Friday, May 13, 2016

A Little Boy and His Mother on the Street

This morning, as I was driving into work, listening to nonsense sports radio, I happened to see a young mother walking along the sidewalk with her little boy, who was maybe three. I don't know what led to it but I saw her lean down to his ear as they walked.

His arms shot rigidly forward and he started sobbing in terrorized distress, totally overwhelmed even as he continued to totter forward. She must have been shouting or hissing some terrible threat.

I wanted to throw open my car door and sweep him in my arms and tell him he was safe, that it was okay. Of course, given what I saw, that would be a lie. I wanted to shout out the window "Lady, you can't talk to him like that! You shouldn't treat him like that!" Of course such a random one-time intervention would not change the situation of their lives, which I had to admit I knew nothing about, except that they were poor.

As he sobbed, her face remained mean and hard, she continued to speak what could only be harsh words ("stop crying you little faggot" or the like). Remarkably quickly, he was no longer crying. His face was stiff and mean now too.

I know this moment crushed me not just because I witnessed this little boy get crushed, but because I felt the 30-plus-year-old echoes of when my mother would crush me. I still remember clearly the time, when I was about five, and she was yelling at me as she often did, and I could not stop myself from crying. Once the tears began, surely she would see how she was hurting me and comfort me. Instead, her face twisted in contempt: "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." Leaving aside the threat of further abuse, her denial of the validity of my tears seemed outrageous and impossible to me. Wasn't it obvious that she had already given me something to cry about?

Something hard and mean began to form in me then. That fundamental rage grew and sharpened every time I willed myself to become a stone that her reproofs would crash against and every time she told me "life isn't fair" as she punished me unfairly. Funny that she didn't bother to deny that she was not being even handed. How a mother could blast her helpless son into terrified oblivion and then tell him to pick himself up and put himself back together is, luckily, beyond my ken.

Which brings me to the other reason seeing the little boy abused on the street wrecked me: my son. My job as a parent is to comfort him when he is frightened, not to become a vector of terror. It's impossible for me to imagine doing anything but. When I got home, as I tend to do when I see some intolerably cruel thing in the world, I held him close. And I told him, whenever you're scared, you can tell mommy and daddy, and we'll help you. And if mommy or daddy ever scares you, you can tell us, and we'll stop and make it better. He was happily trying to get me to put him down at the table for dinner, so he did not seem to hear it, and even if he had, I'm not sure how much he understood, but I needed to say it nevertheless.

I hope that little boy on the street can find that love, compassion, and respect for his personal integrity as well.

For what it's worth I had intended to let this blog die, but I could not figure out where else to post this . . .

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Chasing the Dragon

Tonight, I took my 10-month old son, Molloy, to a Halloween jack-o'lantern walk at Mrs. Beckett's school.

We went as a fisherman (me), Chef (Mrs.), and lobster (Molloy, in a hand-me down lobster costume). We had a (lobster) pot of candy. The event features a number of stations marked by jack-o'lanterns and manned by pirates, Avengers, and ro-boxes (yes, that is written correctly).

On our way back from the bonfire, I noticed some lanterns and a shadowy figure in a hollow. I brought Molloy in under an arc of shrubs against a corner of the foundation of the school. He goggled at the lanterns' lights but did not see the masked figure three feet from us. I crouched down and the masked figure waved.

She wore a white dog mask. Suddenly, we were in a Kubrick film. She waved silently as I yammered my usual patter at Molloy. That look in his eyes. Fireworks going off all over his brain. Beyond his comprehension, vaguely menacing and irresistible.

I have been chasing that dragon my whole life. When it lives in him it lives in me.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bowing Before Buddha

Carl Jung said that we should keep our religion, any religion, really.  What to believe is arbitrary.  But to believe is empowering.  It gives one a feeling of direction; it molds one.  It doesn't merely take the sting from death, but carries eons of animal and cultural information.  Even a "new" religion is built from the pieces of other rituals and the deep needs of the deep mind.

Religion and its attendant ritual and belief satisfy that deeper mind.  In Jung's formulation, as I understand it, it is part message from our primitive selves, and a reminder of the "numinous."  (That's Jung's word. I had to look it up.  It means divine, or having a divine quality.  Good word.)  It connects us to our non-reasoning, intuitive, emotional, instinctive selves, which surely move us in measure equal to or greater than our rational selves.  Even the great many people who are already well in touch with the emotional part of their natures do not normally recognize the process that moves them. Religion also reminds us of our connection to culture, to humans as a whole, and to life as a whole.

