Monday, July 30, 2012

Pooh's Approval

I am learning a Tibetan text called "The Three Words That Strike the Crucial Point" with a bunch of commentaries that come with it.  It is translated and published as "Lion's Gaze" by Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche.  The theme is symbolized in a Lion's Gaze; ie a dog will follow the stick when you throw it; but a lion will gaze at the thrower and not follow the stick.  As such, we should watch the mind (ie the thrower) not the phenomenon (the stick) that is created through the mind.  Liberation follow when we pay attention to the mind and realize the phenomena is not so important.   

So I was reading this new translation I received in the mail today; and had a great insight into the nature of mind and thoughts; in how thoughts get self-liberated; a sticky concept I have been struggling to understand.   I was sitting quietly exploring this new insight and understanding.  My eyes were closed and I was sitting cross-legged.  When I opened my eyes, I saw Pooh smiling at me from the comfort of his airplane pilot seat; a favorite toy of my two years old son.  A nice sign I'm onto something cool; and also a nice reminder all this heavy stuff is not a distraction from being a daddy, but enhances the experience, permitting me to be fully present for when he wakes up from his nap...which is right now. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Staffing Hardship and my Mind

My meditation path requires the watching of the mind.  I watch the mind, sometimes trying to control what my mind is doing; but always trying to learn and understand how it works.  In Dzogchen Practice, I often can see the thoughts arise in the mind and then one of two things happen.  The thought sticks to me; ie I take the thought and churn it around, creating layers of stories, fears, hopes, anxieties, pleasures.... and on and on.  Or, the thought arises, it's noted, and then is goes back where it came from; without any grabbing or attaching to it.  We call this in Dgzochen the liberation of thoughts.  Ideally, the throughts are liberated on their own and we don't put any effort even in letting the thoughts go.  And for most, this process is not observed; it just happens and we don't notice.  But in my practice, I watch this process unfold. 

So this practice was put to the test for me recently at the bakery.  A few weeks ago our main mixer quit.  We had another mixer who was in training and he quickly took over the mixing and was going a great job.  He committed to working full time but he told me he applied to a film school in New York and, if he got in which was unlikely, he would be moving to NYC in September.  So two days ago he called me and said he got in.  Great for him; not so great for the bakery; and a big problem is dropped on my lap.

So the mind exploded with activity when I got the news.  All sorts of emotionally charged thoughts came in from blaming, anger, hopes for opportunity in the crises, etc.  But I was able from time to time to notice what mind was doing.  I saw the thoughts I was grabbing onto; the worries and the fears about what could happen.  The non-stop planning for this contingency or that contingency; all perfectly normal mind activity in this situation; but most of the activity is quite non-productive and comes with all sorts of side-affects like anxiety, sleeplessness, fear.

So I'm watching this whole process unfold with the aid of my Dgzochen practice.  I can clear my mind of thoughts, like a nuclear bomb that destroys everything.  In one moment, I can clear it all away.  I can see myself grabbing onto the thoughts; some thoughts so compelling and tenacious that I just can't help myself but to go with the thought until it exhausts itself.  But by noticing what his happening and interesting thing happens.  The thoughts don't stay long.  I can see more clearly what thoughts are just busy chatter that I can just let go.

I still get caught up in some thoughts; but more often I am noticing and letting them go.  This is the Dgzochen practice; not just when sitting on a cushion; but all the time; whenever I can notice.

I still have the problem to deal with; but my mind is functioning much more efficiently.  And I am deepening the practice with each hardship or pleasure that comes along.  For the same process happens when good things happen.  Latching onto the pleasures is even more compelling; for taking in the great pleasures in life without grasping and trying to enlong the experience and hold is the most challenging of all.

So I did still worry about my staffing problem for a night; but the next morning I got up and decided to ride it out without worrying and without panic.  But the problem is still here and needs to be solved.

