Three In The Morning

A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them:

“As regards your chestnuts: you are going to have three measures in the morning and four in the afternoon.”

At this they became angry. So he said: “All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.” This time they were satisfied.

This is Chuang Tzu’s “Three in the Morning” as presented in  The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

The monkey trainer is skilled at something that I have always had trouble with: separating what I need (or want) from getting my way. He needed to ration out 7 chestnuts a day. It didn’t make a difference to him how the chestnuts were distributed — just how many. By separating that from insisting that the monkeys accept his offer, he got what he needed.

My Father used to say “Give ’em what they want and they’ll leave you alone.”

My father was an Army guy, where this advice is pretty obvious. There’s little room for negotiation in a strict hierarchy, and even less for a compulsive contrarian like myself. It’s a wonder I lasted 2 enlistments.

But Dad applied it to his regular job too. He worked in a quasi-sales/engineering role so keeping clients happy while protecting his employer’s bottom line was his bread-and-butter.

Like many things my father used to say, I often think of this right after a situation where remembering it would have been a better strategy than what I ended up doing.

A few weeks ago our car got a flat tire. Well, it didn’t get the flat so much as develop it. Dagmar noticed one tire was very low and I filled it. A few days later it was completely flat. This tire really wanted a lot of attention, perhaps even a career change as a backyard swing.

This caught me off guard since I thought of the car as “new” and “low mileage.” Then I realized it was 9 years old and mileage didn’t matter: tires dry out and crack and I had somehow managed to keep a single car long enough for that to happen to one tire, and the other three were just biding their time.

We’ve just moved to this area and my regular guy for auto repairs, an “independent” that has his place walking distance from our old house, is too far away now. I discovered him when the Honda dealer “recommended” $1200 in repairs and he did what was actually needed for less than $250.  But the logistics of getting the car there and then back home would have been too much.

So I was going to have to find a new place.

There’s a tire place about a mile and a half from our new home. I called them from work and they assured me they had the tires I needed. He cut me off before I could ask some qualifying questions about type, but I assumed (oops) that the tires for a 2007 Fit were a common size that most places would keep in stock, in multiples of four.

So naturally when I got there the next day they didn’t have the tires.

I can laugh now, but it was truly an exercise in frustration. The “salesperson” (I use the term loosely) kept pushing me toward the cheapest tires they had. When I asked hime for a price to get him away from me long enough to look for what I actually wanted he discovered they only had 2 in stock.

When I found what I wanted (all-weather radials with a long warranty) he found they had only one of those.

This lead to him asking if I could have the flat tire replaced now (I drove there on the “fake” spare) and then coming back the next day for the other three. This didn’t work for me. I was already taking a “long lunch” on a work-from-home day and had to go back to the office tomorrow. Since they didn’t open until 9, dropping the car off and then taking the bus would lead to getting to work too late.

I was really annoyed that they didn’t have tires when I had called to confirm the day before. This was foremost on my mind, was influencing my attitude about the entire situation.

Finally the manager showed up. He offered to have me leave the car overnight. I immediately became even more upset. How was that going to help?!? I wanted tires! They didn’t have them!!

He pointed out that I had mentioned taking the bus in to work tomorrow. I could pick up the car after work. They were open late tomorrow.

The manager figured out what I needed and offered it. I just needed to get off my high horse long enough to hear him.

I left the car. They ended up getting the tires early enough to finish it the same day anyway.

Focusing on the desired result, rather than short term “moral” victories is a skill I need to cultivate. I wish I realized this long ago.

photo credit: miss_millions

The Pursuit of Good

“When all the world recognizes good as good, it becomes evil,” because it becomes something that one does not have and which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it becomes unattainable.

This is the paradox of Lao Tzu as quoted in The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

On the surface it looks a bit cynical. If pursuing good leads to evil, than why bother? But what it is really about is the bother.

It becomes something that one does not have and which one must be constantly pursuing. It’s the pursuit of good that creates the evil.

This is a theme that has recurred frequently in current events. (Not that it isn’t something that hasn’t been recurring since the dawn of civilization.) In Syria, Iraq, Paris, and maybe even California, we have Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, whatever) seeking to quite literally enforce their notion of “good” and “right” with bombs, swords, and guns.

Meanwhile Russia is killing civilians in their attempt to stop Daesh and other groups of Syrian rebels in order to pursue their notion of good in the area. The U.S. can’t really say much about this without bringing attention to the drone program that has been, and still is, in effect in the general area for more than a decade.

A few days before I started this post, a man shot up a medical clinic killing three people in order to enforce his notion of good.

And a few days after I started, a married couple killed fourteen people in what may have been their effort to make a statement about their version of good.

