Sylvia always makes a New Year's resolution on New Year's Eve, and last night she told me hers for this year was to have more fun. She had returned just a few hours before from a day of outings with her daughter, eating in restaurants and shopping, touring the community college campus, and visiting with friends.

 

They invited me, but my new books from the library and a day of solitude after the company of the holiday season seemed therapeutic to me. There was also the CAD drawing of the studio that called to me, with the challenge to fit everything Sylvia wanted into the existing walls, in spite of her telling me to let the project go.

 

The problem was that our different viewpoints on design and permitting were causing stress for both of us. Sylvia's response was to become visibly upset. Mine was to withdraw and lash out with hurtful comments. Clearly this kind of engagement would lead to woe.

 

When Sylvia told me her resolution for the new year, it seemed like a resolution to our problem. What we wanted was to enjoy each others' company during the winter, going places and taking art classes together. Installing the bathroom in the studio was just supposed to make that easier. Instead, the project threatened to spoil our good times.

 

We spent maybe an hour talking about my descent into mild depression over the last few weeks. Of course it went way deeper than just a disagreement over how to build a bathroom. For me there were links with the state of increasing disorder in the environment, the economy, and our culture in general. The rule of law seemed to me our only hope to avoid chaos and social collapse.

 

As simple as it sounds, Sylvia's wish for me to “be happy” seemed impossible, in the light of all the dire forecasts for our civilization. They overshadowed everything. Even if the studio was finished to my specifications, there would still be the threat of extinction, or at the very least another coming Dark Age.

 

There were also the day-to-day barbs that plagued me like mosquito bites. Looking down while passing through the back porch, my mind recoiled from the jumble of boxes, cat beds, furniture, tools, and stockpiles of toilet paper and paper towels. Outside there were piles of dirt and sheets of plywood covering the trench for the pumped sewage line. Inside the house there were cats, food dishes with brown pasty-looking sludge, and litter boxes with gravel spilled on the floor.

 

This is not to say that my place in Wyoming is any better. My property has piles of rotting logs and heaps of cut brush, as well as gaping holes in the ground with rocks stacked around the edges. My storage structure has way more stuff in it than Sylvia's back porch, all of it in various stages of decay. There are half-finished projects staring me in the face at every corner of my property.

 

The difference is my being used to all of that old jumble, and none of the new disorder. My own place seems natural to me now, but Sylvia's place is new and jarring. With time, the new environment will seem natural, just as it must for Sylvia, but what to do in the meantime? Everywhere little things that seem out of place trigger whispers in my mind, involuntary judgments, tiny jolts of anger and disgust.

 

Is there a way to turn off that interior dialog? Buddhist meditation trains us to notice the mind babble and let it float like bubbles to the surface of a pond. The trick is not to get sucked into a thought, and not to let those thoughts trigger an emotion. You notice, but you don't judge. You feel, but you don't react. This keeps the fish on the bottom of the pond from stirring up the mud and clouding the water.

 

Perhaps being happy in the face of so much suffering signifies a higher state of consciousness. After all, the Dali Lama seems to have a smile on his face most of the time, and statues of the Buddha show a composed expression. Is it possible to put an end to suffering, even while embedded in the world? Those spiritual leaders' examples suggest that we can be fully aware and happy at the same time.

 

Sylvia's wish for me could be even more ambitious than her studio construction project. Maintaining a positive state of mind in full awareness of our troubled world requires training, discipline, and determination. We don't have to suffer if we live appropriately. People have achieved this, and inspire us to do the same. It takes courage, but there are lanterns along the way.

 

 

When you are with a group of friends, you feel you can talk about anything, right? You share the same views on most subjects, so there is no dangerous territory. Nobody will become upset because everybody implicitly agrees. It can be different if you are the odd man out, though.

Suppose you are the only person at the dinner table that favors, say, securing permits and inspections before building or remodeling. Someone else deliberately starts a conversation on that subject, and it quickly becomes a multi-person rant about the evils of county regulations and building inspectors. What do you do? If you defend your viewpoint, you will start an argument. You will also become the target for three other people who want to vent their negative experiences.

