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, February 10, 2007

La Femme Nikita

Erika brought over a bag of old VCR tapes to share with us, including a bunch of French films from the 80's and 90's. We watched La Femme Nikita, the now-classic spy thriller that taught us that women, too, can be stone-cold killers.

What I love about this movie is how it plays with Hollywood movie conventions . . . or more accurately, doesn't play with them. The transformation of the rough, unsophisticated girl into a sophisticated woman is a stock plot device, as ancient as Cinderella . . . but the movies have taught us that this transformation happens by magic. We always start with a loveable Cinderella, a down-and-out-but likeable Julia Roberts, who is transformed overnight into a dazzling image of glamor and grace. The implication is always that all that spit and polish only accentuated the beauty that was already there.

Nikita is not that woman. The film goes to great lengths to show that she is stone, stone cold, brutal and unfeeling. She is not the hooker with a heart of gold -- she has all the studied ugliness of a true punk and the practiced violence of a sociopath. The only humanity left in her is the poor abandoned child, still calling for her mother as she faces what she thinks is her execution. And rather than take her to dazzling, the story takes her merely to the point where she would pass on the street as a human being. But is even more remarkable: going from skid row to Heaven is a long journey, but going from Hell up to ordinary life is a longer one, and more gratifying to watch. Her rise is not natural beauty finding its fulfillment -- it is a miracle of grace that something still worth loving has survived inside her.

It's that contrast between the violent world and the tiny spark of humanity in Nikita that makes the movie work. All the violence -- both her punk tantrums and her carefully orchestrated hits -- are never seen as anything other than awful and inhuman. And when Nikita finds solace in a little flat, a decent boyfriend, a good meal, you feel the luxurious wonderfulness of so-called ordinary life . . . and then the phone rings, and voice asks for "Josephine", and it's like a phone call from Hell, from Satan himself. When was more nightmare ever packed into a silent moment on the phone?

I was also intrigued by Bob, Nikita's handler. He also deals in cold death and deception, but he has a remarkable gentleness in him that carries throughout the role. He seems caring and gentle even when he shoots her in the leg. When Nikita is screwing up in assassin school, he does not confront, or yell, or berate . . . he tells her very quietly what she has done right, what she has done wrong. Then he brings her a birthday cake, as if to say, "My love for you transcends your successes and failures." And then he says, "They have given us two weeks. That's all." And then he leaves, quietly taking her black boots and leather jacket, the symbols of her rebellion. It felt, ironically enough, like an attachment parenting moment. It pulls together everything we feel for Nikita -- the love, the horror, and the hope.


Friday, February 09, 2007


I caught about half of Robots, a 2005 animation that appeared and disappeared without so much as a flicker on my popular culture radar. Nowadays an animated film has to emerge with shock-and-awe marketing blitzes, a la Happy Feet, for anyone to take it seriously. If it's not on the side of a McDonald's Happy Meal, it's nothing. I seem to recall that critics gave it a tepid review as well, with criticisms similar to Cars: it's hard for human beings to strongly identify with non-living things, no matter how cute or engaging. So I had diminished expectations . . . but I also allowed for the possibility of another The Iron Giant, a truly remarkable film that was anything but mechanical, and similarly swallowed up in the media noise.

I enjoyed it. There's a lot of mecha-techie eye candy to keep boys of all ages engaged - hasn't every boy imagined how cool it would be to pop tools out your forearms? Any coldness that you might expect from a robot movie is overcome by the richness and texture of the scenes, like Tim Burton always ladled onto features like Corpse Bride or The Nightmare Before Christmas. There are some uneven lapses in the story-telling . . . an extended riff on fart noises seems like an awful waste, especially when you've got Robin Williams on tap to do the comedy relief. And Robin Williams does his Robin Williams shtick with the character of Fender. It's still a fun shtick, but when a fast-talking robot feels identical to the character of a fast-talking genie or a fast-talking penguin, you start to wonder whether the shtick is running out of steam.

