Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The doctor vendetta

Martin teases me, "You're just doing that doctor blog because you have a vendetta against Western medicine." To which I reply, "Yeah, that's totally true, but I'm turning it towards something positive, aren't I?"

I have a lot of strong feelings about the health care system, caused by a combination of my yogafied disdain for non-holistic health solutions, and a series of bad experiences with doctors over the course of my life. But I'm a bit tired of ranting about it. So I'll excerpt some of the letters I've been getting about the project.

It occurs to me: lawsuits against doctors seem to currently be one of the strongest influences on the way that the system is set up; a lot of the cost, inconvenience, and dehumanization is connected to doctors covering their asses in case they get sued. And yet I strongly suspect that lawsuits are connected to an existing feeling of rage/disempowerment on the part of the consumer. If you have a warm family-type relationship with your doctor and suffer as the result of some slipup on their part, you might still sue them, but I'm willing to bet that it's more statistically unlikely than if you've already been stewing with resentment about being treated like a number and not having any attention paid to you - in which case you think, "Screw 'em. Might as well take 'em for all I can get, it's what they do to me." I wonder if there are studies on this? Somehow trying to correlate surveys of patients' attitudes about the friendliness of their doctor with the number of legal problems faced by the doctor's office?

It also occurs to me that you rarely hear about lawsuits related to baby-sitting, and most people seem entirely comfortable entering into this rather risky informal relationship. How can the cottage industry of baby-sitting exist without a strangling thicket of red tape? Is it that people have managed to maintain an informal code of trust and honour? What's missing in the health care world?

So, a few stories. The outrageous thing is not that these stories exist; I'm sure that there are bad eggs in any profession - especially a profession that requires you to maintain an obsessively Type-A achievement-oriented competitive personality for ten years of schooling to even qualify for it, and then expects you to suddenly learn how to display human warmth. The outrageous thing is that we have no way of holding doctors accountable for these stories.

From Jamia:
"Dr. Pineda in Dupont is a good doctor and gives good print outs of your ins and outs, but she told me I was getting fat and needed to exercize and eat better after I went from 105-109 or something while ON my period. She is a hater of skinny women. More women at my job who went to her reported the same thing, although bigger women had no problems. If you're skinny.
don't see Pineda... or else you might need to see a shrink for your newly acquired eating disorder."

From Volha:
"I had a fortune (or misfortune) to visit quite a few in different countries. It is fascinating how dentists have different standards. I come from a post-Soviet country, where at the method to deal with a problematic tooth was to simply remove it. There weren't enough fillings for everyone, and even if you were lucky to get one, the rumour was that they were white cement and fell out in several months.
Well, things are a bit different now. Private dentistry is also prospering. But having gone to the dentist I always want to know what they are doing and why. Although American dentistry is considered to be the best in the world, I feel like a number when I go to dentists, because they are so busy, and have no time to look at the human body as a whole, to pay attention to the patient. Instead they just look at the mechanics of how things should be done. I recently had a sensation that my tooth had affected my sinuses, they felt infected. The specialist I went to barely listened to me, suggesting it was an allegy to the blooming season (I don't have allegies of this kind) and making plans to treat my other tooth. I thought that she might have been a good specialist, but maybe too specialist. I went to a general dentist, who didn't dare to disagree with her...After I expressed my distrust that they were addressing the problems, I could see differences in their opinions. I asked more questions and I got more explanations... The downside of this, expenses and the maximum benefit on every insurance!
Shouldn't I be able to go to a dentist who could honestly tell me what he or she thinks and not treat me like I woudn't understand, not pretend like s/he has all the answers and work with me to find a solution? If you know of such a dentist, I would like his/her number!
On another thought, I never went to dentist school and if they wanted to mislead me, it would be very easy to give some seemingly reasonable explanation. So, I don't know what is the balance here. If anyone has figured that one for themselves, I would be interested in hearing!"

From Heather:
"The GWU-Medical Faculty Associates office has a problem with confidentiality. When I was attempting to make an appointment, the receptionist refused to schedule me unless I told her exactly why I was making the appointment. While my concern was not a big deal, it was still not a regular annual. I still felt more comfortable remaining private about my reasoning. The receptionist, while making a huge fuss about my difficultness, directed me to speak with a Triage nurse, who was not much better. This nurse did close the door to the main lobby, but kept the adjoining door to her own receptionist open, which was once again open to the lobby! What's the point in that!?
After this ordeal, the next available appointment anyway was a month away. By this time I told the nurse that I would not like to be seen by this hospital because I was worried about their lack of confidentiality and empathy towards the patients. The nurse smirked at me and said, "You can always close my other door." With a mixture of rage and embarrassment, I smiled, thanked her for her time and was on my way.
Not only do I not recommend this office, I would also encourage anyone who feels more private about their issues to phone for appointments rather than make them in person. This might sound obvious to most people but I have lived and worked in a hospital environment my whole life and never have I come across a problem like this. Anyone in the medical field is completely aware of confidentiality issues and I was surprised that in a University setting like George Washington Hospital employees were not adhering to this ethically important issue."

