Archive for November, 2009

Chapter 12: Let’s get this party started.

Chapter 12

Let’s get this party started

In which the ghost of Jerry Garcia haunts the writer once again.

When she who lives here with me came home later that day, the first thing she asked when she walked through the door before the usual request for a not too sweet Margarita or a glass of Edna Valley Chardonnay was not how my day went or how Kelly or the kidults were doing or what was for dinner.  No, it was “how was the meditation today?  Did it go well?” And there went my plan, melting down like warm butter on a stack of steaming hot pancakes.  Boom.  Gone.  My subsequent response was something eminently forgettable along the lines of “uh, really great” and “made some real breakthroughs on the job hunt” and the rest of the evening went like the rest with her passed out early  upstairs and me cruising the far end of the cable channels searching in vain for entertainment before settling into yet another cooking show to fill the time until sleep somewhat naturally settled over me.

Throughout an uneventful next day (uneventful = job searching + another lousy attempt at meditation + long dog walk  + shredding useless paperwork) I swore to myself that the evening would be different. I was determined that it would be.  I resolved not to let my guard down for the sake of a future based on falsehoods and to tell her the truth.  End this hopeless charade and move on.

So that evening, between bites of a first-rate lamb sausage pesto lasagna that I had prepared to keep my mind off of my rapidly deteriorating mental state that afternoon and several glasses of our solid but unspectacular house made Cabernet Sauvignon, I explained my frustrations to her in rapid fire detail. My clear intention was to tell her that I would be ending it all.  She stopped eating and looked up across the table as I tried to put a positive spin on it all.  I put my best foot forward, explaining that I had given this meditation thing a real shot.  I focused on the inability to concentrate during meditation, knowing that I might hit a sympathetic chord with her and I guessed correctly. When I mentioned this aspect of my difficulties it must have really resonated with her. She replied that everyone has those issues with meditation and that she did to and still does.

She continued on, “Meditation is not something that we do naturally or easily.  You have to learn how to do it.  I mean I couldn’t do it myself, that was why I joined my meditation group.”  Uh oh, when I heard the word group the first alarm bells went off I in my head immediately as not only was this was not the answer I was hoping for, it had a lot of potential to keep this process alive. Here I was all set to go in for the kill, put this journey out of its misery.  Instead she effectively derailed me and I sat there looking across the dinner table with a false smile on my face while my balloon slowly lost pressure.

She kept going, “I think that a big part of the problems that you are having is that you are at home too much.”  Well that was true. “I know that you want to do everything yourself and that you believe that you can but this is different. This isn’t like using a road map when you get lost.  (Which I did by the way). You need to get out of the house, find yourself a group to meditate with just like I did, and let it grow over time.  Just think about it, I have been meditating with the same group of women for over 10 years.”

Well that did it. These comments set off a series of incredibly horrendous images in my head.  I could only imagine the ‘ meditation groups’ that I would find if I pursued her suggestion.  For this was not just any American town that I lived in for god sake, this was Berkeley or Bezerkeley as it is lovingly (or more likely not) called.  A city which I can safely say after 20 plus years of living more than lives up to its reputation for attracting a population of highly intelligent and very eclectic, often strange residents.

My imagination then took over, a glimpse of the future came into focus, I smelled the patchouli incense. I saw a room filled with pale old men with long stringy dirty grey hair pony tales dancing in a circle,  chanting dancing twirling praying to a golden buddha that had Jerry Garcia’s head on its shoulders, chanting Dark Star Dark Star, oh my god this was perversion, when this personal nightmare vision was interrupted by my wife’s voice.  (I had seen this ghost once before at Winterland on New Year’s Eve in the 1980’s but at that time it put me to sleep).

“Honey, are you listening to me.”

I quickly came back to the room and her green eyes. “Sorry dear, I was just was thinking about what you said.”  I stalled for time until I could think of what to say.

She carried on.  “So what do you think, how are you going to approach this?”  Ever the businesswoman, she was right to the point.  What was my goal, my objective?  What would be the takeaways from our dinner chat?  Did I have plan?

I went honest. “I have no idea”.

“Well,” she replied, “you rely on the Internet to find everything else in your life, why not this?”

She was right (again! Damn it!) Over the past years the net had become my major research tool and I used it to find just about everything that I purchased, from restaurants to cars to cameras.  The net made sense to me, a source of virtually unlimited knowledge and resource all organized into key words and bundles of facts.  If I could find a monkey filled tin roofed rain-soaked bungalow with crocodiles when you walked outside (yes true) in Costa Rica for a family vacation, why not search for a coach or meditation group in my home town?  I thanked her and promised to get on it the next day.

The next morning I warmed up the new Imac that I purchased the week before (what a pleasure indeed quite fast, stylish and simple to operate) and opened up the browser.  The first question was always the most basic, just what the hell was I searching for?  Um lets see.  Inner peace.  Too broad. Buddhism? I wasn’t converting.  Let’s guess.  Meditation?  Yes.  And keep it local.  And maybe a group to start. So I typed in: Eastern meditation groups Berkeley Ca’.

