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Duke Bound

Last time I went to Duke for the weight loss clinic in 2007, I was, as I recall, coy to the point of not mentioning it in my column; it was months later before  I made a passing reference. I'm going to do it differently this time; while there will be "private entries" available only to family and friends, I am going to do some public posts about this excellent and worthwhile program. Bottom line: in 2007, I checked in at 280 and checked out 21 days later at 260. I weigh 250 today, and hope to come back in three weeks at 230, which I believe I can maintain.

Farewell My Queen

3 stars out of 5
A writer, director and stars you have never heard of (all French) have gotten together to create a new take on Marie Antoinette. It almost rated 3.5 stars, especially because it is only 100 minutes long. But while it covers old ground in a new and innovative way, it ended up seeming aimless and pointless. Provocative, sexy, well-acted, but aimless and pointless. The Queen, it seems, was engaged in a lesbian love triangle (as portrayed here) in the final days before the monarchy fell. The film manages to capture the sense of confusion and the "fog of war" that frequently surround people at ground level in the midst of overwhelming events. I have experienced this myself as a reporter.   Later, in the paper or during the broadcast, disorderly reality has a narrative imposed on it which makes it understandable. Not so on the ground, at the time, and this movie captures that. Which makes it kind of worth seeing. In French, with subtitles.

Social Networking Infographic, Daniel Dern's Times Recommendations, Dan Grobstein File

Interesting Infographic: Psychology of Social Networking

Daniel Dern shares two finds:

1) Chinese deli (more or less)
 2) Frank Bruni: "What I find most fascinating about Michele Bachmann - and there are many, many more where she came from - is that she presents herself as a godly woman, humbly devoted to her Christian faith. I'd like to meet that god, and I'd like to understand that Christianity..."

Dan Grobstein File

Amma in New England

My wife and I went to Marlborough, Mass. last weekend for a retreat with Amma, the hugging saint. We flew out on Southwest. 1 stop, 9 hours. It reminded me very much why I prefer non-stops and legacy carriers for transcontinental trips. We lucked out and got the exit aisle on both legs, but if we hadn't (or, say, if we'd missed our connection in Phoenix), things would have been a whole lot worse. I don't like extra anxiety on my plane flights. Chances are the California Pizza Kitchen salads we bought in Phoenix were better than any airline food we would have gotten, but we did have to schlep them on board and what if we hadn't had time to buy them? Again, nerve-wracking. I've done transcontinental in a normal Southwest airlines seat, and it is no picnic. And according to the media, Southwest is going to reduce its seat pitch so it can squeeze more passengers on its planes, just like everyone else. The difference in price for legacy carriers  is NOT worth it for trips inside California and up and down the west coast, but it sure as heckfire IS worth it for coast to coast travel.

We arrivived at the Best Western, where Amma is staying and where the devotees are fed. I asked for a no-smoking King, and got a smoking Queen. You gotta love the hotels. There are no newspapers anywhere in the hotel, and no honor boxes out front. You have to drive five minutes to the supermarket to buy a newspaper, for heck's sake!

We slept quite late; didn't have breakfast until 11. The hotel supplies a continental breakfast. We drove to a nearby supermarket and bought the barely adequate local paper because they don't stock the Boston Globe. We napped and read until lunch at 2, then did 45 minutes in the gym. Napped and read until 7 (we think serious hay fever may be making us sleepy). We registered for the retreat, then made it to the hall to watch Amma arrive at 8. Two swami talks, some bhujans, a meditation, and the off to a 10pm dinner. "I get too hungry for dinner at 10."

As always, both swamis made their points with stories. All great religious leaders use stories to make their points. First, he told a variation of this one:

A car was involved in an accident. As one might expect, a large crowd gathered. A newspaper reporter, anxious to get his story, pushed and struggled to get near the car.

Being a clever sort, he started shouting loudly, "Let me through! Let me through please! I am the son of the victim."

The crowd made way for him. Lying in front of the car was a donkey.

The moral: "we make a donkey of ourselves when we take instead of giving.

A man enters his local bar holding a frog . He sets it down on the bar and says to the bartender, "Will you serve me all night if the frog sings?"
"All night," says the bartender. The frog sings Lady Gaga's Bad Romance and Beyonce's Put A Ring On It.
"That's amazing," says the bartender. He seves the man all night.
Later, a businessman comes up and says, "I just saw that and I was amazed. I want to buy your frog for $100,000."
The man said ok, and he exchanged the frog for the money and the businessman left. The bartender said "What are you nuts?! You could have made millions with that frog!"
The man said "Oh, the frog can't sing." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a hamster. "The hamster's a ventriloquist."

Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, holds one hand palm out fingers up. This represents the troubles of the world. Her other hand is palm out fingers down, representing the giving of boons. We don't want the frog (or we shouldn't want the frog, or the troubles); instead we should want the hamster (the boon, the peace). OK, I admit it, I'm fuzzy on this one.

Finally, a story to illustrate that only internalities are real; externalities are an illusion. As usual, this joke takes 10 minutes to tell when the swami does it, like all good shaggy dog stories.

The captain of ship is offended by the stinky socks of his sailors. He tells the first officer to do something about it. "Force the men to change their socks," he orders. The next day, the socks still stink. He asks the first officer what happened. "I made them change socks. Smith changed into Jones socks, O'Brien changed into O'Reilly's socks..."

 Changing the externals changes nothing.

There are no externalities, only internalities. When a child looks in a mirror, they wonder, "who is the child in there." When they cannot touch that child, they go around to the back of the mirror, and find no child there either. We are like that child; everything is a reflection of ourselves, we just don't know it.

Not a joke, but still a cool story: Amma was singing bhujans one night. She was also irritated that thousands of bricks outside were so far from the housing being built that time was wasted every day moving them. After the bhujans, she walked out and picked up two bricks and walked them to the building site. A thousand devotees followed her, and the impossible task of moving all those bricks was done in 40 minutes.

I am not sure everything happens for a reason, or of the meaning of coincidence. Still. As we entered the hall this morning a stranger introduced herself to us--AU, who says her daughters both worked for a college friend of mine in Western Massachusetts. I think that is beyond "it's a small world." AU lived in Nevada City, where my ex-fiancée  is on the faculty at Ananda University.

At the morning satsung, the swami told us that wealth does not equal happiness, and that arrogant ignorance is worse than ignorance. He likened a man who knows a little and is humble to a cup, into which more knowledge can be poured. The arrogant person is like a cup with a lid on it; no way to pour knowledge in!

Amma arrived, Swami led us in meditation, and she gave darshan (hugs). We were in the first group of 14, which made for a short morning. After lunch, we did seva (selfless service; chopped vegetables) for 90 minutes, then hit the gym for 30 on the elliptical machine. At 7, there was mediation with Amma, followed by Q&A. One man asked if Amma would like to quit her work and move with him to the Himalayas. He also asked if he would be with her in the next life if he did not fulfill his dharma. She answered his joke question with a joke; he was welcome to move to the Himalayas, and she would be there with him--in his mind. As for the next life, she says we are all beads on her necklace, and will be with her in the next life regardless of whether we fulfill our dharma or not. She was also asked if it is OK to have other gurus. Yes, she answered, as long as you don't let them confuse you.

After the Q&A, this is the night on the retreat when Amma serves dinner to all the devotees. She handed me my dinner plate. Me and a few hundred other people. Then  back to the hall for an evening satsung. The swami told us we are all born with stinking software, full of jealousy and rage, and that Amma is trying to swap it out for love software. He told us Amma is different from other gurus, and mentioned the difference between caring from the outside (sympathy) and caring from the inside (empathy). Then bhujans--but as I was exhausted, I only stayed for one. Got to bed at a decent hour, at last.

The best laid plans of mice and men... Yes, we got to bed early, but at 1 am, a dog in the room next door decided it was barking time, and proceeded to bark for two hours. We put in the earplugs we always carry on the road, but they are only just so effective. Being with Amma puts me in a mood to ask, "What sort of lesson am I supposed to learn  from this? Plan but expect failure? We're not really in control and we're foolish if we think we are? People shouldn't be allowed to have dogs in hotels?

I suffered a brief bout of disorientation (brought about, I suspect, by fatigue and dehydration) that caused me to be late for the morning satsung and unable to retain any of it. I went back and took a nap. We went downstairs to do seva (selfless service) at 2, expecting to cut vegetables. Instead, we served lunch for the last hour it was available. There was quite a rush when Amma finished at 2. The line got a bit long at times, but we kept up pretty well, all in all.

The evening satsung produced a wealth of riches. "To forget yourself is to remember god." "Selfless actions are worship of the lord." "Do not just exercise your body, exercise your heart, by showing compassion." "Laughter is the music of the soul," which I know is trite, but still true. Also, "You can laugh or cry, but time goes by in either case, so you might as well laugh." Fate and/or Karma are strong, but we can change our fate. There are three kinds of  karma, which Amma likened to illnesses, from the common cold to incurable cancer. I admit I had trouble following this part.