An more secular version of this paradox can be found in Mark Twain’s notebook: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”

Twain seems to have been displaying that cynicism that I referred to above: he implies that at some point the majority always becomes the wrong “side.” But one can also read his statement as saying that it’s time to pause and reflect not on what “side” you are on, but on what is being done by the majority to accomplish its goals.

This interpretation brings Twain closer to Lao Tzu’s paradox. When the pursuit of something — anything — becomes an obsession, evil will follow.

There’s not much we can do when this happens in society. Over the past fourteen years we’ve seen a lot of changes in the U.S. related to “battling terrorism.” (I put “terrorism” in quotes because what it is has been open to fierce debate, especially recently.) These changes range from broad surveillance of U.S. citizens, to the imprisonment and killing of civilians, including U.S. citizens (not that it should make a difference), without due process.

No amount of Facebook posting, tweeting, Instagram, or even voting is going to make it stop. Insightful, heartfelt, or angry posts to social media are cathartic, and can garner many likes and new “friends,” but they are not going to really change anything.

We Americans love to think that if we can just elect the right guy, everything will be better. It hasn’t happened yet. Even when we elect a guy that promises to stop the excesses listed above he doesn’t fulfill the promises, some because he promised too much, and others because, well, he just decided not to.

So what do we do?

Over the past few years I have wavered in my approach. At times, I just shut myself off, abandoning all or part of social media and news for weeks or even months. Other times I redoubled my effort to do something, posting angry rants or insightful (I hope) essays or pleas to authority and compassion. Each time I ended up at the same place: angry, frustrated, sad, and despondent.

Taoism is about internal development. Developing the self. There’s no “before” either – it’s not “get yourself in order before interfering with others.” It’s simply “get yourself in order.” Developing the self is a lifelong pursuit, so “before” and “after” is superfluous.

Fixing one’s self is incredibly difficult. Self examination is painful. As the motto at the top of the blog says: “The problem with introspection is that it has no end.” It seems like there is an endless list of irreparable faults within ourselves. Even if one has the fortitude to identify what one needs to be improve (beyond superficialities  like “losing weight,” “watching less TV,” and “remembering to put the seat down”) taking the steps to change them is remarkably difficult, and introspection often concludes that nothing has improved. Later, rinse, repeat.

It’s much easier to focus outside ourselves and decry the various injustices, faults, and follies of the modern world. A quick look at the news, social media, or blogs yields bushels of low hanging fruit. Once the fruit is picked, one needs do little more than hurl it at the stage with a jeer or, if one has a few minutes, a pearl of eternal wisdom.

The hard work, the work that actually can improve the word by starting with your little corner, is to work on oneself.

This is the work I need to do.

How am I going to do that? I’ve started by trying to improve my physical health which as I alluded to above, is the easy part. Developing the ability to assume positive intent, approach others with generosity and empathy, and finding perfection where I used to find fault…that’s the hard part.

Run the Marathon

I was exhausted and decided to slump on a futon in the living room with the TV on. As I browsed through Netflix or Amazon — I can’t remember which — I came across Marathon Man. Watching Olivier’s amazing performance as well as Dustin Hoffman writhing in pain won over raking leaves.

Seeing the movie lead to, of course, wanting to read the book. (What? It doesn’t work that way for you?) I’ve read a few of Goldman’s novels before including Magic, which I checked out of the public library when my parents refused to let me see the movie. It scared the crap out of me.

Early in the movie we see Dustin Hoffman’s “Babe” run around the Central Park Reservoir, and struggle to keep up with another jogger. This is meant to convey the idea to us that Babe wants to be a marathoner just as much, if not more, than the historian we later find he is studying to be.

The scene is right out of the book, except in the book Goldman can put us in Babe’s head (Goldman adapted the screenplay too.) :

“He was going to run the marathon. Like Nurmi. Like the already mythical Nurmi. Years from now, all across the world, track buffs would agonize over who was greatest, the mighty Finn or the fabled T. B. Levy. “Levy,” some of them would argue, “no one would ever run the final five miles the way Levy ran them,” and others would counter that by the time the last five miles came, Nurmi would be so far ahead, it wouldn’t matter how fast Levy ran them, and so the debate would rage, expert against expert, down the decades.”

What I don’t know about running marathons would fill volumes. I hate running, and will be dealing with that for the next several months while I prepare for Tough Mudder. What this passage brought home to me to was pacing as a strategy. If you’re going to run 26 miles you need to know how to set different paces during the race, depending on where and when you are in the race, as well as where your opponents are.