I resolved to spend the next week trying different groups to see if they might help me.  I wanted to find a men’s meditation group, where normal guys that were trying to better themselves and their homes could get together and not be afraid to go out for a burger or pizza and beer after without dirty looks form the Vegans.  Oh there were plenty of meditation groups for women, for gay men, gay women, for Buddhists, the LGBT community, for Tibetan Buddhists, for Christians, Hindus and Jews.  But none for guys.   Something was wrong here.  Why couldn’t we meditate and continue to love pepperoni?

So I manned up and headed out of the house and drove up the hills to the local spiritual relief center across from campus the next Monday morning at 8:30 for their morning meditation introduction program.  It was held in a funky old school house converted into a multi denominational church painted with faded rainbows and surrounded by tattered Tibetan prayer flags that had long since lost their color.

There was no sign for the class and it was blind luck that I opened the front door and walked into right room. Aren’t their directions on the road to Nirvana?

The room was unheated and cold and only 4 people were there.  3 women of unclear age (believe me it is not like I was there to hit on anyone, seriously these women were just plain, amorphous and very ambiguous).  One other guy, must have been 60, dressed in multi color sweats.  Everyone standing around no one saying a word and no eye contact was being made much less smiling.  Not promising at all.

A few minutes later a bald almond skinned man of unknown age and just about 5 feet tall quietly walked into the room. He was clad in a brown and orange outfit somewhere between a high priest’s robe and a jumpsuit carrying a brightly multi colored cushion.  He smiled subtly at us and then sat down at the end of the room.  He moved quickly into a half lotus and spoke softly to us as we walked toward him “Does everyone have their cushuns?” He said it just that way, cushuns.

I looked around.  Everyone else did, not me.  Worse yet they were already sitting down and beginning to prepare for their coming relaxation moments.

Cushions?  I didn’t know we had to bring cushions.  I spoke up. “No”, I replied, “I didn’t bring one.  Do you have any that I can use?”

At that point he went silent and looked at me.  This lasted for more than just a moment, to be the point of being a bit strange. He seemed to be considering his options.  Was I imaging things or did he actually furrow his brow and start to squint at me?

When he finally spoke it was even quieter, the five of us were now hanging on his every word.  “Cushun.  Do you understand me? You can not meditate if you can not sit properly and you can not sit properly without a cushun. Did you bring a cushun?”

I answered again.  “No, I replied for the second time, “I didn’t.”

He stared for another moment.  Then he sighed.  A deep and yes exasperated breath, the sort you hear from a disappointed middle level Marubeni executive, just not pulled backwards through his teeth, not meditative or Zen in the least.

His gaze had not left me. “Please understand me.  Please understand that without a cushun you can not properly meditate.  Please read the rules they are posted on our website.  Please come back with one tomorrow and we will meditate together.  I hope that you will join us then.  You must remember that the path to enlightenment is long and takes both will and discipline.  So please go now and come back tomorrow when you are completely ready to join us.”   And that was it.  Banished by a passive aggressive monk.

I was flabbergasted. Stunned.  Outraged.  What had just happened!  Where was that old mellow Zen spirit? I looked around at my fellow meditation mates for support but I should have known better.  They were fidgeting uncomfortably on their cushions, waiting for their instruction to begin and looking for me to leave because it was obvious that they were not going to get started until I did.  Collaborators.  Administrators.  Vichy sympathizers. And thus ended my one, and maybe fortuitously so, foray into the world of group meditation.  A crash both sudden and swift.

Without looking back I walked out of the church and really wanted to, but after exercising considerable personal restraint, didn’t try to slam the large wooden doors closed.

As I drove home I made an easy decision, I still needed help, but until I found a group of like-minded people, I wasn’t meditating with anyone else. I mean who needed to be pushed around by a kid in a saffron jumpsuit to learn what had been written about for thousands of years.  I needed a coach.  Someone who could help me to solve these questions that kept bothering me about meditation, Eastern thought and how it could mean something for the modern American male.


Chapter 11: Papa Ohh Mow Mow? Uh uh. Shboom. Shboom!

Chapter 11

Papa Ooh Mow Mow?

Uh Uh. Shboom Shboom!~

The first gaze eastward in neither clear nor compelling.

Just as there was no blinding epiphany at the beginning of this journey (other than my wife threatening to throw my ass off of the couch, which is pretty damned epiphanous in and of itself) there was no specific moment when suddenly things got better that summer or when I could touch my chin and elbows to the floor when stretching my body across my legs (that still has not happened).  Things happened gradually over those first two months post employment in a series of small steps so much so that they were barely noticeable as they occurred.  And there were plenty of pratfalls and backward motion to guarantee that any movements forward were haphazard at very best and often painfully nowhere. Illuminated and illustrative paths did not open up to me regularly, chasms of knowledge did not reveal themselves, the clouds or more aptly said, the fog, did not part, it stayed low and close to the ground letting the sun in from time to time only to slowly crawl back as the evening came.

