Archive for December, 2009

Stocking stuffers

I’ve always been a fan of Christmas stockings.  Even though I practice Buddhism, our family still observes Christmas, in a secular way, as a time to bring some fun and joy into each others’ lives.  And so, we do make use of Christmas stockings.  Imagine my surprise, then, when yesterday morning I found that my stocking contained not only greatly appreciated chocolates, but also a… Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.  (If this does not ring a bell, check out my earlier posts.)  On Christmas Eve, a guy at a party I was attending was singing the praises of the MCME to another guest, and I remarked, somewhat dreamily, “Wow!  I wonder whether anyone’s getting me one of those for Chrismas…”  Evidently, Santa listened, because this is what I found in my stocking:

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser box!

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser box!

The instructions are simple enoughL 1. Wet (squeeze out excess water.) 2. Erase.

And as you’ll see from the box, I am now the proud owner of two (2) magic erasers.  Just in time for holiday cleaning. I am so glad that I did not bother to clean my stove before Christmas, because now I will be able to do Before and After photos for this blog.  In fact, I will try my best to cook something really messy tonight, so that I can give the MCME a really good test, starting tomorrow.

Now, just in case you are like me and have never glimpsed an actual MCME, here’s a picture of the pad itself:

magic eraser

You can’t experience the texture from the photo, unfortunately, but I can tell you that it certainly does not feel like anything that would be able to produce the results it boasts are possible.  It feels soft, rather than abrasive.  More like a Tempurpedic mattress than an SOS pad.  Which makes the whole idea of using it even more intriguing.  How can something that feels so nice in your hand whup grime’s butt?  My guess, is that what makes it work is… magic.  Hence the name.

You’ll have to wait until my next post to hear for sure how well it works, – can I use it to clean not only my stove, but my karma, as I’ve been hoping to be able to do?  I can’t say for sure,  but I think it will most likely work magically, like a dream.  Magic. Dreams.  Wonderful. After all, that’s what this season is all about, isn’t it?  So, wish me luck, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll find that a little bit of magic comes into your life this holiday season.


Visions of Sugarplums

Sugarplums!  (Thanks to Anonymous for this photo!)

Sugarplums! (Thanks to Anonymous for this photo!)

Ever wonder what sugarplums really are?  And why fairies are associated with them?  Or how visions of them dance in kids’ heads?  Well, I can’t answer the last two queries, but I can tell you what sugarplums are, at least according to the recipe I use.  They are a mixture of ground nuts and dried fruits which you then roll into small balls and coat with sugar.  They are one of the treats I make every year at Christmastime, and most people really like them – well, except for Renee’s dad and all the other folks who are too polite to tell me they can’t stand them. My friends Heather and Neil are particularly big fans – Neil can’t chew food on his own, but Heather will put little bits of sugarplums in his mouth and let them just dissolve.  He loves them! And at my house, I enlist Mike and Em to help me roll them, but at my own peril, because I think they consume as many as they put on the serving plate.  But that’s okay.  And yes, Nicole and Quinn – they are vegan!  So, for my blog post this week, I’m giving you the sugarplum recipe.  Technically, these are Byzantine Sugarplums, and the recipe is from a cookbook by Mimi Sheridan.  (Can’t remember the name of it…)   Okay, here goes…

3 lbs. (altogether) dates, figs and raisins  (Make sure the dates are pitted!! And trim the little ends off the tops of the figs. I use a combination of light and dark figs, and black raisins, but you could use golden raisins, too.  Use whatever proportions you want!)

1/2 lb walnuts or almonds

1/2 lb shelled pistachios

1/2 lb crystallized ginger

grated rind of 2 oranges

(3T brandy, optional – use this if the mixture seems too dry to stick together)

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until they are more or less evenly mixed. Then grind them in a food processor, in batches, until they are very finely chopped, but not a paste.  (If you don’t process them enough, they won’t stick together when you try to roll them.  If in doubt, take a teaspoonful and press it between your fingers.  Everything should stay stuck together.)  Once you’ve ground everything up, roll into balls about 1 1/2 inches wide.  Then roll each ball in granulated sugar.  (In our family, we use red, green and white sugar, to have sugarplums of three colors. But you could use any color sugar you want!)  You can eat them right away or put them in an airtight container.  They’ll keep really well that way – there’s nothing in them that will spoil.  The only danger is that they might get a little dried out – hence the advice to store them in a tin or other airtight container.

