Archive for April, 2014

Mephisto Chess and Buddhism

ChessEvery now and then I enjoy a game of chess. So when traveling is complete and I arrive on Eastsound, WA, I whip out my Mephisto Master Chess Computer.

It’s important to note, that while I continually apply chess strategy in business life, one could not find a worst player. Without highlighting any self-depreciation, my games tend to flow accordingly:

Press ‘Clear’ and ‘Enter’ for new game. “Bong bing, bong bong.””

Mephisto: “What level?” (Mephisto seems to have chess playing levels from 1 – 1,000,000.)

Mephisto: “Level 1 accepted.”

Mephisto: “White move.”

White move: Pawn E2 – E3.

Mephisto: Queen D8 – E1. Checkmate!

“Care to play again?”

I’ve always been interested in playing at Level 1,000,000 but fear says Mephisto would just taunt me, “Seriously? You? Level 1,000,000. Get Real.” Still, when I arrive home, there’s nothing like enjoying the gentle Washington coast rain, a sip of brandy and getting my pants handed to me by a non-intellectual technical device.

For all the ladies reading, being of the male species, I’ve learned to no longer trust my own intuition. Gone are the days when I can say, “Don’t worry honey, I know exactly where we’re at.” Similarly, this logic applies to chess. Calmly, I usually request Mr. Mephisto for help in understanding my speedy loss. Mephisto’s response is almost always something along the line:

“Note that there is no requirement stated in the question that I must win. But you made fatal mistakes. Here’s a summary:

White could have advanced the P on a7 and, with the Black K on b7, could play Pa8Q+, but your winning move should have been … 1.Bb1 b2 2.Ra2 b3 3.Ra3 b4 4.Ra4 b5 5.Ra5 b6 6.Be4 Kxa4 7.Rd5 Kxa3 8.Rd4 Kxa2 9.Rd3 Ka1 9.Ra3 mate.

Got it?”

 “Yeah Mephisto  … that clears it up.”

After being totally humiliated by Mephisto for years, I’ve learned many things while playing chess everyone can learn:

  1. Never short your ideas or dreams. When you see a good move in life, look for a better one. Emanuel Lasker said this was one of his most important lessons. Finding a move that seems sufficient – or even good – does not mean you’re ready to play it. Instead, you must search for the best move in a reasonable amount of time.
  1. Life is a fairy tale of 1,001 blunders. This quote from Savielly Tartakower reminds us that every player makes mistakes, and there has yet to be player – human, computer or otherwise – whose played life perfectly. So give yourself a break.
  1. The winner of life made the next-to-last mistake. We’ll all make mistakes, right to the end.
  1. Many claim to be masters of life, yet no one has become the master of life. Borrowing from Siegbert Tarrasch, we are reminded there’s always room for improvement.

For me, chess is really about sacrifice. And with that sacrifice is a level compassion, understanding or empathy for the suffering of others.  From chess, we learn not to be greedy simply for the purpose of material wealth. This is the heart of the Buddhist way of life.  It is regarded as a fundamental part of human love and foundational to the highest principles in philosophy and religion.  It is much needed today in our society. Yet compassion starts with good intention and proper goals.

So with that, I press, ‘Clear’ and ‘Enter’ for new game.”

“Bong bing, bong bong.”

Mephisto: “Are you back again?

Siiiiiiggggggghhhh … oh how I suffer.

Pass The Hamm’s

Hamms-beerVisiting octogenarians often holds its own rewards. And like stories passed from one generation to another, I often find octogenarians equally humbling and thought-provoking. Thus, yesterday’s visit with my parents proved no exception. The following is a summary of questions these octogenarians exposed.

Huddled in the retirement center’s clubhouse, an enclave of retirees parsed stories from the local daytime temperatures, events and best salad bars within five miles. Some octogenarians had voice capabilities of 350 words per minute, with gusts up to 500.

Suddenly, one octogenarian caught a local televangelist program storming up God’s salvation and heaven.Oh good God,” he exclaimed.All I want to know is whether there’ll be Hamm’s Beer? If they (sic) ain’t no Hamm’s, why go?”

This seemingly funny comment set off a firestorm of comments.

Better yet,” piped another,What will we do in Heaven? Do we just sit and sing wonderful songs to God?  If we do, that could get tedious. I mean, singing for the first thousand or so years sounds great, but that third thousand … man, that will suck. I’d probably go to God and say, “Got anything else?””

Everyone burst into laughter.

Won’t be tough if you have some Hamm’s.”

