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, September 09, 2006

The Gospel of Dual Monitors

Ok, I normally do a good job of not getting all geeked out on this blog, and talking about my work. But that's normally, and this weekend I'm just going off the rails with the techie stuff.

I won a sales contest with our company last week, for which I received a new monitor. This is the perfect sort of prize for me, because it's the kind of thing I would never get for myself because it seems too extravagent, but which does actually make a noticable difference in my life.

But I didn't just gain an extra inch of screen real estate -- I doubled it. It used to be that setups with two monitors on the same computer were rare, something you would only see with graphic designers or video processing systems or something like that. I but I started seeing it more and more often with my customers, and when my new monitor came I decided to give it a try.

If you've never seen it (and a lot of people haven't) it works like this: you have two screens on your desk, either side-by-side or one above the other. In your screen settings, you configure the two screens to be a part of the same desktop. Once the setup is done, you can drag windows back and forth between the two screens. It's like having diptych desktop -- two screens, one desktop. On the newer Dell computers, it is mind-blowingly easy to set up; just plug in the two monitors, and enable multiple screens in the screen settings (the same place you configure the screen resolution.)

Wow, what a difference. I can't count how many times I need to look at two different things at the same time: documenting a program while looking at the program itself, or reading a spec and writing code, or reading an email and doing almost anything else. No more flipping back and forth between screens. No more printing out one page so I can refer to it while working on another. The productivity boost is so substantial that it seems appalling to me that I didn't try it before. More importantly, I can't remember a time I ever saw a manufacturer or retailer actually demonstrate this feature, even though it's now a standard part of Dells. Seems to me they should be screaming this from the rooftops. What do you get your favorite computer geek for Christmas: more of the same.

Friday, September 08, 2006

All Treos go to Heaven

My Treo 650 bit the dust yesterday. Due to the nature of the warranty, the exact circumstances surrounding its demise will have to remain undisclosed. Let's just say it was working one minute, and was not working the next. Let's also conceed the fact that it involved a five-year-old talking a two-year-old into doing something that both of them deeply regretted after the fact. But you didn't hear that from me.

Now, there are precious few pieces of technology I have come to love more dearly than my Treo. I had owned an old decrepit Palm for a number of years, but never really found myself using it much. It was one more thing to lug around and keep up with, and I wasn't enough of a mobile-office warrior to really need such a thing. But once the Palm was married to a cellphone, the threshold of resistance was overcome. Now I had only one device to carry around . . . and what a device. I started making a lot more business calls on the road once I had all my contacts synched into the phone. I became a hardened Scrabble addict for eight months, once I could carry the game around in my pocket. I downloaded eBooks from Project Gutenberg and listened to audiobooks from Audible on my runs and in the car. I jotted notes for my writing. I even played old classic InfoCom interactive fiction games.

And now . . . it was dead. I felt a little quiver of personal sadness . . . my little buddy was dead. But I called Verizon to send in the phone under warranty, and was shocked when a replacement phone arrived the next day. Pop in the battery, synch up the data, and it's like nothing ever happened. Well, better than that . . . the headset jack works again, and the power button has a crisper click. My Treo is reborn!

But I have to reflect on the change in our personal relationship to technology. Once upon a time our computers were our intimate long-time friends. We gave them names. We cared for them, fixed them when they broke, learned about their peculiar foibles. But now . . . now it's all disposable. I keep a computer for slightly less time than I keep a pair of shoes. And cell phones are even more ephemeral -- I was shocked when I brought a two-year old phone into a retail store for a new battery and they looked at me like I was nuts. "That thing is ancient, man." Two years old, and it's "ancient," so much so that batteries for it are harder to find than Krull action figures.

I am not going to pine for the "good old days" when "things were made to last." I'm about one-and-a-half generations too late for that. But I do have to wonder what it will do to our psyches, when our tools and clothes and houses and toys are so transient that we have almost no connection to them at all?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Stupid people

Pardon me while I go on a tech support rant. I had an end-user call me about an email issue, and I was trying to give him the URL for the remote connectivity software we use:

"Ok, pull up your web browser and go to www.gotomeeting.com."
"Ok. I'm there."
"Click on the button that says Join a Meeting."
"I don't see it."
"It should be on the left hand side of the screen, right beneath Host a Meeting."
"No, I don't see it."
"Well, let me give you a URL that goes exactly to our meeting (URL follows)."
"No, it says that's an invalid ID."
"Let me read that to you again (URL follows)."
"Yup. That's what I put in."
"And you're putting that in the address bar of your browser, right?"
"Well, I'm putting it into Google."

I had to count to ten and remind myself that:
  1. He's a salesman over the age of 40.
  2. He probably never had any training whatsoever.
  3. He's only doing what Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have been trying to brainwash people into doing for the last five years.
  4. Ironically, what he was doing probably worked most of the time.

