Monday, November 17, 2014

The gift of tears

My mother, Leona Carroll Ireland, died 7 years ago. I was preparing for a talk tonight at the Portola Camp zendo about Hsiang-Yen, and remembered this piece that I wrote when my mother began what would be the last years of her life. I dedicate it to you, Mother, and to all our mothers.

May 10th, 2009 
I woke up this morning missing my mother who has been dead now for several years. Given the contentious quality of our relationship for most of our 60 years together, I am surprised that oftentimes I find tears in my eyes when I think of her. I still remember phone calls where she slammed down the receiver, our long periods of not speaking, her steely resolve that I was going to somehow go straight, and marry. We were locked in an absolute stalemate for almost 20 years.

In the last short years before she died, I got really lucky, or was blessed, when I was able to touch the pain these behaviors were covering. That alone took away their power to hurt, and allowed me to experience a kind of love that I could not have imagined. This is what I write about this Mother’s Day morning.

There is a famous story in zen about a monk, Hsiang-yen, who, by most standards applied to monks, was a failure. He worked away in his teacher's monastery expecting nothing - and he got nothing; he sat long hours in meditation - nothing; he did rounds of begging – right, again only scraps; he got thrown out of the hojo every time he presented himself before his teacher to check out how he was doing because he didn’t seem to be absorbing much. A hopeless case. So after many years of getting nowhere, his teacher died. Convinced that realization was beyond his capabilities, he retired to a remote temple where he tended his teacher’s grave. One day, the story continues, as he was raking the stones in the garden, (I like to imagine the ones you see in the fancy books with perfectly ordered lines in the rocks,) a small stone bounced off the garden wall with a Ping! Just that sound, and his mind gulped in all his training in a single instant, and he understood. He got his life.

Even someone who has never practiced long days of meditation can understand the appeal of this monk's story. Everyone I know has some dilemma like this in his or her life. For me my relationship with my mother was a huge conundrum. This is the story of how it began to unravel.

I flew to Tucson to be with my mother after her first serious heart episode. It was decided that she would get a pacemaker, that the doctor would electrically jolt her heart and, hopefully, restore a normal rhythm. 

Then the elements of a really bad melodrama unfold. My father’s disappeared for several days when he couldn't take anymore, my mother brawled with her sister and a buffed nursing attendant as she tried to put on her clothes to leave: she is going to go out into the street and hail a cab to take her home given that no one in her family seems willing to yield to her command and return her to a normal life. Eventually a compassionate case manager calmed her, and mother agreed to the procedure. The drama to follow can be a quick note in the margin: family crisis; harsh words exchanged in anger; the heart specialist looked like the 14 year prodigy, Doogie Howser M.D., on the TV (I’m not kidding. He really did look like a teenager). I started to laugh ... "this kid is going to thread electrodes to my mother’s heart? What is she going to think?” She thought he was cute and refused treatment in the operating room. Back to square one. That evening we try again.

Before her surgery, food and water are restricted. She can only have small ice shavings. I hold a plastic cup and gently spoon the ice shavings on her tongue. For what might be her last moments of life, I am with my mother, just her, just this spoonful, just this ice, just my breath and hers, just her pleasure in ice and water. It is very sweet and I feel like the good son. I hear the ice click against the side of the plastic cup as I scoop it up. If nothing else about zen meditation, it does train you to be present in the moment. And that moment I decide it will be enough, it will have to be enough, for this particular gay son and his mother.

The medical procedure goes as well as any scripted denouement on Doogie Howser. We couldn’t have hoped for more: the patient gets well; the family crisis is temporarily resolved when the stubborn mother agrees to go to the nursing home; the father returns, shaken, humbled but unharmed, forgiven and loved; my sister has taken over managing the mother’s care. And I board Frontier Air for the return trip to San Francisco.

