Tag Archives: Buddhism

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.

Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

P.T. Barnum would be so proud:  One of the biggest con jobs ever successfully sold to a maddeningly enormous percentage of the masses in Western democracies, particularly in the United States, is that “tax cuts for the rich create jobs.”  It is dispiriting to see this nauseating mantra repeated as fact by low-income individuals who have bought in to the false promise of a country of “haves and soon-to-haves” – that is, the outright lie that everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough (shouted loudest by those who have usually fallen into their fortunes through accidents of birth).  (It was also fascinating to watch conservatives sit stone-faced on their hands as the President promoted the diametrically opposite view in last night’s State of the Union.)  I’m not an economist and I don’t intend to fog up the essence of my argument here with a lot of facts and figures, because the premise gets lost among the spreadsheets and pie charts.  It’s a more basic question, one that goes to the nature of human beings and their capacity for materialism.  Yet it proves just as solidly that supply-side economics will never, ever work.

The presidential election in 2012 offered Americans a stark choice of an incumbent president who had come from a poor family and worked his way up to the highest office in the land – the prototypical American dream, if you will – versus a natural born plutocrat with a silver spoon wedged firmly in his nether regions who dismissed almost half of the public as irredeemable and irrelevant moochers; and, thanks to unprecedented advertising spending and voter intimidation in key states, they came very close to picking the latter.  A remark from President Obama about successful businesses needing to use public infrastructure paid for by the collective taxes of the people was taken out of context and used by the GOP as their rallying cry.  Mitt Romney’s entire presidential campaign, characterized best by the video in which he railed about the “forty-seven percent” to fellow travelers, was trying to assert that the wealthy and successful were singular paragons of virtue, economic growth and American spirit, forever being harassed by a tyrannical, over-reaching government determined to claw away every preciously earned penny and spend it freely on undeserving deadbeats.  (Hardly a rousing “we shall overcome” or even “I like Ike.”)

Basically, Republicans tried to claim that Democrats were demonizing success, sort of a “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful” whine from the country club set. What’s ironic is that on any list of the most admired people in the world, it’s rare to find someone whose net worth is anywhere south of at least a few million.  Rich and famous celebrities are worshiped.  You’re hardly seeing a climate where the likes of Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are dragged from their mansions and paraded naked through the streets by the bedraggled masses.

Even in the aftermath of Romney’s humiliation at the polls and in the new congressional term, Republicans and their sympathizers insist that if we just keep giving rich people more money, well, I don’t really know what the endgame is supposed to be other than giving rich people more money for its own sake.  Perhaps the thought is that if they have $400 million instead of $300 million, that extra $100 million will simply fall from overflowing wallets like proverbial pennies from heaven, as opposed to being stashed in an offshore tax haven.  Even if we try to apply some logic to this argument and suggest that a more-rich person will be more inclined to use his windfall to start a new business that will hire some other folks, who’s to say that business will be successful and produce a product that will resonate and guarantee that these new jobs endure for decades?  It’s lining up all one’s fiduciary chips on a single roulette number and trusting in the decency and intentions of the person you’re enriching.  Communism never worked as Karl Marx intended it to because it failed to account for human nature – if you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s ideal state sounds utopian, but it can’t function unless everyone is really, really, REALLY nice to one another – a point lost somewhat on every oppressive Communist world leader ever, which is pretty much all of them.  One might overdose on the irony of capitalism failing for the same reason.

