My high school reunion

I recently went back east to attend my 50th high school reunion. I’ve attended other reunions; the 20th and the 40th, so I’ve had contact with some classmates over the years. This time, however, quite a few former students showed up who have never attended a reunion before. Accordingly, I had a glimpse of the experience called prosopagnosia, what neurologists have named the inability to recognize faces.

Admittedly, over the period of 50 years some faces had changed greatly; time is gentle with some and far less gentle with others. To help us, everyone wore a badge with their photo from our senior year high school yearbook, but even this did not always make a difference.

Neurologists differ in their opinions about how the brain recognizes faces. All seem to agree that some capacities are inborn and displayed soon after birth; imitating facial expressions is common among infants. The ability to remember faces, however, takes more time to develop. It appears that various areas of the brain are used to build and store face recognition, and that both semantic and emotional memory are employed in this process. A portion of the temporal lobe appears to be particularly important, so important that it’s referred to as the “fusiform face area.” The amygdala, an emotion-regulating portion of the brain, is also highly activated.

In face recognition, different portions of the brain appear to respond to particular portions of the face, and this brain network “builds” the whole from these “parts.” Thus the experience of looking at a face, sensing familiarity but not being able to put a name or certainty to it, is often followed by a sudden “snap” of recognition in which it all comes together in a rush of cognitive and emotional realization.

For me, this experience was marginally hallucinatory. As the pieces came together I seemed to actually see the face of 50 years ago come to the surface of today’s face, and then, like a movie’s special effects, blend and morph into a firm and stable vision. It was both fascinating and a bit disconcerting to watch my own brain at work as it put the old and updated “pieces” together.

I then would experience the semantic effects of facial recognition; expressions, gestures and memories all flooded into consciousness alongside the three basic feelings of attraction, aversion and neutrality. Towards those who had been close friends, feelings of genuine warmth and affection arose, and conversely, towards those with whom my relationship had been difficult, feelings of caution arose. Towards those I did not know well, I felt the sort of curiosity one feels towards strangers.

Including kindergarten, I’d been in the same school and classes for thirteen years with a number of people at the reunion, and they feel almost like family. We know each other right down to our bones, having grown from little more than toddlers to young adults together. Time and circumstance had separated us, yet an easy comfort borne of childhood intimacy erased the years in a flash.

Together we had cried, been angry, gleeful, hurt, expectant, jealous, kind and mean; the intimacy of growing up together is not unlike the intimacy of family. In some sense, I felt naked and exposed at the reunion; my classmates, after all, had seen all of me, inside and out.  And I’d seen inside them as well; being together again felt nothing less than heartbreakingly glorious.

Grandfather Yoga

When I was eight both of my grandfathers were sixty, which in 1956 actually was old. They were already stoop-shouldered and mostly liked to sit shirtless in lawn chairs in the hot sun for hours, smeared with sun tan oil. They wore suspenders and their pant-waists rose almost to their chests. Sometimes they’d tell stories or we’d play dominoes. Within four or five years both Papa Bill and Papa Joe had died from heart attacks. I never did any yoga with either of my grandfathers.

Not so for my granddaughter. We play card games like “war,” I’ve taught her Cat’s Cradle, we read books together and she’s teaching me to speak Spanish while she does her math homework. We pot cactus together in the greenhouse and watch a little SpongeBob. And, oh yes, sometimes we do yoga.

I’ve had a regular yoga practice for around fifteen years, which means in this life I will always be a beginner. Yoga has been good for me; my balance is excellent, my muscles are strong, I can “tune-in” to my body and feel what’s going on as my mind moves into stillness while my mouth stays shut. Overall, I’d say yoga keeps me out of trouble.

Now my granddaughter, she’s been doing yoga nearly since what seems like forever. I actually don’t know where and when doing yoga began for her, but it may well have been at the Montessori school she attended before kindergarten. That means she was three or maybe four at most. My yoga mats have been around all that time, and became especially useful during her “let’s build-a-fort” stage, but for whatever reason, we did not do yoga together.

She’s evidently had some good yoga teachers and instruction; she moves through a routine smoothly, calling out the Asanas, or pose names. All the poses have child-like names easy for kids to remember. But here’s the thing, the kind of yoga my granddaughter really likes to do best with me is “Can you do this, Papa? Yoga.” This is what she asks me as she touches her big toes to her nose or puts both feet behind her neck, or does what she calls “the pretzel.”

“Sorry,” I repeat over and over, “too stiff for that.” I tell her this as I get into “half-lotus,” sitting with my right foot on the top of my left thigh. She watches me and moves into “full-lotus”. “Can you do this, Papa?” She laughs. I guess there’s just something intrinsically funny about grandfathers, like Bill and Joe’s goofy suspenders and wacky pants.

