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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Inspiration Stew: The Recipe

There is a new trend in business. It’s a sometimes-desperate scramble to pinpoint the latest trends in order to be on the forefront, the cutting edge, the winning team … in order to make lots and lots of money. But there may be a problem with this. There may be a problem because what appears to be one of the newest and most widespread trends (harnessed with awe-inspiring efficiency by the Obama campaign) is for individuals and small groups of passionate people to do good deeds with no concern for financial returns.

“We set up tables with cookies and candy in the park and give out Smile cards,” explained Shephali Patel, a 30-year-old volunteer with the Smile Card project. She is one of 20,000 volunteers who have been playing a form of global altruistic tag: You do a selfless “Radical Act of Kindness,” then leave a card encouraging the recipient to do something nice for someone else and pass the card along.

And this was just one of the examples of easy-to-do selfless service actions discussed at last night’s second meeting of an organization called Stay Inspired (see March 30th blog) held at Gallery 138 in New York City, where about 40 people gathered to eat good food and share ideas about how to remain inspired during hard times. Read More 
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Why I Sleep with Toys

A provocative title, huh? I’m trying to get attention. Did I succeed? Are you still reading?  Read More 
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A Sublime Evening in Central Park

“Hallelujah!” shouted a man after the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, played with simultaneous passion and heartbreaking sweetness by Lara St. John.

Hundreds of us felt the same as we listened, spellbound, to the first of this season’s free concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell, arguably the heart center of New York City’s Central Park. As dusk gave way to night, the violins soared and so did two ducks, taking in the concert from their bird’s eye view. The audience swayed, breathing in Linden tree perfume as sweet as 104 years of truly free music — the gift of a haberdasher turned banker named Elkan Naumburg who began financing the concerts in 1905, and, in 1923, created the present-day bandshell with its perfect, unamplified acoustics.

I arrived at the bandshell with my little dog, Maya, at about 7:20. The concert began at 7:30. There was no admission charge, no line to pass through. There was nobody who said, “You can’t bring a dog to this concert.” The bandshell is a place where all beings are free to assemble. I took a chair. Maya took another. People smiled at us. There were free programs and even free CDs for children at intermission. The musicians, too, were free. They played with relaxed arms, standing and swaying like one body in the cool breeze. Maya laid her head on the leg of the man beside her, and without looking at her, he submitted to her love.

As night fell, flutist Andrea Griminelli explained to the audience that Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor was very long, so it might be best if we held our applause until the last movement … and then he demonstrated our cue.

The final piece was sublime — The Knights orchestra along with virtuoso siblings Lara and Scott St. John playing Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor — closing the first evening of the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the United States.

And to think that all this might have been destroyed. The story of the bandshell’s survival is the story of a seven-year David and Goliath battle. In 1993, Christopher London, the great-grandson of Elkan Naumburg, took on the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Parks Department, foiling their attempts to demolish the bandshell. The agencies’ reasons for the destruction were many and ran from the bizarre (unamplified music was outmoded) to the more bizarre (an antipathy to freedom of assembly; no good could come from just anybody — even homeless people — sitting down to enjoy music).

Last night, hundreds of us not only sat down, but we did so amiably with only the trees and the cityscape against the moonlit heavens as housing. And after the concert, hundreds of us rose en masse, still savoring the music, and strolled home peacefully. This is freedom. Now why is that so scary?

The next concerts will take place Tuesdays, July 7, 21, and August 4. For more information, go to NaumburgConcerts.org. Read More 
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Thoughts on Tomatoes, Lousy Posture, and the Alexander Technique

It’s another soggy day in New York City, so it seems appropriate to talk about my posture. I have lousy posture. I slump with my chin out and up like a turtle and, since I’m very flexible, I have a tendency to sit with pretzel legs. I also have a big, ugly lump on the back of my neck which has alternately been explained as a sign that my spiritual center is connected or that I have an energy block. I believe it’s due to my lousy posture.

Because it is raining today and I’m having such a difficult time remembering to sit upright, it seems appropriate to also complain about my allergies. I recently discovered that I am allergic to my tomato plants. Not the tomatoes, but the Deadly Nightshade leaves that smell so good but make my eyelids swell like over-sized shrimp. My tomato plants live on my neighbor, Nurse Mia’s, terrace because my building superintendent kicked them off our roof. Nurse Mia is the one who diagnosed my tomato plant allergy, so the last time I pruned, I suited up with swimming goggles, a surgical mask, and latex gloves. Read More 
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Socialized Medicine, Compassion, and Life — Oh No!

