Archive for November, 2009
In this lecture, Christopher Hitchens asks about the whereabouts of Cardinal Bernard Law, who is guilty of crimes “too hideous to describe.” The undeniable fact is that Law is currently a powerful member of the Catholic clergy in Rome–he is one of the people held in high enough esteem that he has the power and privilege of voting to choose Popes. Any organization whose leaders have basic moral decency would have put such a man into handcuffs and delivered him to the police.
Hitchens has many more questions for the Catholic Church too, and not an unfair attack among them, in my opinion. Examples include forbidding condom usage in Africa, where AIDs is an epidemic. This is not an academic issue–it is killing thousands of people. I also know many thinking Catholics who are driven to distraction by the official church teachings in regard to gays and birth control.
Here’s what Hitchens has to say about the need for the Catholic Church to apologize:
I do not post this video to condemn lay Catholics, many of whom are good-hearted people who do inspiring works of kindness in the name of the church. Instead, I’ve posted this video because I have become weary of seeing the Church automatically and publicly presented as a font of moral judgment just because it is a church (or, in some circles, The Church). I am wondering if we will ever see a day when the Catholic Church (and every other church) is not judged favorably merely because it is a church. I’m wondering whether we will ever see the day when, in response to a claim that we should follow rule because “It is a rule of a church,” people will generally ask: “What kind of church?” or “What is the track record of that church?” In any regard, we should never assume that a church is wise or moral just because it is a church. The current job title of Bernard Law compels this.
Bottom line: No more free passes for churches. Or for any entity or any person, for that matter.
“Emptiness is described as the basis that makes everything possible”
- The Twelfth Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha
“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
- Pema Chodron
Buddhism makes people uncomfortable when it talks of emptiness. Most Western minds immediately go to “nothingness” as the equivalent, which I am learning is not accurate. Mingur Rinpoche has a fantastic chapter on emptiness in The Joy of Living. In it he makes my language geek happy by explaining the Tibetan words for emptiness – “tongpa-nyi”. He says Tongpa does mean empty, but only in the sense of something we can’t capture with our senses, and better words would be inconceivable or unnameable. Nyi, he says, has no particular meaning but when added to a word conveys a sense of “possibility”. Suddenly, instead of nihilism, we have an “unlimited potential for anything to change, appear, or disappear.” That is cool stuff.
We, as human beings, simply can’t conceive emptiness in that sense. Our minds are limited – they can only deal with so much – even with training. The assumptions we make and the perspectives we develop and yes, even the absolutes we live (and too often die) by, are simply our own constructions helping us navigate a reality that would otherwise overwhelm us. I’m not just talking about moral or ethical realms here, I also mean our physical reality. We are comforted by the thought that the chair we sit in and the floor we walk on are “solid” but science teaches us something else. The history of science itself demonstrates our understanding of the world is evolving. Quantum mechanics shows us things we didn’t dream of 100 years ago. We keep learning new and better ways to grasp how the world works – our knowledge shifts constantly like sand in a desert storm.
Facing the possibility of everything being in flux frightens us, and so we create shields that offer protection, that make us comfortable. We then think we can know ourselves, the world, and those around us. We know what to expect, we know what to accept. We order our existence, and we feel safe. Often we don’t know that we are creating a structure with which to experience the world. We are born into them as much as we seek them out, but the effects are the same.
Habits of knowing, like habits of behavior, are comfortable, like well-worn shoes or a tasty turkey pot pie. Fear of losing that comfort and the accompanying feeling of safety is why we, collectively, often lash out at anyone or anything that is different from us. In those situations our core concepts of who we are and how we live are at risk. But when our worldview is so rigid it prevents us from adapting to what is, our carefully constructed truths are no longer places of refuge, they more resemble prison cells.
Consider a man who has been laid off from his job as a machinist who can only see himself going into work at a factory, but all of the factories in his town have closed. His options for factory work in his town are nonexistent. If that is all he can see for himself his options are very bleak. But if he can open his mind and see another way to put his skills to use – not as an employee of a factory – he can devise a plan of action. I don’t mean that he will transform himself into something different with brand new skills. But if he can let go of the rigidity of what work once meant to him, he has a better chance of finding ways to leverage what he currently has to offer.
