Monday, December 31, 2007

Today's "The Twilight Zone" Marathon

I grew up with the original The Twilight Zone. It was a wonderful series, one of the best to ever grace television. Every week, I would be transported to strange places and exposed to mind-bending ideas, chills, and terrors. I've seen most of its episodes countless times since they first aired between 1959 and 1964, and I'm tempted, so very tempted to tune in to The Twilight Zone marathon showing all day today and much of tomorrow on the Sci-Fi channel. But I'm trying to resist, because I know that if I start watching, I won't be able to tear myself away and do anything else, and I have so much else to do today and tomorrow and so little time to do it all. Watching episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, which are virtually inscribed into my DNA after all these years, is like hearing a great old song. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard it. It doesn't matter that you know every note of the tune. You still want to hear it again and again and again.

There are so many unforgettable episodes. When I was a child, I was particularly impressed by an episode in which two parents awaken to hear their young daughter calling out to them from somewhere within the house, but she can't be seen anywhere. Finally, it's discovered that she has fallen from her bed through the adjoining wall into another dimension and universe caused by a rare and temporary intersection of universes. There was something about this idea that lit my imagination on fire and had me feeling the wall next to my bed on many a dark night to see if I could plunge my hand right through it into a Twilight Zone universe.

However, it was only a relatively few years ago that I saw the episode that has left the biggest impression on me, moving me to tears the first and subsequent times I saw it. It was called Miniature and featured Robert Duvall as a bright but extremely self-controlled and almost autistically alienated man who falls in love with a living doll in a dollhouse in a museum. Duvall's performance is so incredibly touching, and I guess I felt special empathy for his character who wanted so little part of the world around him but still deeply longed to connect with someone somewhere. The very end of this special one-hour episode made me weep with joy.

The old expression "They don't make 'em like they used to" has never been more true or regrettable than in the case of the original The Twilight Zone and episodes like Miniature.

The Trial of Bernie Ward

Bernie Ward grew up in San Francisco, was a Catholic priest for two years before leaving the priesthood to marry and start a family, taught theology in Bay Area high schools and in a private school in Washington DC, worked as chief legislative assistant for U.S. Representative Barbara Boxer, became an award-winning reporter and fill-in talk show host for Bay Area newstalk radio giant KGO Radio, and then became a popular full-time KGO host of two programs, the Bernie Ward program on weeknights and God Talk on Sunday mornings. For a time, he billed himself as "the lion of the left" and always championed a politically and religiously liberal perspective both on his radio programs and in his spirited appearances on national television programs. He also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars via his Thanksgiving charities fund drives every year that he was host of God Talk. He was one of my favorite talk show hosts, and I've listened to him regularly on KGO since the mid-to-late 1980's.

However, he was recently placed on paid leave from the station pending resolution of federal charges brought against him for owning and distributing child pornography. Ward admits that he did download several images of child pornography but says that he did it as part of his research for a book he was planning to write on "hypocrisy in America."He contends that when federal officials seized his computer in early 2005, they found no child pornography on it, and I'm not aware of any allegations ever being made against him of being involved in any kind of child sexual abuse. Apparently the federal government offered him a plea deal sometime back that would have meant his spending several years in prison, and he rejected it. Now he's been indicted and could conceivably serve decades in prison if he's convicted.

Everything I've read and heard about Bernie Ward tells me that he's been a wonderful husband to his pediatrician wife, father to his four children, and supporter of the community, especially in his fund raising for agencies serving the destitute. I have seen no indication whatsoever that he had any sexual interest in children or that he would deliberately do anything to harm children in any way. In fact, everything I know about Bernie Ward tells me quite the opposite. Unfortunately, federal law is very clear that if one receives or distributes through any means any child pornography, it doesn't matter why one does it. All that matters is that one has done it, and the penalties for it are incredibly severe.

Although I believe that child pornography is bad and should be illegal, I also believe that the penalties for simple possession of it are unreasonably draconian and that the apparent motives of the accused should be taken into account in deciding whether or not to bring charges. In Bernie's case, based on what I know, the spirit of the law aimed at rightfully protecting children from sexual exploitation seems to have been grossly perverted by slavish and perhaps malicious adherence to the letter of the law with what seems to me to be the likely result of ruining the life of a hard-working and talented man who has been a blessing to his community and family and of doing irreparable harm to his family and many friends. Yes, one could argue that if he's convicted and imprisoned, this will deter others from becoming involved in child pornography in any way, shape, or form. But even if this is true, and I wonder if it is, it seems that this good is vastly outweighed by the harm done in this particular instance.

I don't know that Bernie's longstanding, fierce opposition to conservative political leaders and especially to George Bush has played any role in the federal government's dogged pursuit of its case against him, but I do believe, based on what I've read and heard, that the federal government is morally, even if not legally, wrong to bring these charges against him, and I wish Bernie well in his defense against those charges. I would love to hear him back on KGO as soon as possible.

Bernie debating a conservative talk show host on MSNBC

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Back Pain

I used to suffer frequent bouts of back pain. I also used to play a lot of basketball. When I stopped playing basketball, I pretty much stopped having back pain. Even when I worked as a baggage handler at SFO a few years ago and routinely handled heavy baggage for several hours a day, I seldom experienced any trouble with my back.

But I'm having some back pain now. I've had it for several days. I don't know if my job caused it, but I'm quite sure it's contributed to it. I spend hours every weekday handling heavy medical charts and stacks of charts in all kinds of ways that require bending, stooping, twisting, reaching, pushing, and pulling. I try to be careful about how I move, but I also try to be efficient and fast. It's difficult to be both careful and fast. I suspect that I often sacrifice the former for the latter. I don't want to lose my job, but I can't expect to keep it if I don't get a lot faster at it than I am now.

So, it would seem that I have a real dilemma. I just hope that I don't continue suffering the back pain and stiffness I do now. It's not terrible, but it's definitely unpleasant, and, as far as I know, it could get worse, much worse over time. I can try to be more careful about my movements at and away from work. I can do back exercises. I can try to take better care of myself overall. And time will tell if it helps my aching back.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Meeting With My Job Coach

I met with my vocational rehab counselor and a job coach the other day. It was my first time with the job coach. I tried to explain my situation to her as best I could, but I'm not sure how well I did or how well she ended up understanding where I'm coming from. And even if she understood extremely well, there is still the daunting challenge of figuring out how to help me succeed in the workplace.

