Tuesday, October 23. 2007
Working with the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund has led me to meditate long and hard about the virtues of charitable giving. I remember Augie Turak often said that everyone should being a salesman at some point in their life, because it would give them newfound appreciation for human nature and the process of persuasion. In the same vein, I think everyone should at some point try to raise money for a cause they believe in. It forces you to think about money, and your relationship to money, and how that relationship to money influences everything else in your life.
I was surprised to learn that philanthropy is a predominantly American phenomena. While most other developed nations have more extensive government involvement in taking care of their own people, America is unique in having a culture that gives away a lot of money. That makes sense -- in the same way that we like having a free market of goods and services, we like having a free market of social causes. Rather than have the government decide what's best for everyone, we vote with our dollars, supporting the causes we believe in, and persuading others to do the same.
And yet, giving money is not something that comes naturally. I would like to think of myself as a generous person, and yet looking back I realize that it took me a long time to learn to give. I have vague memories of my mother giving me money to put in the church offering plate, but I don't think I ever seriously considered putting my own money in the plate when I was young. Money was for saving, or money was for spending, but giving it away was completely foreign, something other people did. Even after I left home and was independent, that frame of mind continued for a long time; if someone hit me up for a donation, the same mental barriers that protect me from retail salesmen and Amway pitches would come slamming down: no thank you! Not interested! Go away!
Eventually, though, I was exposed to charity through necessity. Working with the Self Knowledge Symposium in college, I needed to pay for posters, and the only way to do it was to pass the hat. Well, no, actually I would rather have washed cars or sold donuts or do any other kind of fund-raiser, rather than walk around the room and ask my friends for money. But Augie insisted on having a collection from within the group, and for good reason. Giving money, even a dollar or two, has a tangible psychological effect. You might have thought that you really cared about it, before, but once your money is involved, suddenly you care about it more. We got money lots of other ways, of course, and lots more of it, too . . . but I understand now that people's hearts follow their wallets. They value what they pay for, and they value even moreÂ what they give to.
Once that donation-barrier had been broken -- once I had given money to a cause I believed in, and asked others to do the same -- now suddenly the whole world of charitable giving opened up to me. Something had flipped inside of me; instead of grudgingly surrending my cash, I wanted to be a person who gave. The similar parallel attitude emerged in me with volunteerism; the SKS immutably turned me into a lifetime volunteer. I think people who freely give their time to benefit the collective are superior human beings. I think people who don't are, like the Grinch, living with hearts two sizes too small.
I started giving to other causes. I think I started with WUNC, my local public radio station. Then came my schools, and Mepkin Abbey, and some small magazines. They were small gifts, but regular, and eventually, routine. I was in the habit now. It took a few more years until I became a tither -- charity was now a part of my budget. I really wish I could say that my expanding giving was the result of my expanding generosity, but really it was the other way around. The act of giving turned me into a generous person.
Monday, October 22. 2007
I was convinced thatÂ we needed to find an alternative education option for our kids. What were our options?
I went on a campus tour of the Emerson Waldorf School a few months before my first son was born. It was a beautiful day, and the wooded campus seemed especially picturesque with the sun filtering through the trees and the ground still damp from recent rain. Just walking to the meeting room, I thought, "What a wonderful place to come to every day." And that effect continued inside, too, in the Eurythmy room where the tour was gathering. What was it, exactly? The wood trim, the big windows, the color of the walls? The place felt extremely . . . comfortable. No, comforting -- something about it actively embraced you. I am not, temperamentally, a touchy-feely kind of guy, but my reaction to this place almost made me believe there was such a thing as an "inner child," because I had a spontaneous longing and sense of regret, something like, "I wish I'd grown up here." And all that before they even started talking.
