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 27, 2006

The Perfect Wedding

We just got back from Mary Alice and Bob Dearborn's wedding. The reviews are in . . . it was as close to perfect as such affairs can ever come. The ceremony was short but heartfelt, outdoors in a beautiful garden beside running water. The weather was warm but not too sticky. The mood was festive, but focused on the significance of the event and not on the details. The ringbearer, a young boy of maybe eight, was idly trying to stomp on a bug on the stone platform while the bride and groom were saying their vows. Absent was the usual hyper-anxiety of pomp piled on top of pomp . . . but equally absent were the convoluted pretensions of people trying hard not to have a traditional wedding. I don't think I've ever attended a wedding so un-self-conscious as this one.

The reception was equal to the ceremony. Children romped on the grass and jumped on rocks in the nearby stream. The music was good -- lead off with some generation-spanning Beatles numbers, some interesting hip-hoppy covers of eighties music, and the really sweet lyrical stuff from the likes of Ben Folds. The food was nice: extra points for presenting mashed potatoes in wine glasses. Everyone was drinking but nobody was drunk; many danced but strictly for the fun of it.

I should speak glowing words about the bride and her dress, seeing as that's probably the most expensive aspect of such affairs, but I might blow my credibility since I don't have the nomenclature for dress features that most women seem born knowing. Suffice it to saw that she looked simple and radiantly beautiful, as a bride should. Bonus points to her sister Rebecca for being able to walk down a steep garden path in three-inch heels.

I was touched, too, that Bob's father made a toast that was so supportive of the life's work of both Bob and Mary Alice. Most weddings are full of expectations and vicarious fulfillments, and here was just genuine love and support for two wonderful people doing wonderful things.

Mary Alice told Aidan that the wedding cake was magical, and that if he ate it he would turn into a frog. So, Aidan gamely left a note for M.A. in fishbowl of well-wishes, with a crouton stuffed in the envelope: "If you eat this crouton, you will turn into a gibbon. --Aidan"

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mayday, mayday, we're going down

I'm starting to get sick, I think. I've had a mild irritation in my throat for the past day, and I didn't completely realize that my body has been fighting me all day until I tried to go play with the kids.

I'm going to bed. You might think about doing the same.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ding, dong, the warlocks are convicted

Thank goodness the jury totally socked it to Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay. If the Enron executives had managed to weasel their way out of that mess like Scrushy I would have completely lost faith in our ability to control our big corporations.

One thing I found especially interesting was NPR's coverage of the conviction, in which they interviewed the Enron whistleblower Rudy Sutherland to get a reaction to the conviction. Normally such "reaction interviews" follow a predictable script: "I'm so relieved . . . it really was a tragedy . . . justice was served . . . " The reporters are trying to get 95% gracious self-righteousness with 5% schadenfreude.

Instead, Ms. Sutherland was remarkable candid and, more surprisingly, without rancor. She said the conviction was "not surprising," which is nice because normally such interviewees are inclined to puff up the importance of the event to bask in their own reflected glory. Madeleine Brand asked her about some of her recommendations to Ken Lay in her famous memo warning of the company's immanent collapse, and there too she showed unusual candor: "Well, sure, I offered some best-case scenarios, but only because if you're too much of a Cassandra they just throw your memo in the trash." (I am completely heartened that an accounting executive can make such a casual reference to the Illiad . . . learning is not yet dead.) She did not attempt to justify herself for selling her own Enron stock, nor did she confess to wrong-doing either. "I don't know why they didn't charge me with insider trading."

But best of all was when she was asked, point-blank, for an emotional response. "I just think its sad, because they haven't accepted any responsibility for wrong-doing. They will go to jail bitter, angry men." I can't but my finger on it, but somehow this moved me. Anyone can see the tragedy in thousands of people wiped out financially . . . it takes something more to see the tragedy in the loss of the two souls who brought it about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Essential Knowledge

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting review of Harry Lewis' Excellence Without a Soul, a critique of American higher education. His main contention is that American universities have no idea what constitutes a good education, because they have no unifying values and make no effort to discern what's really important.

I find the argument especially interesting because of what I had heard from the people who are actually making the curricula. The SKS always loved inviting William H. Willimon, the former Dean of Duke Chapel and now bishop in the Methodist Church, to speak, because he was very frank about such things in his talks. "You folks come to college, and you expect us to have the recipe for making a good, well-rounded, well-educated person who is prepared for life in the modern world. But really . . . all it is is a bunch of old white guys sitting around a table saying, 'I dunno, ya think two years of foreign language sounds good?' " Willimon, who is a fine scholar and who obviously has given (and received) much from academic life, was refreshingly honest about the limitations of what a college curriculum can actually accomplish. He made it clear that it was up to the students themselves to find the definition of a successful life, and the path to it; the current climate in academia had no room for educating the soul. I think the reason Willimon worked so closely with the SKS was because he knew that the university could do a better job on this front . . . he certainly saw the rumblings of "soulessness" at Duke when he defined its challenges as "a problem of meaning."

When I was at the NCSSM Alumni Forum last week, I made a point of telling the students there that my coursework had absolutely nothing to do with my success in the field of science, and later in computer software. Everything that was really important, I learned outside the classrooom, either in independent research, or in a lab job, or in leadership positions in the student union and the SKS. To this day I find it horrifying that someone can complete an entire undergraduate degree in biochemistry and never conduct a real experiment, or read a real peer-reviewed journal article. Every time I give money to the university I include a note that tells them to support more opportunities for students to work in real labs doing real research.

