Exercise at the Speed of Light

I wanted to squeeze in an hour on the elliptical today.  Funny word, “squeeze”.  It feels like wringing out a dish rag until all the juice is gone.  And who would want to be such a rag?

After a early morning meeting, I hadn’t had any breakfast.  So off to the Belmont Diner I strode, on a mission:

“I need to be out of here in an hour (even though I love visiting).  If I finish eating within thirty minutes, I should wait an hour and a half before getting on the beast.  But this time, I’ll only have an hour.  Not good but it’s all I’ve got.  Get to the gym.  Wear your shorts and t-shirt there so you don’t waste time changing.  Forget stretching beforehand … and afterwards.  Wear your sweaty shirt home in the car, and blast that speed limit.  Then you’ll be home right at 2:00 to welcome your friend.”

I rolled into my driveway at 1:57.  “Jessica” was happy to see me.  And I was so proud of myself for getting the job done.

But at what cost?  Stomach sore, muscles tight, in-car sweat dripping down my face, just tuckered out.  Given today’s events, wouldn’t it have been wiser to skip the gym?  To let go of my “Tour du Canada training stats”?  (Sigh)  I think so.

It takes such a long life to learn so many things.

Behind The Bus

Wharncliffe Road is in London, Ontario.  It’s a busy four-lane street with no left turn lanes for a stretch of eight blocks or so.  Many years ago, I sold life insurance and was on Wharncliffe every working day.  After getting stuck several times behind cars that were turning left, I created a rule: “Stay in the right lane.”  It worked pretty well, except for the occasional bus making its stops.  Being an upwardly mobile young businessman, I learned how to zip back and forth to avoid all pausing vehicles.

I became a driven (so to speak) salesman, looking for every advantage on the road and elsewhere.  No wonder I needed medication for high blood pressure.  Go, go, go!  Be better.  Push.

But is this really a wise way to lead a life?  I’d say not.  Today I experimented with another choice.  I was on Wharncliffe, naturally in the right lane.  Up ahead I spied a bus and my hands contracted on the wheel.  My index finger lurked over the left turn signal.  Somewhere inside, though, there was a quiet “No”, and my digit returned to the wheel.  The bus was slowing, with its right turn signal on.  I nestled in behind and came to a stop.  My lips were pursed, protesting such unusual behaviour.  Isn’t faster the way to go?  “No” again.  I scanned the sidewalk for the number of bus boarders.  “No” once more.

Mr. or Miss Bus Driver pulled away from the curb and we were off again … at a sedate pace.  There were no cars coming up in the left lane.  I could easily have moved over but I chose not to.  Slow as it goes.  No tailgating either.  And then we were coming to a stop again.  This time my heart was pure and calm.  We’ll get there when we get there.

And so our journey together unrolled until I turned off on Duchess Avenue.  Bye, you calm bus.  Hello, you calm Bruce.  Nice.

 

Knee Jerks

I’d like to be spacious of mind, always.  Letting the big picture envelop me.  Alas, sometimes I just react.  Like this morning.  I love the sports section, especially tiny columns of statistics.  And I hate typos.  I was breezing through the “Scoreboard” page of The London Free Press, not really noticing much, when my eyes settled on the word “Atalanta”.

“Not another one.  What’s wrong with this paper?  It’s like there’re mistakes on every page.  Good grief.  It’s “Atlanta” (Georgia).  Can’t be that hard to get it right!”  (Bruce huffing and puffing)  Slowing down my brain a mite, I saw that Atalanta was in the soccer column.  Italian soccer.  Atalanta beat Palermo 3-2.  Head lowered, I clicked to Wikipedia, where I discovered that “Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio, commonly known as just Atalanta … is an Italian football club based in Bergamo, Lombardy.”  Oops.  Jerking yes.  Spacious no.

I remember a time when I was driving to Tillsonburg, Ontario, to visit a low vision student.  Pretty fields and woodlots to the left and right.  Peaceful.  Except for that big truck ahead of me that was only going the speed limit.  “C’mon, c’mon … I’ve got places to go, people to meet.”  Mile after mile, the driver creeped along on the straight road.  Being a guy who was in love with his own vocabulary, I constructed a complex backstory about the human behind the wheel.  Eventually, there was a curve in the road.  An Austin Mini was leading the way.  Oops.  Jerking at the wrong person, yes.  Spacious?  Not a chance.

I wonder if I’m older and wiser now.  Based on this morning’s sporting news, perhaps I’m just older.

Feeling Flat

I’ve ridden a road bike for years.  You know, the ones with skinny tires that go zoom on asphalt and go splat on gravel.  I’ve always been a slow rider but friends and colleagues don’t know that. They think of me as a cyclist/athlete.