Yield: LOTS!!!  One recipe will easily make around 100 sugarplums, so feel free to make a smaller batch if you want!

I hope you’ll try these out, and I hope you’ll enjoy making and eating them.  They are a standard part of our holiday menu.  Maybe they’ll become part of yours!  Whether or not they do, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season full of many sweet moments and good cheer!

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Riding the wind

On the wall outside the Center I have a bulletin board on which I’ve posted info about the Center, a list of those of us who practice there, our business cards, and a schedule of upcoming events.  All of this is secured with either staples or pushpins to a thick sheet of background paper.  Or used to be.

When I first opened the Center in June, I noticed that when I posted cards and flyers on the board with pushpins, they would often blow off.  I’d find pushpins on the sidewalk near the door on an almost daily basis.  One day I came and found that all of the cards I’d stapled up to show who practices at the Center were in place, except one.  That was weird?  Had someone carefully unstapled one card when they could have just taken one from a pile at the bottom of the board?  I didn’t know.  I just replaced the card.

Before you read on, you have to realize that Easthampton gives Chicago a good run for the title of Windy City.  I both live and work in Easthampton, and I do not think I have ever lived in a windier place.  I know there are karmic implications of that, but I won’t go into it… Suffice it to say that about two weeks ago, after a particularly windy night, I showed up at the Center to find that absolutely everything had been blown off the bulletin board – backing sheet, cards, notices – everything except for the list of practitioners and the cards adjacent to them.

I thought that was peculiar, but I went out and got new backing paper and carefully redid the bulletin board, this time with lots more staples.  But all the while, I was wondering about the symbolism of the incident. Those of you who know me can attest that I’m big on looking metaphorically at whatever happens in my life, from aches and pains to events in my life.  And so, what could it mean that nearly all the information about my Center was repeatedly being swept away by karmically-induced gusts of wind?  I was having trouble seeing anything positive in it.

And so I began remarking on it to my friends.  Maybe they could see something in it that I didn’t.  Something upbeat and optimistic.  The first friend I told about it, Teri, saw it as a fresh start, that things were being cleared away to make room for the new.  I appreciated that, and wondered whether there was some new way I should be organizing the bulletin board.  I didn’t come to any conclusions.  Instead of rethinking anything, I just did the board pretty much the same way, just with more reinforcing.

A faulty approach, as I learned yesterday morning.  I showed up at the Center.  A glance at the board showed that all was in order.  I opened up, meditated, sat and read a bit, then did Reiki for a new client.  As I was leaving the Center at noontime, my gaze lit on the bulletin board.  Which was once again totally empty.  Except for the list of practitioners and the accompanying cards. In spite of the extra staples and the extra care I took to secure everything, it had all been taken by the wind to who knows where.

So what did I do yesterday afternoon?  I went right out and bought more paper to redo the board for the third time.  But I haven’t yet put anything up, because it seems pretty clear to me by now that I haven’t grasped the metaphorical significance of the repeated clearing of the board.  And so, last night, when some of my friends had gathered to spend the evening with me at the Center, I posed the question: what does this all mean?

My other friend Terry felt it could be negative forces at work.  She started to say that, but then stopped in mid-sentence.  Perhaps she didn’t want to be perceived as seeming negative, but I knew where she was going with it.  I said that I’ve heard it said by one Buddhist teacher that when you really devote yourself to your practice and are doing helpful things with it, then the forces of evil ramp up to try to stop you.  Terry thought something like that might be going on.  Pissy demons trying to piss me off by dismantling my bulletin board display.  Only it wasn’t working. I wasn’t pissed off, just dismayed.

Shirley, who practices at the Center, had a comforting thought about the fate of all the notices and cards that take flight and ride on the wind.  When I wondered aloud about where they have all ended up, she said she’s sure that they end up making their way to those who can use them, people who don’t ever come by the Center.  But maybe they’re walking along one day, look down at the sidewalk or the grass, see a card or a piece of paper, pick it up – and it leads them to us because they needed to find their way to us.  A comforting interpretation.