Another pondered out loud,Wonder if they’ll have the New York Times? I have to have the New York Times to do my morning constitutional?  Hey, do you think they’ll have gold toilets?”

Everyone erupts in laughter.

Hell, I’d settle for constitutional.”

Another bout of laughter.

Hey,” interrupted another.How come there’s no pictures of heaven? Think about it, if a hacker can bypass China’s state censorship, how come someone up there can’t sneak the world an old photo. If Snowden can get U.S. secrets out, how come no one has gotten photos out of heaven? Why can’t someone pass the Archangel Michael a note on the side …. Hey deliver this to my stupid neighbor on Elm Street –  your dog still sucks.

Yeah, what’s the deal with that,” another affirmed.

What about Lawrence Welk,” queried one?Does he still play?”

Absolutely not,” confirmed an octogenarian in the corner.I heard Welk was playing and God fell asleep. So he was never asked to play again. I’ll have ah-one, ah-two, ah one, two, three, four…..zzzzzzzzz

Laughter filled the room.

Truth be told, octogenarians have a point.  What exactly is heaven like? Likewise, each person provided some interesting questions of my own:

  • If a good Catholic married a good Buddhist and they lived happily ever after, when they died were they going to the same place?
  • Where did all the Buddhists, Hindus and goddess worshipers go before Christ came to the world? Was the Christian heaven already in place even before Christ was born? Or Have all the pre-Christians ended up in Christian hell?

At the end of the day, maybe we just need to think like Steve Jobs, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Maybe we all need a Hamm’s?

One Wing“You Can’t Fly On One Wing.”

~ Scottish Proverb ~

As Easter weekend approached, I sat from a balcony overlooking Washington’s coastline. With Spring flourishing, I saw much life coming forth: bees, butterflies and birds fluttering about. When I crossed a child attempting to fly a paper airplane with a damaged wing, I repaired the man-made aircraft; and giving a gentle nudge, the plane soared high unto the prevailing trade winds of Orcas Island.

Looking unto the child of nearly eight, I said:

Remember, much of life is like this paper airplane, one cannot fly upon just one wing.”

There will be many times when one believes they must do everything themselves. After all, “…it’s often the only way to get the right answer.” But in truth, I believe each of us needs a little luck … and the wings of God. And this past weekend, all of us, regardless of religion, regardless of faith, took some small amount of time to reflect upon the ‘cross’ and Christ’s life.

Many believe the cross first came into existence as a symbol associated with the Christian faith; but the cross existed before there was Christianity, before Moses, before Buddha and before any human written historical record. In fact, the cross can be found among the Aztecs and the Phoenicians culture. In some way, the symbol of a crucified savior or of a man crucified upon a cross, appears to have been known to many nations.

So there must have been a reason for the ‘cross.’ Personally, I tend to believe there is some natural association between a loving God and the human mind.  I do not purport people ever agreed that the cross was meant only for Christians, but I believe there is a God–human connection between all of us.

For instance, in every religion the power of the word is recognized. In Christianity, creation itself is said to have come out of the word. Thus, there is an external aspect of the thought of God resides within the Word, and, as God thought and willed, He created and creation came from the Word.

In our stress and hurried materialistic life, our nerves lose sensibility and we become hardened. We lose our connection to faith, a faith which bears us this second wing, a wing that allows us to fly. If our duty to others means helping others; can we always fly in this world without our second wing? Should we always try to help the world alone or unified in an eternal force? If we dare to consider, we’ll find greater success flying as an eagle, versus fluttering singularly.

I once read a sermon which stated, “All this beautiful world is very good, because it gives us time and opportunity to help others.” Still, while we cannot deny there is much misery; to go out and help others is therefore the best thing we can do. However, it’s imperative to remember that in the long run we shall find greater power in being an eagle.

The power of Easter is love and God wants each of us to soar. But remember, you can’t soar on only one wing.

The SeaI was listening to a review of an upcoming “Mad Men” episode when I thought of the book  “Heart Aroused.” Poet David Whyte’s masterpiece, “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America” aimed at helping people find meaning and balance in their careers. There is a one-line poem in his book previously mentioned that forced me to reassess my professional goals:

“Ten years ago, I turned my head for a moment and it became my life.”

Truthfully, I sit writing this missive in the middle of a corporate HR meeting, whose sole purpose is to discuss assessing interpersonal dynamics and how to create wonderfully beautiful functioning teams. And I grant to each of you, that for this moment, I am unaware of the next question, then next word, the next PowerPoint slide. For none of this matters.

