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, May 13, 2006

Martyrdom Undone

I have to say, I felt that justice was done when I heard that Zacarias Moussaoui had attempted to appeal his life sentence. He was all for going out in a blaze of glory as a martyr, but once he was facing life in prison, he suddenly decided that he wasn't guilty after all.

I only hope that the fanatical anti-Western Islamic terrorist community is utterly embarrassed by this pathetic excuse for a poster child. Not only does he fail to accomplish his alleged mission, he fails to get himself properly killed by the enemy, and then recants his whole position, and still winds up serving life in prison. Now he will be remembered, not as a viscious enemy of our nation, but rather as a paragon of Loser-dom.

I predict that he will inspire a whole new stock character for action-adventure films: the bumbling loser terrorist wanna-be. Kinda like an Arabic Inspector Clouseau, played by Cheech Marin.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I got through another fifty pages of Unconditional Parenting without finding much to disagree with. One point that raised some questions in me, though, was his critique of grades in the classroom. He describes how grades tend to undermine a genuine interest in learning, and dampen a desire to take on greater challenges, in exactly the same dynamic he sees in other external rewards undermining internal motivations.

I'm certain that what he describes is true, because I saw so much of it around me at school, especially in college. Especially at Duke University, where so many of the kids came from the privileged families in which love was very conditionally based on one's success, it was common to see a very shallow approach to learning. I remember one of the Duke kids in an SKS meeting saying, "I came to the SKS because I was tired of seeing notes transferred from the teacher's book to the students notebook without a bit of learning happening in the process." Once students become obsessed with the grades, they start to lose sight of what the grade is supposed to represent: real learning.

The curious thing is that I vividly remember both sides of this experience in my own life. I remember being excruciatingly grade-conscious before I was even out of grade school. My parents expected me to make high grades, and I did not disappoint them. However, I also had nothing but contempt for anyone who would ask the teacher, "Is this going to be on the test?" I hated people who didn't really try to learn material and who only went after the grade. I couldn't even understand how anyone with any self-respect could even let the question cross his lips. It's tantamount to saying, "Can I be stupid now? Can I ignore what you're trying so hard to teach me right now? Because, like, I don't give a shit about this, ok?" It was even more baffling to me that teachers would actually answer the question. (Only later did I realize that the teachers, also, were only interested in the grade . . . because the grades of the students was how they were measured in their success as a teacher.) Although I wanted to have the grades, I still cared about what I was actually learning.

So how is it that I had both of these dynamics going on at the same time? How could I care so much about grades, and still be contemptuous of anyone who cared just about grades? I'm still not sure, but I have a couple ideas. Partially, I think it was behavior modelled from my parents. In my family, reading and discussing was a primary form of entertainment. Reading was fun long before it was ever work. Both my parents were (and still are) problem-solvers, and not a day went by that they did not fix or build or write or study something. In short, I think my attitude towards learning was instilled well before the education system had a chance to ruin it.

Many people object to the lack of grades because they think it will leave their kids less prepared for the rigors of "real-life", where people compete with each other and there are real consequences for the quality of your work. I bought into that at the time, but in retrospect it seems patently false. I vividly remember starting in my first lab job after graduating from college, and having the sudden, stupid realization: "There are no grades here! But . . . but . . . how will I know I'm doing well if there are no grades?" For the first time in a looooong time, I had to navigate the world without the safety of well-defined, somewhat arbitrary yardsticks. "Doing well" suddenly was an open question, full of psychological subtlety (e.g. "well, you damn well better make the boss happy or your screwed, regardless of what you actually produce") and philosophical implications (e.g. "well, now I know what the boss wants, but is that what I want? What really matters, anyway?")

I am not completely against grades . . . I am very glad the Waldorf school does not use them in the lower grades, but I don't object to the fact that they do use them in the high school. In fact, I really don't think the problem is with grades per se; there is nothing wrong with quantifying performance. It's the glorification of the grade that creates the problem.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In the light of Death

Some more of the email conversation re: facing death:

