Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Penny Here, A Nickel There...

Not that I found three-dollar-and-seventy-one-cent gasoline such a big thrill that I had to rush right out and start snapping photos of signs, but...

...I guess I'll take $3.71 over $3.99 or $4.07 any day.

Word on the street is that we're heading down to about the $3.50 mark. Yay. Still pretty outrageous, if you ask me.

I don't usually pay very close attention to gas prices. I don't know who's got it a couple cents cheaper than whom, or how much it was last week compared to today. But, as we all know, it's as big a topic of conversation as which team Brett Favre may or may not be playing for this season in the NFL. (and if you don't live in this state, be grateful...because as much as you're hearing about it, we're being bombarded one hundred times over.)

I've always lived by the rule that when my gas tank is empty...or close...I stop and put in some gas. (Feel free to use this method of operation for yourself. It seems to work well.) I figure that gas prices are out of my control, so...why waste what limited brain resources I have remembering who's got it the cheapest?

Four-dollar gasoline, however, makes people sit up and take notice. Four...bucks!

It hasn't deterred me from driving where I want to drive, or forced me to buy a moped to travel (slowly) across the state, or prompted me to write a letter to George W. Bush telling him what an idiot he is and what a terrible job he's doing. (who needs high gas prices to do that, anyway?)

No, what caused me to stop and take a photo of a gas station sign tonight was a regular feature that we run in our newspaper, highlighting events and news stories from 10 years ago, 25 years ago and 45 years ago.

Anyone care to guess what the average price was for a gallon of gasoline across the state of Wisconsin 10 years ago this week? (make your guesses quickly...or read more slowly...because the answer's coming up in the next paragraph or two.)

Let's see...that was 10 years ago, and Bush has been The Decider Guy for eight of those 10 years. Hmm...maybe he is to blame! Because we all know that if Al Gore had been president for the last eight years, all of our vehicles would run on banana peels and tap water by now. And they'd fly, too!

Ten years ago, one gallon of gasoline across the state of Wisconsin cost $1.14.

Makes that sign up there still look pretty sickening, doesn't it?

"The way things are going, we are not too far
from the day when it will take an hour's labor
just to pay for the gasoline to get to the job."
—Sherwood Boehlert

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Om Mani Padme Hum: Part II

Not that I’m trying to turn this into Gregg's Little Spiritual Corner of the Web, but if Eckhart Tolle was deserving of a blog post a couple entries ago, then I’m pretty sure this next guy warrants a few hundred words as well.

I spent more than an hour with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Saturday.

(If the first thought that pops into your head when you read that is, “Big hitter, the Lama,” don’t be ashamed. My brain works that way, too.)

Not exactly one-on-one time, mind you. The Tibetan spiritual leader was in Madison and gave a public talk at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum, so I had to split time with about 7,000 of my closest friends.

I first heard about his visit on Friday morning, and had a ticket by the lunch hour. He had also been in Madison in the spring of 2007, but that event was sold out.

I’ve spent my share of time in coliseums and amphitheaters and other buildings where sizable crowds gather, listening to singers belt out a lyric or musicians strum guitar chords.

This…was a totally different dynamic.

The Dalai Lama walked out slowly and the crowd stood and began sort of a low, courteous applause. When he got to his high-back chair in the middle of a sparsely decorated stage, he made a motion with his arms for everyone to sit...but instead, the applause immediately grew much louder and more enthusiastic.

The words of Gov. Jim Doyle’s introduction, who mentioned that the Dalai Lama often refers to himself as “just a simple Buddhist monk,” were illustrated when the Dalai Lama began by saying that some come to see him because they think he has great religious power or spiritual power or healing power...but in fact, he says, he has none of those powers.

He times. With many..short...pauses..between his words. And then...sometimes as he was making a point, his voice would raise up an octave or two, and he would stay that high for a dozen words before coming back down, and taking...a few..more...pauses..while he spoke.

A favorite phrase, noticeably overused during his speech, was, “ therefore...”

Often difficult to understand, partly because of his accent and his understated speaking style, and partly because I was in the nosebleed of all nosebleed seats in the coliseum, the Dalai Lama’s message was one that almost all of us have heard before: compassion, affection, humility, kindness to other people.

He stressed that we cannot achieve peace in the outer world until there is peace within each of us. “Frustration leads to anger, and anger leads to violence,” he said.

While I didn’t conduct a straw poll of those around me, I’d imagine that many in the crowd were there, sure, to hear the words he had to share with the audience. But also, simply to be in his presence.

After he spoke for about 35 minutes, he spent another 35 minutes answering audience questions, which were pre-written on cards and delivered by his aide who was on stage with him throughout the speech.