You could get up from the table and walk away, but that is almost like demanding to be let out of the car while your brother lectures you on all the mistakes you have made in your life, while he is driving down the Interstate highway in the middle of the night. The pain of enduring the “conversation” is probably less than making an escape, so you sit it out, watching the time, waiting for the torture to end. Eventually it does end, with nobody the wiser, everybody secure in their personal bias, with essentially no communication or learning having taken place.

In our increasingly polarized society, we seek out homogeneous groups that align with our own world view. We feel secure in most topics of conversation because we know the other person will share our bias. We can talk about politics and religion because we all know each other to be liberal atheists, or conservative fundamentalists. All ideas slide smoothly down the pipe. If someone raises an objection, dares to differ, suddenly there is an obstruction and the flow backs up, and can get nasty.

The polite thing to do in such a situation when you are the odd man out is to remain silent. As unpleasant as it is for you, it would be worse if you created an argument or made a dramatic exit. That could make four other people uncomfortable. Your own intense discomfort may be four times the magnitude of theirs, but it is still localized and contained, within your own tense chest muscles and pounding head.

Such are the perils of not belonging to an ideological group nowadays. Outsiders don't seem to fit into any group, and constantly encounter clashing viewpoints. It is hard to mix when people gravitate to hot-button topics in social gatherings. You know you will spoil your welcome if you express yourself in public.

What can you do? You can look for people like you and band together, forming another tribal enclave, or you can become even more isolated and excluded. There seems to be no middle ground anymore. One third possibility, however, is forming a band of social misfits, but that, my friend, is an oxymoron.

 

 

Having run out of rye bread, the two 5 pound loaves from my RV oven lasting over two weeks while on the road and during my visit to Laramie, it was time to mix up another batch of rye potato bread. There was still some fermented potato and oat flake batter left, and mixing some rye flour, salt, and a hefty glob of rye sourdough starter got another batch going. Now the tricky part began, as Sylvia's studio presented a different environment for both me and my microbes. Would the loaves rise?

Sourdough starter expands when you feed it fresh rye flour, sometimes by as much as twice its volume. The tiny lactic acid producing bacteria generate carbon dioxide gas, which inflates the dough, sort of like how the universe expands by the creation of more space. Those expanding gasses produce a surprising amount of pressure, which can easily pop the lid off a jar or yogurt container, and even shatter a glass vessel if you are unlucky. They also perform the miracle of leavened bread, which has myriad holes that give a loaf of rye bread a light texture, rather than a dense, mushy interior.

If you wait too long, the magic disappears. Many things can happen, from running out of fresh sugars and carbohydrates for the microbes to consume, to falling temperatures which can slow their metabolism. The result in either case is that they produce less gas, which can slow the rise, stop it, or even reverse the process. Perhaps every bread-maker has nightmares of loaves with sunken centers.

Sylvia's studio follows the outdoor temperature, which can reach the high sixties during the day and the low fifties or even high forties at night. My initial strategy was to form the loaves from the freshly-mixed dough and let it rise in the bread pans, since there isn't enough gas production to fuel a second rise that wheat bread bakers enjoy. Left overnight in the unheated oven, maybe they would rise to the point of baking height by morning.

My RV has a gas oven with a continuous pilot light, and that provides just enough heat to keep the bread dough warm through the night, but Sylvia's convection oven was electric and its lowest bake setting was 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That would kill the bacteria. The oven had a warm setting, but that might be too hot as well, since bacterial action peaks at 87 degrees and tapers off to nothing at temperatures over 100.

By morning the loaves were still small, essentially unchanged, so it was time to experiment. Setting the Warm function to five minutes took the chill off without excessive heat, and a few cycles of that through the morning got the loaves to expand. Then ambient temperatures rose during the day and the loaves started to look promising, with cracks forming on their curved tops.

