24 September 2008

wrestling the rubber croc

For reasons which are simultaneously exhilarating and exasperating, I am forcing myself — at psychic spearpoint — to get back into the routine of regular serious useful writing. It's been a weird and frustrating year so far, and a lot of stuff seems to have not so much stalled as just hung up, as if it's in need of Force Quit and Restart ("Is it doing something? Or is it just sitting there frozen? What's the real difference?").

But now I am back well and truly Into The Shit, and as I try to get this goofy campy monster project back up to speed I had this weird image to visually analogize what this feels like: wrestling a rubber crocodile in a low-budget movie shoot.

I'm exhausted from fighting this large and ridiculous thing. To make anything look or seem right I have to keep a straight face as I do what in any other moment or context would be a series of really overly broad and ridiculous actions. I have to make it seem totally real and sincere, yet do so with the knowledge and understanding that everyone who ever sees it will understand that it is NOT totally real and sincere, but is in fact totally ridiculous. And after every take, every pass, I get to re-set and prep myself for another run at this ungainly inflatable bad boy.

"Great, great -- now, once more... THIS TIME WITH FEELING!"

rubber reptile rangler B

21 September 2008

misery loves company

McSweeneys.com hosts DFW remembrances and thoughts.

It's a strange sort of grief I am wrestling with here. I never met David Foster Wallace nor can I claim that he ever read a word or note from me, nor can I claim that he somehow saved me from myself. But I do know that for most of the past 20 years his work had served as a sort of beacon, a light in the darkness which gave direction and showed that there is some order out there, some purpose and point to slogging forward -- somebody else made it through to the other side, therefore so might you.

The best line I can think of to describe how it feels to think of DFW right now actually comes from a movie:

"I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend. "

Reading through those notes of and to Dave, I realize how I am not alone in hating the word "goodbye."

19 September 2008

where an odd circle completes itself

Pardon the double posting today, but I stumbled into a rather propitious moment of synchronicity and feel honor-bound to acknowledge it.

The earlier post today was about online bloviation and the sad comfort most all of us feel about braying our thoughts out to the world.

A previous post this week noted the tragic (IMO) passing of writer David Foster Wallace, a man most folks universally hailed as one of the modern geniuses in American literature.

As luck would have it, I ran across a full text of DFW's epic brilliant commencement address to Kenyon College, where he grabbed the graduates by the lapels and demanded that they stay ever-vigilant against intellectual and emotional laziness and self-absorption; that human tendency to always presume happily that whatever we believe is of course correct and proper.

When I read the address (cited in its entirety below), I find myself almost cheering at numerous points as Wallace repeats ideas and concepts and philosophies I have long held near and dear, ideas and notions I arrived at through the course of bizarre decades of self-analysis and recrimination and abuse.

I find address to be one of the more brilliant and beautiful things I have ever read.

Commencement Address to Kenyon College
from David Foster Wallace
(given May 21, 2005)

If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Amen, hallelujah, and damn you for leaving early, Dave.

too much noise

I s'pose it's the other side of the coin.

I was just watching a cool little vid over on MySpace (and no, I'm not posting the link-- if you can't find MySpace without me having to hand-code a damned convoluted link into HTML code, then what business do you have with a modem any damned way?) where Diablo Cody was interviewing John Cusack in an odd little 4 minute tete-a-tete shot over someone's rustic dining room harvest table, and Cody (it just sounds too strange to refer to a funny woman as "Diablo") was remarking on how cool it is that with the blog culture you can just sidestep "The Man" and say what you need to say.

And that all sounds great, and of course in my half-distracted state some portion of my brain is doing like Cusack was, just sorta absent-mindedly nodding passive agreement out of politeness, until a few minutes later when I poked my head into one of the (too) many discussion boards I lurk on and found a bewilderingly active series of arguments about... utter bullshit.