I ponder upon how much time was spent pursuing the money, the vulture of the corporate world. All the wasted dollars, time and energy collecting and spending for the “good” of my career, I have lived and breathed the hype and succumbed to varied products, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC and others. And to what end? Was it all a sacrifice on the altar of life, where I traded off priorities for a lucrative salary, long commutes, long work weeks and a plethora of other things.

When I look past the jumbo mortgage paid completely two weeks ago, I sat in my overused easy chair, the sullen early morning light of a rain soaked day silently confirmed my auto-pilot life was not always in the best interest of those who loved me. Similar to that of a friend who passed in late November, I never really knew them and likewise, they never knew me.

“Does this represent who I am?”

Whyte also wrote, “Work is the very fire where we are baked to perfection, and like the master of the fire itself, we add the essential ingredient and fulfillment when we walk into the flames ourselves and fuel the transformation of ordinary, everyday forms into the exquisite and the rare.”

As I near the “great beyond,” I wonder if my worked baked all to perfection or just me. Then again, maybe neither. Could I have used the essential ingredients and fulfilled others or lived a lie. And did I live a life that became exquisite and rare? Undoubtedly, many would state no.

Accordingly, as a Buddhist, can one find peace in a truthful life or does one surrender to the lies? Some say Buddhism focuses on the unhappy side of life or takes a pessimistic view? This may be because there is an extreme focus upon suffering. However, this is only one side of the story.

I would like to say that by focusing on suffering, I am somehow actually committed to realizing and developing happiness. In fact, there are many kinds of happiness which are both true and lasting. There can be some form of contentment, freedom of enjoyment, debtlessness and happiness from being good.

But I believe it is a choice we must be willing to make. Are we living a truthful life or surrendering to lies?

Hunger is Universal

MoneyThe NCAA tournament makes my blood boil, especially with the disparity of money strewn around. Head NCAA basketball coaches, along with head football coaches, are usually the highest paid employees of a college or university. Terms of their employment are spelled out in great detail within complicated contracts that often span dozens of pages. For instance, when the University of Louisville beat Michigan State University, Coach Rick Pitino earned an additional $50,000 bonus on top of his salary of more than $3 million. Ohio State University Coach Thad Matta earned over $1.6 million a year. Yet he received $20,000 bonus when his team beat the University of Cincinnati.

So how about the college kids who made the shots, the free throws and performed the week-in week-out work? What kind of bonus did they receive? Zip. Zero. Zilch. In fact, University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier created quite an uproar when telling reporters he goes to bed “starving” because he can’t afford food.

In maybe the most absurd NCAA-related story you’ll ever read, the eligibility of three University of Oklahoma student-athletes was in jeopardy after they ate too much pasta at a graduation banquet, which apparently is some sort of infraction. In order to regain their eligibility, each player had to donate $3.83 (the cost of the serving) to charity. Today one of the players tweeted that he donated $5.00 because he feels like he ate more than $3.83 worth of pasta.

So let me remind you, the top ten NCAA college coaches made in excess of $35 million dollars last season. Let me remind you that in 2010 the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8-billion contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise its men’s basketball tournament. The vast majority of those dollars will go to elite programs while smaller athletics departments will have to continue to rely upon their tournament distribution to support the day-to-day activities that keep their programs afloat. Still, at the end of the day, many go hungry.

There is nothing ‘moral‘ about the NCAA’s portrayal of vulnerable kids playing basketball and receiving a degree as to the betterment of the kid. That’s a national disgrace and tends to distort our humanity of life and living as something wonderful. The “poor kid gets a college degree” is so overused. Yet every March, this tried and true rule is used to disparage those who call for change.

In a broader context, many fail to see how life … imitates life. A hungry NCAA college player mirrors our own world. In truth, one in seven Americans uses food stamps—that’s more than twice 2000’s number. The fastest-growing groups of participants are people with jobs, who work all year round. Many of these workers are employed by big retail chains like Wal-Mart, whose operations that take in tens of billions of dollars in food stamps.

Yet, Fifty-nine (59) percent of the Wal-Mart PAC’s contributions to congressional House members who voted on the minimum wage increase went to candidates who opposed the increase, while 95 percent of individual Walton family member contributions went to candidates who opposed the increase. Micheal Duke made approximately $1000 for every $1 of an associate’s. This imbalance equates to about $23 million annually. Mike Krzyzewski receives approximately $7.2 million.