By late afternoon the loaves looked better, but still didn't fill the pans. Would they keep going with more time? My imagination glowed with visions of full, robust loaves rolling out of the baking pans to cool on the racks. Maybe one more night would do it. After all, a little fermentation was good, so more would be better, right?

It was a gamble, with the hope that the dough had enough stiffness to hold its shape, and that the bacteria had enough food to keep producing gas, and that the temperature would be sufficient to support the process. By 3:40 AM, checking on the loaves in the oven, it didn't look good. The centers of the loaves, instead of rising to fill the pans, had fallen somewhat, as if in disappointment that they had to wait another night.

Well, the only option was to start the oven, since we had passed the peak rising stage. Thirty minutes on warm, with a rest period seemed to help, and then at 6:30 AM the 350 degree bake cycle started. The convection fan supposedly would shorten the baking time, so how about 50 minutes? Too many variables, and all of them new to me, reduced the art of baking to a guessing game.

As the baking progressed, my hopes revived, as it looked like the loaves recovered somewhat from their fallen state. They wouldn't fill the pans, but they would have a respectable shape. They also started to brown on top and look more edible, even appealing. Maybe the window of opportunity hadn't entirely closed.

Of course, it will be later today or even tomorrow before the ultimate test: slicing and toasting. Rye bread improves with age, so a little patience pays off. It is an investment in the future, one that requires attention to details, flexibility in responding to changing conditions, and a little bit of faith. After all, the microbes want to digest food and produce carbon dioxide, and the baker wants the bread to rise. All they need is a decent chance, a little luck, and determination backed with persistence.

 

 

A few days ago at a busy intersection, a man was trying to cross the street. He stood on a center island waiting for the walk light, surrounded by cars zooming in every direction. Although he looked calm and experienced, it had to be stressful being a lone person exposed to such fierce activity. What if he had been a primitive man, say from 10,000 or even 1,000 years ago. How would he have reacted to this environment?

If my reaction serves as a clue, he would become overwhelmed and want to withdraw, to escape, to hide. He may be fascinated by the novelty at first, but the effects of continual stimulation would soon exhaust him mentally and physically, sending him into a state of depression and confusion. That state would be a matter of survival, a strategy to protect the self from complete collapse, a defense against the unwitting assault of culture on the individual.

How do modern humans live amid such frenzy? Even away from the traffic, they constantly interact with signs, buildings, people, and trees as they whiz by in their automobiles. Even at home, the car parked in the garage or by the curb, their TV's offer a continual stream of voices and images, much like a rushing mountain torrent. Their phones ring and buzz like insects with calls and text messages. The sounds of traffic and aircraft penetrate their walls and ceilings, like the growls and wails of wild animals. Only in the depths of night does there seem to be a respite.

Take a single man from a small community in Wyoming, used to living by himself in a small space, one with no telephone or Internet access, whose closest neighbor is perhaps 500 feet away, and whose companions all day are squirrels and birds, and put that person into that intersection with all those cars, and what do you expect? Normally open to all forms of stimulation, the result would be sensory overload, anxiety, and paralysis.

Well, it wasn't quite that bad. We were in Sylvia's vehicle waiting for the light to change, with me watching the unfortunate pedestrian. Somehow there was a bond between me and him.

My challenge wasn't cars, but stimulation of another sort. We were on another shopping trip, to WalMart, CostsCo, and Target. Inside these places, instead of cars there were towers of products for people to buy, canyons of merchandise, corridors and intersections filled with shoppers and their loaded carts. From one store to another, more traffic and parking lots, more merchandise piled up to the ceiling, more people entering, shopping, and leaving with their purchases, it was starting to affect me consciously, which means it had been affecting me unconsciously for some time already.

Don't mistake me for a yokel or hermit who only enters civilization every six months to provision, get drunk, and head back to the hills. We have WalMart stores, and maybe CostCo and Target somewhere in Wyoming. My habit at home is to go to WalMart every three weeks or so for fresh vegetables, soap, lip balm, and toilet paper. Going every week, sometimes twice a week with Sylvia to three or more of such monster stores is way beyond my experience, and my limit.