Another friend, Judy, when she heard that what has remained each time is the list of those of us who practice healing arts at the Center, said maybe the incidents are simply highlighting the fact that what’s key in the endeavor is the core group of healers, of that community.  That although we have various events, classes and sitting times, what really holds the place together is the group.  The Sangha.  When the wind took everything else, our little sangha remained. Secure.  Unflappable in the face of the Easthampton hurricane-force winds.  The strength of the Center is in those of us connected to us, and we lend that strength to each other and everyone who visits the Center.

What a beautiful thought.  It doesn’t contradict Terry’s idea of demon-saboteurs, either.  It’s just that we have the fortitude to withstand anything that comes our way. So maybe that’s all I need to learn from this situation: t0 cherish and nurture this group of us, united in our healing and spiritual practice, because that shared practice is a source of strength and love for all of us.  And, by extension, for all who come to the Center.  Sure, the classes and the meditation hours and the healing sessions are nice, but it’s what underlies all of those practices that counts: the love we do our best to send out to everyone around us, every moment.  Riding the wind.

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The Sims – Dharma Expansion

**See my corrections at the end – thanks to Renee & Em for setting me straight!**

My daughter, Emily, has recently begun playing The Sims 3.  For those of you who are not in the loop, The Sims 3 is a computer game that allows you to create characters and direct all manner of their interactions with other characters.  You make them look the way you want, in terms of physical appearance, and you can specify certain personality traits, likes, and  dislikes.

Once you input all of this information about your character and start playing the game, the character’s life begins to unfold.  As I understand it, from a technical standpoint, the game software takes the character’s data and then incorporates it into some ongoing life plan.  So, if your Sim (as the characters are generically called, although you give each of them a name) likes music and is outgoing, perhaps they will end up with a job as a band promoter.  If they like music and are introverted, perhaps they’ll end up being a solitary composer.  You get the idea.

Along the way, you as the game player are responsible for meeting the character’s basic survival needs.  There are little graphs on the screen for each character you’re controlling which show, for example, their level of energy, hunger, bladder fullness, hygiene and social.  (If you’re at all like me, bladder fullness is inextricably linked to sociability.  I don’t know whether that holds for Sims…) Seems to me they should have a happiness rating, but that’s just me.  Based on those indicators, you can direct the Sims to, say, make themselves a peanut butter sandwich. And of course, you can direct their leisure activities, too. What’s more, you get to build the Sims a house, decorate it, etc., etc.

And yet, all the big events of the Sims’ lives are totally outside your control, even if you turn off “free will.”  (Emily turned off free will right away, when her first Sim, Audrey, instead of going out and looking for a job, as Emily had directed her to do, instead ended up having drinks with a guy at a bar!)  So, Emily’s new Sim, Gregor, somehow acquired and lost a girlfriend, then got married to another woman.  They both got jobs, got promoted, and then, suddenly, a son appeared.  Then another. The day Emily announced that the couple was expecting their third child, I said, “Three kids?  Already?”  Emily was equally surprised.  “I know!” she replied.   We both agreed that these parents did not have time for another child.  But luckily there was room in the house for an extra bedroom, and their levels seemed to stay high, so I guess they were doing something right. But again, there are no happiness indicators, so who knows how things are really going.

Then yesterday, Emily announced that Gregor, the pater familias, had “aged up” (to use Sims lingo) and was now elderly.  I glanced at him: Sure enough, his hair was gray, and Emily informed me that one of the perqs of aging up to this level was that now he was authorized to wear what the Russians call a “xalat”, a kind of dressing gown, or bathrobe.  I found that vaguely depressing:  age up, get a bathrobe.  Just hang around the house all day without even having to get dressed.

Next I took a look at the rest of the family and saw that the youngest son looked barely out of toddlerhood. That seemed problematic, mainly because of what Emily had told me last week: unless you turn off aging (oh, would that it were possible in real life!!!) all Sims die after 90 Sim days.  90 days to expiration date.   To my mind, that put them in the category of long-lived  fruit flies.  90 days.

