Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TED talk by Eli Pariser

A colleague showed this talk in my class today: some really interesting observations about internet searching, personalization and access to information.  If you think you're just innocently Googling and finding hits, think again.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sales Pitch

"Every man alone is sincere.  At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins." 
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had a fairly common experience today.  And, as is always the case when this happens, it annoyed me.

We've all experienced it.  You see someone you know pay lip service to a virtue that you know for a fact they in no way practice in their daily lives.

For instance, a person who called me an "asshole"-- on more than one occasion, actually, and for no real reason whatsoever, except that they disagreed with me--cheerfully promoted the practice of wholesale kindness.

This is the same person who once made me cry, and then said, "Don't cry.  I'll always consider you a friend."  (Needless to say, I began to cry even harder when I heard that.) 

And of course, they no longer consider me a friend--and it's my fault, wouldn't you know.  (Of course.)

I often wish the computer masterminds who gave us the joys of social media would design a new kind of filter and blocking system.  One that we could all appreciate and benefit from.

If they can put people on probation for spamming the walls on Facebook, why can't they stop people from posting or "liking" quotations when they (the posters and the likers) in no way practice what they (the quotations) preach?

I'd like to see a social media experience in which, if you post or "like" virtues that you yourself fail to live by, you get a warning message:
"We've noticed that your account has been posting complete crap and irrelevant moral musings on Facebook pages.  Because of this, your ability to post on Page walls has been suspended for 15 days.

If you continue to lie about your moral stature after the block has been lifted, your account could be permanently disabled."
As I said, I think everyone has experienced the gritted teeth, the growl of frustration, or--in extreme instances--the shriek of absolute disbelief that accompanies such moments.

And we all ultimately tell ourselves, "Just ignore it."  Because we know that, if we point it out, we risk the tendency to judge.

On the one hand, I think we'd all like to see (other) people called out for their behavior.  But on the other hand, I think we all know that 1) it would do absolutely no good, and 2) people always kind of know already.

In my experience, the people who play fast-and-loose with their purported code of ethics in their lives tend to have few--if any--truly close friends.

They may have quite a few acquaintances (or, in today's world, Facebook and Twitter "friends"), but when they log off, they aren't really spending a whole lot of time talking or interacting with others.

As their lives unfold, people slowly but surely give them a wide berth.

As the 18th-century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke once said, "Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises for, never intending to go beyond promises, it costs nothing."

The hypocrites of the world never really get past their own sales pitch.  They fail to realize that, in the end, the value of your words is revealed in the quality of your subsequent actions.

Without the evidence of the latter, the sound of the former mean nothing. 

As Emerson expostulated, you have to "put your creed into the deed"--and make the actual sale.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Signs

My best friend wrote this tonight in the online journal she started after her son was diagnosed with brain cancer.  She's been writing in it intermittently since he died.

"Are you someone who believes that you might encounter a 'sign' from a loved one who has passed away?   By sign I mean like your loved one's spirit might appear to you in the form of say a butterfly, or a rainbow, or a bird, etc.  No, I am not either, in fact I stated that belief or non-belief only a little over a week ago.  Normally I am way too unsentimental and too much of a skeptic for that kind of thing.    However, I began to wonder just a little.  Last Thursday, my mom and I were walking on the Greenway and a little bird caught our attention.  We thought at first that it might have been injured, but it wasn't.  It allowed us to get within a foot of it.  I got out my camera and was able to get a photo of it.  It flew toward the lens several times, and even bounced into my camera.  It never flew away, was in the same spot after we looped back, and it ate a green caterpillar.   Maybe. . . . .  Just maybe."   


I have my own story: after my dad died, I dreamed that he called me, cheerful as could be, and when I started to cry and said, "But I don't understand, you were so sick and then you died," he said, "Oh no, no... it's okay.   I'm okay.  It's all right.  I'm all right.  Same as always.  It's good to talk to you."

And then he laughed.

I have never had a dream, before or since, where I felt like I heard someone's voice like that.

When I heard the laugh, I knew.  Only my dad laughed like that.

I really do think they find a way let us know.  They always do. I'm not spiritual, but for some reason, I think that this is just how it is when someone we love so much leaves us.

Ready or Not...

I have one week left to get ready for classes, so I've been using my time wisely and constructively.  Here's a brief glimpse into my workday:

I discovered that I have 37 plum tomatoes.  At one point, I thought I had 36, so I had to recount them, and then count them again, just to be sure. 

My garden plants needed to be re-staked, immediately.  Yes, they have been tipping over for a week or so now, but it became apparent to me today that they should be re-staked immediately, because it was very windy today. 

I wanted to go for a bike ride yesterday, but while filling the back tire with air, it exploded.  I absolutely had to take it to the repair shop this morning, and when they told me that they'd replaced it with a slightly smaller tire which would make my bike rides easier and a bit faster, I had to test this assertion by biking to the beach and back through the park. 

They were right.  Previously, I had concluded that the only thing that could ever make my bike go faster would be a different rider, but apparently, that is not necessarily the case.

