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, March 03, 2007

Religious identity

Friday's Wall Street Journal reported on an apparent upswing in children who are becoming more religiously devout than their parents ("Religion's Generation Gap," W1). Among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, there are more cited cases of children embracing faiths that their parents had ignored or forsaken. Nobody seems to be able to cite an statistics that hold water, but they do point to a raft of new books that market to that audience, with titles like But My Parents Aren't Saved! and What Do You Mean You Can't Eat Meat In My House?

Even I am starting to get a little tired of the so-called news stories on the re-emergence of religion in modern culture. It seems like these same stories have been running for the last ten years. An astonished secular media keeps looking at America and saying, "Gosh, so many religious people," like it was big news. When are they going to accept that's here for good? On the back of Yoga Journal, an advertisement quips, "Yoga is a fad. We give it another 6000 years, tops."

The media are now (correctly, I think) looking at religion more as a source of identity than as a wellspring of truth. They see young people becoming devout and consider it a part of teenage rebellion and a quest to find a durable self-image. That has always been the role of organized religion, though -- to define a way of life and provide a ready-made answer to the questions of "Who am I?", "Why am I here?" and "What should I be doing?" It's just that now people are more conscious of that whole process. And while the answers may change, the questions never go out of style.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Please remain calm

"Kevin, I don't know what you're taking to remain so calm," I said to my client, a VP of Sales for manufacturing company. I had been through the wringer over the last three days. We had a dozen salesmen fly in from all over the country, almost all them needing major work on their computers to roll out a new CRM package. A couple machines teetered on the edge of unrecoverable after some OS upgrades blew up. We made some compromises on the training just to get everything finished in time for them to leave. A few big requirements for reporting and off-line printing came up within the training, and for which we weren't prepared.

All of this chaos provoked different reactions in the people present. Some of the IT staff reacted with indifference, then angry annoyance. The salesmen (like most salesmen) remained polite but pushy, continually lobbying to get their machines up and running as soon as possible. The marketing manager was quietly but visibly freaking out, imagining the worst. I was putting a brave face on it, but verging on freaking out myself. I expected that at any moment people would explode in angry accusations.

But Kevin was cool as a cucumber. Neither apathetic nor overwrought, he did everything he could do to keep things moving forward, and accepted the setbacks without complaint. At one point he turned to the marketing manager, smiled and said, "Tessa, it's just a job. Relax."

How can someone who works as hard as he, with as much bottom-line responsibility as he has, have such relaxed detachment? You'd think he was either a slacker or independently wealthy. But I suspect that he just had clarity. He knew what was important and what wasn't, and he knew that in the big picture, a rough roll-out of a computer system was not that important. It was one of the few times when I saw someone genuinely care more about his people than the things those people did, or the circumstances they faced.

And . . . it worked. I didn't freak out. We finished the job. And I have a slightly different idea of what it means to be a mensch.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Bastards of the Party

I caught about half of a remarkable documentary, Bastards of the Party, made by a long-time member of the Bloods gang in South Central LA. Cle "Bone" Sloan had renounced the violent gang life, and the documentary was his attempt to make sense of how the gangs came to rise in his community, and perhaps show a way out of the cycle of violence.

I have heard in the past about gang members coming out and talking about trying to do some good in their communities, and they always struck me as exercises in hypocrisy: how can you affiliate yourself with violence and say you want peace? But Sloan, I think, is the real deal, because he is spending at least as much energy trying to communicate to other gang members as to the rest of us "civilians." And he is extremely honest about his own ambiguity.

At one point, he says (and I'll quote him as best I can), "I understand what's goin' on with the Palestinians. It starts out bein' about land. But then it's your uncle, your brother, your homeboy's son who gets killed, and after that it's not about land, or turf, or money -- it's about the man next to you who you loved, and who's now dead. And you just act out of that. And when there's no justice system that will work for you, no one else who's gonna care . . . how can you let go of that? It's like, treason." He tells of how one of his friend's sons was killed: "The police told me, one of your homeboys was hit, he's on the street around the corner. It was one of the twins, but they didn't know which one it was, and they needed me to tell them." And as the camera pans slowly over baby pictures of the twins in their mother's lap, and then picturs of happy twin teenagers posed in basketball uniforms, you start to feel the tragedy yourself. And he shows you, with obvious conflictedness, just how hard it is to choose peace: "If I met up with twins' killer today . . . I wouldn't embrace him or nothin' . . . but I can say this, I wouldn't kill him." But you can tell that it crossed his mind as a real possibility, and that's what makes it real.