Now, I'm not going to describe which board I am referring to. Nor will I describe the debate itself, as that would only help to specify which circle of erstwhile "friends" (and that's the online kind, and not the real kind) has the strongest cause to feel insulted and slighted. Instead, I'll keep it vague enough that pretty much ALL of my discussion board "posses" (yes, I am phat with a P-H) will now glare at me, abso-damned sure that I was talking about THEM.

My point -- and, again, I do have one -- is that this ability to sidestep The Man (as Cody described it) is a double-edged sword. Yes, with the internet we ALL now get to express our opinion without first having to gain support and approval. But is that really so all-fired wonderful?

I'm not so sure.

I think a strong case could be made for the value of gatekeepers and doormen and judges of all stripe, those folks who stand as the intellectual equivalent to the amusement park clown painting telling us "you must be THIS TALL to ride this coaster!". In the old days, when dinosaurs walked the earth and journalists still worked on that quaint substance once known as "paper," the opinions which managed to make it into print for dissemination had all been first vetted by someone whose vocation it was to, ya know, write and shit.

Nowadays online we get flubbering blubbering 4 pound essays on foreign policy from people who in real life are not qualified to cut their own meat.

Don't call me a fascist (or, if you do, at least have some specific factual support or a solid claim on being understood as joking friend) -- I am not saying that people do not have a right to an opinion on any bit of philosophical tinfoil or intellectual twine which grabs their fancy for any span of seconds. Instead, I am saying that just because someone has an opinion does not mean that anyone else should have to suffer listening to it.

There is so much absolutely worthless drivel posted online these days -- almost always under the protective cover of "opinion" -- that it truly boggles the mind when you pause to consider it. Think about how self-absorbed and lazy we have become that we feel greater need to spend three days arguing about Lindsey Lohan's latest oddness than we do in helping people in our community affected by some natural disaster. More drive to slapfight over who is the best BATMAN than we can summon to actually improve our own lives or those of anyone we know or see. More fire in the belly to argue Coke vs Pepsi than we have to achieve some long-hidden dream.

There is so much we could do.

But instead of actually doing it, we blog about it.

Hell yes, irony noted.

18 September 2008

warning: you are now reading an UN-verified blog

So says FaceBook.

For reasons which totally escape me, I am listed in their Blog Network (no, I do not know what that means), but even after verifying that yes I am the author of this here bloggish thing, and even after some folks agreed that yes I am the author of this here bloggish type thing, and even after sending out the requisite emails and invites and twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, apparently I am still not full and totally verified (and no, I do not know what that means, either), so I am putting it to you fine folks to rescue me from this possibly unfortunate state of affairs by going over to FaceBook and operating the various foot pedals and hand levers and oral appliances and nasal inserts in whatever particular manner is required to finally completely amazingly verify me so that I might commence to enjoyifying the rare and glorious benefits, rights, benefits and honors attendant with such shimmering gold-framed status (and no, I do not know what that means, either).

Still -- thanks.

I think.

14 September 2008

r.i.p.: david foster wallace

It's hard to explain how sad his (apparent) suicide makes me feel.

I've read a lot of DFWs work, but I will not try and describe him in terms of his place in the hall of American letters -- there are others of far more secure academic standing who can (and surely will) do that far better than I'd ever manage. Just glancing at the names most often mentioned in comparison says all one needs to know about the man's stature and standing: you don't get compared to Joyce, Pynchon, or Coover lightly or without hellacious cause.

Instead of trying to explain Wallace by what he was everywhere else, I'll instead say what he as for me: easily the most volcanic and thrilling wordsmith I have ever had the pleasure to read.

While I can't claim to have loved his every work -- his epic modern classic INFINITE FEST, for example, seemed like it was defiantly in need of a tough editor, and Wallace was just curious to see if anyone had the balls to say so -- I can state this much with conviction: never did I read anything from David Foster Wallace where I didn't (at least a few times and usually very many) just smile and shake my head in jealous marvel at the way the man could make words dance on the wind; where I didn't say to myself "man, I really need to sharpen my A-game unless I wanna look like a dyslexic chimp by comparison"; where I didn't want to just stand and scream "NOW THAT'S HOW YOU MOTHERFUCKING SLING THE LANGUAGE AROUND!"