The challenge is to hold lightly to everything I believe, and to see the lack of fixity as a source of possibility instead of a recipe for loss. As someone just getting started on this practice, I can say it feels much like standing and stretching luxuriously after being stuck in a painfully cramped space. One can learn to do a fine backstroke in the abyss, and abyss is more a fertile sea of possibility than terrifying vacuum. What a happy surprise.
During a bout of insomnia, I pondered an underrepresented phoneme. I first learned about these essential quanta of spoken words while I was earning my degree in psychology back in the early 1980′s, and researching computer speech synthesis for fun. What popped into my head these wee hours was the word, “vacuum”.
Say it aloud with me, “Vacuum”. Listen to yourself say it. Vacuum.
Break it down. It starts with the vee, a vocalized eff. Then “a” as in “can”. And a full-stop kay. No surprises, so far.
Did you just utter “Ee”? As in “Keep”? We will get back to that.
Next it depends on your dialect. Maybe you said “oo” as in “broom”, or maybe oo-uh as in “you-uns”. And end with a nice vocalized “mm”. This is the only case that I can think of where a double-U really is.
But, what was that in the middle? Ee? Vakeeoom?
Part of the institutional mis-education in our country is that even teachers are unaware of a double standard in teaching the relationship between spoken and written English. We have “silent-E” drilled into us…
(Digression for mathematician Tom Lehrer’s version on The Electric Company)
… but what about all those hidden, non-silent “E”s? They are everywhere in our spoken words, but not in the written ones. Even many words with silent E have unwritten spoken long-E’s embedded.
Take “lake”, for example. Listen to yourself say it. There is no hint of the written E on the end. But in the middle? L-eh-ee-k. Long “A” is really short-E-long-E. Always. (Ah-l-oo-eh-ee-z)
Take a cue from “cue”. K-ee-oo. Do you, like, like “like”? L-ah-ee-k?
So my obscure title simply means that I mean to bring attention to the essential idea of a troublesome yet common (mean, mean) spoken sound. I’m usually easy to amuse, but sleep deprivation stunts my self-censorship.
For the past five days I’ve been visiting my wife’s family on the north shore of Long Island. I haven’t written much during the visit, but I’ve been thinking a lot and jotting down lots of ideas. I’ve also been taking quite a few photos, which I’d like to share. Most of my trip was spent within a stone’s throw of Long Island Sound. The temperature ranged from the 40′s to the low 60′s and the wind was often gusty.
Here is a shot of Long Island Sound in the early evening. This is looking north toward Connecticut from Long Island. During the day, flocks of geese will honk and fly in formation, more or less.
One of my favorite things to do out east is to spot horseshoe crab shells. The crabs themselves are large (about two feet long including the tail), majestic and ancient creatures. How ancient? They’ve been around for more than more than 400 million years in pretty much the same form as we see them today. In other words, if you could be transported back in time to spot each of the various types of dinosaur, you would always be able to see horseshoe crabs that look just like these. Here is a lot more about these creatures from Wikipedia.
Fall is that time of year for many living things to go into dormancy. This is certainly true of many types of trees. It is true of apple trees, for instance. I took this photo at Richter’s Apple orchard.
It is only in the Fall that one can spot the intricacies of the skeletal structures of trees, including this beautiful specimen. It is hard to know exactly what is going on under those leaves, until it’s Autumn.
But it is the Long Island Sound that attracts me the most when I am on Long Island. The Sound has a special attraction in the moonlight, and when various members of my wife’s family gathered on the north shore a few nights ago, I worked fairly hard to take long-exposure photos of the silhouetted family members enjoying the waves and water and the smells and sounds of the ocean water of Long Island Sound.
I have to write a new bio. I’ve been needing to do this for some time. I had a few prepared bios for conventions and such, tailored depending on who I sent them to. Magazine bios, con bios, conference bios…they all required a bit of tweaking. But they’re all pretty much out of date.
I’m going to do this during the coming week. Cull through all the details that would seem to make me an important person, someone people might wish to come listen to or see. I have a difficult time with these, which is why I write most all of them in third person. I have to put myself in a frame of mind that I’m writing about Someone Else.
Apropos to that, this past weekend I received my copy of the new documentary The Polymath: or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany. In the course of watching it Saturday and Sunday, we heard him say that he considers himself a rather uninteresting person. I found that resonant.