Religion releases one from the gaze of the Censor -- the internal watcher who think's he's in charge but is actually judging and interpreting. Making up stories that make experience smaller and more limited than it really is. Religion is, famously, an opiate, and one can be utterly lost to it as one can be lost to narcotics. But, like drugs, it serves a healthy purpose as well: transcendence of the mundane. Or, in other words, a counterpoint to the story the pattern-recognizing, habit-locked, survival-focused Censor narrates.

I came to Buddhism as many do -- in flight from Christianity. Buddhism offered a safe haven: a religion without dogma. A religion some people claimed was not a religion, but a philosophy! But I came to realize it was a religion. The sect I am involved with also has all manner of ritual and magical elements, in some respects reminiscent of Catholicism (and also theater). The Censor was displeased. This could not be rationalized. This could not be accepted. On the other hand, I was gaining something from my efforts. I felt better after services. I enjoyed them. I enjoyed the mummery. I said: "Censor, there are greater things than you. There is mystery in this universe you cannot penetrate. I will explore this for what it's worth with open heart and open mind and get all I can from it."

One of the hardest and strangest aspects of Buddhism to a novice like myself is bowing. You bow to the priest, you bow to others, and especially you bow to the Buddha. Or Buddha statues. How can this be? Buddha is not God. Buddhism has no God, at least not as the term is commonly used. But I learned you are not bowing to a Lord. You are bowing to enlightenment. You are bowing to his achievement, which is a reminder of its possibility. You are remembering that you are not the ultimate power, and that there is much power in that acknowledgment. And when you bow to others, you are bowing to the enlightenment that is potential in them. You are recognizing the numinous in what you often perceive as mundane.

Do the Right Thing

In order to live properly, one must start by defining one's terms.

One must try to find an objective measure by which to judge the desirability of an action.

On the one hand, objectivity is inherently illusory. Even if you get what appears to be objective data, you introduce subjectivity by measuring it and interpreting it. Obviously you have biases. You would prefer one result to the other. You have unquestioned notions of what is right. Murder is wrong, Altruism is right. Progress is inevitable. There is One True God.

On the other hand, we need rules and assumptions in order to take efficient action. To submit fully to the impossibility of fully knowing is to render oneself superfluous. Nihilism or nirvana. I am not prepared to give up suffering or desire. But I want to limit the harm I cause to others.

So I have taken these things on faith:

That compassion is virtuous.
That slow is usually better than fast.
But not always.
That every living thing is lit by a spark of divinity.
That every living thing should be treated with consideration and dignity.
And probably inanimate things as well.
That all experiences are valuable.

What Went Right

It's been over eight years since I stopped pursuing acting as a profession and started training to be a lawyer. When I think back on that time, I inevitably feel some regret and feelings of "what if"?

What if I had taken that part that I turned down? What if I hadn't gotten drunk the night before that big audition? What if I had put the same effort into building a viable acting career as I did in law school?

It's easy to get lost in that melancholy alternate reality. But that obscures the awesome things that happened during that time.

So instead of wondering what went wrong, here is a brief recitation of what went right.

1. I performed off broadway in a production in which I got to play a political activist and firebrand. It played to hundreds of people every night and was well received.

2. I performed in a two-hander with my best friend to mostly empty houses for weeks. It killed our young theater company. The company was not the only casualty. One night, when we arrived for the first show of the week, we found the theater manager dead in the lobby. I think it was a Tuesday or Wednesday and that he'd been there since Sunday. This is "awesome" in that it is the kind of life experience I wanted so badly when I moved to NYC. We used to sing part of the into to the Muppet Show, in the Waldorf and Astoria parts: "Why do we always come here? I guess we'll never know. It's like some kind of torture, to have to start the show!"

3. I produced and directed a night of Beckett pieces. Directing that show, as well as a Shakespeare production, showed me that I was a director through and through.

4. I found a like-minded director who worked in an ensemble spirit. We created, from a straightforward script, an out-of-this-world abstract movement piece with live cello accompaniment that fully honored the script while adding layers upon layers to it. In this work, I discovered that I was exceptionally good at certain improvisational exercises (and admittedly not so great at others).

5. I got to go to Vermont and Maine to perform. In Maine, I was able to tour the poor and desolate northern part of the state with other struggling actors. We went from school to school. It was the first time I was paid for my craft. My first professional gig after something like four years of feeling such work was beneath me. I learned it wasn't beneath me. It was perfect.