One the reasons I'm interested in teaching so much is because it is so obvious to me that the current system is severely flawed. I'm not sure if that means I'm called to actually teach, or to become a policy wonk who tries to reshape the system, or a little of both.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Nation of Immigrants

The debates over immigration are nothing new. The arguments have been around almost as long as there has been an independent country. In theory, they go something like this:

"Sure, we want people to come here. But we only want the good people, the people who have education and skills, who will contribute to our society and not drag it down, and who will assimilate into our culture. We should control who comes into the country."

Well, at least that's what they say. But the true driving sentiment is more like this:

"I don't want to compete in a job market with people willing to take a tenth of what I'm paid. I have a God-given right to my current lifestyle and standard of living and anything that threatens it is bad. Don't talk to me about the virtues of a free and open market -- I deserve to make this wage, because I was born here, and they don't, because they were born over there."

In general, I think everyone generally agrees with the theory and everyone is arguing over the underlying practice. I just wish everyone would stop acting like they were arguing over principle and acknowledge they are arguing over whose ox is getting gored.

I never understood trade protectionism, especially the anti-immigration kind. "We deserve good jobs at a living wage," say the workers. But . . . who said you had a right to a particular standard of living? Where is that written in the Constitution? What, exactly, made you think you had a right to live as you do? I mean, I love my lifestyle and I'm no more willing than anyone else to give it up . . . but at least I acknowledge that what I have is a blessing and a freak chance, not some divinely assigned right.

"Oh, yeah, right, but it's not your ox getting gored here," they might say. "You're not the one losing your job over this." But in the last few years, the programmers in Bangalore starting putting programmers like me out of jobs. I, too, am in a position of competing with people who will work for a tenth of what I do. Nobody is invulnerable to the global market.

What I find even more remarkable is that nobody who is carping about how these new workers are going to destroy their employment options seems to notice that these Mexican immigrants are thrilled to freaking death to work for the wages they find here. Poverty is in the eye of the beholder, and American eyes are dulled to what they really have. The fact that 95% of the world lives with vastly less than we do, and that even our poor are insanely wealthy by world standards, is simply unfathomable to the American mind. There is some little circuit in our brains that says, "Yeah, but that's them. I'm not some Ethiopean with a belly out to here, or a Chinese in sweat shop. I'm an American, for God's sake. These things don't happen to me." And somehow, our sense of privileged specialness never gets tested for rationality or sanity.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Parent Identity

The other day I put on an Attachment Parenting t-shirt. My wife had bought it for me to wear to public events, just to wave the flag for the cause. But I just wore it around the house. Huh.

I think I'm becoming more identified with my role as a parent these days. I've been a parent for over five years now, and it's wrought all kinds of changes in my lifestyle, my schedule, and my outlook . . . but still, I think my sense of self is only finally settling into it.

Mostly I think it's just other egos giving up ground. My career, as good as it is, is settling and slowing, and the days and weeks are starting to feel pretty much the same. My spiritual life is equally flat and undifferentiated, for good and bad reasons; I'm not doing much, but then again I'm starting to realize there is less to be done. I am having more subtle spiritual insights these days, but not through any particular effort . . . they are the realizations of anybody in my station in life who is paying the least bit of attention.

Meanwhile, my kids are needing me more and more. Fathers are the bridge between the nurturing Mother and the World, and my kids are starting to set out into the World of school and society. And, for good and ill, there is no lack of drama with my kids . . . every day has new highs and lows. There's just more going on with and around my kids these days. So of course I'm going to get more identified.

I have yet to decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The IKEA meditation

I have discovered a new meditational discipline: assembling IKEA furniture with two children under five "assisting."

Like all meditational disciplines, like sitting cross-legged or walking very slowly, this one is designed to force your mind and body into a position where it is more likely to make space for real presence. Some folks find assembling the furniture itself to be a demanding task, one that requires careful study of directions. (I would say "reading directions," but appropriately enough all IKEA directions have no words, only pictures. Wordless tranmission, indeed.) Once you add in the toddlers, you are forced into a task that requires taking everything very slooooowly. The only way to do it is to completely relinquish all expectations and desires of finishing the job. You must be content with the task of the moment, because nothing else is certain.

Toddlers, all on their own, provide plenty of fodder for attention mediation, simply because they require so much attention anyway. They are truly unpredictable; they literally can be fine one minute and hanging upside-down from clothes rack the next. Once you add the furniture-building to the process, you find yourself engaged in a task that you might ordinary rush through, but now must take with complete timelessness and equanimity.

Even as you are calming your own mind and relinquishing all desire, your children are continuously reminding you of the "monkey mind." "Daddy, is that going to be the bottom of the cabinet? I want to do some hammering. Malcolm, give me the hammer! Hey! Malcolm won't give me the hammer! AAAAAA! Daddy, I want some juice." Etc. etc. In this state, all desire and conflict can only be seen for what it is: silly, childish, momentary, transient.

The only trick to this discipline is knowing when to stop. As long as you can observe your kids, the half-assembled furniture and yourself with understanding and equinimity, you can continue. The moment you find yourself surpressing the urge yell at someone or something, it's time to stop. The awareness of knowing when it's time to stop is also a part of the discipline.