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, June 10, 2006

More thoughts on "The Way Home"

Not that anyone probably cares, but I've had a few more things bouncing around my head about the movie . . .
  • There are several points in the movie where Grandmother makes a sign, drawing a circle around her chest with one hand. The meaning is never completely explicated. It might mean "I love you," circling the heart . . . but at one point the boy uses the sign, too, as a way of apologizing to neighbor boy he had cruelly tricked before. And he uses it again as he rides the bus away with his mother, at the end of the film. For some reason I like the ambiguity . . . especially because the boy internalizes it and uses it. He is learning her language, emotional as well as literal, unconsciously and by osmosis.
  • There is a scene where Grandmother is fiddling with a small wooden shape-sorter toy, while the boy sleeps (or pretends to sleep) nearby. Some reviewers thought her misplacing the shapes was to indicate that she really was retarded, as her grandson occasionally says, or extremely slow and simple. But I don't think Lee Jeong-hyang was trying to make a Korean Forrest Gump. I got the impression that Grandmother was doing it playfully; she was deliberately placing the piece wrongly, to try to provoke her grandson to correct her and do it the right way. It seemed like the kind of Aikido misdirection that would be suited to her. And while she is illiterate and innumerant, she is too thoughtful and resourceful to be stupid.
  • Some people might think that Grandmother would be contributing to her grandson's spoiled nature by trying to gratify his desires . . . but if watch, you will see that her generosity is universal. She is not doting on her grandson; she is equally generous, thoughtful and open with her friends and neighbors. Gifts brought to her by her daughter are passed on to her sick neighbors. Ironically, it seems easier to be generous when you're poor; practically any unexpected good that comes is naturally seen as superfluous and unnecessary.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The Way Home

Janet had gotten a recommendation from someone on the API lists for a Korean movie, Jibeuro, or "The Way Home". So, with not much else packing our NetFlix list, we watched it. We already knew the premise and take-home message from the original post: a spoiled seven-year-old boy spends the summer with his mute grandmother, whom he comes to love and respect. And yet, that didn't lessen the impact of the film in the least.

I really liked this one. I had seen other Korean or Vietnamese movies that were made in the same style, with lots of less-than-picturesque countryside and very little dialog, and a very patient pace . . . but this was the first time it really seemed to fit the subject matter. When I first heard about a "mute grandmother," I thought for sure we were in for some kind of interpersonal "Karate Kid" kind of gimmicks: yeah, she might be mute, but she has a superhuman capacity to intuit needs and communicate in unspoken ways, right?

But instead of getting a disabled superhero (a la the blind Master Po in Kung Fu) we get something far more simple, subtle, and profound. There is nothing remarkable about what Grandmother does, so much as what she doesn't do. She doesn't fight the boy. She doesn't criticize. When he insults her, or breaks her chamber-pot, or steals her shoes or her hair-pin, there is no reaction. At first you marvel at it; "how can she be so unflappable?" But after a while you start to see things as she sees them. We see, in the boy's behavior, a problem to be solved. She doesn't. So instead of alternatively fighting him or ignoring him, as the boy's mother does, she just pays attention to him. She takes care of him, in the most utterly simple ways possible: she offers him food, she covers him with a blanket, she sits with him outside by the outhouse when he needs company. Her face is so utterly inscrutable, there is nothing to watch except the simple act itself.

If any of this was offered in self-consciously dramatic fashion, with a "Gift of the Magi" tragicness, I don't think the film would work. But that's the beauty of the film, and its bravery. It is willing to let Grandmother's actions speak for her. When all strife is absent, and only attention and service is present, the sense of love is overpowering. With this simplicity, with this beautiful non-action, you start to understand Love as something in action, not caused by emotion but causing it, not subject to circumstance, but eternal.

The boy's transformation is rendered with equal simplicity and realism. There is not the grand Hollywood epiphany. It's just like real parenting: he frustrates you endlessly, and then, suddenly, something clicks, and he's a little different.

