Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sir Jeffrey Underfoot, Lord of the Wind

Thanks for this wonderful story to Rebecca
at Pixels From the Edge

Near the corner of 31st Street and Ditmars Boulevard, there used to be a small family-owned pet shop. They carried the usual supplies, as well as tropical fish, small reptiles, birds and hamsters. Occasionally, they also had kittens or puppies that someone needed to give away. The deal was that the animal was free, as long as you purchased thirty dollars worth of supplies for it. Christopher loved to visit that store. For him it was a mini trip to the zoo.

One Saturday in the middle of October 2003, Christopher and I were out running errands. The sun was playing peekaboo with the clouds, and there was a chilly wind blowing. I don't remember what we had set out to accomplish, but Chris asked whether we could stop in the pet store. We we were there a few days earlier, and there was a litter of kittens cavorting in an over sized cage. When we went back that Saturday, all but one of the kittens had been adopted. The last remaining kitten was fairly large for his age, vocal and very playful. We heard him long before we saw him.

The kitten that was left was gray and white, with a half pink, half black nose, bright green eyes and a half mustache. He practically climbed through the cage to make sure our hands could reach him to pet him, and be nibbled on. Christopher immediately thought this poor guy was lonely for his buddies, as did I. He looked up at me with bright wide eyes and asked, "Mom, can we keep him?" Now, I knew that my husband would have a conniption if I brought home an animal without asking him. He had said under no uncertain terms that he did NOT want another animal in the house. We had 3 cats at that time already. So naturally, I gathered up thirty dollars worth of supplies for our new kitten and walked him home.

Brian was faced with a new adorable kitten, and a son who desperately wanted to keep him. It was an unfair situation I put him in, to be sure. Actually, it was unfair to both my son and my husband. But I am a sucker for a small, lonesome animal and large round 8 year old eyes. My son promised to not only take care of the new cat, but all 3 others as well, taking over feeding, watering and scooping the cat boxes. For the most part, Christopher has honored the deal for all 4 years that we have had this kitty.

We named the new kitten Sir Jeffrey Underfoot, Lord of the Wind. He is Jeffrey, because that is what Christopher chose. Underfoot because he has a foot fetish, and will trip you while he does figure eights between your legs as you walk down the hall. Lord of the Wind because he was a farter. We call him Jeffrey for short. Or UnderFOOT when we are nearly felled. He is a big, dumb affectionate beast. At nearly 20 pounds, he dwarfs our two remaining cats (the third one died two years ago, of old age). He wants to be a lap cat, happily kneading the flesh of anyone who pets him. He is persistent, too. It doesn't matter how many times you push him off, he will jump back up to your lap for some loving.

The one problem we encountered with Jeffrey is that he sometimes peed on the furniture. It wasn't the first time we encountered this behavior. Tilly, a cat we adopted just before Christopher was conceived, would pee on his stuff. She was really not happy to share mommy with a baby. But, eventually, she stopped. I think Jeffrey smelled Tilly's marking and wanted to make sure everyone knew HE was alpha in our household. Cats, unlike dogs, do not recognize humans as alpha. We wound up disposing of two pieces of furniture because of Jeffrey. We thought that if we removed his, and Tilly's old marking places, we would solve the problem once and for all. Apparently, we were wrong: two weeks ago, Jeffrey peed on the couch. He also peed on my bed. And Christopher's bed.

Brian has always believed that if you rub a cat's nose in his own urine while smacking his butt, you will train the animal that the behavior is unacceptable. That I disagree has always been immaterial. When Jeffrey peed on our bed, with me in it, I stopped him, and tossed him unceremoniously out of our room. I was incensed, to say the least. When Jeffrey peed on the couch, Brian was outraged, in full fury. Did you know that anger can be contagious? That you can take on and amplify your partner's anger? Or maybe it is that you become angry at the source of your partner's anger. In that instance I helped my husband capture and punish Jeffrey. Thank God this was far from my son's sight.

We, at that point, resolved to surrender the cat to a no kill shelter. We told Christopher what was happening and why, packed up the cat, and wound up driving him all over town for the entire morning. No room at any shelter for an adult male cat. We took the cat back home, purchased some keep away stuff, and decided to cover the couch with a plastic drop cloth every time we leave the house.