Family-size bags of SmartFood popcorn are on sale at Stop-N-Shop.  'Nuff said.

My cat has repeatedly indicated a decided preference for the Whiskas PURRRRfectly Fish entrees, but they don't sell them just anywhere, so as a good pet-owner, I was obliged to go find them.

When I got home, I celebrated by singing Melissa Manchester's "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" to my much-beloved kitty.  When he requested an encore, I obliged.

I talked to my neighbor about making bruschetta with roasted eggplant and tomatoes.

I made a berry wine jelly.  Tomorrow, I will make mustard. 

And don't forget, I have 37 plum tomatoes.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mixed Results

I haven't been doing much of anything interesting for the past week, actually, except hitting the beach and meeting people and gabbing on the phone.

I tried pickling some vegetables, because my CSA has left me swamped with veggies that I can't bear to see spoil.

I'm not sure how good they are, but they are, in fact, pickled.  My thinking is, even if they don't seem appealing now, come winter, when there's nothing green in sight for miles, they might boost my spirits.  A reminder of better weather, for example.

I also tried making tomato sauce.  All I have to say about that is, if recipes are going to LIE, then I really don't know what will become of the world.

To make 8 cups of tomato puree, you don't need a measly 4 1/2 lbs of tomatoes.  You need about 9 lbs. of tomatoes.

Ergo, you don't need 25 Roma tomatoes to make a batch of sauce, you need 50.  If you only have 25, you are, in effect, screwed.

Particularly if you only realize this once you've blanched, skinned, chopped, drained and pureed the aforementioned 25 Roma tomatoes that you have.

Because now you have 4 cups of tomato puree, which you can't use for anything much except a large quantity of sauce, but you don't have enough of the former to actually make the latter.

I made up the difference in canned puree, which you can do, obviously, but as you do this, you can't help but think, "Oh, what in the hell was the point of all this if I'm just re-canning canned sauce?"

And the expletives followed accordingly.

Dostoevsky's Underground Man says that the definition of a human being is "an ungrateful biped who curses."  Indeed.

I'm going to try making mustard next.  I don't know why.  I just see a recipe and I have to make it.  The jams did work out well, though, because whenever I was invited to someone's place for dinner, I brought them one of each, so now all I have left is a nice, reasonable quantity for myself for the winter.

And, as God is my witness, I WILL be making peach jam before fall.

In other news, the third-grade-teacher from hell wrote an apology to my best friend that was about as heartfelt and sincere as you might expect from one of Satan's earthly minions. 

I think it has turned out for the best that I haven't had children of my own.  The impulse to write, "Bite me" and email it back to this woman would have been a bit too much for me to resist, I fear.  And then we would have had to have a parent-teacher conference, facilitated by a school administrator, to discuss the issue.

Apparently, emotional displays make her uncomfortable. 

You know, it's not like my friend walked through the door, suddenly dropped to her knees, hugged the desk and began wailing.  She only started to cry after this woman was a total jerk to her, and even then, she was embarrassed to be crying publicly.

I told my friend that the prospect of even walking into the classroom would have left me stranded in the minivan, face-down on the steering wheel and sobbing to the two kids in the back, "It's okay, Sweeties, Mommy's just gonna need a minute here...".

I say again, best that I did not reproduce.

So, as far as the crappy apology goes, I can only say that I would have had more respect for the woman if she had written to say that she had gotten totally plastered at a faculty mixer the night before and the frozen smile on her face was simply because she feared her head might crack in two at any moment.

Meanwhile, I had a mosquito in my bedroom the other night.  (That's not a euphemism for anything: I mean an actual mosquito, Culicidae).

I tend to get eaten alive by mosquitoes when I'm out in their world and fully awake, so imagine what this one did to me while I was sleeping in mine.

I thought I was going to end up crawling into the street, screaming for help.  Not quite as bad as the time I had over fifty bites on my legs and the capillaries all around each one of them ruptured in an allergic reaction that even the doctor couldn't explain, though.

That was attractive. 

In better news, my best friend's kids have both adjusted to the start of school just fine.  My favorite comment came from the little one, who is just starting kindergarten this year.

Apparently, she took one look at the larger classroom, the greater number of kids, and the increased burden of school supplies and announced with some concern, "I think I'm too little for this."

So that is my new catch-phrase for any situation I regard with skepticism or trepidation.

If only it worked.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mr Bojangles

I remember hearing this song on the radio when I was little.  It always made me cry. 

One day, when I was about five years old, I told my mom, "I don't know why that song always makes me cry."

She said, "Because it's sad."

More Later...

I love the story of Fermat's Last Theorem.

In 1637, he wrote a note in the margins of the book he was reading.  It said, "It is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers."

So far so good.  A math geek being geeky.  Whatever.

Now for the kicker.  The next line read, "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain."

He never did get around to writing it out for all of us, even though he lived for almost another 30 years.

It was finally solved in 1994, and it took 100 pages to prove, using mathematical knowledge that wasn't available to Fermat at the time when he was thinking and procrastinating.

So either Fermat had a different method (which may or may not have worked, in the end) or else he was writing the 17th-century precursor to the self-aggrandizing Facebook status update.

