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, November 11, 2006

Too much of a good thing

The Wal-Mart Effect is turning out to be much deeper than I expected it to be. Charles Fishman tells story after story about the management culture inside Wal-Mart, and the stories could easily have come out of In Search of Excellence: glowing tales of an organization galvanized by basic values. Sam Walton was all about hard work, thrift, and sales, and the relentless focus on performance gave me flashbacks to my time at RGI, working for a small software company struggling to survive and ultimate succeed.

And yet . . . Fishman traces those same admirable values in the managers of the 70’s and 80’s and sees how they manifest now. The relentless drive to cut costs led some managers to force associates to work off the clock, or to work through scheduled breaks. They were eventually busted for using illegal immigrants to clean their stores at night. What starts out as fundamentally good values – thrift and performance – becomes tyrannical and exploitive compulsions when they reach too big a scale and are pursued unchecked by other values.

What’s even better is that Fishman takes the right lesson away from all this. Nine out of ten people would see Wal-Mart’s labor practices and say, “There! I guess capitalism is ultimately evil.” But Fishman sees the virtue as well as the vice, and what he prescribes is reflection and self-understanding. The worst accusation he makes against Wal-Mart is: they do not understand themselves. They don’t understand what drives them, and they do not acknowledge the effects that they have on the rest of the world. He does not see them as greedy (their profits are staggeringly small compared to their size) nor mean-spirited; all the Wal-Mart people he talks to seem like decent, hardworking people. It’s their lack of perspective, their inability to see themselves as others see them, which makes for trouble.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Killing the Fatted Secretary of Defense

My wife asked, "Why in the world would he wait until now, on Election Day, to announce he was getting rid of Rumsfeld?" A good question, the timing does seem a little awkward. If Bush had fired Rumsfeld six months ago, it might have been taken as a sign that he was listening to the critics and amending policy in Iraq to find a better way to wrap up this war. But then again, it might have been seen as weakness by both sides of the aisle.

But on further reflection, the announcement comes at a great time. The Democrats are moving into power; no doubt the media will dwell on that for quite a while. The President needs a way to break into the news cycle -- he needs an announcement that is more than just a speech and rhetoric. Rumsfeld was already political baggage; while lots of Republican loyalists still love Cheney, nobody seems terribly fond of Rumsfeld, and the critique of his prosecution of the war has been mounting almost from the day he started, from very credible sources. Clearly he had to go.

What better way to break the ice with the Democrats? "Hi, Nancy. Pleased to meecha. Here's Rummy's head on a plate."


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Mid-term Shuffle

The Republicans have controlled Congress for most of my adult life. I vividly remember the upset mid-term elections when the Republicans rolled into power – I was driving across upstate New York in a near-blizzard, on my way from Richard Rose’s farm in West Virginia to a Vipassana meditation center in Massachussetts. NPR had interview after interview about the shift, and what it meant, and how it came about. By and large it was hailed as a “message from the electorate,” and what it meant was voters were concerned about moral issues and having less government.

And now everything shifts the other way, and nothing much is different. NPR is still running lots of stories about the shift and what it means. Once again everyone is hailing it as a message from the electorate, but the meaning of the message is a little fuzzier. Everyone, even the Republicans, agree that it means, “We’re unhappy.” The Democrats are hoping that it means, “Republican philosophy is bankrupt, let’s roll with the Dems for a while.” I think it’s more true to say it means, “We’re sick of these fools taking our votes for granted, and we’re disappointed in our leadership, but not their underlying philosophy.” But even that’s a sweeping generalization – more than likely it can be reduced to, “Why are fighting this war, again?”

The Democrats can be happy with their victory – I know what it feels like to struggle as the underdog organization for decades at a stretch. But I would caution them against being too pleased with themselves. That is, after all, what the Republicans did. They had a few decisive issues to push them over the top – but the war is going to end some day, and the Dems don’t have a unifying direction to hold their coalition of swing-voters together. The momentum is probably strong enough to take them to the White House in two years, but I predict another mid-term swing back to Republican control in 2010, just in time to thwart any major changes. The red states will be back again soon enough, just as soon as the GOP fields some people worth showing up for.


Monday, November 06, 2006

The Power of Being Boring (um, I mean, Consistent)

Over the last several weeks the theme of consistency has been popping up at various places in the SKS meetings at UNC. Often spiritual seekers strive for intensity, but they miss the fact that intensity is not merely a single visceral barbaric yalp of effort, a Hulk-like “gaaaaaaaAAAAHHH!” That looks like intensity, but more often than not it’s a temporary phenomenon that fades. Real intensity is cultivated through steady, consistent effort. The effort has to be consistent over time, because only consistent effort has any chance of becoming a habit: a way of being that is automatic and natural. Five minutes of meditation a day would be better than an hour once a week, which in turn would be better than eight hours of meditation in a once-a-year retreat. Lasers get their intensity, not through brightness, but through coherence, everything lining up and moving in the same direction.

