One City

My cat Shinsan died around midnight on Thursday, Dec. 13.
His terminal illness came on suddenly, three weeks ago. We rushed him to the vet hospital on Monday morning, Nov 19th; they told us he was terminal, so we took him home to die Tuesday night, Nov. 20th, several thousand dollars later. (note to self: If reincarnated as an animal, pick a devoted owner and pick Manhattan. The three major vet hospitals in NYC probably have more life-saving technology than several countries in Africa put together. But that’s another blog. And I donate money to hospitals in Africa, too.) Shinsan lasted three more weeks, very ill, very well loved, very well cared for. Exhaustingly, excruciatingly cared for. Everybody suffered.

His was the second cat death I’ve been thru. A friend reminded me of George Carlin’s advice: “Remember, every time you buy a pet, you’re purchasing a small tragedy.” When I asked a buddhist friend for some words of wisdom, I heard, “Impermanence: not just a word anymore.” Yup. Facing the imminent physical reality of a dying being – animal, human, even a plant! – is very, very real. Impermanence, attachment, aversion – it’s all there.
So after a couple of years of buddhist study and practice, what did I find? Witnessing suffering and death and trying to alleviate it is quite intense and horrible. All the empathy and compassion I cultivate in my practice on the cushion and the sidewalk is both beautiful and magical, when I can connect with someone or some being, and excruciatingly painful that being is ripped away in pain. Duh. The more you love the more you grieve. It doesn’t take a buddhist to figure that one out. I coulda got it from a Hallmark card.
I remembered seeing a question about death on Gudo Nishijima’s blog. (He’s a Zen buddhist teacher, rather iconoclastic, as far as I can tell.) Here’s a question from a student, and his answer:
Student (Isahito San): [A]nd what should we do, when death is coming to our life?
Teacher (Gudo): I think that I should wait for death quietly, and I think that there is nothing to do preparing for death.
There really isn’t. Nothing except life and practice. Death happens; I decided to try to just watch the emotions, and feel them. I know I was attached; I know it hurts. I just decided to go with it. Hurt, grieve, cry, feel. I sat every day. I was thoroughly, deeply miserable. In the moment.
I tried to take the practice off the cushion. On the streets I walked around looking at people, and wishing them peace and contentment. I thought of how many had suffered the far worse pain of losing a person close to them; I wished them solace. Tried a little tonglen practice on the subway. Gave money to beggars. All that buddhist stuff. Truly it is better to be miserable in a crowd; One City is a good place to grieve.
When we took him to the hospital the last time, to be killed humanely, I held him as the vet pushed the plunger on the final injection. I had more than a little trouble aiding the death of a sentient being, but I thought about ahimsa – nonviolence; it wasn’t violence, technically. He was too sick; the compassionate action was not spending thousands of dollars for 24 more hours of labored breath; it was letting him go.
As the vet’s thumb went down, I whispered the parts that seemed at least somewhat applicable from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Everyone has to die” and “Don’t be afraid.” I freely admit I have never been into that book, unlike many of my buddhist friends, who discuss it at length and make promises to read it over each other’s bodies. I had never even read it. I had to look up a free translation online:
(On another friend’s advice, I admit I did some preparation.)
The TBD instructions are not terrifically applicable to animals; the note: “I will let go of the illusion of instinctive terror. . . . I will recognize all objects as my mind’s own visions” did not seem too great. I doubt Shinsan’s little cat “mind’s own visions” had ever included lethal injection.
Ah well. Everyone does have to die and I hope he wasn’t afraid. When it was over, the next day I went to work, went to yoga, ate a giant Dragon Bowl macro plate from Angelica Kitchen and went to bed early. And I felt the emotion of relief. Deep relief. But as I sat the next morning I started the torturous guilt; I could feel it coming on – the pain of recrimination – had we done enough, too little, too much, too soon, too late. . . and I checked my email. Every morning I get a little lojong slogan and explication from some thing I signed up for. That morning it was “Regard all dharmas as dreams” and the commentary was by Pema Chodron. She wrote:
“More simply, regard everything as a dream. Life is a dream. Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream. Another way to put this is: ‘Every situation is a passing memory’. . . .
Have you ever been caught in the heavy-duty scenario of feeling defeated and hurt, and then somehow, for no particular reason, you just drop it? It just goes, and you wonder why you made ‘Much ado about nothing.’ What was that all about? It also happens when you fall in love with somebody; you’re so completely into thinking about the person twenty-four hours a day. You are haunted and you want him or her so badly. Then a little while later, ‘I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.’ We all know this feeling of how we make things a big deal and then realize that we’re making a lot out of nothing.”
At first I felt awful reading this. It CERTAINLY did not apply to the death of a loved one! “making a lot out of nothing” – Oh PU-LEEEZE! what utter crap. If Pema had been in front of me I would have smacked her upside the head for that one.
But I realized I could see those guilt thoughts. They were thoughts. I could drop ’em. I didn’t actually have to be thinking them. They did nothing. They would only be the root of more suffering. I was making a big deal of nothing. So I dropped ’em.
I feel a hell of a lot better now. I felt awful in the moment; I feel different now. And in January I’m going to purchase another small tragedy. (Actually, I’ll adopt one.)
RIP, Shinsan. Every experience is an opportunity to wake up. Be grateful for everything. Even death.