What can anyone really do to help me succeed? The absolute ideal would be to simulate a medical records file room in a large health service institution and pair me with a medical records professional who could patiently walk me through all the duties of my job, painstakingly explain to me the hows, whats, and whys of each duty and of the entire medical records system, and then drill me rigorously on accomplishing virtually any task and solving virtually any problem likely to arise on the actual job. There's no chance of that or of getting even remotely close.

Still, I will try to benefit as much as I can from the extra help.

Political Oratory Par Excellence

If this guy could be as good a president as he is a speechwriter and speechmaker, what a wonderful president he would be, and what a critical time this is for us to have a wonderful president!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on Bhutto's Death

Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, died yesterday after being shot by someone who then blew himself up, taking more people with him.

I feel both angry and sad. Angry at Bhutto for needlessly subjecting herself and innocent onlookers to totally predictable mayhem and death, and angry at the zealot who inflicted the carnage. Part of me would like to see him burn in screaming agony in hell for a thousand years or two before being consigned to everlasting oblivion.

Yet, I also feel sad that all those lives were lost for no good reason that I can see, and that Pakistan lost a leader who might have helped that country to reform. And I'm sad to see senseless violence motivated by pathological political and religious zealotry just go on and on and on with no end in sight.

Someone might argue that at least the assassin-terrorist died for a cause in which he believed. In what do I believe for which I would be willing to kill others including myself?

I believe that I might well kill an aggressor to prevent him from harming me or others without justification, and I would like to think that I would sacrifice my own life to save the life of a loved one or even just an innocent child or other person I don't even know.

Well, what if the man who killed Bhutto, himself, and the others believed that he was doing it to save more lives from misery and death than he took? How different is that from my killing others or sacrificing myself to save others? There intuitively seems to be a difference, but when one subjects that intuition to the spotlight of reason and tries to explain precisely what that difference is, it isn't so easy.

For instance, one could argue that killing is justified only when done to protect oneself or others against an imminent threat of severe harm or death, and that killing Bhutto didn't fulfill that requirement. But suppose one had the chance to kill Hitler or Stalin and had to endanger or kill innocent people to accomplish the task. Can one definitively say that this would be wrong? Of course, I'm not comparing Bhutto to Hitler or Stalin. I'm merely suggesting that the assassin may have perceived her as an evil person or as someone who could, if allowed to live, end up being responsible for tremendous evil befalling Pakistan, and so he acted to eliminate the threat.

What bearing should a person's motives have on our assessment of his actions?

Bhutto interview

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Reflections on Faith

"The adolescent is the one who wants to experience everything. The adult comes to realize that you can't experience everything. Mother Teresa never lost her faith, because she kept praying and going for spiritual direction. But she had to live by sheer faith--faith without a lot of consolation. But faith itself is consolation."
I obtained the quote above from an article in the National Post. The man who spoke those words was Fr. Eric Jensen, a Jesuit priest and author and the director of Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. He and the article as a whole appear to argue that we all must and do have faith in something, because it's impossible to know everything and to live without taking certain things on faith that we don't know; therefore, the theist's faith in, say, the Immaculate Conception and all that follows from it is fundamentally no less well-founded than is a physicist's faith in the existence of unseen quarks or your or my faith that there will be a tomorrow.

I spent years arguing about Christianity with Christians on the Internet, and examples of it can be found in this blog. But not long ago I came to the conclusion that I needed to learn a lot more about what I was arguing against if I was going to make the most cogent arguments possible, and, furthermore, I needed to be more circumspect about my motives for indulging in these arguments.

Having said that, I sorely doubt the soundness of the Christian argument that faith in the Immaculate Conception, unique divinity, and salvific crucifixion and resurrection of the historical Jesus is equivalent to faith in quarks or the dawning of tomorrow, even though I'm not yet and may never be fully prepared to explain why. At the moment, I will only say that it seems to me that quarks and the anticipation of a probable future are more consistent with an intermingling of broad experience and reason than is belief in Jesus Christ. The notion that the Supreme Being of the Universe would choose to reveal Itself to us and redeem us through the historical Jesus and expect us to assent, with the skeptical minds that he gave us, to this revelation upon pain of eternal torment if we don't continues to strike me as ludicrously inconsistent with my experience and with any reasonable understanding of Reality. Thus, my faith is not in religious claims per se, but in my capacity to evaluate the plausibility of those claims.

Thus, Christmas doesn't have the special meaning for me that it presumably does for most Christians. In fact, aside from being grateful to have the day off from work, it has no more special meaning for me than it does for my Buddhist wife and her relatives with whom we'll be spending this evening. Perhaps it would if I had kids or a big family with whom I could meet and partake of secular festivities. But I don't, partly by choice and partly by necessity. My wife's at work as I write this, and I'm home alone. Yet, I'm still happy to be alive and to be able to sit here writing this on my 55th Christmas day.

The Late, Great Oscar Peterson

The technical brilliance, unprecedented speed and hard-driving swing of Peterson's best work inspired generations of artists. But it also drove them to despair, for they knew Peterson's feats could not be matched, much less topped.
--The Austrailian

Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard.
--Count Basie

I recently wrote about the incomparable Art Tatum, a jazz pianist of stupendous skill and improvisational ability. But, actually, there is one jazz pianist who may have been his equal or at least close to it. His name was Oscar Peterson. He died Sunday from kidney failure at his Canadian home at the age of 82.

When Peterson was growing up, Art Tatum was his idol, but Peterson soon became an idol for countless jazz pianists in his own right and played with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespe, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Itzhak Perlman.

The jazz reviewer Leonard Feather wrote that Peterson could "extract the gentlest whimper, the profoundest roar or the deepest indigo wails from his keyboard." Duke Ellington called him "Maharajah of the keyboard." And, after witnessing a Peterson performance in 1987, reviewer Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times:

"Mr. Peterson's rock-solid sense of swing, grounded in Count Basie, is balanced by a delicacy of tone and fleetness of touch that make his extended runs seem to almost disappear into the sky...His amazing speed was matched by an equally amazing sense of thematic invention."

The world has lost a great, great musician.

Oscar Peterson--You Look Good to Me

Oscar Peterson Trio--Goodbye

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Buddha's Politics

In this season of political debates and upcoming elections in the USA, I'm looking to understand it all in a broader and deeper way than we see presented in the media polls and commentaries and sound-bite interviews with leading presidential candidates. Below, Ken Wilber discusses the historical development and natures of political parties and perspectives and the importance of an integral politics that transcends and includes all of them.

