone with my parents, they got home OK. It was a long day for them; they had about three hours to the Manchester airport, I don't know how many hours in the air, and then another two hours or so of driving from Nashville to home. They sounded tired, and happy to be home. I'm sure they've had enough cold to last them for awhile as well.

Got the first really serious headache since I got back from Dartmouth today. Ice packs and Imitrex are keeping it at a manageable level. I only needed half the usual dose of the medicine to get some relief, and this is a headache that before would have required pain meds.

Oh. I didn't want to write about my health.

Tomorrow is my birthday, I turn 42. I don't know if that will mark the halfway point of my years on this Earth, and have mixed feelings about thoughts of it both being so and not being so. We'll have a little dinner and cake at my in-laws tomorrow evening, assuming I feel up to it.

The afternoon was spent watching Texas teams play football through the wonders of satellite television. I got the joy of seeing the Texas Longhorns avoid a big upset in the closing minute of the game, and the disappointment of watching the Texas A&M Republicans win in overtime.

I didn't watch Wisconsin, but the last I saw, they were losing pretty big.

I've just started an interesting book entitled Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain by Darlene Cohen, which I found on the "currently reading" list of Sujatin's blog lotusinthemud. More as I get into it deeper.

In fact, I think I'll try to get in a few pages before I go to bed.

P.S. The fire in the woodstove feels very nice and warm.

More early morning musings

Things turned upside down - now, instead of staying awake until 3 AM, I'm only sleeping until 3 AM. Round and round and round we go, spinning, whirling. Life has grabbed me by the ankles and tossed me off into free space twisting and turning, the view of the planets, the sun, and the stars whizzing by, without the force of gravity of give me some sense of up and down.

Yet despite the physical wingdings the mental environment is improving. I've been getting rambunctious. Yesterday we took my parents downtown to the bookstores and then for a drive along the lake, followed by dinner at my in-laws. It was at the latter place where I hit a wall, and had to lay down. I had to beg off visiting after the meal and head home. I also realized there was no way I was going to be able to take my parents to Manchester to the airport today; it would be five to six hours of driving and I'm just not up to that yet, so my father-in-law is going to take them.

As I said before, I'm sorry to see me parents go. They've been a stabilizing force for the last week, but I think they've propped me up enough that I can stand on my own again, at least for short periods at a time. Outwardly, they tell me I am doing well, but I notice they sometimes stop talking when I enter the room. I suppose it is quite possible they are at least a little freaked out.

Physically I still get muscle aches, though they aren't nearly as bad as they were, and they seem to be confined to my left side. I wonder if this is what people feel who have arthritis. The headaches I've had have responded to over-the-counter medicines.

The Zen Center will be celebrating Great Jukai in a few weeks, but I don't think I will be healthy enough to go. I'm mildly bummed by this; this would be the second jukai I missed. I have this slight desire to be "official" by taking the vows, but I confess it doesn't bother me too much, as I don't put too much store in those kinds of things.

This whole experience has shown me how kindly people can be. From the folks who have brought us dinners and goodies to my parents who flew halfway across the continent to the people all over the place who sent e-mails and blog comments to the in-laws who have pitched in to help. There's been the support of doctors from multiple medical facilities. And, of course, there's been Karen right in the middle of all of it. Though outwardly she has been a pillar of strength, I know this ordeal has been a terrible strain and she has struggled to put her best face forward. She wants her husband back; not the husband of a few weeks ago, but the husband of a years ago who was a source of strength and encouragement; the husband who was quick with a smile and a back rub.

Hold on! I'm coming!

Music in my head: I Can't Go To Mexico, Chuck Pyle

Friday, November 12, 2004

In the wee small hours

As my abused body descends towards a new level of normalcy, I find the problems with insomnia continue. The body aches come and go. Tonight they seem to have settled on my left side. Ah, better living through chemistry.

Spent much of the day toodling around Burlington to various places that sell digital cameras. My parents do a lot of travel, and my father wanted to find a model that was easy enough that my mother could use it. He finally found one from a helpful sales clerk with a very charming accent. We then went to one of the big-box book stores (there are no decent books stores near where they live) and then to dinner with my mother-in-law.

It has been a real blessing having them around this week, and I am not looking forward to their departure. I dropped the idea on them that I'd like them to stay until Tuesday but they didn't go for it, so Friday will be their last full day here. They did say that I could go to visit them, and I confess I find the notion very tempting. But I should probably stay close to my doctors for the next few weeks.

