Friday, June 27. 2008
For some reason, theological questions always seem to come up at bath-time. Aidan, standing naked in the shower, said, for no particularly visible reason:
"You know, Dad, Jesus sounds like a story."
"Mmmm . . . what do you mean?"
"Well, magical things like that don't happen very often, except in stories."
What could I say? "Well, that's a very astute observation," I said. He said no more on the matter, and neither did I.
*Â Â Â Â *Â Â Â Â *
When I was in my teens, questions of religious truth were dichotomous: either you believed in Jesus, or you didn't, and anything in-between was either dishonest or lazy. I was aggravated with people who said squishy things like, "Well, no, I don't think it's literally true, but I think it's a beautiful story, a metaphor for an eternal truth." I was not much interested in metaphors, back then. I wanted the truth, by God, and if all you got out of religion was a pretty story, I could hardly see how it would be worth all the bother and inconvenience. I suspected that the non-literalists were quietly trying to defang their religion, removing any claim it had on ruling their lives while still nursing some small bit of consolation and order from it. It smelled like a scam.
On the other hand, literal interpretation of scripture challenges even the most willing of minds. Even if you completely accepted the events of the Bible as literal fact, the reasoning behind them still makes no sense. Why, exactly, is Jesus' death necessary for my salvation? Why should belief be the determining factor in the afterlife, when action is the determining factor in everything else in life? Even when I was perfectly willing to accept it all, the basis of its reasoning felt foreign, and primitive, and weird, and wrong.
There is a whole school of theological thought that regards religion as fabulation â€“ as story-telling. Story-telling has its own logic and rules, which are not the rules of science. A story can be true â€“ that is, true to life -- without being literally true. That was always the reason I loved great literature: the feelings it prompted in me were identical to the feelings of religion. Rapture. Awe. Longing. Resonance.
There is no such thing as "just" a story. Stories hold a more powerful influence over our thinking than abstract theories. All the things that make life possible and worthwhile â€“ love, honor, duty, commitment, trust, peace, justice â€“ bear a stronger resemblance to story than scientific fact.
I cannot really claim to be teaching my kids anything about religion. I tell them the stories . . . lots of stories. At some point, I expect them to be able to see stories for what they are: the language of the psyche, and pointers to the truth. Until then, the stories will work on their imaginations and hearts.
Monday, June 23. 2008
Some readers have commented on the fact that they're seeing some post-dated entries popping up in the blog. No, you're not imagining it â€“ have been writing stuff, but then failing to post them the same day, and so they molder while I get distracted. I try to post things on the days I actually wrote them, just to be representative of my writing activity. I realize that this is antithetical to my original mission, which was to write something, anything every day and then post it no matter what â€“ I'm supposed to abandon my text.
Sigh . . . try, fail, get up, try again, repeat until success or the apocalypse.
I dreamt last night that I was running around an apartment building, checking and rechecking locks to keep some burglars at bay. It seemed that the same perps had been coming around to the same buildings routinely, and I thought if I just checked everything enough times I could catch them, and hold the intruding world at bay. The whole time I'm doing the checking, I'm waiting for someone to jump out and grab me. If it was a TV show, the suspense music would have been playing.
Sounds like a real nightmare for me. If my security depends on me locking down enough details in my life, then I'm doomed. Sometimes it seems like there is no "big picture," just an endless series of details to attend to. Or, worse yet, I see the big picture and despair entirely, and console myself with the small pleasures of small tasks.
I got up this morning, shuffled through my usual morning routine. Pet the dogs as they mug me the moment my feet touch the floor. Brushed my teeth, went downstairs with the dogs' bowls to dish up their breakfast, back upstairs to give them their food in their crates, back downstairs to make coffee, and then finally settle in study to work.
Hmmm, no email. That's odd. I poked at one web page, picking up where I'd left off the previous evening, and suddenly get the blank whiteness of a 404 message. A Skype icon, forelornly grey, was spinning it's little heart out in the system tray. Ugly red X's dotted other items in the system tray. My business phone, with a kind of frantic earnestness, is spinning its own "wait" icon while it assured me: "Opening 184.108.40.206 . . . "
Shit. The internet's down.