And the talking only took me further in. They explained some of the nature of Waldorf schools, how every little detail is consciously created to meet the child at their level. I heard several teachers speak, and I was struck by how well they could articulate their philosophy of education. Though I didn't understand it completely, it was clear they had spine, a consistent approach to doing things that felt rigorous and well-defined. And yet they were also totally grounded in their own experience. When Ameli Fairman-Evans, the kindergarten teacher, spoke about the early education program and the skills the children are acquiring there, she said, with heartfelt tenderness, "You know, sharing is really hard." The way she said it convinced me that she herself was there, in the same world the children occupied, and all this pedagogical theory was both the result and the cause of a deep understanding of the child. German has two words for understanding: wissen for intellectual knowing about something, and kennen for personally experiencing something. Clearly these teachers had both.
After the orientation we walked outside again, touring the campus, looking at some of the classrooms and workshops and gardens where the children studied, worked, played. As we walked I spoke with Ingeborg Boesch, one of the teachers. I asked her, "So, you mentioned that stories play a big role in the teaching in the early grades . . . "
"Do all Waldorf teachers use the same stories, or do the teachers choose the stories themselves?"
"Oh, we all choose our own stories."
"So . . . what do you look for, in a story that you might use for teaching?"
I literally stopped dead in my tracks, and Frau Boesch had to turn around to continue talking. "Of course I don't mean literal truth, I mean that certain archetypes are contained --"
"No, no!" I said, holding my hands up, a wondrous grin on my face. "You don't have to explain. I understand completely."
And I did. The fact that someone could say that . . . that there were still teachers in the world who understood Truth, and who knew that their job was to lead students to their own experience of it . . . I was blown away. I think that was the exact moment I knew my kids would go to a Waldorf school.
Of course there were other influencing factors on that tour. For all of the feel-good vibe, the curriculum was both vigorous and broad. Two languages, music, drawing, handwork-- all on top of the reading, math, and science you would expect of any school. Looking at the beautiful objects in the woodshop, I'm sure I wasn't the only parent quietly thinking, "Damn, I couldn't make anything like that." A lot of us grew up thinking that we weren't the kind of person who could build something, or sing, or play music, or grow a plant, or draw . . . and Waldorf clearly believes that no such person exists. Implicit in its broad curriculum is an unspoken empowering message: you can do this. Nor do the teachers confuse nurturing with mollycoddling. One mother, nervously fingering a rasp in the handwork shop, said, "You make them wear gloves when they're using these tools, right?" Mr. Hagerman, the grandfatherly shop teacher, replied, "Of course not. They couldn't feel the wood if they did. We teach them how to use the tools safely, and absolutely no horseplay is allowed in the shop. But they need to learn to respect the tools; that also is part of the lesson."
So what did I think about my options now? Looking back, I laugh at my absolute hubris for thinking that I was the best person to education my children. I probably would have done better than the public schools, but looking at the Waldorf curriculum I realized how vast my ignorance was, how much I would have missed. Nor have I encountered any other school, public or private, that impressed me with its wisdom. I've seen other schools with tremendous faculty, and talented students, and beautiful facilities, and engaging curricula, but none of them ever manifested such a complete understanding of how to nurture the development of a complete human being. Â
Sunday, October 21. 2007
This past week I joined the steering committee for the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund. Since testimonials are one of the best ways to sell, I thought I'd share my own Waldorf story, since it has some spiritual significance.
Personally, I did very well in public school . . . if all you're looking at is the report card. I got great grades, stayed out of trouble, and went on to college without a hitch. I would be one of those students the public schools would be proud to claim as their own. The only problem was . . . well, everything else, everything besides the grades. I spent vast amounts of time in the earlier grades being hopelessly bored -- "Oh, jeez, not another geometry unit again? How many times are we going to have exactly the same lesson about parallelograms?" I managed to get along with other kids but never really had friends. I was high-strung, geeky, unsocialized, and generally unhappy, though I was too proud to admit it.
