Categotry Archives: Awareness is Never Enough – It Must Always Be Wonder


It All Makes Sense

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

This post is an antidote, a message in a bottle, a documentation of a sensation and a perception about the world that is here and irrevocable. It’s something that I may lose, but no one can take away from me. And this is me, planting my flag, staking my ground, putting forth my chronicle of feeling this way and knowing these things at this time.

It all makes sense. All of it. What happens, what doesn’t, when, why, how. We are all so blessed and so privileged to be able to participate, to take part in this experiment with free will and this existence that is at once driven by our own whims and yet interminably destined to make itself work. It is punctuated by tremendous pain, yes, and tremendous anxiety, but it is all so very worth it. And I can see the pain and see the past and I know that every bit of it is worth it for everything.

To have a planet so well designed as to bless us not only with our own will, but others’ perspectives, with the discourse and dialogue that distill into reasoned perspective and more holistic understanding – this is all amazing. That we can spend so much time lamenting our various fates is at once a testament to our urges to push forward and improve what we have been given and yet also an unfortunate lack of full appreciation. I think the sacrifice of appreciation is often worth the spurs of exhortation to future greatness, but I wonder sometimes if we (I) temper ourselves (myself) sufficiently with sheer appreciation.

Tonight, I have it. I feel it. I have traveled and talked and walked and watched and I am aware of it all and it is overwhelming and beautiful and perfect and in need of appreciation.

This is not the first time I have felt this way, nor, God willing, will it be the last. But it seems, at a point where so much of my life is coming together in ways that I have made for myself, among the most important. It feels like this time around, the profundity has a greater likelihood to infiltrate the rest of daily life, for daily life itself is more deliberate and attuned to the realities that matter.

Ultimately, all I can really say is that I’m happy. Without reservation or qualification, I bask in the offerings of life. And that, my friends, is not something I say or feel very often.


When the World is Silent, the Mind Comes Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

Twice a week, I drive to New Brunswick from Princeton, a 16-mile jaunt that usually takes over half an hour to complete because of the nature of driving in New Jersey. I head up there in the 8:00 hour to arrive at 9:00 for meetings of the Rutgers debate team, usually returning around midnight as they’ve wrapped up.

There are two ways I can make this trip that are almost identical in mileage:

One is to take US Route 1, a literal straight line road that hearkens back to legends of the tsar drawing plans for a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. While straight as an arrow, the route runs south of both my origin and my destination, adding a bit of time. More importantly, Route 1 (in Jersey, at least) is perhaps the worst four-lane road in America, a bizarre combination of highway lane structures and traffic with endless stoplights. Despite the lights, left turns are strictly forbidden, requiring “jug-handles” where one exits to the right to then turn onto a crossover lane. There are no conventional exits, just jug-handles. And the thing is filled with trucks and Jersey drivers, who remain the only people worse than drunk New Mexicans, murderous Manhattanites, and raging Massachusetts drivers, somehow blending the worst aspects of all three.

The alternative is NJ Route 27, a pastoral winding road whose frequent elevation shifts are outnumbered only by the number of times the speed limit changes between Princeton and New Brunswick. If Route 1 is the express (or tries to be), Route 27 is the local, plowing through the center of random townships and dropping the limit from 50 to 25 with almost no warning. This is a two-laner (one in each direction) and is frequented by these aging gray buses that seem to run local routes in this thickly settled part of the state. There are no trucks, however, and very little traffic at all late at night, when all the lights are green. There are lights, but probably fewer than on the “highway” counterpart.

After doing round-trips on each, I’ve settled into a vague pattern of taking Route 1 up to New Brunswick in the evening and returning on Route 27 in the middle of the night. Route 1 seems to have a stagnant amount of traffic 24/7, which is more palatable in comparison to the fairly heavy traffic on 27 at around 8:30, but less palatable compared to the emptiness of same past midnight. But more than anything, there’s just something peaceful and rewarding about taking 27 home, soaring through empty silent communities like a high-schooler the night after graduation.

Tonight, however, the road was deader than ever. It was ghostly, the kind of night that inspired Ray Bradbury’s story “Night Meeting”, where a Martian and an Earthling colonist cross paths through the midst of time on desolate night roads. The first leaves were covering the road in some places, sent sailing as I would race through in an effort to stay ever 5 miles an hour above the mercurial legal maximum. I think I passed all of two cars going my direction the whole time, both fairly close to New Brunswick, and maybe 5-7 in the other direction the whole way. In 25 minutes.

There is much time to ponder in such settings, though they have a way of dominating the mental space with their own unique offering. We spend so much time surrounded by people, their structures, the possibility of interaction. To be moving swiftly through a voided landscape is at once solipsistic and comforting, calling attention to one’s place in the universe and focus to the significance of each passing minute. The more I noticed my aloneness, the more I felt both isolated and somehow unified with a larger presence and could feel the awareness of the moment pile upon itself.

I had a CD to keep me company, but its significance was only to underscore the larger reality around, not to take center stage. Like Kitaro on a road to Jewell that suddenly became endless and transcendent, with my Dad so many years ago. The songs were like leaves, like the occasional droplet collected on the windshield, to be considered and passed like most days on the wind.

And then, as Princeton approached faster than normal, and cars six and seven northbound, Dave Matthews Band’s “Christmas Song” came on the disc. And the world of silence, of sleepy village churches and big box brand name signs illuminated for overnight advertising of empty stores, shifted. It transformed to a seventeen-year-old kid who made the decision to buy his first-ever CD (after years of accumulating cassette tapes) because it was the only way he could acquire this song he’d heard just once on the radio that had captivated his feelings about Christmas in a way he could handle as a no-longer-Christian. Who had looked everywhere for a tape, knowing that he already had one DMB tape, finally settling ironically for the older album on CD only and wondering how to deal with the technological shift. Who came home and skipped right to the last track, wondered at the trail of lightning sounds that followed the track, played it on repeat most of the night. It was a cold night, beckoning to Christmas still a couple months out, a night not unlike this one. Then there was a play to direct, a year to get through, somehow, colleges and a future to seek (up). Tonight, not so different perhaps, a novel in place of a play, colleges behind but not forgotten, a year to be savored instead of endured. Perhaps life really does get easier over time, after all.

I listened to the last three recitations of the closing chorus in the stopped car in front of my current residence, smiling at the yellow porch light and the barely visible Christmas lights within, decking the top corner of the living room walls. “And the blood of our children all around.” The last fade of notes, the car switched off, and a gathering of paper for the trek inside. Crossing the threshold, I felt the wind swirl behind me and wondered what message it carried from what past or future self. I am never (and always) alone. But tonight, oh tonight, it all seems to make sense.

I went inside to find Pandora staring at me as though she’d been waiting this whole time.


Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Quick Updates, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

Today (defined loosely as from noon yesterday till right now), I:

  • Took delivery on a flat-screen television, which will hopefully never have network or cable TV thereon.
  • Spoke to my parents on the phone.
  • Listened to Barack Obama’s speech and…
  • …Decided that I am against the current incarnation of “healthcare reform”.  (More on this later!)
  • Spoke to Em’s mom in person.
  • Welcomed Pandora back into our home.
  • Ate a bunch of fried food.
  • Had a soda for the first time in weeks.
  • Wrote Chapter 21 of American Dream On, weighing in around that magic 2,000 words.
  • Played “Hero” by Regina Spektor on repeat for some time.

The only difference between these days and the old days is that these days matter. I am writing and that changes everything. My whole outlook on life can be determined through the filter of how much control I have over what I do on a given day and how much of that links to what I feel I was put here to do.

Daily fulfillment is not about the space in between, the margins, even most of the time spent. It’s about intentionality, living deliberately, and whether what is done is part of what should be done. Not on the path there, or some esoteric larger vision of being there, but actually a PART of what is intended overall.

This makes all the difference. And I am grateful, eternally grateful, for every day on this side of things.


Out Here in the Fields

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, From the Road, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

There is a quiet communion about the world as it is meant to be. I write this while sitting in a pasture, llamas in the distance, gentle winds overwhelming the wheaty grasses of the Central Valley of California. Not connected to anything, even the Internet (I will upload this later), my back against a metal fence that is just the right balance of sturdy and sufficiently comfortable. There are bird sounds and trees reacting to winds, the sun bearing down under mixed clouds that threaten an eventual sullying of this dried landscape. Bugs hover and dive amongst the grasses, perhaps subtly aware that they have just a few hours until rains will temper fulfillment of their tasks.

Today, they tell us that the oceans are so full of garbage that there are spare airplane seats in the flight-paths of missing jets that are not from those jets. That it’s perfectly reasonable to expect all kinds of discarded material to show up in the sea, since we’ve been leaving it there as long as we can remember. Our species has so blatantly disregarded the gifts we have been given that we don’t consider them gifts anymore – the only gifts we can accept are those we give ourselves. We have lost a sense of perspective, of balance, of harmony. We don’t sit in pastures anymore, trying to describe what we’re missing. We think everything we’re missing is on the Internet.

And yes, I’m aware of how both (1) unoriginal my comments are and (2) how ironic it is that they are appearing on the Internet. The Internet offers us wonderful things as well, like the ability to connect with others from a field with just the minimum of time-delay.

Nonetheless, I have to think that we lost our way, collectively, when science split from religion. Or vice versa. Surely there were crimes committed on both sides, as there always are in human disputes. Conflict is nothing if not mutually assured on my home planet. But when the scientists stopped being interested in God and the religious stopped being interested in solving mysteries, then surely something was irrevocably torn asunder. How anyone can accept the answers offered by one group in total ignorance of the other eludes me daily.

(As though to taunt me, a wireless network has just been found by this laptop. Or maybe a metaphor about ability to make connections from remoteness or the seeming lack of connection? You decide.)

In any event, we can all look to extreme examples and see the absurdity. Science reducing all human existence to a collapse of uncontrolled synapses, eliminating free will and indicating that all human existence and creation is a lie, while pleading endless randomness in the face of the most wondrously perfect system ever built or discovered. Religion claiming that God will decide all and answer all, that those who die are meant to, while those who are afflicted should not fight but simply resign themselves to a fate larger than themself. A similar abdication of free will, a similar destruction of meaning, a similar breakdown in the purpose that ought drive human existence, both on a macro scale and the individual level. How are these examples not sufficient to get everyone to attempt to strike a middle-ground? Even atheist scientist friends are uncomfortable with the elimination of free will altogether, and certainly don’t live their lives like they believe it’s true. Even religious zealots seem to assert themselves as though they have the ability to change something around them. So why all the trouble seeing across the divide?

Surely the closest society to holding these interests in balance was the first society to settle on my home continent. Or series of societies. There was wide-scale recognition of higher powers behind every aspect of the universe they saw, as well as interest in developing and advancing to higher levels of understanding of that universe. The respect that was afforded each of these concepts led to the development of a minimally invasive culture, with much time for contemplation and communion.

But it was not a culture designed to particularly assert control or dominion, and it is a telling lesson about my species that this is one of the few cultures upon which an all-but-complete genocide has been visited in recorded history. The very idea of trying to learn more from the land than one was taught was so reprehensible that its adherants were forced to either change or die.