The “life is a marathon” cliché is, well, a cliché. A well-worn cliché. But sometimes well-worn things fit nicely and are quite functional. (Like a favorite hoodie that finally fits perfectly after years of wear and then your wife tosses it. But I digress…)

Seeing things as a marathon gives me the overview I need for sustainable success. A “diet” is a sprint. Eating healthily is a marathon. A New Year’s Resolution is a sprint. Making exercise a part of my regular routine is a marathon.

But seeing things as a marathon also means checking my pace and changing it for the current terrain. “Babe” daydreams of speeding his pace at the end of a marathon to catch Paavo Nurmi in the last five miles. The race isn’t determined by the pace he sets at mile 1: he has to adjust during the race to make sure he finishes, and also that he finishes first.

“Finishing” and of course “finishing first” are where the cliché part of “life as a marathon” become most apparent to me. Life is not a race and there is no finish line when it comes to living well, at least not one I’m in a hurry to get to.

But the idea of adjusting my pace as I go is something I could learn a lot about.

I’ve had a tough past few weeks. Many times I sat at the table, stressed and emotionally and physically exhausted, and felt the desire to relieve some stress with food. Sometimes I was able to resist. Other times I adjusted by eating more but at least keeping it healthy.

Adjusting my exercise pace was were the strategy paid huge benefits. At times heading to the weights or bike and working hard was a help. A few other times recognizing that there were other priorities and that I needed to either skip or reschedule a shorter, lighter, sessions was the right thing to do.

This idea of pacing is a life skill that I am coming to recognize and learn rather late in life. It’s served me well the last few months and even more so the past couple of weeks.


The New Now

It’s 5:30 when my Microsoft Band vibrates to wake me.  It’s still dark. I use my iPad to light my way down the stairs so I don’t have to wake my wife with the hall light. Caffeine follows me.

I head right to the coffee grinder and french press. Caffeine recognizes that this means no food is coming and heads back upstairs and back to bed.

Even my hyperactive dog thinks it’s too early to be wandering around the house, but I like this time. I usually need some time in the morning before I can communicate with people (or dogs). I also like the quiet.

I check my blood sugar. It looks good today.

As my coffee brews I look over news and email. Soon the coffee is ready and I drink at bit. I would like nothing more than to stay here and read and maybe write at bit. But it’s time to get to work.

Down to the basement. It’s a lifting day (I alternate days between weights and the recumbent exercise bike) so I prop the iPad up on its stand and open the spreadsheet with my exercise. I fire up Justice League Unlimited on Netflix (it’s the episode where Mordred makes them kids!) and start my warm up.

I never used to need to start with a warm up, but my shoulder has made it abundantly clear: I do now.  I stretch, with a focus on the shoulders and the hated hamstrings, which an orthopedist one described as being “like cement.” The standing desk, by virtue of making it possible for them to not be compressed for 30+ hours a week, has made them more like cement that hasn’t fully cured yet.

One of the warm up exercises are “Spider-Man Steps” a movement originally developed when waterboarding proved ineffective on some prisoners.

And then finally the good part. Today’s menu features squats, bench press, curls, push ups, step ups, and planks. Followed with a final course of probable problems climbing the stairs back out of the basement and random soreness all day.

Would you like to see the whine list?

This is it. This is life. It’s not only a phase. I can’t afford it to be.

Owning It

The examination rooms at the healthcare center are unusually large. At least these rooms on the outside wall are.

The healthcare center seems like an old office building from the late 50s or early 60s, and the floor plan reinforces this impression. There are exam rooms on the outside wall and most of them are much larger than what what one would design for a medical office. I am sitting in a room on the northeast corner of the floor, and it is the size of what a proud middle manager would tell his wife is his new corner office. There’s at least six feet of empty space between the examination table and the door. There’s a small cabinet with a sink, a desktop computer, and a sanitary disposal bin 5 feet away in the other direction. It looks out of place along the long, otherwise bare, wall.

On the inside walls are tiny rooms, closer in size to what you would expect. Maybe even a little smaller. These rooms have the same furniture, but he walls are almost completely concealed.

I wonder what those guys told their wives about the jerk that just got promoted and how proudly he carried his red stapler and TPS reports into his new corner office.

I sit in the huge exam room, and I know what’s coming.

I like my doctor. He has an easy-going manner while at the same time not being afraid to say what needs to be said. (Although how he decides what needs to be said is about to come into question.) He is, however, incredibly busy and I get the feeling that he doesn’t remember who I am, or at least what my story is, until after our consultations begin. It’s obvious that he is looking at my file during the session for the first time since our last session.

This isn’t his fault. This is medicine in the United States. We blow away the rest of the western world in every metric you can imagine — when it comes to dollars spent. But when it comes to actual quality? Not so much. I live in an area that boasts what’s purported to be some of the best medical care in the country. But every office I’ve been to in the past decade feels overbooked, oversubscribed, and impersonal. I hear constant fears that our care will become “rationed” like it is in Canada. It’s already rationed by demand and by private insurers.