The public schools gave me a number of disappointing teachers along the way, and I have my mother to thank for watching carefully and knocking down anyone and anything that got in my way. One year I had a mentally unstable teacher who routinely lost assignments, accused people of not turning them in, and read passages of the historical novel sheÂ was writing to her third-graders, including scenes of colonial settlers being hung in their own homes by British soldiers. My mom volunteered to be an assistant in the classroom, and managed to shelter us from most of the damage. Another year my teacher only got us halfway through the reading text we were supposed to cover. The school administration shrugged its collective shoulders and planned to just let us repeat the text next year. My mom arranged for me to finish the text in the summertime. Because I stuttered in the earlier years, I had been tracked into the lowest reading level. My mom intervened again and arranged to demonstrate my reading comprehension was actually several grade levels above, and I moved from the lowest reading group to the highest. At that point the school was ready to just promote me a couple grade levels, but my mom (who herself had been unhappy when promoted past her age level) prevented it, knowing I was having a hard time fitting in as it was. When the local teacher's union threatened a nasty strike, my mom organized parents to monitor the picket lines for trouble.
So, by the time I finished school I had an largely negative impression of the public school system.Â Well, actually that's being generous -- I thought they sucked.Â Once I realized that I was smarter than the teachers, that I could read better than they could, and cared more about learning than they did,Â my teacher's-pet eagerness to please turned into silent contempt.Â There were some notable exceptions, though. I had a fantastic experience in a gifted program that took students out of the regular schools once a week and brought us together to do fun stuff -- build rockets, dig for artifacts, study mythology, conduct toga parties in Latin. It was a much-needed dose of oxygen to my intellectual life, a reassurance that school could be wonderful, even if it often wasn't. When we returned to the regular school to get our homework assignments, the teachers were often full of spite, angry that they were not deemed fit to teach the best and brightest, angry at anything that disrupted their educational reign. Later on, I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a public boarding school that took students for their last two years of high school. I had the same experience of elation: "oh my God, this is what school is supposed to be like." And I encountered the same spite from the regular school; teachers and guidance counselors told me it was a mistake, that I could get just as good an education at Brevard High.
So, even when public schools were exceptional, they were literally an exception --Â a special program that took me away from the usual schooling. Like most Americans, I believe in the ideal of public education. I don't think we can embrace a social order that promises the American Dream of upward mobility without giving people the educational opportunity to rise to the highest level of their talents. But I also can't argue with my experience that the public education system is broken, and that anything to shake it up is a Good Thing.
When it came time to consider school options for my own kids, I wasn't sure what I would do, but I knew for certain that:
(to be continued . . . )
Saturday, October 20. 2007
Pan's Labyrinth was a critical darling when it came out last year, and I had enjoyed Guillermo del Toro's production of Hellboy so much that I thought it would be slam-dunk for a Netflix pick. Psychological treatment of fairy tales,Â surreal interweaving of alternate realitiesÂ . . . sounds like my kind of movie. When young Ofelia's mother marries a ruthless army officer in the Franco regime, Ofelia finds herself out in the country, on the front-lines of a guerilla war. As the plots and counterplots of heroic revolutionaries and sadistic oppressors play out in the rural village, Ofelia finds herself lost in a fantastic struggle of her own, as fairies and a faun guide her through a quest to regain her lost heritage as the princess of the underworld.
EvenÂ the R-rating at the beginning did not really prepare me for the starkly terrifying violence that ensues. Notice I didn't say gratuitous violence -- every gruesome scene is measured out carefully, applied with maximum shock value, and furthers the story. Capitan Vidal's cold-blooded executions and torturings are so brutal that you will have to cuddle with your Bill of Rights at night to get to sleep. Ofelia's fairy world is no less horrific -- in one scene, when she enters the lair of a monster, she sees a sign of its previous victims, a pile of children's shoes that evokes Auschwitz as much as the Brothers Grimm. There is something about juxtaposing the real-world struggles with the fantastic ones that gives both of them more primal horror and fascination.
Still, the conceit that gives the story its strength is also its Achilles heel. The narrative never makes it clear whether Ofelia is really interacting with a magical realm, or whether it is all unfolding in her imagination. That carefully maintained ambiguity is a tribute to how tightly the story is plotted, but it has a distancing effect as well. I can never completely surrender, as Ofelia does, to the fantastic realm; it's a kind of anti-suspension-of-disbelief, in which nothing in the story can be taken for granted. So I find myself sitting back, analysing, sizing up the Faun, weighing Jungean archtypes, instead of just accepting the wonder and horror as it is presented.