They also don’t know that I’ve never really figured out how to change a flat tire.  Two days ago, I felt ta-pocketa’s back tire before heading out on the roads … and it was indeed flat.  (Fear)  With a moderate lack of intelligence, I pumped up the tire to 110 psi and took off.  I told myself that there was an intersection about a kilometre away and I’d stop there and check the pressure again. Which I did.  Soft.  Amazed at my avoidance of reality, I turned around and went home.  (I’ll fix it tomorrow)

Tomorrow came and went and I stayed away from my bicycle. (Fear)

This afternoon, I reasoned that if I didn’t handle my distress about this, I’d turn into an indoor-type guy.  So I sidled up to ta-pocketa and felt her rear tire.  Flat.  (I don’t know what to do)

Tire levers.  Find the little plastic things that pry the tire off the rim.  Check. Dig into the bike box and grab a new inner tube.  Check.  (I don’t know what to do, and I should know what to do)

I did remember to put on nitrile gloves so my hands wouldn’t get gooped with oil when taking the rear wheel off.  (Maybe I’m an okay person after all) Fumbled around for ten minutes trying to extricate the wheel from ta-pocketa.  (Why can’t you remember this stuff?)  Finally done.

I grappled and groaned with the levers until the tire was off the rim, exposing the inner tube.  (Surely you didn’t have to take the tire completely off the rim.  Aren’t you just supposed to peel one side all the way around? Geez – what would a real cyclist think of you?)

Used my floor pump to inflate the inner tube.  (I can’t find any leak.  There should be a leak)  Remembered a friend telling me to submerge the tube in water and look for bubbles.  (You shouldn’t have to rely on a friend for basic information like that)  Bubbles.  Definitely a tiny leak.

I inserted the valve stem of a new inner tube into the rim and tried to reattach the tire, cramming the tube inside.  (This can’t be right.  What are you forgetting?  And why are you so stupid?)

Now half an hour into the job and about a century away from completion. (Pushing blindly ahead doesn’t work.  Do something different)  So I went back inside and watched two YouTube videos on the subject.  (Okay, that was a pretty good idea)

“Make sure you inflate the new inner tube a little, until it’s round.  Makes it easier to work with.”  (Oh)  “When you’re seating the tire back on the rim, start at the valve stem, pushing with your thumbs all the way around, using the lever at the end if the last section is really tight.”  (Oh.  You should already know this stuff, Bruce)

Fifteen minutes later … done.  (Really?  I did that?)  Lifted the derailleur just so and lowered the wheel into its slots, except that it wouldn’t go all the way in.  (Now what did you miss?)  Removed the wheel from the bike and took a look at how the tire was sitting on the rim.  There was a bulge right near the valve stem.  (Are you blind or what?)  Used the lever to take one side of the tire off the rim.  Took the inner tube right out.  Reinflated it a bit.  Stuck it back in with more care than before.  Started pressing with my thumbs to reseat the tire, this time starting at the valve stem.  Slowly.  Reassessed after a few inches.  No bulge.  Tire firmly seated all around the rim.  Pumped it up. Still good.  Delicately replaced it on ta-pocketa.  Really done.  (What a good boy am I)

***

Okay, this constant self-evaluation is exhausting.  For one thing, it creates far too many brackets in print.  What the heck happened to my Buddhism, my equanimity, my lovingkindness directed within?  I don’t know.  Guess they got lost along the way.

Mañana.

Light Under Their Wings

It was 6:59 and my alarm hadn’t gone off as scheduled.  Today is garbage and recycling day and I hopped to it.  Everything out to the curb before the trucks roll by at 7:30 or so.  Focus … empty small garbage baskets into the big can, yank the clear bag full of fine white paper out of its holder (Heavy!), newspapers into a plastic bag, search for any recyclables and plop them into their appropriate bin, huge garbage bag out of the can, replace bag, empty small bag in garage into the big one, replace bag, slap on a sticker showing that I’m a legitimate taxpayer, one blue box inside the other and carry them out to the road, heave ho the fine paper bag out to the same location, try to be quiet as I roll our grey plastic garbage can (with the raccoon-proof lid) to join the others … There!  Done.

What’s next?  Well, pick up the morning paper from our mailbox, of course.  And while you’re out here, why not get the backyard feeders out of the shed and hang them for the birdies?  Okay, oriole one is up.  Walking with the hummer one towards its hook, thinking of coffee (Tea is for expansive days).

