Top ten books — because you asked for it

People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid — or perhaps, naive — in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.
Problem is, I can’t bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let’s give it a try anyway:
(1) Nietszche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.
(2) Juliet Schor – The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.
(3) Duke and Gross – America’s Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.
(4) Mathieu RicardHappiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.
(5) Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.
(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.
(7) Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently — a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the finest novels I have ever read.
(8) Haruki Murakami – 1Q84. It isn’t just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don’t know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet… universal? “Remember: there is always only one reality.” Really?
(9) Don deLillo – Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.
(10) Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them — a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I’ll call Fred — he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a “Catholic Marxist,” i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.


when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse
to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes
and even the cats look at you
as though you’ve lost your mind:
you will ask
why am I doing this?
because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.

Back pain, bane of human existence

I wrenched the holy fuck out of my lower back while getting into the car to drive my daughter to school last Friday morning. That simple act seems to have triggered it, but an accumulation of insults must have contributed. I had never had a back experience quite so bad in my 50-plus years. I could barely walk, and had to miss a couple days of work. I could not dress myself without assistance, and was only just able to maintain that essential, minimal autonomy and independence: lower myself onto the toilet to take a shit, and wipe my own ass.
The back is hard to ignore, being right in the center of the body, the hub of everything: arms, legs, head. For the first day or two or three, I tried to be tough. Pain? Fuck pain, I can deal with it. But after about four or five days of it, when you are stiffly shuffling around in your bathrobe, staring out the window at the rain falling from the quiet gray sky… then you understand how a person could get depressed.
I had planned to run a local 5K race Saturday morning, even indulging fantasies of winning my age group. Indeed, the guy who did win it is an acquaintance, and his pace was 2 seconds per mile slower than my last 5K, on August 14. There would have been a dramatic battle to the finish line! (I could have this, I would have that — yeah, so go into a bar and brag about “could have” and see how many people you impress.) Instead, as runners were milling about the starting area, I was struggling just to get from bed to toilet, taking tiny baby steps, gasping and holding the walls for support.
Debilitating injury and pain get to us for any number of compelling reasons, but foremost among them is that such episodes are prefigurations of our eventual, inevitable death. Yeah you heard me: one of these days you are gonna go down and stay down, and your life will end. We should regard these illnesses and pains of our decaying bodies as opportunities to reflect on impermanence.
And yet there is a hilariously comical element mixed into this mess. A couple of times I burst out laughing at my predicament, stuck somewhere in the middle of a room, unable to stand still, unable to move forward. The vibrations from the laughter made my back hurt worse, of course, so I laughed all the harder — erasing from my wife’s mind any lingering doubt that I am crazy.