He wasn't wasting time, he just had an idea too big to Tweet.

I do enjoy procrastinators and procrastination in general.  I tend to be considered a highly productive person, but I think it's largely because I spend most of my time doing the things I'm doing instead of doing the things I think I should be doing.

Basically, in order to avoid doing something, I'll go do something else.

As I told one friend, it is not uncommon for me to find myself vacuuming the drapes and suddenly wondering, "Why am I doing this?" only to remember, "Oh, that's right, I have papers to grade."

So now, when those moments occur, I'll think of Fermat.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Spoils of Summer

Had a wonderful weekend.  Been spending the time catching up with old friends-- and making new ones.

Nothing better in life, meeting someone new who makes you smile and think-- and then smile some more.

My best friend has been struggling, though, so she's been on my mind a lot.  It was hard for her to take her two kids to their first day of school orientation the other day.

It was made even more difficult by Ezra's rather bizarre former teacher.  She was supposed to be his brother's teacher this year--she had Ezra in third grade a year ago, and he hadn't really enjoyed the experience.   So my friend wasn't thrilled to see that her other son was slated to have her for his third-grade experience, but she was going to play it by ear.

In the entire time that Ezra was sick, this woman was the only teacher in the entire elementary school who didn't express sympathy or condolences or, well, anything, really.  Not a peep from her, for nine whole months.

Not a card, not a call, not an email, not a text, nothing.  Not even a message sent with any of the other teachers.

She came up to my friend at orientation yesterday, held out her hand, and said, "Hello, I'm Mrs. Permanently Out-to-Lunch."

My friend said, "Yes, I know who you are.  My son Ezra was in your class a year ago."

Mrs. Oddball then gave a bright smile and said, "Yes, I know.  I remember."

My friend: "I don't know if you know, but Ezra was very sick all last year."

Mrs. Clueless: "Oh, yes, I heard."  (Still smiling.)

My friend, "Actually, Ezra passed away three weeks ago."

Mrs. Cold-Hearted, still smiling: "Oh yes, I know.  I heard."

And then she walked away.  Still smiling.

My friend started to cry.

I mean, really.  I usually make it a policy not to kick the ass of elementary school teachers (or anyone), but there are times when you really wish you could make an exception to that rule.

I told my friend that some basic emotional wiring was clearly missing from this woman's brain.

There ARE various formulaic responses we're all schooled in: "I'm very sorry for your loss."  "Yes, I heard, I'm so sorry."  "I can't imagine how difficult it must be for you."

They aren't the best solution, perhaps, but they are socially acceptable and perfectly appropriate.

At the very least, you know enough to stop frickin' smiling cheerfully at the mom who just lost her child to brain cancer, I should think.

My friend switched her son to another third-grade class.  The principal was quite a bit more sympathetic, needless to say.

I told my friend that she should follow the advice my mom gave me when I was four.  I used to come home from kindergarten truly bewildered by the experience and the things that people would say to me--including the teacher herself, who told me that "Nice Girls" "always followed directions" and "didn't work ahead and do extra problems in the math workbook unless they were told to do them."

She also counseled me against reading too much.  And only boys got to finger paint, because girls should be playing in the play kitchen.

Oh, and don't color outside the lines--EVER.  The lines are "there for a reason."

("Nice Girls" don't ask, "What's the reason?") 

I should probably explain that I had the same kindergarten teacher my dad did.

He went to kindergarten in 1937.  I went to kindergarten in 1973.

There was a generation gap, clearly.  Several generations, I think.

Anyway, my mom quickly realized that I was in for a difficult year of kindergarten (and we only went for half a day back then), so she gave me some sage advice.

She said, "In life, people will just say stuff.  Try not to pay too much attention to it."

So this song is for my friend. I listened to it a lot when my mom was dying and I was struggling.

It's a sea ever-churning in tides
In the sureness of time
And our words just repeat now forever again.
Well, this might take a while to figure out now,
So don't you rush it.
And hold your head up high right through the doubt now,
'Cause it's just a matter of time
You've been running so fast,
It's the seven day mile
Has you torn in-between here and running away...
It's a world too big for us
Time will be the judge of all here...



Sunday, August 14, 2011

Truthfully

Always liked Lisa, and not just because she's a fellow Brown alum.

Here's to finding finally.




Thursday, August 11, 2011

Growing

I've been trying to get my gardens back up to snuff since I came back.  This year things ended up pretty haphazard, since I was away a lot.

But I put in some coral bells in the shady spots:








And the eggplant is doing very well:







And the surprise of the summer: my cantaloupe plants (that I never meant to buy--they were mixed in with the eggplant) are actually producing... cantaloupe!








I think a lot about Ezra when I garden.  He put in a little garden this spring, even though I think he knew that there was a good chance he wouldn't see it through the summer.

He didn't care if he ate what he grew, he said that "it's the beauty of having grown it myself" that was important.

My brother called today: his big, goofy, ding-a-ling dog died last night.  He had been sick for a little while, but he was big and goofy and wonderful right up to end.  