My wife, Emily, is not particularly spiritual, not much of a believer. About half of our conflicts for the more recent half of our marriage so far have evolved from some sort of discussion about this topic. I struggle with reconciling my love of Emily and my respect for her intellect with the fact that she not only doesn’t overtly believe in God, but finds the question to not be fundamental to existence on the planet. It should be noted that most of my friends feel this way as well, and while this also concerns me, one’s identity is far more wrapped up in a spouse than a friend. It feels like more of a reflection of oneself when one’s own life partner rejects something so fundamental to one’s own perspective.

And yet, Emily says that she feels something whenever she is isolated out in nature. That connecting with animals, with the basic forces of the natural world (wind, water, flora), simply being “out there” is enough to get her thinking about the bigger picture and often feeling some conviction that there is something greater afoot. She often remarks, either in nature or when confronted by amazing constructions of human hand that she finds less impressive, that she has never seen something made by humanity that can measure up to the lowliest product of nature. While this sometimes surprises me, grandson of an engineer who learned about bridge-building and to differentiate styles of columns before most anything, I think she has a telling route map to those who are otherwise disinclined to believe. What makes us (collectively, as a species) think we’re so great? Why do we even bother scarring the Earth’s surface with our contributions when nearly everything impressive is already there?

It’s a competition, in part, or even an offering as an aprentice. That we have something to contribute which can hope to allude to the grandeur and beauty of what we already found when we first opened our eyes. Look ma, no nature. I did it all by myself. Like a crude reflection of the world around us for taping on the refrigerator with a quietly pitying love. And just as high-quality, just as worthwhile in the face of the real thing, as a four-year-old’s lazy finger-painting.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worthwhile in the Pyramids, the Internet, language, or art. But compared to the systems and understanding implicit in your average field, your average patch of non-garbage-infested ocean, your average rainforest? I think the metaphor flies.

Part of what I’ve never understood about the pitched battle between science and religion is the respect that each have for order. Science even calls the discoveries it makes about the universe’s order of operations “laws”, the same word religion uses to indicate its principles and guidelines for living. Science interprets the world around it with a presumption towards order, towards compacting what it finds into a series of laws that are never abridged, or at least never contravened except where another identifiable law overrides. And indeed this bears out – we hardly see gravity working some of the time in Iowa and then failing to at random times. But somehow, science is disinterested in a source of all this order and law and perfectly behaved matter, insisting that all order came from one moment of complete chaos. This theory itself fails to stand up to science’s own presumptions and policies of rigorous study – were it about anything other than something in impenetrable pre-history, it would be rejected on face. But because there’s no other explanation available without resorting to the three-letter no-no, it is offered as fact. How can science not feel that every additional law that holds up, every extra consistency and element of order that is found, how are these not evidence for God?

The only explanation is that religion has mangled God into seeming arbitrary, somehow the opposite of order. Because in its rejection of scientific practice, many religions have tried to ascribe unending magic and mystery to the figure of God. Mysterious ways, inexplicable methods, something that cannot and should not be known. This idea is just as dangerous and worthless as atheism. Perhaps moreso, for it rends people’s conception of the most important aspect of the universe from the reality of that aspect, thus nullifying it for the interpreter far more thoroughly than mere denial would. This resorting to inexplicability is just as senseless as resorting to the Big Bang – for wont of explanations, those who expect themselves to seamlessly explain everything appeal to something wholly inconsistent with the rest of their theory. And then wave the crutch of paradox or the rest of their intellect about to try to fend off naysayers.

The truth, of course, is that science can prove God with all of its order, and thus God is knowable. God is not mysterious and inaccessible and hopelessly oblique – God is in the systems that work every day to maintain life in its countless manifestations. God is the laws and rules and policies and structures that keep it all just so in ways that humanity fails laughably to imitate. How is it that humans have never made a computer that can’t break down, and yet life on the planet persists from well before humanity to (likely) long after it?

But perhaps this would rend the people who pursue science and religion from what they’re really after – power. If they were not maintaining some sort of supremacy in their ability to properly interpret God or the laws of the universe (truly the same thing), what use would there be in the respect they are accorded in our hierarchies? And if they did not do battle, how could they build their power by tearing each other’s down, by fighting for followers, by bringing the urgency of a following and extreme loyalty out because of the urgency of a false conflict? You think nation-states are the only ones that can raise a false-flag to ask unthinkable sacrifices of their minions? No, only by mystifying and cloaking the fundamental and simple realities of their alleged domains can scienctists and religious leaders exert their authority over those they attempt to mislead.

Perhaps not always with such a nefarious intent, I’ll grant. But certainly with that level of nefarious effect.

So what is to be done? How do we get to a place where people recognize the order in the universe as the signifier of something greater than themselves rather than the converse? How do we make peace between scientist and religious leader before it is too late to fish the garbage from the ocean, or worse, before it is after anyone cares about such things? Like all of the important realizations, it cannot be forced or likely even persuaded. It must be found within each person, of their own volition.

In the meantime, I spend time in the pasture, contemplating a day I have long dubbed Mortality Day, a reflection of a larger scientific/religious order I find in the planet’s course of movement through the same space every 365 days. A day laden with symbols (6), the memory of an unbelievably significant mass-murder (D-Day), the steady approach of a day when the planet is held in balanced opposition to itself. It is vital to neither dwell in the anticipation of death nor to ignore its daily possibility, but for me, setting aside a holiday of sorts to recognize the mortality of myself and others, has worked well. Eighteen years to the day after the death of my mother’s father, I continue this personal tradition, sometimes to the fear of those around me. But fear not for me in the context of death, for I have conviction that it would be merely a step, and probably ultimately a relieving one. I have not felt less that way than now for some time (about the relief), and yet I still can recognize that no matter how much I personally desire to cling to this planet and help it out, there are wonders beyond my imagining ahead, other planets and other learning to be had.

And whenever this faith wavers in the slightest, as it sometimes trembles like the trees in the wind, bending with the difficulty of a given circumstance or a cold black fear, I come back out to nature. And the wind itself reassures me, reminds me of what I know even in the worst challenging moments. How can you look upon the world, upon an “ecosystem” or a “valley” (whichever you prefer to call the same thing) and not be awed by the presence of God? How can you understand the depths of human understanding and think this is all for the purpose of one isolated planet, 60 or 80 years only?

Go out into the fields. Walk. And then come tell me it’s all random, happened for no reason, that there’s no purpose to anything we do or try or contemplate. Tell me all these rules are either figments or coincidence. And tell me that, somehow, the pursuit of a means of exchange or sheer hubris is worth destroying it all.

A plane tears through the sky, close enough to hear but not to see. Through the clouds that are darkening the sky and escalating the threat of rain. Rain that will not be enough to wash it all away.


Glide Series Finale

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , ,

Last night, I had one of the most transparent dreams of my entire life. Fresh from some emotional goodbyes at Glide in real life, I dreamt that a bunch of people I knew in my life, consisting primarily of Glide folks, but also including friends from throughout my time on Earth, were all staying at this big lodge. It was this labyrinthine place with crooked staircases and random working fireplaces and shmancy parts – as though the spirit of the La Fonda were infused into five different hotel styles that were all then jammed together.

In the dream, it was the fifth or seventh year of all of us coming together for some unofficial but very expected regular gathering, that was basically a big pajama party of everyone running around this crazy lodge and hanging out for a long weekend. And while the dream eventually insisted on becoming a bit of a nightmare (I got into some major argument with a stranger in the lobby restaurant, was threatened, and eventually had to leave in fear), the message of the heart of the dream was all too clear. I’m going to miss these people and I am adding to the tally of scattered people who I will be missing in the future. Deep in my heart, I just want us all to hang out somewhere relaxed and without responsibility where we can just be.

Life affords us few chances like this (my dream was clearly partially referencing my wedding, the last time when so many from so many walks of life were so assembled) and they are profoundly important to treasure. In the meantime, all we can do is say meaningful goodbyes and promise to not lose sight of these people. Ironically, of course, I attribute much of my trouble with staying in touch with people to working. But working has brought me more people. Such is the way of the world, the nature of life in an age that has advanced beyond the feudal farm.

This morning, waking from that dream and starting my typical morning routine that will be exceptional from here on out, everything really started to hit me broadside. This is it. After counting down and contemplating, planning a transition and carefully ensuring that my work goes on, it all ends today. Freedom and loss. Joy and sadness. The old emotional gobstopper, more moving for all I’ve been too busy to notice it creeping up on me. Glide is one of the very few places (college debate is the only other I can think of for sure) where I have felt thoroughly in my element, where I have felt at home and comfortable in the environment, among the people, navigating through its twists and turns. Where I feel I’ve “figured it out” and been able to capitalize on that to be successful, to make friends, to find a home. (And what does it say about this phenomenon that I’m returning to a college debate setting, coaching at Rutgers for the next two years?)

Walking away from that home is incredibly difficult. I don’t even realize how much so yet. The crazy place on the corner of Ellis and Taylor with the throngs of people in need has been my place. And starting tomorrow, it won’t be anymore. It will be a place that I was, where I loved and worked and tried. It will be a place of memory and the past. I am tearing up as I write this, for the second time in a young morning. This is life. And it’s all worth it, if only for the departures and losses that make one understand how important the pieces of one’s life really are.

This is it. This is it.

Give me a moment to hang on to, to hold forever, plunging into the future.


A Poem on the Journey Homeward (or: Something Other than Duck and Cover)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Read it and Weep, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , , ,

I finished a book tonight that would’ve been more fitting to finish on my last day of work and it was all I could really think about as I was walking home from the train doing one of those walking stutter-step things you do when you haven’t quite timed the completion of your book correctly but you can’t simply let it linger over the overnight and somehow it doesn’t seem right to finish such a roadbound book in the confines of the house at six o’clock PM when the world is just darkening and everything seems at its most depressing and anger inducing but I’m not there yet I’m swinging my backpack around my shoulder to deposit book and sunglasses and contemplate the end of Oscar Wao and his world and whether it all came to a satisfactory end or not and all these tourists are staring just past me over the overslung shoulder at Godzilla or nothing at all and I don’t bother to contemplate for the storm is blowing in hard and I really can’t wait to be out of it before the rain that was supposed to be here earlier but isn’t yet and I’m suddenly rooted to the ground despite my rush by the vision of this pile of books that’s just strewn out on the sidewalk and one would normally think abandoned with a free sign that blew away but somehow this looks different worse much worse like something that was punitive and there are CD’s too and just enough peripheral stuff that it looks like someone flew away in a hurry or said you want your books huh THERE have your books how do you like them now and it was clear that they hadn’t quite been rained on yet but they would be soon and always the eternal dilemma that somehow gets to me of whether to scoop and salvage or whether the offended would be back for them soon and sometimes it’s even more complicated because there are times I think someone is meant to lose something they leave behind and another to find it and any intervention from me sometimes feels like its just abridging free will almost like I don’t think I can be a participant in the lives of others at least of strangers at least of those who seem to be on a predestined course that I should do my careful level best with not to interfere like picking up the books which just feels wrong despite the droplets I can see envisioning somehow it would be like picking up a dead body or something it just seems a monument to things I am not meant to interact with and I’m stumbling back across the Abbey Road crosswalk almost before I think of looking up to see if anyone is stopping because I’ve already burned time looking at the books and the rotting banana on the cardboard just after that seemed to tie so perfectly to the book just finished and rumbling back around in my head and I wonder how much agency he felt he had and how it compares to mine and what if you were stuck in a really beautiful prison with guards and fellow inmates who treated you well and you somehow intellectually knew it was a prison but still were so comforted by so much of it that it felt somehow strange to leave after a sentence of say three years and maybe it’s good to have rotten-to-the-core days like today because they remind you that it is a prison and there’s not even the hint of doubt about what you should be doing even though there’s times that what you think you really need IS a prison but no metaphor so much as a real prison with walls and guards and no computers or games or recreation or friends just you and just enough access to pen and paper to appreciate it enough to make it work after all you’ve talked about a hospital before or something similar but pain can be exhausting and makes for unreflective drivel like you’re barely able to chunk out now between the moments of startling exhaustion things that your father would call self-indulgent and you recognize as mental chaff but think it’s helpful too for the writing or for you or for something anyway maybe but it doesn’t matter you’re almost falling asleep on your feet falling through the gate and thinking about the dark dreary insides of the house and your one-hour no-contact foul mood and the unsatisfying release of a video game and whether the Mariners can do something today and there’s a package you weren’t expecting and an invitation you definitely weren’t expecting and you realize for the thousandth time this year how badly you’ve neglected everything that matters while in prison and the thought of nine nine nine nine nine nine nine sings you through the door like some trippy Beatles song and you know you must capture this moment and express it to yourself for one two three years hence when you’re on the brink and ask yourself like Oscar Wao flying back to the Dominican Republic goddammit is this ever going to be worth it again do you really want to live like a zombie can you ever get through this and so close to the edge that all you can do is see the walls and bars anew and wonder if you’re really going to make it or if you’re too broken down to even care and you realize that all these debates are why you haven’t been able to write anything or codify what you’re feeling and there are all the people who you do care about and believe in what they’re doing in prison and how can you explain that their paradise is your prison and your prison is still better than anyone else’s prison and now you’ve gone and upset everyone else and this is a hard lonely road to talk about with people who almost all feel differently and nine days away is just no time to make final seminal statements when you’re still in the thick of it and you have to wonder how long after nine how long after zero will you still feel in the thick how many dreams of stress and nightmare will you awaken to like this fruitless spoiled morning when you had something really due that day that then wasn’t as opposed to the school assignments the debate rounds the Seneca kids all the past things and you know that you will be haunted by this forever and somehow God please somehow let this all have been worth it.


