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, March 11, 2006

No Pain, No Gain . . . (and No Brain)

A recent spiritual koan for me has been the dogmatic assumption that pain is requisite for significant change. My spiritual teacher, and his teacher, and a (literal) army of drill seargeants all insist that pain is a requisite part of change, and that if you're not feeling extremely uncomfortable you are probably not changing that much. This philosophy is remarkably well-suited to my Stoic psyche; I consciously and unconsciously associate the ability to unflinchingly tolerate discomfort as the one of the highest virtues. It also makes me something of a hack; while I can't deny I have certain talents, I feel that most of my success is more attibutable to sheer raw work and more hours than the next guy.

But the (potential) problem with this philosophy is the possibility that sometimes change comes a lot easier than you expect. (Like this blog . . . I expected it to be very hard to write every day, and it has actually been a great pleasure. What took me so long?) Sometimes, with good guidance and well-timed intervention, you can change some things very quickly for the better. I think Richard Rose understood this when he said: "Rejoice in the things you can allow yourself to do."

There larger issue is that you can get the logic confused; suffering may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. In other words, just because you're suffering, doesn't mean your going to change. Sometimes suffering is just stupid. As my boss Harry is fond of saying: "If it seems really, really hard, you're probably not doing it right." So while a Stoic philosophy might help you deal with the pain that is necessary, it doesn't help you discern which pain is the right pain.

There is also the very real psychological confusion that you conclude that pain is inherently good, and all things pleasant and easy and nature are Bad and all things painful and difficult and unnatural are Good. Suddenly good is bad, bad is good, up is down, and you have no yardstick for judging anything.

I am throwing this all out there, because I also know that it is entirely possible that I, being one the richest, most secure, most blessed beings in the entire Cosmos, don't particularly relish the idea of embracing discomfort in the name spiritual evolution. Or at least the inevitablity of suffereing.

And . . . after all is said and done, it's still the best rule of thumb. Most of the things people want out of life -- money, recognition, power, and even spiritual awakening -- seem to inevitably put huge demands that inevitably require suffering. So you might as well suck it up. Just don't make an idol out of your suffering. That, too, is just part of the getting there.

Friday, March 10, 2006

My Computer has AIDS

So I come back from dinner, and poking around my computer I find that the McAfee Virus Center has been doing a background scan, and has found . . . 291 infected files. Jesus Christ! Who was asleep at the switch! I buy antivirus software to avoid this sort of thing . . .

So then I click through on the links to see what the offending virus is . . . and I find this curt description that says lots of executables are erroneously testing positive for infection, due to an error in the DAT files that were just distributed today, and that if you're not careful, McAfee might delete them.

As Harry would say: "Job opening!"

Somebody's head will certainly roll for that. And I certainly won't be renewing my McAfee subscription at this rate, either, if I have to worry about my computer suddenly getting an auto-immune disease.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Thinking Sports

My brother-in-law sent me an interview between ESPN's Sports Guy Bill Simmons and Blink author Malcolm Gladwell. Now, I already have an abiding respect for Gladwell, after reading some excerpts from Blink and a couple of his stories from The New Yorker, some of which I've blogged about before.

What amazed me about this piece was . . . it was about sports. And I was really interested. Which is saying a lot about me, because I know next to nothing about sports, so much so that I don't even try to pretend any more with other guys. So now I think I know the true measure of when someone is a good writer: when they can make you completely interested in something you thought you had no interest in. I have occasionally had inklings of this phenomena when I had zero interest in history and was first exposed to James Burke, or even about sports when I starting hearing commentary from John Feinstein on NPR. But this completely took me in; I actually starting thinking I could care about sports, if everyone talked about it with this much intelligence and wit.

If you read the piece, and you have no interest in sports but love good writing, pay attention to how delicately Gladwell skewers the various players and managers who have earned his contempt. Never did I read such gentlemanly trash-talking. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde's quip: "A gentleman is someone who never insults someone unintentionally." He eviscerates so cleanly you almost don't feel the knife go in. Even Joe Morgenstern's film critiques (which I love) look ham-handed in comparison.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The mouthes of babes

We were reading the newspaper over supper tonight -- not something we normally do, but dinner was extremely informal, what with me sick and hovering close but not too close to the table. So Janet and I started talking about things we read, and Aidan had some great comments about the stories:

Georg: "So, it says that [former Enron CFO] Andrew Fastow's wife has already had to serve a year in jail for tax fraud, just because her husband lied to her about where all the money came from."
Aidan: "So, she went to jail, because he lied to her?"
Janet: "Yes. It's not really fair, but that can happen sometimes. She went to jail because her husband was so greedy."
Aidan [Channelling the spirit of Dr. Laura.]: "Why did she marry such a bad person?"

* * *

Janet: "Ali Farka Toure died."
Georg: "Who?"
Janet: "Ali Farka Toure."
Georg (smiling): "Who?"
Janet: "He was this African musician, he did some funky things, I heard him on Back Porch Music. I have a CD of his music."
Aidan: "Could I listen to it?"
Janet: "Sure. You'd probably like it."
Aidan (frowning): "But does it still work?"
Janet: "Sure."
Aidan: "I mean, it still plays, even though he's dead?"

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

To the Pain

I feel like such a wuss, the way this flu is kicking my butt. Oh, did I mention I have the flu? Bona fide influenza virus. I've lain in bed for the last several hours, in constant pain, and generally thinking about nothing else. I don't know how people with chronic pain can live with it. If a little five-day virus leaves me this wiped out, what would cancer do to me? Or cluster headaches? The only people who talk about the blessing of good health are those who have lost it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Death by Apathy

I'm sick. Like, really sick, fever, chills, hacking cough, sore all over. Yet none of that is more notiable than the overwhelming sense of apathy. The laptop sat balanced on my hip for about twenty minutes while I was curled up in a fetal ball, waiting for the energy to come to write ...and suddenly realizing it was never going to come.

We always imagine that when we're dying, we're going to be full of big thoughts, joys and regrets and new priorities revealed. Yet it is more likely that we will lie in bed, barely able to move, waiting for ourselves to reemerge from a cloud of pain, and the waiting never ends.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Bad Guys

My son has long dwelt in the world of stories, where there are usually clear protagonists and antagonists. Philosophically, we are find ourselves challenged when Aidan asks us, "Is he a Bad Guy?"

Usually, the appropriate answer in the context of the story is, "Yes, he's a bad guy." But is that the way we want him to see the world? Because, most of the time, the line between good and bad is not nearly so clear-cut. So much of true compassion (both for himself and for others) is recognizing that everyone is usually trying, more or less, to do the right thing, and that everyone is, more or less, failing at it on regular basis. Rather than just seeing "Bad Guy" written out on someone's forehead, we would like him to be capable of having compassion even for those who are doing bad things. Sometimes that person is himself.

Eckhart Tolle led me further down this line of thinking: "Any time you feel yourself reacting to someone with resentment or other hurt feelings, you can be fairly sure it is the ego in you reacting to the ego in them. If you see it as just that -- a manifestion of ego, the collective unconscious nature of the human condition -- then you don't take it personally anymore, and you are free to let it go."

At the same time, I really do believe in Evil. Regardless of the root cause, there are some people who are heartless, remorseless, without regard for others and who do terrible things. God's mercy may reach out to every soul, but Man's compassion has its limits, and there are some people who are past man's ability to redeem. True compassion doesn't always mean, "Let's sit down and talk about it." Sometimes you have real enemies, and they need to be fought. I don't think I do my son any favors by depriving him of the archtypal Villain who must be defeated by the Hero; that, also, is part of the truth.