I think about the fact that a dying child can express insight into what we all so regularly forget.

That our place in the world is both fleeting and beautiful, and that catching brief glimpses of this beauty and this transience is what matters.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Instant Karma

Not a huge Lennon fan, but this song is just awesome, always.

I love the lines, "Who on earth do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are!"

Oh, and don't be impressed by Yoko, crocheting blindfolded. 

You can tell the stitches by the way they feel, if you do it long enough. 

It looks like she's making another blindfold...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"A Monogrammed Fork"

A passage from Hockenberry's Moving Violations has been on my mind for days now.

Reflecting on his experience of paraplegia and the notion that, having become essentially numb "from the nipples down," he would necessarily contemplate suicide, Hockenberry adamantly dismisses the assumption: "It [suicide] had nothing to do with my new life, though many people had a hard time believing this" (78).

Instead, Hockenberry experiences a new relationship to his body--or, more accurately, a new relationship to the relationship between mind and body:
Far from being a blank wall of misery, my body now presented an intriguing puzzle of great depth and texture.  To rediscover my changed body was to explore the idea of the body and its relationship to the mind in a way no night class, self-help book, or therapist could.  My body may have been capable of less, but virtually all of what it could do was suddenly charged with meaning. (78)
Thus, Hockenberry argues, "I was inside an experience that felt universally human" (78).

I think what Hockenberry is speaking to is, in fact, a "universally human" experience, but one that, for most of us, is not typically played out on the level of our physical embodiment.

We all seek to comprehend the ways in which we move through the world, and I think we are all regularly startled when others choose to believe things about us that are in no way a measure of our own experiences or intentions.

I've felt this particularly strongly lately, and it's something I've encountered more or less consistently over the course of the past five years.

It has never failed to amaze me how determined people are to believe that they "know" my experiences and that they know what I have intended to do, to say, and to feel in response to those experiences.

The measure of their knowledge is always their own assumptions about what I "should" think and feel and do, and it is always based on their assumptions about what they think they "should"--or would-- think and feel and do, in a similar situation.

No number of words and no amount of explanation will convince them: they have to know that they "know," and they have to assert what they know.

In the end, I have had to weigh the possibility of what might pass (for some) as a "friendship" (defined exclusively by them and coupled, for me, with constant annoyances and frustration) against the peace of discontinued contact.

I chose peace and quiet.

If someone isn't listening, hasn't listened, will never listen, but believes that he is and has and deserves your friendship as a result, should you keep speaking the same words over and over, hoping they will, in fact, be heard and understood--eventually?

For a long time, I grappled with this question.  Eventually, I simply got tired of facing the same question, over and over, with every encounter.

Life should bring new things to us, daily.  The people who offer us life's newness, these are the ones we want to keep around.  The ones who want us set in stone are only looking out for themselves.

It had become a broken record: every time I saw or communicated with him, he brought up the past, what I had done, what I had felt, what he had meant, over and over and over.  Always, he returned to some event that had happened months before, stirred up old annoyances, and then encouraged me-- gave me permission, actually-- to "move on," now that I had his understanding of it all in hand.

But what about today, right now, this moment?  What about that?  Where are you in that?

Nowhere to be found, actually.  Just ruminating on something you want to redefine to suit yourself, now that it's all over and done with.

Really, it had nothing to do with me.  It was his own need and his own questions that he was unable to answer, so he became determined to provide an answer and insisted that I should agree with him.

He never heard or saw me, as I actually was, because he was always too busy trying to make me fit what he thought he saw and heard.  He was never comfortable with uncertainty.  He would never address the situation in the moment; he simply waited until it had passed, and then when it was clear that I had moved on, he retrospectively asserted his interpretation of things.

It was totally self-serving and beyond annoying, in the end.

He was a metaphysical control-freak.  Frightened by life's randomness, he fled it in the moment of its occurrence, only to return with a prefabricated "answer" when it seemed "safe" to do so.

Life isn't about staying "safe" when it comes to the people and the things and the interactions that matter.  It's about recognizing and confronting and navigating risk, knowing that you can't possibly-- and therefore won't always-- be "right" in your judgments and assessments of others.

We each have to answer our own questions ourselves; we have to listen to the answers of others, not seek to impose our solutions on their experiences.

I think this is what Hockenberry is speaking to in terms of his own relationship to his newly disabled body.  For most of us, these questions are played out metaphysically--in terms of our loves, our friendships, our careers, etc.--but in Hockenberry's case, the questions became relocated to the realm of physical embodiment itself.

It gave them a reality that so many of us would prefer to ignore or avoid, I think.

There are frustrations--always--in seeking solutions, but there is no greater frustration than coping with someone who believes we can stop seeking because they "know" "the" answer.

Our very questioning frightens them.  But that's not our problem, ultimately.

Like Hockenberry confronting his body, we all face intriguing puzzles of great depth and complexity.  They will never be solved.

Solving them isn't the point.

