Archive for May 2010
Not much time to post at the moment, but hopefully yesterday’s gave you something to chew on. If not, and you can’t get enough of playing Pac-Man on Google, my Dad is apparently considering selling his Pac-Man table if the price is right.
In any case, the main point of this post is to get you to go off-site, but specifically to two key sites from the women in my life.
The first is my wife’s new blog. Those familiar with past efforts may be the slightest bit cynical, but this is likely to stick since she’s blogging specifically about her upcoming internship in Liberia. Given the massive lack of distractions in Liberia and the overwhelming fascination the trip itself will likely inspire, I’d say it’s going to be a mighty interesting series of posts, assuming the internet stays up. So stay tuned there.
The other site is my mom’s sock doll auction to benefit KUNM, the Albuquerque NPR station. For those of you who’ve seen her adorable sock dolls, this is a chance to get two for the price of whatever the ABQ public deems appropriate while benefiting a good cause! Pretty neat all around.
The blog runs through the end of the summer (at least) and the auction runs through June 6th.
And I’ve gotta run because we’re going to Philly and DC for a whirlwind weekend before Em ships out Wednesday.
And if you want to leave not only this web site, but web sites altogether, may I recommend you head to the Barrow Street Theatre and watch Our Town? Em and I did last night and it was a religious experience. Seriously.
I have long discussed the fact that the goal of humanity, both collectively and individually, is to overcome human nature. That basically everything we consider to be harmful and undesirable is derived from the baser instincts of human beings and that, at the point of sentience, the goal of people should be to stop evolving and to start making mental, philosophical, and moral transformations based on rational thought.
It shouldn’t be a controversial perspective, but it seems remarkably un-universal, especially given the recent surge of belief in science, physicalism, and a reductionist materialist view of the world. So many people now seem to argue that there are great benefits of our human nature and natural instincts, that trying too hard to control or convert the hedonistic nature of our animal selves will create more problems than its solves. Of course, these people tend to put happiness at the keystone position of their ethos and seem particularly ill equipped to explain how humanity is going to make any progress in the fields of moral or rational thought.
I am writing all this now because I recently found one of the most brilliant articles ever on this issue, which makes the case for my perspective more succinctly than I tend to, and in a way more befitting of mainstream appeal. You can read the article here now. Be forewarned, it’s longish, but the details matter and it’s length is sort of part of the point anyway.
The article is more concretely about patience and the ability of people, largely young children, to delay gratification. The case constructed by the psychologists in the various studies profiled in the article is that people’s willpower and ability to distract themselves into changing their own motivations – the essence of self-control – is perhaps a larger factor for success in humans than intelligence itself. And that where intelligence feeds self-control and vice versa, the most essential building blocks to fulfillment and self-actualization are to be found.
I have been telling a lot of people lately that the difference between my ability to write multiple novels in a year (not done yet, but looking awfully promising at this point) or hold down jobs while impressing my employers on the one hand, and being homeless and destitute and an utter failure on the other hand, is entirely because of my ability to fabricate meaning for deadlines in my own head. I mean this statement completely sincerely – the most important skill I have devised in my life has been the ability to believe in an arbitrary date and accord all the significance in the universe to it. Throughout high school and college, I never missed a single deadline for a single class (except for the one I deliberately failed, of course, but that was its own little experiment with self-control), because I convinced myself that doing so would lead to immediate failure, expulsion, and possibly death. I played an extensive eight-year game of chicken with my consciousness, starting papers later and later, studying less and less, but I still turned everything in the minute it was due, without fail.
This has of course translated into me being able to motivate myself for artificial deadlines (imposed by self or others) at work and especially in my new free-form writing life. I thrive on deadlines, at least when they’re realistic. I feel a great deal of adrenaline around the approach of a deadline, the elation of getting things done, and every successfully met deadline has worked as an extra bulwark for both the need for me to continue making them and as a positive motivation from the pure euphoria I feel when they are met.
I don’t think I ever deliberately tried to create this spirit about deadlines, but the article above corroborates my thesis that this trait alone has kept me off the streets and in a relatively stable place in society. But the most important aspect of the article is the evidence that this can be taught. What’s frustrating about the article is that it then starts to raise doubts about the idea of teaching this kind of self-control and willpower, even though most of the article makes it abundantly obvious that this can be learned, and pretty easily, especially at a young age.