From Julie:
"I have mild eczema and a family history of skin cancer, so I wanted to find a good dermatologist in DC to keep an eye on things. When Marilyn Berzin saw me, I told her about my conditions, showed her prescriptions I had from a previous doctor and was going to ask her questions about whether I needed them, whether any came in generic brands, etc. She did not even examine my skin, but asked if I was interested in botox or skin peels or some such disgusting thing that a (then-)28 year old shouldn't even be thinking about. Once she saw that I wasn't interested in them, she was halfway out the door and I literally had to grab her arm to ask her a question. NOT worth it. Avoid her unless you're interested in Botox."

By the way, check out the Leapfrog Group, which perhaps might succeed in bringing a bit of reform to this system:

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Cold Speculum, or, "Turn Your Head and Cough"

I recently had to find a doctor in the DC area for an infected cut on my foot and it was a very frustrating experience. I'm pretty healthy (and have a New-Age hippie level distrust of Western medicine), so I hadn't been to the doctor in a year and a half. I had a list of names
from my insurance directory and nothing else to go on. It turns out that although Google is very helpful for stalking that person you went on a date with last week, doctors are still a blank book.

I chose a name at random and ended up having a very bad experience. This is ridiculous. There's no reason for the health-care industry to be so insular, opaque, and disempowering to the consumer. It's just not good economics! We shouldn't have to rely on word-of-mouth to
pick a good doctor.

So, doing my little bit to spread some information into the internet, I started a blog for reviews of doctors in the DC area. It's at:

If you have any doctors you'd like to recommend (or dis-recommend) please shoot an email to:
It would be great if you could provide as much contact information as possible, reasons why you like or dislike the doctor, and anything else that might be relevant/funny for a new patient. And please pass this around to anybody else you know who might be interested.

With the current Blogger design, this website is pretty hard to organize or search right now. If it starts to get big, maybe I'll have to think about making it more useful...any suggestions?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


I was walking through Dupont Circle with some yoga friends last night and we noticed "Borf" painted on a stop sign. The conversation inevitably turned to this mysterious and ubiquitous graffiti artist. "You're the researcher, Zoe, why don't you look into it?" Karoline said. So I did.

Borf is an artist who used to have a gallery on the website, but it no longer exists. I only found a few references in the Google cache of old webpages, but nothing that's maintained.

There is an interview with Borf on the Visual Resistance site where he expounds his political philosophy (How did they get his email address??):

This DCist article is full of rumors with no substantiation:

This article in the North Carolina Observer has more information about Borf's geographical proliferation, but as the Visual Resistance site complains, they don't actually seem to understand what stencil art is:

If you want to see a bunch of Borf pictures, check out:

But I really like the little robot going "Borf borf borf" here:

The definition of Borf:

Borf is also a villain in old arcade games.

My own theory: Borf is not just one person! He is a meme who lives in many hearts and souls. Perhaps there is a bit of Borf in all of us...


PS. Mary, wasn't able to find anything about your Russian story with
the poison, although this Russian definition seems to match the
English one:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Conversations Overheard at Dumbarton Oaks

As I was wandering through the cherry blossoms (barefoot with dandelions in my hair), I heard a man's voice talking about something. Suddenly he exlaimed, "No touching!" Then, more quietly, he kept on talking about whatever it was. Again, "Absolutely no touching!" When I got closer I saw that he and a woman (probably his wife) were both stretched out on their backs on their grass, and he was talking to another man sitting nearby. His wife, an arm's length away, was reaching out and poking him in the stomach with a silly grin on her face. "No touching! No touching!! No - Oh. Hi." He'd looked up to notice me watching them with a smirk. Then his wife reached out for one more poke. I burst out laughing. Then some other bystanders, also sitting in the cherry blossoms, who'd noticed the interaction, started laughing as well. A group of strangers, guffawing in the grass.


A couple walking past.
MAN: (says something irrelevant)
WOMAN: By the way, did you notice how fast I got ready this morning?
MAN (amused): Yes, I noticed.
WOMAN: I just wanted to make sure -
MAN (even more amused): I understand.


ME, on the phone with a friend: Holy smoke, this is ridiculous! The sun is shining, the flowers are blossoming, the birds are singing, butterflies are flapping past, and happy little kids are playing in the grass. It's like the Garden of Eden here, dude!

A couple sits down next to me on the bench.

WOMAN: Sorry to disturb your solitude!
ME: No problem.
MAN (reaches over to shake my hand): Allow me to introduce us. I'm Adam, and this is Eve.
ME: Nice to meet - NO WAY!
The man and woman laugh.
ME: Wait, are those really your names?
WOMAN: No, we overheard you on the phone.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


By Robert Hass

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was full of dead bees.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Dating the enemy

By way of background:

I had a tricky transition in middle school.

My family lived in Indonesia for three years, until I was 11. Then we moved back to the States just in time for me to start eighth grade. My family travelled around a lot and I always enjoyed it, but if I'd known about the culture shock in store for me with that particular move, I would have jumped out of the airplane's emergency exit while it was still on the runway in Jakarta, and spent my life scrounging for leftover coconuts and giving people tricycle rides for a few rupees, rather than face the American Middle School Experience.