6. I went out again and again, month after month, year after year, seemingly getting nowhere, until I started to build a real resume and real career. 1000s of headhsots mailed. Hundreds of auditions. Until I found that people would in fact pay me for my acting abilities.

7. I shot a couple of movies, one which paid me and one which promised to pay me but never did. I learned that shooting a film is, for the most part, incredibly boring and that the lack of continuity makes it incredibly tough. Theater is the actor's medium, film the director's.

7. After something like five or six years, I finally started to land the leading man roles I had never been able to get before. I realized I could do it. I could be the romantic lead. For a guy who struggled with anxiety and confidence issues, this was no small achievement. I play earnest, arrogant, rock stupid, and anxious very well.

8. Overcame an intense fear of singing in public and having been told by friends when I was younger that I was tone deaf, I learned to play guitar and sing in order to play Pony, the young rock star in SubUrbia. The last audition I went on was for a company that had seen me the year before. They called me because they liked my audition for a particular part so much. Did I give them that? No. But I sang for the first time ever in an audition. To prove I could do it before I gave it up.

Monday, January 05, 2015

On the Eve of Fatherhood (Or, I'm Not a Young Man Anymore)

Within the very near future, maybe tomorrow, maybe a few weeks from now, my life will be drastically different. The empty time will be gone. No more: "what should I do this afternoon?" There will always be things to do. He will need more than the couple walks a day and dinner from a can the dog requires. This is a lifetime commitment even more irrevocable than marriage.

At the same time, as we grow familiar with this house we've promised to pay for over the next 29 years, and as I advance in my career, and as I enjoy a more conventional lifestyle, I feel a bit of loss for my youth. For cozy mornings in the alcove in Brooklyn, soothed by soft yellow light on the tin ceiling.

Of course, the nostalgia ignores the trials and discomfort that at the time took more of my attention than the transcendent moments. 

And my fear of the responsibility is also balanced by my dreams for our family in this home. Sledding and frisbee and camping. Encouraging his interests and helping him build confidence. Teaching him to be responsible for his own actions. Teaching him the power of work. And spontaneity. And kindness. Sharing theater and art and music. Going out to the movies. Breakfast. Tag, hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo. 

I'm looking forward to all that, in spite of a vertiginous feeling I would guess is inevitable given the obviously life-changing nature of being responsible for a life.


And now the anticipated day has come. Our baby had the grace to be born on his due date, a feat achieved by only 5% of babies according to a glance at google search results.

Labor seems aptly named. The work, which meant supporting my partner as she pushed for 6 and a half hours, holding her hand, wiping her neck and face, holding her leg back as she pushed, took almost all my attention, left little space for anxiety and doubt to operate, the unceasing heart rate monitor on mother and child notwithstanding. Nothing like your partner being in labor with your child  to put you "in the moment," I suppose.

My son has only been here for three weeks, so almost all is still unknown. But here are a few impressions:

+ People oversold the sleep deprivation angle. Sure, for the first four or five days, I slept only a few hours a night, but after that I caught up. The baby sleeps about two hours at a time. So it's up every two hours, then I can go right back to sleep (an advantage of breastfeeding: I can't do it). There have been some rough nights, but they haven't been as bad as I feared. I mean, he's a baby, he's gonna cry sometimes. It's just a little noise and a little lost sleep. One night he was wailing with a look of absolute indignant panicked rage. I was talking to him, humming, and rocking, but he was having none of it. And then, right at the end of a sharp wail, he just fell straight into a deep sleep. That was it. I'll never know what he was so upset about, and neither will he.

+ I haven't quite gotten over the "is he still breathing?" phase yet. Almost. But I still check when he's especially still.

+ Don't know if this will last, but I have been a little more diligent about doing small tasks because I know I will not have large blocks of time to devote to them. I feel more energized when I have a space of time to work. I feel its preciousness and don't want to waste it. By valuing these free times, I put the old procrastinating feeling that I had plenty of time so why not do nothing under considerable pressure.

+He can't do very much now. I never really understood before that a baby this young is totally unfit to be in the world. He can't see, he can't move his limbs in a goal-directed, coordinated manner (he's sort of working on sucking on his fingers and holding the pacifier in his mouth; he'll cling to me when I hold him sometimes). He can't communicate in any way but crying or not crying. He basically sleeps, looks around bug eyed, eats, cries, pisses, and shits. That's his life. I'm looking forward to the incredible transformation that should have him crawling in 6 months and saying actual words in a year.

Well, I hear him crying. I better check it out. 