And the truely wonderful gift of the Dgzochen Practice is that each hardship and pleasure; all life's experiences is an opportunity to deepen the practice; to learn more about how my mind works.  And to experiences ever more deeply that underlying "thing" that is uncreated, unspoiled, and unchanging.  How marvelous it is to have been given this gift.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bread, Meditation, and Dzogchen

My meditation practice has inspired and informed my baking from my first loaf through the founding and running Four Worlds Bakery in urban West Philadelphia.  For 12 years now, baking has deepened my meditation practice and my meditation practice has deepened my baking experience.  Over the years and quite gradually, the separation between the two "activities" has blurred.  But I would go off about yearly for a 7 day silent retreat to "check-in" with myself and the Practice; and reset my mind with insight and inspiration to carry on.  And, of course, the birth of my son Max in April, 2011 really stirred up my life in a new direction.  Since Max came, I have been a full time parent as well as Head Baker and owner of a bakery; my wife also works full time and we have not sent Max to daycare. 

But over the course of the last four years, I have gravitated my "meditation" practice to a paradigm which can best be understood as "non-meditation."  So after 12 years of daily sitting practice and regular week long retreats, I got skilled in calming my mind, focusing my attention in deep concentration, and being mindful on what is happening around me.  Increased compassion, appreciation, patience and happiness has been the byproduct of this practice; but I'm still me with all my faults, emotional ups and downs, attachment to the things I love, and aversion to the things I don't like.  Over the course of these gradual changes, I became more aware of the deep paradox of meditation practice: by using my mind to focus my attention in meditation practice, I, cannot be in the present moment. 

Meditation practice is inherently tied into the normal dualistic world we all live in: ie You and me, good and bad, etc. So when I meditation, "I" am focusing my mind on "[fill in the blank]" to acheive "[fill in the blank]."   Yet the ultimate "goal" of the meditation practice for many is the cessation of suffering (even if temporary) which magically occurs when we can rest in the Now, the Present Moment, the Great Perfection, aka Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddism.   When I taste or experience this Perfection, I know it and recognize it as something that is with me all the time as it is present for me (and all living beings), all the time; but mostly I don't recognize it.  Ironically, the way to recognize it is in an effortless state of nonaction; non-meditation; which is the culmination of training in learning meditation skills.  In short, I had to learn how to meditate to learn how to nonmeditate.  And thus I entered in the world of Dzogchen, a philosophy and practice of nondualism known by many as the highest level of Buddist Practice and taught by my teacher in what he calls the "Class on Confusion." 

On my last retreat in June, I had a major breakthrough in my Practice and I have now immersed myself in the Dzogchen teachings and practice; and the changes are real and marvelous.  And so I switched the topic of this blog to share my experiences, in the hope that my experiences can be of help to others and relieve some of the suffering in the world.  For when I enter the experience of the 'Dzogchen Great Perfect, I see that we are "all in this together." 

Monday, March 5, 2012

My fight with PGW

Update:  2 weeks before trial, a PGW rep called me and offered to settle this case for a refund of the weather normalization and a recalculation of 1.5 years of invoices; for which I readily agreed.  

At the bakery on Woodland Ave last May I got a "Weather Normalization Adjustment" charge added to my PGW bill for $99.48; then in June I got another for $349.81. What the heck is a Weather Normalization Adjustment charge, I wondered. I called and asked and they said one typically gets this in the "heating" months for a few dollars here or there. But $450 in two months is unheard of. And it was not even in the heating months.

So I appealed the charge with PGW. After 3-4 months of no response, they let me know my appeal was denied. Why? Because they calculated it right. Nobody could tell me how "they" calculate such a charge but I should rest assured, it's correct. But, they said, appeal to the public utility commission. So I did.

The PUC took the case. They did nothing but take PGW's word that the charges were calculated right. I asked the PUC person handling the case and he said he didn't know how they calculate it either but since PGW says its right, it's right. But he also added that it looked very unreasonable. PUC denied my appeal. But, PUC said, you can file a formal complaint with the PUC administrative judge.

So I issued a formal complaint. Now a Lawyer at PGW is involved. Lawyers paralegal sends me a letter asked me to call her to set up a call to talk settlement and also encloses a formal answer to my formal complaint. I called 4 times and left a voice message with no response; so I'm assuming the request for settlement talks is just a boilerplate letter that nobody at PGW reads or knows about.