I was completely unprepared for it. I was sincere, enthusiastic, studious, and respectful of authority. I didn't like to watch television; I hadn't seen any recent movies from the past three years; I hadn't heard of any pop stars (I really liked Leonard Cohen and Beethoven, though). I liked to read books (and kept lists of all the books I read, as a personal record of self-improvement). I had no concept of fashion - in fact, I tended to wear the same outfit every day: a tie dyed tshirt and a pair of pumpkin orange, three quarter length spandex leggings. I'd spent the past three years in Jakarta eating mangoes, writing poetry, and playing with our family's menagerie of pets. And I was two years younger than most of the people in my class, having skipped some grades - so I was emotionally and physically underdeveloped.

My first day in school, sitting on the bus and listening to peoples' conversations - pop culture references, slang, and gossip flying around - I realized that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language.

But even so, I might have avoided the worst of seething teenage inferno that befell me, were it not for the psychological nail in my coffin: I was arrogant. I knew I was smarter than most kids my age, and I was proud of it. Walk into an American middle school with an attitude like that, and you'll be eaten alive faster than a goat falling into an Amazonian piranha river.

That's the subtext of all those cult 80s movies with the scenes where the jocks beat up the geeks: the geeks think they're better than everyone else. They might not say so when they know they'd be beaten up for it, but if there's one thing that a homo sapiens is an expert at sniffing out in another homo sapiens, it's a superiority complex. And there's nothing that pisses us off more. Unfortunately, when you're a smart kid being tormented by everyone around you, and you spend all of your time alone hiding from the jeers, it only reinforces your solipsistic self-aggrandizement.

So, middle school was hell. I was even more sensitive as a child than I am now, and I felt afraid everywhere I went. I was so stressed out and full of self-hatred that my face erupted into violent acne. Whenever anyone looked at me, I thought they were imagining something mean to do to me. And often, I was right. When I walked into classrooms, I'd always check the blackboards with a lump in my throat to see if there was a chalk caricature of me waiting there - complete with little dots for the pimples And during recess, I used to sneak out into the woods behind school to eat my lunch so that I wouldn't have to sit alone in the cafeteria.

Seeing as how I had no friends, I wasn't privy to any of the girl gossip about menstruation, although I was well educated on the mechanics of it (my mum was a biologist). And although I was pretty sure that most of the girls in my class had gotten their period, I didn't think about it much until one day, in social studies class, when I went up to the blackboard to write something down. People in class started snickering.

I was used to people laughing at me, so as usual I didn't respond, and hung my head as I walked back to my seat. At the end of class, one girl pulled me aside, and whispered with the utmost pity, "You've got your period, Zoe, you bled all over your skirt. You should go in to the nurse."

I went to the bathroom to check and, sure enough, red everywhere. If I'd been sensible I would have gone in to the nurse and asked her to call my mum and take me home. But for some bizarre reason - I can't remember why, but I think the effort of human interaction seemed too much, or perhaps I was ashamed to ask my mum for help - I just tied a sweater around my waist and went through the rest of the day like a zombie. The news travelled fast about what was up with me and people stepped aside as if I was a leper. I wish I could recount some juicy insults but I can't actually remember many details of the afternoon.

(If I ever have a daughter, one thing I'm gonna be sure to do is have lots of nice feminist pagan-type rituals to celebrate her first menstrual cycle, so that she associates with with joyful transitions and pride in her womanhood, instead of shame, dread, and terror.)


From the happy present, this all seems so banal, the stuff of the aforementioned 80s movie cliches: a big move, being picked on in school, an embarassing period incident. I didn't live through a war; I was never sexually abused; nobody important to me died. But at the time, and not having any wisdom or perspective on life, it felt as though I was in a small black room with the walls closing in on me. I wasn't getting along well with my parents, so I spent about three years without having a meaningful conversation with anyone about anything. And human beings need to have relationships with each other; we need constant reminders that there's a solid world besides the one in our heads. An outside perspective is a bit like a buffer in a chemical solution, keeping it in equilibrium. Without it, we can go crazy. I think that my years of profound loneliness warped me in ways that I'm only now beginning to understand.

And, not to sound like a Luddite, but I would have traded in cars and electricity and appliances and running water and heat for just one friend. In a second. Wouldn't have even had to think about it.

Anyway, things got better through high school, and even more in college, and I started to learn some social skills, and one day it dawned on me that people actually considered me to be charming and socially desirable, if eccentric. But during those lonely lunches, I'd made two fierce vows to myself: I'd never take part in a clique or exclude anyone who was lonely, and whenever I met anyone, I'd ask myself one question, "If they had known me in eighth grade, when I was ugly and pimply and a social pariah, are they the type of person who would have been mean to me?" If I thought the answer was yes, I'd never accept them as a friend. And whenever I do become close with anyone, I feel the need to tell them the stories about my time in school. It was long ago, but it still feels very relevant to my identity.

I was having some pillow talk recently with a guy I'm dating, as lovers do, and we were swapping stories about our childhood - nothing heavy, just silly stuff. Then he told me a story about a girl he used to pick on when he was in middle school. "One time she left her bag out, and I saw a box of tampons in it. So I stole a tampon, and I dipped it in some ketchup and left it on her seat. Then I yelled to the class, 'Look there, what's that?' People were teasing her for months about it."