The guy was a walking bag of contradictions: raised in "Normal, Illinois," he became the Next Great American Literary Legend, yet he seemed absolutely dedicated to shooting holes in his own legend as often as possible. He'd pen travel articles for magazines even as he was working on epic literary works. He could make make a totally average member of the pro tennis tour somehow seem heroic and tragic, then pen a piece of literary criticism where he made all modern fiction seem like the most flimsy and useless waste of ink ever attempted. He was the hermit king who avoided all acclaim and notoriety, opting for a horsehair shirt teaching post in Pomona -- Pomona! -- rather than a comfy endowed chair at some storied ivy draped "name" institution.

And this past week, at age 46, for reasons not yet clear, he decided to hang himself and deny us any more of his wild brilliance.

All I know is that it will be a long long time before we're likely to have anyone with his rare skill -- his ability to somehow seem both sacred and profane, profound and mundane, romantic yet nihilistic, all even in the same sentence -- pass our way again.

God, how I will miss the chance to see what else he might ever have written. It surely would have dazzled, that much I know for absolute certain.
selfishly sad B

Hurricane Ike: The Aftermath

Well, we came through pretty much unscathed. Some slight trivial amount of water on the floor (the backdoor was apparently unable to totally hold back 8 hours of rain driven by 80 mph winds), but nothing else.

Some neighbors had some wall planking torn away, exposing the attic and the interior ceiling of the kitchen, but a bunch of us jumped in to staple up tarps and boards to seal it as best could be managed. Some fences down, and across the road the ext neighborhood over had some houses lose their shingling.

Lots of trees toppled. Lots of signage and awnings are laying in parking lots or in streets or in yards. Lots of fences shattered and splintered. Streets choked with debris and leaves, but truly horrific damage locally (we're 30 miles due west of downtown, and caught a less ugly portion of the storm). Schools are closed on Monday at least, and advisements coming for possible extended closures.

In Houston, 2 million people are without power. We lost ours for about 20 hours -- as the storm came on, then through the night and into the day after -- but now have lights and working refrigerators and blessed sweet heavenly air conditioning.

Roads are dangerous due to glass and nails everywhere, so sightseeing is dangerous, gasoline is in short supply, power lines are down all over, cars are stalled out, water remains over key sections of highways (especially through downtown and to the E and S), phone and cell service is erratic. Stores report problems with supplies, refrigerating, and lighting. Ice is a commodity some people will physically fight over (I had to help calm down two gents about to get physical over the last 5 pound bag of ice at Target).

Galveston looks to be a total mess, but since I still have no satellite service for the TV (winds apparently knocked the dish out of whack), I'm not seeing the live local coverage that might give a full picture.

What's wild is to look on the internet and see that for most of the country, life goes on as normal. What seems like an "end of the world" event for us in the Houston area is largely a regional concern. Some of us were talking over beers in the driveway yesterday, worried that Sean Penn and his rescue boat were having trouble getting to town, as nobody has yet seen the actor attempting to again render aid in his outboard-powered U-boat.

But hope springs eternal.

11 September 2008

Not the post I had started

I actually had another post started when I realized I'd rather just mention this stupid damned 'Hurricane Ike" thing.

As I write this (Thursday afternoon, 11 Sept 08), there's a Category 2 storm out there bearing down with a projected path right over the top of my house (seriously: we might get to take the kids outside to look up through the eye and then scurry back for cover-- fun!). By the time this beast makes landfall, she'll likely be bringing sustained winds of 115 mph or so, which means by the time the storm covers the roughly 90 miles from the shore to my house, we'll likely still be having 70 mph sustained for 8-15 hours, along with the usual insane torrential rains -- somewhere between 6 and 30 inches worth.