Walking out on sesshin

I signed up for a sesshin, or retreat, at a place called the Zen Mountain Monastery upstate: a week of lots and lots of sitting in a formal and disciplined monastic setting. I wanted to experience someplace other than the one zendo which I have attended exclusviely since I started practicing, and be an anonymous face in a large crowd. I also wanted to hear what the teachers had to say, after being deeply impressed with a couple of talks that I had read online. Two people I know who had trained at ZMM encouraged me to go. One of the founders, now deceased, is regarded as a major figure in western Zen — John Daido Loori.
[An aside for readers not familiar with Zen as practiced by most Western lay people: the core of the practice is sitting, or zazen — seated meditation. It’s important to sit every day, and it is likewise important to do intensive practice as often as your schedule permits: that is, all-day sittings, or zazenkai, and multi-day sittings, which we call sesshin or retreats. During these extended sittings there is no talking, reading, or fooling around with phones or computers. There are periodic breaks (sometimes barely adequate) in the zazen schedule for things like meals and sleep. The idea is to keep practicing around the clock. Sesshin tends to sharpen your skills and, ultimately, make you more acutely aware of where you are and what you are doing. This is also known as being awake. It can be said that Zen is for those who would dare to wake up.]
So I drove up to Mount Tremper, NY, on a rainy Monday afternoon, and sesshin began that night. The next day at about two o’clock in the afternoon I packed my bags and walked, deciding that this was not a fruitful use of my time right about now.
The place had about it a slight fragrance of psychopathy mingled with the incense.
My mattress was seriously fucked up, and made my back hurt. The ratio of showers to people was too low to expect more than one shower over the six days. The schedule was 3:55 a.m. rise, and lights out at 9:30, with a number of short breaks and only one one-hour break for all your rest and exercise. Breakfast and lunch were taken as formal oryoki, an extremely elaborate ritual involving lots of chanting and drumming and bells, folding and unfolding cloths and arranging bowls and utensils in a very particular way.
Maybe I gave up prematurely. I was uncomfortable and got but little sleep my one night there, and sleep deprivation has a pronounced negative effect on my mood (so it is for everyone, but I seem to do worse than most). My lower back ached, although not bad enough to be a crisis. There came a point in the oryoki ritual in which you put a bit of rice on the handle end of your little wooden spatula as an offering to your supernatural imaginary friend the Hungry Ghost. That’s when I realized this was not for me. I deliberated over the next hour or so to give myself a chance to reconsider, but that was pretty much the turning point in which I said fuck this.
If this sesshin regime were a prison, Amnesty International would have something to say about the inadequate opportunities for sleep, exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and bathing. But it is by no means a prison. You go in on a purely voluntary basis for a limited time — and although it is discouraged, you can get up and leave, as I did.
I packed my gear and took it out to the car as people were assembling in the zendo for the next round of sitting, following lunch. Drove down the driveway and found there was a gate that I was going to have to open in order to get out. When I got out of the car, I saw one of the monks walking towards me, and understood that I was going to have to speak to her. I had half-tried to tell myself, prior to escaping, that walking out and hitting the highway was going to be a satisfying act of self-liberation. But when I realized I was going to have to explain myself to someone, I felt a sheet of emotion extending from somewhere around waist level to above my eyes. She asked whether something had happened. I explained as best I could that this just was not for me, not now. She said, why did you come? I knew the question was not rhetorical. She wanted me to consider why I had come in the first place. Unable to recall any reason, I said it sounded like a good idea at the time. She tried gently to dissuade me from leaving, suggesting that I might try hanging around for the afternoon, talking to one of the teachers. I pictured myself re-entering the building with my baggage and re-installing myself in the room, and found the image intolerable. If she had said, come on, I will help you get your stuff back inside, it might have been a closer contest. I told her, as respectfully and tactfully as I could, the same things I just said here. I am attached to my bourgeois lifestyle, and have trouble tolerating a week with scarcely a shower and a bed so uncomfortable that it will take my back days to recover once I get home. She said, we could do something about the bed. I said, I am a wordly and unspiritual sort of dude for whom offering blobs of rice to supernatural beings is not the way I want to spend time that I could otherwise be with my wife and kids and cats. I said I understood that walking away from the commitment to stay till the end was not approved of, and could accept it if I was banned for life. She was perfectly gracious about it, and said on the contrary, I was welcome to come back and try again any time.
I was practically in tears as I drove away, because leaving was an anguishing decision, and I felt — rightly or not — a certain shame and humiliation from the failure. It took the rest of the week to process and get over it.
It isn’t necessary to justify myself, but I am gonna do it anyway and state for the record that I am not a one who typically quits when faced with adversity or difficulty. I have done week-long sesshin a couple times before, with schedules that were perhaps not as grueling as this one, but certainly not leisurely — and walking out was never under serious consideration. I have kept other tough commitments in this life, like training hard for 20 weeks to run a New York Marathon at a Boston-qualifying pace even when the last 10 kilometers were brutal.
So what happened here? I think this experience can be seen as analogous to a computer crashing under excessive load. Too many hats: father; stepfather; husband; computer programmer; professional court interpreter; distance runner; single-payer healthcare activist; ….Zen monk? Crash!
There is only so much you can do at a given point in your life. You can stretch the container pretty damn far, but we all must reach a limit at some point; then you have to choose between this and that, not both. Far be it from me to find fault with this style of practice. I might even go back and try it again some day, as the monk kindly suggested that I could. For now I belong on my mat at home and zendo, and in my supremely comfortable bed with wife and purring cats.

