Thursday, May 23, 2013

Makes Me Wanna Holla - Exit Strategies

Problem Exit Strategy I

Imagine a tourist attraction on the border between two countries. Each country builds up a little city on it's side, which becomes a popular border crossing. If the two countries enjoy positive relations, a joined commercial/economic infrastructure, and shared values and culture, you'd expect that passing between them would be a simple thing. But try passing from Niagara Falls, New York, USA into Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, and you're in for some frustration.

It's not the actual crossing that's the issue. It's finding your way to it. Because the road signs that should direct you to the Rainbow Bridge border crossing, confuse and mislead you instead. You begin to see these apparently helpful signs, for both Bridge and Falls, miles before you reach them. But once you near the small hub of hotels and restaurants that surround them, the signs are harder to spot. After driving a few blocks without spotting one, you begin to think you've missed a turn. Eventually, it becomes clear that you're getting farther from the hub, so you turn back toward it, looking for the trail you somehow lost. You eventually see another sign, but it directs you down a side street, which brings you to an intersection where you're left to decide whether to go left or right. At one point - once you've picked up the markers again - a single sign points you in two directions at once.

When Ponczka and I negotiated this maze last weekend, we finally arrived at the bridge by abandoning the direction the most recent sign (at least a couple of blocks back) had directed us, and turning in the direction that seemed likely.

I was so frustrated by the time I pulled up at the toll booth, that I couldn't help venting to the attendant. I began with, "I know it's not your responsibility, but the signs...." And I got no further, because he finished my sentence for me.

"Yes, they're TERRIBLE," he said. "You can thank the State of New York for that. They don't want you to find your way. It's intentional. They want you to stay on this side. Problem is, there's nothing to do on this side. There's lots to do on the Canadian side. But they want to keep you here, to spend your money here."

How crazy is that. Aren't Canadians eager enough to come to the US to spend their money without such manipulation? But then it occurred to me: the aim is much more likely to keep the Americans in.

Problem Exit Strategy II

I was at a tax information seminar a couple of nights ago, arranged to advise Americans living in Canada about how to stay in compliance with US tax law. You see, Americans are required to file a yearly tax return forever, no matter where they live or work, whatever their source of income (unless that's less than about $10,000. a year.), even if they've been abroad for virtually their entire lives, or have never lived in the US at all. Because there is a tax treaty between the US and Canada, very few Americans in Canada will ever actually have to pay the IRS anything, so long as they pay the taxes owing in Canada. But that doesn't relieve Americans of the legal duty to file, or of the potentially huge penalties for not doing so.

There are separate documents for just about every financial asset, investment or benefit, and quite a lot of complexity, especially in those areas where US and Canadian tax laws differ, so compliance is a real bother and a headache, one that many of us have simply ignored, knowing we'd never actually have to pay anything anyway. But, as we were told, the Treasury department has become more vigilant about tax dodgers since 9/11, and it reacts aggressively to any sign of "withholding" financial information. And, we were warned, a new legal instrument is being pushed which will require all financial institutions worldwide to submit info on all US clients to the IRS, or risk crippling sanctions. We were strongly advised to become compliant by taking one of the three courses available, the simplest of which involved filing for at least the last three years.

One woman, in frustration, stood and exclaimed that this was all very controlling, and a bother, and violated privacy rights, and declared that she'd just as soon simply renounce her US citizenship and be done with it. This generated a smattering of applause and a small surge of rebellious energy in the crowd. But it was quickly checked by the financial advisors response. Many of us first thought that he was joking. There was actually laughter in the room. But alas, it turned out to be all too true, and we were given a couple of horror stories to support the point. I paraphrase:

"In order to renounce your citizenship, you have to file a return for each of the last ten years, submit multiple forms detailing all financial holdings. And you will then be assessed an Exit Tax, which the IRS will pursue aggressively, and which could amount to a sizeable chunk of any estate!"

