Mt. Vernon Inn to Close

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Very sad news in this morning’s Sentinel:

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/os-cfb-real-estate-0708-20130707,0,1142747.story

Maybe this was inevitable after Mark Wayne’s death last year. Mark and his wife Lorna Lambey were the mainstays of The Red Fox bar, performing lounge standards with huge gusto and enthusiasm. I spent many, many happy evenings there, singing along like some kind of idiot. Once I also saw Mark & Lorna (they seem to need that ampersand) in a special benefit performance at The Social, but it wasn’t the same. They only had the magic inside the Red Fox — a tiny little room with maybe 12 tables and a dingy and uniquely depressing bar. Like many I suppose, I originally went to mock, and stayed to cheer. It wasn’t a question of talent or taste… Mark and Lorna believed in what they were doing, and they loved doing it. You couldn’t help loving them back. RIP Mark… kisses Lorna wherever you are… and farewell to a little piece of Orlando heaven.

Breathing Room

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This morning I spent some time looking at photos of vintage Los Angeles.

Pretty intensely nostalgic, especially the 60s and 70s with their relatively empty streets and the space between the buildings. One of the reasons we left L.A. 20 years ago was because, starting sometime in the late 80s, the population doubled. The city I remember is long gone; it’s been overrun and obliterated by massive hordes of strangers. The L.A. in the pictures seemed to have some breathing room in it.

The good old days, right?

That’s one cliche; the other is: “it was a more innocent time.” Well though I was only a child, I remember the tail end of the 60s pretty clearly: the assassinations and scary violence, the crackling anger in the air. The intense green of the war in Vietnam on TV every night, juxtaposed with the dirty hippies protesting it and the old people snarling at them in turn. The shuddering way American life rent apart in a way that turned out to be permanent. Innocent is the last word to describe it.

And yet looking at those photos I see an innocence we didn’t know we had. It’s there in the pre-digital look of everything. The facial expression on a teenage boy looking at a hot rod speaks volumes about how much time and bare attention people seemed to have then, versus how frantic, self-absorbed, corporatized and impersonal life is now.

That’s the problem with nostalgia, though. The person who experienced it all, the person I was then, is also long gone. When I was ten years old, Van Nuys Boulevard was magical… it had a kiddie park next door to Ho Toys Chinese Restaurant. I mean: Chinese food! You went upstairs to eat, of all things. Paper lanterns, hot brown mustard, fortune cookies. Until around the time you turn 30, each new experience is an adventure, and you attach that sense of adventure to the people and places around you. Then you look back and it’s like a highlight reel: only the excitement remains.

I remember when I was 21 and traveling on my own for the first time, walking the streets of Berkeley sniffing the air for possibilities like a dog, dreaming of the girl I’d come hoping to see and feeling a glorious sense of freedom while I ate the only thing I could afford, a blueberry bagel. Forget the girl — that bagel is what I remember. It tasted like no bagel has ever tasted since.

I mentioned breathing room, but of course if I push my memory a bit harder, I remember what it was like breathing the Los Angeles air in the 70s… on some days, the smog was so bad that it rolled in like a bank of fog. There were days when you literally couldn’t see from one end of the high school quad to the other due to the thick brown haze. Before President Nixon, of all people, strengthened the Clean Air Act, the smog around L.A. could make your eyes burn and tear up, and you could feel it stirring in the bottom of your lungs when you took a deep breath. That’s the other problem with nostalgia: it only works when you carefully edit the facts or cook the books. Hell, you could even get nostalgic for Nixon.

And again that young man eating the bagel… would I go back and walk in his shoes again? He knew so little, about the world and about himself. Self-medicating, powerless, clueless… he was a mess. If you could have shown him the man I am now, the man he’d someday become, he’d have shit in his overalls. His little eyes would have bugged out of his head, and he’d have wanted to fast forward to get here.

No, it’s not my younger self I want to go back to, not California, not the 60s. It’s that feeling of having all the time in the world stretching ahead of me. It’s the sense of endless possibility.

Breathing room.

The 100%

I’m going to start with an example from politics, but don’t worry: this post isn’t really about politics. It’s about magic.