As Hockenberry argues:
Formulae for change and grief and trauma efface the possibility that we each might discover our own way through difficulty, and by doing so reclaim our own lives from the oppressive forces that tell us who we are and what we should be from the moment we are aware.  Change arrives for each soul in its own way, devoid of pattern.  Each person confronts trauma as though it has never before happened.  It is this which allows the mind and body to fashion a solution unique and appropriate to the identity of a person. (86)
Ultimately, "If the shock of that change, like the death of a loved one or the loss of one's legs, is a fork in the road, it is a monogrammed fork" (86).

A monogram we must each etch with our own symbols and in our own language, to be traced out along our own particular lines. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thank You!

Sending this one out to the perfectly lovely police officer who looked the other way when I accidentally ran that pesky red light on the way home from my swim tonight.

I swear I didn't mean it.  I really appreciate the fact that although I totally floored it and blared through the intersection, you didn't react-- even though you had me dead to rights.  

He must have read the blog and liked the part about not assaulting police officers.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Rights & Responsibilities

Finally had a chance to go for a swim last night and a walk on the beach and through the park this morning.  I had hoped to get in a bike ride, but the pouring rain nixed that, so I substituted a walk in the wind and the rain instead.

These are the things I missed while I was in SC...

While doing all of the above, I had a little time to think about the distinctions between "Libertarian" and "Progressive."  I find the two groups interesting, because although they currently assert their total opposition to one another, in fact they share a lot of historical and ideological interaction and complexity.

I haven't totally sorted it all out myself, so once again, these are just some cryptic beginnings of ideas and points that I find interesting.

I've been thinking about it in terms of the notion of "rights" and the notion of "responsibilities."  As I mentioned in a previous post ("Get Together"), the history of the Libertarian movement in the United States is marked by a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which include ideas which we would identify today as distinctly "socialist" and many of which were, at the time when they were proposed, decidedly "liberal."

Interestingly enough, the same holds true for the Progressive movement and its various historical embodiments and manifestations.

For me, the question of the distinction between "Progressive" and "Libertarian" is better formulated not as a conflict between "the people who want government control of everything" versus "the people who want government control of nothing," but as a distinction between two groups that are each grappling with the questions of whether, why, how, and--perhaps most importantly--when the government should get involved in the lives of its citizens.

The answer for most "Progressives" in the U.S. today is not "always."  And likewise, the answer for most "Libertarians" in the U.S. today is not "never."  But because the debate has become polarized, that is often what we seem to be hearing.

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts "the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but it also asserts that it is "Government" which must guarantee and protect those rights for its citizens.

The detailed list of abuses at the hands of the King of England and the British government, along with the repeated evidence of an unwillingness to assume the proper role of a just government and address and remedy those grievances, fosters the collective decision to "secure these rights" by establishing a "new" government.

So far so good.  All Americans, I think, are together on this: we like this damn document a lot, every last one of us--and really, who wouldn't?

Talk about kickin' some serious royal butt.

(If you're interested, the rough draft of the document, showing the changes made along the way as well as who made them, is available here.)

If I could go back in time, I wouldn't want to be at the signing of the Declaration, I'd want to be a fly on the wall when it arrived in King George's royal inbox.  The look on everyone's faces as it was read would be something worth seeing, I think.

"Holy crap... they did what?  It says what?  Oh, shit.  Damn Enlightenment Commies.  Mark my words, that pain in the ass Paine is behind this, I'll bet you anything.  Friggin' Jefferson and his buddies.  Oh, and the French just love that asshole Franklin, so no big surprise there, really... ".

(A humorous version of the "response" to the Declaration of Independence, written by "A Management Analyst to the British Crown" is available here.) 

The problems were only just beginning in 1776, though, because an abstract statement of ideals is not a concrete implementation of them.

In this sense, the humorous "management analysis" is, in some ways, on point: formulating your ideas is one thing, bringing them to fruition is another.

And thus, the history of American politics ensues.  In my opinion, both the Progressive and the Libertarian movements, in their many embodiments over the years, have been looking to figure out how to protect cherished individual freedoms ("Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") for everyone.

Because that's the problem: if we have minimal government, can we trust everyone to do right by everyone else?  Common sense, historical evidence and contemporary studies in psychology say, probably not.

And if we have maximum government, can we trust everyone to do right by everyone else?  Again, common sense, historical evidence and contemporary psychology suggest, probably not.

So what's a poor Republic to do?  I think we need to do what we have historically done: weave the conflicting ideas and opinions together into a delightfully controversial and complex fabric.

But to do that, we need to get a whole lot better at listening to one another.

One of the things I like best about The Declaration is that it asserts the need for an intellectual and ideological respect for others.  The signers assert, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" (emphasis added).

The signers didn't just wake up one day and write a note saying, "UP yours!" to King George III.  They systematically attempted to petition for a redress of grievances and when that didn't work, they worked collectively to institute something very new and very radical.

And they did it by including more than one opinion in their discussions and by not getting bogged down in taking sides and feeling like they had to be "right" all the time.

I think the Libertarians need to keep an eye on the Progressives--and vice versa.  In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, it became very clear to everyone with any kind of conscience that Social Darwinism isn't very nice and certainly isn't very fair, and as it turns out, isn't even "necessary" at all, come to find out.

