Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do You Have a Voice?

I've been reading an interesting book called The Cluetrain Manifesto. It's basically about the Internet and the Web, and how it's changing the way business is done.

The most interesting statement, which is repeated again and again, is that the Internet and the Web have recreated the ancient marketplace of the street, where buyers and sellers came together in one place to trade. While this is virtual, the authors argue that the ambiance is in many ways the same: a lively, chaotic, fundamentally human place that is essentially fueled by real, authentic voices engaging in conversation.

Aside from the business implications, I am intrigued in this idea of real, authentic voice. And the interaction of voices to create conversation that dispenses with BS and corporate/scholarly/professional persona-speak.

I'm attracted to this idea because I feel like the distortion of language is a real malady of our society, and one that goes far beyond offending the delicately honed sensibilities of English majors like myself.

As the amazing playwrightTom Stoppard wrote in a recent essay:
Communism’s “normality” relied on the distortion of language and my new hero, George Orwell, had long since diagnosed the disease in his own society, so I took this kind of thing very much to heart.

When you lose your voice because you're trained to speak in a certain way, because you're trained to believe that it is essential to be not-you as you engage in your professional and public life, you lose yourself, bit by bit.

I've seen students and co-workers and friends who, if they ever knew how, have totally forgotten how to sound like a soul, how to speak like a unique, spirited individual.

Does this describe you? Do you, probably subconsciously by now, leave your thoughts and emotions and opinions behind, sharing them only (and maybe not even then!) with your spouse or your best friend?

Ask yourself today if you have a voice. Ask yourself if you sound different in some discernible, meaningful way from all the other people you know.

If you don't, it's time for some voice lessons.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bliss of Boredom

So we've turned the corner from impending doom to simple boredom. Below is an excerpt from another fascinating article I found this week, this one from the Boston Globe, and titled "The Joy of Boredom":
As Ralley studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.
The article's basic premise is that as we become more connected with technology, we're less bored. While that may sound like a good thing, the writer wonders if it is in fact the opposite.

I've always been one of those people who has said that I'm never bored because I'm so good at entertaining myself. And not just with books or TV or the Internet, but even when I'm without anything, I can find a way to engage my brain in some kind of activity, even if it's only daydreaming.

So what does this have to do with bliss? I don't know about you, but I find the more quiet, reflective time I have, the more likely I am to have those a-ha! moments that have proven so valuable in my life. I recognized in a meditative moment without distraction that quitting my job was not so much a desire as a need, and that nothing else would do, so I would have to apply myself to figure out how I would make that happen. Plenty of other things have come to me in moments like this--everything from story ideas to interesting insights to memories that I replay and then reanalyze for new information.

I actually think I tend to cultivate a life that gives me moments like this: I'm not the kind of person to overplan my life, or architect an elaborate social calendar or even get involved in the kinds of drama that so engage so many people. Some people are drama seekers, and their lives seem exciting. However, all that excitement, I think, usually leads to neuroses. No time to think. No time to reflect. No time to learn or get creative.

So the next time you're bored, see if you can refrain from jumping on the computer, switching on the TV or picking up the phone. I just read about someone who does a tech-free day on Sunday. Maybe I'll try it too--I could certainly benefit from a little more boredom in my life, too.

I mean, is anyone immune from the endless siren song of all this connectivity? I know I'm not, and let me tell you: I'm bored with never being bored.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Bliss of Impending Doom

OK, I'm hoping that post title grabbed your attention. I promise, however, that it's no ploy. By the end of this post, you really will see how there can be bliss in the knowledge of impending doom, even in the knowledge of ultimate destruction.

What got me thinking about doom was the title of a New York Times article today: Kissing the Earth Goodbye in About 7.59 Billion Years."

The article begins:

In the end, there won’t even be fragments.

If nature is left to its own devices, about 7.59 billion years from now Earth will be dragged from its orbit by an engorged red Sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death. That is the forecast according to new calculations by a pair of astronomers...
I know that 7.59 billion years is oh, you know, a looooong time from now, and I have always known that the universe is not static and that our sun will eventually die, but the article's specific description of our world being dragged into a fiery inferno really got to me. I imagined my favorite places--the Texas Hill Country where I live, the Rennaissance glories of Florence, the Sonoran desert of Arizona--utterly gone. I imagined the books I dream of writing turned to dust, but even the dust of my words gone. I imagined the bit of earth that will embrace my bones evaporated from the universe. Earth--all of it--will be gone, and all that will be left is a cold, vacant bit of space.

This is a reality that many of us not only don't think about, but we almost can't think about, either because it's too unsettling or too large to truly encompass with the mind. (7 billion years?) But it is reality nonetheless. This inescapable nonexistence is as true as the existence you and I know and live today.

Depressed yet? I hope not. What you should be feeling is lucky. That out of all the time the universe has existed (estimated at 13.7 billion years), out of the entire time Earth has existed (about 4.5 billion years), out of the entire time life has been on Earth (1 billion years later), and out of the time anatomically modern humans have existed (beginning about 200,000 years ago), and out of the amount of time we have left on Earth (about 1 billion years from now, when it starts getting too hot to support life), that you made it into existence to experience human life, human consciousness and the world around you. And I consider it a bonus, really, to have landed in a time of relative human freedom and in a world that has eradicated much of the disease that has caused so much widespread suffering and death in the past.