Back in 2004, a lot of us Democrats convinced ourselves John Kerry had a shot at winning the presidential election. We were convinced, I guess, because we were so opposed to the policies Bush was pursuing (I’ll spare you a list). Election day came as a bitter surprise and made us feel pretty alienated and depressed.

Rebecca and I went to church the next Sunday, and the minister John said something that really stuck with me. He said exit polling showed that of people who voted Republican, 60% described themselves as strongly pro-Bush and 30% as anti-Kerry. Of those who voted Democratic, 70% called themselves strongly anti-Bush and only 40% as strongly pro-Kerry.

And John made the point that metaphysically speaking, if you’re really passionate about “George Bush,” that’s what you’re going to get. God (for lack of a better word — call it the Universe, energy, The Force, whatever) doesn’t know or care whether you’re Pro or Anti. What you think about, what you give passion and energy to, becomes what you experience.

So when I listened to the Right going on about Obama this and Obama that, and when they nominated a candidate they didn’t really like solely in the hope he could beat Obama, it wasn’t difficult to predict the outcome: Obama. I was the only person I know predicting a landslide for the President, and it’s not because I’m so smart… it’s because I know about the Law of Attraction.

John’s sermon was a few years before the release of The Secret, the DVD that went viral and taught many of us about this. A lot of people have a violent negative reaction to The Secret — a good friend of mine said “it reeks of snake oil” and after Oprah promoted it, there were tons of snarky, dismissive media stories. I suppose that’s partly a reaction to the over-the-top theatrics of the presentation: the scrolls and cheesy re-enactments and highly suspect quotes. Also it’s because The Secret makes the Law of Attraction sound like magical thinking… think about a bicycle and presto! a bicycle will appear!

That’s true, actually, except for the “presto” part. The fact is, you can “use” the Law of Attraction only in the same way you can “use” the Law of Gravity. Things in this world work a certain way, and you can go with that and make things easier for yourself, or go against it and have a much more difficult experience. And the way it works is this: strongly held emotion and thinking become consistent action, and consistent action creates results. Sometimes it is like, Presto!, and other times it takes a bit longer.

But what’s tricky is that we’re not always fully aware of what we’re consistently thinking and doing — other people see it more clearly than we do. Often they tell us pretty clearly what we’re doing, and we shrug it off. It takes wisdom, maturity, and sheer courage to just face up to the hard truth that we have created our own results. Your spouse walks out on you and your first reaction is to blame them for everything that went wrong. Harder to look at yourself and notice that you were selfish, uncommunicative, unhelpful with the chores, or just impossible to live with. Especially in a relationship, you get that highly accurate mirror — the other person is reacting up close to what you actually do every day, as opposed to your good intentions. It’s one of the most difficult things in life to look at your circumstances and really own them. I was about 27 the first time I really did that, and I still recall vividly what a bitter pill it was.

However, if you look at the habits of any really successful person, they all do one thing: they take 100% responsibility for everything that happens in their lives. They spend next to no time on self pity, victim stories, or excuses. Whatever happens, they own it. And that allows them to learn from it, and make course corrections. Success and great results aren’t random, or magic. They’re a direct result of this kind of thinking.

One big difficulty people have with this concept is that once they start to get it, they flip it around and use the word blame. “So you’re saying I’m to blame for my cancer, my getting fired, a tree falling on my house, or (fill in the blank).” They frame it up like this: “If something I don’t like comes into my experience, then I must have caused it by my bad thinking.” And then they either totally reject this idea, or accept it and feel hopeless and guilty.

But blaming yourself for the “bad” stuff in your life is a dead end. Blame is finger pointing. It’s a super subtle way of avoiding taking action, and it gets you nowhere. What we have to do is take responsibility, meaning “response + ability.” Something has happened that I don’t like. What am I going to do about it? There’s only this moment, right now; that’s all that exists. All of our power resides in the present moment — that’s where we get to look at what IS (not what was, or will be) and take action.

Thoughts become things. It’s as simple as that. The more consistent the thought, the more passion and energy we bring to it, the faster it manifests as our experience. Once you really begin to use this knowledge in a consistent way, it can change your life. Like magic.