My skin turned to ice, but I didn't say anything about it then. And when I thought about it later, it got me to meditating on human beings' remarkable ability to change. This guy is no longer a bully; he's sweet, open-hearted, and generous. He no longer takes pleasure in other people's pain.

And my changes have been no less dramatic. I'm not a sulky teenage girl anymore. Besides the modicum of social grace and the absence of Vesuvian pimples, I don't believe that the world is out to get me, and I've realized that the pinnacle of human accomplishment is not being smart. Being smart is a nice trick, sort of like being double jointed - although occasionally more useful. But the human being truly worthy of respect is someone who is good, and who has an open heart. It was a dramatic priority shift, when that dawned on me, and perhaps my school tribulations were all worth it, if that was what it took to drive home such an important lesson to me. (Although I must admit, if you sent me back to 1991, with foresight, I'd still be sorely tempted by the tricycle and the coconuts.)

But if I can admit such change in myself, how can I deny it in another? In yoga teacher training one weekend, I remember that we were talking about the concept of non-attachment: to material objects, to habits, to people. Our teacher said, "And over time, we learn that one of the things we must let go is our attachment to our personality. We are not the same as our thoughts, or our personalities."

So I broke my vow. I'm dating the enemy.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Next First Time

Have you ever dipped your hand in water
To catch a fish? In the same way, lover,
I think our souls have been in hot pursuit
These past few million years.

The last life: two butterflies in the shelter
Of a flat leaf, from rain. And, once,
My mother. You held me and held me until I ran away.
Another time, strangers passing in the street.
Scarves flapping on that windy day. One hot look,
Not quickly forgot, was all that would hold me
For the next century.

Faster and faster in a backward spiral:
Deadly rivals -
Partners in a race -
A lion and a gazelle -
A mosquito feeding from my blood -
Two brothers napping -
The soldier who killed my father -
The man who pulled me from an icy river -
A hunter, pausing, to chew the juicy leaf of my basil bush -
Two bumblebees bobbling slow to circle the same rose -
The rock trips my horse-
Slow mud crabs miles under water -
Green lichen on an ocean stone -
Two specks given life by lightning -
Each of these lives just a flicker from one fire,
Which consumes equally betrayal, friendship, longing, lust,
Grief, pity, love, sweetness, salt.

You kissed me in the shower. A waterfall
Off your nose, down your shoulderblades, off your cock.
And then we hugged until bones cracked,
Trying to get close enough
But it didn't work.
Now I lie alone in bed and think your breath
Tickles my cheek.
Next time will I know you?
Will I see you for who you really are
In all the earth, the wind, the rain, the fire?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tango tango tango

LOCATION: GW Lisner Auditorium TIME: Saturday, April 9, 2005, 8:00pm EQUIPMENT: $25 (discounts for seniors, students & groups) OPTIONAL: Fire in your soul

I've never really mastered any kind of formally rigid dance, but watching Latin dancing is enough to kindle a Vesuvius in the loins of even the most rhythmically challenged person. You walk differently for days.

So, go!

Pan American Symphony Orchestra presents
Todo Tango IV
Featuring world renowned Bandoneon Player Raúl Jaurena and Tango singer Marga accompanied by professional Tango dancers Pablo and Carolina and the Pan American Symphony Orchestra

he Pan American Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sergio Alessandro Buslje, presents an extraordinary evening of symphonic tangos, from traditional tangos to the Nuevo Tango of Astor Piazzolla. Joining the orchestra is Raúl Jaurena, master Bandoneon player, who recently performed at Carnegia Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic and with Yo-Yo Ma, brings the authenticity of the tango of Buenos Aires to the concert hall with his incomparable skill on this most difficult of instruments. He is enthusiastically complimented by the passionate singing of the talented Venezuelan Marga Mitchell who demonstrates such depth of feeling in her interpreations that you are transported to a smoky cafe near the docks of the port city where tango was born! Of course, no tango show would be complete without dancers, and this show features a pair who promises to enthrall with their sensual and graceful "jotas" and "ochos" -- steps authentic to Argentine tango.

The show features compositions by Argentina's best-known contemporary tango musician, Astor Piazzolla. When Piazzolla returned to Argentina after long stays in New York City and Paris, he transformed the tango into a modern form that was noticeably influenced by classical composers such as Stravinsky and Hindemith, and also by American jazz. At first scorned and rejected in Argentina for what was believed to be a corruption of the nation's most loved music, Piazzolla was responsible for the renaissance of Argentine tango, and by the time he died in 1992, he had written over 300 tango compositions and played to standing room crowds across the globe. Tonight's performance includes Piazzolla's Balada para un loco, Tangazo, Oblivion and Verano Porteño.

The Care of the Soul

A wonderful interview with Thomas Moore. His ideas have more layers than a red Spanish onion!


a conversation with Thomas Moore

The recent book Care of the Soul got our attention right away. Such a simple yet provocative title. Reading further, the subtitle is A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness In Everyday Life. We began our research on the ideas and works of Thomas Moore, and found that he was not talking about an other-worldly reality but about the mysterious and infinite depths of a person or society in everyday life, where the strongest emotions and the most important thoughts reside. Moore has stretched our view of soul and revived its rightful place in our lives.