Our Month with Cancer

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: , ,

One month ago tomorrow, Emily and I were driving up from Fresno and talking about life and her family. We’d just spent a restful New Year’s weekend with a partial incarnation of the Garin Clan and noticed that her Mom seemed to be finally accepting aspects of aging and the need to slow down a little. Both her Mom and my Dad have always been people who push themselves to the brink and it’s always unsettling to have a parent who doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on their limits as they get older.

The next day, we got a phone call which revealed that the routine colonoscopy she’d been scheduled for had justified the practice of getting periodic colonoscopies. She had colon cancer.

We reeled. For a long time, we had little or no information – not because anyone was concealing anything, but because the information would simply take time to discern. How long had she had cancer? What stage was it in? Had it metastasized? Would she need chemo? What was the general outlook?

We chose not to share most of these questions and dilemmas with others outside the family, mostly because we daily dealt with how miserable it was to wonder and not to know. By roughly half-weekly installments from additional doctor’s visits, we got a few tiles to throw into our mostly empty mosaic. About two years. Probably not metastasized, but inconclusive. Surgery was the immediate course of action and then we’ll see.

More waiting. An effort to keep life on an even keel, to not cower in the wake of this visceral confronting of mortality and larger questions and something that, in cliché but nevertheless essential fashion, eviscerated all the importance that had illusorily appeared in prior concerns.

Emily went down to Fresno last Monday night.

A week ago today, her mother went into surgery to remove the cancer. The surgery took about 90 minutes and a third of her large intestine. And apparently, as a two-day wait revealed thereafter, all of the cancer. The biopsy was clean. There will be routine monitoring and she had to spend a week in the hospital, but it looks like not even a little chemo will be necessary. Early detection saves lives.

The relief at such a diagnosis is indescribable. Guarded, surely, because nothing is ever 100%, but guarded euphoria is euphoria nonetheless. The surgery recovery has gone smoothly and all indications are that something like normal life will be back very soon.

One month later.

As someone who years ago started predicting that everyone in my generation who makes it to sixty will get several cancers, representing massive increases in both the incidence and survival rates of the disease, I guess this whole experience shouldn’t be as stunning as it feels. But even for someone living on a sine curve, this kind of roller coaster is overwhelming. There may be no more widely feared word in the language than “cancer” (perhaps “terrorist”) – the word seems to connote a death sentence no matter what the options wind up being. And to get cancer without needing any chemo at all is transcendently remarkable.

Of course the initial fear was tempered with a little hope, just as the current relief is tempered with a little concern. Such is how quickly things change these days and how much of every emotion and experience seems to be mixed. It’s hard to find a more unassailably positive thing to cling to than a wildly successful cancer surgery, though.

May this relief last. And may all your cancers go as well.


Cleanup on Aisle 6

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Quick Updates, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

Coming up from the train this morning, I walked my usual path through Powell Street Station, winding to the right and up the mini-escalator to a little landing before the second mini-escalator. On said landing were two orange cones, pretty much squarely in the middle of the walkway. Splaying out in all directions from the cones was spilled coffee, heavily whited with milk.

I almost actually paused mid-stride, no doubt causing a chain-reaction of commuters walking inattentively ahead, already trying to dodge conical orange obstacles. But I proceeded, while craning my neck and trying to figure out if that had really been what it looked like.

Someone had taken the time and energy to place not one, but two cones over the top of a large coffee spill, but not to make any effort to clean it up.

Sure, I may have been watching it in a twenty-second window between placement of the cones and running to the janitorial closet to procure a mop and bucket. I considered sticking around atop the second escalator to determine whether this was an especially inopportune period of time or really a telling phenomenon. The fact that I considered such a dalliance would (or might) make me late for work (and I was about 10 minutes ahead of schedule) was sufficient answer in my own mind to the possibility that this was just a brief phenomenon.

Besides, wouldn’t one normally keep the cones and the mop in the same place?

It struck me, of course, that this whole incident was The Metaphor for the current state of things, at least in America and possibly on a larger scale. There’s only time, energy, inclination to throw up caution flags, to do the absolute minimum to warn people of the danger without the slightest effort at containment. You have been warned. But no one is even going to attempt to actually ameliorate the harms. Navigating is only safer by the slimmest of technical margins, in that you know that you’re navigating something dangerous.

Don’t fall.


Postscript — I write an awful lot about BART and situations that take place on the trains and in the stations. To the point where it’s sort of amazing that I have yet to create an official category for posts about BART. I should do that, but that would require retroactive categorization, which is sort of a gargantuan pain (especially when I’m so far behind on other, seemingly more meaningful projects).

It does make me wonder, though, about what I would have to post about if I didn’t take a train regularly. My ideal life involves writing full-time, but I’ve always been very aware of how crazily isolating that could become, to the point where inspiration and life events were much less available, thus diminishing much of the point of writing full-time in the first place. The paradox never troubles me so much as when I think about my observations on public transportation and how I would rarely be on it without this kind of routine. I think the summation remains that a full-time writing life would require enough small, enjoyable trappings of routine (e.g. clubs/activities, volunteering, etc.) as to keep a finger on the pulse of the “real world.”



Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

There’s this great scene in a recent great movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) about timing and the house-of-cards nature of our worlds. One thing bounces just the wrong way, leading to another thing bouncing just the wrong way, leading to another… and eventually, collapse.

It’s very much akin, though just slightly different in tenor, to the story of the horeshoe-nail that lost the kingdom, which I’ve discussed before and more recently. Not unlike what I consider to be a pivotal scene in Loosely Based. Not dissimilar from another scene in another movie, about the irretrievability of scattered feathers. Which, hey, my Dad just blogged about too.

Last night, I was deciding between playing poker online and playing another game on the computer. I hadn’t played poker online in ages, but I had just done really well in a live tournament in New Mexico (7th out of 40 when Afsheen, who joined me was 9th [cash at 5th]). On a whim, I decided I felt like testing the waters again. I didn’t see any poker tourneys I liked open for registration, but thought to check for any in late registration, with only a few seconds left to register. Amazingly, there was a $2 multi-table tournament that was just my speed for adjusting back to online play.

I got in just in time to play this tournament. And it turned out I played it for several hours, till about 2 in the morning. I finished 26th (out of over 2,000) and made a ridiculously low sum of money for the efforts of that kind of time, but I at least proved to myself that New Mexico wasn’t a fluke and I’ve been playing good, disciplined poker lately. But this was way later than I had been planning on staying up, especially since I had an important 8:30 meeting the next morning.

Because I stayed up late, I got up late. Everything was running a little behind. I considered, at 7:20, skipping a shower to ensure that I’d make the meeting in plenty of time, but it occurred to me that this would have consequences just as impolite as being late to the meeting. It dawned on me that I could just punt sitting down on the train this morning and take the Fremont to MacArthur and transfer to something between the early train (that gets me to work at 8:15) and the late train (that gets me to work right at 8:30 or closer to 8:35 if anything goes wrong). There’s a middle train that doesn’t stop in Berkeley (comes from a different line) that would put me in about 8:22.

Because this occurred to me, I took a shower. And because I was feeling confident in this plan, I dallied a little. And because I dallied a little, I was just a little behind for the Fremont train when I left. And because of that, I could hear the train just as I was hitting the first audible grate at the station. And I knew it was the Fremont train. And I thought that I could make the train, but I’d be running a small risk of running so fast I tripped on a step and smacked my face on concrete. And something about that image stuck in my mind and I didn’t want to risk it. Even with lateness on the line (you have no idea what my punctuality record is like at work, especially for meetings), I just didn’t like my chances. Even without face-smacking, it was mathematically most likely that I would end up nose-to-plexiglass with a subway door, disheartened and completely winded as I watched it scoot away.

Because of this decision, I strolled into the station. And as I got down to the platform, I confirmed that those were the red rear lights of the Fremont train, slouching toward Ashby. And so I took up my post standing in front of the yellow safety strip’s contrasting black section that indicates where the doors would open in 7 minutes for the San Francisco (late) train.

And I started reading The Idiot. And was soon immersed in the book.

Until five minutes later, when I heard a thudding sound and a chorus of shrieks and gasps. About twenty feet away, a set of legs was suddenly visible on the tracks, with hints of a torso attached.

Not just twenty feet away, it should be noted, but twenty feet closer to the mouth of the tunnel through which the San Francisco-bound train was about to barrel. Just one black-door-marker shy of said mouth.

There were more gasps and whispered explanations of an arbitrary and unpredictable fall (the person was on the near track, as though having fallen straight down into the track well, as opposed to jumping or flinging toward the far track or the fatal third rail). The legs didn’t move. There were rising yells, calling for someone to stop the train or call to stop the train or tell the agent to stop the train or do something to just stop. The. Train. 90 seconds and counting. And then the heartrending polished announcer voice: “Nine-car San Francisco train now approaching, platform two.

I had briefly considered jumping down to help the person up, but now there just wasn’t time. One imagines scenarios like this and the person is always either conscious and able to be helped up without jumping down with them (an active participant in their own rescue) or times their jump to coincide with the train’s arrival and only a truly psychic shoulder-grab can be of use. This unconsciousness on the tracks now 80 seconds short of the train is unimaginable. Someone is on the white courtesy phone, bleating that the train must be stopped because someone is on the tracks.