At the Rally to Restore Sanity

Went to DC last weekend for the Rally to Restore Sanity. We knew it would be a big crowd, so rather than taking the Metro, Miranda, Ryan and I walked the two and a half miles from her townhouse down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Mall. It was Saturday October 30, a perfect Fall day with a cool morning breeze that sent a few early leaves scattering around us. We had arranged to meet Phil and Nancy at the Sculpture Garden, and then the plan was to find Steve and Mark, who were already close to the stage. But by the time we got to the Rally itself, we found it impossible to meet up with anyone: there was no cell reception. Two hundred thousand other people were on their devices too, and the grid went down.

As we looked around for a spot to watch from, the crowd continued to grow more dense. At first, many people had staked out little bits of territory with comforters and lawn chairs. Gradually these disappeared as we were all pushed inexorably closer and closer together. Picnic blankets were trampled upon. Lawn chairs were pulled tight. People who had been sitting were forced to stand. By the time the Rally started, we were so wedged in that you literally could not clap unless you raised your hands in the air above you. Fortunately it was the most mellow, good humored group you can imagine. Liberals, of course. We don’t even get mad when you trample our blankets.

At one point, an elderly lady collapsed near us and people began shouting “Medic!” Ryan, who is a nurse, took off immediately toward her. The unmovable crowd miraculously parted for him. She was fine, as it turned out. But you could feel everyone’s jittery collective physical discomfort at being so jammed in. I’ve never been anxious in a crowd before. Thanks to yoga and meditation I knew enough to breathe every time I felt resistance arising. But I couldn’t really see anything. Tiny bits of stage and edges of jumbotrons. Signs on sticks above heads. Mylar balloons. Tops of heads. So I mostly listened. As it turned out, that was fine.

The people behind The Daily Show are pretty clever. Just as the show is a parody that skewers the pompous cliches of TV news programs, the Rally was a parody of a rally. There was a rambling, self contradictory benediction (from Father Guido Sarducci, an inspired choice). Lots of failed chants and goofy singalongs. Awards, tributes and guest speakers. Most of the jokes were good, and everything was geared to support the same message: that we all have to drop the conflict and the name calling if we want to solve our problems. Of course, there was a false equivalency drawn between the right and the left… one side is clearly more angry, divisive and hateful than the other, and I bet you know which side I mean. However, the overall point was well taken: meet your opponent’s anger with some humor, and let’s all see if we can bring it down a notch.

The day before, Phil had been kind enough to invite me to join him and Nancy on a tour of the Capitol he’d arranged through some former Poli Sci students of his from his classes at UCLA and Pepperdine. It was sweet and kind of moving to watch these two smart, accomplished, powerful people wandering like wide-eyed kids, absorbing these fascinating little details and the huge historic backdrop to it all. We started out in one of the Senate office buildings, where we got a behind-the-scenes look at the ornate offices and venerable hearing rooms — including the room that held the hearings on the Titanic, Army/McCarthy, organized crime, Watergate, and Iran/Contra… hearings I’d actually watched live (only the last two, thankyouverymuch).

We went to the “crypt” in the bottom of the Capitol, where a marble compass in the floor marks the very center of the city and the point from which the four neighborhoods (NW, NE, SW, SE) all begin. We stood in the Rotunda, this awe-inspiring space with beautiful sunlight pouring down through the Dome’s arching windows… ringed with giant Trumbull paintings and marble statues of the most admirable figures of U.S. history (plus a bronze replica of Reagan somebody snuck in). We also sat in the House and Senate galleries, looking down into those little chambers where some of the noblest words in American history, and some of the stupidest, have been spoken. Just outside the gallery entrances, the tile is visibly worn down and discolored from two centuries of the people walking in to watch their representatives at work.

The highlight of this tour was a half hour we spent in the Budget Committee’s chamber with a gentleman named Chris who manages the office budget process. Chris came to DC as an intern during Watergate, intending to stay a summer or so… he’s been there for 36 years. Soft-spoken, friendly, and articulate. In response to Phil’s question he talked about the decline in civility and comity that he’s witnessed over the past three decades. In the past, congressmen used to debate heatedly and then go hang out after work — they were personal friends and could work together when they needed to. Now more and more, only ideologues get elected. He’s worried about the future and what will happen after he retires in a couple of years.