Many countries are quite jealous of its citizenship. It can be lost by simply accepting citizenship in another country. I've much appreciated the fact that taking on Canadian citizenship didn't put my  American citizenship at risk. If it had, I'd never have applied for it. But I never suspected that giving it up was quite so difficult that one had to buy their way out.

Problem Exit Strategy III

Getting out of anything is not always as easy as one would think. But the saddest exit strategy of all those I encountered this week is the following, told to us by a neighbor of Cloud, our Finger Lakes retreat, when we were there on the weekend.

Ponczka, who, since we bought Cloud, has become an informal real estate agent among our friends for Finger Lakes properties, noticed that the neighbor's plot of land has just been put up for sale. We stopped by and asked Gary what was going on.

"Dad's got stage 4 cancer," he told us. Dad, or Mr. B, bought the property 50/50 with his son Gary about 25 years ago, and the two have been coming down regularly ever since.

"Dad's on social security, and the doctors have his doing chemo five days a week. Well, under his insurance plan, he's got to fork over $40. every day he goes in for the treatment. That's $200. a week, over $800. in a month. He just can't afford it. So he's got to sell the place to get some cash.

"He doesn't want to sell it. He loves this place. I been trying to get somebody to buy up his half, to co-own it with me. That way, Dad could keep coming here for the time he's got left. And I could keep coming here. I don't want to give up this place either. I LOVE it here. But I can't find anybody to do it with me, so I got to sell.

"Mom, she ain't never liked the place, much. And she's scared and stressed anyhow, cause it looks like, once Dad dies, she's gonna have to sell the house too, so that she has enough to keep going.... It's just a bad situation."

A bad situation indeed, when a man can't even marshall his energies toward facing his own mortality, for worry about the devastated financial circumstances he will leave behind for wife and son.

There are threads linking these three tales of failed, absurd or tragic exit strategies. They all have to do with an institutional side of America. They all have to do with a kind of control, with an intentional limiting of options, with the imposing of restraints. And finally, don't they all reflect a kind of meanness? There's a kind of "GOT-ya" mentality reflected in all three of these situations that doesn't seem fitting for the place we lovingly refer to in song as "the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave." Obviously, there are practical "reasons" for these types of control measures, but don't they suggest a real cynicism and even de-valuing of people?

They bring to mind what I consider one of the ugliest forms of problem exits in our societies - Canadian and American - these days. Have you experienced someone being let go from your workplace anytime recently? There's little more of the communal goodbye, well-wishing, the harmless though heartfelt venting that I recall from when I was fired for the first time, from a restaurant job, for mouthing off to the manager in my twenties (yeah, I deserved it!). Then, I was allowed to say my goodbyes, collect my belongings, and was even welcome to come by at the end of shifts to go drinking with friends.

When a dear colleague was let go from my current place of employment a year or so ago, it was almost as though all record of her had been expunged and she'd ceased to exist as a person. She was escorted to her desk when the office was empty, to collect her belongings, nothing was ever said about what had caused the firing, and her name was hardly mentioned above a whisper from that time forward.

So sad, isn't it, the way our lives, our presence, our membership in our biological and social families are valued, accounted for, measured and managed; the room to be our difficult, disagreeable selves all squeezed out; risks contained, profit maximized, the possibility of disruption kept to a all cost.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Good Timing

We say that timing is everything. And sometimes, it feels just so. When we arrive at the bus stop just as the bus is coming into view, we can feel in snyc with the day and ready to take on a challenge. But if we arrive just as that bus is disappearing around the corner, there may be the temptation to turn around and go back home.

I had a small but interesting bit of synchonicity a few days ago. When I went out of town to my meditation retreat, I decided to leave lots of things at home, including my pocketwatch. It's a Molnija, an old style, Russian army, wind-up watch, bought from a merchant in an Old Havana courtyard last year. They make new pocketwatches with batteries these days, and have them produce a totally unnecessary "tick" to suggest authenticity. But the old ones, with all the springs and cogs and wheels inside, they make a richer, layered sound. Instead of the single tick per second, my Molnija produces at least eight. There's a steady beat on every half second, and underneath it is a triplet of beats that suggests a gallop. It keeps decent time if I remember to wind it regularly. When I don't, the galloping will gradually slow, and ultimately come to a halting stop, as it did over the day or so after I stashed it away in a drawer.