And so, when Emily reported Gregor’s “aging up” yesterday, I felt a catch in my throat.  I stared at her, my eyes wide in horror.  “But look at the little one, he’s barely a toddler!” I cried.  “And Holly, how old is she now?”  Emily replied that Holly was due to age up, too.  I wasn’t pleased.  It didn’t matter that their oldest son was now a teenager – Emily gave him a new hairdo, but fortunately decided not to give him a scraggly, teenager mustache – because it was preying on my mind that Gregor was moving inexorably toward his 90th Sim day… and extinction.

Then, later yesterday evening, a new development.  Holly hadn’t aged up as expected.  “Some glitch in the game,” Emily surmised.  “She’s still just an adult.” As opposed to a senior citizen.  A glitch?  I wondered.  The way it seemed to me, old man Gregor now just had a hot, young wife.  Maybe not a glitch at all, depending on who wrote the software for the game…  Anyway, the fact that Holly was still an adult afforded me a bit of comfort.  The children might not be orphaned quite yet.

“What happens when a Sim dies?” I asked casually. “Do they have a funeral?”  “We’ll have to wait and see,” she replied. Seeing that this was troubling me, she added, “You can turn off aging if you want.”  “And then it’s just like some sit com, where everyone’s perpetually a young adult?”  “I guess so.”

I’m wondering whether life  for Gregor’s Sim family will just go on without him. Will his family members’ energy and sociability levels go down?  And how will Emily rectify it if they do?  I can’t imagine it’s as easy as simply directing them to make themselves a peanut butter sandwich or to go to bed early.

I guess we’ll just have to wait, as Emily said.  But I have the impression that the Sims are probably a pretty resilient, stoic bunch. I mean, if there are no happiness meters, maybe that means they  find monitoring their emotional state a waste of time.   I imagine they’ll go on about their routine, eating, drinking and decorating.  Maybe Holly will get married again, since she seems to have found the fountain of Sim youth.

Even so, I was surprised at the way my heart constricted when I found out that the Sims die after 90 days.  Maybe it’s because it made it so painfully obvious that their lives are all for naught.  At least in my view.  A few nice meals here and there, a beautiful house.  A well-paying job and sociability, energy and bladder fullness gauges that are kept within acceptable levels.  That seems to be what the Sims are all about.  Not to mention many of their human counterparts.  But no matter what the player does, those characters die, just like humans, leaving their Sim family behind.  Just like humans.  And so, what does it mean that the game has no way to monitor whether characters are slipping into grief and depression?  If I were cynical, I might say that the game’s creators are suggesting that the Sims have all they could possibly need in order to be perpetually happy, so there’s no need for a happiness gauge.

And if I were to continue to be cynical, I might worry that The Sims could give those who play the wrong idea about where one should expect to derive happiness in life.  I could be wrong.  After all, I don’t play the game; I just look over Emily’s shoulder and pass judgment.  I’m sure I’ll get a better idea of how this all works once Gregor reaches 90 days old.  I’m hoping for a big fancy funeral.  And that maybe Holly will have a big spiritual breakthrough in the midst of her grief.  But if she does, we’ll never know, because there’s no spirituality gauge.

Clearly, what we need is a dharma expansion pack for The Sims, with gauges for meditation, spiritual study, realizations, merit, and so on.  That would send a positive message to the people who play it.  It’s a natural.  After all, the Sims’ creators and the Buddha already have one thing in common – they both give you a way to turn off aging and death.

Corrections:  Emily and her friend Renee have set me straight about a few facts of Sims life.  Turns out there is a happiness meter.  I was really glad to hear that.  And what’s more, you do get a sense of the Sims’ moods from what Em says are called “moodlets”. As I understand it, these are little indicators that pop up from time to time to tell you how the situations in the Sims’ lives are affecting their mood, so that you can have them engage in activities that will increase their happiness.  So, Emily said that Gregor’s good friend just died, and so his moodlet showed that he was grieving.  And so, Em said, Gregor’s wife Holly has been doing a lot of consoling.  She also said that when the Sims have kids, their happiness ratings go way up.  My own personal happiness and comfort gauges went way up when I learned all of this.  I felt a whole lot better about the whole Sims world when it became clear that they do experience the normal range of human emotions, and that as the game player, you can have the characters engage each other in supportive and compassionate ways.  I guess there’s more of the dharma in the Sims than I realized.  A very pleasant surprise indeed.  Thanks, Renee & Em!