And then … I looked up.  The sky was full of seagulls flying right over our house, from the front yard to the back, coming from their overnight sojourn on Port Stanley beach to eat I don’t know what in the fields around St. Thomas.  I glanced up for a few moments and then dropped my eyes to the task at hand.  Until the voice inside said “Stop.  Put down the feeder.  Watch the birds.”  So I did.

The morning sun hadn’t touched our backyard grass, but it was animating the bellies and wings of my silent friends.  And it was silent.  Nary a flapping sound among the bunch of them.  Inside, I stopped as well, letting the flow of hundreds of birds wash over me.

I looked to the south to some big old deciduous trees on the horizon.  Seagulls kept appearing from behind those trees.  I saw one arrow shape of ten birds.  How cool.  Then there were lots of folks floating along in twos and threes.  But also the occasional one flying alone.  I wondered about them.  Did they want the freedom of a solitary flight, not having to make conversation?  Or did they pine for companionship, wishing that somebody would say “Hi”?  I don’t know.  They didn’t say.

I wanted there to be a minute when the sky was empty, so that I could anticipate the next convoy, but it never came.  Always there were birds, revealing themselves over the southern trees, showing me their colours, and then disappearing to the north, over the maple in our backyard.  I thought of an individual seagull – first they weren’t there, then they were, then they weren’t again.  But even if I could no longer see a certain feathered one, their bird essence was imprinted on my sky.  Nobody can ever take that away.

After five or ten minutes of being aloft, I picked up the hummer feeder and walked to its hook.  Slowly.

Fun

I use a simple test to see if I want to spend time with a certain person.  It’s totally non-scientific but has been remarkably accurate as a precursor to friendship.  After I’ve talked to him or her a couple of times, I start observing whether they ever use the word “fun”.  “Yes” means my kind of folks.  “No”, and I wonder whether we’d enjoy hanging out together down the road.

Here’s a delightful story about the Dalai Lama.  I might just mosey over to Tim Hortons with him for an herbal tea, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

***

My friend Sid once placed a Groucho Marx mask in a hotel room where the Dalai Lama would be staying during a visit to an Ivy League university.  It was a gesture of karmic abandon because, really, who could gauge the terrestrial and spiritual consequences of such an act?

So imagine this: a cascade of university bureaucrats arrayed in the Dalai Lama’s suite, waiting for their guest to appear.  They sit erect in armchairs designed for slouching.

Minutes pass and then a door flings open.  Unaccountably, Groucho Marx – wearing long, maroon robes and serious lace-up shoes – emerges, chuckling loudly, laughing so hard that tears come to his bespectacled eyes.

How do people react when a dignitary – especially of a spiritual kind – does something so, well, undignified?  Intrigued, I call up the university official in charge of the visits of the accomplished and the famous and the presidential.  She clearly is not a woman easily impressed.  How did she feel, I asked, at the Groucho Moment?  At first, she tells me, she didn’t know how to react.  And then she and everyone started to laugh at the wonderful absurdity of the situation, laughed with a joy and incaution uncharacteristic of people in their position.

The Dalai Lama didn’t care about maintaining his image.  He saw a chance for fun, for deflating others’ expectations, and he took it.  And he just somehow knew whom to thank.  Wagging his finger at Sid, he took off the mask, still laughing.  Even His Holiness needs a little Groucho in his life.

***

I know a fellow who:

-joshes with the cashiers and customers at the supermarket
-heads to Costco at Hallowe’en in full costume
-wears silly t-shirts (such as the picture of a bone accompanied by “I found this humerus”)
-applauds as he watches a concert from his family room couch
-yells down the sewer on the playground at recess for a kid to “Come up here immediately!”
-has named his fantasy children Dollop, Puce, Inkling and Squirm
-dances in a rather odd way, with his feet flying out in all directions

The guy’s sort of weird, but I like him.  He likes me too.

Driving (Part Two)

Since 1994, Jody and I have driven to work north from Union, Ontario through St. Thomas to London.  The speed limit on the two-lane road is 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph).  For the first year or two, I zipped along at 85 – nice and peaceful.  One day though, I noticed that a car was tailgating me for part of the way.  Days later, someone else did the same thing.  Then it was every day.  Where, oh where, did my little peace go?

At some point, I decided to up my speed to 90.  Ahhh.  Back to a gentle experience of driving.  Maybe around 2000, however, the space to my rear started filling up again with bumper after bumper.  And so it continued.  I’ve valiantly resisted the temptation to push things to 100.  Instead, I get to feel the press of society most days on Wellington Road South, and to let the feelings waft over me … minutes of frustration, pings of anger, and eventually a recurring sadness.  Who have we become?  Where are we going?  And why is it better to get there fast?