Suddenly, the legs move, stretching up in obvious pain, but demonstrating consciousness. I do the only thing I can think of, yelling to the person that they need to get up, that they need to get up now and we’ll help.

The legs collapse again. They do not twitch. The train can be heard loud and rolling down the tunnel.

And then… then… a squeaking. A squealing. A… stopping.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Everything thereafter seemed a bit of a muddle, a bit of a mess. I learned just how long it takes emergency personnel to get to a point where they can deal with someone who is passed out on train tracks. I learned a lot about crowd behavior, how some people just will not give space to a possibly dying person no matter what. I learned about how rumors spread and eyewitness reports become almost instantly corruptible. I learned that BART spokespeople are no more reliable in the newspaper than anyone else. (Although I guess technically “no train was about to arrive as the woman fell” – it was at least a full minute from the fall to the approach of the train, but that’s how long it takes to stop a BART train without an attendant standing by. Maybe this comment was just intended to make it clear that this was not a suicide attempt.)

Most of all, though, it’s about timing. The person could not have fallen so much as 15 seconds later and lived. Though if the person had fallen at the other mouth of the tunnel, there may have been hope to flag down the train as it was going through the station. Had the person fallen a minute earlier, people probably would’ve hopped down and helped her (most people thought it was a guy at the time and I never saw her face) out, though there’s always the risk that this causes injuries too.

And that meeting? I was thirty minutes late. I put in a payphone call to the meeting organizer and she passed on the word that it was all beyond my control.

Thankfully, this moment wasn’t more powerful for me today. The images from this morning’s scene are stark enough without a more damaging punctuation. Just imagining it in that adrenaline-filled second-cum-lifetime was plenty for me.

What are you doing right now that will impact everything you experience from here on out?

Turns out, everything.


People Die Every Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

While in line at Chipotle today, I read their sign announcing early closure on New Year’s Eve and complete closure on New Year’s Day.

The final sentence read:

We sincerely hope you can survive waiting a couple days for your first burrito of 2009.

And it immediately hit me that someone out there won’t survive to see that first burrito of 2009. Even now, midday on the next-to-last day of the year, someone was reading that sign in Chipotle and chuckling mildly at the witty sarcasm and imagining the first of many burritos they’d be chowing down in the bright shiny new annum to come. And they were sure that those burritos, like so many of their presupposed plans, would unfold like an infinite accordion before them to build a bridge to an unforeseeable but infinitely remote future.

And they will die before the year.

And they have no idea.

The moral of this moment may be “be careful what you’re sarcastic about.” Or perhaps just “be careful.” Or even, given how most of you are probably reacting to the tenor of this post, “the most basic and predictable realities of life are soul-crushingly depressing when truly considered beyond a passing whim.”

Bon appetit.


Why We Get Sick

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

I have been sick for nigh on a week now. Since first thing this work-week. I went to work Monday, stayed home Tuesday, went to work Wednesday, stayed home Thursday, and went to week Friday. This is probably not atypical for me. Or this little piggie, come to think of it.

I wasn’t really being piggy on Wednesday – I had three crucial meetings scheduled and just couldn’t see how the week would work out without me going. The first meeting was no-show de facto cancelled and the third meeting was cancelled as a statement to me about coming into work when sick. So it goes.

Lesson learned: stay home when sick, no matter the circumstances.

Of course I probably should’ve stayed home Friday, too, with the weather outside being frightful, but my costume (gecko) was too delightful to bung away for a full year. At least the suit was warm, the crazy gecko-head especially, functioning like an all-weather fabric helmet. Lots of people dressed up at work, somewhat surprising and at least partly attributable (maybe) to my clamoring for everyone to join me in the effort. Lots of people no-showed to work, too, or left early. So it goes.

Regardless, I think I’ve made another stride in detecting the purposeful fabric of the universe. By having a cold. Neat, huh?

The problem of evil is always put out there as the major counterargument to belief in God. Even calling it the “problem of evil” is, well, problematic, because I think it automatically gives it a weight the argument doesn’t deserve. It would be like calling the recent attempted scandal the “Bill Ayers Setback”. Who says it’s a setback? Isn’t the whole thing kind of silly? Can’t we move on already?

But, to humor the uncanny number of people who really do think it’s a problem, the problem of evil asks how a benevolent God can stand idly by while bad things happen. As though the point of life were somehow to have all good outcomes at all times because people learn so much when they are fat and happy. But there I go not giving the argument any weight again. This is a problem.

(Incidentally, it’s downright shocking to me how frequently this problem is depicted as the turning point on the plunge into atheism or desertion from various faiths in people’s lives. Depicted mostly in fictitious accounts, though also a fair bit in history. And it’s normally exacerbated by being an individual’s first direct encounter with a particular form of evil that prior they understood very well happened to other people. I just guess it’s hard to understand how narrow-minded, self-centered, and myopic people are depicted as being and/or are. Wow, am I in an adversarial mindset tonight.)

For some reason, most people tend to be most bothered by the evil that is controlled by the free will decisions of other people. This honestly accounts for something like 80-90% of “problem of evil” claims, which again demonstrates short-sightedness. Without going into the whole rigmarole, free will = meaning. With no free will, no one actually has any decisions, thus their lives, thoughts, and existence have no meaning, thus there are no theological underpinnings that matter anyway. The only way to prevent people from doing harm to each other is to abridge their free will, thus undermining any possible meaning to morality, thus undermining any semblance of meaning. Get it? Got it? Good.

But the stickier (and less utilized) aspect of the problem of evil, almost warranting its label, consists of natural disasters, ranging from weather events (colloquially called “acts of God” – we’ve really got it in for God, don’t we?) to illnesses, plagues, and the like. And frankly, my responses on this one aren’t as crisply satisfying as the need for free will to make the whole “sentient beings experiment” viable.

Mostly, my arguments have boiled down to the need for collective action and societal structure. People do worst in the face of natural disasters alone and the best in well prepared and coordinated groups. Our first clue that life was meant to be lived communally was not being born on our own individual planet, but natural disasters and disease give a good second clue. They also, conveniently, require social banding that has absolutely no violent aspects (and, in fact, requires healing instead). They also ensure that life will remain challenging (and thus provide learning) even when humans have learned to use their free will only for good (and not to commit violence). Eventually, we will get over our baser natures, but there still needs to be struggle and progress.

But this illness, this time around I’ve (re?-)discovered a key reason for illness specifically. And it’s not just the “fragility of life” mortality-awareness mumbo-jumbo, though it is related to that and that’s at least a tolerable argument anyway.


One of the points is that we are meant to realize just how much control and time we do have. This seems more obviously relevant in 2008 than it might’ve in 2008 BC, though we actually have a lot more free time than our ancestors 4,016 years prior – we just appreciate it and understand it less.

Most everyone these days goes around assuming they have no time for just a minute extra of anything – they may have some structured recreational time built in, but their schedule is packed to the gills just as they need it to be. There’s no possible room for variation or alleviation.

And then they get sick and – wham – there has to be time. Unless they’re one of these people who goes around trying to pretend they’re not sick and they can just fight through it… in which case, they get a pre-lesson about humility and how much more suffering they’re causing themselves via this route. (I know, there are also people who, by the economic laws governing this society hopefully not much longer, are forced to choose between toughing it out and facing economic disaster… this is why I support universal healthcare.) Anyway, in the end, one may be frustrated and suffering and discombobulated by the illness that removed one from one’s routine, but one also can suddenly see the cracks in the schedule and rejoin the routine fully understanding exactly how the component time is constructed.

So, next time you’re sick, appreciate the time off you’re being given and use it to evaluate whether your life might not be better structured another way.

Hey, if I preach doom and disaster in so many other walks of my life, why can’t I package theological understandings in chintzy greeting card-sounding lines?

I miss October already.


On Mars

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Pre-Trip Posts, Tags: , ,

So there may be rocket fuel on Mars. It’s in our drinking water and now it’s on the Red Planet.

What would we be more likely to find as the remains of a past civilization, a past effort, than this explosive ingredient? Maybe from the rockets that left when things got too bad. Maybe from the rockets whose red glare signaled the end. Maybe from other explosives. Maybe from fireworks to celebrate on the way down.

Could there be a more profound time in our species’ history to discover the remains of Mars? To give us just enough clues of past life now departed, past trappings of destructive civilization now broken down into dust? Sure, October 1962. Maybe even August 1945, now just 63 years in the rearview mirror. People said it was a miracle that we discovered space travel just after, made it happen on the vision of the same President who nearly ended it all before we got the chance.

Maybe it was a miracle. Maybe it’s time.

Humans have a hard enough time paying attention to their own history. Even though the species is the same and the people sometimes occupy the same land or speak the same language, something seems wholly irrelevant about time long past. That was then and this is now.

But what could be more now than space discoveries? What could make history more relevant than it being brand-new? What could make experience more powerful than it being experienced by those we can only imagine, those we never met, those who killed themselves before we began to be?

It’s far too early and already, since this post idea came to mind, the internet has run away with the idea of life and been lambasted for it. NASA is trying to reign in science fiction imaginations with cold hard science. Water isn’t life. Perchlorate isn’t rockets. Conjecture isn’t evidence.

We have to dig deeper, further. We have to excavate. We will probably need to send our own species to look for the last one. We will probably need samples and endless debate, theorizing until one piece of evidence stands so irrefutable that it changes our view of the universe overnight.

But make no mistake, it’s there. We have never been less alone. We have never been closer to the edge of our collective ego. With apologies to Jake, the space program has never seemed more relevant.

In time, we will likely find that our obligation, our debt of gratitude to the long-gone beings of Mars, is to not repeat their mistakes.

If we have time.


Chaos (Theory?)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: , , ,

Authorities revealed Tuesday that a man carrying a loaded shotgun was arrested in January near the U.S. Capitol, and explosives left in his truck nearby went undetected for three weeks.
CNN/AP, 26 March 2008

If we all comprehended all that goes into the decisions that impact our lives, we might never be able to sit still again. Let alone sleep. Two people are anticipating such a decision that I’m supposed to be making… it’s entirely out of their hands. It’s one of those many seeming coinflip decisions we make in life. Eventually I’ll find a way to make it a rationally reasoned decision, but I wouldn’t count on others to do the same in my shoes. This one’s for a job as I end a less than 2-month stint of not being a supervisor anymore. How many college admissions decisions, or college matriculation decisions, or moves, or debate judgments, or responses to date requests, came down to the same kind of coinflip? And who here would say they haven’t been deeply affected by one of those kinds of decisions?

I try to remember everything.
Try to remember so you don’t disappear.
-Counting Crows, “Sundays”

Maybe life’s not so hard to predict. We all have free will, but we all tend to make these ridiculously logical decisions. Maybe that’s the only reason that the coinflips feel so dangerous or scary. It’s where our free will really has to ride a gut feeling, or take a chance, or do something out of the comfort zone. Maybe where it lets itself be influenced by some larger benevolent wave. My Dad might call it “mind at large”. Others would go with destiny or fate. Everyone above would agree God’s gotta have something to do with it. Just about. But who has the faith that their contributed portion of the cacophony of wills is always allocated to benevolence? And wouldn’t resting on that faith somehow violate the bargain and undo the magic? Magic. Maybe that’s another word for it.

