the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: July 2010 (Page 2 of 2)

The Closing of the Eyes

This is what I was doing when Sophia’s mother passed away a few weeks ago.

I was waiting for my yearly exam at the eye doctor on Robertson Blvd.  I was hoping I didn’t need another prescription, because my last pair of “progressive lenses” cost me something like $600 bucks.   My eyesight is THAT bad.  Nearsighted and Farsighted.

I was reading an old Vanity Fair in Doctor Ko’s waiting room when the phone rang.  It was Sophia, hysterical, saying that “something is going wrong” at her mother’s house.  The ambulance was there.  I needed to go there immediately.  I was closer than Sophia, who was still in Redondo Beach.

Just then, the receptionist called me for my appointment.  I told her that I had to leave.  A family emergency.  She grumbled unsympathetically, as if she had heard this excuse a hundred times before.

“I will have to charge you a $35 co-payment because you need to cancel three days before blah blah.”

“Fine,” I said.

The next hurdle was the underground parking garage.  I handed my parking stub to the attendant in her cubicle.

“Eight dollars,” she announced.  A Spanish soap opera was playing on a 13″ TV next to the cash register.

I handed her my Visa.

“Cash only,” she said, unimpressed.  I looked inside my wallet.  I only had three dollars cash.

“Can I come back later?”

“No.  There’s an ATM machine in the lobby.”

“I need to go.   It’s an emergency.”

I was getting desperate.

“Sure.  Sure.  Emergency.  I hear that ALL the time.”

It was like the story of the boy who cried wolf, but I was stuck paying for the sins of others.  I never lie about emergencies.

“It IS an emergency.  My mother-in-law is sick.”

The phone rang.  Sophia was sobbing.  The attendant let me go.

It was surreal when I arrived at the home of Sophia’s parents.  My FIL was sick in the bedroom, unaware of what was going on.   My MIL was in the living room, a white sheet covering her body.  The aide was running back and forth between the two rooms, screaming.  Emergency workers and the police were on walkie-talkies.  Noisy Russian neighbors were pacing in the hallway of the apartment building.

Sophia arrived, lifted the sheet, and broke down.  Her mother’s eyes were still open.

I closed Fanya’s eyes.  There was nothing else for her to see in this world.  She had gone to another place.

I was scared of touching her eyes, of the gaze of someone who had just passed, as if it was dangerous to me in some ancient superstitious manner, even though I was just sitting at the kitchen table with this exact same person the day earlier, eating borscht, and taking the finished bowl from her warm hands.

Today I received the bill for the eye exam that I never had.  But I don’t need an optometrist to tell me that, since that tragic day, I somehow see things differently.

Crowdsourcing Therapy #1

When you walk into a room — a party, a new office, an interview, a meeting, a dinner with friends — do you tend to (the majority of times):

1)  feel “better” than the others  (I’m smarter, saner, better-looking, richer, have better behaved kids, have more followers on Twitter),

2)  feel “less” than others (they’re smarter, richer, better-looking, better writers, have Dooce’s phone number, skinnier, have bigger penises)

3)  or feel that since everyone is different, you have a unique set of values and talents to offer, which makes you as interesting and sexy as everyone else, and if others don’t see it, there isn’t much you can do, and besides, we all drop dead eventually anyway, so at least we all have that in common?

I know many of us think #3.  But does anyone really FEEL #3?  And are #1 and #2 basically the two sides of the same coin?

My Favorite Shirt

I’ve been anxious and unproductive lately.  I looked up my symptoms — back tension, worry, sleepiness — and apparently I have now overcome my old ailments of codependency, people-pleasing, and OCD to catch something new from that sneezy cashier at the pizza place — Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or as the hipsters call it, GAD.  Why pay for a therapist when you can do it all yourself?

I’d like to blame BlogHer for all this tension.  Buying a ticket to New York for this year’s conference for women (yeah, I know) has  opened a whole box of muscle tension.  How long should I go?  Do I live in NY or LA?   What’s going on with Vartan?  What will happen with Sophia when events change?

In order to prevent a total breakdown, I needed to take quick action.

What action?

It didn’t matter.   I have noticed that when you are doing something pro-active, it takes your mind off of worry.   Isn’t that what I learned in that meditation class?  I’ve already vastly improved my life by changing my blog template for the first time in five years and creating a new ATM password after using the first name of a schoolmate for decades.