The end of insomnia: how to get to sleep

As someone who struggled intermittently with sleep problems for decades and ultimately beat them, I am pleased to share what I consider the secrets of my success. None of this can be proven objectively; none of this is science; all of this is subjective and anecdotal. But it’s consistent with both science and common sense.
I assume you’re already familiar with the conventional wisdom: take it easy on the caffeine; don’t eat heavily too soon before going to bed; don’t work out hard too soon before going to bed; and so on. All that is fine. But here’s what seems to be working brilliantly for me.
Step one: clean house. Everything else can almost be considered a subset of this overarching principle. By house-cleaning, I refer metaphorically to getting one’s personal shit in order. This may seem self-evident at first glance. But this sort of mental-personal hygiene is forever a work in progress, and many of us are wandering around in various degrees of denial and delusion, so it bears a closer look. Hate your job? Deal with it. Hate your spouse? Deal with it. Need a shrink? Get one. Need to change shrinks? Do it.
Next, be very careful with alcohol. Even though I’ve always been high-functioning, I used to drink abusively most weekends of my life, thinking of it as a form of recreation. A few years ago I realized I had had enough, and abruptly quit binge-drinking. Few things disrupt sleep as cruelly as alcohol, and it gets worse as you get older. Moreover, the effects of boozing are more subtle, pernicious and persistent than we might think. You might be smashed on Saturday night and think that sin should be in the past on Wednesday, when you can’t sleep. Not so. Moreover, a penchant for getting hammered usually points to some underlying issue that has to be addressed: see step one above. I am still in the process of examining my own story, but getting to sleep is no longer an issue.
Next: exercise. Seriously burn some major calories doing hard cardiovascular exercise several times a week. The benefits are amply documented, and getting more so all the time. Don’t make excuses. Do it, and learn to love it. It’s good to lie down at night with a body that is really, legitimately tired, not just an exhausted body and a mind buzzing with all of life’s bullshit.
Next: sit. That’s the simple, unpretentious term many meditators like to use for what they practice. We call it sitting because it really is just sitting. There are many different meditation techniques, but the form I favor is arguably not meditation at all because there is no external object of concentration, no mantra, no effort to stop thinking and attain some pure state of single-pointed concentration. Sit up straight — on a cushion, or a kneeling bench, or even a chair — eyes open, looking down at about a 45 degree angle, and inhale and exhale. It’s good to set a timer so you don’t have to worry about the clock. Pay attention to what you’re doing: breathing in and out, receiving sensory input, thinking thoughts. Keep returning your attention to the experience of right now. The attention will wander — will crawl away like a turtle, or fly off like a bird. No problem, just keep coming back, time and again. Don’t worry about goals and objectives. Just sit. As Matthieu Ricard puts it with elegant understatement in one of his books, the benefits of meditating for 15 minutes a day far outweigh the scheduling difficulties. And by the way, the state of pure concentration — moments of astonishing clarity and calm — will eventually begin to happen from time to time. But not as a result of chasing after it.
Next: when it’s time for sleep, do not try. I can’t emphasize this enough. Stop trying to go to sleep. What could be more ridiculous, and self-defeating? There is no hurry. I have found it far more effective to just lie there doing nothing than to worry about the clock. Just lie down and let it happen.
Or not. The final point here is that you may do all this stuff with great diligence, and still have occasional difficulties getting to sleep and/or staying there. Maybe a bit too much coffee, or anxiety, or food, or some combination of these — whatever. When this happens, it happens. Do not worry about it. After all, what good does it do?

Running the 2009 New York Marathon


I had the privilege of running the 2009 New York Marathon on Sunday, November 1. This was my second marathon; the first was Philadelphia in 2008. I trained for 20 weeks using a program from specifically designed for a 3:40:00 marathon. In the final week of training I decided to reset my goal to 3:35:59, which qualifies a male in my 50-something age bracket for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

The NY Marathon is a logistical tour de force, with its 40,000-plus runners. Organizers clearly went to great lengths to keep everything moving and avoid excess congestion. Thus the start was divided into three waves, and these in turn were further partitioned into separate routes that only merged several miles later, where the streets were wider and people were naturally spread out more than at the start.

The streets were lined with hordes of cheering people. The atmosphere was highly charged, and despite the fact that I knew better, and even as I knew what I was doing, I committed the classic marathoner’s mistake known as going out too fast. Instead of running around 8:14 per mile, my pace over the first 10K was 7:53.

