Pivots

By Terry Plotkin

Pivots

 

Monumental, life-changing decisions and events occur often with barely any thought going into it.

 

When I was 5 years old, my parents chose to enroll me in the first grade ahead of schedule, making me the youngest kid in the school. In their haste to get me started, they skipped kindergarten altogether. They did not make this decision because I was precocious or emotionally or physically mature. They made it because my brother, who is 11 months younger than me, would end up in the same grade as me and that would somehow be bad for us. I never have figured out why that would necessarily be true. Regardless, their decision did not work for me although they never knew it. I was the third out of four boys that my mother had in five years. There was not much of a possibility that they had the time to pay attention to the ramifications of their choice.  The results? I was put in the bottom reading group, had no friends, and was scared every day.  In short, I wasn’t ready.

 

Fast forward to 7th grade. I knew myself to be a fairly smart kid, but somehow the school missed the memo and sent me, still the youngest kid in the class, to a division that was tracked not to go to college. In my town that meant you were destined to work in one of the local factories. My parents seemed unfazed by this. They did not check in with me or the school about what might be best for me. I am sure they, like the school administrators, had a lot going on. For my part, I knew I wanted to go to college, not because I was desirous of an education, but was looking for a ticket out of town. The low division placed me with students who seemed to like to bully, which led to me to hate school, again with no social life. Nonetheless, I managed to get steadily improving grades despite my unhappiness and gradually, over four years, moved up to the top division and went to college. I even made some friends. Hallelujah.

 

I had no control over the decisions that were made. In my estimation, the elders’ – my parents’ and school administrators’ – judgments failed me. I would not choose this path for myself if I had it to do over again. It was not a good way to go through school. It definitely changed my life.  Yet overcoming adversity made me the person I am, and that perhaps pivoted me in a good direction. Yahhhh maybe.

 

On to college, a place I loved, at least the social part, but from an academic point of view I had no idea why I was there. I reached my junior year and still didn’t have a major. My brother encouraged me to try some courses and find a major before it was too late. I took an economics class at his suggestion. It turned out that the professor was one of the very few Marxist economists in the country. He was brilliant. I loved his class. He explained the assumptions behind the capitalist system and for the first time in my life someone addressed the question as to why things are the way they are.  It turns out why is a fairly radical notion that was taboo for most of my so-called education. I learned to critically think about how the world functions, who I was in relationship to it, and what my options were. That professor changed the direction of my life. Strange that happened because, given the big size of the class, he had no idea of my existence.

 

I never chose a career. I did work various jobs that never

touched my identity. I was well into my forties before a suggestion from a few friends changed my fortune.  The school where my children went started an after-school program and the parents were desperate to find someone who had the time and inclination to help run it. A friend asked me, and since it fit into my schedule and gave me a chance to be a part of my kids’ school, I said yes. I never had much interest in working with children until then. It was fine enough.

Two years later another friend told me in passing that a new small private school was opening up in my town in a few weeks and they might need someone to teach physical education. I had never heard of this school, but on a whim, went in there and talked to the administrators about a sports program. They were so busy setting up the school that they hadn’t given sports a thought, thanked me for coming, and said good-bye. The day before the school was to open they called me and asked me if I could take on the physical education and sports program. I asked them if they had a field? “No.” they replied. Equipment? “No.” A gym? “No.” A concept of how to run it? “No.”  A soccer schedule? “No.” OK, I said, I’ll take it. That school failed after two years because of money problems. The same people opened a charter school soon thereafter, and I have run the sports program there for 15 years.

Voila, an off-hand suggestion from a friend pursued on a whim somehow was parlayed into a career.

 

So there you have it: Little decisions, without much forethought, having enormous consequences. The timeline of history is really no line at all. Life can pivot suddenly in a new direction without a plan attached to it.  If there is any lesson in this I would say: Pay good attention to the moment at hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suffering

By Terry Plotkin

Some years back I was in a laundry mat and I was talking about karma with a woman who was folding her clothes. When I finished my theory about how it comes to teach us lessons she told me that her niece had been abused at the age of 13. She said if anyone tells her that it is “just her karma” she was going to slug them. Sometimes I know when to shut up. Besides, I couldn’t see any thread, justification, or life lesson that unfortunate girl might have gleaned from such a traumatizing moment in her life.