It goes on like this for three-quarters of an hour; an eight-year-old wears-out grandfathers almost as fast as they wear-out shoes. “OK,” I announce, “time to meditate.” I grab a cushion, get comfortably into half-lotus, place my hands face down on my thighs and tune into my breath.

I often must remind myself that this is 2016 in California, and not New York in 1956. I am not my grandfather. And never to be outdone, my well-schooled granddaughter quickly balances herself atop my styrofoam yoga block sitting in full-lotus, sets the back of each hand on each knee, brings the tips of her thumb and forefinger together and sitting-up straight, closes her eyes.

“OMMMMM, Papa,” she hums, “OMMMMM.”

Mean and Hurtful

I know it sounds like the name of some aggressive law firm, but Mean and Hurtful is the way we sometimes treat each other. Exposure to the news is most often how I witness Mean and Hurtful, but the other evening I unexpectedly found myself on the direct receiving end of such behavior.

I was on my way into a crowded meeting; most of the seats were taken but I spotted one towards the back in the middle of a row, the fourth seat from the aisle. I said hello to the folks on the end, and mentioned that it might be a tough fit getting by the crossed legs of a gentleman in the second seat. Looking a bit miffed to get up, he rose and moved out into the aisle, while I began to slide towards my seat.

“Are you going to fit?” the man said, as I moved past him. Good-naturedly, I said “Are you referring to my girth?” I made my way past the one other person seated, a woman I’ve known here in Sonoma for a long time. “Actually,” the man said, leaning across my woman friend sitting between us, “I was thinking of another word, three letters beginning with ‘FA’.” I realized he was calling me “fat.” My mind stopped; I’m 68-years-old and it’s been a very long time since I’ve been called “fat” derisively to my face. I sputtered something, but he wasn’t finished. “You know,” he went on, “I know a woman who just turned ninety-nine. Do you think you will live to ninety-nine?” By this time my brain had begun working again, and I replied, “Honestly, I don’t spend time thinking about being ninety-nine. It doesn’t really interest me.” “Well, you should,” he added sourly, and thus our exchange came to an end.

Now I’m not one of those somewhat larger-sized people who agonize about my body-image; I am not defined by my shape nor do I judge myself or others on that basis. As a controversial public figure in a small town, my political history alone provides a rich source of criticisms, legitimate and otherwise, having nothing whatsoever to do with my body. Health-wise, I know plenty of skinny folks with challenges, and just as many large folks with their own sorts of medical problems. The last time I remember being preoccupied with my size is as a child during grammar school, and that’s also the last time I remember being actively taunted about it.

On the other hand, the world does seem to be employing Mean and Hurtful lately, or perhaps I have just become more sensitive to it. Trumpism has lit a fuse attached to emotional dynamite, and the Internet’s a convenient training-ground for those intent on inflicting cruelty and pain. Mean and Hurtful is doing great business at the moment, “Yuge” business.

Lying in bed at home after the meeting, I came up with several snappy rejoinders I could have said in response to being called “fat.” “At least I’m not ugly,” was a defensive one, and appropriately childish. “Thanks for caring,” veered into sarcasm. But as I explored my feelings more deeply I realized that my most honest and best response to the body-shaming of Mean and Hurtful would have been to simply say “Ouch.”

A trail of crumbs

I love to read books; pencil in hand I underline points and passages that strike me as important, add margin notes, and often return to read significant portions over again. I do some reading online, but for me it’s no substitute for resting a book on my lap for hours.

I enjoy reading more than one book at a time; at the moment I’m roughly halfway through four non-fiction books, what I call books of “faction.”

“Dice World” by Brian Clegg explores the role of chance and randomness in daily life and how we are programmed to seek patterns, even to the point of making them up when there are none.

“Freedom and Culture” was published in 1959 and written by cultural anthropologist Dorothy Lee. Utilizing a humanist perspective, Lee questions the ways in which culture molds “codifications of reality,” comparing ideas, languages and behavior within various cultures to illustrate her points.

Physicist Leonard Susskind’s “The Black Hole War” recounts his twenty-year effort to understand and refute Stephen Hawking’s theory of information loss in black holes. Susskind, born to working class parents in Brooklyn, NY, is not only one of the world’s leading physicists but also an entertaining writer with a great sense of humor.

Rounding out the four is Akira Sadakata’s “Buddhist Cosmology – Philosophy and Origins”, an overview of the evolving Buddhist view of the cosmos and our relationship to it as human beings in our scientifically-oriented world.

In an interesting way, despite their differences in subject and style, these four books fall into occasional and unexpected points of resonance, which I guess is not surprising since I selected and chose to read them all. Nonetheless, I am often surprised at how the content between books mixes and recombines into ideas and connections that might otherwise not take place if I’d read them in succession instead of concurrently.

