Feb 282016
 

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Jen and I are just back from a two-week trip to New Zealand, with a couple of days in Hawaii on the way home. We met in Wellington, spent a day exploring, then took the ferry to the south island and drove for ten days. You can see lots of pictures in my Facebook album.

Basically, the whole place is beautiful. Mountains, coast line, waterfalls, rainbows, neat farms, fields of sheep and cattle, tidy towns with interesting shops, good restaurants…there is nothing about this country that sucks. We had great meals, found lovely wines and beers, met gracious and friendly people everywhere. After starting in Wellington on the north island, we took the ferry and our rental car down to the south island, and traveled to Nelson, Golden Bay, Greymouth, the glaciers, through Mount Aspiring National Park, the lakes at Wanaka, to Cardrona and Queenstown. There was a full day trip to Doubtful Sound in the huge Fiordland National Park, and a day of play on the mountain by Queenstown on six great zip lines.

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We drove out east to Dunedin, a rather classic town with Georgian architecture, stopped in Oamaru to see more cool buildings, an old seaport with stone warehouses, converted into a collection of nice shops including a steampunk museum, and one of the coolest book shops I’ve ever visited, then north to Christchurch. After flying back to Auckland, we heading home, goofing off for two days of tourist fun in Waikiki. Below are the old Savoy Hotel in Dunedin, the bookstore and shops in Oamaru, and the view from the top of Diamond Head in Waikiki (THAT was a serious hike in the heat!)

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So yes, it was a great vacation, one I’ve wanted to take for decades. And I find myself deeply changed by this little journey, I find my viewpoint on many things in America quite different. Some of my shift is due to presidential primary election drama, with the scary prospect of Donald Trump getting elected. (The Kiwis often asked us if our country was losing it’s collective mind.) But my internal change is really about New Zealand, what is so remarkable and different about life there.

  • There are no sirens, even in the bigger cities. It’s just quiet. Oh, the town of Takaka has a volunteer fire department, so something like a tidal wave siren goes off once or twice a day, to call the volunteers to a road accident or kitchen fire or something. But the ambience does not include police or fire sirens. Huge difference.
  • Gasoline prices were uniform throughout the country, NZ$1.73/liter, with diesel at NZ$0.98. All the diesel vehicles seemed clean; there were no clouds of smoke from buses or trucks that I saw.
  • 100 kph is the speed limit (62 mph) on most roads, which are almost all well-built 2-lane highways.
  • Drivers are good, respectful and safe. In 1200 miles of travel, we did not see one road accident, and only saw about five police cars.
  • There is no litter along the roads.
  • There are no billboards.
  • There are no pot holes.
  • There are no planes flying overhead, unless you happen to be near one of the three major airports.
  • The peak income tax rate is lower.

Really, a most delightful thing is that almost everyone is middle-class. We saw no one homeless, no one particularly rich — although there are some expensive homes here and there, and the occasional Jaguar or Audi on the road. Nearly everyone seemed cheerfully employed, with a positive outlook on life. There is very good public health care, great education, great roads and infrastructure. The top income tax rate is 33%, more than 6 points lower than federal income tax in the US. And there is no state income tax.

It’s not perfect, of course. For example, Queenstown is so flooded by tourists that there are almost no apartments or houses available for the folks that work in the shops there. We chatted with one of our zipline guides, who has to share a bedroom in a rented house because living space is so hard to find. Even though the food was very good and reasonably priced everywhere we went, we did notice a shortage of greenery with our meals, lots of meat (and great fish!), not much fruit. But that may be cultural preference.

It’s quite amazing how much healthier the society is when the government does not spend 54% of revenue on the military. I did not experience any class distinctions or prejudice — though I’m sure some exist — and there are Māori place names and protected sites everywhere. The Wellington Museum has a huge Māori exhibit, both very educational and respectful. Māori art and tattoos are everywhere. I chatted for an hour with a fellow who emigrated from Fiji when he was young, and now makes a fine living near Auckland, lives in a house near the coast with his wife and two daughters, and any way I can see it, is successful and happy. I talked with a restaurant owner from the Cook Islands, again, happily married with family, running a successful Indian restaurant in Dunedin. The Oamaru bookstore owner is from Texas, and has never looked back after becoming a Kiwi.

I’m deeply questioning my life in North America. New Zealand seems so civilized compared to life here. Work/life balance is just a given, kids are well-behaved and well-educated, different cultures intermingle freely, and people are just cheerful, dammit. The biggest current issue the country is confronting seems to be choosing a new flag.