Instead of focusing on a search for mental peace, in my typical impatient hunt and peck research style, I kept trying different aspects of meditation to see if they worked without taking the time to fully understand just what it was that I was doing. That is the same approach I used with computers, software and electronic devices. I mean seriously, who takes the time to read the manuals?   I got better results from Microsoft Office.

As you may remember from the beginnings of this adventure, my odyssey into this world of Eastern studies began with a clandestine afternoon raid on La Sweetie’s bookshelf for some research the day after she lit me up on the couch in Chapter 1. The first steps that I took into the world of meditation and mindfulness over those next several weeks into were worse for me than studying French as a kid.  The terms and concepts that I struggled to understand were as foreign as the passé imparfait.  I believe that they remain just as difficult for most men.

But back to that afternoon and my little book raid. I had always been curious about what she was up to when she closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply and why she loved meditation so much.  The subject seemed so foreign to her character.  Yet it actually seemed to relax her.  And relaxation was something that I really desperately needed.  So what was this peace and harmony stuff all about?  I needed to find out and this was the time.

When the thought came to me to raid her bookshelf I got pretty excited. Let’s admit it, there is something guilty and potentially titillating about going through your wife’s stuff, even if it is just her book collection. Celebrating the moment, I opened a cold Trummer Pils for additional mental clarity, grabbed a glass, went upstairs and started thumbing through the bookshelves on her side of the bedroom sitting cross-legged on the carpet and ready to receive some real knowledge.

Well, I wish there was something good to report back about, some hidden nest of European sex books in brown paper covers with lurid instructions or an annotated copy of the Kama Sutra or maybe just something plain funny.  No such luck.  Almost all of the books were boring, or worse, and not surprisingly directed towards women, their personal struggles and their issues (mainly with men which by default included me).  Lacking both the estrogen levels and the interest, I gratefully skipped over them quickly without much thought.  To me they were about as exciting as a bowl of warm sour milk on a hot humid day.

Finally on the bottom shelf I found a number of books that dealt with what seemed to be Eastern thought and I opened a few up, started skimming and then dumped them in a pile by my side of the bed.  And that was it, the journey East was on.

Throughout the rest of late summer and into early fall I gave this challenge my best. Most importantly, I made sure that the books were left out around the bedroom for her to see. I read about mindfulness and meditation daily and tried really really hard to make it work. I actually completed several chapters in several books*, some good, some not so.  I didn’t finish any of the books; barely got past the first few chapters in most.

**a recommend list of tolerable texts appears at the end of MHO

What got to me almost immediately was the tone. These authors and their work were ethereal, their advice seemed to float, to speak to people from a different world and not to me. Now this is understandable to a great extent because the people who wrote these books are ethereal. They are monks, Phd’s in philosophy, guys who had spent years in vows of silence sitting on wooden benches watching leaves fall and grass grow and loving it.  Of course they were spacey.  The problem with these texts and these messages is that I wasn’t.  I was stuck here on earth, unemployed and bored.

So I read on out of stubbornness but not joy. I would follow their instructions to the letter.  I found a comfortable place to sit upstairs looking out at the rooftops of our neighborhood and a cushion to sit on.  This was supposed to my “regular” spot and dutifully I went there day after day, morning after morning.

I sat on my comfy cushion.  I tucked it right up under my butt and I sat there.  And I followed those instructions. I tried hard to breathe in and to breathe out and to focus on my breath and to just be.  I tried to count to 25 breaths.  I didn’t make it past 10 most times.  I tried to keep my eyes closed.  They wouldn’t stay that way popping open despite my strongest efforts.  I tried to keep my legs crossed. I couldn’t because my back hurt and my ankles rebelled.

I mixed in a variety of Yoga classes looking for one that clicked.  I wondered if it was just my interest or whether Berkeley had been taken over by Yoga studios, all with slightly different ways of torturing your body and contorting your limbs.  There names were as confusing as the poses, Hatha, Ashtanga, I couldn’t really see the difference between them.  They hurt just the same.  I never went to two in a row.

But my problem was way beyond the physical issues of yoga.  The biggest single hurdle that I could not overcome was mental.  Simply put, I could not control my thoughts during my early attempts at meditation.  Some days I would feel like I was making progress for a moment or two.  Then I would blow up again.  My meditation practice had the consistency of the 49’ers offensive line play. I recall no Buddhist/Eastern feelings ‘of the moment’ during this period of any sort.  None.  Everything felt forced, artificial, discounted and disconnected.

As I look back on these first attempts to calm my mind several things are now clear.  One big one: Those of us with ‘active’ minds (what I will call ICD or intelligent concentration disorder) are not the best candidates for a meditation practice, especially so in the beginning.  Our minds cry out to be entertained, and when they aren’t, they are on to the next thing without hesitation.

It is only later in the mindfulness/meditation process that we learn that while we may not seem to be the best candidates for this stuff; for those of us who crave constant stimulation, meditation provides us with the chance to turn that switch off for the first time in our lives without chemical intervention.  And yes, for  you doubters out there who selfishly hang to those old habits, it is worth learning to control that particular switch in this way.  It helps us to manage our toxic quest for more more and then a little more with benefits instead of side effects.