But then I thought, "This is the internet age, and people have been advertising URLs for the last ten years. He's just stupid."

You be the judge.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I want Alfie Kohn's job

I heard Alfie Kohn on the radio today, plugging his new book The Homework Myth. He is moving alongside Malcolm Gladwell as one of those freelance writer/thinkers who is doing wonderful intellectual work, just examining the published results of others and asking really interesting questions. By "interesting questions," I mean those questions that seem ludicrously obvious in retrospect, like "does homework improve school performance?"

One of the things that lets Kohn do this sort of thing is that he's operating outside the System. He can afford to be a lot more critical of the educational establishment because he's not one of them. I did notice the caginess on his website about his credentials; obviously lots of people who disagree with him are eager to say, "See! See! No PhD! He can't possibly have anything worthwhile to say!" I'm thrilled to see another intellectual succeeding in getting his message out without having to play the game . . . and a little saddened to see that even eleven books is still not enough for him to get completely past the whole credentials thing.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Gradualism in action

I had picked up a penchant for Scrabble a couple years ago, and fed it with Hasbro's computer program for a little while before it fell away. My Treo 650 smartphone, however, suddenly allowed me to play the game in tiny doses at almost any time and place. I found myself whipping it out in all my spare moments -- on the toilet, lying in bed, during the kids' bath, waiting for someone to call me back. Those moments never seemed like a dedicated block of time, but boy did they add up. For a while I was playing two to three games a day, about an hour to an hour and a half of game time, every day.

About a month ago, at the very same moment I decided to work more closely with the UNC SKS, I stopped playing Scrabble. It just stopped seeming like a good idea. I think part of what prompted it was seeing one of my clients playing Solitaire on his computer, and feeling a smug disdain, and suddenly realizing that my Scrabble fixation looked a lot like his, only worse, because at least he had no illusions that he was not utterly wasting his time.

So . . . what happened to all that time. Well, predictably, I found another way to fill in those moments. Hopefully, a better one: I listen to audio books. Again, a miracle of the smartphone: you can carry around dozens of audiobooks in your pocket, so you don't even have to wait until your driving to listen to them. In the last month or two, I have read/listened to:
  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Freakonomics
  • Something Rotten, by Jaspar Fforde
  • A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle
  • On Writing, by Stephen King

It's not meditating on ultimate reality, but it's a hell of a lot closer to the way I want to live my life than Scrabble.

I write this mostly to toot my horn and celebrate a small victory. Richard Rose wrote that, in the spiritual life, "you must use gradualism, even as gradualism was used on you." He believed that the spiritual path was a "backing away from untruth," constantly getting rid of the things that were less-than-conducive to living for the truth, and replacing them with better things. It's nice to notice that it still works.


We watched a little noir-ish film, Brick, that came out last year. At least, I was expecting a noir-ish film set in a high school – that’s how the film was sold to me in the Focus Features trailers on the DVDs I was renting – so I was hoping for another teenage genre-bender like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars.

But Brick isn’t a blend of teenage angst and gritty crime novel. It is 100% gritty crime novel. The action unfolds on a high school campus with high school characters, and that is exactly where the youth angle ends. The film actually revels in its unapologetic pot-boiler detective conventions, flaunting them preposterously in the school setting. “I know about these little informal chats, Principle Trueman – you want to keep me here, you write me up! Otherwise I’m walkin’.”

That may seem a little cute (it does get a laugh) but the story is a dark one. The movie opens with the beautiful blonde lying face-down in a concrete drainage easement, hair trailing in the water, and a young man who must love her staring at her in mute and muted pain. It’s a serious thriller with life and death at stake, and the comedic notes are just that: notes, not the theme.

The result is a little bizarre, but fun. It’s kind of like when a progressive drama company stages and costumes a Shakespearean play in some far-flung historical setting, like World War II. The different setting and stock characters makes the formula seem fresh again. Once you get past the fact that eighteen-year-olds are talking like they’re forty-five, you can just enjoy a really fast-paced crime story. In plot, it’s just as twisty as Miller’s Crossing – full of alliances and double-crosses, with the free-agent hero constantly surfing on the edge of disaster. Just allow lots of time to watch it, because you’re going to have to rewind often to hear the speeches. Sometimes the plot exposition goes by in a lightning-flash and your confused; sometimes the dialog is just so good you want to hear it again:

Principle: Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you . . . you’ve helped us out
Brandon: No. I gave you Jer to watch him be eaten, not to see you

Wow! There’s a lot of exchanges like that, all dark and edgy and clever, like a hopped-up 40’s-era thriller. Put it in your NetFlix queue.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

What the Abbot said

We were back in the car, about to leave Mepkin. At Stan's request, we had swung around to the compost bins to pick up some monastic guests who were returning some golf carts to their garage. As Aug was pulling away, I said suddenly: "Stop the car, Aug. I need to talk to Stan for a moment. I'll catch up with you."