What is this feeling? A sort of blankness . . . For a moment my head had stopped completely. I couldn't even complete the thought of what to do next, because I knew through experience that anything I might want to do at the moment was tied to a network connection that didn't exist. Wait for a thought to come . . . Nope. Still blank. I craned my neck at the bank of blinking lights on the bookshelves, all the routers and switches who were happily blinking away, still convinced they were doing something useful. I mechanically unplugged the cable modem, waited five seconds, plugged it in again. Sat in the blankness. The icons remained unchanged.
I've seen this happen to some of my clients from time to time . . . They sit there, staring at their screens, eyes flitting about, and then they say with anger, or frustration, or resignation, but always with a sense of helplessness: "I can't do anything." Sometimes I might offer, "Well, surely there's something productive you can do right now . . . You can still use your computer. You have everything there."
"No," they say, "I can't do anything."
We're undone by the collective weight of several compulsive behaviors: the desire to check email, to see who's online in IM, to pull up the news, read the blogs . . . It seems like everyone has their own set of internet-based rituals for starting their work, and if those rituals are interfered with, everything stops dead. I am no different. I might flail around at my desk, picking up papers that are asking for something to be done with them, but they only remind me of something that needs to be done online: "I could enter those reciepts, but then . . . Crap, the online banking wouldn't work . . . Here's that letter, I need to email so-and-so about that . . ." Had the gods struck me blind and deaf and dumb, I couldn't feel any more useless.
I couldn't even go get a cup of coffee. I already had done that.
What a perfect opportunity to meditate. If you want to embrace the Advaita tradition of thoughtless awareness, connected to the Ground of Being with no particular thought to limit your sense of self, just do this: sit at your computer when the internet connection is down.
Saturday, June 14. 2008
I was feeling tired at the end of the day while I was putting the kids to bed. It's a typical feeling: you feel like going to sleep, but you have miles to go. You cuddle with your four-year-old to get him to sleep, and you're fighting the desire to fall asleep yourself because you know you have work you have to do, especially in the quiet hours when the children are asleep and the phone will not ring.
In that state, I walked into Aidan's room to tuck him in. On the floor I saw a tableau of toys arranged in one his complex scenes. As my eyes adjust to the dim light of the seahorse nightlight, I saw what he had done. Every single wooden animal he had collected over his seven years of life had been lined up, in a huge arch that wrapped around most of the floor space in his room. They were arranged from largest to smallest, with the enormous moose and caribou and elephant leading the way, and a progressively smaller cavalcade of horses, cows, lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, and whatnot following behind, finally trailing down to a thin strand of yellow baby chicks no bigger than your little fingernail. Most of the parrots and other jungle-birds were riding on the backs or antlers of the bigger animals . . . But a matched set of bison were carrying bird stand on their backs, with a fanned out arrangement of birds, like one of those tall floats in a Mummer's parade.
That's what this is: a parade . . . A celebration in which all the glory of the community is marched out. The great chain of being, out for review.
My reaction is odd. Normally a floor covered with toys would just provoke exasperation in me. I would wonder if my children are spoiled with so much stuff. Have we, for all our careful effort at education, merely churned out a new brood of materialists, just with finer tastes? Wouldn't this, after all, be the sort of arrangement you'd see in toy catalog? But no . . . No toy merchant would ever think to march a caribou side-by-side with an elephant, nor to adorn his antlers with a parakeet. No marketer would think to tilt the two sheep's heads together, like they were gossiping together while waiting in line.
Maybe it was the dim light, blessing everything with the aura of quiet. Maybe it was the careful arrangement, the precise ordering by size. For some reason, the scene moved me. This was the work of someone who is trying to make sense of their world.
"What's this?" I asked Aidan.
"I have fifty-three of them," he said. "That's a lot."
"Yes," I said. "That's a lot. We have a lot to be thankful for."
I guess he was counting his blessings. I was reminded to do the same.