See, here’s the thing with wealthy people.  They may become wealthy because of hard work or, more cynically, because they have a famous surname, but they stay wealthy because they don’t spend their money.  They hoard it with the same obsession and zeal as the sad cases you see every week on A&E who have houses overflowing with old magazines, pieces of broken furniture and used diapers.  And the reason why they hoard it is because they are paranoid – scared to the depth of their bone marrow – that the unwashed barbarian hordes at the gate are coming to take it all away.  Perhaps they’re mindful of the tragic tale of Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia Powerball winner whose prize of $315 million led to him being sued over 400 times by greedy opportunists, the loss of his daughter to drugs and the last of his money to her dealers.  (Whittaker is apparently now broke and wishes in hindsight that he had torn up his ticket.)  But it’s the quintessential human problem of attachment to material things that renders the “more tax cuts for billionaires!” argument utterly unworkable in the real world.  Giving more money to a wealthy man and expecting that act to benefit the economy is like giving a crazy cat lady more cats.  Is the cat lady going to take her new surplus felines and hand them out to deserving orphans who’d love a little kitty of their own?  You can judge the chances of that based on the smell of her house.

We do so love our possessions, and it is against our human nature to share them.  Sure, we donate to charity, we give away old clothes – but we keep the really nice stuff for ourselves.  We’re programmed to.  Buddhism correctly equates attachment with unhappiness – it even turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  How else can one explain the legions of sour-faced billionaires like Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers who decided to open up their overflowing coffers not to improve the lives of their fellow Americans but instead into endless ad buys for the party that was promising to make things even easier for the likes of Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers?

It’s estimated that trillions of dollars in cash are missing from the global economy because they are being hoarded by corporate entities and others who are waiting for… well, it can’t possibly be the Rapture or the Mayan apocalypse since those both happened last year and we’re all still kicking.  This is the result of over thirty years of tax reductions by conservative and centrist governments clinging to the ideology of supply-side economics and still claiming despite a repeated pattern of failure that tax rates for the top should be reduced even further – since the growth they anticipate from cuts already in place isn’t happening (roughly the equivalent of saying that my house hasn’t caught fire yet so I should keep trying to light the carpet).  We also see pushes for right-to-work laws in multiple states and even Canadian provinces to cripple unions, force wages lower and boost corporate take-home higher.  This is not a plan for economic growth; it’s a plan to concentrate wealth into the hands of a rarefied few so they can continue their hoarding ways.  They forget the lesson of Henry Ford, who knew that his employees needed to be able to afford to buy the cars they were making in order for his company and indeed America to prosper.

“I never got a job from a poor person” is one of the most common retorts – as if one expects Uncle Pennybags and Scrooge McDuck to stroll down Main Street handing out employment contracts while bellowing like Oprah, “You’re getting a job!  And you’re getting a job!”  Lower and middle income workers are actually the people who generate these jobs.  Their spending is economic rocket fuel.  They’re the ones who buy, on a consistent and ongoing basis, the products that other workers make, necessitating that those jobs endure.  And when you earn less, you save less.  Because a higher percentage of their income is devoted to basic necessities, they can’t afford to stash it away, to hoard it in the Caymans and consequently away from the world’s economic engine like the world’s Romneys.  And they spend that money in their hometown or close to it, not on weekend jaunts to France on the private jet.

It continues to absolutely boggle my mind that any free-market conservative would be opposed to socialized medicine, given that absent the need to divert a huge chunk of their take home into monthly medical payments, people are more likely to spend that cash on clothing, furniture, new tech gadgets, you know, stuff that stimulates economic growth rather than the economic dead zone of a bloated insurance company’s bank account.  The same goes, and perhaps even more dramatically, for Social Security, as seniors aren’t likely to put much of their income into savings given they are in the autumn of their life.  They are more likely to spend that monthly cheque on things that require other people to work to make them.  What would “stop the motor of the world,” as the misguided Ayn Rand put it, would be a massive majority of the population unable to afford anything – not a bunch of billionaires throwing hissy fits and going away somewhere to sulk.

A rich guy may have vast reserves of cash, but he still has limited individual needs.  He is still only one mouth to feed and can only drive one car at a time (and can live in only one house at any given moment, even if he might decide to purchase six or seven more for kicks).  Is it not better to have a nation of millions who can all afford to buy food and a car and a home, thus ensuring robust employment for those who produce food, manufacture cars and build houses?  They’re the ones who need their tax burden reduced.  They are the real job creators – a rich man can start as many businesses as he likes, but if lower and middle income people aren’t buying what he’s selling, the businesses will fail and the jobs will disappear.  Ultimately, there will never be enough rich people to support the global economy on their own, because the one percent have no interest in doing so – they’ve proven that they want to keep the treasure for themselves, eternal Buddhist misery be damned.  And that’s why giving them more and expecting them to turn into Mother Teresas, and consequently expecting the economy to become a roaring prosperity factory, is a fatally stupid idea.

