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 18, 2006

Beauty revealed

Have you ever noticed that the world's physical beauty opens up to you when you're extremely stressed? I have noticed many times now, in the course of my life, that it was exactly when I was feeling pushed to my limit that I suddenly noticed grass, and trees, and clouds pushed by the wind. I remember very significant points in my life -- when I broke up with my girlfriend, or struggling to hang onto my spiritual faith -- when I was laying on my back, staring at clouds in a blue sky, and thinking, "Man."

Truthfully, I always found it rather annoying. Why couldn't I have a vision of natural beauty when I'm, like, able to relax and enjoy it? Why does the world have to get so distractingly beautiful when I have no time whatsoever to linger on it? It almost seemed like God was taunting me.

Why, indeed? What's going on here?

My guess is that, in times of ego expansiveness, we are too focused on our selves and our illusory security to really notice what's going on around us. It takes a period of ego-contraction, of humiliation, to make us aware of anything beyond ourselves. It probably doesn't hurt that you're head has stopped; all the emotional intensity of dynamic thinking is there, but shocked into silence.

Theologically, I keep getting pushed back into the question: "Why is suffering necessary for spiritual growth?" And, more and more, the answer keeps coming back. "Isn't it obvious? You have to die in order to live."

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High Noon

For years I had heard Augie talk about High Noon as the quintessential story of honor, duty, and good old-fashioned manhood triumphing over self-interested rationality. I finally watched it, as was somewhat surprised that the line he always attributed to it -- "a man's gotta do what man's gotta do" -- was, in fact, not in the movie at all. (Though pretty close: the line belonged to John Wayne in Stagecoach.)

It's a really great movie. I could extol its many virtues -- like the dramatic tension of unfolding in real time -- but I doubt I could say it as well as so many others have likely done in film classes for the last fifty years. But Will Kane's decision to face four gunmen and near-certain death, despite everyone in town abandoning him, really is the stuff of mythic heroism.

From a philosophic perspective, what I liked the most about the movie was the fact that Marshall Kane's virtue was essentially non-rational. When his new wife asks him, "Why do you have to go back?" he says, "I don't know why. But I have to go back." Later he comes back with more sound logical reasons: "He'll hunt us down whereever we go. If there's going to be trouble, better to have it here." But even that's not the real reason. In the end, his commitment has little to do with the town's well-being, or his own physical well-being, but rather with the integrity of his soul. "I never ran away from a thing in my life, and now they're trying to make me run away."

What also struck me is that the quality that Kane is willing to die for is somewhat indefinable, and remains that way throughout the movie. It's clear that it doesn't make rational sense. Even the treacherous barman says, "I'll give Kane this much -- he's got guts, if not much brains." And Mrs. Ramirez says, when asked why Kane is staying, says, "If you have to ask me, then I can't explain it to you." And earlier, she says, simply, "Kane is a man, and it takes more than broad shoulders to be a man."

The most telling point is when, at the end, Kane tosses his marshall's badge into the dust. Here is where it's most clear: he didn't do it for the townspeople, or for the honor of the office of marshall. He did it because that's the kind of man he is. Even the office itself was eventually unworthy of someone of his moral stature.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

All Rise

I dreamt I was some kind of officer of the law, or an officer of the court. Something like a county sheriff. I had some people coming forward with documents indicating the guilt of others: arrest records, liens. Others were coming forward with other documents that supposedly established their innocence: motions, rulings of the court, restraining orders, approvals. And yet both sides were using documents that were old, processed under old rules, with old stamps and seals. The documents, in their current state, would not hold up. The supposedly guilty would wind up with clean records; the supposedly justified would have nothing to stand on.

And I was the sheriff, or baliff, or whatever, sorting through the documents, talking with plaintiffs and defendents. Somehow I knew that all these terribly important papers would not stand up. On the one hand, I was struggling to build a system that could handle the documents, convert them into something acceptable. And on the other hand, I was talking with the individuals involved, trying to get them to negotiate, to settle, to not let the issues comes to court at all.

Somehow the dream felt terribly significant, spiritually significant. In my own life, I am that baliff, struggling to set a standard for myself, to find an absolute point of reference from which to judge my life. But nothing is holding up. No accomplishment can justify my life. No sin or failing can withstand the grace of oblivion. I have nothing to go on. On the one hand I am hoping to find the standard, to set the standard, to make the Law hold. On the other hand, I am hoping somehow that the whole problem will just go away, settle itself peaceably and leave me alone.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Behold, all things are made New (Economy)

One thing that struck me as I’ve been reading The Wal-Mart Effect is how so much of Wal-Mart's “revolutionary” practices are so low-tech. Most of the talk about sophisticated retailing focuses on the “data-mining” – sifting through huge amounts of data looking for patterns in buying behavior. And yet, that high-tech analysis often results in a very low-tech, even primitive, solution, e.g. "let’s put pallets on the store floor instead of unpacking them in receiving." It seems that the most power that high-tech has is to find new value in very ordinary things.