 

The same is true for many other things that happen. A child living within a civil war for example, or elderly people who watch their mental faculties disappear before they blessedly pass from this world.  I don’t know why they suffer, I don’t see any good that comes from it, and I don’t wish it on anyone.

 

So is there no justice in the world? Does karma operate? Are the world’s religions all wrong? Who am I to say?

 

Yet sometimes, some events, the thread of karma, of lessons, of cause and effect can be clearly seen. The distance of time has showed me that things have come at me that were necessary for my own growth and needs. I didn’t want to go through it then, now, or ever, but nonetheless it needed to happen. For instance, I was bullied for three years in middle school. Was it my fault that my parents at age five pushed me ahead a year and into the first grade to make me the youngest kid in the class? Did I choose to be the only Jewish kid in a class of 145 white Christians? Did I want to grow up in a working class, narrow-minded place that was prone to anti-Semitism, or have my family name on many of the businesses in the small downtown? However, if anyone tells me that “it was just my karma” I would not slug them; I would agree with them.

 

After 3 years of verbal and physical torment, one fateful day before physics class started, I finally punched the kid who was the worst of the bunch. Actually, I didn’t really throw the punch. I remember the moment well, as it was a pivotal event in my young life. I had the normal desire I always got during the abuse, of just wanting it to go away while trying to ignore it. But this time, as if pushed from behind by some invisible force, my left arm, with fist attached, swung out and struck the abuser in the stomach. He hit me back. I didn’t feel it. I probably threw 10 punches in 10 seconds and he did the same to me. When the teacher came in, we stopped.  I felt nothing: No pain, no fear, no relief. The good news was, after that I never had any bullying problems again. After three years of torment, one moment of abandoning fear and standing up for myself, and it was over. I guess it took that long for me to get fed up enough, to gather the inner strength, to drop my timidity in order to act. I can almost say that it was my SOUL that punched him.

 

My life changed directions that day. I was never the same person again. I have been growing ever since. It has informed my life. I have never had to resort to violence though; I just became psychically strong enough that no one can go there with me.  If it were not for that incident and the years leading up to it, I don’t know if I would be able to say that. Thus, from a deep place, I needed it. Was it coincidence? I don’t believe that.

 

I do not assert that ALL of history is the playing out of karma, of lessons, and cause and effect, but some of it might be. During WWI the countries of Europe pulverized each other for 6 years. After that some had had enough, but others were not satisfied with the outcome and so they did it again, and went on another 5-year slaughter campaign called WWII. These 2 wars were the culmination of centuries of conquest, imperialism, colonialism, and war. Until finally the continent seemed to have had enough and from sheer exhaustion made peace. It is almost inconceivable now that France and Germany and England would choose to go at it again. Now the entire Middle East seems locked in a death spiral that it cannot disentangle itself from, even if they wanted to. Perhaps, there are forces at play here that necessitate this, and it will eventually lead to a better, more evolved region. Perhaps suffering is a great teacher, at a deep level.

 

But don’t try to slug me for saying that. I will defend myself.

 

 

 

Plans – Part 1

By Terry Plotkin

 

I recently read an article on the BBC web site. Below is an excerpt:  A boat was sinking in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 1994. Many people died. Survival experts were astonished at the high death toll. It appears that many people drowned because they did nothing to save themselves. The report stated, “A number of people… seem to have been incapable of rational thought or behavior because of their fear. Others appeared petrified and could not be forced to move. Some panicking, apathetic and shocked people were beyond reach and did not react when other passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them.” John Leach, a military survival instructor who researches behavior in extreme environments at the University of Portsmouth, has found that in life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralyzed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. (The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: they freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.) “All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question,” says Leach. “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”

 

I suspect that the people on that boat were thinking about many things right before that boat began to sink, but there imminent demise was not one of them. That is understandable and normal. However, going through life refusing to face or even think about our mortality might prevent us from acting in a smart way when it shows itself. We spend our life looking away from death, pretending it isn’t there, believing it can’t happen to us. Strange that something this inevitable is avoided.