Thomas Moore is a writer and psychotherapist. Over the past fifteen years he has become a leading teacher and lecturer in the United States, Canada and Europe, in the area of archetypal psychology, an approach developed by James Hillman, his friend, mentor and colleague. Moore edited and wrote the introduction for A Blue Fire, an anthology of Hillman's writings. He is the founder of The Institute for the Study of Imagination, a non-profit educational organization that sponsors lectures, workshops and publications on imagination. He has published a book entitled The Planets Within: A Renaissance Psychological Reading of Astrology, as well as Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (HarperCollins 1992).

MICHAEL TOMS: Perhaps we can begin by hearing you tell us how to recognize soul. I know it's difficult to define it, but how do we recognize soul?

THOMAS MOORE: Soul likes to be connected. When you're with somebody--a friend, or even a family member--where you really feel the connection, and it's not just based on some kind of common work or something you can actually express and define clearly, but you can feel the connection, heart to heart, it doesn't even have to be terribly emotional, but that kind of connectedness is one sign of soul.

There is so much emphasis in today's world on change and personal growth. A whole psychology has developed out of being in contact with one's inner child and one's inner adult, going back into early childhood and bringing up old memories and old experiences, as a way to become a more whole person. You suggest that that's not necessary to be a whole person. Could you talk a little bit about that?

We have to make some distinctions about this. It seems to me that soul loves the memory of childhood, loves the stories, loves the characters. So if I'm doing family therapy, I want to hear those stories, the stories of the uncles and the aunts and the mother and father and grandparents. And even before them, the stories of the family, the places where we lived, all that kind of thing. In fact, that's exactly what dreams do; dreams take us back to those characters and places, a good indication of where the soul likes to be.

But that's different from trying to change oneself and become better by somehow healing that person or that childhood, or certainly blaming what happened in childhood. That's not a soulful way of imagining family or the past, to say, "I am who I am today because my father was alcoholic, or there was abuse in the family, or people were distant." I think that this blaming of the family is one of the causes of difficulties with our families, the fact that we can't find the love and connections of family. It seems to be a healthy thing because we're finding the roots of our current problems, but I think that's an illusion. It's one thing to try to contact the family in order to change; it's another simply to honor and respect that family, and to take it as it is. Again, the soul likes the particulars--the way this family is--not some abstraction that sounds romantic and wonderful.

MT: You wrote that "All families are dysfunctional."

TM: Yes. If we say that certain families are dysfunctional, that's like losing our own soul; that's like saying, "My family isn't," or, "My family is, and I can blame my family for being dysfunctional." In either case we have lost that sense of the shadow, the gaps, the holes in every family. It's in the very nature of family to fail at a certain level. Even in the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve, they fail--the mythological parents fail. That's a necessity. It's really a wonderful image--if we could understand it, feel it deeply enough, and take it to heart, then we wouldn't expect our families to be perfect.

MT: So if we're focusing on a single parent: "Hey, this parent was very bad, or they didn't really do well by me," and so forth, in some way we're out of balance, we're not recognizing the good parts of that parent because we're focused on just the negative qualities?

TM: That's one way of looking at it--we're not dealing with a complicated person. Here's another soul word--complexity. Soul remains in complexity. We're with people who are very complicated; everyone's complicated. If we think someone is simple, then there's something wrong in our perception. I've never met a person who wasn't complicated. To care for the soul means, then, to live with that complexity.

It seems every single institution in our society is moving toward a simplistic view of what human life is. And that's where soul vanishes, because soul is complicated. I can see the motivations for moving away from soulfulness--it would be nice if life were simple. It would be very nice if we could blame somebody for who we are and not have to face it ourselves, not have to deal with our own complexity. But that's not the way it is. We lose something of utmost importance when we give in to that temptation to oversimplify.

MT: You brought this up in your accounts of dealing with some of your clients--we define ourselves by a label, saying, "I'm an incest survivor; I'm an alcoholic; I'm a recovering Catholic." And the label is like a self-limiting definition of who we are, that may prevent us from being whole.

TM: Exactly, because it is a label, an oversimplification. It's a psychological fundamentalism. It's one story, just one story, that a person might believe in. When one takes a story like "I'm a child of an alcoholic," and professes belief in this story, that's very much like a religious fundamentalist saying, "This is what I believe in and everything else doesn't make any sense," or "I'm going to be defensive about everything else." Taking that position is a defense against the complexity of the soul.

MT: It's like saying, "It's that way because it says so in the Bible," and it's like interpreting these lines as meaning one thing and one thing alone.

TM: Right--whereas life is never that simple. That story may be compelling because it provides an explanation. But soul does not thrive on explanations. An explanation, from a soul point of view, is an avoidance of complexity. The soul doesn't want explanations. It wants reflection, constant rumination, constant storytelling, images without end, nuances, interpretations without end, never a final solution to anything, never one story that will explain anything, because that's not what it's about. The soul is poetic.