Aaron Sorkin takes on Steve Jobs

But can it sing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”?

He has said he loves his Mac, so I guess it’s no shock that Aaron Sorkin has agreed to write the upcoming big-screen retelling of the life of Steve Jobs.  What can we expect from this new venture?  I can see the fateful moment of the founding of the world’s biggest corporation unfolding something like this:

INT. JOBS HOME (CRIST DRIVE) – GARAGE – NIGHT – 1977

STEVE JOBS, STEVE WOZNIAK and RONALD WAYNE are standing around their first, crudely built computer.

JOBS:  What do you think?

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.

JOBS:  What do you mean it’s ugly?

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.  As in “unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.”

JOBS:  I was thinking “ugly” as in “involving or likely to involve violence.”

WAYNE:  Violence?

JOBS:  As in what I’m going to do to you if you don’t shove that Silenian gloom and doom up your ass.

WAYNE:  Forgive me for being the only one in the room worried about aesthetics.

WOZNIAK:  It is kind of ugly.

JOBS:  Kind of ugly?  There are degrees of ugly?

WOZNIAK:  Well, yeah, I suppose… there’s “yeah, whatever” ugly and “I-am-Oedipus-gouge-your-eyes-out-to-purge-the-horrible-memory” ugly.

JOBS:  It’s not that ugly.

WAYNE:  It’s pretty ugly.

JOBS:  Pretty ugly is another degree of ugly?  Like gorgeously abhorrent or beautifully hideous?

WAYNE:  Beautifully hideous, that’s good.  That suits it.

WOZNIAK:  What are we going to call this beautifully hideous thing?

JOBS:  Somehow I don’t see “beautifully hideous” as an effective selling point.

WOZNIAK:  Depends who you’re selling to.  You’d clean up with Dadaists and deconstructionists.

JOBS:  Yes, because they’re well known for their interest in computers.

WAYNE:  I can’t think of a good name.

WOZNIAK:  Me neither.

JOBS:  Come on, guys.

WOZNIAK:  I’m very good at integral and differential calculus, not naming things.

JOBS:  We need to think this thing differently.  You know, when Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree, he vowed not to rise until achieving enlightenment.  Part of enlightenment is what Buddhists call the concept of “sati” – the awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness and being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion.  Gentlemen, we are not moving from this garage until we come up with a name for this product, and I don’t care if we sit here until we are all so old and beautifully hideous that we can’t stand the sight of one another.

WAYNE:  The tree.

JOBS:  Pardon?

WAYNE:  The Bodhi tree.  What kind of tree was it?

JOBS:  A fig tree.

WOZNIAK:  “Fig Computers”?

JOBS:  No, something more primal.  Something indicative of beginnings.  Genesis.  Garden of Eden.  The fruit… the fruit of knowledge.  Apple.

WOZNIAK:  “Apple Computers.”

JOBS:  Apple Computers.

No one speaks for a moment.

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.

WOZNIAK:  Pretty ugly.  Beautifully hideous.

JOBS:  We’ll go with that then.

Not coming to theaters anytime soon…

Tanned, rested and ready

Feels awful. And it works.