 

Under normal circumstances, most people adapt to the situations that are unanticipated. They change their plans because of bad weather, they look for a new place to live if they are being evicted, they change directions when the road is closed. But when they are suddenly faced with their own mortality they seize up. When we most need to be clear-headed and fast-acting, just the opposite occurs.

The truth is that life and death moments hover constantly around us. We just don’t think about it. Read the newspaper and witness what is going on daily: wars, random shootings, terrorist attacks, freak weather, Ebola, the obituary page. Take a drive down the road and observe how quickly disaster can strike. The other day while riding my bike down Main Street, a biker, just 10 yards in front of me, was struck by a car. I saw it coming as the driver was pulling into an angled parking spot and I could see she was paying no attention to anything but her destination. The bike rider got knocked over but was unhurt. Good thing or his plans would have been seriously changed. (The woman said, “That is why I don’t ride bikes, it’s too dangerous.” I hope she also considers not driving a car for the same reason.)

 

Meanwhile, in a seemingly stealth move that struck ever so slowly, my mother has become quite old and she often remarks in her decrepit state, “You don’t think it is going to happen to you, and then here it is.”

 

I like what the Boy Scouts say: Be Prepared.

 

 

 

A Native American Koan

By Terry Plotkin

Nearly 40 year ago I went to Washington D.C. for the final leg of The Longest Walk. This was a Native-American sponsored event. They had walked cross-country to the nation’s capitol to make a statement of their rights, build their movement, and ask for a redress of their grievances. Some hippies, with whom I had picked apples in Western Mass. were going, and they invited me to join. We arrived at the staging area for the last mile before their destination of the National Mall and the organizers had us line up as follows: Those who walked the whole trip would go first (this included several Buddhists who drummed the whole journey), then native people who had joined along the walk. That all made sense to me. People of color went behind them, and last came the white people. I was upset that the white people walked behind the black and brown people. I thought that since we all arrived at the end and were there to be supportive, we should all walk together and not segregate by race. I was making my argument to my friends who were unfazed by this set-up and joined at the back of the line, but I resisted.

 

Just then, at the moment of impasse, an older Native-American man with long gray hair tied back in a braid, appeared out of nowhere.  I had no idea what he was doing there since the native people were all at the front of the line by that point.  I didn’t have time to get nervous. Truth be told, I didn’t even feel like I belonged there. I had made the journey almost as an afterthought and anyway I had other business to attend to there. So when this dignified looking man took the time to speak with me I felt honored, albeit undeservedly so.  Nonetheless, I was struggling to find my way in my life, and when someone like him approached me, I gave it my full attention seeking, as I was, truth and direction.  He looked straight at me and said: “I am going to tell you a story. There is a valley.” He paused a moment and spanned the horizon with his arm, fingers spread.  “In that valley there is a tree.” Another pause. “That is all there is.” With that pronouncement, he walked away to his section of the line. I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with my issue of the segregated line or anything else for that matter. I stayed mad. I had no idea what he was talking about.

 

His “story” stayed with me all these years precisely because I didn’t get it. Yet the man seemed to me to have stature. If the same words had come from a stoned friend, of whom I had many back then, I wouldn’t have paid it any mind and would have forgotten it along with so many other things that were uttered. So it was a surprise when I was recently cross-country skiing in my favorite nearby woods, when the memory of the Native–American man and his simple story suddenly came back to me. It was a beautiful winter late-afternoon day. The hills were purple in the setting sun, the ground white, the bare trees varying shades of gray, save for the evergreens, and the gentlest snow was falling. Absolutely beautiful. But I was not enjoying it that much. I was in a foul mood, thinking about how people were always so busy and harried that they did not have time for each other or for nature. The reason the story of the tree in the valley being all there is popped into my brain at that moment was, just like 40 years ago, I was wasting a potentially sacred moment on intellectual ponderings of things I didn’t approve of. I finally understood what he was trying to convey.   My bad mood suddenly gone, I saw the woods in a fresh light, happy to be in it skiing.  I looked around me and composed a story: There is a snow-covered trail and a rock outcropping just ahead covered in gray ice. That is all there is.