There are spiritual themes lurking in the film, to the extent that they lurk in all fairy tales. Self-sacrifice abounds, but of a bloodier, more passionately stoic sort than American audiences may be ready to appreciate. I couldn't help but notice that for all the horror, nobody ever screams in this movie. Every time a character is shot or stabbed, there are blood-soaked clothes and stunned expression, but never so much as a moan. It feels like a Latin convention, that everyone must die with a look of transcendant, silent grief, as if they were being crucified.
But even the film is conscious of how much it makes of death scenes; when Capitan Vidal is facing his immanent end, he hands over his infant son to his captors and begins a some last-words speechifying: "Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him... " But the rebel spy Mercedes just cuts him off: "No. He won't even know your name." BANG! All that vanity and machismo, the cover for a heartless man, is blown away in a moment, and the conceits of evil masquarading as courage are shownÂ to be more illusory than even the world of fairy tales.
Wednesday, October 17. 2007
I finally saw Waking Life, the 2001 Richard Linklater film that has long competed to be the quintessentially SKS film. The trippy rotoscopic animation shows a young man moving from one surreal scene to the next, in what is eventually revealed to be a lucid dream from which he cannot wake. The premise is largely a vehicle for a series of philosophical conversations or monologues that touch on topics of free will, existentialism, evolution, time, consciousness, and pretty much any other heady philosophic subject you can think of.
Mostly, it works well . . . depending, I suppose, on what one means by "work". As entertainment it holds together -- each individual scene is short enough that it holds your attention, and many of the characters are such, um, well, characters that you have fun just watching them rant along. I suspect that Linklater deliberately made many of the characters so over-the-top to add a hint of self-parody to the whole work, a sly wink to the viewer as if to say, "This is all pretty wacky stuff, huh? But let's not take it too seriously." But for all that, it's clear that the film does take the ideas seriously and celebrates people who are passionate about their philosophy.
As a philosophic statement, the film works, in an acid-connection, don't-try-to-pin-it-down kind of way. The film is happy to suggest all the philosophic connections between topics without trying to convince you, which makes for better conversations about the film. Characters and objects in the film have a "floaty" quality to them, bobbing up and down and drifting from side to side . . . and it's clear the film is trying to put you in a similar state, where you're floating free in your perceptions and questioning the nature of your reality in a new and fresh way.
When you have such a "talky" film, it's always at risk of being over-explained. But what impressed me the most about Waking Life was its willingness to talk at such great lengths but still develop other themes without talking about them at all. Early in the film there's a scene in which a group of musicians are practicing and composing together. But when the film moves on to other scenes, their music continues to play, providing the exegetic score for the rest of the film. That simple scene creates meta-consciousness throughout the whole film, an awareness that the experience is being actively created and interpreted. Later on the musicians turn up again in a scene with tango dancers, and all the previous talk-talk-talk about making human connnections and living in the holy moment is suddenly manifest, right in front of you, without saying a word.
In another scene, the main character sits in a movie theater and watches a film, in which two guys talk about film and how film reflects life. At one point, the interviewee says, "There's a mosquito on your head, do you want me swat it?" and the two share a light moment. We the audience smile for a moment, and suddenly the film cuts back to the main character, also smiling at the scene. Bwanggg! Now we're suddenly conscious of our own reaction to the scene, reflected back at us by the characters themselves. How effortlessly this film keeps thunking you on the forehead, asking you to be aware of what's going on, and aware of being aware.
It doesn't always work. The film is about ten minutes too long; about the same time the main character is dragging his hands across his face, frustrated that he's still stuck in a lucid dream, we the audience are doing the same thing. We're ready for it to be over. But maybe that, too, was just a part of the plan, again reflecting our experience back at us. And that's easy to forgive, since when the lights finally do come up, we're jam-packed with enough memorable scenes and provocative ideas to power twenty conversations. Good party film.