I walked over to Stan, who was still standing around with a few others by the golf carts. "Father Stan," I said, and my voice cracked. I took another breath. "Father Stan, what would I need to do to get a copy of Father Francis' letter?" Stan pulled out a manila folder, and produced a printed copy, one of many. (That's so like the monks. They didn't offer copies of it, or announce it, but clearly they anticipated, or at least hoped, that people would ask.) I thanked him, gave him a hug, and he just said, "Give our love to Janet."

I jogged back up the road. I had meant for Aug to drive on, but they had waited for me. I got in the car. "I wanted Francis' letter," I said, and there were murmurs of approval.

We dropped off the guests, said our goodbyes, and began to drive down the long, long oak-lined drive that leads into Mepkin. I felt an awful wave of despair, because I really wanted to stay longer and it physically hurt to leave now.

Five minutes later we stopped at the "El Cheapo" gas station. I sat in the car and finally read the sheet that Stan had given me. Aug came back to the car. "That was some letter from Francis, huh?" he said. "I'm just so happy for Francis," I said, and then I shook with silent sobs, eyes and lips and fists all clenched. When I got my breath again, I said, "Because he was so good, he did so much . . . and he finally got . . . to just Be." And I lost it again.

We pulled away from the gas station, and Aug said quietly, "You know why you're crying, right?"
"Oh, I have my suspicions."
"Because that's what I want. He really lived that way, he really . . . lived that way . . . and that's all I want."

After a few moments: "And I grieve so much for the loss of the Brothers . . . because here they are, facing Ragnarök, struggling to stay alive, and the best thing that ever happened to them, the only person who stood a chance of doing it, is taken away from them. And here I am -- my community is dying, just dying, and there's nothing I can do about it."

Aug said: "You realize the irony, of course?"
"Oh yes, I know . . . I know that he did so much, but his full realization of God only came in his diminishment."

And a little later: "It was also his consummate . . . vocation. Everything about his life was about one thing . . . and he got it. And know that I'm not fulfilling my vocation, and I haven't for a long time. All I want is to know that, right now, I'm doing the right thing with my life . . . and the only time I ever feel that way is when I'm leading an SKS meeting."

Augie said, "Well . . . all I can say is, it has been a privilege to play with you tonight. Because moments like this are the only reason I need a community."

We talked more, a lot more, about community, and the Brothers, and living in the world. But the storm in me subsided. I had heard what I needed to hear from Francis, and I had said what I needed to say. And that felt, in a way, like the beginning of doing the right thing with my life.

God's Future

The weather was absolutely perfect for Francis' memorial service. The sun shone, a breeze blew off the Cooper River, and it was merely warm instead of oppressively hot. Golden sunshine mixed with the shadows of the huge oaks and tangles of Spanish moss rocking in the breeze.

Sadly, it was Friday, the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, and the expected crowd of a thousand or more turned out to be more like a couple hundred. Even a great man's death can't compete with vacation plans, it seems.

A small ensemble of strings and woodwinds played a few pieces between speakers. A half-dozen people took to the podium to eulogize Francis' various achievements. The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, spoke of Francis' political achievements; an activist spoke of the abbot's environmental work to preserve the local landscape and historical sites. These were all nice remembrances, certainly intended to be tributes to the breadth of Francis' abilities and achievements. But they all seemed so superficial, compared to the man himself, and his primary spiritual vision. A fellow Trappist spoke, and quoted extensively from T.S. Eliott's The Four Quartets; he, at least, seemed to understand the via negativa that Francis had followed, forsaking the relative known for the eternal Unknown. But even he portrayed Francis in terms of childlike innocence, which did not fit at all, and even did a disservice to the complexity of the man. One slight woman got up and chirpped about the father's musical accomplishments; she sounded like a freakin' brochure for the Low Country.

But then, at the end, Father Stan got up, and read from a letter from Francis himself. This is what he read:

I came home to Mepkin for good on March 16, 2006, and this is where I will

I am now with God. He is my only option... The cancer is very active...
I cannot leave the monastery, literally. I use a cane. I must withdraw a lot
from the community for rest, especially in the afternoon. Yet I am always here
with them, in a way I never was before... The brothers are extremely solicitous
and tender. We are moving forward with this illness together, much united, much
concerned for one another, and discovering a fraternal love that I have never
tasted before. Now that some months have passed, we are learning to trust the
time God gives and to plan for the future and not weep about the past. Instead,
we weep with joy about the future, God's future, not Mepkin's.