Unlike Rita, which, coming as it did on the immediate heels of the Katrina debacle, scared a few million Houston area folks to panic onto the freeways, creating a nightmare of jammed up traffic which thankfully was spared all but a tiny bit of the storm, this time, this storm seems to be getting a nice steely eyed calm and level headed degree of proportionate fear. People are prepping, but there's none of the wide-eyed panic seen with Rita.

Hardware stores have long lines of people stocking up on plywood and sheetgoods to protect windows, but there's no mad crush.

Gas stations are running low and sometimes out, but resupply is happeneing. I was just at the neighborhood Shell station, for example, where I'd seen a line of cars getting their tanks topped off (always a good idea in such situations, in case you HAVE to go and go now...), but when I pulled in all the pumps were empty-- sold out. I bought a drink, and as I started my car I saw a tanker truck-- followed by a half dozen expectant cars and vans following him to wherever he was delivering -- so I quickly slid in to a pump and waited the 7 minutes til he was offloading to the tanks. I got the car filled and by the time I left, there were 50 cars lined up out into the streets.

As I was paying, I asked the manager how much they'd sold.

"We took 8000 gallons this morning, and it was gone by lunchtime. That's another 9000 gallons he's giving us, and it will probably be gone before dark."

We've stored everything that could be lifted by the wind and sent flying through a windshield or window.

We have food. Flashlights. Water. Ice and meat in the freezer. Canned goods, extra bread and crackers. A radio that works.


School is cancelled tomorrow and all events cancelled through the weekend. I hope we wind up bored out of our minds, but I worry that we'll have more than enough excitement.

So for now, we pretty much sit here, kinda marveling at how normal and calm things are -- beautiful sky, light breeze, a little warmer than normal -- and watch the radar updates as a huge roaring bastard of a storm chugs right at us from somewhere just over the southeastern horizon.

05 September 2008

change is what's comin'

Sometimes our external climate mirrors what winds blow within.

Yesterday morning we had our first cool front of the year. I awoke to find blue skies, a nice breeze, and temperatures hanging around 70 degrees -- a radical departure for the oppressive mildew-matic stuff we get in Houston from late April until... well, October, usually: temps in the mid 90s, humidity fluctuating damply between 50% and infinity, with a two MPH breeze straight up (I am often reminded of the line about Vietnam: "the wind doesn't blow -- it sucks."). 30% chance of mostly afternoon thunderstorms, some possibly severe, with the possibility of localized street flooding.

I love Texas and I actually like that oppressive summer weather in the same perverse way that Green Bay fans love the Antarctic conditions at Lambeau on a frozen January evening. It's a test, where the weather gods cull the righteous from the wimpious.

But heroic endurance can get a tad tiresome after months of just standing there, sweat spraying off you like a sprinkler, as your scalp crackles and cooks like bacon and your eyes slowly dry up into raisins rattling in your eye sockets and every breath feels as though you had to wrestle it through a barber's towel pulled fresh from the steamer basket. I mean, I can take it -- no problem no complaints -- but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that all things change, turn turn turn, etc.

My point -- and, per usual, I have one, though it's slow in coming and obscured to the point of invisibility -- is that regardless of how well you can adapt and endure, it's important to not become so blasé and jaded and detached from things that you lose all track of time, of the need to adapt and evolve and move forward.

Yes, this is analogy, kids. Or allegory. Perhaps metaphor with a light drizzle of allusion.

I was reading a great -- and I do mean fantastic -- piece in Harvard Business Review (hey-- I'm classy and shit!) where Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of PiXAR Pictures, discusses "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity". (Seriously-- go read it. Now. Take notes.)

One of the (numerous) brilliant strengths PiXAR boasts is a now-fully-ingrained institutional wariness of complacency -- the tendency to start feeling proud of how great and smart and wonderful you are and to then lower your guard against stupid mistakes and clumsy blindness to important advances, improvements, and changes:

"[W]hen continual change, or reinvention, is the norm in an organization and technology and art are together, magical things happen."