John Danley Plays Acoustic Guitar

Here is a great fingerstyle acoustic guitarist named John Danley.

Career Choices and Concerns

After I posted my previous entry, someone wrote to me privately to say that it was difficult for him to fathom how a person who writes as well as I do could have the kinds of learning impediments I say I have. However, he went on to suggest that I may want to look for a different kind of job that is better at downplaying my non-verbal weaknesses and at tapping my verbal strengths. But I wonder what that job would be.

He recommended that I try writing for publication. I have to admit that my dream job would be to make a good living from writing. But that seems totally unrealistic. Look at Gagdad Bob. He's brilliant, erudite, and an amazing writer. Yet, to hear him tell it, he can scarcely give his remarkable book One Cosmos away even though it's been praised by reputable reviewers and discussed with him in What is Enlightenment? magazine. If he can't make a living off his writing, how can a far less intelligent, learned, and gifted writer such as myself hope to do so? How many people, no matter how talented they are, make a living writing philosophical or "spiritual" nonfiction or, for that matter, anything else?

No, I need to do something else for my livelihood, even if I can somehow find the time to write on the side. I've chosen medical coding as my career goal for three reasons. First, it's predominately verbal. It consists of analyzing the diagnoses and procedures that healthcare professionals perform with patients and the supplies and equipment they use in their rendering of services to those patients into their appropriate numerical or alphanumerical codes. For example, 43820 is the CPT code for a surgical procedure called a gastrojejunostomy. Coders need to know enough about medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and the practice of medicine to find these codes quickly and to apply them accurately in the right order and form to any healthcare scenario.

My second reason for choosing medical coding is that I've had an interest in the medical field ever since I was a kid. Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, Medical Center, and much later, St. Elsewhere, ER, and Chicago Hope have numbered among my favorite TV shows. I couldn't be a doctor when I was a boy, but fictional doctors from the small screen were my role models of intelligent and selfless service to humankind during my formative years. Maybe I can't be a doctor now, or a PA or nurse, but I can possibly have some involvement in the medical field by working with doctors and other healthcare professionals in a supporting clerical capacity.

Finally, I chose medical coding because it's a pretty solid job. The pay isn't stellar, but it's not too bad. And if you can work for a big healthcare system like U.C. Davis or Kaiser, you probably have about as good a job security as you could hope for.

However, it undoubtedly comes as no surprise to my handful of regular readers that I have acute concerns over whether I can succeed as a coder. I have several not insignificant factors working against me. First, I'm accurate in my coding, but I'm also very slow. In order to be hired for almost any coding job, one must pass an exam that requires speed as well as accuracy. Moreover, in order to be hired for the better, higher-paying coding jobs, one must pass a national certification exam where, once again, speed is essential. I don't know if I can ever get fast enough, no matter how much or long I practice. And even if I do, I don't know if I'll be fast enough on the job to carry the workload expected of me.

Second, there's my age and startlingly unimpressive background. If I were hiring coders, I probably wouldn't choose me from a pool of qualified applicants. Why would anyone else?

Finally, I don't know if I'll be able to learn the job. If I'm struggling helplessly to learn the system and my relatively simple duties in the file room, what chance do I have of learning the more complex computer and other operations required of a medical coder? Realistically speaking, I may have a better chance of becoming a bestselling author than I have of succeeding at a medical coding career, and the odds in favor of the former seem infinitesimal in their own right. Unless I can grow a new brain that works the way it's supposed to, that is. Or, perhaps, one of my dear readers would like to do a brain exchange with me. No, I'm not malevolent enough to inflict that inequity on anyone.

So, I really don't know what to do other than keep doing what I'm doing and working in the file room as long as they'll let me while studying on the side unless and until I'm able to get into coding. I'll be talking about that with my vocational rehabilitation counselor and a job coach later this week and with a neuroscientist next week. If I learn anything new, I'll probably be writing about it here. In the meantime, I'd like to thank the person who wrote to me privately and Night Stranger for their words of encouragement. And I'd like to wish a blissfully happy holiday season to all.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Naked Reflections on my Naked Reflections

My notion when I began this blog was to 'nakedly reflect' my experiences and ideas. But I have such a poor opinion of my capabilities and I experience so many negative emotions as a result that many of my entries have been bleak and despairing and have probably turned away most of what few readers I ever had. This might not be so bad if I were writing this blog only for myself, but I'm not. While I'm not trying hard to entice people to read it, it would be nice if people liked this blog enough to stop by and read it anyway. But why would they want to if they encounter one depressing entry after another crying about my learning disabilities and their emotional fallout?

On the other hand, my learning disabilities or cognitive impairments along with their psychological repercussions have had and continue to have an enormous impact on my life, and to what extent does a blog that ignores this 'nakedly reflect' me? And if it does so only very little if at all, why not change the name of this blog to something else and write about other things?

Perhaps I could keep my entries impersonally philosophical or "spiritual," or I could write about myself only when I have something "positive" or uplifting to say. I have long thought that it's cathartic and, therefore, good to bare the pains of the soul. Yet, I'm coming to wonder if this isn't like, to borrow an Easwaran simile, wearing an unwanted groove in a vinyl record by tracing the same path innumerable times with the phonograph needle.

I'm reminded of "gangsta rap" or whatever they call it these days, of how its revolting, at least to my ears, concoction of monstrous misogyny, mindless hedonism, brutal machismo, and reptilian sociopathy is often defended as an "honest reflection" of life in the "hood" and of my questioning how people can rise above such an awful life by wallowing in it like a pig in slime. I don't have the answer to that question or to the question of how I can rise above my crippling impairments, self-doubts, and sense of helpless hopelessness by nakedly reflecting them here. Maybe I can't. Maybe I need to take another path with any blog that I continue to write. Or maybe I at least need to be a little more moderate or sparing in "reflecting" negativity about myself. I don't know, but I'm trying to work it out.

In the meantime, below is a very 'naked reflection' of how I felt at work the other night. I wrote it during one of my breaks. Since then, I've had times when I felt better and times when I've felt even worse. Over all, I think it speaks for how I essentially feel about myself and my (and my wife's) future when I allow or force myself to take an unsparing look at myself and at what I truly believe about my prospects.

