Productivity?

As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.

I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.

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Life, Database, and Narrative

Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward  on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.

Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.

I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.

It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.

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Return (for now)

Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.

But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.

Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.

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Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
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Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday

Today is the famous “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday. An early influence on my writing–though fortunately not on my lifestyle–Thompson’s own style is incredibly idiosyncratic.  With its own sort of caustic, violent, debauched poetry, it sings in places with rhapsodic eloquence. It can also be quite insightful.

[image from phrases.org]
[image from phrases.org]

So in honor of his birthday, here’s a link to a letter he wrote giving some advice about finding a meaningful life. It echoes his Nietzsche-like adage, “Buy the ticket, take the ride” and shows the candor and humility that characterizes some of his better writing. I hope you enjoy.

Also, happy Nelson Mandela Day. Get a peek at the Google Doodle for some moving quotes. If anything, I think both men, in their own vastly different ways, strove to criticize the hypocrisies and silences that uphold corruption, injustice, and oppression.

A Beautiful Tribute to the Writer of Calvin and Hobbes

I found this link today to some inspiring words from Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes series. The words critique the high-climbing, fast-paced American view of success and happiness: work hard, keep climbing, and one day you’ll be happy, or at the very least you’ll have fame, success, and a lot of money. Pointing out the statistics and the logical fallacies  to view entails is not new. Neither is Watterson’s encouragement to break away from social pressure and follow personal passions, ignoring the flak and shame that comes from following “the road less traveled.”

[image courtesy of NPR]
[image courtesy of NPR]
Some people may think such encouragement is trite or naive. It’s the sort of drivel that idealistic college kids tell themselves when struggling in classes and accruing debt or peppy elementary teachers post on walls, but ultimately, it’s a lie,as pervasive and false as the American dream. But when one considers the way Watterson lived out his own advice, the words gain a new depth. He did resist corporate pressure and created one of the most beloved, evocative comic strips around. Not everyone would want to fallow his path, and many may think his reclusive life unstable and unhealthy.

But still, hearing such words in such a monoculture of competition and corporate ambition is refreshing. Hearing such words from Watterson, transformed into a homage by cartoonist Gavin Aung Than–that is truly moving:

“This Incredible Tribute to Calvin and Hobbes will Make you Cry”

Birth of a Francophile

An older piece that used to be another blog that is, alas, no more. I found it again today, made some edits, and decided to post it, being an old favorite of mine. Enjoy:

I sat around reading warning labels as a kid. Maybe some kids played basketball or kickball. Nope. Not me. That’s where I first learned French.

The words were musical. Though they burbled from my lips in coagulated lumps of mangled forms, I sensed the potential for improvement. For lush vowels and fluid links. Of course I had no idea what they meant, either.  Attention! I said to my dad. Regardez! Gonflable! The last one means airbags, in case you’re wondering.

I started taking French in middle school. My teacher was a lean woman with a face like Edith Piaf and frenetic red hair that never changed, as is suspended in perpetual clothes-folding static. A lyricist of French grammar, she sang songs about the imperfect tense to the tune of jingle bells, and if we misbehaved, she swore in Greek under her breath.

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Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

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Zen and everyday life

lotus_flower
[Image from North Dakota State University]
I had plans for another post today, in light of a fellow blogger nominating me for a Liebster Award. But a night at a Franciscan retreat center has prompted me to write something a little different.

Since I first learned about Buddhism in high school, I’ve been interested in it. I still remember filling out answers to the Four Noble Truths on quizzes in the front of my ninth grade class, alongside sanskrit terms.

Since then, I’ve come a long way.

An independent study in Buddhist philosophy, numerous books, a few meditation retreats, and a daily meditation practice that lasted a few years have all increased my awareness in Buddhism, especially Zen.

But two winters ago, my interest culminated in a three day retreat at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. I still recall the final day of the retreat. After the exhausting stints of 5 a.m. zazen meditation and work projects–where I silently cracked over a hundred eggs–we concluded with a koan and a dharma talk by the sensei. The koan was about the diamond sutra, a central text in Mahayana Buddhism, called “diamond” because a true understanding allows one to cut through illusion and ignorance like a diamond.

The sensei brought up the ending of the sutra itself:

“So I say to you – 
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; 
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, 
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

Building on the Buddhist notion of impermanence–that life contains unceasing flux and change–the sensei stressed our need to “leave no footprints” as we moved through life, negotiating the tricky balance of “equanimity,” a peaceful abiding between aversion and desire that does not fall into indifference. Life is indeed brief. It is full of change and interdependence. Like a dream, things come and go.

Sitting in zazen position, legs folded and “heart open,” I felt a change. Buddhism traditionally has different levels of understanding, ranging from the merely intellectual to the silent but sure understanding of an Enlightened one. Somewhere between lies a heart understanding, where one truly “feels” a new insight that cannot fit into words.

In the midst of the dharma talk, I felt that insight.

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