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.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Heartwarming Copy

Someone forwarded me the following writing opportunity:
I'm looking for some parents willing to share HAPPY sound bites about parenting.
The upcoming theme for Carolina Parent is about the joys of parenthood -- I think of this as the 'bliss issue'! So, I would love to gather some short quotes (and a photo -- ahh, there I've said it!) from local parents about The Most Important Thing I Learned from My Kid(s). I would love to have some dads as well as moms come forward here, too. Pretty please if you have an articulate hubby, send this his way. I'm ready to be wowed, heart-warmed and happy, aren't you? Please feel free to forward this on! What is the most important thing you learned from your kid(s)? (in 50 words or less!)

Ah . . . writing happy, heart-warming things are usually derided by the "serious" writers as "below" themselves . . . probably because there is so much bad writing in that vein. To self-styled writers, biting cyncism is real, and happy stuff is the realm of Hallmark schlock. But the truth of the matter is that it is much harder to write something genuinely happy, that is actually interesting to read. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all happy in the same way..." Happiness is boring. Especially other people's happiness. Other people's struggle, stumbles, and eventual against-all-odds victory -- well, that's a novel, and that's very interesting. But fifty words of just happiness? Oy.

I suppose it doesn't have to be all happy . . . there might be room for bittersweet. Fifty words is enough for some conflict, too . . . two lines of dialog plus a tight pithy capper. You can paint a picture in 50 words.

So what are the joys of parenthood? In the early years, especially, it's easy to lose track of it. (Otherwise, why would we need such columns in parenting magazines?) I was always more taken with the expressions of love that come out in the daily struggles, in spite of the lack of bubbly happiness. Like Robert Haydon's poem "Those Winter Sundays": "What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?"

I also find it interesting that they are expecting happy things from "the most important thing you learned from your kids." The most important things we learned were good, but not necessarily joyous. Hard truths . . . like, "you're never really in control" and "insecurity is forever." But joyous? Now you're down into unspeakable things, the intimacies of tiny hugs and snuggles, the blankness of wonder on a face staring out the window, the unreservedness of living a fresh new life. The utmost dependency turning into Someone Else. How can we explain it? The most important thing I learned is that there is nothing important about what I learn . . . compared to them.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Defenders of the West

I just started reading The Marriage of Sense and Soul, by Ken Wilber. I had read things like The Spectrum of Consciousness and bits of Integral Psychology before, so I thought this was going to be a rehash of ideas I had seen before. I probably wouldn't have picked it up at all, except it was the only Wilber book on Audible.

Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. I had forgotten just how freakin' smart Wilber is. He takes a subject as vast as the conflict between science and religion, and cuts threw it with such insight, combining vast amounts of reading and knowledge with (paradoxically) a very simple presentation. I'm torn as to which is the more fun part -- the structure of his own arguments, or the way he delicately squewers his opponents with wit and devastating simplicity. He starts with a crisp statement of, say, post-modernism philosophy, summarizing it in its own language and with such thoroughness that any postmodernist in the audience must be nodding his head in appreciation -- "Yes, that's right, he got it right." Then he proceeds to point out the "performative contradictions" -- the ways postmodernism collapses under the sheer weight of its logical failings and narcissism.

Its also wonderfully refreshing to hear someone give due credit to Western civilization and modernism without the least speck of cultural chauvanism. So many defenders of the West come off sounding like patriot cheerleaders, in spite of all their intellectual prowess (Francis Fukuyama comes to mind). But Wilber manages to describe exactly what's good about modernism and the rise of Western civilization without betraying any bias. He honors it for what it is, not because it happens to be his culture. After mountains of self-recriminating attacks on the modern West, its so wondeful for someone to stand up and say, in effect, "Hello? Liberal democracy? The end of slavery? Equal protection under the law? Human rights? These are all the products of modernism."

Nor does modernism get a free ride, either. Wilber makes no bones about the fact that he's got it in for scientific materialism, and he does justice to postmodernism by pointing out the valid critiques it does have for modernism. He has a chapter called "The Dignity and Disaster of Modernity", which pretty much sums it up. He has utmost respect for what our culture has accomplished, and still sees that it's a mess.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ethics as Perspective-Taking

I'm trying to wrap up reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, since it's been sitting on my desk for the last six months and I have only a couple dozen pages left.

Kohn summarizes his entire parenting strategy/philosophy in terms of "perspective-taking" -- that is, the capacity to see things from the other person's point of view. He maintains that all ethical reasoning ultimately derives from this capacity; we can't treat people with respect and dignity if we can't understand how (and why) they will react to what we do. Perspective-taking is ultimately a capacity of imagination, one that allows us to empathize, which is at the root of all ethical behavior. So, in his view, all our efforts in "discipling" our children needs to be in developing that capacity: rather than handing down mandates, and using arbitrary rewards and punishments to get children to behave a certain way strictly out of their own self-interest, we want to teach them how to see things from the other person's perspective and let that guide their actions. We don't want them to not hit their brother because they will be punished for it; we want them to not hit their brother because that will hurt their brother and make him upset.