Monday, October 15. 2007
I just started reading Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland, a novel my wife selected for our book club. Itâ€™s about an apocalyptic future, but such a quiet and personal apocalypse that you would hardly recognize it as such. The movies and TV have taught us that the end of our civilization will be accompanied by bomb-blasts or plagues, and in either case will involve huge crowds of screaming people. But this is a story of two home-schooled teenage girls who live in the back-woods of California, and when the outside world collapses around them they experience it with agonizing slowness. They never quite know why society has crumbled â€“ they hear contradictory stories about floods, earthquakes, and distance wars. What they do know is that no more gasoline available, that the electricity service has slowly but surely ceased, and that no more planes fly overhead. And while their privations might seem tame to those whoâ€™ve watched The Day After, the novel lovingly details the anguish of their dreams dying. Eva is a talented and aspiring ballet dancer; her sister Nell is applying to Harvard. Yet their lives and dreams are suddenly in limbo, and they have no idea how long they will have to wait until the power comes back on.
Into the Forest is so realistic that it might turn anyone into a survivalist. Survivalism is the morbid flip-side of every personâ€™s idle fantasies. When we feel like happy day-dreams, we imagine what we would do if we won the lottery. If we feel macabre, we think about how we would fare in a post-apocalyptic world. Iâ€™m pretty sure everyone does it. It has a certain seduction to it, because itâ€™s a potentially real future (certainly more possible than winning the lottery) and because there is not end to how far you can go with it. You start making predictions, making lists of things you would need, anticipating threats and opportunities, speculating on the best or worst place to be . . . you could lose yourself in that state of mind for ages. And some never come back out of it. Some sell their belongings, stock up on canned goods, and settle into compounds in undisclosed locations, prepared for the end to come.
Why does survivalism have so much pull for our imaginations? Well, duh . . . big brain in our heads, evolved for survival, hello? If somehow our brains are settled on the idea that the threat of societal collapse is real, then the on-board computer will keep cranking out strategies to persevere. Compared to the drab, monotonous repetition of most peopleâ€™s lives, survivalism provides an instant focus, a mission anyone can understand. What matters? Survival matters . . . so how do we stay alive? I am very glad that Into the ForestÂ doesn't merely dwell onÂ the matters of material survival, but addresses the more fundamental questions beneath it: what makes life worth surviving for?
Thursday, October 11. 2007
I will up in the mountains of Virginia this weekend. I'll probably not have internet access to post, though I will bring my computer and write. See you on Monday.
This year is the fiftieth anniversery of the publication of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I've read a couple different tributes thus far, including one in the Wall Street Journal. I've never read the novel, but I did drop in on some Objectivist meetings in college, at the urging of a friend of mine who was a diehard Randian. I've always been mildly intrigued by the philosophy that touts "the virtue of selfishness," and I thought it deserved some mention,Â especially in light of some of my recent posts about the vice of selfishness.
In spiritual discussions,Â people often misconstrue "transcending the ego" as "nullification of the ego" or "disregard for the individual self." If the egoic sense of self is so bad, why then let's beat ourselves up! At its most extreme, this turns into the stereotypical Christian guilt and shame: "I'm a bad person, a fallen being, deserving of nothing but punishment, and I must foresake all personal gratification in order to serve the well-being of others."
I think the Objectivist philosophy was primarily a reaction against this sort of self-recriminating morality. The simplistic formulation "serving self is Bad, serving others is Good" has some obvious logical flaws. If everyone is a self that is flawed and bad, then why are they so deserving of my help? Is happiness only morally justified when it's a gift from someone else? WTF?
Ayn Rand came back with some (literally) self-affirming characters, and constructed a philosophy that saw the nobility of taking care of yourself, and the wisdom of capitalism as a way everyone can help each other by helping themselves. It was logical, sensible, and (coming from a Russian emigrant who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps) very American.
Personally, I think both sides made the same mistake of thinking that selfishness and selflessness were mutually exclusive. The flagellating religious thought you could only embrace the whole by exoriating the individual. The Randroids think altruism can onlyÂ result inÂ compromising one's self-interest. Wait, kids, you're both right! Jesus called upon us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." It wasn't "love they neighbor and hate thyself", nor was it "love thy neighbor more than thyself." It was an equivalency -- your neighbor is important, and so are you.