Last night was my first-ever reading in New York. Not as an audience member. As a reader. Up there in front of everyone, pouring out my lovesick writer heart.

I’d read for friends in Jersey City once or twice, and plenty back in Gainesville and Miami when I was just starting out (and happily sharing my stream-of-consciousness scribblings with anyone who granted me an audience), but since coming to New York I’ve been content to remain a member of the crowd at readings, alternately envious of and feeling sorry for the brave/terrified writers who stand up at the mike. But when the good people of Calamari Press invited me to join them in a reading, my usually well-lidded pride was happy to accept. My much more bothersome self-consciousness and doubt, however, had me nervous for weeks leading up to it. Me? Behind a microphone? Reading that?

“Aw, it’s not so bad,” my friend Annie said. “Just have two drinks first. Any more and you’ll start slurring, though.”

Of course. Two drinks. Annie is a writer. She knows about these things.

Many of my Buddhist friends don’t drink alcohol at all. Some of them are in recovery, and a lot of them strive to keep the precepts as best they can. This means, if taking the Buddha’s words as they is written in the Pali Cannon, that they can drink no more than a dewdrop’s worth of alcohol at any time. I abstained from drinking for about a year in an attempt to keep the precepts, and it wasn’t easy. It taught me how to socialize with other people without relying on alcohol to open myself up. Namaste to that. But, like all things, my abstinence was impermanent. Skipping alcohol at a hardcore show or a dinner with the Dharma crew isn’t so hard, but try drinking Sprite while your writer friends are giving Tennessee Williams a run for his money. “You’re not pregnant are you?” No. “AA?” No. “Oh. You just think you’re better than the rest of us…”

No and no. Keeping sober is an heroic effort. Especially while the writers one loves and admires are all putting truly heroic quantities of alcohol away. And me? I’m a lousy Buddhist, and certainly no hero. I came up with a Protestant’s compromise: a two-drink limit. Just enough to technically break the precept (I bend my rule by drinking on an empty stomach fast), and not near enough to make the writers accept me with open arms. Disappointing everyone. Mara at my side.

So, the night of my reading. I checked ahead of time: Think Coffee has a bar in back. I showed up early, nerves a-jangle. I drained two pints of Guinness in ten minutes. I got up. I read. It was awesome. Then I went out with a few friends, drank an unknown quantity of sake, and [censoring this part, sorry] well… anyway… I don’t exactly regret it, but I’ll save my trials with the third precept for another day…

The Buddha added the fifth precept, some folks say, because intoxication can lead to the breaking of the other four. Here’s the old story of the monk who did just that. In my experience, limiting myself to only two drinks has been much harder than keeping myself from drinking altogether. Compromise be damned. Two drinks makes me crave two more. It’s part of craving for nonbecoming, as I think I understand it. That energy to destroy that all good punk rockers know well—and the first part of Dharma Punx I really understood. Gin & tonics, Guinness, Blue Moons, cheap wine, followed by dubious makeout sessions in the backs of cabs and damaged friendships later. Better than getting into fights and smashing windows, I guess…

