Archives – August, 2007

Jeremiah and Me . . .

This isn’t a diatribe against the Eagles coaching staff for letting great player like Jeremiah Trotter go again. No, the sudden sacking of the vaunted Middle Line-Backer, or more so my reaction to it, brought into clear relief the fact that I no longer live in Philadelphia.

Jeremiah was a ...

It’s funny how things hit you. I worked from home today, and I spent most of the day listening to Philadelphia talk radio. The day’s big hubbub was the decision by the Philadelphia Eagles to release Jeremiah Trotter. I always liked Trotter, he’s a good guy, he’s great in the locker room, but he was a step slow last season, and it’s time for him to go.

If I took the train home to Philly, half the train would have a kind of hangover because of the Trotter news. Someone would see you reading the headline on his paper and say, “It sucks what they’re doing to Trot.” An affirmative grunt would rise from the throat of everyone within earshot.

Later I’d stop in the Steak & Hoagie Factory, and I’d get into a conversation with that drunken guy who is always in there watching the Phillies. Then he’d probably get all emotional, and I’d regret starting the chat.

But in Brooklyn, no one cares! No one knows who Jeremiah Trotter is, and if they do know, they don’t care. I felt so foreign! 

Intellectually I knew leaving the Philadelphia area after twenty-two years would eventually hit me, but I thought it would be more, I don’t know, cinematic? Like maybe catching Rocky IV on TBS, or seeing a picture of Kris and Me on South Street, but no, I’m standing on the D train heading into downtown Brooklyn pining over the future of the Eagles’ Defense, and it hits me like a ton of bricks.

Now I didn’t weep openly or anything like that, and I’m sure I’ll get over it, but it will be a long time before I can say I’m from Brooklyn.

Good Luck #54,

Peace,

Vinny from Philly (~~)

1 Comment August 21, 2007

Dean’s Big Blow

Writing about and visiting Jamaica in due course includes dealing with hurricanes. Hurricane Dean is slamming the shores of our favorite likkle place as I write this. I nervously watch the NOAA Storm Track, and I sit helplessly online in a RealNegril.com Boardie chat-room keeping an all night vigil hoping for some word that our friends are ok.

The little bits of news we’re getting isn’t good. Drudge is reporting “HELL STORM: JAMAICA,” thanks Matt, like this storm isn’t senationalized enough. The BBC is using terms like “lashing” and “battering.” The Weather Channel is doing wall to wall coverage, but they’re not showing live pictures.

The Weather Pixie on my sidebar is presiding over thunder and lightning, but she’s reporting little wind. The Jamaica News Gleaner seems more concerned with quarreling polital parties using the storm to run a-muck just a week before the big elections. At least it’s still online, during Ivan they went text-only, and for a while they were down alltogether. The Go-Jamaica Blog is full of stories and photos.

Rob, Lisa, Captain Rob, RL, Petrona, Susan and the Crew. Clive, Selina and her family, and so many other friends and aquaintances. The list gets bigger every year.

Godspeed till morning, the sky will clear and the sun will shine.

Vinny (~~)

1 Comment August 19, 2007

66 Days, 14 Hours, 29 Minutes. . .

Here we go again! I just booked another Negril trip! Woo Hoo! I did the cha-ching thing with the nice Air Jamaica gentleman last night around 9PM. I was going to wait till next week to book, but the fares plummeted in the last few days. EWR (Newark NJ) to MBJ (Sangster Montego Bay) round trip $276.00, you can’t beat that! It beats my best rate $306.00 back in ’04 by thirty bucks!

This trip is going to be a blast, (aren’t they all in thier own way?), my Dad, Vinny from Jersey, will be coming along for all the fun and frivolity this time. It’s his first time to Jamaica, but he’s been to the Caribbean many times. Over the years I’ve brought back souveniers, so he does have some proper attire, at least one Red Stripe shirt, and a tye-dye.

Plans? Plans? Of course I have plans. I used to plan each trip for hours at a sitting, but recently I realized, “I keep going back over and over, so why not continually plan, but in smaller chunks. Then just plug them is as needed.”

So on this trip the only real planning will be for my Big Blue Cave Castle Bashment. The Sunday after we arrive we’re having sunset cookout at the Castle. I’m thinking, BBQ, beer, rum, music and maybe a webcast if I can set-it up with Rob @ RealNegril.com. I’m not sure who will be in town, but we should be able to round up a crowd.

By the way, you’re all invited.

We’ll do a few day trips of course. My Dad will love a Black River Safari with Rasta George, and then on to Appleton Estates for the rum tour. It’s corny, but I like it. A detour to The Pelican Bar is possible too. I’ve heard a lot about the place, but I’ve only seen it in pictures. Then there’s snorkeling, bar hopping and possibly a fishing trip with Captain Rob.

My Dad is with me for the first week and then I’m solo for the remainder. There’s nothing like it, two weeks at the Blue Cave Castle overlooking the hopefully placid Caribbean Sea.

I can’t wait, its just on the other side of September…

Vinny (~~)

2 Comments August 12, 2007

Stepping into Zen . . .