On the other hand, the stories I got. (Again, please understand these were told better and longer at satsung). The Karma story told of a man who had an accident. When he was talking to the police, he said, "I had one drink, drove around the block and was fine. I had two... three... but after the 10th drink I drove and crashed. Arrest the bartender for serving me the 10th drink." It wasn't the 10th drink, Amma said, it was the previous nine. Similarly, we see effects in this life that seem disproportionate to the single drink we've taken--that's because the effects are actually the result of the nine drinks we took in prior lives.

The doctor told the man to put brandy in his eye every day to clear up an infection. A week later the man returned and was worse. "I try to lift  the brandy to my eye, but it gets no farther than my mouth," indicating we are held back by our habits.

Finally, there was a retold story; a man was given eye medicine and stomach medicine and mixed them up. He got worse. Sometimes, when we are confused, we take the wrong "medicine" for the wrong problem in life.

V did not stay for the all-night Devi Bhava ceremony Tuesday night, although she did have darshan during that celebration. Here is the definition of it, from the New England Amma web site:

Literally translated as “the mood of the Divine Mother,” Devi Bhava is a very special event that celebrates the feminine aspect of God, and God’s unconditional love and compassion for all humanity. It is a traditional, joyful celebration when Amma gives darshan as the Divine Mother in the manner symbolized by Hindu tradition.

After Amma in Massachusetts

We hit the road about noon on Wednesday and got to Cape Cod in the afternoon, after a 90-minute drive. We had lunch at the delightful Quarterdeck Restaurant in Falmouth, then bought wine and flowers for my friend R and his wife L, whom we visited at their home. We spent the night, had a lovely homemade dinner and enjoyed much good talk and a few walks. We had intended to ride the Shining Sea bike trail with them on Thursday morning, but a combination of high heat, humidity and either rain or the threat of rain but the kibosh on that. Still, it was a delight to see them.

There was an accident on I93 as we drove to Boston from Cape Cod that turned a 90 minute drive into a three-hour drive. Then, when we got  within 50 feet of our condo while driving on Storrow Drive. However, we rediscovered, sadly, the New England truism, "You can't get there from here." It took us nearly 45 minutes to beat the system of one-way streets and no left turn signs to get to our building, where we were met by the kindly and ultra-patient landlord. Along the way, we were forced by a traffic patrolman into the Mass General Hospital parking garage. Fortunately we got out 15  minutes later (after having been misled by stupidly placed exit signs), without having to pay. Our 14th floor condo is amazing. Dinner at Scampo with B, an old college friend, where we enjoyed much talk of old days and new, as well as thorough rundowns on the antics of each others' children. We picked up some tips and leads for M, our older daughter, on finding work in the non-profit field.

Coffee with the god-daughter of our friends R&L; she is in the sector (non-profit) that our older daughter M would like to be in. We picked up a few more tips and leads. Then a tour of the Institute of Contemporary Art, and a brief stop at Anthony's Pier Four next door--the first restaurant reviewed for The Tech  by Hungry Schindler. My guest that evening was MC, a woman from my co-op, Student House, on whom I had a raging, unrequited crush. The restaurant picked up the tab--up to a point! My guest's lobster thermidor put us over the limit, requiring me to write a painful check.

Back to the present; we rode the Silver Line (bus rapid transit) for the first time. Not as bad as I expected.  We returned out car (who needs one in Boston?), then walked through the North End, where I hadn't been since the elevated freeway came down. Makes quite a difference. Back to the condo for some reading, and to bed at a reasonable hour.

Over to the Museum of Fine Art, which, remarkably, I had never visited before despite living in Boston for five years. We enjoyed the exhibits, then went to a film they were showing, Black Venus, the "based on a true story" story of a black woman exhibited like an animal in Europe during the 1800s. Scary and depressing, but well done. Vicki went back to the room, and I took the red line (replacement bus service from JFK/Umass to Ashmont) and fulfilled a longtime dream--I rode the Ashmont-Mattapan high speed line; quite possibly the only serious revenue service in the country still being served by PCC Cars! I grabbed dinner from Whole Foods, and we ended our week with a quiet meal in the room and a look at the sunset from 14 stories above the Charles.

Dan Grobstein File

Giving Stuff Away

I am giving away about a fourth of my 3000-volume personal library. My younger daughter thinks I am being macabre, morbid and death-obsessed. I think I am my usual cheerful, chipper, realistic self. In handling the disposition of my mother's library, and my mother-in-law's, I have learned that bibliophilia, while hereditary, is not genre specific. My wife and I love books as much as our mothers did, but not the same books. So, when they passed away, we simply disposed of their libraries.