I'm into my fourth week of my new job, and I wonder how many weeks they'll keep me on until they decide that I just can't meet the demands of the position. Am I being unduly pessimistic? Perhaps. But I struggle every day to understand the blooming, buzzing confusion around me and my supervisors' and co-workers' explanations of it, and I fail dismally.

As for executing certain tasks expected of me in a reasonable period of time, forget about it. One of my co-workers takes only 20 minutes to accomplish what it takes me two hours to do. This is no exaggeration. I can certainly understand how his five years on the job would make him more efficient and quicker at his tasks. But six times faster at such a relatively simple task as filing medical charts back into the wall in their proper places? No matter how long I stay on the job and no matter how much I gain in experience, I don't know how I'll ever be able to perform that particular task significantly faster than I do already.

And that pretty much speaks for all of the tasks I perform and for how much slower I am at most of them than everyone else, including those who haven't been on the job much longer than I have. And I'm referring now to those rare, simple tasks where I know what I'm supposed to be doing. I feel like dead weight in my workplace, and it seems to be only a matter of time until I'm treated as such. Still, I keep doing my best, watching what and how others do, asking questions, and taking notes so that, if it's at all possible, I can do better and stay around longer.

Because if and when I lose this job, how long will it take me to get another? And if I can even get another, how long will I be able to keep it until I'm let go again? I really feel quite hopeless right now. I feel as though I may well be incapable of doing any job that pays enough to help sustain my wife and me beyond a poverty level requiring us to count literally every penny we spend and be consumed with constant financial worries and stress.

I sometimes wish I had never married my wife. Not because I don't love her but precisely because I love her so much that I don't want to see her stuck with a loser for the rest of our lives.

I know I may sound extremely depressed right now, but I'm not. At least not in the stereotypical sense of choking back tears, feeling suicidal, or anything of that kind. It may sound as though I'm being unduly harsh with myself and pessimistic about my future. I don't believe that I am. I believe that I see my future with all too realistic clarity. Of course, Buddha said something to the effect that we are the result of what we have thought, and thinking that I'm going to fail in life could well contribute to my failing. But in my case I think it's likely to contribute about as much as a drop of gasoline to a raging forest fire.

Yet, even if the contribution is bigger than that, what do I do about my pessimism, especially if its based on reality? See a therapist? Been there, done that. It cost me a veritable fortune and did little if any good of which I'm aware. See a different therapist. I don't know how I can afford it. Get a doctor to prescribe me an anti-depressant drug? Will that make me any less incapable of meeting the demands of job and life than I am now? Any less likely to fail? If not, why fool around with my brain chemistry and perhaps mess myself up even more than I am already?

Well, I do plan to meet soon with a neuroscientist from the local university. His specialty is the neural basis and psychological consequences of learning disabilities in children. Even though I'm well past childhood, at least in a chronological sense, I wrote to him about myself, and he immediately wrote back expressing an interest in seeing me and exploring with me some possible research (and, perhaps, clinical) options. I don't want to get my hopes up and have them squashed. After all, what can anybody really do to help me or to help me help myself even if they can pinpoint precisely the nature and location of my brain malfunction and the type and extent of my impairment? Yet, I need to have hope in something, and I don't seem to be able to find it anywhere else at the moment.

Well, my break is over. Time to get back to my snail's pace of work and rock-like incomprehension of what's going on around me.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Can YOU Beat the Chimp?

To Use or Not to Use a Handkerchief?

Dr. Dean Edell says that he's "disgusted" by people using hankies to blow their noses. Apparently he's not alone. The Japanese have a term for nasal mucous that translates into English as "nose poop," and one can well imagine how they feel about people nasally defecating into a cloth that they carry around in their pocket. But what I want to know is, What's a person with a runny nose to do? I wish we humans were never plagued by runny noses, but we are, especially during allergy season and when we have colds.

Some people carry tissues with them, but that can be pretty inconvenient when your nose is very runny and you don't have room for a big box of tissue or there's no wastebasket around. So, I often use a hankie, especially when I'm out and about. Yes, it's not the most sanitary thing in the world, and it's not very pleasing to the eye. But what's a viable alternative?

There But For the Grace of God...

I can't blog much or often anymore. Not that I was doing it anyway. But now there's almost no time for any posting. However, I don't want to stop completely. So, I'll do what I can when I can. I suspect that it will be mostly on the weekends and that I'll keep it mostly short and simple.

I don't know the whole story. I know only what I've heard from snippets on CNN. But apparently he was thrown out of the house at eighteen. He dropped out of high school. He had few friends. He felt like he didn't belong anywhere. He had just lost his girlfriend and his job and believed he was a worthless "piece of sh*t." He wanted to be somebody, to have his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. So he got it and then some even though I doubt that he's now able to revel in it. He killed nine people including himself in an Omaha shopping mall earlier this week.

When I read about cases like this, I wonder what I would have done in his shoes. I felt pretty worthless and alienated too as a teenager and long after. In fact, I still do at times. But I had a few friends and a family that didn't throw me out of the house. Maybe my family should have been tougher on me that they were and pushed me to do and achieve more. But if they had pushed too hard, what might I have done? I don't think I would have gone into a shopping mall and killed myself and eight other people. But there were times when I felt not only awfully depressed but also very angry about the cold, cruel, fuc*ed up world.

How do I know, how do any of us know exactly what we would do if we were in someone else's shoes? I'm inclined to believe that we would do exactly what that young man did. That is, if we had the same body, brain, mind, and experience as that young man, we would have inevitably acted the same way he did in that mall on that dark day and achieved our own measure of infamy.

There but for the grace of "God" go any of us.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Freakish Robert Smith

"If there was one guy I'd want to watch it's Robert Smith. It's like watching John Daly rip a drive — it's fascinating. Robert Smith is like Marshall Holman on steroids. I love watching him bowl...he does things other people can't do."
--Marshall Holman

"Problem is, the nature of the current game doesn't allow Smith to be Smith for long. After a few games, sometimes even from the start of competition, the lane's oil breaks down under the power of the new equipment churning it up. This forces Smith to move first to the extreme inside part of the lane searching for fresh oil, then ultimately he begins lofting the ball way down the lane to avoid the dry early part of the lane. It is spectacular, but these moves ruin Smith's chance for consistency and sink his ship."
--USA Today

Now that I'm working full time and studying as much as I can, I've had to put my bowling on indefinite hold except for a very occasional practice session with my wife or a friend. However, I still regularly watch bowling on TV, as I have for over forty years, and last week I was thrilled to see one of my favorite bowlers of all time win his first championship in more than two years. That bowler was Robert Smith, and I guess the main reason I like him so much is because he can do freakish things with a bowling ball.