For so many reasons that I have alluded to above and many more that became clear later on, the traditional approach to meditation did not work for me. I understand that only in hindsight.  That realization only came months later after the process finally began to work.  I want you to understand it now so that you don’t loose faith as we navigate the tepid ponds and falling oak leaves along the way.  There is a goal and it is and was worth the effort.

So here is what I believe was impeding my progress.   When I tried to meditate I worked hard to block out my daily mundane thoughts just like they wanted me to.  But no matter how hard or long I concentrated I could not empty my mind.  My mental cache was full and I guess that I liked it that way.  I was way too afraid or maybe just lacked the mental command to empty it.

Now I will admit without hesitation that when I began this study I wanted to be like all the other yogis and little Buddha’s that I read about. They looked so cool sitting cross-legged on mountain tops by roaring streams and many of them were actually ripped (this was something that really confused me). The women yoga instructors were lithe, make up free and beautiful, they spoke clearly and strongly.  The men could stand on their head in one quick motion and stay there.  They were odd but impressive nonetheless.

Deep down I yearned for my mind to be a pure wisp of nothing like theirs, conscious of the world without judging it. I strived to become aware, present, to be fully engaged in the moment; clean, clear and pure. I tried to be aware, to be present, to be mindful** of every moment. I wanted to sit and say to myself, “Look a leaf.  Wow what a blue blue sky.  Gee there is the sun”.  I wanted everything to be appreciated beautiful, meaningful.  And I did not see the world that way at all.  Still don’t.

Mindfulness is defined as a calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself.

This is not to say that those sorts of moments aren’t pretty, seriously, they are. But they were never enough for me.  I wanted to focus on something more meaningful, more central to my life.  I know now that I was searching for am inner peace that I could understand.

So there I was most mornings, trying desperately to think of nothing with my head full of everything.   This is not to say that the old-time sages didn’t recognize our mental tendency to wander.  They called this the monkey mind, hopping from subject to subject, from tree to tree.  The solution that they offered was more discipline, more breathing, more meditation, more of the same things that already were not working for me.  I kept beating my head against this soft wall of down pillows without results during those two months.

Trying to think about nothing did have two consistent effects on me.  More often than not I would give up. On some occasions I would actually become very still. Then I would fall quickly to sleep.  Neither result was very satisfying or calming although I am the first to admit the sleep felt good.

My frustrations boiled over about week 4 into this process.  I had been hitting the books hard all week and had finally learned to hold a lotus position for more than 2 minutes.  This was especially important for show and tell the night before.  Fingers touching in a nice round oval, I made sure that she found me in the upstairs bedroom that evening cross-legged and eyes closed and breathing slowly right after I turned off the Giants-Mets game as she pulled into the driveway.  Even she who is rarely conscious when she comes home from work caught this surprise act and I got rewarded later with more than a smile.

The next afternoon found me back in the lotus trying desperately to shut down my mind which was lost in a death spiral of dwindling income exacerbated by a new found well of major expense that had reared its head a week before.

The challenge that I was now facing was a leaking upstairs shower. Just like us, home maintenance can only be deferred so long before trouble sets in. I had known about this problem for years, tackling it with a dazzling array of caulk, sealants and other stalling efforts that brought me many years of extra use.  But these fixes were only good for so long and I knew that the shower base, something I later got to know was the “pan” had finally cracked, sending a slow but steady stream of water leaking down into the studs that support the second floor each time we showered and then soaking the ceiling of my son’s closet. The ceiling which was now brown, grey and black, cracking and turning really really ugly in colors that spelled out a simple three-letter word every homeowner dreads. Rot.  That horrifying combination of a dank sulfurous smell and a spreading stain that looked like a tie dye made by Nostradamus and gave way when I poked it with my finger made it clear to me that home remedies were now over.  This was clearly beyond the usual course of cortisone and antibiotics, surgery would be required.

This was not a good subject for meditation but one that kept seeping into my thoughts and wouldn’t go away.   How do you relax your mind when the shower has cracked and you can’t fix it and the only solution is to hire a contractor and your income stream has stopped?  That was a challenge.  A challenge that overwhelmed me that day.

So I gave up, stopped breathing in breathing out and got off of the cushion and just stared out the window for a while.  I thought to myself that this shit was going nowhere.  I was becoming an actor, using the appearance of meditating to make peace at home and not believing in a word of it.  I would tell her the truth, that the meditation wasn’t going well, that underneath that serene poses I was frustrated angry and bordering on depressed with a steel rod running from my gut to my brain that impaled me 24/7 and wouldn’t let me sleep through a single night in the past two weeks.  I was pissing away all the benefits of being out of work and couldn’t do a thing about it.

Yes, I would tell her tonight when she came home from work. Enough was enough.

Chapter 10. Back where we started from (here we go round again).

Chapter 10

Back where we started from;

here we go round again

(thanks Raymond Douglas D.)

Your scribe finds the bottom.