An antidote would be to camp in the desert, and indeed this was a deeply calming experience three years ago. After a month in the pristine emptiness of sand, brush, and sky the world seemed comprehensible again. All of the demands of culture fell away and all that remained were the day-to-day activities of work and survival. It opened up space for walking in the desert, looking at the variety of plants, noticing the few rabbits and coyotes, and of course the spectacular sunrises and sunsets in the wispy high clouds.

If a monk is someone who retreats from the complexity of civilization and society to contemplate the complexity of the human mind and psyche, then that is a good description of my adopted role. At home in Wyoming, books provide controlled and carefully selected stimulation. Interactions with other people range in frequency from several per day to one per week. My car sits un-driven for weeks at a time, as my bicycle gets me to and from the library and Shirley's house. Thinking occupies most of my time.

In California, my challenge is to find a workable compromise, something between the desert and the busy intersection, to find a way to safely cross the intersection of one culture and another. Perhaps Sylvia can drop me off at the library while she does her shopping. Maybe a day or two spent in the studio reading books or sketching landscapes from photographs would restore my balance. Maybe once we get our construction projects under way my sense of purpose will clarify.

The answer clearly isn't avoiding all experience, though. That would be impossible in this environment, and indeed in most environments in the modern world. It might reside in the witness consciousness, a state the Buddhists describe where you retain awareness of your surroundings, but don't feel obligated to react to the stimulation. It isn't a numb state of non-feeling, but a state where feelings flow freely and do not manifest themselves in physical action.

Think of this environment as a training ground, a problem to solve, a koan. Finding the right tension for the stringed instrument is the way the Buddha put it. There could be much to learn here.

 

 

Last year my sister Sylvia invited me to spend the winter with her in Ojai, but circumstances made it inconvenient for me. My RV roof was leaking. My car needed its timing belt replaced. My truck needed more work on its steering mechanism. The college hadn't asked me to teach another class, so my income was nil. It seemed easier to just stay in Story and bundle up for the cold weather, ride my bicycle to the library and to Shirley's house, and save money.

Sylvia took my decision with stoic calm, but she was disappointed. She wanted to go painting together and get me out of the snow. My reports of the low 40's interior temperature of my RV horrified her, even though her house could dip to the low 50's at night without the heater. She also wanted to hire me to work on her studio building, a converted garage behind her house, so that she could offer workshops to visiting artists.

As a result of my staying home, Sylvia made an agreement with her neighbor Greg to finish the studio. It seemed convenient, since he was an experienced contractor and seemed to be helpful and generous with odds and ends he had accumulated that might help the project. It was a relief to me that Sylvia was going ahead with her plans.

What perhaps nobody realized was just how all of this would end. On my part, it was pretty predictable: stay in Story, live off of savings, read books, work on plans and models for my own studio and underground house, and wait for spring to arrive. That's pretty much what happened. Oh, and the roof got fixed during a warm spell in March, which was great since every time it warmed up outside before then the ice on the roof would melt, since the roof was flat and the water didn't run off, and start dripping into my living space. At least that didn't happen anymore. My vehicles got fixed, too. Sort of.

It wasn't quite that way for Sylvia, though. Greg made a little progress on the project, installing some plumbing for the bathroom, but then the Thomas Fire happened and everyone had to evacuate Ojai. Afterwards, there was a lot of rebuilding after the fire and Greg had customers with pressing needs. Then he had to visit his mother in Ohio and was gone for a while. Then he and his wife divorced and his life was chaotic.

Finally Sylvia offered to let him stay in the unfinished studio so he could work on the bathroom and finish the project. This seemed like a logical thing to do, since he couldn't pay rent on the house next door and he needed a place to live. Maybe if Sylvia was aware of his daily activities she could prod him along on the project more effectively. That was the plan, anyway. Greg must have had different plans, because he kept dragging his feet, suggesting alternate projects like installing the windows in the back porch, giving Sylvia used appliances from his brother's kitchen remodel, and of course attending to paying customers' needs.