The SKS alumna writes:
I understand the value and importance of service. For me, to serve
another is to serve God. It could be holding a person's hand on his
deathbed, building a house for Habitat, or simply cooking a meal for
another. I agree with George: it's all about intention and focus on
doing good. And I would choose B.
But that's still not what's bugging me.
Maybe Mr. See would have died at the exact same time even if he hadn't
crawled down the hall toward someone, but the fact that he didn't die
until the housekeeper's arms were around him still strikes up something
I can't communicate. Even if we spend our whole lives serving others,
serving God and claiming to have faith in life after death, will we be
able to die at peace?
I think about my grandfather who was one of the most devoutly Christian
men I've ever known, and, yet, he struggled to stay alive for 3 hours
after they took him off life support. Eyes rolling back in his head,
muscles tense, wheezing, fists clenching. It wasn't until my grandmother
put her hands on his cheeks, touched her nose to his and said "Jim,
we're going to be fine. We're all going to be alright. You can go now.
Go to God." that he calmed down, relaxed his breathing, closed his eyes
and passed within 20 minutes.
Then I think about Treya Wilber in Ken Wilber's Grace and Grit who
died at utter peace, ready to face it, and on whose face a smile crept
after she passed. Of course she struggled through sadness,
frustration, fear, anger, all of it at some point.
Common denominator in all three is that they died with someone next to
them. Mr. See and the housekeeper. My grandfather and his family. Treya
Wilber and her family. What does that mean? Must we spend our last
breaths with someone there, showing us that they care? That our lives
meant something to someone? So we can see our legacy at the moment of
our death? Maybe it's not for the man who's dying, but for those he
leaves behind. We think we need to comfort him.
I am not saying that I don't care about my life meaning something to
someone else. I absolutely do care. That's one of my 'things' approval
and identity determined by outside sources. But if we toil all our lives
to serve and have absolute and honest faith that death is not the end,
why do we need someone there at that very moment? Can we have absolute
certainty about death without going through it?
I feel as though my questions would send me back to remedial
spirituality class (ha!) but this is the first time I truly feel that
I have to know the answers. I've asked them before and claimed that I
wanted to or already knew the answers, but I didn't. I realize that I
have no freakin' idea about any of it.


My response:

Rose wrote a poem, "Truth", which contained the lines:

Ah, Truth is a wonderful thing,
But a longely thing

The poem ends with the lines:

But here it is, night . . .
And Truth is too thin a blanket.

We come to the search for the Truth with all sorts of preconceptions about what the Truth will give us. We think the Truth will bring us happiness...or if not happiness, at least peace. We think that the Truth will innoculate us against suffering. We think that the Truth will protect us from all the human fears that we have about being alone . . . especially in the face of death.

But Rose and other spiritual teachers explicitly warn us against carrying these preconceptions about the "payoff" of the Truth. Truth is a thin blanket: it will not necessarily spare you from grief and fear, even grief for yourself and the ending of your own life. (I say, "not necessarily", because, who knows? Maybe it will. And then again, maybe it won't.)

So I'm not entirely sure it's a reasonable expectation to assume that you will face your death with utter equanimity. The Buddha promised an end to _suffering_, but that just means you are no longer identified with experience. There will still be _pain_, including emotional pain.

Also, I don't think a consistent desire for human companionship at the end of life is in any way an indictment of one's spiritual preparedness. You might think, "Oh, if I was spiritually fit, I shouldn't need any hand-holding, I can face death alone." But, really, think about it: in the light of Death, you have a chance to see things as they are. Trivial things appear trivial, and important things appear important. In that moment, _what_ _else_ on this planet would seem important to you, except connection to other human beings? Dying people look to other people, not because they lack a spiritual perspective, but precisely _because_ they have a spiritual perspective.

The best illustration that exists for all this is the end of Tolstoy's _The Death of Ivan Illych_. Ivan Illych's epiphany, and his final peace, comes when he makes that last connection with his son and his wife. Read it again -- my God, I've read it a hundred times and it never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


One of the SKS's finest alumni sent this around today:

A colleague forwarded the link (at end of email) to me and I wanted to pass it
along. Not because I think it is some great word of advice, but because I think
it's not and am interested in other perspectives....

I have grown close to many residents since I came to work at VMRC in January. Last week, one of those residents, John See, died. That's nothing new. I work at a retirement community. People I know die every week.

He used to stop by my office a couple times a week and chat about anything and everything...his wife died 6 months ago. He told me about his experience in the hospital after by-pass surgery when he was hallucinating about demons and the floor being filled with a half foot of water. He talked about how the most important thing in his life was his wife, she was gone and he didn't know what to do anymore. He asked me if I like to drink beer. He asked me if I believe in God, because if I didn't, it was
about damn time to figure out why not. He was a sweet and lonely man.

It wasn't so much /that/ he died, but/ how/ he died that's haunting me. Mr. See had a brain aneurysm that doctors had been keeping an eye on for over 6 months. A housekeeper in Mr. See's facility was making coffee in the lounge when she heard him calling her name. John always played tricks on the housekeepers, so she thought he was up to something once again. But something in his voice didn't sound right to her, so she took a few steps back and looked down the hallway. Mr. See was crawling toward her on his hands and knees, pleading for her help. She ran straight to him, yelling for someone to call 911, immediately sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around him. He died within a couple minutes. Paramedics said his aneurysm burst.

I'm sure the aneurysm was the biological cause, but it seems to me that loneliness was a culprit, too. It was as if he waited until he was with someone. In his last moments, he couldn't stand to be alone. And isn't that how we all are? We're born alone. We die alone. And we spend all the time in between avoiding loneliness at all costs..seeking distraction at every turn.

I loved Mr. See, but I don't want to be crawling on my hands and knees, begging for help when death comes. I /want/ to go gentle into that dark night and live my life so
that I don't have to rage against it. Is that possible? Do even the wisest of men rage at the moment of their death?