The most dramatic portrayal of old technology liberated by new technology is NetFlix. Everyone in the entertainment industry was waiting with baited breath for on-demand delivery of movies over the wires – through the internet, or through cable. And then, out of nowhere, comes a very high-tech, web-enabled, data-crunching company that delivers movies . . . through the U.S. Postal Service. Huh?! Internet delivery is expensive, when you consider how much the bandwidth costs, and how complicated it is to work out security, anti-piracy, and whatnot. Once the DVD format was widespread, it became remarkably cheap to send movies through the mail. The business model is simplicity itself: sign up for a monthly fee, get movies mailed to you. It has all the features that Sam Walton would have loved: it’s cheap compared to other movie providers, it does a high volume of business with low cost and maximum efficiency, and it’s better for consumers. Oh, yeah, and it's absolutely killing the competition, i.e. Blockbuster. Sam would have loved that.

Again, this is the triumph of low-tech wedded to high-tech . . . NetFlix could not possibly have worked without lots of relatively new technology: really good websites, sophisticated databases managing inventory and fulfilment, and the newer, super-light-weight DVD media. And yet, all that technology is geared to making a low-tech solution possible: send movies through the mail.

So what's the next low-tech method to be rediscovered in the light of high tech?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sick Day

I was sick today. The usual, for me . . . run-down tired, capable of short bursts of work in front of a computer between delirious naps. Sickness is good for dispelling existential angst, at least in the short term. No longer do thoughts of one’s greater purpose dog your existence; you just keep waiting to stop hurting long enough to contemplate anything else. At least this time my voice sounded terrible, so I didn’t have to work all that hard to convince customers that they should leave me alone.

We had planned to go down to the bank to take care of some thorny business: converting a health savings account from one account to another, and getting a signature guarantee on some automated transfers to some of our investments. Since I wasn’t getting much of anything else done, I decided to go ahead with it. As we waded through forms and bureaucratic morass, amid my mental fog, I thought, “This must be what Medicare Part D must be like.”


Monday, November 13, 2006

All done

Occasionally, we all find ourselves feeling sorry for ourselves, saying, “This sucks. I am not liking life right now. Things are wrong. Circumstances are bad.” Maybe we don’t actually say or think the words, but the attitude is there. It most especially comes upon me near the end of the day, when I’m slumped at my desk, too tired to continue and to stressed to rest.

Whenever I find myself in that state, I stop and ask myself: “What would it take for me to be happy right now?”

This is the answer that comes back to me:

I want to be done.

I want all obligations to be met: the day’s work accomplished, everything according to plan and ahead of schedule. I should be ready for tomorrow’s work and not dreading it. My receipts must be entered, my books up to date, my notes written, my appointments confirmed. My oil must be changed, my leaves raked, my house clean.

Completely caught up.

All emails read, responded to, filed away. No conversations I’m dreading, no calls I’m dreading, no work I’m avoiding. No dreams foregone. No ambitions unaddressed. Proper exercise, proper diet. Clean bathrooms. Premiums paid. Portfolios balanced. Children hugged, kissed, and put to bed, secure in the knowledge that I love them and they love me. Matresses rotated. Education continued. Teeth brushed, hair combed, toilets scrubbed.

And then, when I’m completely done for the day, there is still a couple hours to kick back in a chair with a beer, a good book, and a light heart. Is that so much to ask for?

And yet, it is. I remember reading a passage from some Southern novel, where a black field worker sniffed, “Done. Only white folk think work gets done. We know better. We know work is never done. It just waitin’ for you tomorrow, the same fields, the same chores.”

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Six Degrees

I had a couple “it’s a small world” incidents happen recently:

  1. I had an arborist come out to cut down some trees and prune branches in our back yard. After I had shown him around the yard and we went over the work he was to do, he said, “You didn’t happen to live in Brevard at one time, did you?” Yes, I did. “Do you, by chance, have a brother named Erich?” It turned out that he had gone to high school with us, in fact was even on the same wrestling team. He remembered me and all my brothers . . . after more than twenty years.

  2. I was walking through a warehouse with one of my newer customers, and said casually, “I heard someone mention that Eurodrive is one of your customers. My father is a manager in Eurodrive’s plant in South Carolina.” My customer stopped dead in his tracks. “What was your name again? Hans is your daddy?” It turned out that he knew my father well, in fact had sold products to him for the last fifteen years, for more than one company.

After the “wow!” had set in on both these events, I started to look at my own reactions. In both cases these little coincidents made me extremely happy, almost giddy, and I couldn’t really figure out why. In both cases they are chance events that will probably have no lasting impact on either of us. And yet it seemed like such a special occasion. In the second case I actually shook the man’s hand again, like we were meeting for the first time, the both of us grinning ear to ear. What in the world makes this kind of thing so special?

Part of it, I suppose, was a little surge of family pride… which is a slightly altered state of consciousness for me, since I think of my family of origin very little, if at all. The arborist said, “Yeah, Erich was a great guy, a really good man.” And my customer could not begin to describe how much he admired my father: “He’s really precise, very methodical, but always just so nice to deal with.” Yeah . . . those are my people. Somehow, feeling pride in your family feels cleaner than taking pride in your own accomplishments, since you are mostly just delighting in someone else’s virtue.

But I think the most significant thing was the fact that these incidents reaffirmed my past. The past is, after all, gone; so few people know our past, or need to know it, that sometimes it feels like a dream, insubstantial, far away. And then something happens that makes you think, weirdly: “O my gosh, it really did happen. I really did exist.” Deeper even than the need to feel special, is the need to feel like you even existed at all.