That is, other paying customers. Sylvia had given him $4500 to cover wages and materials for the project, so she was definitely a paying customer. She was also providing him a place to live in Ojai, which was probably worth at least another $1000 per month, even camping out in the unfinished studio and having to find some other place to use the bathroom. He did not have access to the house facilities.

Finally, in the fall Sylvia asked him to leave. It looked like my plans to come to California would finally work this year, and she wanted the space to be available for me. Greg could find another place and finish the bathroom before my arrival. As you can probably guess, the latter didn't happen. Greg did move out, upon Sylvia's insistence, but didn't touch the bathroom project ever again. He stopped answering Sylvia's text messages and phone calls and simply vanished from her life.

Call it a classic case of “take the money and run”, but actually it was “take the money, distract the owner with superfluous projects and presents, and disappear when the whole situation sours.” What only Greg knew was that the project had built-in problems that he didn't want to tackle, and that only became obvious when Sylvia had me take over the project upon my arrival. Suddenly Greg's tactics seemed to make sense, because he never intended to finish the project.

Discovering that the toilet drain cast into the concrete floor was in the wrong place was the first blow. Then we discovered that the vent pipe for the sewer was right in the corner where the studs connected to the wall of the existing structure, preventing the stack from exiting to the roof. Finally, the whole room was in violation of county setback rules. It was an inexplicable combination of blunders that made proceeding impossible. Rather than own up to his mistakes, Greg hid the toilet drain by placing the new fixture on top of it, stuffed insulation around the vent pipe, and carefully avoided any conversation about building codes.

All of this of course devastated Sylvia. Here she was, a year after starting the project, many $1000's poorer, with a basically worthless start that would have to be torn out and redone. We discussed several plans to salvage what Greg had done, but violating the law was the deal-breaker. Neither of us wanted to be part and party to that kind of activity.

A trip to the county planner offered hope, though. California passed a law stating that people could convert a garage into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, regardless of lot size or setbacks. It required a permit and drawings for the planning and building departments to review. There were restrictions on additions after the ADU was built, which might require an addition to the garage first, and then converting it into an ADU. You could say this was more red tape and administrative hoops to jump through, but that was the law.

Sobered and humbled by these revelations, we were both grateful to be handed the facts, rather than the smokescreen that Greg generated. It would mean starting over, but at least we could be assured that the project would be in compliance with the regulations. Even if it wasn't convenient, we realized that sometimes the law isn't convenient, but necessary to protect civilization from anarchy and chaos. We must do our part.

Oddly, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Rather than a cobbled up mess, we had the chance to rethink the project from the ground up. My advice to Sylvia was to imagine everything in the garage stripped away, with a completely blank slate, so to speak. She responded beautifully, finding some floor plans for “granny flats” that other people had created in their converted garages. We both became engrossed in the possibilities of placing the bedroom, kitchen, and bath in their optimum locations, unencumbered by any existing utility sinks or entrance doors. We even included a second floor studio over the dwelling in the design.

While there is still an immense amount of planning, permitting, construction, and inspecting to do, we feel hopeful that the final product will be worth the expense and effort. The result will fit Sylvia's needs more completely and give her more options for adding to her income later on when she offers artists' retreats in her newly constructed dwelling unit and studio. She will have the assurance that it is done according to building codes and county regulations, and it will add to the value of her property.

We both felt so good that evening that Sylvia decided to fix a nice salmon dinner to celebrate. Who could have guessed that such a disappointing year would turn out with such a bright outlook for the next? If you think about it, though, you will see that it depends upon how you react to circumstances, not luck or some supernatural intervention. We chose to confront the facts and accept the responsibility to act within the law. We used the need to start over to create a better overall design. We took advantage of the situation, in a constructive way.

That should be a lesson for people who try to take advantage of other people. Instead of thinking of just yourself, you must think about others, the future, and society's needs. You can reverse the harmful effects of other peoples' fears and shortsighted viewpoint. You change yourself by adopting a more expansive model of the world. That's what makes humanity so special, and so successful.