Monthly Archives: February 2006

Friends and family

Tuesday, February 28

I called my friend Kitty Saturday evening in a last-ditch effort to avoid another weekend night alone. Kitty is one of my best and oldest friends in Atlanta, a refugee from the financial world and a wonderful portrait painter. We speak the same language spiritually, and I needed a healthy dose.

I suggested Mexican food, but she was cooking for her father and his friend, Katie, and invited me to join them. Kitty put her career on hold more than a year ago to move in with her father when his health began to deteriorate.

Mr. H and Katie were at the  plank table in the warm, high-ceilinged kitchen when I got there watching a British sitcom on a small TV. He wore the old clothes and becalmed look of the aged. Katie was sprightly in an off-white pantsuit. Kitty was at the sink, another small TV to her left tuned to the Olympics.

This scenario had played itself out over countless evenings, the three of them bound together by love, family, friendship and habit. I was the wild card, bringing a loaf of bread, a bottle of shiraz and an air of gratitude at being included.

In his prime, Mr. H was a no-nonsense attorney who once represented the Atlanta Braves. Now he is slow and feeble,  uninterested in the food set before him. His chair was pushed back from the table and as he reached for his wineglass, the hand shook. I handed him the glass and took it back from him and set it on the table, saying nothing, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Later, I noticed he’d set the glass on a pile of cocktail napkins near his pill bottles, and move it to the table.

At Katie’s suggestion he switched the TV to the Olympics, and I provided background on Apolo Anton Ohno and Janica Kostelic, on the U.S. bobsled team and Dutch skating fans, on Bode Miller and Alberto Tomba.

We drank – Katie loved the wine, but I suspect it was the effervescence in the air – ate and laughed, and I forgot myself. I started call Mr. H Dan and made a gentle joke at his expense that made him chuckle. I patted him gently on the back and realized that this was a moment I’d never had with my own father, and never would.

Kitty called the next day to say how much her father enjoyed me. It was the first time he’s ever said that, and we talked about how in his decline he has become childlike.  "And clear," she said. "Very clear."

It had been a joy for me as well, and the joy was in the giving.

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Slumming with Liliputians

Wednesday, February 22 

We are in Starbucks, two small tables pulled together, six men around them drinking decaf or tea, and one hardy soul drinking leaded. It’s 9:30 in the evening. The conversation is politics, although it is less a conversation than a carpet-bombing by the three conservatives.

As in: We’re winning the war in Iraq. As in: So what if people are being held as suspected terrorists, but haven’t been charged. As in: The absence of liberal talk shows demonstrates how little support there is for their cause.

The other two men listen and offer an occasional comment, but I can only watch. Not because I agree, but because I feel as if I’ve been ambushed.

Just an hour before, these same members of my men’s group were engaged in a discussion about Eckhart Tolle’s suggestion in his new book, "The New Earth," that we overcome self-imposed limitations and "play in a bigger game." The key to playing in a bigger game? Associating with those who encourage excellence.

The response was powerful and positive. One guy said that when he played tennis with someone better than he was, he played much better. Another had the same experience playing golf. Just that afternoon he had engaged in an impromptu pitching and putting contest with a guy training for the PGA tour.

"I was making the kind of shots I never make," W said. "I played 40 percent better than I usually do."

As spiritually nourishing as our meetings usually are, they are seldom as uplifting or enthusiastic as this one. Which is why the discussion at Starbucks was so disappointing, and why it bothered me still the next day.

It had less to do with our political differences, although I do find it incomprehensible that people I like and admire can come to conclusions so different from my own. And yet if that’s the price of our friendship, I’ll pay it willingly. These are my friends.

What kept coming back the next day, however, was not the words but the emotions. If my friends’ beliefs gave them serenity and secuirity, there would be nothing to say. But instead what I sensed was a dark, troubling undertone, a mixture of hostility and anger, the need to be right and the need to win. It was the negativity that was so disturbing, and so at odds with where we’d just been.

Of particular interest were repeated references to the media:  CNN was terrible, too liberal; Fox News was "more balanced." Another guy spent much of his day listening to talk radio.

I could have pointed out that Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who made his fortune with trashy tabloids in Europe and Australia (women in bikinis on page 3) and whose network also seems tuned to the lowest common denominator.