Sunday, June 8. 2008
If you merely told me the plot of Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I would never go see it. It took my collective admiration for Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton, and Steven Sondheim to push me over the edge. Johnny Depp has a perverse pride in taking bizarre roles (e.g. Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands) so it seemed like an inevitable casting for him to play Sweeney Todd. Likewise, with roles like The Corpse Bride and Bellatrix LaStrange under her belt, Helena Bonham Carter was a perfect fit for Mrs. Lovett. Together they are Mr. and Mrs. Fey, fascinatingly dark, the new standard every Goth teen will measure themselves against. Once you see them together, you can't imagine anyone else in the roles.
As far as I can tell, Sweeney Todd is the only work of its kind: a musical horror. After all that blood (oh my God how much blood) my wife wondered aloud, "Who would ever think of making a musical about that?" We are not fans of horror, unless is it thoroughly diluted with humor or action or fantasy (e.g. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Sandman comics) so we had to watch the bonus features on the DVD just to give us time to process the whole experience and let the shock and, er, horror settle down.
On further reflection, though, I decided that Sweeney Todd is really in complete alignment with classical tragedy. A vengeful barber killing his customers and baking them into pies is sort of thing you'd find in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, or Greek mythology. Is Mr. T. any more horrific than the witch in Hansel and Gretel, who captured and ate children, or Procrustes, the innkeeper who stretched or hacked his customers to make them fit their beds? From that perspective, you can see that Stephen Sondheim is drinking from the same well as Shakespeare, with similar results: love, betrayal, vengeance, plots, and a whoooooole lot of blood.
Thematically, Sweeney Todd reminds me of MacBeth more than anything else: in both plays the audience gets suckered into identifying with a once-virtuous hero, and we follow him down on his descent into evil. We share in Benjamin Barker's desire to avenge himself and his wife against the foul Judge Turpin, so we're all-too-happy to join him in his plotting. When it results in the untimely demise of Pirelli, we're a little shocked but not quite horrified yet; he had it coming, didn't he? By the time Mr. T. embarks on wholesale slaughter, we're horrified, but it's too late â€“ we've already identified with his vengeful mission, already prepared ourselves to have a little blood on our hands. It's telling how the audience can conditionally accept the premise of his amorality: "What man doesn't deserve death?" Everybody, to some extent, shares his loathing for the ubiquity of human darkness, even in ourselves; and we wouldn't watch Rated-R films unless we all enjoy, to some degree, the thrill of violent rampage. So we can even follow Todd into his grisly business partnership with Mrs. Lovett, especially with it wrapped in the veneer of black humor. And women and children, the traditional vessels of innocence, are still spared. It's only when little Toby discovers the secret, and Todd and Lovett plot the murder of a child, all the while singing a lilting lullaby of "No one's going to harm you," that we see them for the monsters they have become.
Can anything so blood-drenched have a moral theme? "Evil begets evil" is the probably the best synopsis. Benjamin Barker might have been good once, but he was a ruined man by the time he gets back to London. In the very first scene he fails to shake the innocent sailor Anthony's hand. That sets the tone for ever after: he's a haunted man too preoccupied with evil thoughts to notice life reaching out to him. He can show affection and friendship for no one but his razor-blades, whom he addresses in song as "My Friends." Mrs. Lovett, in her twisted fashion, tries to lure him back to the world of living men, a world with careers and families and futures, but he's past recall. Even when he knows that he could be reunited with his daughter, the last living vestige of his lost life, he chooses revenge over love, death over life. Is it any wonder, then, that the momentum of his evil carries him past his objective, so that his final victim is the very wife he thought he lost? And that in realizing that tragedy, the wickedness of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett finally and abruptly comes to an end?
The formula for classic horror, then, is the flip-side of grace. Plays about redemption show how even the blackest of hearts can turn back to the light. Horror, on the other hand, demonstrates the fate awaiting those who choose the darkness. It can be morally enlightening, to take a long hard look into the darkness.
Tuesday, June 3. 2008
Yesterday I started tracking all my time â€“ not just my work time, which I had to account for anyway, but all my "personal" time as well. Being a software guy, I thought, "Surely there's some clever piece of software, maybe integrated with Microsoft Outlook, that makes it easy to track where you're time is going." Seeing as how I share this problem with the majority of the human race, I thought it would be easy to find dozens of offerings on time-tracking.