This is a list of what I should’ve been, but I’m not.
-Counting Crows, “Cowboys”

I used to make tapes, back in late high school and throughout college. I clung to a dying technological medium in large part because I liked the rhythms of 60- and 90-minute intervals, and especially loved having two opposing sides of something. No one was really ever able to record their own vinyl records, and CD’s don’t have sides. The tape was the perfect homemade medium. I made two tapes that come to mind this week… “Poetry in Stagnation” and “Chaos Theory”. The last of these had sides called “Butterfly Wings” and “Consequences” and was probably my most artistically made mix. The latest Counting Crows album, “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”, is clearly written with sides in mind. It’s a bit of a concept album with each half of that phrase parsed into its own side. The CD cover is a vinyl album, just in case we missed the point. Like all new albums (these days at least), it sounds godawful the first time one listens to it. The second time through, I’m not sure I’ve heard anything more relevant in my life. Nothing will ever measure up to “This Desert Life”, the album that started my traditions with Counting Crows releases, perhaps the only album that sounded perfect the first time through too. I’ve always felt a special kinship with Adam Duritz (really, what CC fan doesn’t?), but you can hear in this one that maybe it’s gone too far. Maybe he pushed his own opportunities too long and wonders how much of this ends up being his own doing. There comes a time when it’s time to stop blaming the cacophony of wills and start examining one’s own coinflips.

It’s okay, I’m angry,
but you’ll never understand…
And I can’t see why you want to talk to me
when your vision of America is crystalline and clean.
-Counting Crows, “When I Dream of Michelangelo”

Despite all the coinflips, the cacophony, the difficult decisions, there often come times when one can attune oneself to the universe (God, mind at large, fate, destiny, magic) sufficiently where such things no longer seem scary. One still has to play by the rules, to agonize and try. To make the best decision possible for the best reasons possible. As Brandzy would say, to do the right thing for the right reasons. But this attunement, this awareness, this getting in sync seems to take the edge off the decisions. It takes the really vicious teeth out, leaving them more smile and less bared fangs. Some mornings, maybe even a morning like this, it’s not enough for reassurance. Is that the Cheshire cat I’m seeing? What does finding your place look like?

Would you eat a Honduran melon without fear of salmonella contamination?
-CNN’s QuickVote poll for 26 March 2008

Walking out the door to go to Chipotle, checking the mail on the way, and getting a certificate for free tacos therein. The unending awareness that terrorism would be unstoppable and is thus, by its absence, demonstrated to be nonexistent. A friend’s ability to achieve what one has always wanted, while one is doing what said friend is most interested in for his own achievement. Full moons and eclipses. Butterflies flapping their wings. Earthquakes. Timing timing timing.

Life makes its own excitement.


Good Friday

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

I am not a Christian.

A fervent believer in God and the extant importance of higher order and morality, I have not been a Christian (or a devotee of any organized religion) since late 1992 or early 1993, when I had a religious crisis in the midst of a Catholic mass while attending Catholic school on the north coast of Oregon. I believe I’ve discussed this on this webpage (this or Introspection) before, but the catalytic event was the internalization of the cross being a symbol of execution, the corresponding revelation that had Jesus been shot, the silhouette of a firearm would hang in the front of and atop the rooftop of every church in Christendom. Suddenly my many misgivings with Christian theology seemed entirely manifest in this grave miscalculation in emphasis and focus. The rest was history, and I rapidly became unable to deal with churches or Christianity for a good long while.

But I’ve always loved Good Friday, one of the few remaining redeeming* observances of the Christian calendar. I’ve often thought of constructing a calendar of my own patchwork faith, and Good Friday and Yom Kippur would be highlighted holidays… perhaps the only two to survive from widely regarded modern religions.

You can see in those two particular days a pretty distinctive theme… there is something to be said for religion’s ability to evoke passionate* sadness and soul-searching in the lives of its individuals. Organized religions, by the very virtue of their attempts to be popularly appealing, tend to shy away from this kind of reverent introspection and focus on suffering at all times. But single moments, a single day carved out of the bulwark, are reserved for the solemn observance of life’s sorrows and a corresponding rededication to doing what one can to limit them.

Much of Christian theology tries to backtrack from this seemingly original intent of Good Friday… even the name “Good” Friday indicates a problematic attempt to wash over the sadness of Jesus’ death with the “long view” and heavy foreshadowing of the Easter to come. Maybe it’s a little like the stock market and its infinite faith in endless rebounding resurrection of value and confidence. Not to make light of Jesus’ plight, but then again, I have qualms with the resurrection story and certainly don’t believe that Jesus was more than an extremely compassionate leader who offered hope before being killed tragically. Which is no small accomplishment – few individuals live such lives and they are frankly the most valuable and important people in our planet’s history. But they are not uniquely divinely chosen… they are instead exemplars of what any of us could accomplish with the right dedication: what we should all be attempting. My strong belief is that Jesus, like Gandhi (the other prime person in this hallowed company), personally rejected any attempts to deify him. Tragically, the world may never know.

The tragedy is removed from the “good” interpretation of this annual Friday. The reinterpretation imposed by those who were in the business of making a religion was that everything was foreordained and that it was a deliberate, calculated sacrifice. There tends to be little examination of what this would actually imply holistically and theologically in Christianity, and the focus is usually shifted instead to an examination of Jesus’ incredible fortitude in willingly initiating such a sacrifice. Granted, this focal point is extremely compelling and one of my favorite aspects of Good Friday. But it overlooks the larger implication about what sort of God would be doing this.

It’s really hard to imagine what sort of point God would be trying to tease out of a foreordained intentional sacrifice like this. Obviously martyrdom is a pretty good way of inspiring people and gathering followers to a person and their beliefs. But much of the strength of martyrdom is that it cuts short a life intended to be lived in full. Most martyrs (Gandhi being a notable exception) are young and have their brightest accomplishments ahead of them. The tragedy and outrage of their being taken is that their incredible leadership and good work is stolen. And thus those who remain to mourn are charged with taking up the work that was done. Even older martyrs, like Gandhi, usually have some intrinsic value to offer whatever process they were leading in the first place. It is hard to imagine, for example, that he could not have had a hand in smoothing tensions which ensued between India in Pakistan subsequent to his passing.

So Jesus as a deliberate martyr achieves much of this (and indeed, the legacy is Christianity, which is a pretty extensive story of people attempting to take up Jesus’ work, with extremely mixed results and intents), but in a very calculating and even devious way. If we are presented with this as being the plan from the beginning, then God comes across, at best, as a conniving strategist. Willing (indeed designing) to sacrifice his own lone offspring to a tortuous end that cuts short his potential for good work in order to create some sort of visceral parable for people to agonize over. Imagine, if you will, a report coming out that agents behind the Civil Rights movement actually planned Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with MLK’s personal knowledge and consent. Or that Gandhi, or maybe John Lennon, were covertly set up by their own supporters so their message might resonate more loudly with the people. Would this strengthen or hinder your reverence for such individuals? For their cause?

I don’t believe that Jesus was uniquely chosen by God, but I do believe he was a person who chose to develop his relationship with God at a quite advanced level. He notably spoke as being the “son of man”… I’m not familiar enough with the interpretations and translations and history and have little interest in devoting my energy to Biblical scholarship, but everything I’ve deduced seems to make it clear to me that his message was that we are all the children of both God and humans, that we all are capable of this relationship, that we all can strive for the highest moral achievement. And his preaching and teaching seems to embody much of what such achievement would look like.

And so I mourn this man’s death… not because some coldly mathematical deity drew up this chess move, but because his death was untimely and tragic (and went on to create so many misunderstandings).

The story of the day of death itself is tortured, troubling, and likely clouded over the years by political motives which corrupted original accounts. Some say he answered no questions, refusing to acknowledge the authority of those attempting to judge him. Others say that he insisted upon being the son of God (though again, my interpretation of this holds that he would say this of anyone). The depiction of the Jewish masses in their treatment of Jesus is almost certainly a reflection of Christian founders’ aims in competing with Judaism on the religious playing field, though there is something to be said for concepts of desertion and betrayal from one’s own people. After all, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu, a man sharing his faith. The complicity or outright force of the Roman Empire is also minimized in most accounts from what we can imagine Empire really doing to a dangerous threat to their authority and control. (And again, motives come into play when considering the eventual Roman conversion to Christianity.)

Still, there are compelling images of the account that offer those little introspective tidbits of somber reflection. The many insults and mockeries, from his own people and/or government. The irrationality of a mob, the inefficacy of retributive justice. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. The beseeching of God in times of crisis, recognizing that God is not an interventionist at any time. A support, a powerful baseline reserve of spiritual energy, but never an interventionist. Perhaps the most powerful (and accurate) statement of a compelling image of God and God’s role in human existence that Christianity ever achieves is embodied in the fact that God does not directly intervene to save Jesus. Sadly, the only way that doctrine can interpret this is the grandmaster strategist angle. But the truth embodied there is really about the fundamental predicate of free will and the resulting conclusion that God never intervenes directly in human affairs, no matter how dire.

That’s a harder lesson to swallow. Maybe you’d rather believe in a God that connives and manipulates but is at least intervening somehow. You’d be in good (“Good”?) – or at least larger – company. But in my opinion, you’d be making a mistake. Better to recognize the incredible respect God bestows in all of us in granting us the power to do literally anything, no matter how good or bad, harmful or helpful, tragic or calculated.

A good Friday to you.

*-indicates pun intended


What’s in a Year?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: , ,

Wait near the end of September.
Wait for some stars to show.
Try so hard not to remember
what all empty playgrounds know:
that sympathy is cruel.
Reluctant jester or
simpering fool.
But six feet off the highway,
our bare legs stung with wheat,
we’ll dig a hole and bury
all we could not defeat,
and say that we’ll stay for one more year.

Bend to tie a shoelace,
or bend against your fear,
and say that you’ll stay for one more year.
-The Weakerthans, “Fallow”


It’s getting cold in California
I guess I’ll be leaving soon
Daylight fading
Come and waste another year
All the the anger and the eloquence
are bleeding into fear
Moonlight creeping
around the corners of our lawn
When we see the early signs
that daylight’s fading
We leave just before it’s gone

She said “everybody loves you,”
she says, “everybody cares”
But all the things
I keep inside myself
they vanish in the air
-Counting Crows, “Daylight Fading”

My friend Stina tells me that 28 is way different than 27. That you can never go back again. That no one younger nor older than 27 could really understand a 27-year-old. She was only joking a little.

A co-worker of mine says that 28- and 29-year-olds go through a lot of significant changes. That one sees a lot of life changes of significance and note cropping up right around that age. He referenced some astrology, some experience, some theory. He wasn’t joking at all.

This stuff – what is going on now (whatever it is) – is no joke.

I’m studying poverty at my workplace. More and more, the question of poverty seems to be coming down to a much larger issue of freedom. You could call it control… you could call it “empowerment” (whatever that means)… you could call it confidence. What it really means is freedom. The ability to not be trapped, to not have tunnel vision. To not, as a rider on the subway some two weeks ago was, be “dreaming of zero” financially. To not spend twenty minutes telling a friend how great it would be to just get back to zero and have nothing hanging over your head.

To have nothing hanging over your head. Nothing.

For some of you (most? all?) this probably seems ridiculous. That’s not a definition of escaping poverty so much as escaping life, right? Life is an endless chain of things hanging over your head… we’re all living in a timeless flow of weights and measures. One obligation is just a way of getting to the next and so forth. Or maybe you only see it this way when you stop to think about it… the rest of the time, it’s just living. Meal to meal, chore to chore, time in the seat to time in the seat. You gotta eat, you gotta excrete, and you gotta find a way to pay for that and everything in between.