As promised, this film is an elegant demonstration of the "unconditional parenting" approach. So many parents ask, "What do I say when they misbehave? What do I do?" And the film demonstrates, aptly, silently: do nothing. Say nothing. Just be there. That's enough.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Protecting Marriage

So, a constitutional amendment designed to "protect the institution of marriage" has come before the Sentate . . . again . . . and it still seems to lack the provisions I would have liked to see.

How is it that divorce rates have steadily risen over the last four decades, so that overall divorce rates are around 43%, and nobody on Capitol Hill has felt the need to protect marriage until now? If I had my choice of "things to do to protect the institution of marriage," I think that banning gay marriage would be waaay down the list.

What about:
  • Get rid of the marriage penalty. Why am I paying more taxes just because I'm married?
  • Make it harder to get a divorce. Most people why report being "unhappy" in their marriages will report being "happy" three years later. People who are "unhappy" in their marriages, and then divorce, are much less likely to report being happy than their "unhappy" peers who stay married. (reference here.) Italy has the lowest divorce rate in Europe, presumably because they have a three year waiting period for getting a divorce. We should have a similar waiting period, excepting for instances of abuse or infidelity.
  • For that matter, make it harder to get married. Most of the issues that cause marital strife are well-known and well-understood. The application for a marriage license should include a form with the most basic questions about their expectations for marriage, that both parties should sign to indicate they have actually talked about these things. Like: Are we going to have kids? How many? When? Do you have any debts I don't know about? How much? Are you going to continue with your career after we have kids? The government should provide cheap or free premarital counselling to help couples complete the checklist of questions.
  • Persecute adulterers. Infidelity is one of the most common causes of divorce. We should rachet up the social and legal consequences for unfaithfulness. I find it unspeakably naive that people think that someone's sexual indiscretions are a part of their "private life" and have no affect on how they conduct themselves overall. Someone who cheats, IS a cheat, and it should be considered valid grounds for dismissing someone from their job or their public office.
  • Get serious about discouraging premarital sex. Yes, we have to put the jeenie back in the bottle. Teen sex is not inevitable. We know for a fact that it screws people up. Yes, it's prudish and retrograde and unrealistic. I don't care. It's the truth.
  • Give more custody rights (and responsibilities) to fathers. There is a lower divorce rate in states that default to joint custody of the children. Once people accept that they will have to get along with this person forever, even if they divorce them, then somehow they find a way to make it work.

Marriage is essential to our social fabric. Its fundamental purpose, as an institution, is to create the legal, financial, and psychological stability necessary for the raising of children. (Even marriages that do not produce children contribute to the overall stability of society.) It does need protecting . . . but the prospect of gay marriage is the least of our worries.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Paying yourself last

You do your job, you have dinner-bath-bedtime with the kids, you meet all the other daily committments, and finally you are into the mythical "free time" when you have some latitude as to what you are going to do next. By this time, for me, its about 9 pm. And I'm too tired to care about the things I ought to care about.

Something's wrong here. Night after night I'm staring at whatever I wanted to read or write or organize, and I'm just slogging. It's not quality energy.

I'd like to get back to getting up early, and using the early-morning time for the important personal things. It always felt better to have my writing done in the morning . . . gets you tuned into a purpose beyond the routine. The down-side to that is that, most of the time, I'm dreading the onslaught of the work day, and it's tough to focus on "higher things" when you know the phone calls will be coming soon, and you'll have to answer for things undone.

I need to get involved with other people, too. It's hard to get good energy in the evening when it's just yourself, but doing anything with other people usually elicits a higher level of energy from me. I think that's one of the reasons it does me so much good to get out to customer sites occasionally -- it breaks my rutted patterns and keeps me in a high-energy state for a longer period of time.