The last doctor I had that gave something resembling personal service closed her practice and went into research 8 years ago. She told me she couldn’t handle dealing with insurance companies.

The surgeon that repaired my right hand stopped taking insurance altogether a few months after the last round of surgery. Fortunately for him he’s good enough to get away with it.

My doctor finally makes it into the exam room and we speak. He asks me how I feel.

“Like I need to lose weight and I need help.”

I’ve gained over 70 pounds in 2 1/2 years. Actually I gained it in less than 2, after rotator cuff surgery pulled me off of my bicycle commute and into a painful recovery that has not gone well. Last year the doctor had pointed out a large weight gain to me and things have only gotten worse since then.

We discuss seeing their onsite dietitian and he does the examination part of the examination.

Then we get to my blood test, I was in a few weeks earlier for a fasting blood test and other sundries. My fasting blood glucose is 189.

That’s high. That’s very high. That’s diabetes high.

I am completely unsurprised. I made the appointment suspecting it was the case.

I had been experiencing some of the symptoms (dry skin, swelling, tingling in extremities, etc.) but being aware of the perils of self-diagnosis I knew it was time to have a doctor take a look.

I also knew that walking into a doctor’s office saying “Doctor, I think I have –“ is at best bad etiquette.

But when I open the appointment with needing to lose weight I am acknowledging what I expected, while at the same time trying to distance myself from it, like “I’m not here with the fat guy, but I know he’s a problem.”

So I knew being diagnosed with diabetes was coming, and I needed the diagnosis to get here.

He writes a prescription for Metformin, for seeing a dietician, and for a standing desk. (I ask for that while he has the pad out.) He tells me to schedule a follow up for 3 months.

And he tells me nothing more. No explanation of what the medication was. No explanation of what the “A1C” test he did there on the spot was for. No directions other than “take this medication and lose some weight.”

It’s clear I am going to have to stop waiting for someone else to tell me what to do and own this.

It’s not like I don’t know what to do. I need to stop being fat and lazy. I need to stop whining about my sore shoulder (which isn’t going anywhere) and get to work on my health.

It’s easy to make fun of people for being overweight. It’s easy to blame them for being fat and humilate them for it. It’s also mean-spirited and intellectually lazy.

It’s easy to make fun of Chris Christie for being fat. Pointing out how and why he’s the worst governor we’ve had in recent memory takes a few minutes to make a case.

Bill Clinton was given to a bit of a paunch during his administration, and the lifestyle required of a President did nothing to help, I’m sure. Jay Leno repeatedly made cracks about Clinton stopping at McDonald’s (while omitting it was for coffee) during his morning runs and overlooking, of course that the President was actually doing something about his weight by running anywhere at all, while Leno lazily told the same tired jokes over and over again. (Jay Leno also stopped being funny about a week after he took over Tonight and only people that were 60 years old by 1992 missed him when he left 20 years too late.)

But this doesn’t mean that overweight people shouldn’t take responsibility for their condition.

Human culture is a large and disorganized collection of extremes. For every like there is an intense dislike. For every ideology there is an antithesis. So it’s natural that, while examining any debate, one finds a bunch of false dichotomies.

If you think we need to raise taxes, you love big government. If you like standardized tests, you hate education. If you think beating the crap out of criminals is wrong, you hate cops.

Obesity has become a problem in the United States (and most of the Western World) and it’s hardly a surprise that there are polarized debates about why it is happening and how to deal with it.

I feel that at least one thread of the “obesity debate” is too quick to absolve people of responsibility.

Yes, it’s easy to get inexpensive, low calorie, unhealthy food, and for many people that inexpensive food is the only option.

Sure, it’s easy to just not exercise, especially in our increasingly car-friendly and pedestrian-hostile society. (What’s the solution to an increasing number of road deaths due to overcrowding? Have computers drive for us. I mean what else is there to do? Walk? Ride a bike like those socialists in Europe? Are you kidding?!?!?)

But these, and other factors, don’t completely absolve everyone, least of all me, of responsibility.

This isn’t about blame. Sure I do happen to blame myself, but that’s my fault (get it?) and another story. Accepting (or assigning) responsibility is not the same as accepting (or assigning) blame.

Coincidentally Seth Godin actually published this the day I started writing this post.

Confusing the two is a mistake often made and a mistake that frequently stymies progress since no wants to engage in icky “blamestorming.” It’s easier to assume everyone did their best and march onward to the next circuit of the same mistakes.

I have type 2 diabetes and it is time for me to accept responsibility for the problem. And fix it.

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