If we take an experience like jealousy and treat it as if it were just a plain emotion, there's no fantasy around that. As a therapist, what I do is try to hear about jealousy. I want to hear all the stories of it, as much as I can, because it's in the stories, and in all the images, and even in dream images that seem to focus around it. All those images, then, show the soul moving in this jealousy. And that's what we have to do, because it's going somewhere, it's moving somewhere. Jealousy has a fulfillment, then. It's like an initiation, a ritual itself. If we just say, "I've got to be free of these painful feelings," then we don't get that initiation of the soul. I'm not saying just surrender completely to these things but, rather, enter them with imagination, see the poetry of them, let them speak.

MT: So when one is in, let's say, a deep depression, there's no real answer to that. There's nothing you can say to a person to take them out of the depression, other than to say, "You have to live this, and in some ways welcome it into your life."

TM: Yes. You have to be a host, in a sense, for soul. One of the most important roles of ego is to host the soul, to give it a place, to clear the decks in life and say, "OK, I'm going to allow myself to feel this. I'm going to give myself a place where I can talk about it." I may want to go and talk to a friend who I know won't try to save me from it, who will just listen to me and talk about it, or maybe go to a therapist who can listen and not try to save me from it too.

MT: In some ways it has a very Buddhist quality, of really experiencing the suffering, going into the suffering.

TM: Yes. It's going into it with imagination. It's not going into it just because it's good masochistically to suffer these things. There's nothing masochistic in what I'm suggesting here at all. I'm trying to suggest being active, and imagination is a very active thing. You host these feelings, you give them a place actively, so you're not their victim. If you're feeling victimized, then you're probably not using enough active work of your own.

MT: So it's not the old Christian adage, "It's good to suffer."

TM: Oh, absolutely not. That's masochistic, and it doesn't do us any good whatsoever. It's very active. Where we can get confused is that we've been sold a bill of goods here that when we have a painful experience we need to "get rid of this thing" somehow. We know that we can get rid of physical pain through various drugs and so on. And we think that the soul works the same way, that we can get rid of these things just by some therapeutic method, or some chemical or other. That's not really being active with imagination. That's being literal with our activity.

What I'm suggesting is something much more subtle. It deals with the subtlety of soul, which is to be active in the sense that I'm going to listen carefully to this emotion of mine. I'm going to talk about it. I want to hear what other people say about it when they're not trying to get me out of it. All of that brings so much imagination to the thing that it does its work. Then you actually come through it instead of around it.

MT: One of the references you made in Care of the Soul, Tom, was a reference to Ingmar Bergman's movie Fanny and Alexander. I thought it was a great analogy, the two family situations. Maybe you could just tell us about that for a moment.

TM: As I remember the film, there are two families. One family is full of life and vitality and color and a kind of bawdiness all the way through, which is also part of soul. This is family as you find it.

MT: There's the light and the dark also present in that family.

TM: The light and the dark. It's not a clean place. This is not what you might call the ideal family at all. But there's vitality, and there's food, and there's music, and there's laughter. These are all signs of a soulful family. Then the film shifts over to a bishop's dreary, gray, moralistic, awfully oppressive home. The contrast shows what happens when we move from soul. Soul is not clean and neat. But when we move to something that is more ordered and has lots of principle--as with that bishop's life where there's a whole tradition behind him of living a very principled, clean life--the soul has just vanished. The color is gone. The humor is gone, and nobody wants to live in that.

It's not just about churches that do this to us. Psychology does this to us. Psychology has a terrible moralism, puts a tremendous burden on us, takes a lot of color away when it tells us that we should be healthy emotionally. I don't think care of the soul has anything to do with emotional health. You can be a very soulful person and be nuts. (laughter) Really!

MT: I'm sure we have lots of them in the mental institutions.

TM: Well, of course. It makes no difference. A lot of very interesting and very soulful people have done crazy things in their lives. We put a terrible burden of health on us. Health has nothing to do with soul. That's something else.

It's more important to stay with the traditional qualities of soul, one of which is pleasure. Whenever people in the past have described soul they've always talked about pleasure, and that's different from health. You might say that the purpose of your activity in life is you're going to really take care of yourself now for awhile, but for pleasure's sake--deep pleasure, not just quick entertainments and things that distract you. I'm talking about really deep pleasure, the kind of pleasure you get from really listening to some music that you like, of whatever kind; or of talking with a friend, where it really stirs you; or seeing nature in a way that really touches you. That kind of pleasure. I'm talking now like a true epicurean, I think. Epicurus talked about pleasures that were lasting, as opposed to the pleasures that go by very quickly. That's what I'm discussing here as a goal, rather than health.

MT: Fast food versus slow food?

TM: Slow food! Very good. Slow dining, right? (laughter)

MT: Like the French. They turn dining into an experience. It's not just eating.

TM: Absolutely.

MT: One of the things you said that you enjoyed doing and had become a soulful activity for you was washing the dishes. I'd like you to explain that to me.

TM: Did I say that? (laughter) I don't know how that got in there. Well, it's a fact. I hate to confess to this, but I do like washing dishes. I have a hard time with dishwashers. There's something about that--it's a way of being in touch with things, where it gives me a lot of pleasure to touch and to see a thing get cleaned, where I've been eating. I enjoy that whole process. It also gives me a time to reflect, and that's an important part of housework. Housework is an opportunity to meditate that is not abstract--where you're not trying to shut the world out--in fact, just the opposite. By allowing the world in, it invites a certain kind of meditation that is not therefore too ethereal. It's very concrete.