The article also relates the issues of self-control and willpower to drug use and overeating, which are pretty obvious correlations. The fact that I’ve been able to live my entire life without alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, to control any impulse to try them even once, to be able to rationally evaluate the decision and overcome impulse, is highly linked to the deadline thing. And all of these things are truly essential skills for living a fulfilling life, especially if one is also prone to addictions or falling into long sustained periods of inextricable obsession.
The most disturbing aspect of the article, though, is that it still pays homage to the materialist demons that haunt every aspect of the modern psychological community. The researcher who pioneered the study of willpower through the use of marshmallows, whose thinking has led to such important conclusions about humanity’s struggle to overcome its base nature, is most excited at the moment about… brain scans. He wants MRI’s to spit out little illustrations of the self-control fold in the brain so he can give people drugs or surgery to shortcut them to it.
And here is where I have to part ways with the nature of the experiment. It may be that there seems to be a physical reflection of the phenomenon of being able to believe in arbitrary artificial self-imposed deadlines. And it may not. If it is, it’s still putting the cart before the horse, for the fact is that these things can be taught and that would change the folds of the brain. The entire problem with the materialist approach is that it tries to do things backwards, tries to manipulate people as bodies without giving them the understanding of what they need to change that will build a lasting commitment to the new approach. Even if you could surgically create the folds, there’s a larger chance that they’d just change back and re-alter their brain afterwords. This is why so many people who get major life-changing weight-removal surgeries tend to end up putting the pounds back on, while people who actually train themselves to approach food differently can lose weight and keep it off.
So now the goal of humanity is to not only overcome our human nature, but to ditch our desire for a physical solution to every problem. We’ve long recognized that the human mind is the most complex and fascinating aspect of our world. We should offer it the respect and due diligence it deserves, not try to play Frankenstein to its monster.
I’m still here and still thinking things and still have stuff to write about. But most of it is going in the ever increasing pages of The Best of All Possible Worlds.
I’ve posted about this before, and probably not too long ago. Maybe even on a May 17th before, in this exact place in the universe, looping back ’round to it again. Here we are. It’s not a new concept or a particularly hard concept, but it’s one I feel the need to revisit. When the tide is high with the creative process, lots of writing, a surprising about of reading for how much writing there’s been, then other forms of writing, the chaff, this blog, take a direct hit.
The corollary in the other direction was long obvious – that this blog would get the most attention and care when I was at a low tide creatively in the rest of my life. The times when my job was tugging at my soul and the commute was eating my time would give birth to long flowy metaphorical examinations of my real life in the moment. It was fun, and at least one of you thinks it’s way better than the non-chaff meaningful stuff I try to produce now. It will probably come again sometime, but it is not the time for it now so much. And that’s good.
This is largely because the life itself is relatively unnoteworthy. Sure, stuff happens – Em and I went to a AA baseball game today in Trenton and played bocce ball with friends on the lawn of our military-barrack-trailer-park complex. The sun shone, people bid each other a pleasant summer, embarked for new adventures. Em and I watched two of the four series we’re following on Netflix. We made more plans for the summer to come. But these are the undulations of life of the everyday. And the rest of my time makes these times look fascinating.
Because the rest of my time is extremely unreportable, the most of the mundane. I sit down at the computer at a designated time, aiming for 2-3 sessions each day instead of the normal single overnight session because of the time crunch I’m facing and what a washout April was. I play Tetris, trying to imbue myself with the mood appropriate for quick, magical writing. At a certain point, I stop, having formulated the first sentence to two paragraphs. I switch over to Word, enter my trance, and go. Anywhere from 30 to 150 minutes later, I stop, usually suddenly on a particularly sharp conclusion for that section. I come up for air quickly, surveying practical considerations like how many words I’ve written and whether I’ve overlooked anything intended for that section. Sometimes a quick review, but often not – there’s plenty of time for editing the month after the deadline. Then I start to meditate on the next section and do something mundane like eat or sleep or read.
That’s my life. And when Em departs for Liberia in a week and a half, it will be without those other preliminary things like baseball games and bocce ball and Netflix. It is hard to envision as mundane, because it feels like the most vibrant and important part of my life I’ve ever lived. Every moment carries the sense of purpose that’s so effectively eluded most of the uses of my time. Every day feels deliberate and worth living. But talking about it? Explaining it? Highlighting some quirky thing to capitalize into a post here? Forget it. To the outside observer, writing is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
I guess there are a good number of breaks, though, and this is where the conservation comes in. I did go down to Baltimore for the two Mariner losses in their three-game set with the Orioles early last week. I saw two old friends and ate in two different Waffle Houses a total of three times. I could write the better part of a novel about the third game alone, probably the most objectively exciting game I’ve ever seen, with the final out recorded on a play at the plate that would’ve tied the game. But I don’t have the juice to, because it’s all going to the novel right now.