Most importantly, it's one of those "right livelihood" moments, where you ask yourself whether the way you live most of your working day is really the way you want to live.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Client Side

This weekend I was helping a customer out with rolling out a new system, and we had to install stuff on every person's computer. Cube-hopping on the weekend is an unusual excursion into sanctioned nosiness; you sit in everyone's chair, and look at each desk and screen, and you get to feel the environment of each person. All the pictures of wives and husbands and sons and daughters . . . the sticky-notes around the screens, faded by sun, filled with mundane reminders and pithy inspirational rubrics . . . the screen-savers, with more photos. Some men of pictures of their dogs that are bigger than those of their wives. Some women have vast orgies of photos of the same small infant, too young to even smile, and no picture of a husband at all. Some screens have cars, motorcycles, jet planes, and every other object of desire. Fraternity letters, hockey team posters, cats. Mirrors. Candy jars. Toothpicks. A plastic basket filled with digital cameras made of cheap plastic. Cube walls draped with mosaics made of old CDs. Framed affirmations too long and boring to read all the way through. Drink umbrellas from last year's vacation . . . or was it the year before?

It's odd . . . I am always interested to see what's at each desk, but I'm never particularly pleased with what I find. It's not like I want to know these people, themselves, though I always wonder if my feelings about them would be confirmed if they were here. It's all the stuff of life, but it never felt more like... stuff.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Alfie Kohn and Kierkegaard

I picked up Works of Love by Kierkegaard last night, because after reading Alfie Kohn some more I had a feeling I would look at it in a new light. And sure enough:
"Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally and happily
secured against despair."

Now, most folks would find it offensive to suggest that they love their children as a matter of duty. That makes it sound ingenuine or cold. But that's not what Kierkegaard is talking about. He is saying that any love that is conditional (urp! urp! Kohn alert!) will inevitably succumb to despair. Any love that can be lost is, well, not really love at all. In fact, any love that can be lost is always sensed as unstable ground. Anyone caught up in conditional love knows in their bones that they are headed for a fall, and so they live in insecurity.

Kierkegaard contrasts this with the Christian ethic of "you shall love thy neighbor as thyself," which is a divine command and, according to Jesus, THE divine command. When you think about it, it is a clear directive to unconditional love. You don't love people because you like them or are fond of them or because they are your kinsmen. You love them because that's what you're supposed to do. And if that seems like such a strange concept, just stop and think about how you love your kids.

Sometimes I think the only reason we have kids, in the cosmic perspective, is to guide us into the experience of loving unconditionally. How else will we learn it?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Spirited Away

I usually don't like the "here's how my day went" blogs, but seeing as how my weekend got eaten by the unfolding events, I figured I'll just share it as slice-of-life stuff I might find vaguely interesting in thirty years.

On Friday night a big customer of mine was planning to start a big rollout of a software and hardware upgrade. It touched nearly every person in the company and involved replacing a server, upgrades on client machines, and a dozen laptops to configure and ship out. We had tested the bejezus out of all the software, and felt like it was ready to go. I gave theIT contacts my phone numbers, and told them I was available to help if they ran into trouble.

I get a call on my cell around 8 pm on Friday. I'm in bed with the kids, and I don't want to wake them up, but I can see on the caller ID it's the client and I'm sure they need help. I slip down to my office, and pick up the call they are making there. They're stuck on the first step of the installation. I talk them through it five minutes, and they're back in business. Going back to bed, I think, "Ok, that's good. They have my number, they can get me if they need me." I sleep with my cell.

In the morning I get up to feed the dogs, and see the message light on my phone. Three increasingly frantic phone messages from the client: 10 pm, 11 pm, 1 pm. Oh hell. Equally panicky emails from the customer as well, the kind that can't quite decide what order in which they will kill you, your family, and themselves. I check my cell again: no messages, no missed calls.

I call the IT boss on his cell at 6 pm: he's on his way back into the office, to pick up again after throwing in the towel at 2 am. At this point I'm assuming it's my fault they're in trouble; maybe I should have forwarded the office phone to my cell or something. And I've been in their situation before and have nothing but sympathy.

I stay on the phone with them, off and on, through Saturday morning. By noon I can tell they are not going to make it alone; their brand-new hardware is rebooting with a BIOS error every hour or so, but it's too late to roll back and they have to go ahead with all the new software on the old hardware. I drive out to their site, a little over an hour away. I can feel my weekend slipping away . . .