Last Sunday, a week later after we tried and failed to surrender him, we noticed Jeffrey wasn't moving. At all. He was breathing, but he could not move. I saw him literally drag himself out of the bathroom to the hallway just outside the bathroom door. It was heart wrenching. We were terrified that we caused Jeffrey some injury that just then became manifest. We picked Chris up from his buddy's house where he had had an overnight, and trundled off to the vet. The vet painted a very grim picture for us, without providing a definitive diagnosis. Basically told us we could spend all the money, and still wind up having to put Jeffrey to sleep. He recommended that we bring him to the Humane Society of New York for more affordable treatment. Christopher was inconsolable. He begged us not to put his cat to sleep. We promised to do whatever we could, but if Jeffrey was suffering, and that suffering could not be abated, we would have to put him down.

The vet at the Humane Society whisked Jeffrey away, saying, "He's blocked!" Urinary blockage is fairly common in male cats. I have never had a cat that suffered it, but knew several people who had cats that did, and they all had to be put to sleep. I was not overly hopeful, as the vet took blood, and told us that his blockage had damaged his kidneys, and he had built up a near fatal level of several toxins. But we did admit him, a catheter was inserted to drain his bladder, and IV inserted to rehydrate him, and flush the toxins out. We took a much relieved child out of school to visit his cat on Monday afternoon. Jeffrey purred when we pet him, curled his hands in a kneading motion. Even sat up a little for a drink of water. Today, he had his urinary catheter removed, and if he pees on his own, we can take him home to complete his convalescence. If he cannot, we face some difficult and expensive choices.

I can't begin to express my heartbreak at Jeffrey's predicament and my own appalling lack of compassion. Most likely, that last week of urinating in inappropriate places was just the symptoms of Jeffrey's impending condition. I am ashamed of myself for treating him so harshly. I truly don't like what I became in dealing with this situation. I lost my empathy. I allowed anger to feed anger. I was mean, more probably cruel. I generally don't allow such unbridled anger to overtake me to the point that I commit acts for which I am forever scarred with shame. I have lost control on a few occasions, both with my son and with my pets, and remembering any one of those occasions makes me cringe.

I truly hope that Jeffrey fully recovers, and that we have a second chance with him. He is a wonderful, loving animal. I know that he will forgive me, as his memory of the event is probably limited. It will take much more time for me to forgive myself, as well as to find and heal the place from which such poisonous anger originates.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Drive through the Park

Thanks, again, to Gary
at Forest Wisdom

Traveling about a modern city one can be excused for thinking that we live in chaotic and heartless times, with people driven by their out of control desires. Just an every day activity such as driving around a provincial city like Ubon, here in Thailand, can be a hair-raising experience. Drivers cut each other up as they speed to wherever it is that their hankerings lead them, others overtake on the inside lane, or park in the middle of the road, unwilling to take the time to find a safe parking space.

It’s not only on the roads of Northeast Thailand that present day restlessness shoves us into various levels of conflict: all over the globe people push in front of each other rather than wait in queues, and impatience makes us lose our temper when service isn’t quite as fast as we’d like. Moreover, desire leads us to seek out the best paid jobs (rather than the most satisfying); ‘face’ means trying to get a newer car than the neighbors, or talking into the latest cell phone, just to look ‘cool’. Desire upon desire.

What drives this desire to be the ‘best’, the most attractive, the richest, and the most famous? Buddhism shows us that desire (tanha) has its root in ignorance (avijja). Ignorance towards the way things are, the Dhamma, allows attachments to develop regarding our self-image, our perceived place in society. So many of us rate our worth not by the good or wholesome qualities that we can display, such as kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, or love, but by how powerful, sexy, or wealthy we are seen to be. As a species, humanity lives without wisdom.

All pretty depressing, really. But, wait, these are just words, thoughts, and feelings. The same ignorance that causes identification with our desires is the same lack of insight that creates sorrow around them. We need to apply a little wisdom to our lives: the wisdom of the Buddha.

The Buddha taught us to pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations. He showed us that being aware of the way it is, we can understand life better and live happier lives, reducing the amount of suffering that we cause ourselves and each other. Part of seeing the way things are is to have understanding of others. Simply saying that they’re being ignorant and dismissing them as stupid fools won’t help them or us, and it’s being incredibly unwise, for we are all subject to the same effects of ignorance and desire – it’s just a matter of degree. As Venerable Gunavuddho at the International Forest Monastery said to me recently, we should cultivate compassion towards those whose wisdom is little. (And that includes ourselves!)