I turn 60 in September. With luck, I have another 20 years left, but it isn't too early to think about what happens to my books. My wife asks how one can be proud of a collection; after all, it is simply a matter of buying stuff and holding onto it. I guess this is why more men  are collectors than women. I am proud of my library because of its depth and breadth in three areas--the three legs of my library stool which, between them, make up almost two-thirds of my library: cartoon strip collections (Doonesbury, Dilbert, Garfield, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Far Side), American narrative humor (Benchley, Pereleman, Keillor, Buckley), and journalism books (fiction and non-fiction). I have checked; neither daughter is interested in any of these books. My pride stems from the completeness of the runs in these categories (all of Benchley, all of Perlman, all of Groucho Marx), and the fact that some were difficult to obtain. They have been nicely cataloged and well maintained. And if I want my library to live on, I need to give it away now, while I still have my wits and energy (believe me, boxing up 750 books takes a lot more energy than I realized).  The Comic Art Museum of San Francisco has agreed to accept my library. They will sell the duplicates of course, and support their good work. They will keep the others, and the result will be an improved reference library in a genre that is not going to be reproduced in e-book form. In other words, I am handing the books I love to people who will love them as I have loved them. I have read every one of these books at least twice, some of them multiple times. I have derived my pleasure from them. How many more times can I read them? There are more than 100 books in my "regular" library I have never read at all (well, yes, I am something of a compulsive collector). Time to turn from the past to the future. I am now engaged in a race in which I cannot see the finish line; can I read all my books?

They say only death and taxes are certain. As the 1% has proven, the second half of that equation isn't true, but the first half remains inviolate. It is an absolute certainty that none of us will get out of  here alive. Acknowledging that fact (without obsessing about it) just makes good sense. I am not setting out to depress my daughters; if anything, I am trying to lighten the burden of cleanup that was left to my wife and I by our mothers. I intend to spend every day of the rest of my life, however many there are, living the heck out of life in my own way. If, along the way, I shed a few material possessions (especially if I can shed them in the direction of someone who needs/wants them), all the better.

RIP, Champagne

picture of cat
We saddled him with a silly name when we adopted him from the pound in 1998. His previous owners called him Oscar, and his brother, whom we also adopted, was Nerber. We considered almost 100 pairs of names, but every vote of the four of us in the family was a tie. It came down to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Champagne and Jaegermeister (part of a family tradition of cat names extending back to my childhood cat, Schnapps). Heedless of the humiliation of having veterinary assistants call out for "Champagne Schindler," I broke ranks and voted with my daughters. Thus, that was the name by which we knew him. I know nearly every cat owner thinks they have the greatest cat in the world, but we actually did. Sweet, even tempered, pleasant and loving: the best cat I've ever owned, and in the honest opinion of vets and friends, a true cat among cats. We had to put him to sleep this morning.

It may be too soon to write his obituary. It is remarkable how you can intellectually recognize the need for euthanasia, then bawl like a baby when the moment comes. My wife was there in the vet's office with me. She is a psychotherapist. While we are, in fact, mourning the loss of a beloved cat, a member of our family for almost half the length of our marriage, his death also brings up the issue of death in general, she told me, which partially explains the depth of emotion; we are mourning more than just our cat, we are mourning the fact of death, the fact that everyone we know will either die before us or after us. Champagne was our feline animal companion, and we loved him and will miss him. We have lost and will lose others, human and animal to death. It is (as noted in the item above), inevitable.

Champagne first got cancer in 2007; we spend thousands of dollars on an operation, after which he was given six months to live. He got five years. The cancer came back. In the last six months, he lost half his weight. A cat year is either four or five human years, meaning Champagne was somewhere between 68 and 85. The vet told us cats start hiding when they feel they are near death. Champagne wasn't hiding yet, but it was only a matter of a short amount of time, and we did not want him to suffer. The thousands of pleasant hours we shared deserved better than that.  He was clearly an unhappy cat. We decided it was time to end the misery.

I have a very confused belief system about life. I am moderately certain we have souls; I am less certain about animals. Are animals people reincarnated? I am open to that possibility. Is there an afterlife? Not as such, I don't think; no wings, harps, clouds. Our essence may return to the universal essence, but I seriously doubt the "me" we know survived the meatbag that carries it around.  I eat meat, which probably means I cannot morally say anything about the treatment of animals; nevertheless, I have owned cats most of my life and I believe I have treated them well. Regardless of whether they are reincarnated souls, it is meet and right so to do. A very good friend of mine reminds me on occasion that this entire life is an illusion, a dream in the mind of  God, and that we are simply play acting. Perhaps it is the same for our animal companions. It is not for me to say. All I know is that the world has been diminished today by a life force that has left it.