Tuesday, November 10. 2009
It might help if I tested technologies before I wrote about them. I've read a whole bunch of critiques of Outlook's handling of RSS feeds, and even following my own instructions I ran into some trouble with them. It looks like Outlook will not remember the RSS settings if you create the feed as I described.
Isn't technology fun?
So, after a few more test posts to make sure things are running smoothly, I'll correct my instructions. Normally, I wouldn't bore my readers with such things, but Blogland has a ready-fire-aim pacing. And I need more posts to see how quickly things will distribute. <evil scientist hiss>Patience, my little guinea pigs.</evil scientist hiss>
Monday, November 9. 2009
I'm just testing the RSS feed to make sure it comes through in a timely manner. If you see this post, it's probably because you already know more about RSS than I do. This post will self-destruct in about ten minutes.
Friends and family have frequently (all too frequently, sadly) carped about the fact that I'm not posting as regularly as I used to, and after years of daily posts it's a drag to check the site day after day and see nothing new. Wouldn't it be nice if new stuff I wrote just showed up in your email inbox?
Well, such hypermodern technology exists. It's been around for longer than this blog, in fact. It's called RSS, which stands for "Really Simple Syndication." It must not be that simple, because the majority of people I know (including me) don't use it. But, for what it's worth, here's how you can get Abandon Text delivered to your Outlook 2007 inbox:
Friday, December 26. 2008
One item in my stocking this year was Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers. Literary myth holds that Ernest Hemingway – often acknowledged as the king of minimalist style – was challenged to write a six-word story, and he produced: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Six-word stories are a now a haiku's haiku, an exercise in conciseness so easy and yet so challenging that it has drawn attention from accomplished writers and neophytes alike. I've known about the form for a while. A couple years ago Wired Magazine ran a fun six-word story collection with a star-studded list of contributors, especially sci-fi greats like David Brin ("Metrosexuals notwithstanding, quiche still lacks something."), Orson Scot Card ("The baby's blood type? Human, mostly."), Joss Whedon ("Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.") and Steve Meretsky ("He read his obituary with confusion.")
This book of memoirs also had a number of recognizable names in it, though most would only be known to a fraction of the readers. I'm glad the editors decided not to annotate any of the contributions, and let readers discover for themselves the connections between the memoirs and their subjects. I was surprised and gratified to notice Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist of whom I'm a fan. His entry was simple and descriptive: "Struggled with how the mind works." After reading the entire book, I thought it was a credit to his life and his writing that he could sum up his work so well. You have to have a singular purpose, or at least a singular direction or style, for six words to be sufficient.
The best contributions (IMHO) were from the top-drawer professional wordsmiths. Stephen Colbert, political satirist, nailed both his content and his style: "Well, I thought it was funny." So did Roy Blount, Jr., a Southern story-teller and humorist: "Maybe you had to be there." Honorable mention for cleverness goes to Jimmy Wales, creator of the Wikipedia: "Yes, you can edit this biography."
The rest of the entries were interesting, but usually not for their individual merit. I was curious about the patterns I saw; there are only so many approaches one can take to the task, and I was intrigued by the repetition of certain themes. Probably the most common theme was regret, with lots of contributions chronicling the dark side of life:
"Fell in love. Married. Divorced. Repeat."
"Crappy parents killed my self-esteem."
"Thought I would have more impact."
The complaints and regrets were only slightly outnumbered by pithy, shallow expressions of joy. For instance, from the king of pithy and shallow, Deepak Chopra: "Danced in fields of infinite possibility." Or this: "Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise." You get the idea. After reading four or five of them, with no detail to sustain them, and no truth to back them up, they all run together in a boring blur.
Slightly more interesting were the contributions that zoomed in on life-changing events. For instance:
"After eighteen years, sold my book."
"Running away: best decision I made."
"I auditioned. I got the part."
I think I liked those the best. They were distinctive and personal and spoke to what mattered most for these people. I occasionally qvelled at simple, honest, unpretentious summations of family happiness. For instance: "Found true love after nine months." There were a lot of those, too, but their honesty made up for their repetition.