After the exchange of pleasantries, I discover that my seatmates are going to San Francisco to be reunited with their birth mother whom they have never met (how could I make this up?), and I tell them that I have been at my mother’s sick bed. We are in flight. Staring out the window as we flew over the Rockies, across the desert and into the sky over Death Valley, I lapse into a brown study, and sit mesmerized by the wonder of the world. The flight attendant offers me a second Diet Coke with ice. My orphaned seat-mates pass it to me. I take a big gulp, and, when I swirl the ice around the cup, it clinks against the edge. In an instant my mind tumbles and I am no longer "me" in a plane over Death Valley, but I am in my mother’s life--I mean really, not some theoretical proposition--all of it, her hopes her pain her struggles her fear her birth her death, and I burst into tears and sob. My orphan seat mate understands something about finding mothers: she just reaches out and gently touches my arm, holding me connected to the breathing world as my mind flies away. Any trace of resentment, regret, bitterness, or recrimination about the way my mother treated me at any time in our lives together evaporates. She is just my mother, and I am finally able to enter into the mystery and wonder of being a son.

The plane lands in San Francisco. I mumble good-bye to my seat-mates whose mother that gave them birth is waiting at the gate. I wish them well and I walk back into my life, praying that everybody be lucky enough to find out who their mothers really are, to be able to step into their lives, and to cry when they are gone.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

David Park's "Three Bathers"

My dear friend Nancy Storm’s daughter, Mary, gave me an early painting by David Park that had hung in Nancy's home. Nancy told me that she had lived near David and his family in Palo Alto, and that he had given her the painting. Her husband Fred immediately hung it in basement. When Nancy moved into the Heritage in San Francisco, she hung the painting in a prominent place.

I had it restored at the Deyoung Museum in the mid-90’s to refresh it. My friend Bill Belotti helped me frame it.

Nancy Boas got in touch with me to talk about the painting, and I realized that it was an important work. Nancy is an author, art historian, and curator, and was working on her book, David Park: A Painter's Life, published by the University of California Press. She included it in her book.

“Three Bathers.” (The work is untitled. The three men Park painted give it its name).

Though it will probably not fetch the $1,160,000 that Park's Standing Male Nude in the Shower, (1955 -1957) sold for at Sotheby's New York on May 15, 2007, I have asked Michael Hackett of Hackett-Mill to represent me in its sale.

Here is some of Park's later figurative work.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Your vote is worth $9.95 or $43.95

“Freedom of Speech” costs real dollars. Can it be sold to the highest bidder?

Your vote is worth $9.95 or $43.95 with the “dark money” added in!

Today I ran some numbers on a napkin, aided by by iPhone. If you were in my San Francisco neighborhood, and I took 3 of you to, say, SuperDuper for a mini burger, fries and fountain soda, and we talked about the upcoming election, my cost would be $ 9.25 each, or about what I sent to ActBlue last week.

And that is about what people in both parties via ordinary donations have given to sway every likely voter next Tuesday, $9.95 for each voter.

My assumption is that 70% of the 126,849,726 people who voted in 2012 will cast ballots, 88,794,807, and that the $883,093,821 given to both political parties by individuals won’t significantly increase in a week.

The Koch brothers, and others who have generously funded the dark money advertising, to the tune of $4,000,000,000 and counting, could have bought every voter a 3 course dinner at Ruth’s Steak House for $43.95, and left $2.90 as a tip--rich guys might or might not tip well. I know I’m on shaky ground, but let’s say they’re all cheapskates, and who’s going to call me out anyway?

That’s not just three of you, but every one of the almost 89 million people who are estimated to cast ballots. If you do vote, you are among the 40% or less of all who are eligible to vote, so you might get more, or have been duped into thinking that you’ll get more. If you vote in Kansas, or Kentucky, or Wisconsin or Colorado, your vote might be worth more, say a few desserts too, but I ran out of space on my napkin to include those calculations.

If you’re really looking forward to that hamburger because you’re poor and hungry, you have more obstacles to voting than the guys at Ruth’s Steak House. But you’re not going to see that meal anyway.

Justice Scalia is also waiting for his cut. But ethics prevent him for getting paid for greasing the skids, and he apparently isn’t that smart anyway: his net worth, gold bug that he is, has dropped nearly 4 million during the recent bust. Poor fellow.