Of course, I am preaching to myself. Consistency of effort has always been my weakest virtue. I am the king of the all-nighter, the frenzied emergency firefighter-mode of responding to the most urgent need. The operative word here is responding: it’s a very reactive way to live, moving from crisis to crisis. It might make me feel like I’m working hard, but I know that it’s uncontrolled and ultimately unsustainable.

Nisargadatta Maharaj spoke often about having a “clean and well-ordered life.” Richard Rose advised people to start the spiritual quest by “putting the house in order.” I think they both were saying the same thing: adopt a lifestyle that will allow for consistency of effort. Make everything in your life predictable enough that you can count on doing the most important things regularly.

This is a hard teaching, because being consistent in your work (spiritual or otherwise) is the most unglamorous thing in the word. It’s work-a-day, hum-drum drudgery. I might as well write a book: “Anal-retentiveness as a Spiritual Discipline”. I don’t want to glorify routine as the end of the spiritual life, but it is certainly the beginning. You have to do the right things every day, which means you have to start by being able to do something, anything, with daily mindful consistency. Rose said, “Walk around the block every day.” People thought he meant that figuratively, but he was serious: “No, really, physically get up and walk around the block every day. That will teach your body and mind that you are serious.”

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Helping Your Own

I hit the chapter in The Purpose-Driven Life in which Rick Warren pushes the notion of helping other Christians. There is plenty of scriptural backup for this position; Paul talked constantly about building a strong community of support for fellow believers, as a part of the witness of Christian love. Translation: we can sell the faith a lot easier if there are tangible benefits to being in the club. That mentality has undergirded the growth of the megachurches in general: “Let’s provide daycare and schools and youth groups and singles groups and retiree groups and every other damn thing we can think of, and people will come for all those tangible benefits, but still wind up in the house of the Lord.”

From the perspective of someone who has tried to build intentional communities over the last fifteen years, I understand the necessity of “looking out for your own.” You do need to give special precedence to helping your own people; it’s a basic part of having any cohesion at all as a community. You can’t do much significant work unless you have a lot of people who trust each other to do their respective parts; and the best way to build that trust is by helping each other in all the little things.

And yet . . . what bothers me the most about it is that it is almost diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus himself. Jesus was all about reaching past your community into the larger world. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies . . . For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?” Matthew 5:43-46 Jesus had a reputation for hanging out with the sinners, to the point where even his own family was put out with him.

In my own experience, I have felt the greatest sense of grace when I had the opportunity to help someone completely outside my community. When I’ve lectured for a high school class here or there, when there is little or no possibility that anything I’m doing is going to help my own spiritual community – that’s when I feel most sure about the purity of my motive. I think the witness of Mother Theresa to the world is that God’s love was most manifest when it was given to the most wretched, “useless” people of the world. Love is not love unless it is given entirely for its own sake.

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We tried to watch Dodsworth, a 1936 film based on the play by Sinclair Lewis. I say tried because the film violated our first premise of story-telling: we couldn’t find any characters we cared about within the first 20 minutes of the film. Sam Dodsworth was endearing in a buffoonish kind of way, but his wife Fran was such an image of shallowness that we didn’t think we could stand 140 minutes of her. Just as she was throwing herself at a “Count of no account,” we went to bed.

I was interested at how little the stereotypes of Americans and Europeans have changed in the last 70 years. The Americans, no matter how rich, are hayseeds: uncultured, hardworking, too loud, somewhat charming in their simplicity. I was especially struck by the comment from Sam’s friend: “You’re an American – you’re supposed to work until you drop.” The notion of enjoying one’s life seems quite foreign, even to people as well-to-do as them. The Europeans, by contrast, are worldly layabouts; their notions of good manners and elegance extends to the particulars of how to conduct an extramarital affair.

I myself am somewhat torn on the nature of my American-ness. I value industry and success as much as Sam Dodsworth; I have a similar disinterest in the effete snobbery of the cultural elite. But at the same time, I recognize that there is more to life than work, and find myself longing for a slower pace that allowed for leisurely meals, long conversations, and plenty of books. It’s hard to accept the trade-offs; would I accept the Parisian café if it meant putting up with public-servant strikes every other day?