For years I’ve been a proponent of Eastern Philosophy. I read “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts in the late nineties, which set me on a course of discovery. Since then I’ve read boxes of books on subjects ranging from Vedanta to Voodoo, Tao to Toltec, and nearly every flavor of the New Age (though I did draw the line at Shirley MacLaine). But from the “I Ching” to “The Alchemist” I kept returning to simple straightforward books on Zen.

The clarity and simplicity of Zen Buddhism attracted me. Books by Natalie Goldberg, “Writing Down the Bones” and others have been the backbone of my writing practice (daily journal writing in the spirit of Zen, but not Zen). I’ve burned a lot of incense, and I’ve spent many hours meditating, but without any real structure. I was playing at Zen, curious about the idea of Zen, more correctly, my idea of Zen.

In my effort to learn more about Zen, I discovered the Zen Mountain Monastery in Upstate New York, though I was intimidated by the idea of just showing up for a weekend retreat. I thought a visit to the New York City branch in downtown Brooklyn would be more accessible, more my style. Well, now I find myself living in Brooklyn, and only an express subway stop from the New York City Zen Center, so I decided to dive in to see what it’s really all about.

Last Sunday morning I left the house at eight-twenty, and immediately I began to stress about time, “What if I’m late?” “What if the train is late?” “Did the website say nine or nine-fifteen?” I let myself relax long enough to have breakfast at the Sunset Park Diner, and by eight forty-four I was in the subway. The D train came, after what seemed an eternity, the empty-car air conditioning was a blessing after five minutes in the steamy station at 36th & 4th. At eight fifty-nine I disembarked at Pacific Street and climbed the two flights to street level. I made my way down Atlantic, across 3rd, on to State, not breaking pace till I stood in front of Fire Lotus Temple.

Standing at the huge wooden doors I felt a cool breeze, there were cars and people passing, but there wasn’t the bustle of pre-church hob-knobbing. So often the art of being seen at church is as important as the arts practiced within. There was guy in a t-shirt and jeans sweeping some dead leaves. He didn’t seem to notice me as I took in the moment. I figured he was in some deep Zen trance, and a thrill shot through me as I took my first steps into Zen.

I climbed the steps and entered the vestibule. I use the term vestibule from my catholic altar boy experience. This is all new to me, I’m sure they have their own name for the entrance alcove. As I entered a student wearing a grey robe welcomed me.

“Hi, is this your first time to the temple?” she asked, I guess my yak in the headlights look clued her in. “My name is Heather, welcome.” Her easy smile helped lessen my edge.

“Hi I’m Vince, um I mean Vinny,” I stammered like a jackass. I was nervous, she was cute, and my “monkey mind” was on full display. She directed me upstairs to where I could put my shoes, and then she invited me to join the others in the training room for coffee or tea. She said someone named Karen would be there clue us in on the morning’s schedule.

I walked up the loudly squeaking staircase to the second floor, found the coat room, took off my shoes, but left my socks on. I wasn’t sure if naked feet were cool. What about athlete’s foot? In socks, sweat pants, and an oversized golf shirt, I entered to meet my fellow sangha members.

I don’t know why I was expecting middle aged bald men, maybe it had more to do with how I see my self, but this group was an eclectic mix of Brooklynites. All ages, sexes, and sizes were represented. They were all barefoot. Everyone seemed nice, smiling and nodding. Quiet chit-chat murmured in the rear third of the space. There as a refreshment table, some chairs and couches. The front two thirds of the room was a mini zendo complete with a small Buddhist altar and a dozen or so Zabuton (32″ X 28″ meditation mats), with corresponding Zafus (14″ round cushions used for sitting meditation). Otherwise the room looked like any second story living room in a Brooklyn brownstone, hardwood floors, baseboard heating, and walls painted too many times bearing the scars of age.

Karen, also a gray robed student in her mid-twenties, took the four or five of us newcomers and explained what we should expect during the service. There was still about ten minutes before we were to go downstairs, so I grabbed a cup of coffee, signed up for the newsletter, put my five dollar “suggested donation” into the blue box, and then I snuck into the coat room to loose the socks.

At nine twenty-five Karen directed us downstairs to find our space in the zendo. My heart was pounding as I creaked down the noisy steps ahead of the others, and I entered a Buddhist Zendo for the first time; barefoot with butterflies. At that moment I realized, after all my reading and study, just how green I truly was. I found a zabuton/zafu/seat on the left side of the room three rows from the back, and I tried to get comfortable looking around to see how others propped themselves up on the little cushions. I put my hands together and tried to be solemn, but trying to be solemn is like trying not to think about a green elephant.

There was a faint incense smell mixed with wood cleaner, the room was dim but not dark with ceiling fans at full blast. Heavy wooden columns and thick paneled walls gave the room character. In the front of the room there stood a small altar, small by catholic standards, with a lovely Buddha carved from some kind of colored stone that gave it an antique look. To the left was a tall thin vase of flowers, two puffy white and mum-like, a hyacinth, and a few twiggy things; very elegant. On the right a heavy beeswax candle like the ones I lit by the hundreds as an altar boy. In the center fore is an incense holder, and in the rear a small vessel of water. Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The basic four elements.