When I’m writing a new story, I tend to put myself in the character of the protagonist. I see myself as That Person. And almost always, when I start on the subsequent rewrites, one of the problems I have to fix is that the main characters of my stories are uniformly weak compared to the secondary characters. A couple of years ago I had a revelation about why that is. Mainly, because I don’t see myself as a particularly interesting person. So that translates into the protagonist, who is generally interested in the other characters, who then become relatively more imbued by interesting characteristics. I have to then go back and add in all the missing stuff the main character requires.
Which brings me to the writing of a personal bio.
What is it about me that is interesting to other people?
Now, I’d like to be interesting and sometimes I think I am. But in the course of the day, I don’t even think about myself much less what it is about me that makes me worth note. This is perfectly sane behavior, as far as I’m concerned. Who does go through the day cataloging their specialness besides narcissists, obsessives, terminally vain, or profoundly insecure people? I stipulate that I’m vain, but it limits itself to personal grooming, physical fitness, and an attempt at erudition, none of which controls my life, and all of which are practices I think more people should embrace if for no other reason than a sense of public politeness.
But I’m always a bit dismayed when people actually pay attention to me or think I have something worth saying. (I stress again, I want to be someone like that, I just don’t happen to “feel” it.)
So the personal bio usually becomes a list of things I’ve done. It seems a common way to deal with the self-conscious aspects of a productive life, to place your credentials, as it were, Over There In That Box. You can point to the file and say, well, if you want to know about me, look in there. And in that file you’ll find my publications, my award nominations, and the work I’ve done, etc etc., and, oh year, I live in St. Louis, I have a dog, I’m in love with Donna and so forth—which are still components, in a way, rather than actual revelations.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach and I certainly don’t think strangers have a right to expect more, but it’s not exactly a biography, is it? It’s more like a resume.
It doesn’t say anything about the fact that for me different music produces different kinds of writing, that if I’m trying to get inside the head of someone tormented I often listen to Ligeti and when I’m creating landscapes, I want Vangelis or Sibelius and when I need action, I find Last Fast or Joe Satriani or Bartok really helps. It doesn’t cover the fact that I use much of my music to unlock a feeling I can’t quite identify just for myself.
It doesn’t say anything about how much I like late evening sunlight shafting through miniblinds (or how the same effect, late at night, from streetlamps, really turns me on); or how the late afternoon sunlight across open fields in September strikes a kind of heroic melancholy in my mind, like the atmosphere of final days or impending loss or the denouement after a mighty adventure; or the fact that I’ve never read a book that has made me weep, but there are certain films that do it to me almost every time…
In other words, bios like this don’t say much about me.
But my stories do, if you remember that they are not and never have been biographical.
A paradox? Not really. You put what you feel into a story. How that feeling is evoked is unimportant as long as it’s true, and you don’t need personal revelation in terms of history to do it. Everyone has these feelings, and they own them, and they were all evoked differently, so fiction that talks about the personal need not be about the author to work.
But you still ought to be able to say something in a bio about yourself that makes you at least seem interesting to total strangers.
I’m still working on all this.
The surprise is we haven’t seen this “solution” proposed more often as overtly.
Here is a lesson on how not to try to make intractable cultural traditions compatible with intractable reality under dubious moral imperatives.
But what this really shows is the limit of patience. People hammer away at something that refuses to yield to the methods being employed and rather than change methods, eradicate the problem.
This sort of things make it so easy to be a cynic.
According to law professor Brent T. White, many of the home owners who currently owe more on their mortgage than the house is worth should stop paying their mortgages and walk away from their houses:
[F]ar more of the estimated 15 million U.S. homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike. Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they “have no reasonable prospect of recouping” in the years ahead. Plus the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume, he says.
In a post from a few months ago, Matt Tabbi described the peasant mentality so common in America today. It’s a mindset that refuses to criticize the ruling class, no matter how oppressive things get:
After all, the reason the winger crowd can’t find a way to be coherently angry right now is because this country has no healthy avenues for genuine populist outrage. It never has. The setup always goes the other way: when the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That’s why even people like Beck’s audience, who I’d wager are mostly lower-income people, can’t imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over. . . But actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit.
The answer is yes. Encouraged by the mathematics, a stunt man pulls it off.