Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Review of _God's Debris_

When I saw that Scott Adams had written a philosophical thought experiment, I was very hopeful. Maybe he was another Galileo or Newton, someone who was recognized for one field of endeavor but was secretly producing profound insights in religion and philosphy. His introduction was very promising: his stated audience is "people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls." The enthusiasm he brings to this task is what won my admiration and my hope -- I feel a kinship to anybody who at least recognizes that thinking about such things are important, and that it is possible to engage topics such as religion with descrimination without blind knee-jerk skepticism or cynicism.
Adam's also professes not to believe the ideas that he presents in the book. I certainly hope this is true, though after reading the book I don't think that's quite as true as he makes it out to be. He certainly thinks the ideas are compelling and consistent enough to provoke cognitive dissonance in the reader.
Alas, the ideas are not as compelling or consistent as he might have hoped. Sometimes he is spot-on: I thought his chapter on "Genuine Belief," which recognizes that most so-called "believers" don't take religion seriously, was a well-reasoned and bold challenge to a taboo. So many of the others, though, were so wrong as to be painful to read. His critique of evolution was positively inane; he argues that we should have seen more evidence of evolution in modern times if it was real, but since evolution happens over (duh) _millions_ of years, it is entirely possible that we would see no evolutionarily significant mutations in the duration of recorded human history. (Nor would those mutations probably be recognizable as such, but that's another discussion.) Similarly, he puts forth an argument that all events will be repeated again and again; while he's certainly not the first person to propose Eternal Recurrence (Nietzsche was a big fan of the idea), there are mathematical proofs that demonstrate that all possible combinations of matter are not destined to repeat themselves, even in an infinite amount of time.
Once you run across one of those holes, so gapingly huge that you can't ignore it, it becomes very difficult to continue to see the old man holding forth these ideas as an omniscient super-being. After that, the book is spoiled; you lose faith in the character and maybe even the author who created him.
So what are you supposed to do with this book? Adams advises you to find the places where the old man is wrong, but at the same time says, in effect, "Don't write to me telling me I'm wrong -- I don't really believe this stuff." That seems like a clever way to get one's cleverest thoughts out in the public without having to endure the rigors of critically defending one's thinking. If somebody points out how some of his ideas are silly, he can smile sagely and say, "Ahhhh, you figured it out," without letting on that he really _did_ think he was on to something with that idea, and now his idea is toast. There is something slithery and not entirely honest about it.

Friday, January 06, 2006

2.3 Kids

I have two sons, aged five and one-and-a-half. My wife and I are now facing the inevitable question: do we go for one more? Once your last child approaches two, you start to think that the time is coming to hatch out another. We agreed from the start that we wanted at least two, but now that our biological imperative is slightly less urgent, we're finding the question of a third to be remarkably difficult.
"It's not a girl thing," says my wife, who wanted a daughter but was instead blessed with boys (and they are ALL boy). "I'm past the girl thing. I think it's a death thing."
That's what I love about my wife. She can say these things, and I know exactly what she means. When you decide that a part of your life is forever over, the specter of one's mortality looms large. And while we are not exactly old (mid-thirties), we are well past the age at which you are mostly looking forward with expectation. Young people believe that absolutely anything could happen in their lives; they still have the necessary hubris to believe that they will change the world. Middle age starts when you realize that your time is limited, and that if anything is going to change about your life you need to plan for it and make certain sacrifices.
So here we are, all settled down and reasonably happy, but still asking the same questions we asked at 25: how much is going to be enough? What will make me feel like I've down enough with my life? Two kids? Three kids? Two books? Three books?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Life is (Other People) Suffering

Some stomach bug has churned up my guts for the last two days. At first I thought it was the result of eating at a Jack in the Box (which I don't recommend, regardless of the gastric consequences), but now I think it's something else. Now, I am remarkably healthy, by and large, and famous for being stoic to absurd degrees -- as a child I once waited two hours to tell my mom I had broken my arm because I didn't want to interrupt her visit with a friend -- so it is saying something that I'm saying something about my current distress.