What next?

The red shirt.

This is my favorite shirt.  I bought it in college.  Here I am wearing it on MY HONEYMOON!

The sands of time have not treated this shirt well.  The sleeves are ripped and there are stains in the front from the time I spilled a basket of french fries slathered in ketchup on myself in Portland 2006.  Oh, and it is missing a button.

Has there ever been a man who has NOT heard a woman say to him, “I am NOT LEAVING the house if you are wearing that shirt.  The invitation said the party is FORMAL!”

Action.  Enough with the red shirt from college.  I’ve moved on!

P.S. — For the sake of authenticity, let me admit that I created that last line  — “I’ve moved on!” — for dramatic effect.  In reality, after I took the final photo, I removed the shirt from the garbage bin in the kitchen.   It seemed a cruel way to treat an old friend, like tossing your recently passed-away cat out of the window while driving on the 405 Freeway.

Aha moment!  Why not keep the shirt, and use it to dust the house?

Just like I would do with the dead cat.

P.S.S. –  For the sake of authenticity, I would never do that with a dead cat.

P.S.S.S.  — Also, for the sake of authenticity, I have no intention of ever dusting with this shirt.

I Cannot Imagine

I cannot imagine what you are going through.

I cannot imagine what you are going through as a single mother.
As an Mexican-American.
As a little person.
As someone laid off from your job when your wife is pregnant.
As a child growing up in the slums of Mumbai.

Why do kindhearted people always say that?

I CAN imagine what you are going through.  I have a good imagination.

It is better to imagine.   Tell me your story, and I can imagine it.

If I cannot imagine what you are going through, it means I’m not paying attention.

The Zen Meditation Retreat Recap

My blog discussion about my fascinating one day zen meditation retreat with Karen Maezen Miller was cut short by the passing of Sophia’s mother.  Here is a quick recap of that memorable day from a few weeks ago:

The morning and afternoon were segmented into twenty minute periods of sitting meditation (zazen) in the meditation area (zendo).  There were a dozen other students signed up for the retreat, from all walks of life, from students to police officers.  During the meditation segments, we would face the wall and basically, uh, try not to think.   Each session was announced with the striking of the wooden han.  We had a choice of sitting on a map, a meditation bench, or a chair, and it was suggested that we try each of them at least once.  The mat felt the most “authentic,” of course, because it was the most uncomfortable, but by the end of the day, sitting in a chair was pretty nice.

Trying not to think while meditating was as difficult as you would expect, although I didn’t find it particularly painful to attempt.  It was relaxing to sit there and breathe, although it took me a while to understand “how” to breathe correctly.  The tense guy sitting next to me was desperate to “do it right” and was getting more stressed trying to achieve perfection than when he walked in that morning.   Karen Maezen Miller assured us that the act of doing the meditation was more important than doing it a specific way.  I had no preconceived notions, and wasn’t pushing myself to become a zen master, so I think I enjoyed the retreat more than the tense guy.  Los Angeles had a funny way of interrupting our quiet, with fire engines, vans playing Mexican music, and ice cream trucks passing by outside, but while he cursed under his breath, I enjoyed the distractions.

After each sitting meditation period, there was a period of walking meditation (kinhin), where we followed each other around the zendo in a circle, which reminded me of the movie Midnight Express, where the hero was forced to exercise in a Turkish prison.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this kinhin more than the sitting meditation.  I’ve always been able to better “zone out” when I am walking or doing a repetitive motion.  I’m assuming this is the experience runners get during their runner’s high, or how knitters can knit for hours — where time seems to stand still.  I have frequently had this feeling when walking the streets of Manhattan, as the crowds of passerbys calm me, like waves in the ocean, and I  stop thinking about my life, letting myself become “one” with my environment.

The zen meditation retreat took place in a classic Los Angeles house in mid-city Los Angeles that had been transformed into a modest, but attractive zen temple.  Karen Maezen Miller wore a beautiful, priestly robe.   She had a contagious spirit that was both intense and gentle.  She was assisted by another instructor, a male of about thirty-five, who I assumed was not at the same level of knowledge, mostly because his robe didn’t have as many bells and whistles attached.  He had just completed a longer retreat, and seemed monk-like in his responses, although if you met him at the supermarket, you would think he is another typical LA resident, maybe a screenwriter.