He also had some good insights on the psychology involved in gang life, especially when it comes to names and identity. He condemned the use the n-word, (and forgive me, I'm not afraid to write it myself but don't want to get censored), "We gotta get that out of our vocabulary, because it's dehumanizin'. It's always, 'Give me your wallet, n-----', 'cause it don't make sense to say, 'Give me your wallet, brother.' " And he pays special attention the street names: "I tell you this, if we want to stop this right now, we need to stop givin' our kids these street names. They say, 'This is my Lil' Monster' or 'This is my Lil' Bone'. No. Give 'em a first name and last name, their right name." And before the credits roll, he pays tribute to nearly a dozen people who were featured in the film, nearly all of the dead or in prison for life. As their pictures roll across the screen, their street names fade and are replaced by their real full names.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Defensive Requirements

I’ve been through the wringer over the last couple of days with a software deployment for one of my customers. Nine salesmen flew in with their laptops to have the new CRM system installed and to get training, and we’ve spent the last day and a half just trying to get their systems ready: upgrading operating systems, patching operating systems, setting up wireless networking, adding computers to the networking domain, etc. My only salvation has been that the people I’m working for are the nicest people in the world and have been very understanding. Nonetheless, when nine pushy guys are all visiting you ever few minutes and saying, in that practiced sales tone, “Are you done with my laptop yet?” . . . it’s stressful.

All of which is the result of promising too much. I learned a ton of stuff about everything under the sun by being a go-to guy in a small software company, but the downside of being a generalist is that you don’t know when to say, “That’s not my job.” Had I been wiser, I would have forced someone else to be responsible for making sure the laptops were in good shape before they showed up with them. I might still have been the one to do all the work . . . but at least they would have understood that I was going out of scope.

The soul of an IT guy hangs in the balance of this sort of struggle. On the one hand, I can’t do everything for everyone. On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those trolls who just reflexively says, “That’s not my job” ever time something unexpected comes up. The secret to responsible service seems to be finding the nicest possible way to say “no.”

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Full retreat

Some of the students in the Self Knowledge Symposium are going to spend their spring break at Mepkin Abbey, a Cistercian monestary in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The brothers of Mepkin, and especially the late Abbott Francis Kline, have made an enormous impression on me; they have come to represent for me and many a nobleness of spirit and intensity of spiritual passion that I pray I can follow. (I was tempted to say, right there, that it was "an intensity of spiritual passion that I can never hope to achieve," but Augie Turak's now-famous essay on the Mepkin monks, "Brother John," makes it clear that I can, in fact I must, aspire to their level.)

One of the students asked me yesterday if I had any suggestions for their retreat as they head down to the monestary. Here's what occurred to me:
  • Appreciate how extremely special this opportunity is for you. I have never spent as long as a week at Mepkin, and I am extremely jealous of you. Next week I have nothing but demanding customers and hotel rooms to look forward to. You might think that there will be other times and places to do such things; but it is extremely hard, once you have ensconced yourself in family and career, to seize these opportunities. Make the most of it.
  • Read "Brother John" again. Try to tune in on the spirit that Augie discovered in his own time at Mepkin. What is most remarkable about that place is not the place (though it is a place as full of Place as you will ever find) but the brothers who occupy it.
  • Be patient. Unfortunately it's hard to "pack in" value to a retreat. The whole point of a retreat is the opposite of "packing in." It's a time to let go, to allow all the mundane noise of your life fall away and be replaced with Something Else. And you can't really force that to happen, any more than you can force yourself to fall asleep or fall in love, without doing violence to the experience. The discipline required is to just stay present to what's going on, and to turn away from the temptation to turn away. (Sadly, a week is not nearly long enough to get the full effect. I know Augie has said that it takes a least a month at Mepkin before he's really in the right place . . . and I imagine the brothers would say it takes years.)
  • Bring reading that lends itself to contemplation. The best thing to read in a retreat is something that is poetic and dense, something that requires many readings to understand and appreciate. "The Cloud of Unknowing" comes to mind. So does Andre Louf's Tuning into Grace. Or even T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets. The last time I spent any significant time at Mepkin I read Hubert Benoit's The Interior Realization. And, of course, you can't really go wrong with scripture.
  • As much as possible, spend time with the brothers. Your only hope of really intuiting what's going on at Mepkin is to spend time with the brothers. The monks cannot spend too much time with you, as they are surprisingly busy and hardworking, but you should seize every opportunity you can to be with them. Go to all the services of the daily office. Volunteer to work with them. Let them know that you would welcome the chance to talk with them.
  • Pray. Even if you have never before engaged in devotional practice, allow yourself to pray. Ask for God to come to you. You can do everything you can to bring yourself to God, but that is really so very little, not nearly so far as God moves to meet you. So, by whatever lights you are able, ask for help. You might think that you are on some quest to attain contact with the divine on some faraway mountain-top . . . but that's really the wrong image to have in mind. You are like one shipwrecked and tossed in the sea, and you're just putting up the desperate call: Find me, find me, find me, please God find me. And He will.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Blood from a stone