I don't exactly know why, but I'm very drawn to people with astounding physical or mental ability, whether it be in sports, intellectual or artistic endeavors, or music. Take guitar players, for instance. I am fascinated by guitarists with amazing technical skill such that they can play mind-bogglingly complex musical passages with blinding speed. Hopefully, they can also appeal to the mind and heart with their playing, but tremendous technique alone will grab hold of my attention. My two favorite guitarists, in large part because of their freakish technical skills, are John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth.

I guess one could say that Robert Smith is the bowling equivalent of an Allan Holdsworth. He's a freak. What makes him freakish is the amount of speed and revolutions--i.e., power--he's able to put on a bowling ball and do it with enough accuracy and control on challenging lane conditions to win PBA national tournaments. While the average professional bowler averages about 300 rpms with the balls they throw, Smith averages over 600, and does it with tremendous speed. In fact, I remember reading that he throws the ball with so much more power than other bowlers, amateur and professional alike, that he's the bowling equivalent of a baseball pitcher throwing a fastball around 140 mph while the other fastest pitchers are in the high 90's. Not only that, but when he has to do it because his ball is hooking too much, he will loft the ball way down the lane and still generate tremendous power with decent accuracy and consistency. For those who don't bowl, this may not mean very much. But if you bowl or know anything about bowling, you can't help but be impressed by this.

Anyway, after spending most of last year recuperating from a debilitating injury to a hip flexor muscle, he won a tournament on TV last week and did in in a way that only he could. Below are parts one and two of his victory match.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Reluctant Confession of Racial Prejudice

As I walked from my car to my workplace, a woman approached me. She was clearly in distress. She said she'd just learned that her mother had suffered a massive heart attack and was in the hospital somewhere, and could I help her with bus fare or any other way to get there. I'm new to my job. I didn't want to be late. I couldn't take her to her mom or even spend a lot of time questioning her about her situation and get to work on time. I could have quickly given her money. But I didn't trust her to be on the level.

A big reason why I didn't trust her was that she was black. I hate to admit it but have come to the conclusion that it's better to be upfront--at least in a blog boldly titled "Naked Reflections"-- than to hide or sugarcoat it: I'm prejudiced against black people as a group, which makes me suspicious of any particular black person if I see anything in that person's demeanor or behavior that reinforces this prejudice, such as manner of dress or speech.

Intellectually, I agree with Martin Luther King that we should judge people, to the extent that judging must be done, by the "content of their character" rather than by the color of their skin, but emotionally I tend to feel that a hugely disproportionate number of black people are of dubious character and trustworthiness. Not because the color of their skin or the genetics behind it makes them that way, but because a complex series of interacting social, cultural, psychological, and other factors have predisposed black people in this country to have poor character. Certainly, there are many black people of shining character and many others of at least no worse character than most of the rest of us, and I don't claim to have anything approaching unimpeachable character myself. But an awfully large percentage of black people in this country seem to me to be apathetic if not hostile toward improving themselves through education, and they also seem to be involved in crime, substance abuse, or other illegal and illicit behavior and to think that society owes them the right to continue indulging in this way of life.

I wrote that this was an "emotional" "feeling," but actually, as I read what I've just written, it seems to involve more than just the emotions. I am talking about my perception of reality and expressing it in a fairly rational manner, although a rational statement doesn't have to be a true one. I could construct a rational syllogism that says:

All dogs are cats,
Fido is a dog;
Therefore, Fido is a cat.

This syllogism or argument is rational or logical in the sense that if its premises were true, its conclusion would also have to be true. But it's ridiculously false in its first premise and; therefore, in its conclusion.

So, I wonder. Am I intellectually rationalizing, after the fact, an emotional feeling toward black people? And, if so, where does this feeling come from? Or does my feeling arise from experience and intellectual reflection of some kind upon my experience involving black people as a group? If so, is my conclusion or, at least, hypothesis that black people as a group are of dubious character true?

I wish I could say that it isn't. But, in my heart of hearts, I'm inclined to believe that it is, and I don't know what to do about it. I don't want to think what I do about black people as a group if I'm wrong or even if I'm right but have come to my belief without sufficient justification. Yet, first of all, how do I determine if my belief is true, and, second, how do I determine, in the absence of complete certainty, if I'm justified in thinking that it's probably true?

Anyway, I don't remember how this woman was dressed except that it seemed to be rather respectably, but I had the feeling that she might well be lying about her mom, and, given my prejudice toward black people, my determination to get to work on time, and my lack of faith in my ability to think quickly and effectively in situations requiring it, I more or less reflexively said, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you" and kept walking. As she walked on to approach someone else, I heard her say bitterly, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you, what is THAT?"

If that woman had been dressed the same way and acted the same way but had not been black, would I have given her money? I doubt it, but I think I might have been slightly more inclined to. The fact that she was asking for money in the way that she was and was black more or less sealed the deal. She did seem genuinely distressed. Her voice sounded desperate and her mouth had an odd contortion as she spoke, but I think I subconsciously made the snap judgment that she was more likely to be mentally ill than telling the truth about her mom and that her being black may have contributed to behaviors that plunged her into her current predicament and that my giving her money was not really going to benefit her but just further lighten my already uncomfortably light wallet.

Nevertheless, I felt guilty as I walked on. Had I done the right thing? Or could I have done better? What should I have done? In so many unexpected everyday situations, I don't know what to do and my mind just goes blank under the pressure of the moment, and I have little confidence in my ability to think on my feet and quickly figure it out. Even afterward, when I have the luxury of being able to take my time and reflect on what I should have done with no one watching me or waiting for my answer, I don't really know what I should have done. But that's another issue too large and complex to address at length here. I've already raised one issue that is more than sufficiently large and complex enough for one post. That issue is my prejudice toward black people.

I remember how I used to argue passionately against what I perceived as my grandfather's strong prejudice against black people. He would rail against the Black Panthers or the blacks rioting in Watts and say things like, "Most blacks are just no damned good," and I would angrily tell him that he's wrong, or I'd make fun of how he'd say that black people were bad except the ones and their families with whom he worked or bowled league. They were all nice people, but other blacks were bad apples. He'd reply that there were a few good apples in the barrel of mostly rotten ones, a few exceptions to the rule regarding black people. "You just keep your eyes open and wait," he declared. "You'll see that I'm right."