I see the good and the bad on the roads.  People allowing the first car coming out of a hospital parking lot at rush hour to merge into the traffic flow.  Letting a left-turning driver facing you complete the move, releasing them and the pent-up parade of cars behind to go on their way.  Waving to a kind motorist after a good deed performed.  All of these actions gladden my heart.  We take care of each other.

And then again, what about the speedster who roars past me on the shoulder when I’m turning left?  Or the oblivious one who blocks an intersection?  Or the sudden lane changer who makes me exercise my braking ability?  I contract.  I sweat.  It’s a “you or me” world.

I love driving.  I love placing my hands on the wheel just as I have for five decades – left hand lower than the right.  That feels so comfy, and is a tradition that I hope to carry into my 80s.  I love the slow acceleration from a new green light, feeling the engine, sensing the “rightness” of the transition.  I love the smooth flow of Hugo or Scarlet on a curve.  I love saying hi to the horses and cows lounging in the roadside fields.  I love coming upon license plates that I recognize on my commutes.  It’s like I know the occupants of those vehicles.  I love being with Hugo in London, Bayfield, Toronto, Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, returning to a parking lot and finding my old friend there.

Sitting, walking and lying down meditation are all lovely.  So, I’ve found, is driving meditation.  Can I be present as the rest of the motorized world seems to be creeping up to that red light?  How about when the gentleman or lady ahead is going 20 kph below the speed limit on a sunny July day?  Or a Costco customer has taken up two parking spaces with his singular conveyance?  All grist for the mill.  Go, my dear Hugo, go.  It’s a wonderful world.

Not Knowing

I woke up at 7:00 this morning to the intermittent sound of “Beep, beep, beep” that I know only too well.  The smoke alarm near our kitchen.  The battery no doubt needed to be changed … and I’d been down that road before.

But today was uniquely today.  This sleepy human got up on a chair and unscrewed the alarm from its holder on the ceiling.  Piece of cake.  Then into the kitchen with its bright pot lights to open her up.  I had a new 9 volt battery ready to go.  Looks pretty simple – I’ll just twist the assembly to reveal the inner workings.  So I twisted.  And twisted harder.  Nothing.  “You’re not strong enough, Bruce.”  Well, that was a ridiculous thought.  Of course I’m stronger than an itsy bitsy smoke alarm.  So I grunted, and the alarm grunted back but wouldn’t open.  Okay, okay.  It’s got to be a “lift up” deal.  I found what looked to be an inviting thumb hole on the edge and pulled gently.  Open sesame.  Nope.  So I regrunted.  And the only response was a tiny smile spreading over the face of the alarm.  Yuck.

While all of this was happening, the beeps kept coming.  I tried pressing the “Silence Alarm” button.  All that did was initiate a constant brain-numbing squeal that threatened my sanity.  Despite the blare in my ears, I decided to read all visible instructions on the device.  Not a syllable about how to open the darned thing!  I twisted and pulled some more to no avail, and finally just held the beast up in one hand and stared it down.  “Stare away, buddy.  Won’t do you any good.”

A friend of ours is staying with Jody and me and he had gotten up to assess the state of the racket.  Neal took one look at my ceiling-dwelling friend, put his thumb in the thumb hole … and pulled.  You know the rest.  Open.  Battery inserted.  Replaced in its holder.  No more noise.

 Sigh

Life humbles me again and again.  This morning I developed a bad case of collapsed ego.  My mind assaulted me with a wide variety of “stupid you” invectives.  And then somehow it stopped.  And the tiny smile this time was on my lips.  There’s something strangely spacious about not being good at something.  I couldn’t recognize that in the moment, but “later” is a fine place for an opening of another kind.  Works for me.

 

Driving (Part One)

You learn a lot about people when you’re on the road.  Like myself, for instance.  I had the thought that since I’ve been meditating for years, it should all be smooth sailing (mixed metaphor, I know).  Oh well.

All it takes is for me to be approaching an intersection with an oncoming green, but with the orange “Don’t Walk” light flashing.  I can feel my body tensing up.  Not so long ago, I’d press the gas pedal hard to get through but I finally realized that the constant rhythm of speeding up and slowing down wasn’t what I wanted in life.  So now I lighten my foot and the yellow or green happens.  But the tightness remains.  I figure that I’ve many years of driving still ahead of me, so how cool that I’ll have all these future intersections to practice my mindfulness.

I first attended a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in 2010.  I wanted to drive.  I wanted to be alone for a couple of days, and experience having no one know exactly where I was on planet Earth at any given moment, until I phoned Jody from my daily destination.  As I set out, already enjoying my aloneness, I felt peaceful.  I wanted the driving to be a preamable to the meditation.