I gave blood yesterday afternoon. I would like to imagine that I gave blood because I'm that kind of guy, a mensch who does his small part to make the world a better place. One my better days, that is probably the case. But mostly it was because they were bugging the shit out me. I could expect a call from the Red Cross about once a week, reminding me how critically low the blood supply had become and could I please make an appointment to give? For a while I ducked the calls, and made excuses, and then I made and broke a few appointments, and over the holidays I made an appointment and then couldn't keep it because I couldn't find the damn Blood Center in Durham. So when the called me earlier in the week, I finally said screw it, I'll make an appointment on the weekend and just get it done.

I had forgotten how much giving blood takes out of me. I came home feeling wonky and tired, and wound up going to bed early. None of which would be so bad, except that I have other obligations crashing down around my ears and can't really afford to knock off early in the middle of a crunch. I suppose it's even possible that I gave blood to avoid having to face the stress of dealing with everything else in my life.

So here I am, with a genuinely worthy act under my belt, and feeling like a loser. Virtue is often like that. Even when we do the right thing, we don't always do it for the right reasons. Making a commitment to give blood, or build a community, or be present with the family, sometimes just leaves you frustrated and tired, and conscious of all the things you didn't do instead.

But . . . and here's the surprising thing . . . it's still good. Somebody, somewhere, who is undoubtedly having a worse day than me, will use my blood. I doubt they will care much about the mixed-up thoughts and feelings of the donor.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

They also serve who take no stand

I'm still batting around the notions of tolerance and taking a moral stand that were introduced in Remains of the Day. I implied yesterday that being tolerant of reactionary Islamic dogma might be the moral equivalent of shaking hands with Hitler -- that at some point, we need to voice our disagreement and take a stand on such things, and not pretend that real differences are not present.

But I also kept coming back to the scene in Remains of the Day when a young gentleman asks the butler Stevens, "But . . . did you agree with [Lord Darlington's] politics [of appeasing Hitler]?" And Stevens replied, "I was his butler. I wasn't there to agree, or disagree, but to serve." Some people take that to be Stevens' damnation: he wouldn't take a stand on important moral matters, but clung to his out-moded notion of ideal service.

But I see something else in that scene. I see the detachment and reserve that is necessary for civil society and the rule of law. A good judge could have said pretty much the same thing: "I'm a judge. I'm not here to agree, or disagree, but to interpret the law." Of course, some people think that judges should express their moral beliefs in their decisions and attempt to shape the world for the better with their judgements. But most, I think, see such judicial activism as out of place in the scheme of things.

The same argument carries over to all hierarchies of duty and order. Police make arrests when laws have been broken . . . regardless of whether they agree with the law. Soldiers follow orders, without concerning themselves with the ultimate consequences. Citizens pay their taxes, even if they vehemently disagree with the way those tax dollars are being spent. We are all, to some degree, deferring moral responsibility to others all the time. And this isn't altogether a bad thing.
The same detachment is what ultimately provides the basis for universal love, and it's manifestions in the larger society. We accord basic human rights to all criminals, regardless of their crimes. We accord everyone certain freedoms, in spite of the wrongheadedness of their beliefs. We do not have to pick a fight with every person (or every country) that disagrees with us. There is, however, a significant difference between agreeing to disagree, and pretending that no disagreement exists.

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