I want to live more like they do. I want to live in a society that cares for their people, and spends government funds wisely. So much of the rest of the world, Canada, most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand and parts of South America, seem to do this better than we do; when do I give up on my native land and move?

 Posted by at 12:06 am
Nov 032015
 

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We inevitably lose our parents, and perhaps it is fortunate when we lose them before they lose us. My father-in-law lost his daughter, my wife, before he passed away, and I think it really crushed him. So there is a blessing and an initiation when our parents pass. Our grief can bring us into adult, mature and compassionate places that perhaps we never reach without it.

My mother passed away last week, peacefully sleeping for days under hospice care. Having lost my father and two stepfathers, she was my final parent. I’ve been her guardian for eight years, her primary caregiver for some of that time, always the one ultimately responsible for her well-being. Penny has thrived in her memory care unit for six years, held by a remarkably stable and loving group of women caregivers and nurses. It was Alzheimer’s. She stopped recognizing me more than four years ago, and has needed a wheelchair and hospital bed and two people to move her since 2013. She had not spoken in over a year, and rarely responded in any way, or even moved her eyes, when anyone spoke to her. I do not know how much of the woman who raised me and loved me was still there — no way to know — but it was not much.

The last few weeks, she stopped eating, then began sleeping more and more, looking content and peaceful, as you see in the photo. This was a wonderful thing, for I do not believe she found much contentment in her life. In fact, I believe that receiving care for her final years was a wonderful thing. She would always smile when taken outside into the sunshine, sang along with the group, enjoyed being read to.

My experience of her as my mother was completely different, of course. A rampant perfectionist, I rarely heard Penny voice her approval of anything: neither her children nor any of her three husbands, nor the functioning of any employer or political organization. That critical voice is very well internalized for me, and much of my work over the last few decades has been around that. Yet, I remember how she got up at 4am to awaken me, so I could do my paper route at the age of 14. I treasure that. I also remember how she hugged and kissed me when I got on an airplane to go to college 3000 miles away. It was an unfamiliar moment, yet I remember it so vividly, and love her.

So here I am, discharging my final tasks as her dutiful son. One of my friends shared this lovely prose by Henry Scott Holland (27 January 1847 – 17 March 1918), Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.

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I am in the 49-day mourning period, chanting a Tara prayer for her each day. You will find the prayer here on this site if you search for it.

Penny, I am so grateful for all that I received from you.

 Posted by at 5:37 pm
Oct 072015
 

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Six days ago, a young idiot with multiple automatic weapons killed nine people in Roseburg, Oregon. As we are all reeling from the insanity and pain of this tragedy, it struck again a half-mile from my home. Steve Carter, a beloved teacher and counselor, was killed on a trail I’ve hiked many times, his dog shot also, apparently by three random young characters who stole his car and drove to Oregon.

The first event was horrific, of course, and I along with most of my friends immediately called for stricter gun control laws, licensing, something to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of unstable people. The second event had an opposite effect on me: I went and checked the automatic weapon I have in my house at 1:00am on a restless night, because I felt very afraid.

Most of my friends do not know that I was a competitive target shooter for six years, firing well over 100,000 rounds slowly and deliberately at harmless paper targets, capturing some medals and championships. I’m comfortable with guns in most forms, and even had Army ROTC training with fully automatic weapons in my teens. Once upon a time, I went hunting in the southern Arizona desert with a friend, killing several harmless rabbits and quail, then took them home and ate them. Once was enough, and I have no appetite for hunting ever since. However, I have inherited a variety of rifles and shotguns that I keep stored away, and I do have a classic Colt Model 1911 .45 automatic that I purchased for target shooting almost 40 years ago (all legally registered, by the way.) The Colt is an “antipersonnel device”, a gun designed for shooting people, even though it makes a good target weapon.

So here is the first conundrum. When I am afraid, I want to have the power of a gun at my disposal. Yet I am buddhist — with vows to avoid killing anything — and a liberal who would put legislation in place to improve society and reduce death by gunfire.

Meditation has given me the space to see much of how my ego operates. My fearful reaction is an ego response. When I breathe and meditate, I can dissolve the fear and regain a sense of balance. The power of a weapon is not needed, the universe is a good place, and the random act of three (possibly drug-addled and/or otherwise unbalanced) characters does not mean that I am in danger, or need the power of deadly weaponry.