In the Answer, PGW says they mistakenly listed me as a "residential" customer for over a year and has since switched me to a "commercial" account; as if this perhaps might explain the problem or insinuate I am some sort of crook for their mistake in listing me as a resident. The problem is the commercial designation means my rates are lower as they have been since they switched me; so that means they were overcharging me for well over a year.

So now I am amending my petition to ask for the difference back for all those months I overpaid; so I am "amending" the petition. So here I am.

Is anybody at PGW there? Hello!!

Can somebody please look into this and tell me something other than "the WNA charge was correct?" Maybe just look into the whole picture here and realize you made a mistake somewhere.

I hate to waste resources (mine and PGW's) litigating this over such a relatively small amount of money. But I can't just let PGW walk all over me....can I?

What should I do?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Home Pizza Baking Guide

The secret to our pizza dough is the yeast; we use a wild yeast culture (grown in our bakery) which creates the complexity of flavors that brings out the most desirable qualities for your pizza toppings. So our dough is excellent without adding sugar, fat, or oil; just flour, water, barley malt (sprouted barley), yeast and salt

Here are some hints to making a great pizza and feel free to write us with questions or comments; or leave a comment here.

Dough Preparation. Store the dough in the refrigerator up to two days before use; the dough is ready to use (but thaw overnight in a refrigerator if it has been frozen); no need to let it sit out or “rise.” Just cut the dough ball to the size you want and roll it out to your desired thickness. Generally, one pound of dough makes two eight inch pizzas. Place the rolled out dough directly on an oiled flat sheet pan (or you can use parchment which tends to burn in a hot oven but makes it easier to move/slide the pizza around before baking if needed).

Top as desired. Plain canned tomato sauce works great; a small 6 oz. can is just the right size for 1 pound of dough. There really is no need for cooked sauce or specialty pizza sauce; but they work great. Just check the ingredients on the can; add salt if none is listed. The dough is rugged and can hold a lot, but be sure not to overload the pizza with items that will shed moisture while baking and cause the dough to fall apart.

Bake at high heat.   Ideally, pizza is baked between 700 and 800 degrees; this is why you will often see a fire burning inside authentic brick pizza ovens. But you can successfully bake in your kitchen oven or, even better, on your outside grill at lower temperatures. Turn the oven/grill to the highest heat it can go and heat oven for at least 15 minutes, 25 minutes if using stones. Baking stones are ideal as they help keep the oven hot after opening and closing; the stones hold retained heat and release it when the oven temperature goes down thus keeping the highest possible heat. Consumer “pizza stones” are troublesome because they tend to break if they get hot and wet; and their size and shape sometimes don’t work well. We recommend unglazed quarry tile which you can buy cheaply at any hardware store that sells floor tiles; they come in 6 inch squares which you can piece together in your oven/grill as desired and easily remove and store away when cool. For best results bake one pizza at a time and give the oven/grill time to reheat between bakes; this helps keep the oven hot. You can always put a baked-but-cooled-down pizza back in the oven/grill to heat up again. Each pizza should take about 10-15 minutes to bake completely.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Going Rate to Sell a Loaf of Bread in Philly

What can be more basic and simple than baking a loaf of bread and selling it to a neighbor? That is what I have set out to do; open a small neighborhood storefront bakery. I found a local developer willing to give me a renovated space for a reasonable rent. All I had to do was put in a floor, oven, front steps, add some sinks and some electrical connections; and supply and other machines I needed. Easy enough!

My naivety is my greatest weakness and also my greatest asset. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I walked into the Philadelphia offices of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) with my home made, and fully to-scale, drawings and they laughed at me:

“You need professional drawings.” The plan reviewer told me.

“But the building is built; I’m just adding some sinks and equipment, and some front stairs. The City is clear that professional plans are not needed for such a thing.” I argued back remembering reading that somewhere on the City web pages.

“You need professional drawings.” He repeated, this time flipping through a rolled up pile 5 inches thick of drawings from some project he was reviewing. “Like these.”

“But this is a waste. The architect plans will say the same thing as in these drawings; where all my equipment is going. What more information do you need that is not in these drawings?”

“You need professional drawings.” The mantra at L&I.

“But….” I gave up at this moment; time to find an architect.

Four weeks later and $1000 poorer (only because of rough economic times for architects; I found a bargain), I show up with my “professional” plans, which had almost the same information as my home made drawings and was told to wait for 40 days to find out if I am approved or not.