My pain doctor comes back from her vacation on Wednesday, and I have an appointment to see her then. She doesn't know about all the fun I've been having, so we'll have lots to talk about. A new pain management class starts on Wednesday as well, and I will be volunteering in that program once again. More than ever I feel ready to help people cope with their chronic pain.

And for all of you who have been following my condition - things are getting better, in multiple ways. Though sleep is still an issue (one I am confident can be solved) and the withdrawal symptoms continue, I can't help but believe the worst is over. Furthermore, there's been enough experience for me to say that the headaches have gotten less as well. Though I still have them, they are less in severity. I've been hesitant to conclude this; usually, my headaches go down when my other body aches go up. But the reverse is usually true and it hasn't happened yet.

Sadly, my practice is all off and I'm wondering if I'll have to start all over again. I don't think so, but until I attempt it I won't know for sure.

As always, I want to again thank everyone who has wished me well in e-mails and comments.

At the risk of getting long winded (or the cyber equivalent), I want to address, for what I hope will be the final time, the dark mood I detect from so many following last week's elections.

My last entry, which quoted Jack Kornfield, generated more comments than my quotes usually do. In addition, I had an interesting conversation with my mom this morning when she said something to the effect that our elected officials "don't listen to us once they get into office." It occurs to me that the problems we have most often are not with our own elected, but with those from other places. For example, I think the world of both of my state's senators, my representatives in the state house and senate, and even find our state governor palatable. I like my town council, and the members of my local school board. When I asked my mom, she indicated that she really likes her governor and senators and representatives and local government (she lives in Tennessee). But some of those people in Washington, oh boy!

So what we have, I think, is a government that is constructed of representatives from different regions of the country who have different ideas about what is important. So our differences of opinion are not between us and our government, but between different regions of the nation. And I think this has usually been the case; certainly, if we look at the history of the forming of our government, we see that much of the Constitution evolved from the differences between the regions and the negotiations among the representatives.

This is not to say that there are not problems. But I think it is important to identify that our differences are not between our representatives and ourselves, but between geographically different groups of people.

Having said that, how do we react to the results of the previous election? Certainly, Bush owes his reelection to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. Without those attacks of the twin towers, I don't think Bush's negative campaigning would have been enough to overcome his poor performance on domestic issues. (If Michael Moore is right, Bush owes the bin Laden family a lot). In addition, the Democratic party has to take responsibility for selecting a poor candidate to run for the office. While it is true that the Bush campaign twisted some of Kerry's words out of proportion and out of context, the fact of the matter is Kerry was not consistent in his stands and gave the impression he would say anything to win.

But, back to my question, how do we react? I think we do as Kornfield suggests; first, we get our own act together. The march of enlightenment moves mostly forward, though there are the occasional retreats and setbacks. We who are concerned with the way the country is run should show our values in the way we run our lives. Consistent action makes a bigger impression than bumper-sticker politics. Do what we can to right the wrongs and solve the problems that are around us locally by rolling up our sleeves and lending a hand where we can. Show compassion for victims of war and disaster, and help when you can. Maybe words can move mountains, but picks and shovels are a whole lot more effective.

One of the fundamental laws of Buddhism is impermanence. Everything is in flux, doing a wild energetic dance at the quantum level and shifting and reshaping at higher levels. Pendulums swing back and forth. People are born, go on a few diets, and die. There are children to teach and schools to build and mouths to feed. There are lessons to be learned and secrets to reveal. This isn't some story that starts with a cosmological firecracker and ends with an election.

Nothing that happened last week should have any effect on your spiritual values, and if those values don't cause you to have care and concern for your neighbors, they "ain't worth a pitcher of warm spit." You have your practice, now go practice.

Now don't make me tell you again.