-- Ed Catmull, founder, PiXAR Pictures, in Harvard Business Review

Catmull is speaking about companies and organizations, but what's so brilliant about his essay is that the concepts and advice are every bit as sound and efficacious for use by individuals. Just as companies and organizations (and governments) can become prone to hubris and dangerous belief in their eternal infallibility, so can people. Me. You. Them.

I coach a lot of youth sports (and no that's not a non sequitor. One of the things I most love about coaching kids is their malleability, their openness to change and improvement. Sure, they often think they know how to do something, but they also are young enough to still be very attuned to the concept of education and change. You can still teach kids new things, and they still are largely ego-free in their willingness to accept these lessons and bits of advice and suggestion.

One of the hallmarks of "maturity" is that day when your brain starts to close off the gates to new ideas and starts to say "OK-- we've learned enough. Stop sending us new ideas. We don;t want or even need any more of them. We're perfectly content to sit here and run using the system and software we have in place."

Now, if you imagine someone sitting there using an Apple IIe computer, running software from floppy disks and looking at a monochrome monitor, you easily understand how this refusal to adapt any further can lead to real problems and even potential dangerous inability to function.

Yet most people seem incapable of looking at their own actions and attitudes and patterns of behavior with that same degree of objective detachment. They don't want to recognize that they've become complacent, or lazy, or that they have strayed badly from the course they intended to follow.

So lately I've been getting that itchy feeling in the pit of my soul. I've often described it as that restlessness that a wild goose must feel when that first cool breeze hits and some part of their brain starts signaling "time to think about heading south."

Time for change.

And not all change has to be Earth-shattering or so dramatic that anyone else even notices. Sometimes even tiny mid-course twitches to the helm are enough to affect a course change that makes a huge long term difference.

But you have to remain open and aware to the possible needfulness of such changes, major or minor. You have to stand willing to give your precious damned Ego a timeout and send it to its room for fifteen minutes so the adults can have A Serious Conversation. Sometimes we have to take stock of where we are, what we are doing, what we are pursuing, and honestly -- objectively, with cold-hearted ruthless detachment -- say "here's an area where we can do better."

It's been an interesting year for me. But nothing is "done" or "over" or even "achieved." Life is, as ever, what comes next, and I either keep chugging relentlessly towards constant improvement and progress, or I become a freezeframe in the ongoing movie of my own life. Work habits need a hard analysis and review. Dedication needs a review. Commitment needs to have its tank topped off. "What am I doing, and why? What is the goal, and what is the plan to achieve that goal? What am I doing which might be impeding me from achieving these goals? How can I do better -- BE better?"

Tough questions, mostly because corrections require change, and change is scary and takes work, and as a general class of beings, humans are lazy, cowardly, and self-deluding.

Change. Either you embrace it, pursue it, long for it and demand it and chase it down with voracious tenacity, or you stand at very real risk of becoming a sad and static cliché, incapable of adapting to the world as it exists around you and slowly moves forward without you.

Onwards, my pretties.
self-improvement via self-loathing B

01 September 2008

blah -- never mind

I had another post almost ready.

About writing. And websites. And politics. And people (mostly the stupid kind). And hurricanes and New Orleans and complaint and hindsight and dedication and respect and music and kids and love and chili and beer and the end of hope and the beginning of same and regret and pride and toenails and Yo Yo Ma and two-cycle engines and at least three other holistically connected topics, and my god it was a thing of rare beauty and wonder, and it might well have changed not only your political view but your personal grooming habits and choice of beverages as well.

It was just that good.

But, I decided to delete it and post this instead.

Yes, I have my reasons.

No, you may not have those reasons.

You may instead just marvel at the wonder and spectacle of all which might -- maybe -- have been.

Time to make PBnJs x5.