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, April 14, 2007

The dirty secret about The Secret

Everybody's talking about how everyone's talking about The Secret. Occasionally a spiritual fad sweeps through the cultural landscape -- the last one in recent memory was The Celestine Prophesy -- and suddenly it seems everyone is talking about it. Thankfully, this time it is more culturally acceptable to talk trash about it.

I have not read Rhonda Byrne's self-help book, beyond a short exerpt online. That was enough. I had already gathered from the media buzz that the Secret was another variation of "your mind controls your reality" New Age philosophy. Ok, I thought, there's enough truth in that to perhaps do someone some good. Lots of genuinely useful self-help gurus have affirmed the power of focusing the mind upon one's desires. Napoleon Hill had done essentially the same thing with Think and Grow Rich 70 years ago. Richard Rose once told a group of his students: "If you just read [Think and Grow Rich], and replace the word "money" with "God," you'll have the formula [for a spiritual path.]"

Such self-help gurus usually attributed certain mystical attributes to a focused positive mindset: somehow the universe would hear your request and, through a series of synchronicitous events, conspire to give you what you want. But it was, I think, used more metaphorically than literally. Most gurus knew that the reason controlling your mind was important was because your mindset determines your habitual actions, and it is your actions that determine the outcome.

Byrne, however, skips right over that "mind controlling action" bit, and goes straight to the payoff:
Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is
responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight.
Remember, thoughts are primary cause of everything, and the rest is effects from
those thoughts. Think perfect thoughts and the result must be perfect weight.

Such "magical thinking" formulas contradict everyday experience and common sense so drastically that only someone who has mastered the art of suspending rational thought could begin to believe them. That is: people who buy diet pills, respond to get-rich-quick spam, and every other form of infantile wish-fulfillment.

What people who crave such "mind over matter" powers don't understand is that Mind is actually a hell of a lot harder to manipulate than matter. We actually have very little, if any, direct control over our minds. Almost all traditions aimed at true transformation of mind and spirit do just the opposite: use the world of matter and circumstance to change the mind. Music, prayers, chanting, incense, artwork, quiet words, posture, breathing, the company of others, the absense of others . . . all spiritual disciplines are attempts to structure circumstance to affect a transformation. Of course, as Augie would say, "The arrows go both ways": mind affects matter, and matter in turn affects mind. But let's not kid ourselves here. Alcoholics Anonymous also preaches the power of a transformed mind . . . but the whole process is useless if you don't actually stop drinking.

So, when someone declares, "I've got it! I've found the secret! Just change the way you think and everything works out!" I am not inclined to disagree with them. I would just ask, "So . . . how exactly do you go about changing the way you think?" And suddenly you are right back to where you started: daily discipline, habitual action, hard work.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Peace and carrots

I stayed up late last night working on my long-neglected financials so I'll be able to file in time. Quicken fulfills a need for compulsive orderliness, and I couldn't bring myself to stop until I had reconciled the last transaction.

Anyway, I'm running behind today, so I'll just do what I thought I would never do: share a YouTube video:


Puppetji is a rare creature: a parody that understands the truth and is still able to make fun of itself.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Anti-poverty measures

I got a few responses from yesterday's post on social justice. One writes:

The thing that always keeps me fundamentally a liberal, despite having so many
points of disagreement with the liberals and Democrats on a variety of issues,
is this: there are people who were born into a position so low that their merits
simply don't matter. No matter how smart, hard- working, honest, and thrifty
they are, they simply do not have the opportunity to succeed. Furthermore, these
people are not a tiny minority: they are, in fact, the vast majority of the world.

This is a typical liberal viewpoint. It starts with the assumption that economic freedom (and the inequality that it inevitably creates) is the polar opposite of helping the poorest of the poor. Both conservatives and liberals concern themselves with helping the poor; they just have radically different philosophies about how to do it. The liberal answer is, in a nutshell: let's build a government that takes care of everyone. The conservative answer is, in a nutshell: this is too important to leave in the hands of the government -- WE need to take care of this problem.