Looking back on the first month or so of that summer, I now realize that I accomplished an unrequited and undeniable sum total of fuck all zero.  That is not to say I did nothing.  My days came and went one after another.  They all kind of blurred.  But when look back at that time I accomplished very very little.

Along with my fellow unemployed brothers and sisters, we lined up to look for work only to realize that we had become the collective road kill of our crashing economy.  This zombie life was bad enough.  But unemployment alone wasn’t the only poison that this time period had in mind for us.  That wouldn’t do. Not only did we have no jobs and no money coming in, we got a real bonus handed to us: watching the stock market crash daily as our long planned and hoped for retirement plummeted downwards like pigeon full of buckshot and blew out what was left of your remaining hope.  Good times.  Good times.

Going against the advice I had given repeatedly to my children I didn’t rely upon some of my old sources of inner strength to get me through this lost time.  I didn’t have a spiritual revelation or start listening to Coltrane and early Miles again.  Didn’t go back to my old heroes like Raymond Douglas D and Peter T. and Thomas P. Didn’t finish that photo project that I had been meaning to work on for so many years, left the images piling up in digital purgatory once again.  Didn’t organize the photos of the kids spilling out of box after box, didn’t use the empty waiting albums.  Didn’t get back on the bicycle which sat faithfully waiting for me in the garage. Didn’t start running again.  Didn’t go back to that yoga class that I tried once. Didn’t get my shit together uh no no no no.  Not at all.  Couldn’t seem to get motivated.  I wonder why….

I did not know it at the time but I was in a state of shock.  Only in retrospect can one see what had happened.  For starters, my male pride had been kicked in the groin and then stepped on.  From the time we are little boys, men are taught the importance of making money.  Women are given this lesson too, but it is different for us.  Making coin becomes an integral part of our guy identity.  So not only had life blown apart my day to day temporal structure, my masculine pride had hitchhiked out of town.

At the same time; while I was thankful that one of us was working, it hurt to see her leaving for the office on mornings when my day was going to be like so many others in that summer, spent just passing the time and holding on tight to myself to maintain sanity.  Yes, I took that precious swath of time that had been gift wrapped for me and left it sitting on the credenza not knowing where to look for the package must less to open it.

But I couldn’t afford to admit to myself what was going or how I felt or more likely I just plain didn’t know what to do with it.  Yes, on the surface I seemed fine.  Yes, I made sure that I got out of bed every morning before 9 and that I walked the dog every afternoon sometimes for hours on end/ enjoying the tremendous variety of the Bay Area landscape, hitting the trails I knew well in Marin and Tilden park; listening to the i-shuffle and wondering in amazement how it seemed to mock my moods, enough New Order, Lucinda Williams and Portishead songs already.

So what else did I do? I watched a whole lot of sports, found myself looking forward to baseball games and for the first time that I can recall, topped that with a solid dose of meaningless television (mostly Food Network and comedy central) to pass the time and to forget about the rock solid tension in my stomach and body that just would not go away.  Period.

Most days felt just plain dull.  Nothing bad was happening but nothing good either.  Everything appeared to be fine until you dug underneath it and found the pools of stagnant waters.

Many days I relied on plain old physical labor to get me through these strange times.  I introduced myself to the garage for the first time in a year.  I found it smelling of rat piss and really a mess.  Spent the hours cleaning, sorting, and then cleaning again.  Sorted through files from the past and tried not to linger.  Sat in the sun for hours and shredded documents of times and lives past as quickly as I could.  Then when the shredder would overheat I would  stop and space out.

As the summer passed I had a lot of time to think of lots of business ideas that went absolutely nowhere. Here are some of the real winners that I actually recall, god knows there are plent more that are buried deep in landfills and erased electrons somewhere.  Let’s see; open a gourmet taco truck that fused Mexican and traditional Jewish deli recipes. Moishe Gonazales. Can’t you see it, pastrami carnitas on rye tortillas. Sweet tortilla blintzes stuffed with ricotta cheese.  I shared this idea with my friends.  Their opinion:  Ummmm….maybe not.  I said if a Korean taco truck could make it why not this?  Their answer?  Spice.

Some of the others?  Three months would be spent exploring what it would take to create a gourmet ice cream truck and take advantage of the burgeoning street food scene.  But the research came up with immediate problems.  For one thing, why start it in the Bay Area where it is never warm? Where there is a new gourmet ice cream parlor or strangely named and sour tasting yogurt stand opening on every corner?  At least I learned what 16 percent butterfat really meant and got to travel to New York to check their street food scene and bury a weekend that winter in thin crust pizzas and Northern Italian reds.

What if we opened a café that sold waffles?  Had a great name too.  “Waffeltown”. But it felt old fashioned and way too risky for me to pull the trigger when every retail project on earth seemed to start at a minimum investment of 300K.  And that issue cut across the board on every retail project that I looked at.  Still have the antique waffle irons that I bought on Ebay that week.