That's why the following article that was emailed across our campus bothered me so much. I think the aspects of cultivating ourselves that Dr. Ruppenthal discusses are important. But the last step (Build Your Legacy) especially talks about leaving your mark on the world. Create something that will outlast your life. He says, "Age
matters less when we pour ourselves into people and things that will in their own way continue us." It talks about how the elderly should pass on what they know to the younger generation. Aren't we doing a dis-service by encouraging these elders to leave their legacy as opposed to face into what is inevitable much sooner than later in their case?

I suppose his article is meant to be a resource for those who are aging and are scared by it, so it provides comfort (and I think they need comfort) for them to have a list of things they can do not to be scared of death. And, perhaps, I'm thinking about it from the SKS perspective that we should face into death /now/ and scare the shit out of ourselves, so we'll be as ready as we can when the time actually comes. I just don't think our lives should be spent on leaving a legacy so much as trying to understand our desire to leave a legacy in the first place. (Which then leads me to ask, if I really don't care about leaving a legacy, why do I want to do work that I define as "meaningful"?)


It's neither here nor there. I just wanted to pass it along.

Here is my reply to her:

There are two aspects to "leaving the legacy": one focused on _giving_, and the other focused on building something that will last. The first is laudable and wise; the second is understandable but ultimately doomed to failure. ALL things are impermanent, even those things that might outlast your own lifetime. I believe that the _effects_ of your life can ripple outwards and have profound effects in the world, both now and in the future ... but whether those effects will be recognizable as a "legacy" is doubtful.

Moreover, I have come to be skeptical of any philosophy based on teleology -- the idea that the value or meaning of what happens NOW is dependant on what happens in the FUTURE. We can't stake our meaning on the future, because the future never comes. There is no "end" at which we can evaluate whether we "won" or "lost".

One important thing to consider is that many philosophers, especially Rose, thought that the drive to give to others and do good was _directly_ related to the search for the Truth. Rose believed that his own enlightenment experience would not have happened had he not pledged to share his discoveries with others. You may not know what is ultimately "good" right now . . . but you still have to _want_ to do good in order to find out.

It strikes me as sad that people have to come face to face with their own mortality before they can begin to understand that the only meaning they can find in their lives is in what they give rather than what they get. If someone lives their whole life with the fixed intention to do good, I suspect their "legacy" will emerge all on its own.


Ok. I'm whupped. I admit it. I'll go to bed now.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Every guru's got one

It seems like every authority, especially spiritual authorities, have at least one idea or belief that seems to come completely out of left field. You'll be reading along, nodding your head and thinking, "the guy's got it sooo right," and then suddenly you pull up against this non-sequiter.

With Rose it was "entities" -- he gave an excuciatingly honest analysis of humanity's psychological failings, but ended with the conclusion that there must be non-human "entities" provoking the behavior and "feeding" off the psychic energy produced. It was a conclusion that was perfectly consistent with his observations . . . and yet I had a hard time making the leap from subtle psychological analysis to superstitious belief. Fortunately, the idea was not particularly central to his spiritual teaching; you could see the sense in all his recommendations without having to believe in "entities", so I (along with most his students, I think) just kinda blipped over that bit and tried to pretend it didn't happen.

I used to think Rose was unusual for such quirky explanations . . . but then I read Gurdjieff. He had some very compelling ideas about human will and the quest for freedom. Unfortunately, he also thought the Moon was sucking souls from the earth. Or Nietzsche, who was a masterful psychologist and profund philosopher, but who was convinced that ever single event was destined to recur in a never-ending loop of cosmic events. Or Rudolph Steiner, who has some incredible insights into spiritual development, along with some truly weird ideas about everything else under the sun. It's like a cosmic law: every guru seems to find some belief that embarrasses their disciples.

I'm thinking about it now because I was listening to Eckhart Tolle on the trip up to West Virginia, and I hit his "left-field moment" in his discussion of "pain bodies." He has a long discussion of this psychic entity that's kinda like an Ego, but something else altogether. Now, I'm used to some anthropomorphic discussions about egos in spiritual matters, as a way of explaining why people act the way they do . . . but Tolle seems to really, literally believe in this separate semi-autonomous thing called a "pain body". It seemed so out of place with everything else he teaches, which is very much focused on awareness and attention and rarely degrades to the level of belief.

Seeing as how "all true learning begins in confusion," I have to stick with it and give the idea a chance . . . but it reminds me how much of my world view is full of these patches of uncomprehension, hastily covered over with "I don't get this bit but it probably doesn't matter", or "this is truly profound and I kinda believe it but please don't ask me to explain or I'll have to go through all that cognitive dissonnance again."

Anything we don't understand but tentatively accept is indistinguishable from superstition.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Geek Humor

I have to ship out eeeeearly tomorrow to a gig in West Virginia, so I can't stay up late contemplating the universe. So let me just make a friendly plug to a website I've been enjoying lately: The Daily WTF (http://www.thedailywtf.com/).

This is hard-core geek humor: stories of weirdness and stupidity found inside code. Odds are good you will not find any of it funny if you don't write some kind of computer code, but if you do you will find a gas.

And if you're not of the code-writing tribe, I think the logo alone is worth the trip. ;-}