But most of us don’t practice internal stabilization like that, and so the fact that Americans cling to their guns is not a surprise. I can easily feel the place where I want to do that, dammit. So the first conundrum just is, and I would be happy to insure or publicly declare or be tested for my weapon safety…but I’m not sure I am willing to just give up the Colt. Perhaps I would, but my ego would want to know that the measures around surrendering weapons were effective, so that others surrendered them too. Perhaps I’m not as good a buddhist as I thought I was. The part of me that creates safety, part of my core complex, still exists after decades of meditation. Hmm.

The second conundrum is about privacy and government. It turns out that the alleged killers of Steve Carter were identified by convenience store cameras and a random photo taken by someone else in the area. And the stolen 2003 VW Jetta had some kind of tracking ability, that enabled authorities to follow it to Oregon. When it’s revealed that our mobile phones keep a record of their location, and law-enforcement can access this info, we get all freaked out. When this capability is used to find the suspects, we are delighted.

Both conundrums are about trust. If I trusted my elected officials to have logical discussions and do the ‘right thing’, I could relax. I so admire the Australians, who have successfully done this; the Ozzies destroyed 20% of the guns in the country, and saw suicide rates plummet by 57% and homicide by 42%.

We do not trust our government, perhaps we haven’t been able to since the Nixon debacle more than 40 years ago.

We are not a nation divided about ideology, we are divided by trust. Here we are with a black president who is by all economic and social measures doing a fabulous job, unable to trust. AM radio pundits continue to pour venom about how bad ‘Obamacare’ is, how immigration is destroying us, Republicans create fake Benghazi investigations to change electorate opinion, and congressional action comes to a standstill, requiring the Supreme Court to deal with the backlog. Americans who trust the governmental process seem to be Democrats, those who do not seem to be Republicans.

As a person, I’ve had to heal my own trust issues to let go of weapons. As a nation, we must do the same. And it would really help if our congressional leadership and our media started consistently behaving in trustworthy ways. The Supreme Court is making good consistent decisions (not that I always agree with them). The president is exhibiting good, consistent leadership. It’s time for Congress to do the same. Then we can start to address our insane addiction to weapons.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Sep 092015
 
ttitd

Ah, That Thing In The Desert. I’ve been smiling and contemplating our seven days at Burning Man, wondering what can I say about such a well-photographed and commented event? It was my first time on the playa, and we had the good fortune to stay at VW Bus Camp, in Mz. Parker, the white Westfalia […]

 Posted by at 5:33 pm
Aug 092015
 
the cat nature of impact

I am fascinated by our impact on each other, partially because it is the only form of permanence that we have, and partially because it is so close to the heart of incarnation and karma. So I was moved to tears when I read (yet another amazing) obituary in The Economist…for a cat. Go to […]

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Jul 142015
 
a day of preciousness

Today has been one of those beautiful, synchronistic days where I seem to have gotten all the pieces in place to feel precious human existence. We turn so easily away from death, thinking and worrying about all the mundane details, our mortgage, what our relatives or neighbors think of us…the honest truth is that death […]

 Posted by at 8:53 pm
Jun 072015
 
i contact

I’m learning some remarkable subtle lessons about how we all engage with each other, about our desire, and about karma. This is a happy coincidence of changes on the outside, a teaching I received yesterday, and my buddhist practice. I say coincidence, but really, is there any such thing in an existence where every thought […]

 Posted by at 10:33 am
May 292015
 
the story of a cap

Pigeons, horns, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, roaring construction generators. Knots of people walking quickly and determinedly, often gazing into a smart phone, or lost in a private world of sound from earbuds. A man yelling at the top of his lungs “TREAT BLACK VETERANS BETTER!” Trash jewelry and tacky artwork sold on sidewalk tables. Six […]

 Posted by at 1:38 pm
Mar 152015
 
wrecking crew

I backed a Kickstarter campaign over a year ago that just came to fruition with the release of The Wrecking Crew, a rockumentary movie about the group of LA session musicians in the ’60’s and ’70’s that played on more albums and songs than I can keep track of. I was able to watch the […]

 Posted by at 1:27 pm
Jan 232015
 
love and fear and fearlessness, part ii

I’ve been reading theoasisofmysoul, catching up with the last month of Ara’s postings, and there are some profound topics he opens. This man has been wandering on a BMW motorcycle for a decade since his son passed away. We share a deep wounding, a love for BMW airheads, and a life in the west. I […]

 Posted by at 8:44 pm