Every retail project came down to the same question: Where was that sort of money going to come from?  A loan against the house, the last remaining great asset?  Take more risk in an already high risk world?  Start a project whose numbers didn’t pencil from the get go unless you hermit crabbed your way into someone else’s failure.

But enough about food for a moment.  There were other mismatched and misplaced ideas to explore.

In a thoroughly stupid gambit I was amateurish enough to think I could outwit Google’s algorithm police by searching for corporate websites like Western Union and buying ads for competitive products with low bids and similar names like Western Union travel or Western Union Flowers. Smart huh?  It worked for one day.  Found quickly that Google doesn’t let anyone play games in their sandbox when they marked up the ad cost from 3 cents to 3 dollars.  Probably broke some trademark laws too. Ideas so convoluted I can’t remember what I did or why I did it.

When not trying to start a business I spent the time looking at those other ideas I had when I left my job.  Remember that ideal; trying to give back to the community by getting a non-profit job even if it paid very little?  Me and every other unemployed business person over 50 had the same idea.  Get in line and take a number, we need your money not you was the answer loud and clear to us.  We are overwhelmed with your calls.  Take a number.  And volunteer.  That was the one idea that held on and was something I would later do.

Then if the morning was really looking grim there was always the clincher, for a really good time let’s try looking for work!  Is there anything more degrading to a recently unemployed person over 50, or of any age for that matter, with ‘senior’ management skills than looking for work in the midst of a recession? And take that word senior out of your resume if it is somehow still there.  It no longer means experienced….now it just plain means old.

Oh the exquisite pleasures of trying to find a job in the modern world. The application process for corporate jobs is designed so that no one will ever speak with you.  You fill out complex forms that are more complicated than setting up a bank account, each seeking scads of personal information and history, all for jobs that you have little or no chance of ever getting and never generating even the courtesy of a form email reply.  After how many tries do you just stop caring about them?  It doesn’t take long.

And how about those message boards?  Tired of the Craigslist shuffle?  I know they do a service for job seekers, but how many find themselves addicted to checking those lists several times a day to find nothing new and nothing relevant to your search over and over again no matter how deep you did into the site.

Monster?  Worthless beyond entry level positions.  Ops ladder?  Really only for ops guys.  Career Builder?  A play for you to pay.  A word of advice.  Keep the searches down to once a week on a concentrated basis and don’t waste your time and subject yourself to this battering.

Even though you know better, being persistent you still check them out, exploring each and ever lead going down the road to find it leads once again to that same end.  You apply for jobs that you will never get or that barely interest you just to keep sharp.  And as the economy would worsen your motivation would decrease at the competition increased.  As Neil Young put it so well, ‘Everybody knows this is nowhere’.

A funny thing happens when you stop earning money.  Instead of earning new money you begin to spend your time figuring out how you are saving money by not working.  One bored afternoon I actually caculated that I was saving several hunrdred dollars a month by not working.  There was the commute (an easy 10 bucks with gas and toll), lunches (another 10) and dry cleaning (100 a month).  I was up to 700 already and hadn’t done a thing.  That was my “accomplishment”.  I didn’t share it.

These shadow days were never even remotely close to being satisfying for me. After trying not to watch the clock and waiting until 12 for lunch I would eat quickly without much pleasure reading the NY times, having finished the comicle by the time breakfast was half way done.  Afternoons were adrift with little to do and less to look forward to. I would end the day at 6 pm in the highly unnatural and uncomfortable role of waiting for le sweetie to come home (and hard worker that she was that rarely happened), deciding whether it was time to hit that second Margarita with the stiff anxious physical bar in my body unwilling to back down despite the Blue Agave’s best shot.  I would stand there on the back deck feeling like some sort of demented househusband with a three-day growth of beard wearing unchanged sweats.  Romantic image isn’t it?

And did I imagine it, but to me it seemed that ze sweets was out more than usual during those days.  Maybe it was just that I noticed more, but I couldn’t help wondering if she was enjoying the work driven social life or somewhat eager to escape the brooding presence of an unemployed bored and less than happy husband at the casa.

This was a time of paradox. No matter how many times you told yourself that you have health, some money in the bank and a solid family, it was not enough to overcome the sheer acid effect of too much time by your lonesome in a newly unstructured environment. I thought a lot about what had gone wrong?  Was it the pessimism of the economy? Gas pricing? Why did it seem that so many bad stories were permeating our lives?  The stories I heard from my friends:

“My grandson’s melanoma is back again in his brain.

My daughter is in rehab again.

Did you hear the story about so and so.  Yeah they are finished.   He moved out last week.

No, they declared bankruptcy, the business is finished.

And what about the kids?  Well they aren’t taking it well.

Yes, dropped dead playing tennis, right on the court”.

This was brought to the forefront of my thoughts when I went to check my bank balance one afternoon and discovered that some asshole had gotten a hold of my checking account and pulled some 5,000 (actually 4900 as 5000 is some kind of reporting threshold) out of my bank account electronically sending a payment to GMAC.  And the bank, although very professional and courteous, they did a really decent job, said there is no way to stop this.  As things become more electronic fraud become so much easier.  There are rats everywhere, trying to get to your money and your goodies in the garage. They were right about not being to stop them.  Three weeks later they hit us again, this time 4700 paid to a bookstore at a University in Nova Scotia (and just what did the buy with that money?  Sweatshirts?  Books?).