Friday, November 14, 2014


No containing the unstable liquids within. Concrete, lead, fail spectacularly, bursting, crumbling, disseminating poison in dissolution.

Equanimity is as fleeting as joy or triumph and in its impermanence is suffering just like everything else.

This moment won't hold. This love. This safety. It's already passed, destroyed by observation.

This sky will rain acid. This earth will breathe mercury. This body will breathe dirt.

You, my love, my reason, are a wisp, a puff, a fragmentary figment.

We, together, this holy union, a notion, and the believers strung up, pilloried, crucified, and piked line the road ahead and behind.

I hate to talk so, but sideways, with averted eyes, is the only way to approach Truth, because to see Truth is to know death. To know death is to be free. To be free is to let go of attachment. To let go of attachment is to see the futility of desire. To see the futility of desire is to know death.

You want sense? It doesn't exist. You want justification? I present to you sheaves of it.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Computer Dependence

Computer as Mediator of Experience

Frequently, when I notice something interesting, I want to share it. And I immediately think of this disinterested throng of Facebook "friends." For praise, or commiseration, or to provoke an argument.  Not that I'm thinking of these things so clearly.  Really I'm just thinking of some girl I went to law school with and thought was cool.  Or my family. On facebook, the interactions are short - usually less than full sentences. So when I consider it more carefully, I usually decide not to share my pithy thought with a group of people who are at best only partly listening.

And so the thought shrivels.

When I'm the least bit bored.  When I have a "what do I do now?" moment, I almost always reach for the computer. There's a siren call of transcendence in the ultimate power of a computer.  Endless instant information, ideas, opinions, arguments, laughter.  All available to just about everyone at the incredibly low price of all of your privacy.

Usually, a few hours slip away, as I click away at the same few pages over and over again. It's ridiculous. I should seek out stuff. Instead, I want it to come to me.  So I sometimes open reddit in a new tab while I'm waiting for something to load on reddit. "God this is taking too long, I need something to entertain myself during these long fractions of seconds, how about the exact same thing I'm already doing? Oh look, it's a guy in a clever rocketpack costume. Some gifted "redditor" (such an cloyingly dumb appellation) explains how a universal joint works. Comics. Funny pictures. Time to stop, but one more link. In a second. Just one more.

I sometimes check my email when I'm driving. Or text.

This is obviously insane. This is so incredibly stupid. I can't justify doing it at all. The only explanation is addiction. I have to stop before I crash into a truck or run over a kid on a bike. I'm risking my life and others' for the meagerest of pleasures. Most everything that appears on my phone is garbage. Like 99% of it.  It's all ads or more shit I have to do.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Justice today. Justice for once. Today was why I went to law school. To defend the unjustly persecuted.

All I had to do was convince 12 people to set free a man who raped several women and murdered his final victim in over 30 years ago.

I deal with civil commitment of sex offenders. It's a bullshit law cloaked in pseudo-science. State experts testified that a 50+ year old man was the same today as he was at 18. They said ominously that we could not know what he would do outside a controlled environment.

He had been paroled, but a different arm of the state just could not let go of him.

I got the case about a year ago. Looking at it, I thought "what a dog. How the hell can we win a case where the guy killed somebody."

Then I went to see him in prison.  And I realized I had to win this case.  He had changed. For real. College in prison. He gave me references of women he'd worked with in prison. I checked them out and they were glowing. He had become a model prisoner and a man dedicated to improving himself.

The state's case (which I anticipated) focused on a difference in his confession made in 1980 on one hand and what he told the parole board and sex offender treatment 30 years later. It centered on the precise manner in which he killed a victim. The state's unethical hacks testified that this discrepancy meant he was in "complete denial." It made his rehabilitative efforts meaningless, and his completion of sex offender treatment "technical." Although he had always admitted the murders and rapes, the inconsistency in his statements gave the state a way to continuously return to the manner of the death. How she died. When she died. The sex act occurring at the time of her death.

Again and again for two weeks, the jury heard about my client "fucking her ass." They heard how the state's experts had identified him as a psychopath.  This allowed them to say all his work and rehabilitation was a sham. Essentially, according to them, he was running a 30-year long con, and appearing to grow and change so that he could get out and rape again.

When the verdict came in, I was barely able to contain my anxiety. A verdict comes by way of note from the jury to the judge: "We have a verdict." The judge's clerk calls the lawyers for each side, and they come scrambling from their offices or coffee shops, sweaty and jangled to the courtroom.