I like the elegance of the thesis. It's not often you can take a whole host of parenting recommendations and boil them down to a single principle like that. And I think he's basically right about the perspective-taking capacity as core to ethical development.

So the question is: is that it? Can you reduce ethics entirely to perspective-taking? I'm not sure you can. Just because you understand how someone feels, and why, doesn't necessarily mean you will be motivated to do the right thing. It's not enough to understand the other person; at some imaginative level you have to be the other person, and thus naturally want the best for that person. That jump from "mere understanding" to "visceral being" is not a function of perspective-taking. Perspective-taking can make it easier to engage that capacity, and easier to act from that capacity, but it isn't the capacity itself. What is it that makes us want the best for the other person, to literally become that person in our thinking?

My guess is that that recognition of the other person as ourself is a metaphysical intuition. We think that way because, at some level, we see that that really is how things are. It's not merely a metaphor or psychological trick; we really do recognize that the other person is ourself. The Godhead that manifests as consciousness in ourselves is the same consciousness in the Other. That intuition must be present in order for perspective-taking to work.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sunday Evening Blues

One thing that seems eternal is the mild depression one gets on Sunday evening. For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a quiet (or not-so-quiet) sense of foreboding, anxiety, frustration, or simple blah-ness over the end of the weekend and the coming week. It is not merely dread of the resumption of the work-week (although that certainly plays into it) and not merely a mourning of the passing of another weekend (though that is probably more of it). After the kids are in bed, darkness has fallen, the TV is off, and my wife and I are puttering in our separate patterns . . . then it starts to loom. It's a moment that's just quiet enough for genuine reflection on one's whole life to move side-by-side with the actual work-a-day anxieties of living . . . which is kind of like mixing alcohol with sleeping pills.

I have a few rituals to overcome this mood. I find that it helps a whole lot if the I cleaned my office sometime on Sunday, before the mood hits full-on; removing all the noisy clutter of things done and left undone can provide a little bit of emotional stability. The mood can be averted entirely if you manage to engage yourself whole-heartedly in something that needed doing for a long time. It's a good time to start something, a better time to finish something, and a lousy time to continue doing something that feels like it will go on forever.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Digital Biography

It occurs to me that my entire adult life could be chronicled in terms of my march towards further computerization:

1984 -- First computer game (Zork II, Apple IIe)
1986 -- Went digital with written documents (Word Juggler, Apple IIe)
1987 -- First email account (VMS VAX system)
1988 -- Went digital with audio analysis (Macintosh Plus)
1989 -- Went digital with graphic layout (Aldus Freehand on Macintosh LC II)
1992 -- First internet email account
1992 -- Used the World Wide Web for the first time
1993 -- Went digital with research (internet newsgroups, CricketGraph, EndNote; all on Macs)
1994 -- Went digital with all writing (Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, Microsoft Word; my own Apple Powerbook)
1995 -- Went digital with all finances (Intuit Quicken)
1996 -- Went digital with contact & calendar management (Microsoft Outlook; yes, crossed over into the world of PCs, and never looked back, thank you very much)
1997 -- Went digital with publicity (first SKS website, hosted on Mindspring)
2001 -- Went digital with photography (Sony Cyber-shot, Club Photo)
2002 -- Went digital with shopping (Amazon.com)
2002 -- Went digital with yard sales (eBay)
2003 -- Went digital with photo archiving (JASC PhotoAlbum)
2004 -- Went digital/virtual in business (GoToMyPC, Remote Desktop; telecommuting)
2005 -- Went digital with all music (Apple iTunes)
2005 -- Went digital with small talk (MSN Messenger, Trillian)
2005 -- Went digital with phones (VoiP)
2006 -- Went digital with most books (eBooks, Audible)
2006 -- Went digital with silly questions from five-year-old (Wikipedia)

The question is: what will come next? It's hard to imagine an aspect of my life that isn't already somehow tied to an electronic device. I suppose my physical life is still pretty isolated from it; there is nothing about my exercise, or sleep, or diet that is computerized yet. My spiritual life (meditation, prayer) is not digitized, though I hear about people who do that sort of thing.

I think the biggest transition likely to happen is most printed material becoming completely available online. Google keeps pushing for it, and the publishing companies will continue to struggle to find a business model, as the record companies have done. I don't think it will be a sudden shift, but somewhere in the next ten years I expect to be buying no more dead trees.

Entirely digital video entertainment will probably come first, though. I think we have less than five years before we have no more shiny disks.

Entirely digital money is already a reality, I suppose, since 98% of all my financial transactions now happen without a coin or bill changing hands. Still, I'm not sure that currency will go away in my lifetime. Maybe.