And now I see that I think all too much the way he did. I know black people, including my supervisor at work, whom I like a great deal and for whom I have nothing but deep admiration and respect. They're bright (far more so than I am) kind, decent, friendly, hard-working, and scrupulous. But, in my heart of hearts, I see them as "exceptions to the rule."

I'd like to overcome this way of thinking and feeling, because I want to believe that it isn't true, and that, in any case, expecting the worst of a group of people will do nothing to help them do their best. But I don't know how to overcome it except by, for starters, admitting my prejudices to the world and proceeding from there.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buddhism vs Wilberian Integral?

I've been working full time at my new job and seem to have almost no time left over for blogging or anything else. I truly wonder how anyone who works a full-time job can find the time to read or blog. And I am in total awe of anyone who can work full time, have a decent family life, read, and blog regularly. The only way I can see them accomplishing this miracle is by sleeping four or five hours a night at most. But how can most people do this for a long time and stay physically and mentally healthy? I don't think I can do it, and I'm not keen on trying to prove otherwise.

Anyhow, I did manage to read the following e-mail update from the Integral Spiritual Center. I found it an intriguing summary of some essential Buddhist teaching within a Wilberian Integral framework.

The goal of Buddhadharma, says Patrick Sweeney, is to transform ourselves into what we really are. Far from pumping ourselves up to obtain some egoic goal, the Buddhist path leads us in precisely the opposite direction–to dismantle the ways we defend against what we always already are.

This path by which this goal is accomplished is the unfolding of prajna. But what is the starting point? The basic Buddhist view is contained in the teaching of the “four seals of the view.” As Traleg Rinpoche teaches, it is difficult to overstate the importance of right view. With right view, one has a cognitive frame that tends toward realization, toward evolution of consciousness, and toward the deepening of state-stage experience. Without right view, the process of overcoming ignorance becomes very difficult, and more or less hit and miss.

The four seals of existence are impermanence, selflessness, suffering, and nirvana. Basically:

  1. all compounded things are impermanent
  2. all phenomena lack self-nature
  3. all dualistic emotions and experiences are intrinsically painful
  4. nirvana alone is peace, and is beyond concept.

These four seals of the view define all of Buddhist practice. They describe the truth of the actual situation that we find ourselves in, what happens when we contract against it, and what happens when we relax into it.

In truth, Buddhism maintains, the outer world is impermanent. The tradition provides extensive explanations of the manner in which different aspects of the world are changing. There is gross impermanence: the physical cosmos, the solar system, and the earth are constantly changing. There is subtle impermanence: we come together as a result of our parents’ union; we experience an outer world—and inner selves—that are continuously changing. Most of us have gone through several complete revolutions within our own lives. Within and without, we are constantly seeing this truth.

The Buddha taught that not only is the body changing; not only is the outer world changing; but, in truth, there is no permanent witness to these events. When we look at experience closely, we don’t find a permanent ego; we don’t find something independent from experience. There is nothing that stays the same through our experience, nothing unitary or of one nature, nothing special that is the center of the universe.

And yet, we behave precisely as if that were the case! As if “me” existed independently from the world. As if “me” was permanent. As if “me” was one thing….

Our experience now is different than, for instance, when we were twelve. Are we the same? Or are we different? The right answer, of course, is both. Reality is constantly showing us that our emotional reaction to reality is based on an imputation that simply isn’t true. Emotionally, we tend to behave as if we are the center of the universe, as if we are special, as if our needs, desires, goals, dreams and visions are more important than those of any other. When in fact, they are pretty much identical to everyone else’s….

I had some questions as I was reading this. Perhaps someone out there can help me answer them.

First, why do we defend against who or what we "always already are," and who or what does the defending? I can understand how we might be constituted to experience the world as a collection of separate things and events and ourselves as a permanent being separate from this collection, but Sweeney and the wisdom tradition he represents appear to assert that our ignorance of the true nature of the world and ourselves is actively and purposely maintained for some reason. But if so, who or what maintains it, and why? It's often said that the ego does this. But, in the same breath, the ego is said to be illusory. Well then, how can an illusion do anything, much less keep us ignorant of who we really are and what the world really is?

Second, Sweeney says, "When we look at experience closely, we don’t find a permanent ego; don’t find something independent from experience." Yet, if I understand Ken Wilber correctly, there is something--a spiritual Self or Atman--at the center of our consciousness that is separate from the objects of its experience, although, at the highest level of consciousness, this duality of object and subject somehow disappears. How is Wilber's view reconciled with the Buddhist view, or is it? Speaking for myself, I have a difficult time believing in some permanent spiritual essence or Self that experiences worldly impermanence. It seems much more evident to me that there is no Atman or spiritual Self, just an ever-changing constellation of interdependent physical and mental states through which objects are experienced.

I guess in this regard I'm more Buddhist as I understand the tradition than I am Wilberian, or do I not understand Buddhism or Wilber correctly?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Last Moments

Body lying flat on a last bed,
Voices whispering a few last words,
Mind watching a final memory glide past;
When will that drama come for you?
--7th Dalai Lama

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Making of a Teacher

I am still an educator. But formerly it was education for degrees; now it is education for living.
--Eknath Easwaran

I'm reading a wonderful biography. The book is entitled The Making of a Teacher: Conversations With Eknath Easwaran. It was written by two of Easwaran's students, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived with him at his ashram, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Easwaran was a marvelous writer despite the fact that English wasn't even his native language. He grew up in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala and spoke Malayalam as his mother tongue, learning English as a second language in school and mastering it along with Sanskrit through his own diligence. In fact, he excelled so well in English that he became the leader of his high school debate team, fell in love with English literature, and became a very successful university professor of English in India.

However, he felt a higher calling over time to take up a spiritual path grounded in meditation and was transformed through his discipline and experience into a spiritual sage who came to the USA in 1959 on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up teaching, at U.C. Berkeley, what may well have been the first accredited meditation course in a major university anywhere in the country if not the world. He also founded the Blue Mountain spiritual center and retreat and the Nilgiri Press.

In the late 1980's, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived at the Blue Mountain Center with Easwaran in a community of his devoted students from all walks of life, spent several months interviewing him for a biography they planned to write about him. The Making of a Teacher was the remarkable result, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested either in Easwaran in particular or in simply reading about the life experience of an enlightened and much beloved spiritual teacher.