I don’t have a schedule but I do read every day; I open each book as the mood strikes. If Susskind’s physics of black holes gets too heady and tiresome, I’ll pick up Lee’s observations of life among the Hopi. I bounce back and forth between the four books, and when I’ve finished one, I’ll add another to my rotation. In this way I move my way through the amazing written wealth and richness of our world.

I’ve found the best way to find new books to read is to follow the lead of the authors I’m reading. When they refer to a particular work as being especially important to them, I heed their advice. Using this method I drill my way into the minds of the thinkers whose books I read; following the literary “trail of crumbs” in this way deepens my understanding of how and why each author has come to his or her conclusions and views.

Some of my Buddhist friends say I clearly have the need to exhaust conceptual mind; my wife often asks me “do you ever stop?” Ironically, the more I read, the more I realize how little I know. Susskind would say I have no chance to get ahead of entropy; the complexity of existence only increases. My ignorance is enormous; I don’t speak Greek, Latin or Sanskrit; my math skills are limited. It’s hopeless.

I’m running out of time and I’ve accepted the fact that I will never get to the end of my trail of crumbs, but my o’ my those little bits are so tasty.

This must be what’s called getting old

Kurt von Meier, PhD.

In the garden
Amid the whispering bamboo and
Wind chimes
He sits and enters the samadhi
Called “nothing happens”

I’ve become an object of study in an anthropological research program. Seriously, two earnest doctoral professors and one obsessive video documentarian came to my home to spend an afternoon interviewing me and examining my treasure trove of Notebooks of Von Meier. Professor Kurt von Meier (1934-2011) was a most remarkable man and my most remarkable friend of forty years. When he died, I alone volunteered to store his Notebooks: daily jottings spanning four decades, reel-to-reel tapes, press clippings, and photographs.

Rumors of the existence of the Notebooks, as well as the unfinished draft of a book entitled “The Omasters” apparently have spread among a group of academics fascinated by the counter-culture and arts movements of the sixties and seventies. Among Kurt’s Notebooks are correspondence with M.C. Escher and Timothy Leary, reel-to-reel tapes of conversations with the likes of Hopi elders, Alan Watts and John Lilly; counter-culturally, Kurt was right in the middle of things.

Remarkably, the documentarian with the “always on” video camera knew John Lilly, perhaps best remembered for his research about and dedication to dolphins, and had come to possess one of Lilly’s famed “sensory deprivation tanks”. The tanks use a salt-water solution to provide a sense of weightlessness, are soundproof and completely dark when closed. It was, and I guess still is (as we used to say), “a real head trip.” A friend told me he’d tried one once, but didn’t like it. “Too smelly.”

But I digress; my topic is about growing old enough to be studied. It felt odd, a bit like, “Wow, we really think you old guys all were really interesting back then and we totally support what you were doing.” Yeah, like….Cool.

“Tell us what it was like,” they said, “anything at all.” “You have no idea,” I said. “I can’t actually describe it. You’re thinking’s too linear; to understand what happened you need to use concentric thought, go into 3-D mode.” They smiled and blinked. “Tell us about that!” they enthused. I went on.

“Well, what do you know about a Mandala? Do you know what a Mandala is?” They nodded, “Tell us about that!” they said again. I continued, “A classic Mandala is 2-D representation of a 3-D universe; every point in that 3-D space contains information, and there are an infinite number of points. The symbols within a Mandala each represent universes of their own, each also infinite containing infinite information.” I stopped. They stopped.

Without realizing it they had entered the otherworldly realm of the Notebooks of von Meier, an information experience akin to using the Large Hadron Collider. Like people crossing the event horizon of a black hole, there is no escape from von Meier’s force field. I shared certain documents and reel-to-reel tapes with them, which they promised to digitize and return. At some point I expect a footnote will appear in an obscure academic journal attributing this or that to Kurt von Meier, or perchance, myself.

Being examined like a museum specimen was strange. I suspect I could have shown them my jockey shorts and they would have asked me to “tell us about that!”

On caring for green, living things

I’m a confessed plant lover, what my late friend Keith Cahoon called a “Hortisexual.” This passion does not include sex, but has led to what I’ve called the infidelity of “Multiple Simultaneous Relationships with Plants.” Though I’ve never cheated on my wife, I’ve been unfaithful to some of my cactus plants, some now over 30 years old. I’ve watched them grow –  slowly but surely day-by-day – and yet the sight of an new exotic species stimulates me and draws my attention.

When you live with plants everyday for a very long time an entire story about birth, aging, sickness and death is revealed. The plant’s aspiration, longing, satisfaction and fulfillment are expressed as its shapes and colors change. Living things need water of course, and caring for plants – just like caring for small children – requires paying close attention to life-affirming activity. And also like raising children, you get to watch plants grow up.