And where does that equivalency come from? I don't think it's mere equivalency, but identity. Your recognition of the moral value of others comes directly from the intution that you and the other are not separate, but two manifestations of the same Self.
Wednesday, October 10. 2007
In a previous post I asked, "How much would be enough?" In spite of all my heady philosophy I didn't actually answer the question. I think the cognitive dissonance kept me from hitting the question head-on. I have decades of my own experience, and millenia of religious wisdom, to tell me that no amount of acquisition or achievement can produce lasting happiness. The correct answer to the question is: "You will never have enough. No matter how much you get, you will want more. Desire cannot be banished by being fulfilled."
That's the back-of-the-book answer, anyway. And for all that I've been preaching the need for spiritual transcendence to find peace, I still believe that some change in circumstance is going to make me happy. Or, at least I act that way. When I feel the existential angst closing in, I think, "If only I could have the writing career I always dreamed about." No doubt that will give way to: "If I only I could get something published," which in turn will give way to "If only I could get a book in print" and "If only I could hit the bestseller list." In my saner moments I forget all personal ambition, and studiously replace it with spiritual ambition: "If only I could meditate regularly", "If only I my community could grow and thrive", "If only I could get enlightened." Everything that promises relief will eventually recede.
Perhaps the question is unanswerable, because of who is asking the question. The ego, the limited sense of self, is one asking the question. You can tell by all the I, me, my, mine language in the answers. All those personal ambitions can still trundle along, longing for a state they can never enjoy. That doesn't mean we have to take them seriously.
Tuesday, October 9. 2007
I started watching my caffeine consumption recently . . . which is something I thought I would never do. I have always reveled in my caffeine addiction, in my never-ending quest for more time. It's life-enhancing. It makes me feel better, think better, do more of what I want to do. What's not to like? Every now and then I'll see the cumulative effects of some other habit, in myself or others, and I'll ask the question again: could I be doing something bad to myself with all this coffee and Coke? But no smoking gun emerges from the scientific research . . . at least, none that immediately gets contradicted by some other source.
[Time out for a pet-peeve rant: could all the people who thought it so important to post "research findings" on their websites please reference their sources? If I had a nickel for every web page with the words "a recent study found..." with no citation, I would have more money than Larry and Sergey.]
So why start worrying about caffeine now? My kids are playing a part in it. It's one thing for me to hypercharge my system with too much caffeine, but I'm not sure I would wish that upon my boys, at least not without some reflection. My sons learned how to make three different kinds of coffee -- instant, drip, and cappuccino -- by the time they were three. (They make it for me and mom, not themselves.) I worry that I have already romanticized something that might not have been the healthiest choice.
I also am trying to be much more conscious of my moment-to-moment work habits. For most of my life I have been physically high-strung. I can't sit still in a chair for longer than fifteen minutes without feeling the urge to get up and walk around, or figet in some other way. Figiting burns calories, which is good for staying thin, but I've started wondering to what extent it compromises the efficiency of my work. Whether I'm writing or programming, my work requires prolonged, uninterrupted attention, and I suspect I might be a lot faster at it if I could just keep my butt in the chair for longer periods of time.
If nothing else, it makes for an interesting mindfulness exercise. I decided to keep drinking my usual coffee (one at 5 am, one at 8 am, one at 1 pm, and some lightweight stuff after dinner) but to cut out all the extraneous cola drinking in between. I didn't feel any withdrawal effects, but I was surprised at how often I found myself standing in front of the fridge, ready to pour some Diet Coke, and suddenly remembering I had decided not to. Not just once or twice, but six times in eight hours. And that doesn't even count the times I got as far as the kitchen and got a glass of water instead. Man, I had no idea how totally unconscious I was of my consumption.
Some schools of meditation, such as S.N. Goenka's Vipassana Centers, maintain that cultivating moment-by-moment bodily awareness is the secret to emotional equanimity and self-control. If you can tune into subtle physical sensations, you can notice the niggling urge that made you get out of your chair in the first place, before some hidden compulsion sent you to the fridge. So, while the jury's still out on whether caffeine itself is all that bad, I could learn a lot just by watching myself test the boundaries of the addiction.
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