Of course, you can't read such things without trying to compose your own. It would be a great exercise for a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting. I jokingly proposed one for my wife, who is pregnant with our third child, and anxious about it: "Three may have been too many." For myself . . . I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with. The simplest might be, "Sought enlightenment. Made software. Now writing." That doesn't have much punch, which doesn't bode well for me.
Sunday, December 14. 2008
I reflected some more on the nature of fairness, and the nature of selfishness, in light of my recent political experiences. I was a little surprised, and a little scared, by how easily the mind can flip from an attitude of "let's figure out what's fair" to "me-me-me-me-me!" Evidently the wiring for both programs is present in my brain, and either can be activated at any time, with very little cognitive dissonance.
An image keeps coming to mind -- a scene from a movie. Actually, an archtypal scene that turns up in almost every action/adventure/thriller/drama movie. Three guys (they might be women, but usually men) are standing around facing each other at a cautious distance. They are all heavily armed (guns, swords, mystical powers, whatever). They all know each other, either through long collaboration or long competition or usually a little of both. Some treasure is in their midst -- cash from a bank heist, the Ark of the Covenant, the last piece of bread, whatever. They all want it. They may or may not be willing to share it. None of them completely trusts the others, however. The tension is excruciating. Dialog ensues. On the surface, they are negotiating, cooperating, suggesting . . . but the audience knows that at any moment the talk may end and guns will blaze.
The scene could resolve in any number of ways. The tension might be temporarily postponed: "Look, we're never gonna get out of this cave if we're shooting each other." New alliances might form, and enemies become friends: "You're right. We must defeat the Warlock . . . together!" But more often than not, guns will blaze and only one will be left standing. Regardless of the outcome, the scene pivots on the same question: is it time for trust, or is it time for shootin'?
Note that the characters on stage could be all bad guys, or all good guys, or a mix of good and bad guys, or a mix of totally ambiguous characters. It doesn't really matter. The soul of drama lives in the one question: trust or fight?
It's no coincidence that this question is wound throughout practically every story we bother telling. The dynamic tension is built in to human nature. We are built to trust, and we are also built to fight. We have friends and we have enemies. Our big brains are primarily dedicated to sorting the one from the other.
Tuesday, December 2. 2008
I keep mulling over the importance of narrative – literally, story-telling -- in human thought. It's clear to me that stories are powerful vehicles for human thought: far more effective than anything else for transmitting knowledge, retaining information, communicating emotion, inspiring action, and sharing wisdom than any other mode of discourse, bar none. And yet . . . philosophers seem to have a very ambivalent relationship with story-telling.
Philosophers do plenty of story-telling – the good ones, anyway. Augie Turak is an excellent raconteur, and his teacher Richard Rose was as well. As much as they loved to talk about the Truth (with a capital T), it was also clear that they loved a good story almost as much. (Augie often said, only half in jest, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.") And if Jesus taught in parables, why shouldn't the rest of us? One of the best lessons I took away from the SKS was how much better stories were at revealing the soul than any abstract argument. I could listen to people talk about religious paradigms and theories for hours, and know almost nothing about them. Then, almost by accident, someone would tell a story, and instantly I knew much more about who they really were, what they really valued, and how their minds worked. Stories had a magic about them . . . and anyone who read the great novelists, poets, and playwrights couldn't help but know that stories could point out the truth.
And yet . . . there is also a powerful distrust of the story, especially when people become aware of its story-ness. Who are the people we distrust the most? Why, the story-tellers: the used-car salesman, the marketer, the huckster. The media, the politicians, the self-appointed prophets. Anyone who crafts a story that is calculated to change our behavior is seen as counterfeit, slick, superficial, false. We even euphemistically refer to lying as "telling someone a story." Especially when it comes to matters of religious, spiritual or philosophic conviction, it is extremely important to us that we are hearing the truth and not "just a story." Many spiritual teachers seem to have a distain for stories as so much mental noise that gets in the way of our perceptions of the truth.