Below is a passage from the book that deeply moved me. I read it in the wake of a recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay that has befouled water and beaches and killed and imperiled birds and other wildlife all along the area. In reading it, I also thought of my beloved Smokey and wished I had stayed with him until the very end. The passage illustrates beautifully how Easwaran looked at life and death and taught about them in his mindfully loving way.

Halfway up the beach, six teenagers stood in a huddle, scuffing the sand with their bare feet. They were looking down at something, and as we approached we saw that it was an immature harbor seal that lay just above the water line. It was panting heavily, its eyes wide open. Easwaran stopped and looked down at it. The trembling pup turned its eyes toward him, too weak to retreat. Carefully, Easwaran knelt on the sand and began to stroke the unresisting, doglike head, running his gloved hand back and forth over its damp fur. The seal did not turn away.

The teenagers watched with cautious interest. One of them was tall and slender, with quick, serious eyes and a headful of blond hair that moved with the breeze. He stepped forward from the group, then dropped to his knees beside the seal. He looked into its eyes, then looked long and steadily at the man who was stroking it.

Easwaran didn't look up but continued to stroke the seal's small, pointed head. For some time, the pup lay still, its wide, dark eyes fixed on Easwaran. Finally, the eyes dimmed and turned lusterless.

Easwaran turned to the boy.

The boy asked, "Is it dead?"
"His body is dead," said Easwaran, standing up and brushing the sand from his knees.

"You mean. . .?" The boy glanced at the group of friends standing nearby, then back at Easwaran, who smiled warmly at him. Encouraged, he stood up slowly and asked, "Did you see how that seal looked at you?"

"Perhaps he knew I was his friend," Easwaran answered.

The boy pushed the long hair out of his eyes and paused again. He appeared to be struggling to frame another question.

Easwaran waited, unhurried. His seriousness matched the boy's own--softened, though, by the transparent affection that young people always elicit in him. He returned the gaze of the young man who was asking him, wordlessly, what the death of the seal pup
meant. "It means that this same thing will happen to all of us," Easwaran said quietly, anticipating him. "To me, to you, to your friends here." He looked at the faces of the others, who stood watching with patient incomprehension. Then he turned back to the young man beside him. "But it will not be the end. Not for any of us."

Not a muscle moved in the young man's face, but the look of struggle was gone. His gaze was eager now, and searching.

Easwaran clapped him on the shoulder, gave him another smile, and said good-bye. Then, waving to the others, he took Christine's hand and started up the beach. Had the boy been a few years older, I guessed, Easwaran would have let himself be drawn out a little more. Later he confirmed my guess, recalling his favorite Upanishad, the Katha, in which a teenage boy boldly demands answers about the meaning of death from a sage who is as fierce as he is wise. "Teenagers can show tremendous spiritual potential," Easwaran said. "They have the passion, the desire, the idealism, the reckless daring to stake everything they have on an almost impossible goal. But these young people need time, you know. My way is terribly demanding. Before they take on meditation and these other disciplines, they need every opportunity to explore all the innocent pleasures of life--and they need to begin to see through them too!" Still, he added, if the young man on the beach were to turn up at one of his Tuesday night talks, he wouldn't be surprised. "I would be more than happy to see him."

More than happy
. Spiritual teachers in the Indian tradition keep ceaseless watch for that special light in the eye of the most gifted students--the glint of gold. When the teenage hero of the Katha has passed the tests placed before him by the teacher and proved himself worthy of spiritual instruction, the crusty sage breaks into an uncharacteristic smile: "Blessed are you, Nachiketa!" he exults. "May we find more spiritual seekers like you!" (133-135)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

An Unforgettable Movie Scene

I've watched more movies than I can count, and I've forgotten virtually all of most of them. But I just saw a scene in a movie tonight that I will never forget. In fact, it may be the most memorable scene of any movie I've ever watched.

Two thugs had just killed a guy and discovered that there was a canister strapped to his body. So, they took the canister and opened it and powder poured out onto a table. What did these murderous nitwits do? They rolled paper money into tubes and snorted reams of the powder, thinking it was cocaine. It wasn't. It was weapons grade plutonium. I shudder thinking about it and what it would feel like to be those two guys for real. I probably will for a long time.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Biden Has Style and Substance and No Chance

I watched the Democratic debate last night. At least, I more or less watched it. I haven't yet disciplined myself to pay full attention to things that don't reach out and grab my interest by the neck. And political debates have a very limited reach and weak grasp in that respect. So does almost everything else connected with politics. There just seems to be so much posturing involved. Mostly style. Little substance.

Now don't get me wrong. I love good style. But I want it to walk hand-in-hand with plenty of substance. Political debates don't seem to do that very well. It's probably more the fault of the formats than of the debaters. The formats force the debaters to give thirty minute answers in one minute soundbites, or less. The result is not real debate. I'm not sure what to call it so long as it isn't debate. An "exhibition" perhaps. An exhibition of oratorical skill and personality under pressure. And this is how they're judged by the media "pundits" after the fact.

Immediately after last night's debate, all the analysts talked about were how Edwards and Obama came out swinging, how Hillary gave it back and then some to them, how the crowd seemed behind her when they clapped and cheered for her and booed Obama and Edwards, and how Hillary seemed to "want it" more than Obama did. It was an analysis of style and crowd reaction to style, not of the substance or actual content of what anyone said. I turned it off. I had better things to do. It would have been different if there had been some strong, concise analysis of what the exhibitors (or exhibitionists?) proposed in their rushed soundbites.

Now maybe that's too much to ask of a medium obsessed with ratings involving an audience of people who, in general, would apparently rather hear mostly about style and little or nothing about substance. Or is this only appearance and not reality? And maybe we can't legitimately expect even "the best political team on television" to know enough about the subjects exhibited to analyze the soundness of what the exhibitors presented. Yet, I somehow think that some of them are capable of this. But they, like the exhibitors/debaters themselves, aren't allowed the opportunity to strut their stuff.

However, I believe that the person who came closest to strutting his stuff last night was Joe Biden. He might well be my pick for president if I were voting today. Why? Because he seems to me to have the best combination of what we desperately need in a president at this extremely urgent time including an unrivaled grasp of both foreign and domestic policy, obvious high intelligence, a potent blend of perspicacious realism and passionate idealism, unforced eloquence, and an intriguing mix of gravitas and not taking himself too seriously.