I know, all the liberals are groaning: "Oh, God, don't get started with that compassionate conservatism crap." But consider this: conservatives give more time and money to charitable causes than their liberal peers, at all economic levels. American economic freedom has created lots of greedy, self-centered millionaires; it has also created generous people who give freely to help others. Conservatives are not uncaring souls who don't care about the poor: conservatives really believe that government cannot address social and economic woes as well as individuals and private organizations . . . and they put their money where their mouths are.

This is why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are my all-American heroes. Instead of futzing about with U.S. politics (which, in the grand scheme, is rather like carping about Imus) they are quietly channelling billions of dollars to help the poorest of the poor. They demonstrate that it is possible to use capitalistic freedom to create wealth and then share it with those who need it most.

The conservative and liberal philosophies on social justice have other key disagreements, most notably about the importance of economic freedom. I think most liberals believe that world poverty is caused by evil capitalist corporations who exploit the world's resources and people. The vast majority of the world is living in poverty because men with guns oppress them. Thugs, warlords, militias, armies, governments oppress people. These men are not capitalists, trying to create wealth; they are thieves who take wealth. The people are poor because anything they try to build of lasting value can (and is) taken away from them. All the other ills of the world -- disease, hunger, ignorance -- ultimately flow from a lack of basic civil rights, especially property rights. Capitalist corporations might be complicit with this oppression, standing on the sidelines or maybe even supporting the dictators . . . but it's the dictators, or the rebel warlords trying to become dictators, who are the real oppressors.

(That doesn't mean that unfettered capitalism is always good. It is possible for capitalism to oppress and destroy. I just think the evils of capitalism are miniscule compared to the evils of, well, evil: bands of men using their power to steal, kill, and rape.)

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Inequity and social justice

"Growing inequality" keeps reappearing in the news cycle, as regularly and uneventfully as rising obesity rates, falling test scores, and evidence of global warming. While most reporters stick to the facts, the unstated implication in all these reports is that inequality is bad, and a cause for moral concern. I give the BBC kudos for at least recognizing the assumption in their last round of coverage, when they spoke with some people from the Ayn Rand Foundation, for whom "egalitarian" is not considered a compliment.

I don't know what to think on the matter. On the one hand, I'm a staunch free-market capitalist. I believe that freedom inevitably creates economic inequality, and that people (both rich and poor) value having that freedom more than they value the wealth itself. Class warfare political rhetoric consistently fails to get any traction with voters primarily because everyone wants to believe that someday they will be rich.

On the other hand, I struggle with the usual upper-middle-class low-level angst about social inequalities. You only need a few stories about Indians working for fifty cents a day to wonder at your own relative wealth, and question the fairness of it all. The usual antidotes -- personal generosity, increased charitable giving of time and energy-- are only partially effective without a consistent philosophy about what's really for the greatest good. In college I dabbled with John Rawls' Theory of Justice to come up with a more consistent rationale for what society ought to be like. I liked his "veil of ignorance" standard: create a society in which you would be willing to participate, without knowing what your lot in that society is destined to be. For all its hypothetical impracticality, it's a clean standard that allows for lots of inequality but not too much. I have some problems with Rawls, too -- I am, at heart, still a meritocrat. I believe that the intelligent, diligent, and hardworking should prosper, and the stupid, lazy and slothful should sink . . . even though I can take no more credit for my native talents than any other environmental factor in my good fortune.

In the end I wind up where I began. I believe our society is the best model, or at least has the greatest chance of all models of getting things right. I think even my own questions and uncertainty about it are themselves a part of the model, and a part of what makes it work.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Teacher Man

I just finished up Teacher Man, Frank McCourt's third memoir. Since he had already had a smash hit with a memoir of his miserable Catholic upbringing in Limerick (Angela's Ashes) and his miserable immigrant struggles in America ('Tis), he must have figured it was safe to come out and share the bulk of his life, which was teaching public school in New York for thirty years.

It's funny, in retrospect, how the mind romanticizes the troubles most removed from your own current lot. You see it in the progression of McCourt's books. Though the horrors of his youth -- the abject poverty, his father's drunkenness, constant disease in himself and death in his siblings -- are clearly the worst times of his life, they are still tinged with a magical aura of Dickensian sympathy. Once he gets back to this side of the ocean, his struggles to be something more than just "some Nick straight off the boat" are less horrifying, but still from another time. They have a romance of their own: an all-American, West Side Story kind of romance, tinged with ethnic tensions and New World ambition.