So what are we to do? We long to find the truth, and yet all our minds have to work with are stories. The very thing that lets us taste the truth is also the thing that seems to stand in our way.
Thursday, November 20. 2008
In one of his recent New Yorker articles, "Late Bloomers", Malcolm Gladwell delivers good news to me: not all genius artists are young. Some, like Picasso or Melville, do their greatest work in their twenties, but then others, like Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, or Cezanne, make their greatest work in their forties and fifties. It's not too late for me!
Well, maybe the news is not as great as I first thought. Gladwell goes on to explore what makes these two artistic life cycles so different. The late bloomers, he explains, are exploratory -- they don't know where they are going when they start, and they spend a great deal of time trying to discover what they want to express in the process of creation. Ok, that sounds like me: a guy who starts writing a blog one day with no clear direction.
Now the bad news: those late bloomers can take a looooong time, years and years, to get to great work. Their early work is often poor . . . which means they have to spend a lot of time compensating for their lack of native talent with practice, experience, and brute trial-and-error. The process often requires patronage -- external support from sponsors, friends, spouses, and day jobs.
I got a lot of work ahead of me.
I guess I can still hope that I'm a young genius who is just getting a late start, instead of a dedicated grind who might eventually slave his way to greatness. I wrote some pretty good stuff in my twenties. . .
Yeah, right. I got a lot of work ahead of me.
The variation that we see in the life cycles of artists might be reflected in those of spiritual figures as well. Sometimes relatively young people (Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle) are seized by spiritual experiences and seem to reach some high level of insight without much evident struggle (though sometimes tremendous pain). Others, it seems, have to live through life, suffering through disillusionment and a long series of humiliations before they finally break through. Richard Rose guessed that any dramatic spiritual awakening had to happen before the age of 30, or else the seeker wouldn't have enough vital energy to "make the trip." Andrew Cohen, on the other hand, speculated that most people had to be over thirty before they would be disillusioned enough to seriously devote themselves to liberation. Vedic traditions recognized intense spiritual lifestyles could be appropriate for the young (the brahmachari) and the old (the sannyasi ).
Lots of ways up the mountain . . . some a lot longer than others.
Saturday, November 8. 2008
I like that. I think I'll use that as the title for my first book: Contrary to Popular Belief. I'm not sure what it's about yet, but it's a killer title.
It might be about Malcolm Gladwell. When people have asked me what sort of writing I wanted to do, I have often said, "I want Malcolm Gladwell's job." That is, I want to write lengthy non-fiction about fascinating topics that have real relevance and make you stop and think. But I got to thinking: what does Malcolm Gladwell write about? How can you describe what he does?
Eventually I found the pattern. Almost everything Gladwell writes about is some way in which research or analysis shows that what we would expect to be true, isn't. He takes some commonly held belief about the world, and then stands it on its head. For example:
I could go on for pages, but why bother? Look for yourself in Gladwell's archive of New Yorker articles and you'll see the pattern again, and again, and again. It's a really good pattern – almost guaranteed to be engaging, interesting, and relevant.
So, now I have the formula, right? Maybe . . . but first I'll have to see if I can reproduce it. Just because I know what he's doing, doesn't mean I can do it . . . contrary to popular belief . . .
Saturday, March 22. 2008
My heartfelt thanks to everyone who inquired â€“ sympathetically, encouragingly, mildly annoyed, or pointedly skeptical â€“ about what the hell was going on with my blog, and wasn't I supposed to be writing more now, anyway?
Well, yes, that was the idea. But I've learned a few things since I embarked on this quest to start a new writing career:
Saturday, February 9. 2008
My wife and I have been slooowly working our way through all five seasons of Six Feet Under for the last . . . well, six years. Now that we're just three episodes away from the end, I believe I have finally cracked the code and have the formula for writing a "Six Feet Under" story arc:
See how the pattern matches (warning: massive spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Six Feet goes Under"
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