Friday, May 29, 2009

My dad, Zen master? Zen driving.

Zen masters sometimes marry. My dad did. He met a girl from Iowa. After they married and had kids, they made a triennial trek from California to Iowa to visit her family. We drove.

For many years we had one car and one driver: Dad. As a result, the 36-hour drive to Iowa was one long haul. My dad was a banker by day, Zen master by night.

On Friday’s the bank was open late, and Dad oversaw the tellers “balancing out.” When we were young, Dad got two weeks of vacation a year. This meant that on Thursday night, my parents would do a trial pack of the trunk with empty suitcases. On Friday, my mom would load clothes in the suitcases, Dad would get home, pack the car, and we left.

This is how you drive from Anaheim, California to Mason City, Iowa in about 48 hours. You leave Friday at 7 PM, drive all night, and all the next day until about 3 in the afternoon. By that time you’ll be in Wyoming. The next morning, you start early and arrive just in time for dinner. (That's 36 hours of driving, 12 hours for eating, sleeping, getting gas, and using the john.)

Friday night on that trip was when Dad and I did Zen driving. He drove, and I kept him company. After a long day of work, driving all night is no easy chore. My dad, suspected Zen master, had two secret weapons: No-doze and Me.

Around 9 PM everyone would fall asleep, and I got promoted to the front seat. My mom moved to the back.

The disciple now had a job: listen to Dad for 9 or 10 hours. If he attempted to move from Zen driving to Zen napping… don’t let him. At 65 miles-per-hour in the dead of the night, Dad was not allowed to “rest his eyes.” And he didn’t.

I learned the meditations of night driving: when to use your bright lights, when to dim, when to pass, how to pass, and how to communicate with other drivers using your lights.

I also learned to drive in attentive silence. I wasn’t just a passenger; I was a companion. I was a co-meditator, and I was important.

There were no close calls. We made the trip to Iowa and back every third summer.

During the year, we also practiced Zen driving on long weekends when we visited my mom’s sister and family in Arizona. That was just a seven-hour trip, also begun on Friday’s at 7 PM, usually on a three-day weekend. On those trips I learned Zen driving on the mountain roads leading to Prescott.

After I grew up, Dad continued his Zen driving, but by then he was retired. He graduated to driving by daylight and sleeping by night: schedules relaxed, and so did he.

And me? To this day, I love to drive. I’ve done a lot of road-trips. The USA out of a car window is a beautiful sight. But I don’t like to drive alone on those trips. I was spoiled: I learned Zen driving in my youth. Now, nothing else will do.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My dad, Zen master? Zen brevity.

I’ve been re-examining the relationship I had with my dad, and it was good. This re-examination happened in part because I’ve recently read a book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The main character in the book is instructed by an unlikely Zen Master: a service station attendant.

In many ways I have been schooled by my dad. The recollections I’ve been sharing are obviously fictionalized, but there is a germ of truth in each. These are kernels of memories of my dad that I hold dear. I’m just having some fun with those memories. Like this one…

My father took up Zen camping later in life when he retired, but when I was growing up, we didn’t do much camping: just once. Our family met up with my dad’s brother and his family at King’s Canyon National Park for a week in the summer of 1964. I was 11.

While breakfast was being cooked, I walked with my dad to a faucet to “wash up” before breakfast. Zen Masters are often men of few words. They sometimes speak in koans, which are brief stories meant to be paths of enlightenment. Dad was, on occasion, a master of brevity.

He went first in the “washing up” ritual. I turned on the faucet, he bent over, filled his hands, and threw the water in his face. His eyes opened wide, and he uttered his koan: “Brisk!”

I had never heard the word. I didn’t know what it meant. But I could tell he wanted me to learn, even if his lesson contained but one word.

I filled my hands with water; it was ice cold. I threw it in my face, and I discovered what brisk was. I was awakened!

I turned and started back to the camp. I felt wide-eyed and fully alert.

“Are you going to turn off the faucet, Stu?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, get to it. I’ll meet you back at the tent-site.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Water is precious, and so is camping with your dad. You learn the darnedest things. I did.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My dad, Zen master: Zen retirement

My dad was able to retire in his early fifties. This was back in the mid-1980’s when gasoline was relatively cheap, and many retirees bought Recreational Vehicles (RV’s) and traveled around the country. My parents successfully resisted buying an RV. They had an aversion to buying things that cost more than they paid for their house. But they became “campers.”

My father, a suspected Zen master, approached his traveling days in measured stages: a truck with camper shell, a small trailer, a larger trailer, and finally, a 20-somethng-foot trailer. This progression of training for retirement camping took several years, but my dad mastered each level.

Eventually, he learned the art of hooking and unhooking a trailer. He bought a pair of work gloves just for the task. He learned how to work hydraulic levelers. He even learned to listen to my mom as he was maneuvering the trailer in and out of camping sites. He was a Zen master.

But in the course of travel, one occasionally arrives. My parents did this a lot: camp-sites often have “stay” limits – you can't stay there forever. You drive, then you arrive. As a result, my dad had to develop meditations to pass the time at the campsites. He was an artist.

He and my mom did a lot of card playing: they practiced this art form for years. Occasionally, my dad would mix Zen yelling with his card playing. I remember a several favorite chants of his for playing Bridge: “Pull trump, pull trump, pull trump!” And another, “Gross under-bidding!”

Since Bridge involves having a partner, his partner sometimes got the brunt of this chanting aimed at them: I’ve been that partner. With me, he used a form of Zen yelling called “Dripping sarcasm.” It was quieter, but effective.

My dad also knew the Zen of cleanup. My mom would usually cook; my dad would clean up. This meditation was similar to his “Pool Sweeping Meditation.” He never broke a plate: plates never moved fast enough to be put in any danger. My dad was deliberate in his actions; some might call it slow, but he called it “being above average.”

Besides cards and cleanup, my dad’s retired life had several other main activities: golfing, fishing, various games, visiting friends and family, Zen napping, and Zen reading.

Once I caught him Zen reading. I had my own young family on vacation with me in northern California. My dad and mom arranged to be close by for a night. They were on their way to have a visit with my dad’s brother. (My dad and his brother practiced verbal martial arts together.) We arrived at my parent’s campsite a bit after lunch cleanup.

After initial hellos, I asked my mom where dad was. “Over there,” she said, pointing to a pair of chairs under a near-by tree.

I waltzed over and found my dad reading a book. In twenty-five years, I’d never caught my dad reading anything but the newspaper or the TV guide.

“Whatcha reading, Dad?”

“It’s a book, Stu.”

“It looks pretty thick. I’m impressed.”

“I’m enjoying it.”

“How long have you been reading it? I see you’re about half done with it.”

“Three years.”


That’s how I discovered Zen reading. It must be similar to Zen fishing. It burns a lot of time, you get to be alone, you have the appearance of doing something, and nothing really needs to happen. Catching a fish is just a bonus, like finishing a book.

I’m not a fisherman, and I read books start-to-finish. I am not a Zen master, but my dad was.