When we got to the courtroom, the judge was still taking a plea from his criminal calendar, so we waited in the judge's waiting room with the Assistant Attorney General and state investigator.  The Assistant Attorney General was even more nervous than me. The jury had been out eight hours, and the State does not lose these cases. Almost never.

When we finally went in the courtroom, we waited anxiously for our client. He came in, looking serene, and wearing his prison greens as he had throughout the trial. Normally, prisoners get outfitted with khakis and a white shirt so that they don't look so much like prisoners. But my client had said he wanted to wear his greens to the courtroom. He would wear civilian clothes if and when he became a civilian again and not before.

He sat while I paced.  A man who's been down for 30 year and learned a sphinx-like gaze, he seemed unconcerned. My co-counsel, who has been invaluable throughout the trial, not simply as a source of advice and help, but as a friend to lend a hand when I felt weak, said "we should follow his calm."

I looked at him and saw that, despite his mostly flat gaze, he was scared. To death. I sat. If he can sit and be calm, so can I.

The jury came in. My heart pounded. The judge asked the jury if they had reached a verdict. The forewoman said yes, She handed the verdict sheet to a court officer, who handed it to the judge. The judge looked at it, handed it back to the officer, who handed it back to the forewoman.

The judge asked if the jury was unanimous on the first question: whether respondent now suffered from a disorder that predisposed him to commit sex offenses.




My heart dropped as my head dropped into my hands. I tried to gird myself for the loss -- both for my sake and my client's. I would tell him that he would be sent to a sex offender facility, but that he had a strong case on appeal.

My chest rocked with every heartbeat. It felt like it would burst from my sweated through shirt.

My co-counsel laid her hand on our client's forearm.

The judge asked if they had reached a unanimous verdict on the second question: whether my client had a disorder that resulted in him having serious difficulty controlling his sex offending behavior,


No! No! The impossible was real. I let out a half sigh, half cry, looked up at the ceiling and shuddered. I clapped my client on the back and kept the tears at bay.  A tear rolled down my co-consel's cheek.

As the jury left the room, I shook my client's hand.  Asked if I could hug him, and did.  All 74 inches and 300 pounds of him. I couldn't get my arms all the way around him.

When we reacted with such visible relief, the forewoman broke down in tears. Talking to the jurors afterward, I saw that she had overcome intense emotion to make the fair and legally justified decision.

Don't tell me nobody cares. Don't tell me regular people can't do the right thing. Those 12 people in the jury room wrangled and fought and struggled. They were afraid of my client and what he might do if released. But they stuck to the law. And they set him free (subject to parole) because the law said that they must.

I actually furthered justice today. I protected a man's liberty. I gave this man a chance to show, after over 30 years in prison, that even a murdered and rapist can be redeemed.

I did my job as a lawyer, buddhist, and human.

The judge, before the verdict, and as deliberations dragged on, asked if we (respondent's counsel) were upset that the first alternate had ended up on the jury. We said. "no, I think we like that guy." He's a computer engineer, and he seems like he knows how to think without emotion. The judge thought we should have challenged him because he was president of something like the Holy Name Society.

I think the judge's thinking erred in two ways. First is assuming that a catholic, religious person is going to automatically rule against our client, who sat in the position of defendant. Dedicated Christians may be more conservative than the society overall, but a dedicated Christian may well also believe in redemption more earnestly than a nominal Christian. Second, a Catholic in a hierarchical position is likely to be a rule follower who will not reach out to use this trial as a proceeding to punish someone. A rule-following Catholic is also likely to believe in fundamental fairness and see civil commitment after the completion of a long criminal sentence as fundamentally unfair.

When we talked to the jury, a corrections officer could not believe he had been left on the jury. He wanted to know why. The short answer is no amount of challenges in the world could get rid of all the potential jurors with biases against sex offenders. We can't challenge everyone.

The long answer is that he seemed like a fair/honest guy during jury selection, and we figured, as a correction officer, he would know what an out-of-control inmate was like, and he would understand our client's prison time in the right context.

Obviously, he ended up ruling in our client's favor. One lesson is that it's dangerous to rely on stereotypes. You can't say "no corrections officers," or you may miss a juror who can be really receptive to your case.

You know why I liked him? I talked to him about what he like to read. He mentioned John Krakauer. I asked "Into Thin Air"? Yep. That indicates to me an open minded and adventurous person. A non-conformist and critical thinker who admires bravery. The kind of guy you want fighting on your side in the jury room.

If he had said "Michael Chrichton," he never would have made the jury.

Friday, July 18, 2014


I have to figure out how to link to larger images.