The questions ranged from a middle-aged widow’s request for advice on how to overcome her deep sadness and depression at the recent loss of her husband, to the Dalai Lama’s opinion on the Chinese government, to the source of his strength.

“Good sleep, and good food,” the Dalai Lama said with a laugh in answer to the last question.

Big hitter, the Lama.

“Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate
kindness and compassion.”
—Dalai Lama

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Bogey-Free Round...With A Little Help

Last Sunday I played in my first-ever "full-sized" golf scramble.

I've golfed in one other scramble, a couple years ago, but that was on a par-3 course, so I really didn't count that.

Now I can say I've played on a big boy's course. And the results, while they could have been a shot or two better, made me hungry to go back out and give it another try.

It was the cause that got me to agree to the scramble in the first place, as these days I'm not getting out on the course nearly as much as I used to. Our local autism chapter sponsored the tournament, and my buddy's son is autistic. He and his wife were two of the organizers of the event, so it made sense that three-quarters of our four-man dart team should go hack it up on the course for a day.

My other buddy's father-in-law rounded out our foursome, and I don't think any of us had big expectations for the day, except to hit a couple/few shots that we weren't embarrassed to call our own, and enjoy a couple cold beverages on a gorgeous July day. None of us are tremendously hideous golfers, but none of us are Tiger Woods, either.

I got pretty excited for the whole event, cleaning up my clubs the night before, and digging through every pocket of my golf bag. I didn't count 'em all...but I'm pretty sure I found about a hundred golf balls in there. (several of which will have to be deposited, driver-style, into the lake off the dock next time I go up nort.)

I cleaned up my golf shoes that I haven't worn in three or more years, and I reached high on a shelf in my closet and pulled out a couple new sleeves of my favorite golf ball...the Molitor Scary Long, by Spalding.

Now, it's not my favorite because it's a two- or three-piece ball, or it's got a balata cover or whatever other technical reason you can dream up for liking a golf ball. Nope. I like this ball because it's....."Scary Long!" (says so right there on the ball.) And because when they were available, they were nine bucks for fifteen balls.

When we used to golf a couple times a week, my buddies probably got so tired of hearing me say, "Scary lonnngg!" a dozen times each round. And rather than pronounce it "Molitor" like the former baseball player Paul Molitor...I'd always say "Moli-TOR." Don't ask me why. But I did it again on Sunday. Many times over. And I had a blast.

The tournament was held at The National Course at Fox Hills, a course I knew very well once upon a time, because I had a job there my first summer out of high school...which was the summer it opened.

I shoveled more than my share of shovels full of limestone onto the cart paths (which have since been replaced by asphalt...all my hard work, paved over!) and woke up at ungodly hours of the morning to mow the greens. Employees had free golfing privileges, and I bet I can count on three fingers the number of times I golfed that summer. (I was still a tennis player then...not a golfer. Not that I'm a golfer now, either, but...)

So anyway...we get to our first tee (which was the 10th), and no one wants to be the one to duff the first shot, so I take it upon myself to tee up a Moli-TOR, and send one out there far enough to be good, and in the short grass.

My tournament's officially a success. I can pack it in...let's go home.

The other guys aren't any better on their drives, so we use my shot in the fairway, and I send another shot up near the green, a little to the left, but pin high. That one's playable, too. We chip it on and put it in the hole for a par. Smooth start.

Our second hole is a par-3 over water, and the prize for a hole-in-one is a new car. I send a nice easy 5-wood (shut up) through the air and it lands on the green...but it's about 25 feet from the hole. (I like my car, anyway.) Two putts and we're in for another par.

Just as I start to think that this game is pretty easy, I step up to the next tee and my Scary Long turns into a Scary HIGH. I'm pretty sure I knocked down a seagull with that ball, and it landed maybe ten yards in front of the women's tee. "I should have gone home after my first drive," I mumble to myself.

The rest of our round was filled with different guys stepping up at different times, and coming through with shots that kept us in it. We might not have done anything fancy, but we did OK. A couple downhill 10-footers for birdies, and sixteen pars, and we found the clubhouse at 2-under. (I would add here that I made one of those birdie putts, but that might sound like bragging. So I'll leave that part out.)

We had plenty of decent looks at birdie putts during our round, from eight, ten, twelve feet away. My buddy's father-in-law's mantra was, "Never leave a birdie putt short." And time and time...and time...again, we left 'em short. I was the biggest culprit. My putter and my brain just didn't know how to work together. I hit twelve-foot putts nine feet, and I hit thirty-foot putts twenty-two feet. And I got a little frustrated.