Our egotistical but naive generation thought it would all be different for us but it wasn’t turning out that way.  All of our hopes and desires, the skills that we thought would make our world and our kids lives better were unable to evade the sheer idiocy of the current world and the overpowering reality of our exploding genetic pools.

Many afternoons I just wondered why bother.  Why put out the energy.  Why not just stay home with the 1080 resolution 181 channels picture in a picture and nothing to watch.  You stay there passively waiting for something to happen watching the ice in the margarita glass melt.

That is until some thing changes. And here is the good news. That was it.  That was the low point. I was lucky, those weeks in early summer were the bottom of it all for me.

While this time period seems remotely funny looking back it is only funny when you are looking back. Day to day it was a struggle to keep your spirits positive.  To not feel sorry for yourself was an effort.  To keep positive was a battle. That left little time and energy left over for feelings like joy or pleasure or growth.  This was a time for keeping your shit together for fear of looking down into the personal abyss and where it inevitably led for too long.  This was a time of blind faith that it would get better where you just hold on to the emotional toboggan for dear life.

So what happens at a bottom?  Is there an epiphany?  A moment where the skies part and a white haired Monty Python like blue eyed god-head spoke to me?  Did someone hand me a gold key or open a door marked here?

No.  Not really. It would be so wonderful if that was the case, it would all be so much easier.  I could point to that moment and say “Eureka, there it is!”  I would have a neat little trick to share that would sell a million books and make a million people happy.  You could stop reading in a few pages and change your life too.

But there wasn’t one.  There isn’t one.  That is the very essence of the journey that I began in those bottom moments.  As I emerged I realized over time that is not about the clarity and hope of a crisp morning sunrise or learning to take your time and really lean into the downward dog.  It is not about controlling your breathing or your mind and setting out on new adventures no matter what they are.  It is not about the smile on a child or the loping gallop of a hunting dog in full stride on a beach.

It is about all of them.  It is about how you greet each moment and what you do with them.  It is about opening your eyes to what is all around you.  That is where the journeys really begin.  One day I realized that  got off of the couch and started moving on.  And I hardly  noticed that it had happened much less the day on which it occurred.

Chapter 9: The eye of the storm is strangely quiet but still really really windy.

Chapter 9

The eye of the storm is strangely quiet but still really really windy.

Wherein your author finds that home is not so sweet.

As I looked out from my excruciatingly clean desk through the unevenly cherry stained wooden windows and out onto the traffic on Monterey Avenue that first morning back at home the sky was grey, dark and menacing.  A cold wind was blowing and the sycamore trees outside of the house swayed.  Prematurely fallen green and brown leaves blew up the street giving it a feeling of autumn and I actually thought about turning on the heater, something completely out of character.  Yes, it was just another typical Bay Area “summer” day in early July.

Staring ahead sitting at my desk chair with a strong black cup of coffee and wondering just what the fuck had happened, I found myself in a new and stunningly unfamiliar spot, looking out my front windows at the commuters heading towards San Francisco instead of joining in with them.  Today I would not be taking the bus.  There would be no verbal interaction with the riders I used to pick up so that I could take the car pool lane into the City and no bridge toll to pay if I didn’t.  No Bart ride, no lift from a co-worker who happened to call earlier that morning.  Just a lot of no’s on the menu with a lot more no nothing planned for this day.

As I punched up the old Dell it whirred and clicked itself into life like something out of the Star Wars movie and the bizarre start up screens of Windows XP creaked into life I realized that it too wouldn’t be making the cut much longer. At least buying a new computer would give some thing to do and a treat to look forward to.  I had no idea how important the computer was to the home office life.

Finally, after a long and excruciatingly slow warm up period, I opened Explorer out of habit and then Outlook.  I read the little e-mail that came in that morning, exclusively ads and spam before trashing this pile of junk.

There were two phones upstairs, the cell and the home phone.  But the phone wasn’t ringing and I knew that they would not be for some time.  The dog was sound asleep downstairs curled up into a warm white ball, the wife had left for work an hour ago, the ‘kids’ were where they were supposed to be, with summer jobs in their respective college towns of Boston and San Diego.  And there I was.  For the first time in I don’t even know how long I sat alone at a desk at 8:53 in the am wondering just what the fuck to do with myself with a day that loomed before me with attitude of a troll watching children crossing a fantasy bridge with a big appetite and a twitching left eye.

See this is what happens. When you leave a career, whether in a small entrepreneurial business or a larger more corporate venue, you leave much more behind than just the business life.  You leave structure.  You leave habits, familiarity.  You jump off a diving board and diver into a pool of air that has no walls no floor and no ceiling.  Everything suddenly becomes nothing.