God has spoken. His Word has changed me into a contemplative which I
never thought I would become. By that I mean I feel totally taken over by God.
Quite literally I have no one else. Nor do I wish for any one else. My deepest
desires flow out of this experience. I want to share this with you, the Region,
those who are dearest to me in the Order. I wish that you would pray with me for
this Mepkin community. This is how we remain united, when we pray with and for
each other. In this unity of prayer, let us determine to run together...toward
the heavenly homeland. It is closer to all of us than we think.

I wept. I knew that that was what I had come here to hear.


I found myself driving down to Mepkin on Friday morning, with Augie Turak and Ed Cheely. I had called Ed the moment I hit the road, just to see where he was at, and it just so happened that he and Augie were leaving at the same time. We met up at the I-40 / I-95 intersection and road down together.

"Here, you can sit up front," said Ed. Later it became apparent why he was so eager to get in the back; Augie was in full-bore discussion mode. Augie has always been given to conversation that verges on lecture; you have to be pretty strong in both philosophy and will to push back. Most people don't bother because he's so full of good things to say. But Augie has spent the last year working on his book, which is a lonely business for a man as gregarious as Aug, and his outpouring of philosophy has some extra voltage to it. He is, in the best and worst sense, full of himself.

So we talk about Nietzsche's critique of Socrates, and Kierkegaard's notion of grace, and surrending to the unknown. We get to talking a lot about writing craft, since Augie has spent months embroiled in paragraph, sentence, and word choices. I tell him about Stephen King's On Writing: "He says that most bad writing has too many extra words, especially adverbs. And the reason those word wound up there is because the writer lost his nerve. And he loses his nerve because he's afraid the reader is not going to understand him."

Eventually, I tell him about what happened to me when I heard about Francis. "None of this is coincidence," he says. "It's not a coincidence that you called Ed and wound up riding with us. It's not even a coincidence that you told me about Stephen King and about losing your nerve. You should have talked about it at the meeting you lead that night -- but you lost your nerve."

"No, it was a conscious choice. I knew it was the kind of thing I should talk about . . . but they weren't ready for it. I came close to calling you, Aug, but I decided not to, because I knew you would try to talk me into taking it to the meeting."

"Well . . . you still lost your nerve. You were trying to control it, to understand it . . . but you can't control a spiritual experience. Remember, you're not there to intellectualize with them, or facilitate, or fill their heads with knowledge . . . you're there to witness to a better way of living. And listening to you talk about Francis, I know that you've found a better way to live."

"What you're afraid of," he continued, "is that if those kids really found out who you were, they wouldn't like you. You're afraid you'll open up and spill your guts, and they'll look at you like, 'Jesus Christ, pull yourself together. I've got enough troubles without having to listen to you blubber about your hero dying. Shit.' But I'm telling you, that's not what's going to happen."

And then Aug told me about the last time he had seen Francis . . . how much Francis opened up about his fear of the chemo, and the suffering he was going through, openly weeping. "I was not put off, or afraid . . . he lit up the freakin' room. I had no doubt I was in the presence of a saint."

And we drove on toward Mepkin. Augie was right . . . or right enough, anyway. We can't control or understand what's Real. It's a lot like writing . . . all we can do is tell the Truth and trust that people will understand.

Fr. Francis Kline, O.C.S.O. 1948-2006

I received news this past Wednesday that Father Francis Kline, Abbott of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monestary in South Carolina, passed away the previous Sunday. (You can read his obituary online.)

It's hard for me to convey, all at once, the significance of Father Francis in my life. I'm even going to try. He was a great friend to the SKS and sat on its board of directors. He was a visionary in world of spiritual life; he, like us, was trying to define a way that ancient traditions can grow and thrive in a modern world. My second son bears his name. Talk about your "basically better person" -- Francis was the greatest human being I have ever met. His talents for organization, leadership, music, theology, spirituality, and friendship were unsurpassed.

I received this news with a cloud of sadness at first. His going was not completely unexpected; he had been suffereing from leukemia for years and had held on much longer than had been expected. But the dark cloud didn't dissapate; I went through my day with greater heaviness, a heaviness and tiredness and distraction that felt like a physical sickness. The first customer I spoke with asked me, "Are you OK? You sound kind of tense." And that afternoon, when I spoke to Harry about it, and about possibly going to the memorial service, I came apart at the seams and wept. "Well, I guess you need to go, then," he said after an awkward pause.

Where did this come from? It would not be the first time that I had been taken unawares by my emotions. I am Captain Repression, and among my superpowers is the capacity to stuff the thorniest feelings deep down beneath a facade of stoic impassiveness. But this was too strong even for me to contain. And it didn't just explode and go away, having spent its energy. It gained momentum. I couldn't do any work. I could barely manage to talk to people. And . . . oh shit, I had to lead the UNC SKS tonight. I can't be coming apart at the seams for the first meeting.

So, with a mammoth effort, I stuffed it all back down. I managed to not even look like I had been crying for hours, though I had a splitting headache from the effort. I knew I was just postponing the inevitable.