Last night I watched Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary about our health-care system. A guy at the grassroots Health Care Organizing Kickoff meeting last weekend referenced it a few times, and since I missed it when it was in theaters, I got it at the New York Public Library. This required asking for it, receiving an email when it arrived at my local branch, strolling over, showing my library card, and walking out without paying any money. This is because the public library is a government-funded social program, allowing even unemployed people like me access to free information. It seems to work awfully well.

A block up from my library is my local fire department. They are a government-funded social program that seems to work awfully well.

Last weekend, a guy on my block had a very loud party late at night. I dialed 311 and a courteous government-paid employee took my noise complaint and dispatched a member of our socialized law enforcement department to quell the din. It worked awfully well.

I’d thought Sicko was going to be a diatribe about our lousy heath-care-if-you-can-afford-it system, and I was quite surprised to see that the majority of the film showed compassionate doctors and satisfied patients in France and the UK and Canada. When asked how much money care cost, they either laughed or looked befuddled and then responded, with polite horror, that they wouldn’t want to work or live in a system that allowed people to die if they couldn’t afford to pay.

Although it seems like yesterday, many years ago my beloved hometown switched from subway tokens to Metrocards. Lots of New Yorkers said that the change was too big; it wouldn’t work. We survived it quite well. Read More 
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Rants & Raves: Staples, Oxford, Garnier Nutritioniste, Obama

I’m living on unemployment at the moment, so I’m consuming a lot less than I used to. And that means I think a whole lot about what I’m choosing to consume. Below, for my own gratitude and ventilation, are some Rants & Raves. Feel free to add your own in comments:

RAVE: Staples Stores
I got a whole ream of recycled paper today, free with the coupon I received for recyling ink cartridges. I was worried I’d only be able to buy more ink, but no — you can do the right thing and actually get something you need with the recycle benefit.
Not only that, I thought Staples only recycled ink cartridges and batteries. Did you know they also take electronics? I’ve got a busted computer adapter and cable that Hewlett-Packard was going to charge to me return for recycle. I can just drop it off at Staples. Not only that, but the Staples employees look you in the eye when they talk to you and treat you like a human being. Read More 
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Class Notes We Would Like to See

From the bowels of this recession, I read my most recent college alumni news, and I found myself wondering if I was the only one with a less than stellar career. Were all of these perpetually successful alumni telling the whole truth?

So here, from the Spring 2009 Alumni News of the imaginary prestigious Almost Ivy League University, is some imagined truth-telling. (Humor is healing. Feel free to add your own notices in the comments section.)

Beatrice Ellenville (’06), who graduated cum laude after plagiarizing her thesis, was laid off from her job at AIG just before the bailout. She will never publish a book, star on Broadway, or climb Mount Everest — per her yearbook “future goals.” She is a sorry excuse for a human being with no prospects whatsoever.

Joanna Praddle (’86), who had an early success with her first novel and then refused to share contacts with her struggling classmates, has never amounted to anything. She survived three abusive marriages to the same man and she is currently working as a night staff cleaning woman in the law offices of her ex-brother-in-law.

After a successful and lucrative career as president of the N.O. Scruples PR Firm, known for catapulting adulterers and embezzlers into movie superstardom, Norman Owen Scruples (’73) has retired to become a full-time grandfather and alcoholic. Friends and well-wishers can contact him at the renowned Smith & Welly’s Saloon where he is passed out on the floor.

Lowell Renard (’68), known for his prowess on the Almost Ivy League Olympic Lacrosse Team as well as his seduction of most of the Almost Ivy League co-eds and every woman he ever did business with, which led to his 25-year run as the face of the International Subprime Mortgage Insurance Agency, LLP, despite never coming in to the office, has gotten fat and bald. Read More 
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American Idol and Our Shame of Being Human




I didn’t watch American Idol this season, so I didn’t understand my friend’s feelings when she first emailed and then phoned about her despair that a young singer named Adam Lambert hadn’t won the competition. She described the moment when the public declared another singer (Kris Allen) the winner as “being hit by a wrecking ball.” She understood neither her despair nor her compulsion to listen to an online recording of Lambert singing “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe).