At work you develop the creature habits that define your day.  Where you stop for breakfast or don’t, what coffee do you drink to start the morning.  What is for lunch and often who is having lunch with whom?  Emails come in routinely that need to be answered, phone calls bring a barrage of inquiries what’s why’s and how’s.  Even when times are shitty there are challenges to overcome, especially for those of us that relish a fight and don’t back away easy.  These are all taken for granted.

But mostly there is the constant inflow and outflow of stimulation.  Even as slow as our business had been there was still plenty going on, maybe not so pleasant but plenty intense.  And when the stimulation stops there is a void in front of you that is impossible to fill.  Each and every interaction that occurs in a given work day allows you to define yourself, you read yourself through the interaction with others.  When that feedback suddenly stops you don’t know what to do first or where to turn.   As the days pass you feel like you are punching the Pillsbury doughboy in his fat white rolly polly stomach.  As you hit him over and over again he just absorbs every blow you can muster, laughs at you and asks “Thank you sir, may I have another?”  Then he winks.

No, there is no manual for the newly unemployed that you can turn to.  There is no way for you to head downtown to the financial district looking to find a quick work fix.  You won’t be hanging out on the corner of Montgomery and California staring out at guys and girls rushing by in their work suits with your hands trembling mumbling “Hey man, where can I score a 4 week consulting contract.  I got it bad this morning.  I need some work…brother can you spare a deal”

To make matters worse, I actually was foolish enough to believe that I would get another job soon after I left.  Although I though I would have minded taking some time off, something that I had not done since I was 12, I wanted to get back into the work force more than anything.   Wasn’t this the great chance to build on my career?  To take the skills I had acquired the knowledge that I had gained and my real word experience and move into a healthy company.  You know, make my mark, and maybe even do some good for the world along the way.  Maybe not.

These feelings were made all the worse by what happened the week before I became one of the hordes of the newly unemployed. Through a friend I heard about Vice President of Sales position with another gourmet food company in the East Bay.  The product was very high end and the target market was the same that I had been working in but a bit more corporate.  I went through three grueling yet funny interviews with the owner, who was the youngest person (28) who had ever interviewed me for a job who cursed freely during our talks.  All of this happened during the last few weeks that I was still employed and I was on a cloud.  I could see it already happening.  I would ask for a few weeks vacation and would start working at the end of the month tan relaxed and ready to work.

Maybe not.  Maybe I should have known I was screwed when he told me that I reminded him of this father, who he insisted that he loved and respected after I blanched fairly visibly at the comment. I knew intuitively that not many of us would actually want to work for our Dad, least of all me, but I chose to ignore the obvious warning sign.   I wound up scoring a bridesmaid result, came in number 2 and got a thank you and bottle of Organic Hazelnut Oil for my efforts.

Notwithstanding this result I actually thought this was good news.  I wasn’t worried at all about finding work at all.  After all I had just missed getting another job.  There had to be more out there for me.  Right?  Right?


If ever there was an ASSumption** (**Assume stands for makes and ass out of u and me) that I made about the near future of my life that had to be it. Who knew that within weeks of leaving work the United States economy would reveal that behind the curtains it was cratering faster than our company’s sinking credit score.   I wouldn’t see a sniff of another job interview, much less a whiff of the odor of a job, for another 5 months.

But back to that morning.  Eventually I gave up on the computer and headed downstairs to put breakfast together.  The dog didn’t bother to wake up or even move as I walked by.  It was if I wasn’t even there.

All through that morning that I noticed that there was a tightness that gripped my body.  This was not a pain but a sort of tight rod that started at the bottom of my intestine and held the inside of my body hostage.  This feeling, call it say anxiety with a dash of impending despondency and touch of dare I say a wee bit of feeling sorry for myself as a garnish would be my good buddy for the next 6 months.  We would get to know each other real well.

And this was supposed to be a great day of joy, liberation, the moment that I had been waiting for.  I should have felt alive, excited and optimistic.  I should have been celebrating, but no one wants to on a cold Tuesday morning.  No, instead I just felt plain numb.

But if anything I am not a quitter.  So after breakfast it was back upstairs.  I decided to make myself a little plan.  A business plan for myself. Yes, I decided that this what I needed a plan to get myself going, to get out there do stuff and most of all get out of the house.  After all, I had written countless business plans for others.  I knew how to organize a business how to establish order create budgets spreadsheets in Excel with almost functioning macros, yes I would create a plan for myself.

I opened up Word and looked at that blank screen.  I started to type on the blank page.  Personal Business Plan.  Yes that sounded very good.  Really good, hey, maybe this could be the beginning of a new business!  Yes, writing personal business plans!  Well what it really was the beginning of was just the first of a host of business ideas that I had over the rest of the year that would go absolutely nowhere.

So I sat there and I wondered where do I begin.  And I sat.  And I waited.  And the screen stayed blank.  After a few more moments I punched back into Explorer and was on my way to to see what was new in Sports.  Hey, the Giants, on a Midwest swing, were playing the reds at 4:15 pm. Maybe I could take the dog for a walk.  And what was in the fridge for lunch?

That was as far as the plan got that day and the next and for some time thereafter.

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