Music in my head: Georgia On My Mind, Ray Charles

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Election aftermath

I read the following in the new issue of Buddhadharma:

Dharma practitioners who want to act in the sphere of politics must quiet their minds and open their hearts. Meditate, turn off the news, turn on Mozart, walk through the trees or the mountains, and begin to make yourself peaceful. Make yourself a zone of peace, and allow the sensitivity and compassion that grows from our interconnection to extend to all beings. If we're not peaceful, how can we create harmony in the world? If our own minds are not peaceful, how can we expect peace to come through the actions we take?
Once we have looked clearly, we can set a long-term intention, and dedicate ourselves to a vision of a wise and compassionate society. This is a bodhisattva's act. Like setting the compass of the heart, this intention expresses our deepest values. If we set a long-term intention, it remains empowering no matter who wins a particular election, or what governments rise and fall. It becomes our way of practice. Thomas Merton taught, "Do not worry about immediate results. More and more you must concentrate on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself." With a dedicated intention we are willing to face the suffering of the world and not shy away, to follow what we know is true, however long it takes.

---Jack Kornfield

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Aftermath: Part 3

Another late night. I thought I'd licked the sleeping problems. Slept very well last night, finally. Thought everything would be set for a repeat tonight, but have now confirmed that I've got bad side-effects from yet another of the meds I got from Dartmouth. This one was supposed to help me sleep, but all it does is make my muscles twinge, and so maybe it has been the culprit all along. I forgot to take it last night. I think I will forget to take it from now on.

Got out of the house this afternoon for the first time in two weeks that didn't involve a doctor visit. My parents live where there is very little in the way of comforts shopping, so we took them out to help the Vermont economy. Tomorrow we will be taking them to visit bookstores.

Physically, things have improved quite a bit. The muscle aches have diminished, though I spent most of the day with one of those "cricks" you get in your neck when you've slept wrong. I've moved on to a new stage in withdrawal symptoms which I won't mention except to say you might want to invest in McNeil-PPC, the folks who make this stuff.

Poor Kane, our dog, has become very discombobulated. He knows something is not right with the pack alpha dog, but he isn't sure what and doesn't like it whatever it is. He spends most of his time just being near me. He's gone back to moving things around when we go out, which is troublesome.

People have been very supportive. A Muslim friend has brought us food two nights this week, and a Christian friend brought a delicious blueberry pie this evening. I got a wonderful e-card from my cousin, and there've been some nice comments read on the blog. Karen has been a great source of comfort, as have my parents. Thanks, y'all, for your words of support and your thoughts and prayers. I'm really touched by your generosity.

I guess I'm getting a lesson in the first of the Four Noble Truths. Which leads me to another point, I haven't been meditating since I got home. Kinda hard to do when your body wants to flop about uncontrollably.

All-in-all, though, it would seem that I am past the worst of it, unless I'm in the calm of the hurricane's eye.

Music in my head: Cold, Cold Heart, Norah Jones

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Aftermath: Part 2

The white-water raft-ride down the rat hole continued today.

One of the neurologists from Dartmouth called me Sunday morning - that's right, Sunday morning! to check on my status and sounded genuinely concerned. She had a bit of a difference of opinion as to what is going on, at least as far as the bizarre nighttime wingdings go. She strongly advised that I get help locally as soon as possible and make sure there was someone around at all times if possible.

A quick check of the pill book showed that, yeah verily, Zanaflex can give you hallucinations and psychotic episodes, and the fact that the weird dreams stopped when I stopped the drug confirms this, at least for me. I did finally drift off to sleep around 3 AM last night, and got four tortured hours or "rest."

I visited my regular doctor today, who gave me a few week's supply of meds to get me through the anxiety-ridden mornings. She thought they might help me sleep. But here I am at 1AM still unable to sleep. My parents arrived today to help with the baby-sitting, and Karen and I got some groceries to keep them fed while they are here. I tried to find some decent stationary note cards to send to soldiers, but couldn't find anything appropriate, so I snagged some postcards. This evening after dinner I took a long soak on a hot bath filled with BathTherapy salts, which eased the aching and cramping in my legs somewhat.

Poor Karen, this is all so surreal for her, maybe even more so for her than for me. This is very, very hard on her, as she is trying to keep our home together along with her job responsibilities, not to mention her own sanity.

The doctor said that the physical withdrawal symptoms should be over in two or three weeks. Finally, I have a target time at which I might expect release. It's a long way out there, but at least I know when to expect it.

Meanwhile, I have my parents with which to visit, and plenty of Pema Chodren to read while everyone is asleep.