What he takes comfort from, he said, is the young people. And with good reason: they were awesome. They were everywhere, working as aides and pages and office assistants, all of them professional, bright, and idealistic. Together with the older people we saw, we got a clear picture of the Congress at work — and it’s far from the grotesque caricature offered by the cynical operatives who want to advance corporate power by making people give up on their government. It’s a lot of savvy people working very hard, people who understand the responsibility that comes with power, people who aren’t sitting home in their barcaloungers complaining, but are busy getting things done.

After the Rally and dinner, Phil and Nancy and I walked around the White House — luminous in the floodlights, and home at this particular fortunate moment to a calm, wise and potentially great man. Then we went next door to the Round Robin bar in the Willard hotel. The bar is right off the lobby and is said to be the place where the term “lobbyist” was coined. It’s a tiny little round room ringed with sketches of its more illustrious patrons: Walt Whitman and Mark Twain among them. We had to stand at the bar until John Hodgman and his date vacated their table. So we sat and had martinis like a couple of grownups and toasted to DC and to our little reunion. Until this weekend, I hadn’t seen Phil in 20 years… we’ve had some longstanding, difficult and extremely painful conflicts in our time. But we finally reached across the aisle, so to speak, and recognized the things that connect us are stronger than those that divide us. I hadn’t expected to, but I told him I loved him. He looked surprised; he said the same. Our old issues seemed very far away, like some debate between Hayne and Webster on the Senate floor in 1830… and I bet those dudes went out for drinks afterwards. After I put Phil and Nancy into a taxi I walked out into the clear, crisp Washington evening and thanked the stars over my head for letting me outlive my youth.

There’s going to be the usual ruckus these next few weeks as the gloriously ascendant tea partiers come crowing and clucking into power. The wheel turns, and always some new bunch of people think they’re going to take charge and change everything. But real change takes time, and perseverance, and a willingness to accept and work with other people rather than shutting them out. You have to let go of your grievances, and your need to be right. Compromise has somehow become synonymous with failure, but it’s what our whole beautiful system is built on. And compromise starts with seeing past your own narrow point of view. It’s not the other guy who needs to change, it’s you. If you really want to restore sanity, a rally isn’t going to do it. You have to start with your own.

Buy the Surfboard

About ten minutes ago, I got a professional email, the kind I usually ignore… this one about a financial services conference that had a panel discussion.

One CEO on the panel was talking about using social media as a marketing tool. He compared the rise of social media to a tsunami, and he urged his audience to go ahead and “buy the surfboard.”

That phrase leapt out at me. For one thing, my company has started talking about social media, and I’ve been dragging my feet. Don’t want to think about it, don’t want to get involved. Even though I know it’s the next frontier of my profession, and I need to explore it.

For another thing, I’ve been thinking about learning to surf. No, really. It’s something I wanted to do in my 20s, but for various reasons… didn’t. But it struck me recently that I still could do it. I live in Florida, don’t I? What’s stopping me?

Buy the surfboard.

That is some bloody great advice.

For all of us, there’s some issue where we’re standing at the edge of the pool, tentatively dipping our toe in. Hanging back, hesitating. Making some kind of excuse for inaction: I’m too old, I’ll look foolish, I could never do that, whatever. That’s your ego, trying to be helpful as usual. Protecting you, and in the process half strangling you and blocking your joy.

Meanwhile, there’s your intuition, telling you to get out there and take a few risks. Try something different. Do the thing you’re afraid to do, but can’t stop thinking about either….

Give that attractive stranger a friendly greeting. Sign up for those piano lessons. Call your estranged uncle and apologize. Send your poem to that magazine. Take your friend up on the offer to go rock climbing. End that draining relationship. Go skydiving.

Waiting for a better moment? It won’t come.

Buy the surfboard.

Watching You

“What is this salty discharge?” — Jerry Seinfeld, crying for the first time, on Seinfeld.

Something strange has been happening to me lately. I’m developing empathy.