For the poor and homeless in San Francisco, there’s really no other way to look at it. There aren’t alternatives when one doesn’t have the means. And that’s really the issue – getting people like that back to freedom. Some level or capacity of being able to get rid of the tunneling obligations that crowd our life into long narrow stretches of darkness.

The rest of us, who aren’t poor and homeless, frankly have no excuse. These chains and walls are of our own creation. This tunnel was built up, layer by layer, by our own spiteful hands. The only ones that can tear it down again.

I am reminded of a day senior year in high school, perhaps exactly ten years ago today (who knows?), when I ran screaming through the halls that everyone has the key and they just don’t know how to use it. It’s there, waiting, and we just never grab hold and stick it in the door. But we all have it. Breathless and wild-eyed, I related this revelation to a series of friends. I probably hadn’t slept in a couple days and was clearly in one of my more manic stages. They rolled their eyes, they chuckled about me, at me. “Tell me about this key,” said one as I recall.

It is not dissimilar. Ten years ago. Good God. And for what? What have I done?

It wasn’t the same revelation then, not exactly. It was more about the fact (then) that life leaves us clues all along the way. That we can decipher the messages in our day-to-day existence and string them together like so much code to construct a blueprint of all the answers we ever wanted. Confirmation. Direction. Hope. It’s a key embedded in little pieces of every moment and we just have to wake up and pay attention to watch it fly together in our hand. And then have the guts to stick it in the door.

I had been warned, I realized, at that specific moment. And I had thrust aside chunks of key while trying to throw myself bodily into the locked door. These ideas and others assembled to form many theories of my theology, one of the first times I might’ve coined to myself that awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder.

So it’s a different key, a different brand of freedom that I’m looking at here and now. It’s rooted in the same realities (how many realities are there, anyway?), but carries a distinct tenor and pitch. Take a machete to the things hanging over one’s head. Get away from time in the seat. Shed, shed, shed. This is careening, screaming from the bulwark of my mental fortress.

But what’s in a year? What harm could a year do? Just one more year, needling away, begging for fulfillment.

Is there ever “just another year”? How much time in the seat has been procured with such a false promise? Tomorrow never comes, so do we ever reach the conclusion of that ‘nother annum? Conclusions are always reached eventually, but rarely on our terms and almost universally too soon. There’s no more “just another year” ’round that time either.

Since all this is about time in the seat, it’s worth noting that life is a lot like a college class. In the end, one doesn’t remember most of what was learned. The details blend together and fade, even if one attended every session and studied religiously. What remains, at best, are the core concepts, some key ideas. The big headlines of what one accomplished. And moments. Some really great (or awful) moments of speaking in class, or listening, or laughing. Having something click.

Life is much the same way. We mostly have time in the seat, the drudgery of countless brushings of teeth and eating of food and opening the mailbox. Thousands of hours of work. Thousands of hours of commuting. Thousands of hours of video games or TV or playing ball.

In the end, whatever’s left to remember comes down to the highlights, the accomplishments, the really worthwhile stuff that was done. Thresholds, good and bad. And moments. Little crystallized moments. It’s a lot like what you might remember from childhood now, only more heavily edited.

So doesn’t it make sense to prioritize those highlights over the rest of the drudge?

Somewhat contradictorily, however, I believe that we will all experience a full life-in-review session shortly after death. A spiritual adviser (an angel, if you prefer) will grab a metaphorical seat next to us on a metaphorical couch and enjoin us to a years-long viewing of our life on a metaphorical television. Our Town meets TiVo. It’ll be about as grueling to experience as Our Town, but not optional or selective. And as engrossing as TiVo, in the end. But with no fast-forward, only rewind and pause.

If we all lived with that in mind, how much time would we spend on the rote and the routine? How many “just another year”s would we sign on for? I bet there’d be a lot more spontaneity, a bit more self-awareness, a whole bunch more thought and examination. Just imagine, pretend you believe my theory for a moment. “I’m going to have to watch every single moment of this again, in real time.” Not just analyze and consider and discuss, but freaking watch. I will see this all again. No matter how sick I am of this workplace/school/seat/neighborhood, I will have, exactly, this much time here again, even if I leave this second forever.

What would you change if you knew this to be the case?

It’s one of those Pascalian/Platonic things that I think it might be worth believing even if it’s complete bunk. Internalize it, believe it, live it. I could say “search your feelings; you know it to be true”… but it might not wash for you. Try living one day with that awareness.

Maybe you’ll find it oppressive. Maybe it’ll be another thing hanging over your head. But maybe… maybe not. Maybe it’s just the kick in the pants you need.

I write this all, expound on it, because I need a kick in the pants. I need a kick in the pants. I need to figure all this out. Oh yes, I have my reasons, but so does everybody. At the end of the day, one can believe their own reasons, but really for no more than “just another year”. Really. No more. And maybe not even that. Because, well, see above.

I spent a lot of my life convinced I was going to be a high-school teacher. Talk about your time in the seat. But I was sure that this was where I could do some good, be inspiring, devote my life to change and all. Of course I always really wanted to be a writer, but writers seem to need day jobs, at least for a little while. Day job considerations have never much competed with writing in any real sense – when one knows one’s calling, the rest is just getting by. Fulfilling obligations. You know the drill.

So the priorities for a day job always looked to be (A) not doing harm, (B) doing good, (C) not being suicidally bored. Hooray. What’s not to like about high-school teacher?

It hit me my senior year in college (something about senior years, eh?) that this would be a disaster. I was disillusioned with school, completely dissatisfied with academic experiences. I had spent the bulk of college doing the absolute minimum to keep my scholarship, trying to float by while I debated, spent time with people, and waited for the rest of my life to catch up with me. Grades had been a game for years and the whole institution was looking like a poorly-designed game by the end of it. I couldn’t wait to get out and get into a world that seemed more real.

And it hit me all at once, just like some narrative revelation: the ultimate futility of what I was hoping to accomplish as a high-school teacher. The best thing, the best thing I could ever offer to a student would be the following:
1. Inspire them and raise them out of a difficult background.
2. Convince them to take studying very seriously and embrace academics.
3. Help them get into a good college, where
4. They could have the same revelations about academics that I just did.

Thanks, teach.

Oh sure, there might be some real and tangible benefits along the way and I’m not here meaning to condemn the work of high-school teachers. But the soul-crushing philosophical circularity of that reality, much less of calling that circularity some kind of inspiration or joy, was overwhelming. It was hard to breathe. Out went the gameplan for high-school teacher. The rest, as they say, is history.

Almost six years of history. Trying to become seven… “just another year”. You could call it the JAY theory. Get out your blue crayons and your ornithology books, kids. Or at least your Toronto uniforms.

It’s looking like a blue JAY.


Be Here Now

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Tags: ,

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs
that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sounds
of Silence

I think “Sounds of Silence” may have been about cellphones.

There’s been a whole new level of energy this past 24 hours, like a current rising up from some supercharged backwater, ready to flood the planet. “I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.” Go back to the ’60’s, I know. But the ’60’s have come for us, again. Barack Obama was born just as late as I was. He moved the woman who moved Hillary to tears to tears. Twice. “There’s something happening here.”

But people aren’t paying attention. In fact, they’re on their damn cellphones.

People are continually baffled that I don’t own a cellphone, inquiring where my Amish beard has gone or why I will get within 10 feet of an internal-combustion engine. More than anything, though, they cite how ubiquitous cellphones have become. I can’t think of an item that was so quickly embraced by so many with so few second-thoughts. Even past partners in holding out (at least of my generation) have conceded for work or for a romantic interest or for some other reason. I am not completely alone at this point, but close.

When one of these people cited some overwhelming statistic of universality at me the other day, I snapped back that if the whole society started taking heroin, I wouldn’t be joining in either. The person actually snorted and replied “Well, if heroin kept you in better touch with people, maybe that would make sense.” I then asked whether she felt that cellphones kept her in better touch with people. She conceded that the phones raised the quantity of contact, but lowered the quality. After some prodding and conversation, she even granted that this was probably an aggregate net loss in communication, in the purest sense of the word. “But I can’t stop now,” she concluded.

Sounds an awful lot like heroin to me. Oh sure, heroin’s probably an extreme example – a little like using Hitler analogies in debate (or reducing to nuclear war in policy debate). But some insidious hard drug, sure. That makes you think your life is better till you really examine what’s going on. That makes you feel better while being worse. That once you start, you can’t even think about stopping.

So just like my stance on alcohol, tobacco, and all “hard” drugs, I’m not even going to go there. Not start. Not even a little. And really, now that I put it in that context, the idea that all of society started doing something crazily self-destructive without me is nothing new.

So as I continue to seem more alien to others, the world seems more apparent to me. There are little signs and clues littered throughout one’s day if one cares to look. Mindsets to approach the world with. An overall presence that is fundamental to the universe. To just immerse oneself in the streets of a city on a cold day, as I did yesterday afternoon, is enough to send one into an almost revelatory set of understandings about what is going on. What is real. What is happening here.

As with anything, there are very few conclusions that come out of these processes. It’s much more about ideas. I’m not going to now tell you that I solved the mysteries yesterday. Far from it. And I’m not sure I’d even want to. But these days, it seems my mind starts to bubble over after even five minutes of, for lack of a smoother phrase, “being here now.”

One of the things one sees in this process, hears, feels, is everyone’s cellphone conversations. Not that they’re all vapid or meaningless, but so many of them seem so empty. Empty of content or meaning. Most of them are the equivalent of a handshake or a wave, hearkening back to the “handshake” days of the early FAX machines of my childhood. Blips and bleeps that signify someone else is on the other end of the line, someone’s out there, that solipsism hasn’t yet won the day in this scary world. And on that level, I can sort of understand. But there’s never really more than a handshake or a wave. No deeper meaning, no exploration. Too often, one “has to go,” usually just to blip-handshake-call five other friends before going underground (literally or figuratively) or to duck into the next distraction. As soon as people are on cellphone calls, they want to get off. And as soon as they’re off, they want to get on another one.

Does this really make you feel more connected? Less guilty, I could see, since guilt about not being in contact seems to dominate so many perspectives these days. New Year’s Resolutions passed around a table about this yesterday. But really, more connected, more deeply understanding of the people in your life?

Yesterday I reveled in the city’s hereness, nowness, reality. Then I ate, feeling compelled to pray before eating for the first time in months. Usually perfunctory functions like saying grace before a meal seem to me part of that ritual that undermines real meaning… so much of my problem with organized religion is founded in it draining meaning out of things through repetition. No function that one has memorized feels like a live connection to God. But yesterday, because it was spontaneous, I wanted that recognition. And I realize that the intent of these rituals is actually to remind one to be mindful of God at all times… the unpronounceable tilted touchstones on Jewish doors, the saying of grace, the forehead-dots. All intended to be reminders. But if one can transcend the reminders, cut to the quick, get down to an ever-mindfulness of God… that’s where it’s really at. Spontenaity. Twisting and turning the dials until one is in tune with God.

And it’s not going to give you the answers or solve the puzzle or fix everything. That’s not the intent, not why God is there. God actually tends to be rather cryptic and has a remarkable sense of humor. But being in tune, attuned, tuned in, can be inspirational and uplifting. And maybe the only thing that gets one through a winter like this.