Sitting up in bed last night, waiting for pain to subside, I thought of all the countless TV commercials I had seen for stomach remedies. They always featured some round-faced, portly fellow, with a shadow falling over his usually jolly face as heartburn sets in, and theatrical groans or special effects making him blow up like a balloon. I suddenly realized that, for the first time in my life, I felt like that guy . . . and in the same moment I realized I never felt one shred of sympathy for him before. I always assumed his ills were self-inflicted, and I didn't identify at all with some bellicose Italian (I'm of German descent and thin as a rail).

There is nothing particularly profound or new in this . . . I guess what's so surprising is that I can still be surprised by the realization: life is suffering, but most often it's other people suffering, and me not really giving a damn. In fact I'm starting to believe that it is psychologically impossible to feel compassion for someone without having somehow experienced their particular pain for yourself.

I remember once talking about identification and compassion in an SKS meeting, and my friend Alan was relating a story: "Everyone has had this happen to them, when they're in the parking lot of a grocery store, and you see some woman unloading her shopping cart into her car, and as she is closing her trunk and walking away you realize that she has forgotten the bag of potatoes on the bottom of her cart. And you are seized with the immediate, almost panicked desire to yell to her -- Hey! Hey! Where does that urgency come from? Because, for just a moment, those were your potatoes that were being left behind."

Do we have to experience suffering before we can experience compassion? Can we start to care about people without first seeing ourselves in them? Or is that in the very nature of love and compassion -- to identify with the Other?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Public Secret

I had thought that I could be casual about telling people about this blog . . . it always seemed a mite pretentious to announce to everyone in your address book that "I've got a blog!" It only draws attention to the usual hubris associated with self-publishing. Couldn't I just, you know, just let people find it, or maybe leak it out slowly, forwarding posts to people I have reason to believe would actually be interested . . . ?

How silly . . . I had forgotten how much people dislike finding out secrets about their friends and family, especially secrets that feel so profoundly public as a blog. When someone discovers that someone they know has a blog, and they weren't told about it, they don't exactly know how to react: "Did they intend to keep this a secret from me? Why didn't they tell me? Were they writing about me? Or is this a part of some secret life that I didn't know about?" And, of course everyone assumes that they were the last person to know, even if they happen to be the first person that you tell.

Nor is blogger himself left out of the guessing game, since he has no idea which of his friends or family are reading his posts.

I'm starting to realize how odd, maybe even unique, the blog is as a mode of writing. Where else can you simultaneously open up your innermost thoughts, and at the same time leave people feeling like you were hiding and shutting them out?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Reflection on Reflection

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece called "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" in which the author cited some research that demonstrated that reflection (in the New Year spirit of self-examination) was not always useful. (It's a short article, so you might as well follow the link and read it rather than have me try to summarize it here.) My friend Kenny sent it out to a bunch of people, trying to strike up an online conversation, and here is my reply:

I find it interesting that all the discussion of the article is dedicated to thinking about feeling. That is, does it make you feel better to think about feeling? It seems the author has already given primacy to feeling over thinking, as if feeling good is the only measure of validity and value, and that one's feelings are the only thing worth introspecting about. There isn't even a glimmer of the suggestion that maybe you should think about doing good deeds because it's the right thing to do . . . good works are evaluated strictly in terms of whether they make you feel good. It's a very common bias in modern American thinking, and deadly to the soul. What could be worse than being enslaved to your feelings?

We don't need the New York Times to tell us that people who are less reflective are happier. Sure, ignorance is bliss. The more interesting point of the article is the one that surely caught Kenny's attention: action, rather than reflection, is more useful for changing one's being (and, incidently, one's feelings).

(Replies to this email message from others are attached as comments to the post, just to keep things organized.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

But What Do You Read?