So, driving around Ubon with the wife, I can be aware of the selfish behavior of many of the drivers, whilst paying attention to my responses to their actions, as well as watching the sometimes irate reactions of my wife to dangerous driving. Seeing the ego-driven attachment to ‘saving face’, which in some ways is more obvious here in Thailand than in my home country of England, I can be understanding and non-judgmental. And even with myself, when I respond to selfish behavior with aversion, I can take a back seat and just watch, allowing negative emotions to arise, exist, and fall away without acting upon them. This way is the Way of the Buddha, using insight to get to the root cause of our nescient actions, and let go of them. Traveling through Ubon is then akin to a drive through the park…or the forest.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Backward Compatible

Thanks to Paul
at When This Is, That Is

A few weeks ago I wrote about a slew of problems that hounded my computer and caused me a great deal of grief. I described my trials here only after I had everything running smoothly again. That smooth sailing didn’t last more than a day or two and things got progressively worse. Never mind the details. I solved the problems by erasing my hard drive and reinstalling the operating system and all of my other files. I had to do this more than once, also for reasons not necessary to explain. I’m happy to report, however, that it’s been a week since I’ve had to restart my computer - something I had been doing several times a day. Of course this had a tremendous impact on my productivity, such as it is. I quickly fell behind in lots of areas, because my computer is not just something I play with in my spare time. It’s an integral part of my work. Therefore, it’s an integral part of my life.

A computer is nothing more than a tool. It’s a means to an end. A cabinetmaker needs good tools, as do chefs and tailors and mechanics. The tools of those trades are easily - though expensively - replaced. So are computers, for that matter. But they are different from other tools.

What makes the computer different is its ability to store information. It’s the information - the data - that is important. I am very careful - obsessive, maybe - about backing up my files. Not just the files I’ve created over the years, but my entire system, onto a bootable external hard drive. In spite of the fact that it took a lot of time to reinstall everything onto an empty hard drive (more than once, remember), it took relatively little time to restore the order in which I am accustomed to work. Today it’s as though nothing had happened.

There was a moment, though, just before I pressed the button marked “Erase and Install,” that I had a flood of doubts about ever getting back to normal. What if I my external drive suffered a mechanical failure or somehow became unreadable before I was able to transfer what was on it? What would happen if I lost all of my personal and professional data? Reconstruction, were it even possible - or desirable, would take years.

In the computing world there is the term “backward compatible.” A new version of software may or may not read files created in a previous version. If it does, the new version is backward compatible. The same is true for computers and their operating systems. If there is no backward compatibility, then what?

Which brings me to the real point here. Am I backward compatible? I’ve often thought about what it would be like to have a lifestyle that did not include the abundant technology and its related gadgetry I enjoy. In some ways I yearn for simplicity. But what would my life be like were I to lose everything - data or otherwise?

What about societies? Sometimes we (older ones) may use the phrase “back in the horse-and-buggy days” to describe conditions of long ago. What if very suddenly - without the years it would take for the industrialized population prepare and adapt - we ran out of oil for good? Cars and buses and trucks would not run. Not a single airplane would fly. Would there be a sudden market for strong and reliable horses and well-built buggies? Would we travel from continent to continent in tall ships tacking against the wind? Are we backward compatible?

Renunciation and non attachment are fundamental to Buddhism, but these are voluntary acts. I realize that many many people have lost everything through one misfortune or another and have survived. Some may even be happier for it.

But what would I actually do to carry on were I to lose all of my data, or my home, or my family, or my health? It’s a question I can can answer only when the need arises.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Posted by Peter

Oh, great.  I have just dropped my Prius off at Toyota for service and have stopped by at Denny's for a bite to eat, just assuming somehow I can get online by wireless magic, but the magic doesn't work.  Then the computer crashes.  I'm not kidding.  It's a MacBook, it shouldn't crash, right?  But it does.  I keep getting a screen that tells me that my "Spotlight" isn't working and should I report it or ignore it.  I try ignoring, but it keeps coming back.  And soon I can get anything to move at all.  A real crash.

I read my New York Times instead.  I go to pick up the Toyota.  I drive back home and try the laptop here.  No luck.  I get on the telephone to Apple Care.  Some forty-five minutes later, still no satisfaction.  They suggest re-installing Leopard, which I installed only a couple of weeks ago.  It will take, oh, a couple of hours...  I am fortunate to have my desktop to work on!

The gift?  I had started writing a piece about last night's election results for The Buddha Diaries earlier in the morning.  I was kind of pissed about it.  No, I was very pissed.  It came out in the form of something very like a whine.  I realized this in the time it took to get back to the entry that I had intended to post over breakfast.  Time to re-read it, make a discerning judgment, realize that it sounded, well, whiny... And time to think about how I might do some gentle rewrites to say what I wanted to without the indignation.  I think that what I eventually posted was much better for the pause.

The lesson: pause, take a breath and, if necessary, rewrite.  Thanks, laptop!