Here’s what strange, Warren E Buffett, as in the Warren Buffet of the Berkshire Hathaway fame, collected $490,000 million salary. This begs the question, “Why?” Why does Duke need $23 million? Why does Krzyzewski require $7.2 million?

It’s rare in all this dialogue that serious evidence offered for their assertions. Both the NCAA, businesses at large and congressional candidates don’t present statements of fact; they are declarations of faith. In truth, hunger is just as real whether you’re an NCAA player or live as a poor farmer in middle America. And in spite of all the rhetoric, there’s ample evidence that some Washington programs significantly reduce poverty.

Programs like Medicaid and food stamps are (brace yourself) “entitlements.” That means that when recession hits and more people need them, spending on these programs goes up. That may or not be good for the federal budget, but it’s good for the poor, who can see a doctor and afford food in good times as well as bad. With block grants, by contrast, Washington gives the states a fixed amount of money irrespective of fluctuations in need. When times are good, the block grant may be sufficient. When they aren’t, the states—most of which are legally barred from running deficits—generally cut benefits.

Alleviating stubborn poverty is difficult and expensive. Direct government aid — money, food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and the like — is not enough. Poor people need employment that offers a brighter future for themselves and their children. Which means they need job skills. Which means they need education. Which means they need good schools and safe streets.

Education and good schools mean little when you’re hungry. And to afford good schools, people need jobs.

Got Milk?

MilkI intended to write another thought today, but a story off the wire caught my attention. The newswires summarized the following:

Toad Suck, AR (no I am not making that up) resident Sasha Adams was arrested in November 2013 in a Conway, AR bar for endangering the welfare of a child. Her child. Apparently waitress Jackie Connors believed Ms. Adams was endangering her child and called the police.

Police stated, “… we got a report that you are drinking alcohol while breast-feeding.” Ms. Adams replied, “…Okay. I didn’t know that it was illegal.

It wasn’t. But the officers made a judgment call and arrested Adams anyway, implying alcohol laced breast milk endangered the welfare of her child.

What captured my interest were just a handful of bloggers. On Friday, “hlandggreenenga” noted “Protecting others, especially children and the elderly who can’t protect themselves IS our business. In some states it’s a crime not to report what seems to be criminal (sic) acts against them.” Blogger “allen bellman” wrote, “Nothing but praise for the waitress, and for the restaurant, a customer is more valuable then a health of a baby. The mother ?????? I guess everyone is called a mother. And who the heck would want to see a woman breast feeding (sic) a baby while eating in a restaurant.

Strangely it’s not a crime in any state for a woman to carry a pregnancy full-term if she has a drug problem, and no state has a law that makes a woman liable for the outcome of her pregnancy. Still, many states can arrest a woman for child abuse on the basis of positive tests for – or reports of – substance abuse. Poor, black, southern women are mostly likely to be arrested, with 74% of those arrests requiring a public defender.

To highlight, South Carolina mother Stephanie Greene, 39 was sentenced this past Friday to 20 years in prison for killing her six-week-old daughter via an overdose of morphine delivered through her breast milk. Prosecutors stated Ms. Greene was a nurse and knew the dangers of taking painkillers while pregnant and breast feeding, but chose to conceal her pregnancy from doctors to keep receiving prescriptions.

Those involved with the case say this was the first time a mother had been prosecuted for killing her child through drug-tainted breast milk. Greene’s attorney, Rauch Wise, said his client needed painkillers to function with the chronic pain she suffered from in addition to fibromyalgia. An expert witness for the defense had testified that a genetic test would have shown whether Alexis lacked a specific enzyme that could have broken down morphine. Still, Wise expects Greene to appeal Greene’s conviction, claiming there is little scientific evidence to prove a fatal dose of morphine can pass from mother to child through breastfeeding.

Quoting directly from respected medical literature, “… opiates used as medicines — morphine, meperidine and codeine — are excreted into the milk in minimal amounts and are compatible with breastfeeding, as are benzodiazepines, as long as they are taken in controlled doses. These are the drugs most frequently prescribed to women during pregnancy and after birth.”

Nonetheless blogger Joeline Starkey wrote of Greene, “… this sick, twisted incubator (she doesn’t deserve the title mother), should serve prison for the rest of her miserable life for the murder of her baby! it takes a sick person to do what she did, and she will get what she deserves.”

And just as a side note … neither the husband for Ms. Greene nor Ms. Adams was ever charged with a crime or neglect. Why Not?