But then we arrive at his middle-age struggles, and here we are: back home in the here and now. His troubles are pretty much our own: struggle to get through school, struggle to get a decent job, struggle to make sense of his own life. He knows he's come a million miles from his miserable beginnings, and that he ought to be grateful, but he's still aching under the burden of his own limitations. His job is an awful grind; his marriage is unhappy; he sees flashes of beauty and meaning bobbing in a gray sea of term papers. Welcome, Mr. McCourt! You have arrived in the Land of Plentiful Anxiety.

McCourt is a truth-teller, and I read this book because I wanted an insightful truth-teller to lay bare the teaching life, since it's somthing I have contemplated doing for a long time. I got my money's worth. He sees the value in good teaching, but he also freely admits he's only half-sure what good teaching is, anyway. He is not shy about describing the burdens: meddlesome asshole administrators, front-row seats at adolescents' home life tragedies, the circus of discipline issues, the absolutely crushing burder of papers to take home. It's not the sort of book to inspire someone to take up teaching, though it might be enough to inspire a teacher to bear up under it. He does celebrate the victories: unexpected breakthroughs from students, the triumph of creativity and joie de vivre in the face of middle-class meaninglessness. But it's not an all-upside, Rafe Esquith memoir of incredible transformations in the classroom. It's probably closer to the truth.

Frank McCourt is a kind of Irish Woody Allen. His constant anxiety and self-doubt, delivered with a somber light-heartedness, is always fun to listen to. I hope he hasn't run out of stories to tell.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Creeks and Romans

Easter was cold this year. The sun shone brightly on a clear blue sky with white clouds and green grass; if you stayed inside and looked out the window you would have declared it to be the most Easter-y of days. And then when you stepped outside into 28 F, the world would seem like a giant Easter bouquet kept in a florist's chilly refrigerator. It's a little hard to have a spring-time festival of rebirth and renewal when you feel like going back inside and hibernating. Yes, it's the resurrection of Christ that we're supposed to be celebrating, but our heathen blood is still warmed more by sunshine than philosophy.

And yet we still had the Easter egg hunt, bundled in jackets and hoods and gloves. The kids seem to be impervious to cold. The anthroposophists insist that children have underdeveloped temperature regulation systems, so they literally don't realize how cold they are . . . which is why parents are constantly chasing them around and insisting they put on a coat. I was not inclined to believe it, until now.

The boys are old enough now that the cuteness of toddlerhood is giving way to the loudness and brashness of true boyhood. The egg-hunt, and following chocolate-bunny binge, was still fun, and Aidan did an especially good job of helping his younger brother in the hunt. But the day as a whole had more "did-not-did-too" squabbles, especially while they are cooped up inside with their thin-blooded parents. The high point of the day, the time of greatest brotherly love and spring-time zeal, was when we finally went back outside to play in the creek. Sunlight on natural water is magical; sand, mud, rock, grass, all primative and beautiful. Even the hacking at mud with sticks, the futile attempts to build dams and bridges, is a part of the natural beauty. All our spirits were resurrected.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fantastic wealth can be yours

Actually, fantastic wealth already is yours.

I heard a segment on NPR about the lives of the those in "the other India," the 80% or more in the rural parts of the country that are still living in absolute poverty while the urban economies are racing into the world scene. Phillip Reaves travelled down the the length of the Ganges River, interviewing what he hoped would be a cross-section of the population. He spoke with a Muslim woman who makes her living scouring the beaches for coins tossed in by Hindu pilgrims. Her take on a good day is about 25 rupees, or 50 cents.

Ok, just let that soak in for a moment. Loose change that you would throw away is someone else's day wages. What's more, this woman knows about the other world, the world with television sets and cell phones and automobiles.

So why do so many people feel like they are poor, like they are "struggling to keep up?" Perhaps it is because we, too, have our super-rich with whom to compare ourselves. Larry Elison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, would have to spend $11 million a week just to keep his fortune from growing. He, also, would likely throw away our day wages.

On Easter, we are supposed to remember how much God has given us. While you contemplate the supernatural miracle of grace, don't forget the material blessings as well. In the context of the larger world, we are kings, millionaires, lottery winners all.

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