And so the rationalization comes back in. Most nights I can keep it down to two. When I don’t, my body makes me pay, and I can neither meditate nor write the morning after. So I don’t do it for a while. Inevitably it comes back: I love drinking and I don’t want to give it up. Maybe I can learn to do it mindfully? But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. The holidays are here. It helps me talk to people. It lets me dance. To the One City blog, I humbly submit my opened can of worms: When it’s time to take the podium again and read a new short story to a crowd, I’ll need my two drinks first.

Hey all,
Cassmaster is dealing with a friend’s illness and can’t post this week. She’ll be back next week. Please send good wishes. In the meantime, we thought we’d share this interview that just came out with ID Project founder Ethan Nichtern on The Alcove with Mark Molaro. The Alcove is a very cool internet interview show and Mark is a great interviewer. Recently he’s had Naomi Klein and Naomi Wolf on his show, along with many other important thinkers. Check it out and share your thoughts:
YouTube Preview Image

By Stillman Brown
The world is going to shit. George Packer observes that “Religiosity-as opposed to religion-now completely infects our politics,” the earth isn’t being saved fast enough, and the Colts have no chance of winning the Super Bowl. Am I writing about these critical issues? No. I’m writing about something relevant. I’m writing about girls.
I’ve heard that, in the course of a lifetime, gossip consumes nearly 75% of one’s total social communication. Between me and my guys, 90 percent of our gossip concerns girls and we cover all the bases: psychology, strategy and realpolitik, and, more recently, the sensitive economics of dating in New York (She wants to go to a $40 per plate bistro, I can afford ramen and tea). I think most observers would be surprised by the quality of our deliberations – for the past two weeks my friend Donnie and I have had a running discussion about empathy in potential girlfriends. Our insight: It’s important.
If you live in New York you know what I mean – the streets are choked with fit, well-kept, attractive people, both male and female. When I first arrived in New York three years ago, I found it hard to walk down the street without being thrown in to erotic convulsions. The sheer public hotness was distracting. Thankfully, it’s been getting better and I like to think meditation has helped. I wrote this bit a couple of months ago en plein air, so to speak.

The girls. They are everywhere on this island. I can see one, right now, from where I sit on a shop bench at the corner of Mulberry and Bleeker. It is evening, and across the street the sun is setting a red brick and wrought iron building on fire. She has black hair, bob cut like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, one black boot on the Bleeker subway station railing, the other in the street, her slim body zig-zagged into an impossibly tantalizing shape. Like a crazy straw for drinking sex.
They run all varieties and I’m an equal-opportunity gazer; Punk, preppy, Betty Boop, cyclist, hipster, Wall St. pin stripe suit, yoga instructor, ballet dancer, disillusioned Midwesterner, and, of course, waif-like model. There are lots of would be Cover Girls floating around, with one cubic centimeter of stiletto touching the sidewalk. They used to drive me first to euphoria, then grinding frustration.
These days, I’m training myself to have an aesthetic-sexual experience instead of the other way around. Still, when I get hit with 4 or 5 in quick succession, my mindfulness training breaks down and I want to scamper after them and drool on their high heels like a god damn dog. I flatter myself that I’m not creepy about it. My strategy is: be direct with your gaze, don’t shun eye contact, and let your eyes say, by way of an apology, “I’m looking at you because you’re gorgeous.” Chances are, they already know.
David Cross said it best: In New York, “You are constantly faced with this very urgent, quick decision you have to make about every 20 minutes. You have to decide immediately… ‘Oh my god. do I look at the most beautiful woman in the world or the craziest guy in the world? Look at her, she’s fucking beautiful, but look at him! He’s wearing orange footy pajamas and he’s got tin foil on his head and he’s playing a Casio, but look at her she’s amazing – ‘”
I opt for the girl every time.