The story tries to take the shape of a moral tale -- a greedy corporate climber stops supporting older models of robots in order to drive his upgrade business, but the plucky robots believe in themselves and refuse to be cast in identical titanium shells. It's the usual message -- a good message -- for a kids' movie to send: believe in yourself, don't be taken in by the glitter and hype of the materialistic world. The only problem is that it really doesn't quite map to our moral sensibilities; try as I might, I couldn't find myself getting morally indignant about old technology not being support. So I suppose the movie did fail to make me completely identify with the characters.

The ending was a little surprising -- normally kid movies of this stripe don't conclude with epic battles, since that's a little violent to pass muster with a G rating. But his one did, with an orgy of visual references to action movies, including Braveheart, Matrix Reloaded, and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and probably others I didn't even get. I felt cheap laughing at it -- has any animated movie not given a nod to The Matrix? -- but man, it was still funny. The only thing that tempered my reaction was the realization that the references were targeting the kids and not the adults, which made me a little sad . . . preadolescents really shouldn't be watching such stuff. But that was quickly dispelled by the feel-good jam-dance at the end, another growing staple of the animated film genre. Robots imitating people imitating dancing robots -- a la Devo -- now that was truly inspired.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Elevator Pitch

Every year, the John Templeton Foundation awards prizes for "progress in religion" . . . the biggest prizes in the world, for anything. Its awards are the "Nobel Prize" for anyone with something new to say about religion and spirituality. In 2003 the foundation held a writing contest, offering $100,000 for the best essay on "the power of purpose." The contest was open to professional writers as well as amateurs, and even published work was permitted. Nearly 8,000 entries were received from all fifty states and 47 countries. A blue ribbon panel of judges, including Rick Warren of The Purpose-Driven Life fame, picked the winner. And the winner was . . . not who you would expect. August Turak, a man living in North Carolina, was the winner. His essay, "Brother John," was about a humble Trappist monk, and how ordinary people ... someone like yourself, maybe ... get the courage to do extraordinary things. Mr. Turak has just finish writing a book about the experiences that led him to win the biggest writing prize in the world. He'll be our guest this week on (fill in your prestigious talk show here.)

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Matters

Very often, at the end of an SKS meeting, someone will come up to me and say, "Is that what these meetings are like, then? Like, group therapy?"
Just as often, someone will ask, "Is that what these meetings are like, then? Talking about ideas?"
Or, "Is that what these meetings are like, then? Self-help, making yourself better?"

Arg. The answer is almost always, "That's part of it, but only part. What the meetings are about is living spirituality . . ." But almost right away I realize that I haven't said anything that will help. The word "spirituality" is almost as polluted as "religious inquiry" these days, as a means of describing what we're about. If I say "spirituality," they will probably only leap to their own muddled impressions of the word, a mixture of questionable ideas, vague feelings, noble aspirations and no spine whatsoever. And if I try to put something more concrete in its place, more tangible and specific, they will only "take me up on the example": "So you mean spirituality is about meditation, then," or "So spirituality is keeping your promises."

What I fail to communicate, most of the time, is the most important aspect of spirituality, which is its urgency. The theologian Paul Tillich said, "Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life." Spirituality is, by definition, being concerned with what matters most. I don't even have to necessarily say what it is that matters most; I could just say, "What is it that is the most important thing in the world? Ok, care about that. Pay attention to that, and let everything else in your life take its cues from that concern."

But even that is just the idea of urgency, not the experience of urgency. They only way they can understand what I mean is to feel it for themselves. The two critical ingredients for grasping spirituality:
  1. Life must hand the person a koan, a question of ultimate concern. They may not even have articulated the question yet, but they must feel the anxiety of an important unanswered question inside themselves. They must be bugged.
  2. That bugged person has to witness someone else who has put a name to their ultimate concern, and who has addressed their life to that concern with passion and urgency.

So, in the end, explanations are only needed in restrospect. The essence of communicating spirituality lies in the experience of the student, and the example of the teacher. When someone recognizes their own question, and sees someone else living the answer, the connection is made. "Now," says the seeker, "I know what I need to do."