My plan was to take secondary highways all the way from Union, Ontario to Barre, Massachusetts.  Nice two-lane blacktop.  And I left home with one assumption: in Ontario, all the way to Fort Erie, Canadian drivers would happily drive the speed limit with me (80 kilometres per hour, or 50 mph).  But once I’d cross the Niagara River into Buffalo, those darned Americans would tailgate me all the way across New York if I kept to 55 mph (or 90 kph).

It was early morning, not another car on the road.  A bit later, here comes someone from behind.  Coming fast, as a matter of fact.  And voila – there he or she was, stuck to my bumper.  After probably only a few seconds of that, the driver pulled the wheel right and zoomed noisily past me.  By mid-morning, Highway 3 was filling up, and the “car five feet behind my rear bumper” scenario was repeated over and over.  With fewer chances to pass, some drivers would jerk their auto to the centre line, looking for a break in the traffic.  Overall, I let my mindfulness fritter away.  I was shocked that we Canadians were so pushy, so “me, not you”.  That’s not who I am, is it?  After reflection, the answer came: “No, it’s not”.

Once I was off the mandatory section of Buffalo freeway, I found Highway 20 towards Albany and settled into my moderate journey across the state.  Or more accurately, prepared for the onslaught from the rear …  …  …

Guess what?  There was none.  I’d be toodling along at 55, glance into the rearview mirror, and see a driver several car lengths behind, matching my speed.  Oh, the bliss of space.  I got to look around at the world – the farmers’ fields, the cows, the heightening hills and the cutesy towns.  It seemed that half the houses were displaying the Stars and Stripes, and that made me happy.  Through New York and half of Massachusetts, I hardly ever encountered an impatient driver.  So much for stereotypes.  How wrong I was.

Then a week of slowness and silence at the retreat centre.  Sometime, I’ll tell you about it.  Coming back home, nothing on the road fazed me.  That tension at potentially yellowing lights was non-existent.  And out in the country, on a long series of rolling hills, another opportunity arose.  A semi-trailer was having trouble on the upslopes.  Sometimes his speed would drop to 20 mph.  Not only did I not care, it seemed that the four drivers between the truck and me didn’t either.  No darting over the centre line to see what’s ahead.  No bumper games.  Just five of us keeping a respectful distance from the vehicle ahead.  And there was another feeling … love for the human beings in those cars and that truck.  People doing their best, people okay with what the moment was giving them.  At one little town, one of my friends turned off the road, leaving four followers.  I missed that person.  There was a hole.

What if I could bring my mindfulness to all travelling moments?  Why not to all moments, period?  Not just when I’m sitting in a meditation hall, but when I’m living my life.  Sounds cozy.

 

 

Gosh, if Canadians were like this

Complete

Last night, Jody was sitting up on her side of the bed, and I was in a chair beside her.  Right in front of me was the tiny wooden table that holds her Kleenex, water bottle and a bowl for meds.  I looked at the light brown hand towel that covers the table, and especially at the tag hanging from it, the one with washing instructions.  My forehead wrinkled, and inside I said “No”.  I wanted the towel to be pure towel.  I wanted the essence of towel to be all I saw.  I knew that the towel didn’t need the adornment of “Machine wash in cold water.  Tumble dry low.  Remove promptly.”  It was a diminishment of towelness.

I feel the same way about meatloaf.  Don’t want the heavy gravy.  I need to sense the beef itself, and the spices the chef used.  Sometimes I get strange looks from people, implying that I’m not dressing up my food appropriately.  “So boring, Bruce.”  Oh well … it just feels like a different drummer, wanting to taste all the subtleties.  No better and no worse than anybody else.

The beauty of the blue spruce tree in our backyard is just so “balanced”, symmetrical.  And the light turquoise tips blend naturally with the brownish needles closer to the trunk.  It is enough.  At Christmas, our neighbour festoons his spruce tree on the front lawn with strings of multi-coloured lights.  In that context, I see this too as “sufficient unto the day”, with its own beauty.  But some folks add blinking lights to their display … and that draws forth another “No” from me.

I’ve always enjoyed watching movies in theatres.  I went to Expo 67 in Montreal as a teenager, and one day was watching a film outdoors with hundreds of others.  Suddenly something happened that I had never experienced before – instead of one image on the screen, there were now two!  A collective gasp filled the space.  I enjoyed the novelty, and actually was shocked by it, but the fact that I needed my eyes to go back and forth to see both movies started feeling like … no.  In 2014, many advertisements have pictures flashing by every second, assaulting my sense of now.  I don’t like it.

Perhaps I have a towel, tree, light and film idiosyncrasy.  I don’t mind.