I might also have remarked that the lack of liberal talk radio shows is one of the few good things to arise from their ineffectuality in recent years. Radio talk show hosts are rude and mean-spirited. They have little regard for facts or kindness, and are the polar opposite of everything the our group stands for.

What concerns me about the media is the "corporatization" that has taken place over the past decade or so, largely due to the hectoring of conservative groups and the faint-hearted response of management. The result is a fourth estate we can no longer depend on to engage in the investigative, boat-rocking journalism that protects our rights and freedoms from the corrupt and greedy.

There is also the media’s long-standing addiction to bad news: war, violence, disasters, death, tragedy, accidents, pestilence, disease, etc. Not only is the formula repetitive and deadening, it is also spiritually toxic. A steady diet of "news you can count on" – the slogan of one Atlanta TV station – would exhaust the jolly adrenals of the Dalai Lama himself.

Frequent exposure to the media is not what I call "playing in a bigger game." It’s slumming with the Liliputians of a dying paradigm. It encourages anger, hostility and fear on the one hand, and manipulation on the other.

But how can one be an informed, responsible citizen without turning to the media?

Probably you can’t. I skim the local paper a few times a week, watch Jim Lehrer’s (carefully balanced) news hour, read the occasional story online and browse The New York Times and BBC websites.

But before exposing myself to any of that, I inoculate myself with my minimum daily requirement of spiritual reading to fortify my immune system. And I do my best not to engage with those whose minds are aleady made up.

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Eliminating the middle man

Monday, February 13

It didn’t occur to me until well after I’d walked barefoot across the 20-foot bed of glowing coals that maybe a firewalk was not the way to personal power. Maybe it was just an experience, one I would not repeat and one that would have no significant bearing on the rest of my life.

But it is human nature – or at least it was my nature in the fall of 1984 – to think that I was just one transcendent experience away from a shift that would fuse my reality with my potential, and I would be changed for all time.

I’d forgotten about that firewalk until we discussed personal power at a men’s group meeting. Personal power in that context seemed to mean moments of exceptional awareness and unusual strength; even insight and serenity.

Example: one guy was mugged by four men years ago while jogging. In the midst of that attack, he recalls a moment of startling clarity where he knew that no matter what they did, no matter how badly they beat him, they could never truly touch him nor take away his fundamental being. With that realization, he found the strength to break free and out-run his attackers.

Another man, anxious and unable to sleep for months, realized while filling out a questionnaire in a psychiatrist’s office that his problem wasn’t internal. His problem was his wife’s constant complaints and demands for reassurance.

"I went home and told her, ‘I don’t have a problem, you do," he said. "That night I slept like a baby."

What these experiences had in common was that they were all momentary and episodic rather than epic, life-changing epiphanies. Eckhart Tolle, author of "The Power of Now" and other books, claims to have experienced a transcendent awareness so powerful that he spent two years in blissful stupor.

I bring this up because Power is in the subtitle of this website, and it means not just momentary brilliance but a sustainable reality. It means living authentically, living to the fullness of one’s potential rather than being the impersonators we are taught by our culture to be. I don’t know anyone living at that level — myself included — but I am convinced it’s where we’re meant to be.

The other day I listed the attributes that I thought might characterize my own personal power, things like cheerfulness, strength, an enthusiasm for life, love and the certainty that no matter how difficult things might become, I would always be secure, fearless.

I even fancied that there is a rhythm to it, a pace that is as much mental as physical that would move me through my days. But it came to me as an image: a moonlit bay, palm trees silhouetted against a blue-black sky, a gentle breeze blowing and an acoustic guitar playing a languid bossa nova.

But this rhythm never resulted from any of the many workshops I took in the ’80s, including the firewalk. That was part of a weekend with Anthony Robbins that included training in nutrition and NeuroLinguistic Programming. Midway through the NLP training I lost interest when I realized that it was being taught as a form of manipulation. And during the final session on nutrition, Robbins was confronted by one of the men in the audience for making a pass at his girlfriend.

Robbins denied the charge – not very convincingly, I thought – and later the woman I was with said Robbins had propositioned her as well. If true, he had good taste: my friend was a former Clairol girl and Vogue model, and a dead ringer for Linda Evans. The other woman was also very attractive.