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What dreams may be

Another side benefit of regular sleep is dreams. That is, I have them and remember them now. When my body was sleep-deprived (or my sleep schedule was wildly irregular) I could rarely hang on to my dreams -- the transitions from sleep to waking were too rough, too torturous for anything to stay with me. Consciousness would thrash itself around when the alarm rang, trampling on any moods or images that lingered from the night. There was no time between waking and sleeping for those dream-images to wobble across the border, to harden and coalesce into genuine memories.

Now my consciousness emerges more naturally in the morning, as quiet and unforced as a flower opening. No matter how tired I was the night before, I always wake before the 5 am alarm. My compulsive nature keeps me from getting out of bed immediately; I might break whatever spell is holding me in this newfound order and regularity. And so I law there, awake but still wrapped in the mood and images of dreams. The "dogs of the day" as C.S. Lewis called them, the baying of uninterrupted thoughts, have not yet arrived. I can wait there, a nocturnal naturalist, watching dream-things still undisturbed in their natural state.

I have been told by independent sources that I'm pretty good with dream interpretation -- I have a knack for whatever Jungian logic is required to make sense out of images and moods. I suspect it is the same qualities that allow someone to enjoy poetry: the ability to surrender to the experience, allowing it to guide you to meaning without insisting on rational consistency.

So what are my dreams telling me? They have a disturbing, omen-like character these days. Like last night: I was staring into a server rack, one of those big black locked cages that servers are kept in in data centers. I was looking for something that was amiss. I saw at the bottom of the case, a huge mouse, or maybe it was a rat, had shredded some documentation and printouts to make a nest. There it was, peeking out of the nest, staring right at me. A big fat cat, an old cat, saw it at the same time I did, and popped into the rack through some unseen opening. There was an enormous struggle that I could only half-see, but I had this eerie sense, like you get from sci-fi suspense movies, that the cat was losing the battle, that some clan of super-mice were doing it in.


Monday, February 05, 2007

Six Years of Aidan

Today my son Aidan will be celebrating his sixth birthday at school. A part of the birthday ritual at his school is that the parents come in and show pictures and tell stories about their child's life, at least one per year, as they light the candles on the birthday cake. So I started thinking about my talking points for the event. [Maybe later I'll have time to fill in some actual photos . . . ]
  • Year One. We have a "baby's first year" frame, with pictures of Aidan from birth through is first birthday. It's kinda cool to see a person go from the "baby" look -- kinda lumpy and alien-looking -- to the first year, when they really start to acquire their recognizable face. I remember it was only a few days before his first birthday when I was trying to videotape Aidan playing at Janet's piano, and instead of doing so he walked off . . . but he had never walked before. Miraculously his first steps were captured on film, and ironically (and appropriately) because he was doing something other than what we expected. I remember he was a slow to start eating solids, too . . . at his party he didn't eat cake, but he did enjoy his first pretzels.
  • Year Two. Aidan started playing music, strumming on a guitar his uncle gave him for his second birthday. [Oy, this is embarrassing . . . I'm scrambling for pictures to try to remember what was going on then . . .]
  • Year Three. Aidan always had a special connection with animals. Before he could even talk, he enjoyed howling like our dogs, when they would join together with the neighbors' dogs to make a chorus of bays. His favorite toys were tiny animal figurines. We have pictures of him riding on his Aunt Meredith's horse Mac, and scattering cracked corn for Granny's chickens.
  • Year Four. This was the year that Aidan had to learn how to be a Big Brother. So much has happened between the two of them that it's hard to remember what that was like, at first. I seem to recall that it became a lot more challenging once Mal was big enough to start getting into his stuff . . .
  • Year Five. This was a big year for beeswax. I remember when we first suggested that he could make his own small animals, he was shocked and offended . . . but after a while he became a beeswax fanatic, making elaborate figures and scenes with colored wax -- literally hundreds of little figures scattered through the house. Some of my favorites: an archeological dig, complete with the bones of dinosaurs curled up in lifelike repose; a red fox, complete with a white-tipped tail, rowing a boat while smoking a pipe; a monkey reaching out with pruning sheers to cut off a holly berry from a holiday sprig.
  • Year Six. This was the year of physical skills maturing. He started going hand-over-hand on the monkey bars at home. He got a scooter for Christmas, and after a few weeks of wizzing around on two wheels, suddenly he could ride his bike without training wheels, too. I came home one day and Aidan said, "Hey, Dad, watch this," and he took off. I was flabbergasted. And he learned to swim, too -- after taking lessons for most of the year, he swam the entire length of the pool, and earned his "swimming star". It was also around now that his creations went from tiny to huge: he started digging big holes in "the digging spot" in the yard, and erecting substantial teepee frames with eight-foot long fallen limbs.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Saint Nevins