Almost forty days later, I get a letter from L&I saying my plans have been approved. But when I pick up my permit, there is a sheet of paper that says they did not review my plans for ADA accessibility, electrical, plumbing, or venting; I would need separate permits for all these things. But these were the only things I needed anyway. I wondered what the point was in getting the “building permit” if I needed separate permits for everything else. I suspected nobody even looked at these plans in any detail.

“Oh well, I have the permit,” I thought to myself. “Time to get to work.”

So the ADA requires that I have a ramp to get into the 15” rise from the sidewalk to the bottom of the front door. Sounds reasonable, except that it is practically impossible to put a 15 foot (each inch requires a foot of ramp) ramp on this property. The ramp would have to switch back with a landing large enough for a wheelchair to turn on; then there would not be any sidewalk left for people to walk on. Streets department wouldn’t allow it. A mechanical lift would be $40,000; not feasible. So what do I do?

Turns out I can apply for a “variance.” But the City can’t give them, L&I just forces people to comply. I have to go to Harrisburg (the other L&I, Labor and Industry) to apply for a variance. This again requires additional architectural drawings and work by the architect explaining the layout and why the ramp is impractical. Another $800 for professional fees (again, a bargain due to dragging economy).

OK, I got the variance a month after applying. It’s slow but I we are moving. I scramble to revamp my budget with all these unanticipated expenses and I have to look to borrow some additional funds.

I need a sign so people can walk or drive by and know there is a baker here. But to put a sign, I need a sign zoning permit. One trip to apply for the zoning permit was pretty laughable; again, L&I requires professional drawings, my sign design work with the original drawings for the build out are not sufficient; another $1000 in architectural fees to me, and approval from Street Department and Art Commission, whatever that is. On the second trip I am told my professional drawings were not competent, lacking some needed written measurements that are easily calculated if measured. So I complain to my architect and he makes me some new ones at no charge. I am shocked by the price of a zoning permit to put up a sign, over $400 and 20 days to review even after the intake reviewer thoroughly reviewed the plans.

Then I need another building permit, for the sign. Not a tough process, but they need professional drawings and some fees; and 20 days; but only after the zoning is approved.

So the bottom line is that to put in some sinks, electrical upgrades, and and an oven, I’m out $7267 plus about a dozen trips to Center City to wait in line for my turn to more deeply understand what Kafka was writing about. This is just to follow City requirements; the actual work is additional. Oh well… could have been much worse, I guess.

I dare not calculate how many loaves of bread I have to bake to recoup this investment. All I know is that some dreams are worth the price. Wish me luck with my final inspections.

The breakdown:

Zoning application and permit $100

Health Department Plan Review $1445

Tenant Fit Out, Application for Building Permit $125

Tenant Fit Out, Building Permit $261

Sign Zoning application fee $100

Sign Zoning permit fee $ 325

Sign building application fee $100

Sign building permit fee $61

ADA variance application fee (State) $100

Plumbing Permit & inspection $600 (estimated)

Electrical Permit inspection and Certification $650

Venting (for the oven) Permit & inspection $500 (estimated)

Architectural fees required for these permits $3000

Total $7267

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Some images from the new bakery fit-out

The new floor; slip resistant abrasive quarry tile. Very strong. That section to the right of the picture is where the new walk-in refrigerator went in. The oven will be facing the camera way back along the far back wall.

The reconditioned bagel former from Empire Baking Machines.

The 1,000 pound Rondo/VMI dough mixer; can mix about 140 pounds of dough at once. We had to enlist the help of the forklift operator at Woodland Building Supply to get in the front door...too heavy to lift.

Misselaneous pieces for the oven; I'm hoping the pro oven installer knows what to do with all this stuff.

The steel base (back right) and two large pices of the oven core. All the grill-like images are pipes that move the hot water throughout the oven; the state of the art Vapor Tube technology.

More pieces of the oven core and stack work. Those bags in the back are insulation that will be stuffed tightly inside the oven to maintain it's amazing efficiency. These natural gas ovens are so efficient, many bakers don't even turn off their ovens; they just leave them on when not using them.