MT: So it's important to build in pauses in our life where we have time to step back and just reflect.

TM: If we just live our lives with care--care of our homes is what we're talking about now--then, yes, there are all kinds of opportunities for meditation that is focused right around home, to home spirits, to the gods and goddesses of the home. I don't think we think of this very much any more, but many traditional societies have. There are spirits of the home. But that can be thought of in a way that's not terribly soulful. If you think of it more soulfully, I think you'd say, "Well, yes, at least for me, when I'm drying those dishes, I'm inviting a certain connection to my home that I would not have if I didn't do that work. I would be divorced more from my home if I didn't do the work around the house."

MT: Let's take that phrase from the Bible that one learns--I went through Catholic school and I learned in the third or fourth grade about the rich man getting through the eye of the the needle.

TM: It's more difficult for a rich man to get to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of the needle."

MT: So there's this imbuing, early on, of the idea that somehow having a lot of money is going to prevent you from getting to heaven.

TM: Hell, yes, but I don't think soul is too happy about getting to heaven. I think soul has to be on this earth. So it's true, it's going to be very difficult to be in heaven if you're chasing after a lot of money. That's one of the things you have to pay in order to go after money. You lose heaven, but you get a lot of soul.

MT: So it's OK to lose heaven?

TM: Oh, yes.

MT: Here we have a one-time Catholic monk saying it's OK to lose heaven. That's great.

TM: Well, just think about that. I'm not judging either side of that. If your purpose in life is to be heavenly--you like the sky world, you like to live in the air, and that's a certain kind of spirit--that's fine, it's great. If that's what it is, then you probably don't want to have much money around because that's a hindrance, it ties you down. But if you like living on the earth, if that's your pleasure, then, yes, it would be very difficult to be in both places. Money keeps you grounded on earth.

MT: What about your phrase, "living art-fully"? What does that mean, to live artfully?

TM: Now, we're moving to a slightly different direction. I'm trying to say here that caring for the soul requires a kind of craft. It's not something that just happens by osmosis or by wishing it to happen. It's a day-to-day thing. It means that whatever we do everyday we can do thoughtfully--this will sound Buddhist to you, too--mindfully. We can live with thoughtfulness about the very simple things, and with an artist's aesthetic sense, so that caring for the soul does not require any kind of health. We can instead, then, move toward a sense of art, that we can live artfully instead of healthfully. That would mean, then, that we use our imaginations to deal with our problems, even to be artful about them, instead of just rushing to someone to get rid of our problems--to use a mind that has some craft, to have a sense of balance and beauty and working with our lives poetically.

That sense, the artist's sense, is very different from the mechanical sense that we usually bring to our problems. For the most part we're auto mechanics of the heart--I'm not saying anything against auto mechanics, but we think of our souls mechanically. I don't think we even are aware of how mechanical our language is, but it's extremely mechanical. If we move instead to an artful base for our dealing with these issues, we come up with very different solutions.

MT: In the same way we think of our hearts as a mechanical pump.

MT: Exactly. We think of our bodies as all kinds of machines--the brain as a computer, for example. All of these metaphors have a great effect on the way we relate to our bodies and to the world around us, because we do think of the world around us mechanically too. Problem-solving is really a mechanical approach. I never want to use that word "problem-solving." I don't think it's necessary to solve any problems. The point is to be artful about them.

Just as a painter will take some very painful experience and put it up there on a canvas--not just the lovely things but the painful things--or photographers tend to photograph some of the tragedies. They go to the fronts in wars, and they photograph accidents. Then they show us, and these are beautiful. They are beautiful because we get an aesthetic point of view on ordinary human experience, including the tragic. That's a good guide for how we might care for our souls, instead of thinking that we have to get our wrenches out and put in a new piece where some piece has failed.

MT: So by following your adage here, the more soul we have in our life, the richer our life will be.

TM: Absolutely. Yes. You'll feel the richness of it, the texture of it. You don't find abstract meaning and you don't feel "above it all" and saved, in that general sense--saved from life. I quote a Keats poem where he says that the point is to feel existence, not to be saved from existence.

Monday, April 04, 2005

On the 'ho' business

I've been reading the DC Craig's List discussions a lot recently, for some reason. It's like watching a train wreck. I'm particularly fascinated by the "Casual Encounters" section, where the broke college girls meet the sugar daddies. It's like watching a National Geographic documentary on primate sexuality.

And for some reason I even post there, arguing with the lunatics.

RE: RANT: How the 'ho' business works............
Reply to:
Date: 2005-04-04, 10:46PM EDT

You wrote:
If you need a 'donation' and you are a non-pro (posting to CE/W4M). Let's say that you really are a college girl or some chick down on her financial luck. You don't get a pic 1st..sorry. YOU are advertising a fuckin advertise(yourself--with YOUR pic in an email)! Stop looking for a 'customer' to send you a pic if they reply to your posting. As long as their color, size, shape, age, turns out to be GREEN, that's all you need to worry about. It's not about you appraising the donator, it's about the donator appraising you and seeing if YOU are worthy of their hard-earned cash. That's how the 'ho' business works.