Sleep tight, y'all.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Aftermath: Probably Part 1

Since getting back from the hospital I've been psychically gang-tackled, or, more appropriately, have become the victim of a never-ending game of "Kill The Guy With The Migraine." Not only am I having withdrawal symptoms from previous meds, but having psychedelic side-effects from the new ones. One of the latter involves sleep disturbances that are preventing me from resting, including very vivid dreams. At first they were pleasant enough; dreams of multi-colored fur-bearing penguins and ostriches, seeing people I thought I knew while taking surreal motorcycle rides (said motorcycles turning into bicycles and then small dogs); then things got really weird. So, we can cross that med off the list.

One of the new meds for pain is giving me muscle spasms.


In the mail today I received a CD I ordered just before I went to Dartmouth. The CD, I Go To Pieces by Ann Armstrong and Steve Hughes, is an older release originally put out on vinyl. I had some small contribution in getting the album recorded (very small) and an ex-sweetheart, Emilie Aronson (not a very good picture, sorry), does some back-up vocal work on it.

But what makes this CD special is that you simply can't listen to when you are feeling down or blue. I mean, you just can't. Oh sure, you may be down when you put it on the stereo, but it will transform your mood quicker than a cracker jack high. If you've ever seen this duo perform live (may be a trio, I seem to recall they had a bass player, but I haven't seen them play in well over twelve years, since I moved from Dallas) it is just physically impossible to stay still in your seat and listen. Your feet move. Your head bobs. Your whole body sways. And joy starts to fill in between your toes like mud made of gold and climbs into your soul and you know you are alive.

So what kind of music is it? Well, the closest thing it resembles is driving Texas blues, maybe in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughn. And there's a full driving sound like Stevie Ray's. Some of the songs on the CD are blues tunes written by others. But the best stuff is the original work by Ann and Steve. With lyrics that sound like they came from some of my vivid dreams on too much beer, and music and melody that is pure driving music ('ll want to play this CD in your car! A lot!), this ain't toe-tappin' ditty hear, but foot-stompin' aural joy.

I snatched up the last two copies from, the link above gives other sources, I don't know how much longer the CD will be available. It's an understatement to say I recommend it. And, of course, if you ever get the chance to see them live, by all means, do it.

The title piece, I Go To Pieces, is the Music in my head.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Back in one bedraggled piece

First of all, thanks to everyone who sent me well wishes in comments and e-mails, I really, really appreciate it.

Because I didn't get to the hospital until the afternoon of the 1st, they kept me there an extra day and I got back home last night.

The ordeal was a mixed success. The DHE protocol, which is something like 70% effective, did not work for me, so we can throw that out as a possibility. The spinal tap/lumbar puncture showed an elevated spinal fluid pressure, however the doctors are not sure if that is due to something being wrong or to the conditions of the test.

The ST/LP was done Monday evening. For those not in the know, the proceedure involves sticking a needle into the spinal column in the small of your back. They can then take a sample of the fluid and measure the pressure. What was supposed to happen was they were to give me some sort of something to keep me calm. The neurologist, a very proper Londoner (is there any other kind?), applies a local to the puncture site, then proceeded to go into the spinal column.

A sharp, electric pain shot down my right leg, and I involuntarily kicked out, luckily hitting noone. Oh yeah, I think I screamed, too.

More local anaesthetic. Can you feel that? No? OK, here we go again.

A sharp, electric pain shot down my LEFT leg, and I involuntarily kicked out, luckily hitting noone. I'm pretty sure I screamed that time.

But the third time worked. But, because things didn't go so well, they don't know if the elevated pressure is just too high, or because I didn't cooperate and relax during the procedure. (But I tried, I really did. Can you imagine what it is like waiting for the next shock down a limb?)

In any event, I've been given meds that should drop that pressure, which I will build up in dosage over time. They may want to repeat that LP in a month.

In other news, they have taken me off pain meds, to remove the possibility of rebound headaches. This means I won't have the use of them for three or four weeks. I was given some other meds to use to combat the pain (including a month's supply - 60 in all - of suppositories). [Side note - while everything I'm saying here is true as best as I can remember it, I'm really, truly hoping that you are getting at least a giggle out of this. I know I will at some point - I've had a bit of smirk as I've written this - /Side note]

So that's the up-to-the-minute situation. I owe a few of you e-mails, and I'll get around to answering them, I promise. But my back is really, really sore and I find it hard to get comfortable for any length of time sitting in any one position. But, again, thanks for all your kind thoughts and words.

Music in my head: We Believe In Happy Endings, Earl Thomas Conley and Emmylou Harris (really, isn't that something?)