The male instructor was responsible for showing us the rituals involved in zen meditation.  At one point, he taught us how to  bow to the statue of Buddha.  He assured us that Buddha was not a God, but a man, knowing that there might be issues with other religions.  I felt that he was purposely vague about the matter and I wasn’t sure why we we getting into this territory so soon,  especially since very few of us could  sit in the lotus position for more than ten minutes.

I bowed out of respect.  I’m sure no one would have cared if someone felt uncomfortable and didn’t bow.  I had no problem honoring the tradition, but I would have liked to have received more information about Buddha’s role in all of this.   I know Judaism has a strong tradition against idolatry.   I’m curious to understand the intersection between the science of meditation and the spiritual/religious aspects, and how well Buddhism plays ball with Western religion.

If I truly learned anything important about myself during the retreat it happened at lunchtime.  We were served a delicious vegetarian meal, buffet style.  We were expected to keep quiet during the eating period, in order to connect with the sensory eating experience.   I sat with the other students in the living room, eating our tofu and vegetables, being silent, averting the glances of the others.  I don’t remember ever feeling so uncomfortable.  Or, more honestly, I felt the discomfort of the others, like rays of negative energy surrounding me, and I had an overwhelming need to make a joke, to break the ice, and to make everyone feel at home, not for their sake, but for my own.  At one point, I couldn’t stare anymore at my plate anymore, and had to walk outside onto the patio alone, where I could finally relax.   I could be by myself.  I didn’t have this discomfort during the silence of the sitting meditation, because we were each alone in our tasks, like students in a classroom taking a standardized test.  But lunch IS traditionally a time for conversation.  The silence WAS deafening.

What did that discomfort mean?  I’m not exactly sure, but maybe it will help me understand why it is difficult for me to shut up when I am on Twitter, or I feel required to compromise when talking with another individual during a heated exchange.  I feel the energy of others, and my weak sense of self gets drawn into the vortex.  It is difficult for me to focus when there are others around, especially when I sense their agenda. This affects my work patterns.    I work best when I am in the midst of an anonymous crowd, like in Starbucks , or locked in my office like a cage, with the blinds drawn.  The minute Sophia walks inside the room and sits on the couch next to me, my focus turns to mush.  I KNOW she is in the room.

After lunch, Karen Miller Maezen asked us to wash the dishes and clean up after lunch.  Her latest book is all about the connection between zen and every day chores.   I wonder if she uses this technique with her children, to get them to clean her home.

It was a very cool experience, nothing like I expected.  I’m just not sure what to do with  I learned, if anything.

Scientific Study Says Stress is Bad

Every day we are faced with a multitude of decisions which requires an action or goal-orientated response.  Some are simple repeated actions, such as pressing the button for an elevator.  More often than not, our environment is in flux, and these actions demand heavy duty work from the brain.  Modern society is all about “multi-tasking,” which requires several neural responses occurring simultaneously.

A new scientific article written by top California scientists in the July edition of Redondo Beach Science News, reveals that chronic stress – too many times a feature of contemporary life – interferes with the human brain’s switching capacity, by freezing individuals into automatic/habit responses mode.  This discovery of these negative effects of stress have profound implications for all of us: the scientists believe that when an individual lives a calm, relaxed life, with no one dying in the family, proper eating and exercise, and leading a fulfilling sex life, this person is happier, more socially adept, better liked by his colleagues, and able to finish tasks quicker and more successfully.

The research was based on experiments conducted on two male residents of Redondo Beach.  The control subject relaxed by the Pacific Ocean each day in the sun, and got laid each night by a different local bikini model, who cooked him a healthy spinach omelet in the morning before they went surfing together.  The other subject was exposed to chronic stress for several months until he was left on the shower floor, sobbing.  Both the control and the stressed subjects were then assigned a very simple task to perform in their homes: to plug their laptops into the bedroom outlet and type a 140 character message onto the popular online “Twitter” social media application.

The results were quite surprising.  The control subject finished his task easily.  The stressed individual seemed confused and disoriented after receiving the instructions, constantly staring at his naked body in the mirror, asking the scientists, “Do you think I need to do situps?”  The stressed individual, clearly frozen in his automatic response mode, not only failed at his attempt to turn on the computer, but clumsily plugged in the IRON instead of the laptop, in a brazen misjudgment, and almost burned the house to the ground, eliciting nervous screams from his wife.

Clearly, stress is bad for the brain. Science doesn’t lie.

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