So maybe it’s not my life that’s any more mundane, for day jobs and commutes are awfully mundane too. It’s probably just about the energy, the focus, the dispersal of creativity leading to blippy vignettes, while extended intense concentration that saps everything else is required to produce the 100,000 word novel.
Let one thing be clear in all of this: I am not complaining.
I’m pretty frustrated with the American dialogue about religion. This is nothing new, I guess, but when the supposed super-liberal bastions that are alleged to more occasionally take my side are diametric agents of anger, then it’s time for me to talk about it.
It all started this morning, when this article from late last week caught my eye on Google News. The article in question is on the Huffington Post, the place known for being too liberal for my friend Greg in criticizing Barack Obama from time to time. Anyway, the point of the article is to list ways in which Christians tend to be bad Christians, while all the while touting their Christianity. This seemed like exciting, relevant stuff.
The first one on the list was as follows:
1) Too much money. “Wealthy Christian” should be an oxymoron. In Luke 12:33, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
What a great start. I was sure that pacifism would be next on the list.
But instead, most of the rest of the list was about being judgmental, about being holier-than-thou. And interesting critique, and probably valid, but certainly not tops on the list of “Ways Christians Tend to Fail at Being Christian”. And certainly not needing to occupy half the list in repackaged titles like “Too invasive of others generally.” followed by “Too invasive of others personally.” Pacifism, meanwhile, made no appearance on the list.
Which is troubling, because Jesus might be the all-time pioneer of pacifism. Turning the other cheek is not exactly pro-war, nor is loving one’s enemies, one’s neighbors, or blessing the peacemakers. (And by “peacemakers”, Jesus was not referring to missiles.) While I’m not a Christian, it’s arguable that if Christianity really propounded the teachings of Jesus on non-violence, I would be. It would almost be worth the other trappings of organized religion to be associated with such a doctrine.
Of course, that’s not what the modern Church does, especially in the United States, where most congregations set aside a small part of every Sunday to pray for the success of those men and women engaged in killing Iraqis or Afghans. And while it’s obvious that most modern Christians fail to give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and cast as many first stones as they can, the whole supporting murder thing seems just the slightest bit higher up the chain in terms of transgressions.
None of this would be so bad, of course, if I didn’t have to hear the flip side of the hypocrisy on my local NPR station later in the day. On today’s “Talk of the Nation”, they hoped to examine the issue of how to make the disenchanted youth in various American Muslim communities resistant to what they called “Jihad Cool”. But as the last caller aptly pointed out, the story had morphed from an examination of negligent forces inside certain fundamentalist communities to an outright assault on Islam’s tenets as a religion. The main guest, who had recently written a lengthy piece on the wife of the alleged would-be Times Square bomber, waved off this critique and said that Muslims need to recognize they have a chronic problem in all their communities.
So where are the people saying there’s a chronic problem in the Christian communities, the flag-waving groups making their children available as willing foot-soldiers in the imperialistic struggle to claim the Middle East for American corporations? Why don’t we have radio programs explaining that a weird conflation of nationalism and Apocalyptic evangelical fundamentalism has been heavily influencing foreign policy, leading to the slaughter of thousands? Is it because this fundamentally really is just another religious war, just another Crusade draped in supposedly secular flags?
Maybe it’s because the alleged terrorists getting caught up in alleged jihad never actually kill anyone, but they do it locally. While the people who drive to work in America and then direct the actions of lethal drone planes half a world away kill hundreds, usually innocent, but do so in a region so esoteric and physically distant that it feels more like a video game than a war.
It’s time to pray, all right. But not for the reasons you might think.
If you believe there’s a world outside of the United States and you’re somewhere you can be reading this blog today, you’re probably aware of the fact that there was a parliamentary election in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland yesterday. And it’s resulted in a hung parliament, meaning that no one party got a majority.
How can this be possible, ask Americans, those incapable of believing there are more than two parties? Because not only are there three substantial parties in the UK, each garnering more than 20% of the nationwide popular vote, but there are actually 10 parties who earned seats in the British parliament this go-round. And three more who had a seat, but lost it. Plus a true independent, unaffiliated from any party.