So the muckrakers and trust-busters got to work and we began to see the importance of protecting the rights of the historically underprivileged.  And in hindsight, many of those issues now seem to have been very good ideas.

For example, when we read Barry Goldwater's objection to The Civil Rights Act of 1964--namely, that it included Title II ("Injunctive Relief Against Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation")--I think those of us who actually think today think, "Really?"

While we're willing to grant people the right to be as bigoted as they please in private, most people today would probably agree that public segregation and discrimination are just wrong.

If you can't earn a livelihood or use the nearest and cleanest bathroom or sit wherever you damn well please on the bus, your "Life, Liberty and pursuit of happiness" are definitely being affected and infringed upon, and it is up to the government to stop it.

But when and where does the government stop?  That is the Libertarian question, and I think it is a valuable one to ask of any Progressive issue: to my mind, it doesn't mean we nix the issue, it means we look at it carefully from all sides.

Again, the American government essentially told white American citizens in 1964, you have to award equal rights to blacks: it's the law.  Many people didn't want to do that; more importantly, many whites at the time felt that being forced to do just that would infringe upon their own rights as American citizens.

I think we always have to weigh where the concern--or the fear--is coming from and then evaluate what is fair for everyone.  This means some people will always have to give up a little something, and then they'll just big, fat, have to get over it.

What concerns me is when action and conversation grind to a halt because people feel they have to be right.  I think this is at the root of most people's discontent with the government.

Many Americans are or have been parents, so they know that, if your two-year-old insists that they are NOT going to bed because they DON'T need to sleep, you put them to bed, take the pain reliever of your choice (aspirin or vodka or both) and then collapse on the couch to listen to them scream until they fall asleep.

It's no fun to turn on the TV and crank up the volume to drown out an angry toddler's shrieks, only to hear a bunch of Washington bureaucrats doing something very similar.

Unlike sleep, effective government is not a biological necessity.  But it is a damn good idea.

So how do we achieve consensus and collective good from division and diversity?  We can start by simply setting aside our own preferences and predilections for a moment and listening to one another.

To my mind, this is perhaps the best way to begin to understand, value and assert our rights while simultaneously assuming our civic responsibilities.

Friday, August 5, 2011

In Writing, Life Laughs

"But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"
--Albert Camus

I talked to my best friend for a while last night.   I talk to her a lot, even in good times.

I can't offer consolation.  I can only use my own experiences to listen to what her experiences right now are.  I told her, "We can't make sense of senselessness, we can only talk about the senselessness itself, I think."

In that conversation, there is meaning.

Every life has its moments of senselessness.  No life always means what we want it to or what we think it's supposed to.

When you are talking about the death of someone you love, it's particularly hard to put things into words.  I always remember feeling like I had to talk "around" my dad's death for a while, because the pain frightens you so much, you don't want to speak about it and risk stepping into it.

You have to listen to the silences, be comfortable with them, and let them be.  I've learned to be patient in life; to speak my mind, but also, to wait and watch.

But I can still make my friend laugh.  When I saw that, I was relieved.  That has always been my worry for her, that because of what has happened, she won't be able to laugh the way she used to.

The two gifts I'm most grateful for in life are my ability to write and my ability to make other people laugh.

When I laugh, I can hear my dad's laugh.  I can hear Ezra's giggle.  I can hear my mom's quiet chuckle.

And that's how I remember my friends: I remember the sound and the looks of their laughter.  It gives you strength and comfort, always.

I started this blog almost a year ago, and it has been, hands down, the best thing I've done with my life and my writing.  So much more has come from it than I could have ever imagined. 

I like the spontaneity of it.  I can put up posts, written for a specific purpose or with a particular situation in mind, and then take them down once I know the purpose I had in mind has been achieved.

Or, I can put things up and keep them up.

In this way, I can sort out what has mattered for a moment and what I have wanted to say, from what actually matters and what I feel I need to say.  There's a huge difference between the two, and too often, I think we conflate them.

The mixture of spontaneity and permanence that electronic communication offers is fascinating to me: I enjoy navigating its (occasionally tumultuous) waters.

It enables me to distinguish the ephemera of my life from the permanence of who I am.  The "me" from the "not-me."

It can be a kind of call-and-response to the world at large.  It can be a way of playing with the people and the stuff of life, testing their mettle before deciding what to pick up and  keep and what to speak about and then leave behind.

I think that's the most important thing in life: figuring out what matters enough to take it with you.

Because you can't keep it all.  Things change, people leave, situations unfold and unravel and reform themselves in other ways.  What looked clear and certain one day can become cloudy and uncertain the next.

You don't want to end up an exhausted and angry traveler, bogged down with all of the baggage you've picked up along the way.

Because come to find out, you can't check any of it.  You choose it, you keep it.  And then your life becomes a constant struggle to shoulder those burdens and try to get comfortable with them.  Everything you say and do shows your struggle, not who you yourself are and want to be.

When I write, I know that there is a larger harmony and purpose in life, because I can feel it when my thoughts and my words align.

It's a nearly spiritual thing for me.  I can look at a sentence and say, "Yes, that's it.  That's one of them."