I wrote:
It seems to me that the 'ho' business is illegal, hence I do not believe there is any official governing body dictating its rules. Since this is true, I believe that the 'ho' business works any way that its providers and consumers work out between themselves, according to the laws of supply and demand. If a girl wants to demand that a guy send her a picture, jump through a hoop, and shave his head before he hires her, she's free to do so. She might not get any clients, but she's certainly free to try. And the more sexually desirable, experienced, and charming she is, the more she's going to get away with in terms of demands upon her clients. That's the way that supply and demand works.

And, for your part, you're free to hire the services of anybody you want to (who's also willing to do business with you.) That might mean skipping the girls who demand pictures up-front and only hiring girls with lower standards.

You're also free to post rants about "the 'ho' business" on Craig's List, fueled by your insecurity about being so ugly that even prostitutes reject you. Of course, it's not going to do you any good.

Take your headphones out

I love music. I love dancing to it, making out to it, lying in bed with the lights out and listening to it, going to live concerts.

But I don't like listening to it as I'm walking down the street. I believe it's a waste, because the streets have their own music.

My friend Rikhil loves to walk around listening to his iPod. He said once, "It's like you're on a different plane when you're listening to music. You're checked out of reality. What's more, you can instantly look around and detect the other people who've got their headphones in. You sort of nod at each other. You're each in the same plane."

It's not natural for a human being to be in an urban environment. We evolved to live in tribes of 30-60 people, all of whom we were close with. Our natural instinct is to make eye contact and acknowledge other human beings near us, to tune in to their energy and aura.

In a city, this can be terrifying. But it can also be exhilarating.

I believe that these are all messengers:

--The man wobbling across the road with a gaping tear across the backside of his dirty jeans. He looks at me and spits onto the pavement. My skin crawls all the way from my skull to the small of my back.

--The Midwestern tourist family. Their jeans are pale, their backs are broad; both the mother and the father consult maps as they walk down the street. After they've gone ten feet, they stop, look all around, and then walk back in the same direction.

--The fellow biker who zips past me as I take a right turn. He calls, "This is such a beautiful day!"

--The gorgeous woman hugging herself and gazing dreamily at the ground as she floats along. She looks up at me and winks.

--The man walking his poodle. Try as I might, I cannot detect a single detail that does not contradict the stereotype of a fabulous Dupont Circle gay yuppie. His poodle is immaculately groomed, with a shiny leather collar. He's whistling to himself.

--The woman rushing to work in the morning. She's wearing dusty sneakers under her stockinged skirt suit, her hair hasn't been brushed yet, her purse is falling off her sloping shoulder, and a bulging supermarket plastic bag dangles from one hand as she half-runs, banging uncomfortably against her leg. She bumps against me and mutters, "Sorry..." as she hurries on.

--The construction worker who calls to me from a cloud of dust, "Hey, can I have your number?" I look him in the eye and say, "Nope."

All of these strangers, and thousands more, are all messengers. Sometimes the message is disturbing, sometimes it is life-affirming. Usually, if you think about it a little bit, you can figure out why the message is eerily appropriate for you right exactly then.

And ultimately, I believe, you figure out that all of the messages were the same. What is it? Dear reader, I hope someday we'll know.


If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special

How would you treat them
When you

Indeed, indeed!

And Hafiz knows
There is no one in this world

Is not upon
His Jeweled Dance


Friday, April 01, 2005

Ride your bike out to the Billy Goat Trail

LOCATION: Billy Goat Trail, Section A (Great Falls National Park) TIME: Sprrring! EQUIPMENT: Yourself, bicycle, tasty tasty lunch OPTIONAL: Adorable golden retriever to bellyflop into the river after your sticks (don't I just wish)

If you want a day of exercise and gorgeous nature near DC, there aren't many better things to do than this. The Billy Goat trail hugs the Potomac River, and although it's still very close to Bethesda, you can almost pretend that you're in the middle of the wilderness (except for the bedraggled families trudging along with their pudgy, red-faced, Nintendo-addicted ankle-biters in tow, loudly complaining that they want to GO HOME NOW!!!, who are all too common on sunny Sundays). There are plenty of rock scrambles along the trail, and even more off the trail, and the terrain is varied and beautiful. There's a place where you can sit on a mini-cliff and watch kayakers practice their moves in a protected patch of white water. What's more, when you get to the little beach, it's perfectly safe to swim in the river in the nook of the rocks, as long as you don't go out too far (don't tell the park ranger I told you this).

Carless DC folk often complain about not having access to real nature, but as long as you've got a bike, this is a totally do-able long afternoon. What I would recommend is to get on your bike and enter the C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown. Then you just ride along the canal about 12 miles, and the entrance to the trail will be on your left after the widewater (see map linked above). You lock up your bike outside the trail, walk the loop (about 2.5 hours if you don't stop, which, of course you should stop! Sit on a rock somewhere and meditate! Oh, and eat the gourmet lunch you were foresightful enough to pack).

Then bike home and take a bubble bath. (Or, my latest discovery: Oatmeal bath! Just throw a handful of rolled oats into the tub. It's totally moisturizing and you can pick up handfuls of oats & rub them on yourself to exfoliate. Plus, how fun is it to bathe in porridge?)

Hooray for spring!