Other Writing

100 Years Later, the Madness Endures

One hundred years after Congress passed the first daylight saving legislation, lawmakers in Florida this week passed the “Sunshine Protection Act,” which will make daylight saving a year-round reality in the Sunshine State.

If approved by the federal government, this will effectively move Florida’s residents one time zone to the east, aligning cities from Jacksonville to Miami with Nova Scotia rather than New York and Washington, D.C.

The cost of rescheduling international and interstate business and commerce hasn’t been calculated. Instead, relying on the same overly optimistic math that led the original proponents of daylight saving to predict vast energy savings, crisper farm products harvested before the morning dew dried and lessened eye strain for industrial workers, Florida legislators are lauding the benefits of putting “more sunshine in our lives.”

It’s absurd – and fitting – that a century later, opponents and supporters of daylight saving are still not sure exactly what it does. Despite its name, daylight saving has never saved anyone anything. But it has proven to be a fantastically effective retail spending plan.

Making the trains run on time
For centuries people set their clocks and watches by looking up at the sun and estimating, which yielded wildly dissimilar results between (and often within) cities and towns.

To railroad companies around the world, that wasn’t acceptable.

To read the rest of this essay, follow this link to The Conversation.

Address to Phi Beta Kappa, Tufts University, May 2016

It is a genuine honor to join President Monaco and my colleagues from the administration and faculty in this celebration of your achievements.

First and foremost:  Congratulations.

And thank you.  I mean that:  Thank you for doing the work.  Your commitment to academic excellence vindicates the very idea of this university.  You fuel the spirit of the whole project for the rest of us here at Tufts.  For that, I am in your debt.

“Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings…”  Before I go on, I should say, this is a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein, the influential Austrian-born British philosopher and linguist.

Really.  Right off the bat, I am actually going to start quoting philosophy. I am aiming high today, hoping to elevate my ideas.

In truth, ever since I was invited to speak to this distinguished gathering about, of all things, capital-A Art, I’ve been feeling a little anxious, a little queasy, and I think I might have a slight fever, as if I am suffering with a mild case of Phi-Bet-Kappa-by-proxy disease.  But I am going to press on because, as many of you surely know, Wittgenstein was a master of expressing profound ideas in elegantly simple language.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Often, when I have had a picture well framed, or have hung it in the right surroundings,  I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself.  That is not quite right; not as proud as if I had painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it.”

Read the full address

Desire, Devotion, and Excess:  Second Thoughts?

This is a brief excerpt from The Classical Ideas podcast of “Michael Downing on Zen in America.”  Greg Soden graciously invited me to take a deep dive back into the research and writing of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center fifteen years after its publication. (Greg’s podcast is a treasure trove of interviews with some of the most original and influential spiritual thinkers and searchers on the planet.)  As most of the text of Shoes Outside the Door is direct transcription of the words chosen by the scores of practitioners I interviewed, this was a chance for me to reflect on the enduring effects of this project, which ultimately absorbed the better part of four years of my life, on my sense of self and my work as a writer.

You can listen to the entire conversation by following this link to The Classical Ideas home page.


DOWNING:  I have a built-in resistance to and reluctance about religion.  The [Zen Center] community’s reluctance—or, I should say, many people’s reluctance to label what they were doing as religious practice was really intriguing, to say the least, and one of the avenues that really opened up the story for me because I was so taken by how resistant they were to call what they were doing religion. 

SODEN:  So do you disagree with their take?  Would you classify it as a religious practice?

DOWNING:  I think that’s what it is.  It’s where it begins. . . Lots of Americans had engaged with the idea of Buddhism as a philosophy or a psychology, or a number of other -ologies.  But these were the first people to rigorously adopt the practice. It seems to me that is one of the fundamental elements of what we mean by the word religion—which is the practice that supports the lineage of teaching and beliefs.  But it is the practice which is the religion—that’s the rite.  So for me there was no question.  I don’t mean that authoritatively.  It was instinctive for me…

It was Gary Snyder who, when I asked him directly about this—I was very confused by people’s reluctance to call it religion—and he said, That’s a false note.  If you can’t call it a religion, you can’t talk about it.  It may be many other things, but certainly it’s a religion.  And then he said something very beautiful.  “Trying to say Buddhism is not religion is trying to clean up your dreams.”

Read the full excerpt

Sudden Death, or Breeze

It was the third week of the fall semester. I was teaching two courses, and I’d already been absent twice. I was trying to figure out how to carry my book bag.

A few months earlier, I flunked a genetic test and learned that I inherited a mutant protein from my father. He was 44 when he died. I was 45 and healthy by conventional cardiovascular measures, so the first symptom would probably be my sudden death.

I opted for an implanted defibrillator. As a bonus, I was given a staph infection. In September, I puffed up, my surface temperature soared and an emergency explant surgery (the defibrillator was contaminated) left me once again at risk of sudden death. In a few months, the doctors would stuff another device into me — which also had to be yanked out (product recall). But for the moment, I just had a hole in my chest, a catheter sticking out of my forearm and a month’s supply of syringes and antibiotics. I couldn’t use either hand for lifting.

For one week, illness trumped every topic. Even the visiting nurses started dropping hints like, How about those Red Sox? My partner, Peter, offered to sling my bag over my shoulder and get me out of the house.

I occasionally shoved myself aside to think about Binny, the sister of a friend. I met her only once, but I was bowled over by her spirit. Binny’s own adventures in medicine culminated in a heart transplant — and she became one of the first transplant survivors to bear a child. Then her second heart failed, and her only hope was another heart and everything that surgery entailed. While I was in a hospital in Boston, Binny was in a hospital in New Hampshire, choosing not to undergo another transplantation. She died.

Peter was recalibrating my injection schedule so I wouldn’t have to shoot up on campus when I said, Binny.

Peter nodded.

I said, It’s hard to say if she chose to die, or if she chose her life. Peter didn’t say anything.

I said, I know I can’t imagine what she endured, but I think I got a little taste. It’s intolerable, and yet you can tolerate it. That’s what I learned. But tolerance is a failure to respond. And if you don’t respond to most of what you feel, what makes you know you are alive?

I could not articulate exactly what I knew, but I was certain I knew it.

I drove to campus, parked and grabbed my bag. I felt a sting in my arm near the catheter. To get the book bag on . . .

To read the rest of this essay, follow this link to the New York Times.