A bell, no, more a chime brought me and the group, the community, the sangha, to focus. With another chime the liturgy began. I felt excitement muted by circumstance as Shugen Sensei began his chants. I had little idea what was going on, but followed along as best I could, bowing, and chanting with the group.

The full bows were unexpected. I’d read about them, but these were my first, and graceful they were not. The full bow begins standing, hands in gassho (a Namaste or traditional prayer gesture) with feet together. Then it’s a bow from the hips, down to the knees, and down further, till the forehead touches the mat with hands to the side of the head, palms up. Then it’s back up. I think we did three such bows. It was then I realized why people were stretching before the service.

Sutra books were handed out to those who needed them, and within moments the group began chanting the Heart Sutra. I was caught off-guard and it took me well into the second verse to catch-up with the group. I’d prayed aloud before, I’d sang in church, but I never felt such group cohesion as we all chanted in rhythmic unity.

By the time we were through chanting in both English, and what I assumed was Japanese, though it could have been Sanskrit, the words had somehow penetrated. I still had no idea what was going on, but my feet sank deeper into my zabuton.

At the end of the liturgy part of the program, the newcomers were asked to gather at the back of the hall, and to accompany one of the lay students upstairs for beginning instruction in zazen. Once upstairs we all took a seat on a zafu and zabuton, and were told a senior monastic would soon be in to talk with us. I looked around at this group of newcomers. A woman in her fifties, who I came in with, was beaming in expectation. A young couple looked terrified, like potheads at Jesus Camp, and a pretty twenty-something girl looked like a little Buddha in full lotus. My knees hurt just sitting next to her.

Me? I was sitting Indian-style; I don’t think that’s any kind of lotus, but still I tried to straighten up when a man in the black robes of the monastic entered our space. He was an ominous figure, and we were spellbound as he sat before us spending several minutes rolling, folding and configuring his robes so that, when done, he looked symmetric. He addressed us in a gentle voice, and with kind humor.

He spoke of Zen, its history, and its general philosophy. He told us a bit about the Fire Lotus Temple, and of the Mountains and Rivers Order it is a part of. Then he taught us several different sitting positions. I picked a kneeling/sitting posture called seiza, using the zafu to carry my weight with my feet hanging off the edge of the zabuton.

He taught us how to sit: back straight, head forward, eyes in a “gentle gaze” at a forty-five degree down angle, hands together in the cosmic mudra. Our next step was to go down to the Zendo, find a space, and commit to sitting still for the second thirty five minute period of zazen. Zazen for beginners consists of watching the breath. When distractions arise, let them go, and go back to your breath. He explained how Zazen or sitting meditation is very easy to describe but extremely difficult to do.

“Bring it on!”

I found a space on the far right of the zendo. I situated myself in my seiza position, and it felt good, I even remembered to bow to my seat before sitting. A succession of chimes and clappers began my first real zazen session. There I was, counting my breath and dismissing my thoughts. I was in the zone! “I can do this for hours,” I thought.

Then came the distractions; the mosquito bite on my foot, a truck in the street, motion here, a creak there, I dismissed them and went back to counting my breath. I became aware of every itch, ache and pain, and I began to feel stress, like when you’re on an exercise bike, exhausted, and the timer says you’re only halfway through.

“This is intense,” my mind rebelled, going off in a thousand directions. I fought to stay with my breath, but I wasn’t winning. I sank deeper into my cushion and stuck it out. This was the longest thirty five minutes ever. I began to think of all the other ways I’ve lasted thirty five minute in other situations, but then I’d catch myself and go back to my breath.

A chime toned signaling the end of zazen. I unfolded my lifeless legs, and awkwardly began to stand, my bones creaking like the temple stairs. I followed along as we began kinhin (walking meditation). During our instruction the monk said to “just walk,” continue in meditation, counting your breath and just walk. The cool marble floor felt good as I walked and stretched. I was in the moment, and as I sat, less formally now, on my cushion I was ready for the next part of the service, the Dharma Talk.

Shugen Sensei gave a talk dissecting a Zen Koan from the ninth century. A Koan is a story or statement, or even a question that defies rational understanding, but can be accessible through intuition. I enjoyed the teaching. Shugen Sensei brought the meanings in to present day life and familiar situations, even speaking of life in New York City.

When the talk was finished there was more chanting and bowing. I tried to chant along, but was just moaning in tune with the group. “I’ll pick this up eventually,” I thought, and for the first time I knew I’d be back.

At the end of the service, everyone dusted off their zabutons, and fluffed their zafus. Some people left, but most went upstairs to the training/refreshment room for more coffee, refreshments and conversation. I spoke to a few of my newbie classmates. The older woman and the little Buddha were jazzed, while the young couple looked less scared, but still a little freaked-out.

I felt great. I felt at peace. I had a sense of accomplishment, and I knew I was at the beginning of something that I really didn’t understand. And that was ok.

Vinny (~~)

Leave a Comment August 1, 2007


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