But then I recalled how many times I've golfed in the past three years (like...fewer than ten), and I reached for my beer and looked forward to teeing off on the next hole.

Realistically, we had a good chance at finishing around 5-under. And that would have been a good number. Because when we went in for the post-golf dinner and raffle and awards ceremony, we learned that the winning score was.........3-under.

That speaks more to the fact that the 16 teams in the field were pretty average golfers than it does to the fact that we were good enough to finish only one stroke out of first place. I would guess that in a competitive scramble, a winning score would be closer to 10-under, but I can't say for sure.

It still would have been sweet to win it, though. Fifty bucks a man for placing first...and an evening of "What ifs" and "If onlys" for the runners-up.

I also bought forty bucks worth of raffle tickets.
And guess what I won there.


It was for a good cause...
...and I can't wait to tee off next year.

"Golf is a game whose aim is to hit
a very small ball into an even smaller hole,
with weapons singularly ill-designed
for the purpose."
—Winston Churchill

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Om Mani Padme Hum

Curiosity got the best of me tonight, and led me to a workshop involving some ideas that have always intrigued me, but about which I know very little.

Our local art museum is sponsoring three sessions that introduce Qigong practice, silent meditation, and the spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle.

I was most interested in viewing the DVD interview with Tolle, after hearing about him and his book, A New Earth, from my sister. I skimmed through her copy and added it to my list of possible reads, but then found out that he wrote a book before that one that was also a huge success, called The Power of Now.

About a month ago I purchased that one, but hadn't had the urge to go too far past the first few pages, until now. I think it's vaulted to the top of my reading list. Whether I find the reading as interesting as I found his interview is yet to be determined.

The workshop tonight began with a meditation expert leading the group through various Qigong exercises. (for those of you who don't click the link, it's pronounced chi-KUNG.) I'd never heard of it before, but it seems to be a close relative of Tai Chi.

After 15 minutes of Qigong, we sat for 15 minutes of silent meditation and were advised, as in most forms of meditation, to concentrate on following our breathing. (did I mention I was really there for the hour-long Tolle interview?)

When I was considering whether or not to attend tonight, I wondered what kind of crowd a workshop like this might draw, and what the demographic would be. There were more than 40 people, most of them women at least 15 to 30 years older than me, but there were two other guys there, also, and a couple women in their 30s.

Not that I exactly had visions of telling my children years from now, "Yeah, Junior, your mom and I met one night while we were both learning to pronounce chi-KUNG." It wasn't what I would call a singles hot spot, is what I'm getting at.

But I digress.

I don't scoff at meditation and practices like Tai Chi and Qigong, but not being an avid practitioner, I couldn't help but lose focus a bit and look around the room to see how others were doing. Some were experienced at Qigong and knew the moves and their meanings, while others were just as green as I was.

Turns out I wasn't the only one paying attention to my neighbor. During the Qigong exercises, we were all standing and spread out a bit, but for the meditation and the interview, we were seated in chairs, and while the DVD was being set up, a friendly elderly lady next to me introduced herself and asked if I'd ever done Qigong before. When I told her no, she replied, "Well, you looked like you were doing very well to me."

So I guess I was being checked out a little bit, and admired for my, um, moves.

The Tolle interview was worth the price of admission. While he doesn't have the most dynamic personality, the substance of his answers held everyone's attention. (Except the nice little old lady next to me, who nodded off about a dozen times.)

Tolle went through many rough times growing up, dropping out of school at a very early age, educating himself between the ages of 13 to 19, then later passing the necessary exams that allowed him to go to university in London.

He suffered from anxiety, dealt with several bouts of depression, and one night when he was 29, he woke up in the middle of the night and said, "I can't live with myself any longer."

Examining this sentence led him to wonder if he was one, or two. Are the "I" and the "self" different? They must be if the "self" is someone that the "I" cannot live with. And he thought, "Maybe only one of them is real."

This is what started his transformation, and he awoke the next morning in a state of peace, recognizing his surroundings for the first time as new and fresh. And so began his teachings.

I have yet to delve more deeply into the book, but in his interview, he also stated that people are so caught up with always pushing toward the next moment and the next...whether that be an hour from now or tomorrow or next week...that they forget to live in this moment.

I'm not yet ready to say that I've found my new spiritual path...but a lot of what he says makes pretty good sense. And I think I'll go back next month for session No. 2.

Now that I know how to pronounce "Qigong."

So yeah.
I spent seven bucks to meditate in public tonight.
How did you spend your Wednesday night, hmm?

"Be at least as interested in what goes on
inside you as what happens outside.
If you get the inside right, the outside
will fall into place."
—Eckhart Tolle