When I got back last Friday, I didn't think of it right away. In fact, it was Monday morning before I pulled it out. I put the watch to my ear without looking at it, not expecting any sound, of course - its absence just whetting my anticipation. Then I put my fingers to the stem, finding it totally without resistence as I began to twist, and I wound it up tight. I now had to reset the time, but when I glanced at the kitchen clock, ready to pull up on the watch stem so that I could adjust the hands, I hesitated. I looked from watch to clock again, then simply hefted the watch in my hand. It was already set. I didn't have to adjust it by a single minute.

How likely is that? Some days ago, the spring in the watch had gradually lost all of its tension, and the hands had stopped their movement across the clockface. It had been 7:23, but who can say whether it was morning or evening. But, a week later, when I picked up the watch to wind it, it happened to be that very time.  Not within five minutes, or two, or even one, but exactly 7:23. Yes, it made me smile. Made me feel that it was going to be a good day, that I was just where I was supposed to be, doing just what I was supposed to do.

How about one more of those, on a broader scale? I first tried to meditate when I was about thirteen, on the suggestion of Bill, a security guard for the building I lived in, and probably my first mentor. I didn't get far with it, or much out of it, during the following decades, but there must have been something, because I never gave up the determination that eventually I'd get something from it.

Fast forward more than thirty years. I'd ended a marriage, was living by myself and exploring possibilities again. I gave meditation another shot, sitting on cushions on my living room floor a few times a week. And finally it seemed to be taking me somewhere. That is, I wasn't falling asleep, or slipping deep into some fantasy, or merely sitting bored while trying to slow my breathing. Rather, I was having brief experiences of feeling entranced, or feeling energy coursing through my body. Sometimes I'd have the sensation of my body being enormous, like the size of a building. I was pleased that something was happening, and decided that it would now be the perfect time to get some instruction.

I had taken to scouring NOW magazine every week, to find interesting things to do, and whatdoyaknow, I come across a tiny ad with the prompt, "Learn how to Meditate." It gave a time and place, a room in a school in North Toronto. I expected to find a presenter and a handful of curious people. Instead, I arrived to find several hundred people murmuring excitedly about someone named Goenkaji. It turned out that S.N. Goenka of Burma was a master teacher of an ancient technique, and that he was on his first tour of North America in decades.

The slightly rotund and elderly man sat on the stage beside his silent wife, and in conversational tones, began to describe my own experience of meditating: the wandering mind, the struggle with distractions, the moments of focus. Then he described what meditation might offer: balance, a sharper mind and self awareness, equanimity, a happier and less reactive life. And ultimately, he issued the invitation: to commit ten days and learn the technique. Which I did, just a few months later. It was my perfect experience of being the ready student, and the teacher appearing.

I just heard a talk by Dr. Martin Seligman about positive psychology, discussing the science's new focus on happiness. He posits three kinds of happiness: that which comes from pleasureable experience, that which comes from meaningful activity, and that which comes from engagement or flow. One of the ways he describes being in flow is being so engaged in an activity that the world disappears and time stops.

Yes...time stopping. Another mysterious aspect of time, this magical ingredient of life. It works on us in so many ways. These effects: finding ourselves in sync, having need and opportunity meet in a common moment, or having time seem to disappear altogether, all suggest the opening of possibility. If we are each part of some enormous clockwork, all connected in the same rhythmed music, well, at least it is malleable in the ways we experience it. So perhaps time is more a mirror than a measure, reflecting back at us something about how we have - or have not - attuned ourselves to the world around us. When time disappears for awhile, it suggests an ultimate freedom. If time is still, then Einstein would suggest that speed in infinite, and there is nowhere that one cannot travel.