I feel this when I read some of Joan Didion's sentences, for example.  I think its musical equivalent is perfect pitch.  

It's not that I feel like what I write is somehow the manifestation of sentences that are already "out there." But when I write and I feel that I have connected to something outside of myself and chosen to share it with others, it resonates for me.

There's always an inherent vulnerability in that, of course.  You can always be misread.  Not everyone will hear the harmonies that you hear. 

Sometimes, people will think it sounds godawful and wrong.

And that can be a scary thing, of course.  It can plant seeds of self-doubt.  You have to be strong, to be a writer.  You have to be confident, always, if you're going to do your best work.

And you need to do your best work.  Time is short.

It's not possible to be confident all the time, but you always have to try and always, you have to practice.

In the trying and the practicing, you will eventually achieve it.  That is what great art is: beautiful things that happened while trying and practicing.

If you let the insecurities slip in, your words and your phrases will skid away from you.  Your thoughts have to be firmly planted in their expression.  It's your job to find that expression, and to weed out other people's attempts to change who you are and what you will say.

Writers write because they have to: they do it regardless of what others around them think and say.  They can't be stopped.  It's as simple as that.

I think of it this way: in ten years, the words of the critics and naysayers will have faded.  They're ephemeral, because they're written, not from their own souls and sensibilities, but in response to something in you and in your words that bothers them.  Something they feel the need to silence.

How sad it would be to let something ephemeral stop you from articulating something that you feel is honest and true and resonant.  (As Camus once said, ""To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.")

I think the difficulty in life is to see what is in front of us now in terms of what has been, to let go of the need to try to predict or force a sense of what will be, and always, to laugh, genuinely, no matter what is happening around you.

Camus once wrote, "A person's life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art or love or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened."  

And then to write it down.  I'm very much looking forward to another year of (nearly constant) blogging.  I love doing this.  I couldn't stop now if I wanted to.  And I love that people are reading and writing emails and comments to me about it--because it means that my words mean something to them, make them think and write and react.

If I didn't write, they wouldn't read and they wouldn't respond.  We would lose that.

A piece of me is now with them, always.  And they are with me.  And what we each do with that will ultimately tell a story about who we are and what we value.

Camus said, "The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself."  He also said, "The need to be right [is] the sign of a vulgar mind."

We all search for connection, for the right kinds of connections, for ties that bind and matter.  Occasionally we stumble on some things we wish we hadn't come across, but always, we can listen and learn.

Again, Camus: "Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better."

For me, that is the best day: when something comes to me and I can think about it and learn from it and be better because of it.  When something "negative" comes to me, I don't think of it as "negative" anymore: I look and it and think, "What is this?  Where is it coming from?   What can it teach me?"

Just because I don't like it, doesn't mean it isn't useful and important.  Stepping aside from the emotion is important.  It's a process.  We all have emotions, we all react.  But it's what we do after we react that matters most, I think.

Albert Camus also said,
An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.   I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. "Can they be brought together?" This is a practical question. We must get down to it. "I despise intelligence" really means: "I cannot bear my doubts."
I think a lot about Buddhist doctrines of non-attachment.  Whenever I feel myself getting anxious about a situation, I find the humor in it, because this is what laughter does: it acknowledges that we are (or can be) separate from the happenings in our lives, but it connects us to them in a wonderful way.

A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul."

Time spent laughing is never wasted: they are the moments we always remember.  We so rarely think of this--we think of life's traumas and disappointments, or life's big achievements and milestones.

Life's laughs.  That's what we need to remember.  ""Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken." (Camus, of course!)

I'm grateful for the chance to write and to laugh; to laugh, in writing, and to write, while laughing.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting and emailing.  I have learned so much from all of you.

Hope to see you here again a year from now, and all the days in between.
"Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend."  -- Albert Camus 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Just for Fun

Ahhh... the good old days....


As Lytton Strachey once said, "Discretion is not the better part of biography."

(Note: This sign doesn't indicate whether clean water costs extra... That's slightly worrisome.)


(Nicotine addiction is a terrible thing.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Good Morning

Woke up in a good mood this morning.

Thank you for that! :)

Sometimes the morning just looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes... good.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Generosity, Talents and Proverbs

I've been thinking about Luke 6:38:

"Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full--pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back."

I heard the spirit of this quotation misapplied recently and perverted into a kind of evil karma.

I really can't conceive how a person goes through life with such a view of the world and the people in it.

Their days must feel very heavy.

Even with all I've been through in my life, I've never felt that kind of bitterness or animosity towards anyone, ever.   No matter what they said or did.

So after hearing those words, I began to feel very aware of and grateful for the fact that, whatever mental or emotional material I'm made of, it has never led me down such a dark path.

Anger is one thing; hasty or harsh words are another.  The kind of deep-seeded sense that others deserve punishment and that one not only has the capacity but also the right to mete it out to or wish it upon others... that's just terribly sad. 

I thought that perhaps the person was misremembering the Biblical story of Job and conflating it with the spirit of the verse from Luke. In the Book of Job, Satan comes before God and, when God points out that Job is "a perfect and upright man," Satan claims, "put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face."