I've written about this before, but once you consider this timeline and where we fall on it, we can come to no other conclusion that we are blessed to have this opportunity to suffer and laugh and love and bear children and even to have the honor of leaving a human life. Indeed, I would argue that we are obligated to whatever divinity exists within us (and the above scientific facts do not dissuade me of the divine nature of our existence) to give thanks for and enjoy our life and our awareness.

Bear with me here, but do you have any wedding china you don't use? Or an outfit that is "too nice" to wear? Or a room that is off limits except on special occasions? Or a heart that is afraid of getting hurt?

Consider this wisdom from Achaan Chah Subato, a meditation master, who Steve Ross quoted in his book Happy Yoga:

One day, some people came to the master and asked: "How can you be so happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?" The master held up a glass and said: "Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly."
Your childhood is history. Your heart is already broken. Your home has already been bulldozed. Your life is already over. Your planet is already gone.

Accept these things, and you will finally begin to live. Doom is always just around the corner, but there's nothing you can do to stop it, and everything you can do to find your bliss in the short and finite time you do have.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Bliss of Failure

In my last post, I wrote about recognizing, inhabiting and then wielding your own power. I got a wonderful comment from reader Matt C., who wrote:
"Many of us that grew up before the internet was a part of our daily life were taught that we had to become professionals before we could make a difference. The kids today are growing up in an amateur society and really participating in politics, culture, art, etc. earlier and at a much higher level."
This comment reminded me of an article I read two years ago in the New York times. Now before you assume I can remember every article I read, take a look and let me know if it strikes you as it did me.

It's this concept of amateurism that the article explores--in relation to an exhibition about drawing as an activity in the mid 19th century--and that Matt's comment hits upon, that I'm very interested in. Consider this part of the article, written by Michael Kimmelman (emphasis mine):

“Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress,” Albert A. Anderson Jr. writes in the slim pamphlet accompanying the show.

I don’t think so. Drawing and doodling are not the same. With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.

In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that. Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.

So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

There is so much to be gained by attempting something yourself, no matter how crude, no matter how childish the result. Trying to draw something gives you a sense of the difficulty of the artist, playing a game of baseball (especially if you are as unathletic as I am!) confers in you a new respect for anyone who can seamlessly coordinate the motions of her body, trying to write a story with a beginning, middle and end shows you how invisible good narrative really is. And we grow, and we understand and empathize and learn.

I have a fascination with where the Internet is taking us, and I hope that in regards to participation and amateurism, it is taking us back to the mid 19th century, when we all gave something a try and then conversed enthusiastically about it.

Not too long ago, I went to the Maker Faire in Austin, and was astounded by the projects ordinary people were taking upon themselves. A lot of the projects played around with circuit boards and other implements of geekery, but not all of them did, and what people did with humble materials and a determination to create astounded me.

I remember the thrill I got playing around with my chemistry set, my microscope and slides, and even a rudimentary circuit board wiring kit. (I made an infrared intruder alarm for my doorway to keep my pesky little brother out.) I also have always loved crayons, then colored pencils, then india ink and paint.

Even though I turned out to have more of a skill for literary and artistic pursuits and not electronics, the time I spent enthralled, challenging myself to do something new taught me a lot about who I was, what I liked, and what the world had to offer me.

I sincerely hope that the Internet facilitates the return to giddy, chaotic amateurism, where people lose themselves in something they'll never make any money in.

I also hope that people realize that bliss often consists of nothing more than failing gloriously again and again and again.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

All Your Power

OK, so I think I'm back. Thank you all for your support, and I am happy to report that the funk has mostly lifted, and there are just the faintest wisps of fog at the outskirts of my consciousness now. Nothing a little nice spring weather and sunshine can't clear away, methinks.

Mainly, I've just been very, very occupied. With work, but also with campaigning for the Texas primary, now thankfully, and unfortunately, over.

Here's something that I noticed during that process of calling and canvassing: Most people are completely unaware of their own power. Time and time again, I heard a helplessness, a powerlessness, a total abandonment of hope, a resignation to doormat-hood.

Aside from making me sad and frustrated, it also made me think: What causes this? Is this a fundamental human trait, or is it a way of being that is culturally ingrained? Is this specific to Americans, Westerners, or people all over the globe?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I do know that people's potential for power--their intrinsic ability to direct their lives, make choices, achieve goals, find success, overthrow authority and create their own destiny--is far greater than most of us realize.

I know that in the last job I had, they were almost hell-bent on convincing me I'd be a failure without them. The message was always how dependent I was, how miserably I'd fail on my own, how the salary I was making was the most I could ever hope for, so I shouldn't ask for more. How long I believed them! And how totally false all of it was! I am finally independent, succeeding wildly, making more money and it turns out I needed them not at all.

I invite you to consider your own power. Think of the lies and manipulations being told to you on a daily basis by people you know, by corporations, by organizations, by governments. Recognize the potential for power within and stop believing the lies. Go deep within and try to get in touch with the unstoppable, infinite, unyielding power that lies within each of us.

Of course, you may find you're afraid of your own power. It places responsibility squarely on your shoulders. For some, that can be quite a burden.

However, I don't know about you, but I'd rather face the burden of responsibility than the far heavier, far more debilitating yoke of oppression that allows others to use you as their personal beast of burden, their domesticated ox.

Find your power, and be free.