Gradually I calmed down and ran the middle third of the race at a more reasonable pace. But you can’t change the past, and by mile 18 I knew I was going to have to pay for my earlier lack of discipline. I had taped to my left wrist a timetable showing how much time had to have elapsed at each mile if I was to attain my goal time, and from consulting it I knew I was ahead of the pace throughout the course. But by mile 20 I was fading and the margin of error was getting slimmer. I concluded that I had nothing left, therefore nothing to lose. I would ask myself, can you stand another six miles of this? Yes I can. At five miles to go: can you stand another five? Yes I can. And so on.

The split times over the last six tell a tale of alternately fading, then fighting back. Mile 20, 8:22 — too slow. Mile 21, 8:28 — even slower! Mile 22, 8:12 — excellent, two seconds ahead of the goal pace. Mile 23, 8:10 — great. Mile 24 which is largely uphill, 8:49 — despair! Mile 25, 8:04 — heroic. Mile 26, 8:22 — too slow, but we’re almost home. For the last 0.2 I was running at an 8:35 pace — definitely fading fast.

When at long last the great sign that said Finish came into view, I was so spent that it took me a couple of beats to comprehend what it meant. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 3:34:44: success.

Weaving and unsteady on my feet, I was accosted by a volunteer who led me to the medical tent, where I ended up lying on a cot recovering for about 25 minutes. On the adjacent cot was a guy named John from New Zealand, apparently in his 40s, who had also nailed his BQ (Boston qualifier) at 3:17 — and who had likewise spent everything he had and then some, and landed in the medical tent like me. In a shared state of total exhaustion and elation, we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of this amazing thing known as marathon running. It was a highlight of the whole experience.

During this conversation with John I had an insight: a marathon is at once both a communal, public event — a grand party, an orgy of thousands running through the streets! — and at the same time, as intensely personal and intimate an experience as you can have. It is absolutely solitary, but in a way that is neither good or bad. You drop down into ever deeper realms of your own consciousness and find out about who you really are. Think ten years of psychotherapy compressed into a few hours. Or, for you Zen practitioners, think of a week sesshin crammed into a single morning. No wonder the marathon game isn’t for everyone. I believe that many marathon runners are motivated by nothing other than a search for the Truth. We intuitively understand what Master Bassui teaches: the Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind.

Second-guessing myself, I speculate that I could well have attained the same result or better if I had run a more disciplined, strategic race. It would have been more elegant if I had conserved energy in the first half and had a powerful finish, running the last miles faster, not slower, than any of the preceding. But as experiences go, what actually did happen cannot be surpassed. It was a marvelous adventure.

Training for the NY Marathon

This afternoon I was doing speed work on a treadmill as part of my training for the New York Marathon on November 1. I am preparing to run the 26.2 mile course in 3 hours and 40 minutes, or 8:23 per mile, and this is the 16th of 20 weeks of training. Today’s assignment, according to the program I am using, was to run seven one-mile repeats at 7:28 per mile, alternating with .25-mile periods of recovery at an easy pace, then finishing heroically with a final quarter mile at nearly full pace.
The magnificent thing about this program is that it works. It gets gradually more demanding, calling on you to run farther and farther, run fast for progressively longer periods, run uphill for miles at a stretch, and so forth. And you do it. How? With your feet, one step at a time. Left right left right left right. At the end of week 17 there is a 23-mile run, then you taper off into a more merciful and gentle regime designed to let you recover from that exertion while staying well tuned until race day.
Cranking out the one-mile repeats on the treadmill I experience a remarkable sensation of freedom and power. Sure, it’s hard work, but this body — miraculously — rises to the occasion and not only does it, but does with confidence and relative ease. When the third and fourth repeats feel lighter and easier than the first and second, it seems as though one is getting stronger even while expending energy.
Today I had a weird and moving experience while banging out the last quarter mile at something close to as fast as possible. As I heard my feet drumming and felt my lungs working, there came to mind an image of a virtuoso pianist performing the closing measures of some fabulous show piece, perhaps Franz Liszt. The pianist dressed in formal concert attire, hands flying everywhere, her whole being absorbed in concentration, the music filling the darkened hall like thunder, the audience absolutely entranced. Nobody even thinks a thought, there is nothing other than music. I had the feeling that there was no difference whatsoever between that and this, this and that. Tears came to my eyes.
And the music was over. I pressed the “Cool Down” button, finished sweating for a few quiet minutes, then went and took a shower.