I remember in a poetry class in college, my professor Gerry Barrax started the semester by asking all the students what poetry they were reading, how often they read it, and what they thought about it, especially contemporary poetry. Some students tried to talk about poetry they were writing, and Gerry gently corrected them: "No, tell me about what you're reading. You can't become a good poet unless you read lots of poetry. I won't know how serious you are until I know the breadth and depth of your reading."

A few students took umbrage at this: what about preserving your creative voice? what about writing from some place deep within, instead of imitating what you read? Gerry (God bless him) gave a lecture he had given many, many times before about Craft, about learning how to build (yes, build, not create) poems, learning from your peers, and stoking your own love for the written word. Lots of people write poetry, ("if you could call it that," he said with tiniest barb of sincerity), but it's quite clear that they have never read poetry, even their own poetry, because they would have realized how uninteresting it is.

I took that to heart when I decided to start blogging. I knew that blogs are famous for their naval-gazing and self-absorbtion, so I figured I better read what others are doing and learn from it.

Two blogs I learned from immediately, and can generally recommend, are Scott Adam's Dilbert Blog and Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy. I started with those because I liked their other work: I read Dilbert every day, and listen to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me every week. I also know that, in addition to being funny and entertaining, they are people with a lot on their minds. Adam Felber is ridiculously well-informed about the political happenings that he satirizes, and he manages to do the near-impossible, which is to stay funny while still writing about subjects he cares about -- something an otherwise hilarious Garrison Keillor (A Prarie Home Companion) fails at miserably. Scott Adams wrote a book of philosophical thought experiments (God's Debris, freely available for download) which shows that he has more bouncing around his skull than office humor.

What I love the most was their brevity. Good or bad, their posts are short and tight, insuring that most folks will not lose interest before the end of the post. Note to self: don't ramble, even in a blog, if you want to keep an audience.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Ground Rules

I have a very simple goal with this blog: write something every day. I have known for a very long time that I harbored secret and sometimes not-so-secret ambitions of becoming a professional writer. Unlike many such wanna-bes, I have actually been published before and know that I have the talent and the skills to make that dream a reality. What I have lacked is the guts, the will, and the habits. Which is to say, most of what it takes to be a successful writer.

So, rather than continue to wallow in rationalizations, I am trying to flush out this dream. Either I will have what it takes to continue this work, or I won't. If I don't keep it up, I can just stop pretending, go back to being a reasonably happy software consultant, and stop believing some work of genius will magically jump out of my head fully formed some day.

So, here are the rules:
1) At least one post every day. No expections for theme, length, coherence, or quality; just a daily post, come hell or high water.
2) Comments are welcome. Arguments and disagreements are especially welcome, because they give me something to which I can react, which is much easier to write than just cooking something up from scratch.
3) WARNING! Occasionally I write about technical programming stuff. This is not just an attempt to fill space, nor is the intended direction of the whole blog. It's just that sometimes I happen to figure something out that's difficult and non-intuitive, and it's something that I desperately wish someone else had shared online so I didn't have to work it out myself. I have found so many valuable tidbits from other blogs and other online venues that I feel the need to give back to the world. Thanks to Google, I know that the five people in the whole world who might be interested will find it, and be glad. (Which may, I'm afraid, be more people than those who read anything else I might post.) If I wind up writing a lot of these, I might start a different blog with that focus. If you're not one of those five people, and for some bizarre reason you actually read these posts sequentially, just blip right over them and forgive me for being such a geek.
4) I'm not revealing my identity right now, just because I don't know what I'm going to think about this blog, and I'd rather not have it google up under my name at the moment. That being said, I have no vested stake in hiding who I am, and I will freely include details from my life that will identify me, at least to those who know me.
5) As the title of the blog suggests, these posts will only be lightly edited, if that. I _d0_ tend to edit anything I write (I re-read even the most mundane emails and make changes) , but I am fighting paralysis-of-analysis in most of my writing and I am trying to get in the habit of getting something 90% there and then just letting it go.

So, here goes. I profer my deeds to oblivion.