For decades, the only independents able to win seats in the American Congress have been those who drop their major-two-party affiliation after establishing a long career. The lone possible exception to this is Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, a Social Democrat who knows well enough to run as a straight independent in our system. Because apparently voting in large blocs for a third party is as appealing as hemlock for the American public.
What about the British system engenders this kind of vibrance in their democracy? Part of it must surely be involved with the proliferation of nationalist factions in different regions of the country. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each have a seat-winning nationalist party that advocates moving toward dissolution with the mother country, one of them to the point where they refuse to even take the seats that they win. But this isn’t the whole story. There are other factional parties, even the Greens, who win seats in Parliament. And there are three enormous parties who get to share the national stage.
One could argue that part of it is about the size of the constituency. The average MP represents 75,000 people, while the average US Representative votes on behalf of 650,000. That’s pretty much a scale of magnitude difference and ensures the people with particular local or factional appeal are left out of the system altogether. And while it’s hard to imagine a US Congress housing thousands of representatives, maybe an intermediary body could be forged to give a more robust voice to the people.
Granted, there are significant issues with the British system as well. For one, the fact that the Prime Minister stems directly out of the parliamentary majority means that people must choose between prioritizing their local representative over their Prime Minister selection or vice versa, if they prefer respective candidates from different parties. They may love their local Labour MP and want Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems to take over 10 Downing Street and they are forced to choose between these desires. Not ideal.
Additionally, the lack of proportional representation in favor of regional apportionment means that the relative influence of parties is often grossly misrepresented. This is most obviously illustrated by those Liberal Democrats in 2010, who earned 23% of the vote and just 9% of the seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives got 47% of seats for just 36% of the vote and Labour won 40% with only 29%. The only argument I can see against proportional representation is the idea that it will limit the influence of specific regions or constituent areas.
But this argument fails on face empirically. Most of the specific regional parties would actually increase their influence under prop rep. For example, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 6 seats, but would be awarded 11 under proportional representation. In fact, every party winning seats would still win seats under that system, plus four more. And people would have even more reason to vote for smaller parties, knowing their vote would count no matter where they voted or what the status of their constituency might be.
So there’s a lot to be learned from the British system, as well as much that could be improved. I think my ultimate bottom line is that we rebelled from a system with more robust democracy to create our own. Granted, the colonies weren’t being particularly enfranchised at the time, but we could’ve waited to be part of a system with a double-digit number of contentious parties. And such a system, when it produces hung parliaments like this year, ensures that every tiny party could potentially be able to get enormous concessions from the major power players.
It’s almost enough to make you start dredging the waters for tea as well as oil.
I am a pretty lucky guy.
It’s nice to get reminders of this, lest I begin to give in to consternation with any given personal quest or quandary at any given time. Though the below-announced “tour” is not a book-signing tour, yet, or anything of that ilk, it is a hearty reflection of how great my friends are, how many of them I am blessed to be able to see, and how fortunate I am to be in a position to contemplate some serious world travel as well.
Coming off a non-weekend weekend spent with the Philly crew, playing endless Wii Mario Kart and real-life tennis (6-4, 4-6, 6-5* over Fish in a reaffirmation that we are just as evenly matched as we were in the ill-fated Spring 1995 intramurals), I cannot express sufficient excitement about the summer ahead. More than anything, my visit just now was marked with exceptional depth and breadth of conversation, the greatest gift we humans can give those we are personally tied to. To have so many old friends with whom I can converse about such an array of topics at a high level makes me even luckier than I know I am.
*We didn’t do the proper tiebreaker thing because both of us forgot how to score it and we were exhausted already.
It is with this incredible fullness of heart that I announce my complete summer plans – possibly the most ambitious and wide-ranging itinerary I’ve ever undertaken. The “theme” is of course related to the thread that runs through these summer plans, work on my third novel (second this year), The Best of All Possible Worlds. The summer kicks off on the actual first day of summer, which happens to be my deadline, and will take me straight through the week of the first debate tournament of next season. I am preparing to be overwhelmed.
Here we go:
If we haven’t made specific contact about spending time on the tour in the above places and times, please send me an e-mail and we can sort things out. Some of this may be subject to a little tweaking, especially the dates that revolve around driving on the Eastern Seaboard rather than booked plane tickets. I may release an edited draft of this with some of those Eastern cities more specified before it’s all upon me.
Now the focus is making sure I can hit that deadline so everything else is viable.