So even if we never escape time altogether, even in flow, it needn't be a harsh and rigid master. It needn't be the stingy force that always keeps us lagging behind, falling short. It can remind us, like our breath and our heartbeat, that what's ours is ours. My time can only be short or long by some external standard. In my own life, it will be the only infinity that ever matters. Synchronous clocks and appointments with buses are small things, but even infinity is made up of seconds. And in the end, it's only those seconds, and what they make available, that matter at all.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Habits of Mind

I'm back from my week at Dhamma Torana, where I labored contentedly under the Spring sun while green things poked out of the earth; I conversed, reflected and compared glimpses of a shared path with a diverse group of brilliant fellow travelers; and I meditated through three 1-hour sits per day.

It was tiring, refreshing, inspiring, challenging, puzzling, comforting, and in some ways, confronting. I didn't take up meditation as a means of gaining enlightenment - not big "E" enlightenment, anyway. I just wanted to hone a personal care tool. But yes, I did hope for more light, more clarity about the puzzling aspects of my own self. Believing, as I do, that life is pure gift, and that body, mind and spirit are the tools we are given at birth with which to explore this vast creation, I struggle sometimes over why these very tools - this body, this mind, this spirit - can be so unmanageable. How have I allowed my body to become so polluted and flabby? How is it that I apply my mind so lazily, and waste its powers on fantasies and willful quests that I know have little value? And how is it I keep my spirit so tamed and obstructed by ego and fear? Any light shed on these oh so human mysteries would be welcome, wouldn't they?

Did any grand answers emerge? No...but plenty of clues, indications, directions. For one, there was a package of related themes that seemed to pop up in every other interaction with my fellows. Spontaneity, improvisation, being in the moment, flowing freely with...whatever. This came up again and again. It's not surprising that it did; the Vipassana meditation technique is all about being present, and about maintaining equanimity and balance toward whatever comes. But it was inspiring to hear how so many others incorporate these qualities into daily pursuits, work and life priorities.

The insight that stands out most came on in these few hours since ending my meditation week. It has to do with habits, and how much they apparently shape my sense of self. For six days I did without meat, coffee, television, my computer and phone, news of the world, major league sports, and probably a couple of dozen other things. I hadn't missed most of these things, and I actually felt more whole and healthy from doing without. So it was interesting watching myself slip back into comfortable ways, despite the signals from my newly sensitized inner self that they weren't necessarily so comfortable.

For example, I stopped for a large coffee during the 2 hour ride home. I attribute a small headache on the morning of my second day at the centre to withdrawal from my usually robust caffein intake, but hadn't missed it at all since. And riding home, I felt neither the need nor a craving for coffee. But I wanted one all the same. And even when I felt a slightly unpleasant buzz coming on after a few sips, I kept at it. It was almost as though I was re-acclimating to something that was a part of me. Which in a sense, it is. Over the last couple of days there've been similar reconnections to television, wine and meat. On one hand, I've aware of having survived comfortably without them, and of potentially huge benefits to extending the abstinence. But on the other hand is a kind of comfort. And I don't think it's the comfort of the particular item so much, as the comfort of not taking on a change that could have substantial rippling effects. I've already committed to uping my meditation to a solid hour per day. Do I want to risk an inadvertant flirtation with vegetarianism too? With doing without the TV?

I'm looking at the huge psychological inertia involved in personal change. Yes, there are all these ways we label, define and name ourselves. And to varying degrees, these tags take on significance as icons, or even decoys, of and from the personal and mysterious truths they mask. That there are these joined decoys and depths I know for certain, because of the sensitizing experience of all this meditation. It's a curious notion for which I was completely unprepared when I packed up for the week. And now, change is at the door, knocking hard, and I'll have to decide whether I'm prepared to admit this gift-bearing but so troublesome guest.