I must be from another planet, because almost no one seems to think tracking every moment of one's time, and then reporting on it, is a good idea. I mean, scads of products provide a way to track one's business expenses or billing time against customers, but no one seems to be thinking about time the way I am:
I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too. You're thinking, "What a geek. I don't know any successful people whipping stop-watches out to time their conversations. There's obviously something wrong with the way you're approaching this." And yet I keep coming back to this, not only in my own life but in others as well. I routinely see people in sales-oriented jobs get buried under paperwork and bureaucratic processes, and have ever-decreasing time to actually spend talking to customers. Ergonomic experts minutely examine factory floors to find the most efficient way to do things, creating wonderful efficiencies . . . couldn't that be done at an individual level as well?
But most importantly . . . the level of consciousness I bring to the day is completely different when I have one eye on the clock. I got a lot of stuff done yesterday, and I know it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been determined to record what value I was really getting out of the time. I hope, eventually, that I don't need all this data, but the consciousness is what I want to keep.
Monday, June 2. 2008
Readers of these posts will remember that about a year and a half ago, I embarked on a quest for the perfect Schedule. When it came to feeling in control of my life, I had hit bottom. I was forever reacting to crises in my life, switching focus from work life to spiritual life to family life, and constantly feeling like I never had enough time to do what needed doing. I routinely overcommitted to tasks and projects, with a long trail of missed deadlines, frustrated customers, and stressed-out managers in my wake. I was Stephen Covey's worst nightmare.
I eventually diagnosed the problem as my inability to be faithful to priorities in the heat of the moment. I was too swayed by the sense of urgency surrounding whatever was right in front of me. The cure, I thought, was to take that decision-making power away, but blocking out all my time in a Schedule. The Schedule, I thought, would remove all ambiguity about my time commitments and force me to really give time to the things that were most important to me, as well as making me more efficient by grooving my life into a reproducible routine instead of a series of attention-binges.
The Schedule more or less worked. I started getting regular sleep, exercising routinely, and wrote every day in my blog. I mostly stopped working on the weekends. I started doing more of the important-not-urgent things, especially with financial matters. I was generally pleased with the results.
But . . . not entirely happy. The Schedule succeeded in its primary goal, to make me fully conscious of where my time was going. I was making the most of my "free" time, but there was no getting around the fact that after my job, sleep, and basic family obligations were met, I had all of a couple hours a day to do "the important stuff." My commitments to community, to spiritual life, and to my writing ambitions was still crammed into an untenable amount of time. Something had to give.
Well, something has given. About nine months ago, in August of last year, I made the fateful decision that I needed more time, and I wanted the time more than I wanted money. I gave notice to my boss that I needed to cut way back; I still wanted to work in the consulting business, but no more than two days a week. We made a plan to transition me out of my role in the company over the next six months. Nine months later that transition had still not happened, and my boss (one of the best human beings on the face of the planet) decided we just needed to do it and be done with it. A couple weeks ago I started working half-days, four days a week, plus a staff meeting on Friday morning.
Wow. I quit my day job. Or, at least, as close as I could afford to doing so.
How does it feel? I would like to say that I feel victory, a sense of triumph at having seized control of my life and moved it toward a more fulfilling, more conscious vocation. I had thought I would feel hope, vigor, renewed freedom, excitement at all this new time.
The truth is I'm stressed out. I didn't anticipate the psychic toll of working at a job, and not being able to give it 110% of my energy. It's taking twice as much management attention (and the corresponding stress) to work half the time, because every decision about what to work on has far greater consequences. My blogging groove had faltered in the months I was fashioning my exit strategy, and I've struggled to regain it. New challenges in my life â€“ moving my mother-in-law into our city, sustaining our kid's school through a management transition and financial crunch â€“ have risen up to lay claim to all the time I thought would be "freed up." And on top of all that I have my closest friends asking me every few weeks, "So, how's the writing coming?" and still not having a good answer.
In the Self Knowledge Symposium we have a saying: "When the Zen is happening to you, it doesn't feel like Zen. It feels like shit." I have no doubt that I am doing everything that must be done. It's just been harder than I expected.
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