It probably bolstered my whole experience of observation that I then proceeded to a ghost story movie, one of the best in a long long time. It’s called “The Orphanage” and will probably scare you silly, but is well worth the experience. It’s in Spanish, which didn’t buffer the fright nearly as much as I expected. It is in exactly the genre of “The Others” and “The Sixth Sense”, perhaps the two best ghost movies of all time. I now probably have to say three.

And what is a ghost story beyond a call to awareness, to hereness, to nowness? Yes, ghosts are buried in the past, but they are creating a presence, establishing a reality in the here and now. How better to call people to attention to a deeper world, a world beyond, the world that is actually real and underlying at all times, however hard it is to “see.”

Ghosts as they are understood by pop-culture probably do not exist, but the imprints upon time and place that severe actions create are a gateway to the reality that is underneath the seams of the Metaphor. Everything is connected and woven, and even the cacophony of wills can snap together like a mosaic gone groutless at any time if one just pays attention.

Put away the cellphone. Stop talking. Listen. Hear. Feel. Be. Here. Now.


Chto Dyelat?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Al Qaeda: The Looming Terror
An AC360 investigation into the formation of al Qaeda, where they are now, and their illusive leader.
Tomorrow night, 10 p.m. ET, 11 November 2007

A little over ninety years ago, Vlad Lenin completed a relatively bloodless takeover of power in what was then Russia. It had taken about eight months to become obvious that democracy had failed.

But, as in so many American wars of the last half-century, the takeover of government was just the beginning. Protracted fighting across the nation, against royalist-revivalists, lasted for years after the “revolution” was complete.

Lenin had written a pamphlet at the turn of the century laying out the plans and predictions for this coup, eventually leading to successful execution 15 years later. It was called Chto Dyelat? (transliteration), which can roughly be translated as “What is to Be Done?” The question seems profoundly relevant tonight, when I am somehow railing in frustration at nothing at all.

The question sounds more elegant in Russian. My frustration needs some art tonight.

Emily and I went to a movie tonight, “Lions for Lambs”. It was pretty awful. The movie simultaneously lacked subtlety and clarity. It pounded one over the head with preachy nothingness. Despite CNN (why do I keep quoting this source?) saying the movie was targeted at a “thinking-person’s” audience, the movie seemed to be written for toddlers. And the final conclusion, a crescending call-to-action, was left blank. There was no action. Only an uneasy settling of the fact that CNN (renamed in the movie to prevent a lawsuit) was so deeply manipulating the news as to distort reality. And the absence of action spoke louder than the prior 86 minutes of calling for action.

You can feel Robert Redford’s frustration in the film. It’s everyone’s. Everyone who ever believed in this “democracy” feels so swindled and cheated that they don’t even know which end is up. At least Vietnam gave everyone a fighting chance. People seemed to react to reality in Vietnam. People cared. Injustice was met with horror rather than indifference. The media took the right side. There was hope. Replication of Vietnam in perpetuity over the coming generations might not have been ideal, but it would’ve worked. People could’ve slept at night knowing they had some power or control in “their country”.

But this? What is this? When every aspect of the country has been sold and everyone who could care is in debt or discredited, how can one even begin to mount a response? What would it even look like? Who would be left to care?

So you have this slow choking of American belief in democracy and destiny and all those so-called lovely things we used to care about. Redford was trying to make a movie to shake some hope into people, as near as I can tell. He ended up making a deafening case for hopelessness. His suggested actions are to either (A) go to Afghanistan and get perforated by bullets for no reason after killing people who are not the enemy or (B) stare in horror at the television while realizing that everything you’ve done in your life is worthless.

Oh boy.

He really wanted to have a suggestion at the end there. But it was left blank for the audience to fill it in. At least Al Gore’s equally terrible movie ended with hundreds of suggestions for what you can do to “prevent global warming”. At least he maintained the illusion that corporations are not in control of the planet, but individuals are. At least he maintained the noble lie, full of hope and strong lyrics.

Illusion. Let’s get back to that word. No one proofreads anything anymore. I have to remind myself when reading documents for the people I work for. I sit there, sometimes, thinking “Helen Rosner and I are the only people left on the planet who care about proofreading.” Today’s news doesn’t have time for proofreading or copyediting or even thoughtfulness. As in the movie, it’s about getting facts up on the roll. Or maybe it’s as my Dad would say and no one wants to work anymore. Personally, I think it might (as in tonight’s example) be the universe fighting back, railing through little clues to conspire against a plutocracy hell-bent on recreating something between the Fall of Rome and the Extinction of the Dinosaurs.

Osama bin Laden, not even bothered to be named in CNN’s website promo for its latest shock-n-awe program about idle terrorists, is described as “their illusive leader”. Now whether it’s because grammar is dead or work is dead or what have you, the intended phrase was probably “elusive leader”. As in hard to find. But the devil, they say, is in the details.

The sentence instead reads that the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is an illusion. A mirage. And just to make sure that the universe is with us on the themes of tonight’s show,’s first full entry for the word gives us this: “based on or having the nature of an illusion; ‘illusive hopes of finding a better job’; ‘Secret activities offer presidents the alluring but often illusory promise that they can achieve foreign policy goals without the bothersome debate and open decision that are staples of democracy'”

That actually gave me chills just now. You can look it up.

Orwell tells us this in 1984:

The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters; perhaps even–so it was occasionally rumored–in some hiding place in Oceania itself.

An argument could be made that it would be better a Two Minutes Fear. And while there is plenty of fear of Goldstein and fear in general laden throughout the ceremonies of Orwell’s Oceanians, it’s hard to rally around fear. Of course, the real powers don’t want people rallying at all. The real powers are squarely between Orwell and Huxley, using just enough manipulation and self-destruction to form their brew.

Go back to your Orwell. And your Huxley. And your Bradbury. And then tell me: Chto Dyelat? Because their answers weren’t very good either. Retreat. Run. Maybe you can make it to the woods or the Falklands or maybe they’ll get you first and take you to Abu Ghraib and torture the hope out of you. Maybe you can read or write or remember and be the last living testament to the way things were.

And I know dystopias end badly because they’re supposed to be cautionary tales. But we already blew through those checkpoints. There was no caution.

In a dystopia, my friends, what is to be done?


At the Zoo

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

Early this morning, we posted a new video for The Mep Report, my former podcast with which I still interact from time to time:

Most of the material is old, but it’s repackaged in a nifty new way intended to promote the show. This one isn’t going to take over the world, but it’s hopefully the kind of thing that makes people want to listen.

Not many people wanted to listen today. In general. It was, again, one of those days that makes one question nearly every assumption, every action. I came so close to not making it into work today. I can’t even tell enough to know whether going in was a mistake or not. At this point, I’m past the point of caring.

On the way home, a prophet got on the BART train. He was a firebrand preacher, raised in the ‘hood, with a goon on either side of him mugging, leering, and laughing as he spoke his truth. The man was eloquent and profound. He found his target audience, a man twice his age from the Vietnam era, engaging him in a repartee of the man’s life and his own perspective. He quickly found more than his target audience. After one stop, I had to put my book away to listen.

Only a tape recorder would have done him justice, but one key moment was his declaration that television is a harder drug than anything else out there, “except maybe alcohol and cigarettes”. He broke down television to its component parts: “tell-lie, and that’s their vision.” His target audience was clearly impressed, verbally affirming. Many of the others surrounding were annoyed or afraid. And just as many, like me, were listening.

After two straight days feeling debilitated despite working for one of the most important social services agencies in California, hearing this man was the most inspirational moment of my week.

He wasn’t perfect (at one point he said he liked Hillary more than Obama, though at least he prefaced it by saying that there’s no point in voting because no one’s vote counts), but it was a damn sight better than anyone else who’s standing up and calling out these days. It made me wonder why I’m not doing more of the same. It also made me wonder how he’d react if I asked for his contact info and said that he should be speaking to more than just BART trains.

Probably, he’d feel patronized. Who the hell am I, anyway? But the man had a voice and a vision. He was able to capture the despair of this day and mix it as a message of unification for a muddled mass of misfits rolling northward toward nowhere.

And why did it hit me like a testimony to our time that this man was speaking to BART trains instead of crowds? Why wasn’t he leading the charge, the voters, the revolution? The inspirational populism of All the King’s Men came to mind, and I had to acquiesce, as I was walking away from the northbound train, that he had no reason to be less corruptible than anyone else. Sure, “the best minds of my generation can’t make bail.” But also, “show me the money.” In the end, he would probably be just as buyable, just as susceptible, just as able to adjust his story and perspective to meet the needs of the imp of self-interest.

In a way, are we all doing the same thing every day? In a small, small, but damning way? Why do I not speak truth to BART trains? Why do I not rave at those who might listen, at those who don’t listen, at those who seem inexorably locked into demanding that I listen?

It’s not fear. It must be a sneaking suspicion of self-interest.

Out, damn imp.

Above ground, now. Walking westward, toward the sun and its descending shadows, still not gone yet by an act of Regress. A woman, seconds before entering a gym in her designer work-out gear, screams at a young woman on a bike in angry sarcasm: “I’m so glad your mommy bought you a bicycle!”

I wasn’t there to see chapter one of this interlude. I only saw the aftershock. Maybe the woman almost got run down. But the dripping bitterness just seemed out of proportion. The younger one stood perched over her bike, stock still, in that kind of silent shame that cuts deepest when one is sure one has nothing to be ashamed of. And did this woman really just yell and then bolt into the carded confines of her high-priced gymnasium? After unleashing invective at the allegedly spoiled?

She eventually moved on. And so did I, hurrying now. And the wandering mind recalled the ongoing rage of a born bicyclist who uncharacteristically turned his rage on everything this afternoon, just before this journey began. Usually his rage is confined to bicycles, but today it was for everything, valid or in.

“He seems in a weird space today. Let’s just leave him alone.”

The zookeeper is very fond of rum. I feel that the last 48 hours have brought me closer to an understanding of why people drink alcohol than I’ve ever had before. There have been many moments of thoughts akin to temptation in the past. A mid-sophomore year (college) night above a pulsing party in the space below comes to mind, as the scent of cannabis wafted to my window. “It would be so easy,” I moaned. Over and over.

I remain, as then, steadfast. But these are trying times. Times without measure.

Stand up, ye prophets. And I may even, soon, have the courage to stand with you.


Transcript of Notebook Jottings from October 2007 Fast

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Primary Sources, Tags: , ,

The following is a direct transcript of the notes I took while immersed in my ~40-hour fast in the woods (41.5 hours of water fasting, 31 hours in the woods). Background information available here and here.

I briefly thought about scanning the notebook pages and posting them here. It would be a more raw reflection of the experience. But it’s not exactly what I want to convey. Besides, there are too many pages (the notebook was very small) and the handwriting is just too unnavigable. Keep in mind that Duck and Cover is the result of me really trying to temper my handwriting into a palatable form… and many of you still complain that it’s incomprehensible at times. The handwriting, not the humor. Okay, that too.

This text is presented unedited, unabridged, in its original syntax. So here we go:

13-14 October 2007 – Marin Headlands, California

13 October 2007

Have arrived at Haypress camp site in Marin Headlands. Emily dropped me off at around 10 AM. I had not eaten in over 8 hours at that point. Last ate ~1:15 AM today.