I wanted to give a shout-out to the TAT Society, and specifically to Shawn Nevins, who continues to be an inspiration to me. TAT was the organization that formed around Richard Rose, who was Augie Turak's teacher, and for a few years mine as well.

I first met Shawn when he became involved in the Self Knowledge Symposium at NCSU. Shawn was a graduate student in Soil Science, which is to say, he was one of those people I would never have gotten to know if not for the SKS. A tall, unassuming guy from Kentucky, he spoke with a quiet drawl and did everything with a slowness and deliberateness that might be mistaken for low energy, but was in fact implacable determination.

Shawn was my comrade in those early days of the SKS. We lived in the same house, worked for the same group. I don't think I recognized his virtue back then, because, well, I was an arrogant intellectual back then, and the only things I valued were intelligence, energy, and articulateness, and Shawn didn't manifest those qualities . . . or so I thought at the time. The truth was that I frenetic and frantic, while Shawn was deliberate and steady.

The other distinction for Shawn, one I never gave him credit for, was that he consistently took bigger risks than I did for the spiritual life. He was a semester shy of finishing his masters degree, but he quit the program to spend a summer at Rose's farm with several others who wanted to get more intense. He took a job waiting tables, precisely because it was totally against his nature and would challenge him. Shawn's natural inclination was to worry about financial security -- I have a Polaroid photo of him at his desk, reading a brochure on U.S. Treasury Bonds. But that desire for stability and security didn't stop him from eventually going to live on Rose's farm, and eek out what wisdom he could from the dying and progressively Alzeihmer's-stricken teacher. I had once gone to live on the farm as well . . . but I left after eight months. Shawn stayed there for two or three years.

Shawn has the distinction of being my only contempory in the spiritual life who really found what he sought. He had a spiritual realization. When I spoke with him, it was clear that he had found what Rose had found. He was the real deal. Now, you would think that this would be resoundingly good news, that someone had become enlightened -- but it's actually horrendously challenging. Shawn had arrived at the truth through the path I wouldn't take. He kept asking the spiritual question -- "who am I" -- and he hung onto that question even as he rode his life down into despair. In a certain sense, he gave up everything in order to reach that state. There was also the awkward fact that he left our community and struck out on his own . . . that his realization involved leaving the sangha. As a guy who had dedicated himself to building that community, I was not keen on lionizing someone who "went off the reservation." I guess I was more attached to the organization than even the goal that it supposedly sought.

For years TAT was in a state of disarray and decline, especially during Rose's long slow decline into dementia. For a variety of personal and political reasons, the SKS distanced itself from TAT. The SKS was vibrant and growing and ambitious, and TAT seemed like the poor cousin. But now the positions are somewhat reversed. The SKS's growth plateaued, especially while Augie went off to write his book. TAT persevered and spawned new student groups, new teachers, new publications, and a video documentary.

I read a transcript from a presentation Shawn gave at a TAT meeting, and I was reminded again of how much he had accomplished through his quiet determination. Shawn's message is the one I've needed to hear: "Hang in there. Keep going. Trust the process." For Shawn, intensity is not about inspiration, or even hope, but persistence, and consistency of effort. It's a gospel I am finally ready to hear.