My friend is a mature woman — a sixty-year-old psychologist, to be precise. She is not a person who normally cares about pop singing competitions or even watches them. But something had compelled her to turn on American Idol, and when she heard the voice of Adam Lambert, she was transformed. Read More 
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The Unbearable Sweetness of Being Human

I’ve been kind of blue this week. Actually, that’s inaccurate. I’ve been red — beet red with eyelids that look like obese shellfish — but blue is more descriptive of my mood. A red mood sounds angry. I haven’t felt angry. I just enjoy vision. Apparently swelling up like a prizefighter after a really bad night plus a nasty rash is my new reaction to tree pollen. Although I could barely open my eyes, I decided it was a good time for reading, and my friend Liz from the greenhouse had recommended Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Read More 
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Where on Earth Is Humanity Going?

I’ve been thinking a lot about who we are as a species this week. Endless days of rain and unemployment have that effect on me. The last time it rained this way, I went to the American Museum of Natural History where I stared for a long time at this lovely 3.6 million-year old Tanzanian couple out for a stroll and frozen in time in the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. At the end of the exhibit, there’s a plaque on the wall that says:

ARE HUMANS STILL EVOLVING?
In this era of global travel and interconnected societies, we no longer have small, isolated populations evolving in different directions, as was the case earlier in human evolution, helping to drive the emergence of new species. The human genome continues to change in minor ways, but under present conditions a new human species more than likely will not emerge. Read More 
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Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm — review & interview

In this time of risk-taking based on promises of exorbitant returns from precarious investments, what could be more timely than the tale of growing up in a community where everybody has surrendered all decision-making and self-responsibility for the promise of divine protection and maybe God realization?

In her riveting, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari (Harmony Books, April 14, 2009), Jayanti Tamm recounts how her parents, like so many people who came of age in the sixties and seventies, met a guru after years of spiritual seeking. So moved were they by the experience that they didn’t question his direction to marry each other — despite the fact that they’d just met. They did, however, flaunt the directive to remain celibate.  Read More 

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Tulips and a Request for a Slight Alteration

“Here’s the thing,” I seem to be saying. “I really like flowers, but my eyes no longer open enough to fully enjoy their colorful fluorescence because of my gravity-challenged brows. And I think, doctor, I sincerely believe that I should be given an eye job for medicinal purposes — fully paid for by insurance, of course. Don’t you agree? Read More 
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Rx for Unemployment Blues: Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher

It may seem paradoxical that reading about panic attacks due to overwhelming professional success and an abundance of work is calming to a person who’s been unemployed for months and battered by the recession, but that was my experience reading Mary Pipher’s new book Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World. It may seem counterintuitive that reading about a big, warm circle of supportive family could make a person whose family is mostly dead feel hugged, but, again, that is the case with this simultaneously comforting and entertaining book about a bestselling writer’s meltdown and recovery. Read More 
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Staying Inspired

Last Wednesday night, storyteller extraordinaire Laura Simms described the moment during an international phone call when she made the split second decision to adopt her son, Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who would go on to become a bestselling writer and an advocate for children trapped in wars. “If I can get out of here, can I live with you?” he asked. “The phone may cut off and I need you to tell me the truth.” “Yes,” she screamed. “Yes!” and the phone went dead.

She described that moment as one of electrocution — the instant and complete realignment of every cell in her body. It was a moment when Spirit demanded something sudden and life-changing — what the oracle Viking Runes refer to as “an empty-handed leap into the void” — and she said, “Yes!”

She told the story at a “Friend Raising Party” at Tibet House in New York City given by a two-year old organization called Stay Inspired, the brainchild of a very unusual guy named Charlie Hess. Read More 
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The Yoga of Beautiful Jewelry

The first thing I notice about the woman crossing the hill to me in Central Park is color. Sizzling grey-blue jacket, violet scarf, purple something else topped by a mane of chestnut hair shining golden in the sunlight, penetrating green eyes flecked with something that stops you dead and demands attention. Her colors are so radiant that it isn’t until we are face to face that I realize I know her.

Mikelle Terson was my aerobics teacher about 20 years ago. I remember the colors even then: after an hour of sweating, she led a cool-down visualization of kaleidoscopic golden light, wafts of green, and cool blue pools of peace. Read More 
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