I think I’ve brought too much water. The journey in was arduous due to weight of pack, but went very quickly (less than 1 mile).

I like my spot and my view. I think I will hike some today since camp is all set up. I am still very time-focused. There are many animal noises and I am not as isolated from humans as I might choose to be. There are 5 groups slated to camp in this area tonight and they are not particularly secluded from each other.

Hungry, but able to delay with water.

I have hiked out to the beach (so-called Tennessee Beach) and found a bench just overlooking it. As the waves crash in and quietly recede, I see the bench is dedicated to the memory of Timothy P. Murphy, who died in June 1984 a month and 4 days short of his 28th birthday. I cannot but notice that this made him just 2 months and 3 days older than I am today. Something feels significant about that, obviously, as many things have already. On my way out here, someone had dropped their watch on the side of the trail. An affirmation of the decision to let go of time… what else could it be? The watch’s presence, only to be discovered by its owner not 15 feet up the trail, seemed so contrived as to be blatant. Awareness is never enough, it must always be wonder.

I am perhaps explaining things in more detail here than I would normally – I can’t tell how clear things will seem later upon returning to a world of food and time as they seem now. So I’m taking an extra step, just in case.

It should also be noted that the epigraph for Timothy P. Murphy is “Life is not measured in length, but in depth.” Amen.

Much of the walk back from the beach was spent overhearing a conversation between 3 young women, at least 2 of whom (if not all 3) apparently either work or worked for Seneca Center. It wasn’t till pretty deep into the conversation that I heard “Seneca” – at first they were just trading stories of kids that sounded like the old days. Suffice it to say that I’m running out of coincidences this trip.

After putting in ~7 miles today, I think most of the physical exertion portion of our program is over. I initially hadn’t thought I’d even hike that much, but I think it’s good to sweat out the toxins as well as starve them out.

A long nap, followed by a tiny walk around the area. I decided to move my tent further from other campers, given the apparent opportunity to do so. Despite being told that I got the “last one”, it seems there are only 2 other groups and thus 2 no-shows tonight.

The tent starts out inside the backpack. Then the backpack goes inside the tent. Finally, the tent returns to the backpack. There is something right about this way of living.

Been dozing through much of the early evening, especially since there are many loud campers nearby. At least one is a long-time park ranger with a sonorous voice and many tales to tell.

I awoke in dark night with the classic dilemma of getting up and going to the bathroom vs. staying “warm” and holding it. Of course the former is the long-term warmest option, so it was taken.

The stars bowled me over. I think I sometimes forget the stars are even there in anticipating the night sky. It sounds silly, but I had really not been expecting the depth and breadth of the stars.

I lingered in the cold to take them in. Even though the distant voices persisted, I was able to fully appreciate the enormity of the universe.

I don’t know how anyone can stare at the stars for a long time and not come away feeling the reassuring grace of God’s presence and benevolence.

14 October 2007

It must be. Darkness passed to foggy lightness. Night was an unending span of dreams, hurried overwhelmed awakeness, then somewhat settled sleep. There were brief times that the passage of time was so slow I thought that surely I had died.

I haven’t been able to really divest myself from time-awareness the way I’d hoped. It seems that nature is our first introduction to conceptual time and while it may not demand that we tie ourselves to minutes or even hours, it certainly makes us aware of morning, afternoon, evening, and night. And in so doing, it’s easy for the “civilized” human to take the next step and attempt to extrapolate more granular sands of time.

Far too much of my trip has also been influenced by neighboring campers. It seems most of them will be away early today and I can achieve some solitude. But the cooking of their fires has made me even more aware of the food I’m not eating. Avoiding that temptation was part of the reason for not bringing food at all, even for “emergencies”.

I did get some solitude, though, on the high hills above these headlands. I took off without a pack – just water and a light and many layers – in search of quiet contemplation. I found it in the heavy fog about 1/2 – 3/4 miles up the Fox Trail, almost all steep uphill. A spiderweb was highlighted with dew and caught my bright attention. It couldn’t fool anyone with any vision at all, but the spider remained patient in its center.

I turned uphill from almost that precise location to see a scene of deep-rutted foggy path that almost precisely mimicked a scene of several of my dreams (though none from the night before). There was nothing more momentous from this observation – I continued up the path a bit and decided the uphill was more strenuous than I wanted for my last 10-12 hours without food, so I should get back. Still, I paused for some minutes to simply take in the enormity of the blanketing fog.

Three natural phenomena have overwhelmed me this trip: the ocean, the stars, and the fog. Neither uncommon nor unpredictable targets of adoration and appreciation, but powerful nonetheless.

The foghorns are going like crazy, as though to remind me that I really can’t find seclusion here. There is a dialogue of two high notes followed by a very deep and low sustained note. The dialogue is not always precise, thus carrying on the air of a conversation that can only use two words. Its unpredictable timing make it more distracting than a good meditative baseline.

In any event, I am hungry. Not as severely as I expected to be, but then water can be used effectively to combat the worst of the hunger pangs. I have definitely been much hungrier in my life.

Yet food does seem like a real focal point. I dwell on it. Thinking about having Chipotle tacos when I’m released from this fast has really helped keep me going. My mouth actually has a slight ache from the absence and inaction. I have had meandering headaches, but nothing debilitating. This is impressive, because I haven’t had coffee since early Friday morning, putting me on a scheduled 72-hour fast from coffee by the time I plan to break that.

By the way, take that, people who think my headaches are some sort of caffeine withdrawal! Coffee is good migraine-prevention medicine, but absence of preventative medicine does not equate with immediate sickness.

The fog and my irregular sleep are helping to join forces to make me less aware of time. It could be morning or afternoon right now – I know not which. The foghorns are subsiding a bit, leaving only the ubiquitous quails in the area – there are many and they are in herds (or whatever quail groups are officially called), and they make many noises which neatly balance between familiar bird sounds and bizarre interpretations which are the quails’ alone.

I was contemplating a last hike, but my legs quickly told me that this would not be in the cards today. At least 10 miles of hiking without food is plenty for my body that has not exactly been acclimated to 5 miles/day of activity.

I was wandering around this nearly abandoned campsite when I noticed two rabbits out of the corner of my eye. I danced to approach them – pausing every time they looked up with concern, giving them time to get used to me at this distance, then approaching again until they seemed to need me to pause. One, the larger, was too skittish and eventually bolted for the brush. But the first, smaller one, maintained a watchful eye but stayed outside to forage for food. Both were tiny rabbits, looking almost like pikas. They must have been young.

I eventually reached a bench about 20 yards from the smaller rabbit and sat down to become part of the observant landscape. Over the course of 30+ minutes, I was able to hang out with the rabbit, ocassionally joined by the other rabbit, a number of quails, and a traveling crew of very loud bees or wasps.

The rabbit ate the whole time. I did not. The winde kicked up and seemed to scare the animal more than I did. It gave me my best time of reflection and grounding this whole trip so far.

In the midst, I thought about the wind and the water and all nature’s creatures. They seem to find an ineffable common thread – they take the path of least resistance. This is nature’s way. And given all the things I am out here to find or consider, maybe there is not as much wrong with living by momentum instead of direction. Maybe I am condemning an existence in line with nature’s calling.

But then again, do I answer to nature? Nature eats meat, nature destroys, nature is often cold and harsh and unforgiving. Nature guides by survival above meaning. So how could I adopt a principle of nature, just for its seductive beauty and the wonder of its path-carving? As Professor Hirshman, my second favorite of Brandeis’ philosophers, always graced her classes, “Bears shit in the woods.” Not only did she use this as one of many devices to shock students into thought, but it was her oft-used take-out argument for Aristotle and other naturalists who wanted to embrace whatever they were given by the world around them as what was also right.

And even on my retreat to nature, there is a Port-o-Potty on camp site. 2, in fact. Even I am not retreating to the standards of bears on this, a journey to reject civilization.

So what am I left with? An affirmation of what I already knew? Maybe I should be suspicious of anything else.

And despite their grandeur, the woods aren’t going to give me any concrete answers anyway, even without food or distraction. A bobcat is not going to walk up to me, lick its paw, and tell me what I should do with my job or my website. I know that. That’s not why I’m here.

As I strain for the quiet in the wake of the last other campers here departing, I realize that there is no quiet. There are quiet noises, but no real quiet. I feel I’ve joked with myself many times that this trip would be better pursued in a sound-proof lightless chamber than out in the open. But that’s not really the intent either.

The point is that the wind, the birds, the trees all make noise. Some of it is enhanced by my own tent, but without it there would still be sounds of all variety.

Perhaps nature is just reminding me of others – that we are not on this planet alone. A basic lesson, and one I know, but it bears repeating. To help each other can, ultimately, be our only purpose.

It’s amazing how closely tied bad parenting is to having too many children. This may seem obvious, but it’s really consistent. Sure, there may be some exceptional parents who can handle many kids and some bad parents of even a single child. But generally, parents become inattentive and frazzled with multiple kids, especially at 3 or 4 or more. And they manifest this frustration all the time – saying things like (just overheard) “nobody likes a squealer”. Perhaps the biggest issue is how indelible the marks left by lousy parent comments can be. Children in their first decade of life (and even more so in their first half-decade) are almost wholly formed by their parents’ critiques and molding. When parents make obnoxious comments that are the result of feeling overwhelmed by having too many children for their attention, the results can be devastating.

This is neither a new thought nor one terribly tied up in this trip in particular, but when I witness such profound examples of it, I cannot help but take note. Literally.

I must also admit that starting at around noon today, I’ve been cheating and occasionally checking the time. I had to bring some sort of timepiece or there would be no way to assure meeting up with Emily at the proper time to go home. And earlier today, I cracked into it because I had no idea how close I was and I thought I might have to start packing up soon.

Ha! It was only 11:54. And the time that’s passed since has been the slowest yet. I’ve checked a couple more times. It’s really starting to crawl. I’m hungry and I think I feel I’ve passed most of the productive or valuable/meaningful time I’m going to get. It’s also colder than yesterday and thus much colder than I’d like. I’m ready to pack it up, pack it in. But I ought not begin too early or I’ll have time waiting in the parking lot, which would be even worse.

I think the bulk of this trip’s impact will really be felt upon return. How will I see time, food, and other people differently? Right now I’m yearning. Upon return, will I be appreciating?

Well I came outta the woods a little early – I got a little freaked out around 4:00 (yes, I checked again) and was surprised at how dark it was already. I had been figuring on packing up at 5:00, but 4:00 was feeling like the time to go. It took me about a half-hour to break camp and another half-hour to hike out – both were shorter times than I expected. Em is scheduled for an on-time arrival, so I have a couple more hours to be outdoors.

It’s cold and I’m hungry, but I’m very glad to be out of the woods. So to speak.

I had one last good message from the woods on my way out. I had tied my sleeping bag under straps behind the backpack. Quite tightly, I thought. But about 1/3 of the way down the trail, it fell out. Rather than remove my pack and reattach the bag, especially with the understanding it would probably fall out again, I simply picked it up and carried it.

I was immediately delighted by both how much lighter my backpack now seemed and how I was somewhat comforted by the feeling of hugging my sleeping bag to my chest.

At first, I thought “lighten your load!” But immediately I saw that wasn’t quite it – more accurately the message was “shift the weight: your burden will not be any less, but it will feel lighter.”

Now there’s what we call a take-home message.

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