To prove that he is right, God turns Job's fortunes over to Satan, who destroys everything that he has. But Job refuses to curse God or to listen to the "advice" of his shabby friends.

Instead, he remains humble in the face of the things he cannot explain; as his reward, God returns everything to him twice over.

There is also the possibility that the person had in mind the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and Luke 19:11-27. In this story, told by Jesus, a man divides his property among his servants: to one, he gives five talents, to another, two, and to a third, one.

The servant with five talents invests them and earns five more, the servant with two talents invests them and earns two more. The servant who is given one talent, though, simply buries it in the ground.

When the man returns, the first two servants give him the doubled sums they have earned; the third servant, however, complains that he was afraid of the man and his harsh and vindictive nature, so he simply buried the money and has nothing additional to give to him.

The single talent is taken from him and given to the servant who earned ten, and the "lazy, evil" servant is cursed for his lack of productivity and his excuses and cast out.

The lesson is that devotion and service involve risk and labor. Playing it safe, hiding what you have to protect your own interests and then blaming others for the negative results, will not be rewarded.

In all of these examples, though, and even in the Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of karma, there is never a sense that humans can or should gloat at the thought that their fellow human beings may be receiving what they perceive as "well-deserved" punishments for something they've determined they should be punished for.

In every religious tradition I know of and in the moral philosophies of the atheist thinkers I'm familiar with, that's just showing the world that you're quite ignorant and incredibly cruel.

And it's a sure-fire way to ensure that, whenever your own portion of life's sadness and senselessness arrives, no one will be there to comfort you. 

Ultimately, I decided that the words of Proverbs 18 apply here:
"In estrangement one seeks pretexts: with all persistence he picks a quarrel.

The fool takes no delight in understanding, but rather in displaying what he thinks.

With wickedness comes contempt, and with disgrace comes scorn.

The words from a man's mouth are deep waters, but the source of wisdom is a flowing brook...."

"The fool's mouth is his ruin; his lips are a snare to his life..."

"Before his downfall a man's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honors.

He who answers before he hears-- his is the folly and the shame."
And perhaps most fitting, the observation of Proverbs 18:14:
"A man's spirit sustains him in infirmity-- but a broken spirit who can bear?"

Monday, August 1, 2011

More Odds and Ends

I've said it before and I'll say it again: my neighbors are wonderful.

They watered my plants while I was away, even in 100 degree heat. They have therefore earned their respective crowns in heaven, in my opinion.

My garden, as a result, is a wonderful jungle. Even my neighbor commented, "I've never seen plum tomato plants grow so tall!"

Monsanto be damned!

And here are my beautiful begonias: 

All together now, everyone... OOOOOOhhhh....pretty....

Symbolically, begonias mean "beware!"  Not sure how they're getting that, but maybe the jagged little petals look threatening to the easily intimidated.

And for those of you who just can't get enough, here are my nasturtiums:

 
"Nasturtium" means "nose-tweaker."  It's associated with victory in battle or conquest.

Take that!!!

I have too much fun on this darn blog, I really do.

I'm reading a collection of essays by Robert Sapolsky called The Trouble with Testosterone.

I know what you're thinking: "I already know what the trouble with testosterone is," but this is actually a really interesting collection of essays.

I'm a fan of Sapolsky's research and his writing: his book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers is an interesting discussion of the physiological and psychological impact of stress and another collection of his essays, Monkeyluv, is also quite good.

I always learn something new when I read Sapolsky's work.  For instance, did you know that, in the mid-nineteenth century, firing squads typically consisted of one man who actually fired a blank, not a real bullet?

I totally did not know this.

The person firing never knew whether he had the real bullet or the blank and as a result, "Each man could go home that night with the certainty that he could never be accused, for sure, of having played a role in the killing" ("Measures of Life, pg. 66).

Apparently, the 20% chance that, as a member of a five-man firing squad, you might not have actually shot your victim at all, was enough to assuage a conscience that might otherwise be distraught at acknowledging the 80% chance that you had.

Sapolsky also comments on the fact that voyeurism and gossip operate in the primate world much as they do in the human one.  In "Primate Peekaboo," he describes an adolescent male baboon who discovers the opposite sex.

"Absalom" isn't having any luck gettin' any, though, so he takes to watchin' and, we presume, hopin'.  "Any sexual consortship in the troop, and he would be lurking around in the bushes nearby, trying to catch sight of the good stuff, craning for a view of the action, holding his tail throughout" (39).

At one point, having crawled out onto a branch to observe a pair of baboons engaged in the primate-equivalent of foreplay,  Absalom suffers the ultimate in voyeuristic indignity: the branch breaks under his weight and he crashes down on top of the amorous couple.

Oops.  No way to make that look like an accident.

In more serious reading, I'm working on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.  Wilkerson follows the stories of three African-Americans who participate in what has been called "The Great Migration"--the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South to cities in the North and West from 1915-1970.

It's a beautifully written book, and extremely interesting.  I'm only a little ways into it, so... more later.