Returning full-circle, the world for those like Sasha Adams and Stephanie Greene is changing. And to the Jackie Connors of the world who want to control every aspect’s of a child’s life, from impregnation to adulthood, I request them ponder the original questions posed in my essay “Real Solutions Never Fit.” None of them have yet to be answered.

“Questions must be asked and answers must be given. Does second hand smoke harm an unborn child? How about a living child? If second hand smoke does indeed inflict harm, do we punish the mother for allowing harm to her child or should we punish both the mother and smoker?  Here’s another; the automobile is great for personal freedom, but exhaust fumes are known cancer toxins. Should a car owner be punished for assault if their vehicle passes a pregnant woman? Can a child sue their next door neighbor for cancer causing toxins twenty-years later? If “personhood initiative” backers really want to be fair, shouldn’t society ban air fresheners, ammonia, bleach, antifreeze, drain cleaners, laundry detergent and oven cleaners? How come we don’t jail company executives who produce toxic products that local stores stock and sell? And how do we prosecute those local store owners? If a pregnant US citizen travels overseas and experiences a miscarriage in another country, how do we investigate and apply proper jurisprudence? Or do we simply perform extradition back to the country where the crime occurred? Can abortion doctors be tried for crimes against humanity? Should society charge parents for allowing their children play in full-contact sports such as football; thereby exposing them to potentially certifiable head trauma?”

So what’s the solution? The solution does not easily fit into our black and white news cycle. Real solutions never do.

The DashWhile staying at a friend’s home, my heart decided to take a sudden vacation. Thus, for a minute or so I had no heartbeat. Having a fatal disease, I accept the fact that, at any one moment in time, I could “check-out” into the neither-land of life.  For the moment, I cannot recall white lights, beckoning of dead relatives or anything noticeable. I do however recall a voice telling me I had to return.

Having earned a living in the insurance business, I’ve been offered an uncommon view of death. Within the walls of most major life insurance companies, life is summarized via a series of seemingly simple screens. Underneath those screens lie a web of heuristics and algorithms that would make IBM Watson proud. Each applicant is analyzed by the totality of known medical conditions, statistically rating everything from an ingrown hair to heart disease. After the analysis, insurance contracts are filled with legalese that tests the nerves of most claimants, including terms such as exclusions, cash value, premiums and benefits leave claimants left in the dark about exactly how their benefit was determined.

Most are unaware that life insurance companies can summarize an applicant’s life via seven (7) simple computerized screens. The first screen captures your basic information: male or female, address, birthdate, Social Security Number, premium paid, life insurance amount, etc. The second and third screen is all about finances, especially how much accumulated debt, credit history and credit score. Fourth and fifth screen is one’s medical information and history. These screens run an applicant through the Medical Information Bureau looking for undisclosed medical conditions, prescriptions and physician statements of health. Insurers will also check driving records, arrests records and warrants as well as employment history. The sixth screen is basically how one died, i.e., the cause of death and autopsy report. The last screen is the claim approval or denial.

The same principles apply in regular everyday life. Ever send a resume electronically? If yes, chances are your life has been measured by some algorithm before anyone saw it, if at all. Want that Starbucks coffee? Then whipping out the ol’ credit card ensures some computer program in a faraway database will analyze every purchase, your likes and dislikes as well as future tendencies.

Society tends to measure our life by credit card purchases, homes, smart phones, iPads, iPods, data this data that.  We interact upon almost every aspect of life via a phone that it’s extremely difficult to engage in normal day-to-day conversations, even during death. For example, Scott Simon, a host on National Public Radio, shared his mother’s journey into death with more than 1.2 million followers, through dozens of tweets.

Thus, as I watched hospital staff and the interaction of caregivers, I longed to reinforce some key fundamental Buddhist thoughts. While the measure of one’s life varies from culture to culture, from individual to individual, our measurement must be based on both ideology and personal values. Dying is both a great challenger and equalizer. It breaks into our lives and smashes our personal boundaries of what life is all about. We must reach beyond our own algorithms that define us and remember to invest in someone beyond the analysis. Algorithms care little for the personal. It is we who have to remember the personal.

My hospital room reminded that life is not about the birth-date or date of death, it’s about the dash in-between. I imagined my life without a partner, a family member or a close friend. Facing death and being in pain seems a sorrowful battle when fought alone. Facing any crisis alone is extremely challenging.

To that end, why can’t all of us reach beyond the electronics and algorithms of life and give to the needs and wishes of one another? Doing so would be very Buddhist, very Christ-like.