Once in my 30s I had a calendar for Geminis that described us as “good listeners… as long as you’re interesting” and I had to laugh, because that pretty much nailed me. For most of my life other people fell into two categories: interesting, and not. Those in the “not” category barely existed for me — they were formless blobs who had to really get in my face to even come into focus.

I wasn’t some kind of psycho; I managed to get married, have friends, raise a kid, and I think I was pretty present in relationships.

But for the most part it was as if a glass wall existed between me and other people. The wall, I suppose, was my judgment and control, which in turn were driven by a deeper sense of powerlessness and fear.

I turned 50 a year and a half ago. It was a trauma. How could I be 50? I mean, I dug the benefits of getting older: more wisdom, more poise, better judgment. But in my mind I was more like a 25 year old who was getting very cool. The idea that I could no longer be considered young by any objective measure was pretty sobering.

On the heels of that came a few serious difficulties and intense life changes that I won’t go into here, coupled with deeper spiritual practice including meditation and yoga.

And lately, more and more, everyone is interesting. I find myself much less focused on advancing my agenda and point of view, and instead just watching. Really paying close attention to people, noticing the tiny flickers of expression that cross their faces, listening to the gaps and pauses between their words, and hearing what they’re really saying.

And it’s breaking my heart a little bit, because what I’m seeing so often is that powerlessness and fear in them. The harsh self judgment, the shame, the anxiety. The little child that’s still there, innocently looking for love and validation (thanks for the video, Mina), and so often not finding it. What William Blake was talking about in “London.”

It’s changing me. Like a couple of weeks ago when our dishwasher broke and I had all kinds of crazy difficulties with HH Gregg. I ended up in the store with my fistful of paperwork, righteously and justifiably pissed off, engaging in a tug of war with a pompous middle manager over their policies and procedures.

At a certain point, I stopped talking, and started watching.

The middle manager just wanted to be right. He had his little square of turf, and on that turf he was the king. He had a few things to say. And I realized that he was going to give me everything I wanted, but only after he made his little stand. So I let him. It didn’t cost me anything (except 20 minutes) and I walked out with a free $175 upgrade, and a somewhat belated apology. And I made a point of thanking him, using his name, and giving him that little bit of respect he was craving.

It works the other way, too. There are people I love, and in the past they just got the stamp of approval and that was that. I took it for granted that they knew they had my affection, and secure in that assumption, I said whatever I wanted and only noticed their pain or their needs if they specifically brought them up. Now I’m really seeing, and it’s astonishing that these beautiful, radiant people are experiencing so much confusion and self doubt.

I hesitate to put all this out here. Maybe you all have this empathy, and I’m just an arrogant asshole who’s getting older and scared about it, and finally becoming “nice.” But even if that’s true, it’s okay. A whole new world is opening up in front of me. Everyone has something to tell me… something important. I’m paying attention now. Better late than never.

Walking Meditation

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This morning, we did something different in meditation class: a walking meditation. About 20 of us went across the street to the park, our teacher Jamie struck a chime on his singing bowl, and we were off.

I shut my eyes and started out. At first, I couldn’t get the self-conscious grin off my face, thinking how silly I must look to the passing cars and pedestrians. But then I stopped thinking and began to focus – partly because I had to.

With my eyes closed, each step was an adventure. Lift the leg… bring it forward… wobble slightly on the other… put the leg down. At one point, the ground wasn’t where I expected it to be and I fell forward slightly. Ah, expectations… valuable lesson there. Stop thinking. Back to mindfulness. One step at a time, with full curiosity about each subsequent step. So different when you remove your ego with its endless expectations.

There were big trees in the park, and I worried I might walk smack into one. But as I focused closely on each step, I could feel the ground changing under me. Some slight softening of the earth, coupled with an incline, signaled that I was nearing a tree. Something would tell me to stop and I’d open my eyes slightly and I’d see a tree either in front of me or next to me.

We did this for 25 minutes, but it seemed like a matter of seconds. I could have done it all day. It was the best meditation I’ve had yet — a powerful demonstration of the benefits of staying firmly in the present moment and paying rapt attention to it. We are, after all, walking through a park with our eyes closed… if only we knew it.