In the years since, I have read more books and watched more tapes than I can count. I’ve met and spoken with Ram Dass, Dan Millman and Deepak Chopra, and I’ve seen Wayne Dyer so often on TV I feel like I know him better than my neighbor.

While all offer something of value, I find ultimately that I have little patience for another book or tape or video. I’m no longer beguiled by the experiences of others, nor by affirmations, theories or techniques.

I am interested in my own process, my own access to wisdom and my own journey  — halting and mule-headed though it may be — to faith. Having lost a relationship over spiritual differences, I know that even on the path there are setbacks. But my feeling is that the best way to personal power lies in a direct relationship with the Creator and cutting out the middle man.

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Dream thieves

Saturday, February 4 

The second day of February was overcast and threatened rain. There was a damp chill rising off the ground, and the wind blowing out of the west promised rain and a full-blown case of the blues.

I did a balance transfer last month, shifting debt from one credit card where a zero percent APR was expiring to a new 0% APR offer. But on my desk was a bill double what it should have been. And with it, a slip of paper entitled "Why Your Minimum Payment Calculation is Changing."

In truth , there is no answer as to "why," only an explanation of how. Effectively, 0 percent APR is now 2 percent and if I don’t like it, I can close my account. Which means paying it off first, which I cannot do.

I’ve been doing the balance-transfer shuffle for a couple of years, paying bare minimums while waiting for the winds of change to start blowing my way. "I can’t believe you’ve been doing this for five years," my friend P said the other day. "You’ve got a lot of faith."

Actually, I don’t. And if you’ve been reading this carefully, you may already have noticed where the problem lies. It’s that word "waiting."

Waiting for projects to come through isn’t good enough. Michael Jordan didn’t wait for his team to win, he willed it to win. When IBM whiffed on his PC software, Bill Gates took it elsewhere and made it happen on his own. When Richard Branson saw how lackluster the airlines were, he started his own.

At my men’s group meeting the other night, a guy said he met a man recently who was in an accident several years ago that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he became a wheelchair marathoner who has medaled in three Paralympic Games and last year competed in the Chicago and New York marathons. He married and has a 3-year-old daughter. He renovates houses for a living, and in his spare time he’s an advocate for disabled athletes.

"That guy is more powerful than a lot of the able-bodied people I know," my friend said.

I put myself in that underachievers’ category, struggling with a long-standing paradox. By nature, I am hopeful, upbeat, even idealistic. But I grew up in a situation where the glass was always half-empty. I believed that nothing I could do was good enough, that the best I could hope for was just to get along.

I’ve worked hard at cleaning that up, but something was missing. I awoke a few nights ago at 3:45 a.m., sat up in bed with a notebook and a pen and ran a full diagnostic, a combined searching of the soul and an inventory of all my plans and ideas. The conclusion: there was nothing wrong with any of it. Properly reinforced and pursued, any one of them could turn things around.

The problem, I found, was operator error. As I became immersed in the routine of day to day affairs,  optimism ebbed away, displaced by a deadening reality.

"How," I thought, glancing out the window as I made coffee in the morning, "is today any better than yesterday? What’s different?" I drive down the street where new homes are going up that will cost $700,000, and I wonder "Where the hell is my income going to come from?" I notice bills on my desk and think "I’ll pay them later," as if not facing the reality will make it better somehow.

And yet those who succeed face those same 3-o’clock-in-the-morning doubts,  those moments when the world seems indifferent, if not hostile, and the dream thieves threaten to bring them crashing back to earth.

Michael Campbell, who a few years ago almost gave up on golf, revived himself and last year won the U.S. Open. But even during the last nine holes of the last round, his fear and doubt were so great that he had to keep repeating to himself  "’Keep your focus!’ twenty times on each hole."

That is the ultimate battleground: change your thoughts, change your life. Scores of times each day, every negative must be neutralized, every temptation to give up must be cancelled, every moment of weakness must be overpowered with gratitude and affirmations.

It’s called holding the vision, and I know it works because my struggle these past few years has perfectly reflected the thoughts I’ve allowed to run unchallenged through the hallways of my mind. And to those who clung to their individuality and the notion that their failure was different, more abiding, Campbell added these final words: "If I can do it, so can you."

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