Plants and people alike change with age. Like us plants enjoy childhood, adolescence, maturity, mid-life, old age, decline and finally, death. And theirs is a very old story, vastly older than the story of people, a story so old as to be nearly about time itself.

Caring for any living thing is a teaching about life and death and the fate all we living things share; it affirms life and honors the life-force. Caring’s the mirror by which we see a reflection of our own mortality through the survival of another; each of us also thrive with care.

Whatever sin is being committed in our name by those in power, however discouraged or distressed we might become, the act of caring for any living thing imparts meaning and magic of its own; it is the refuge, the safe haven, the respite, the healing sanctuary to which we all have access. Caring for any living thing, including a cactus, builds discipline, skills of highly focused attention, empathy, responsibility and the rewards of companionship…potentially. The teachings are direct, of course; if the job’s not done right a captive living thing will die. If this sounds like having a pet, well, in many ways it is. Cactus plants can live a very long time and most likely many will outlive me. I’m making plans for them in my will.

Eighteen months ago a neighbor’s trees were removed that were partly shading my greenhouse and I replaced the torn polyethylene plastic sheeting with longer-lasting clear fiberglass. Turns out the cactus and succulents needed some relief, and I draped 50% green shade-cloth over the greenhouse top. The sum total of all this care and change, alongside judicious feeding with drops of nutritious Cactus Juice has been a summer of health and beauty; I’ve been blessed with more exquisite cactus flowers than I can ever remember, including some heartbreakingly beautiful ones on plants that have never flowered in 30 years.

People have learned about and lived with plants for immeasurable time. By trial and error we slowly learned what to eat and what not to eat, what will nourish and what will injure, and that knowledge was passed on. In this speedy industrial age filled with cynical greed and deathly aggression, I suggest taking care of even just one green living thing declares which side you’re on.

Blythedale, with a “y”

“Name?” The barista behind the counter asked without looking up from his touch-screen.

“Blythedale, with a ‘y’. Lucius Blythedale,” I answered. “Lucius Montgomery Blythedale, to be precise.”

The barista didn’t miss a beat. “One Chicken Artichoke sandwich, smoky barbecue chips, one chocolate cake pop and an ice-water. $9.70. Want a receipt, Lucius?” His eyes remained locked on his work station.

“No thanks…” I searched for his name badge but came up lacking.

“End of the counter. Next?” He with no name finally looked up.

At some point along the way a human being had actually taken the time to write my name, my customer-side-of-the-counter-name, that is; “Lucius” was printed in magic marker on my sandwich bag. Lucius here, Leonard there; using pretend counter names excites me.

Wedded to my name at birth, I’ve been called “Larry,” though my given name is Lawrence; it appears that way on my driver’s license. Until I was twelve years old I thought I’d been named for the town my Grandparents lived in on Long Island. The manhole covers on Arrowhead Lane in front of their house all said “Lawrence” and until I asked nobody seemed interested in telling me that I’d not been named for a sewer system. Lawrence with a “w” not unlike Laurence with a “u” comes from the Latin root word for Laurel, as in “to the victor goes the laurel leaves.” Thus for a while my customer-side-of-the-counter name was “Victor.”

There are many times and places when we are asked to give a name; some are important and others not so much. The counter at Starbucks in Marin where I happened to be due to a medical appointment falls into the latter category. The security checkpoint at SFO falls into the former category, though now having passed into full-fledged senior status I no longer seem to fit any terrorist threat profile and just get waved through. I don’t even have to remove my shoes anymore.

At some point in time, and I hope it is well after I’m dead and buried, using pretend names will be much harder, if not impossible. The name Lucius Montgomery Blythedale, or whatever playful variation one chooses, will not match either the voice-print, retinal scan or facial-recognition software at the 2040 version of Starbucks. Our personal mythology will be fixed at birth, not to be tempered or played with. I suppose nick-names will still be used, “also-known-as” algorithms readily available, but the chance to pretend one has another name and get away with it will have ended.

Secret names have a rich cultural history; names have power and as the story of Rumpelstilskin aptly illustrates, are even magical. Totemic cultures, such as those which identified themselves with primordial animal gods who created human beings, bestowed secret names only to be spoken by those initiated into the mysteries of creation. The biblical Hebrews hid the name of God; the ancient Celts used ciphers, codes, and scrambled words to hide secret names.

For a short while a friend of mine playfully called me Bingo; I don’t remember why. In any event, an acquaintance of his was with us one day and from then on to my friend’s friend I was Bingo. As a name I can’t say I liked it and besides, Lucius Montgomery Bingo sounds terrible.