As my better half has pointed out to me on many occasions, men are the ultimate wusses when it comes to getting sick.  Even a mild cold – as it was my oh-so-grave misfortune to suffer over the past few days – is the tribulations of the damned.  What’s more ironic is that it has been ages since I’ve been struck down with a truly dreadful case of sniffles.  I’ve always had a pretty strong immunity; never have I been one to spend a week confined to bed, my head oozing snot from every orifice.  The occasional illness, every six months or so, is overcome within a matter of one or two days, if not hours.  The problem is that when one is accustomed to more or less perfect health, one loses the capacity to endure discomfort of any sort.  Hence the infrequent stuffy nose turning into a harbinger of the apocalypse.  In any case, I think I’ve hit upon a pretty reliable recipe for licking that pesky rhinovirus (at least, it works for me; this should IN NO WAY be misconstrued as any form of medical advice, as I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television):  copious amounts of Vitamin C, orange juice and oregano tablets (bring on the spaghetti burps), washing the nasal cavity frequently with a neti pot and the kicker, the “cook it out” method:  basically, wrap yourself in as many sweaters and blankets as you can endure, dope yourself with NyQuil and go to bed, and let yourself sweat.  If you can stand it, the heat basically fries the virus out of your body and dramatically shortens your recuperation time.  The bad news is you have to go back to work that much sooner.  Anyway, I’m back and I’m ready to kick April’s cruel arse into May.

Nirvana at last.

As one of my many forays into the digital world, I’m on Foursquare, the social media platform where you earn points and virtual badges by “checking in” at different locations throughout the world (an expensive hobby if you travel frequently and don’t have a good roaming plan on your mobile).  One of my Foursquare contacts lives in San Francisco, another in Washington, and speaking of illnesses, I’m always struck with “square envy” when the cool places they’re visiting pop up on my notification board.  When friends are crisscrossing the continent checking in at places like embassies, monuments and concert halls, your long-held mayorship of the local grocery store doesn’t feel that impressive.  Call it a social media variant on the old “grass is always greener” saw; one of the drawbacks of this new phenomenon of ambient awareness, where everything everyone is posting as their status update seems a lot more profound than what’s going on in your ordinary life.  Then again, it’s all relative – something that seems unique to the first world is our ability to be dissatisfied with abundance, to see existential emptiness within the horn of plenty and to always crave more, or at the least, to crave the idea of not appearing boring to the others around us.  The Buddha was probably on to something with the whole concept of suffering being related to unfulfilled desire.  (Now how is that for a train of thought – from Foursquare to Buddhism in less than 200 words.  If that doesn’t qualify me for the “Downward Facing Dog” badge, I don’t know what does.)

One final random note for today – finally saw the Season 2 premiere of Game of Thrones and had forgotten that all the Men of the North and the Night’s Watch sound like they should be playing bass in 60’s Merseybeat bands.  I gather that since Sean Bean was cast first as patriarch Ned Stark, they needed to find actors with a similar Sheffield patois in their speech to reflect the idea that they are all from the same family.  Yet it’s interesting how the British accent (and its many regional and even neighborhood variations) seems ideally suited to the fantasy genre (the Lord of the Rings series being another prime example), and how actors speaking about kingdoms and dragons in American midwestern dialects yanks you out of the story faster than you can say “You betcha!”  Indeed, there is a conceit that any period piece, no matter where it is set, seems more genuine when the actors sound like they just graduated from RADA.  It was such an unusual choice of director Milos Forman, when making Amadeus, to allow the actors to speak in American accents, when the safer, more traditional bet would have been to go with the Queen’s.  The movie is set in Austria so British accents would be no more logical for the setting than say, Spanish ones, but still, something still feels a bit off in how people are speaking (then again, you couldn’t exactly have the genuine Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mozart).  Of course, the champion of mishmashed dialects still has to be one of my personal favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October, where you have a crew of Soviet submariners captained by a Scot (whose character is actually supposed to be Lithuanian) and made up of Englishmen, New Zealanders, Germans, Swedes, Italians and Frenchmen, with one token Russian-born actor providing a lonely hint of verisimilitude – not that he has any lines in Russian, of course.  I guess what matters most is internal consistency, so if the entire cast of Game of Thrones was Icelandic it would make just as much sense as having them all hail from working-class Northern England.  Wonder if one of the Starks will have to warn the others that “one on’t crossbeams gone owt askew on treadle”?