Yes, I know he has supported the war in Iraq, although he's also offered what may be the most realistic plan for getting us out of it:

1. Giving Iraq's major groups a measure of autonomy in their own regions. A central government would be left in charge of interests such as defending the borders and distributing oil revenues.
2. Guaranteeing Sunnis — who have no oil rights — a proportionate share of oil revenue and reintegrating those who have not fought against Coalition forces.
3. Increase, not end, reconstruction assistance but insist that Arab Gulf states fund it and tie it to the creation of a jobs program and to the protection of minority rights.
4. Initiate a diplomatic offensive to enlist the support of the major powers and neighboring countries for a political settlement in Iraq and create an Oversight Contact Group to enforce regional commitments.
5. Begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces in 2007 and withdraw most of them by 2008, leaving a small follow-on force for security and policing actions. The plan named as The Biden-Brownback Resolution passed on the Senate floor 75-23 on September 25th, 2007, including 26 Republican votes. (from Wikipedia)

Yes, I know he can come off as almost egomaniacally self-promoting at times. So, he's not perfect. But he may be the least imperfect presidential candidate from either side of the political aisle. He seems to me to be the most complete package. If he were president, I would feel assured that we were in the best hands we could probably find. Perhaps we need Dennis Haysbert doing a political commercial for him reassuringly boasting, "You're in good hands with Biden."

Of course, Biden doesn't have a chance of getting the nomination. He's way down in the polls, although I don't know why, and that alone keeps him from receiving the media attention that might elevate his position. But one can only hope that a Democrat is elected president and that she or he appoints Biden Secretary of State.

So much for my post-debate commentary. I realize that it, like the "exhibits" and analyses I criticized earlier, is very short on substance. But then what do you expect? I'm not even a member of the best political team on television.

Playing Kooee With God

People see his pleasure-ground; him no one sees at all.
– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

When I was a boy in my ancestral home in South India, the children used to play a game called kooee. One little boy or girl would run and hide in a room of the labyrinthine building. Then he would call out “kooee,” and we would hear “kooee” echoing from all corners. “Kooee” would be coming from upstairs and downstairs; from the ceiling “kooee” would reverberate. We would race through the halls, tear through each room in search of the one who was crying “kooee.” Then at last we would catch her, and the game would be over.

This is the game we are all playing. Some people hear the call coming from the bank. Others hear the call from the haunts of pleasure. Many hear it coming loud and clear from status and prestige. Still others, tragically, seek power that calls to them with a loud voice.

We need to open our ears, so that when we hear the elusive call we will say, “Oh, that is Krishna playing on his flute. That is Jesus beckoning to us to follow him. That is the Divine Mother calling us home. That is the Buddha trying to wake us up.” Finally, we learn how to trace the sound to its source and say, “Caught you at last!”

--Eknath Easwaran

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Earthrise, Earthset

Here is some remarkable video of the Earth rising and setting as seen from the Japanese vessel Kaguya now orbiting 100 kilometers above the moon.

"What a wonderful world" indeed!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Changing the World Within and Without

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
– Thomas Traherne

In our relationship with the environment, the real power does not lie in the hands of technologists or politicians or directors of multinational corporations. It is individuals like you and me who make the final decisions about what is bought and sold in the stores, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, and what is dumped into the sea. Each of us can begin to heal the environment right away by changing our daily habits.

And beyond that, there is another area which deserves our immediate attention: the world within. For each of us has an entire world within, an internal environment as real as the one we see around us. This internal environment has a powerful effect on the external environment: the way we think affects the way we treat the earth. When we purify this inner environment, we are not only making ourselves more secure and fulfilled, but we are also making an important contribution to the health of Mother Earth.

--Eknath Easwaran

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Reflections on Love and Marriage

I've continued to watch HBO's amazing dramatic series Tell Me You Love Me and to be struck by just how true-to-life it appears to be about intimate relationships. It seems to me that many couples, like those depicted in the series, are compelled more by their lustful attraction than by genuine love to rush into marriage, and before they know it, they're pregnant or have screaming kids running around, the thrill is gone, and little else remains to keep them together.

Each may finally see the other not through a hormonal haze but with enough objective clarity to realize that not only do they not really love each other, but they also don't really even like each other. Or perhaps one (or both) of the spouses changes so much over the years, for better or worse, that s/he no longer has the qualities that drew the other to her/him in the first place. And so some of these disenchanted couples simply get a divorce while others go to marriage counselors and try to patch things up and often end up divorcing anyway after all of the "therapeutic" revelations that dissolve what was left of any pretense of physical attraction or romantic love between them.

I'm grateful that I married as late in life as I did, without being heated to feverish folly by the flames of youthful passion that burned and scarred me in my more naive past, and that I didn't enter into my marriage with a rose-colored perception of my wife and with quixotic expectations that our marriage would ensconce us in a Utopian paradise that forever and completely fulfilled all of our personal needs and desires and deliver unflagging security and bliss while the world around us raged on. As silly as this sounds, I think many people do enter into marriage with these conscious or subconscious expectations and place so many demands on their spouses and their marriages that resistance to failure is futile.

I, on the other hand, believe that, rather than initially placing my wife on a pedestal from which she can't help but fall over time, the better I come to know her, the higher she rises in my esteem, the more I appreciate and love her, the more grateful I am to have her in my life, and the more I want to provide for her and please her in every way. It's not always easy, and I suspect that it's harder for her than it is for me, but I don't expect it to be easy, and, paradoxical though it may seem, that probably makes it a lot easier than it would be otherwise.

It may well be true, as has often been observed, that it takes hard work to keep a good marriage going, but it has to be some of the best kind of work there is.

Empathy Through Unity

You see, when you are continuously aware that all life is one, your awareness reaches out into the world like an open nerve. It registers both the pain and the joy of its creatures. It is the price to be paid for becoming aware of the underlying unity of life.

--Eknath Easwaran

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Any Advice On Our Dilemma?

My wife and I are faced with a serious dilemma, and we would dearly appreciate any advice you might have to offer.

My wife's cousin has a young son we're convinced falls somewhere along the autistic spectrum. I believed very early on that he exhibited signs of this, and my wife and her sister agree with me. He recently turned three, but he doesn't speak more than a word or two at a time and usually doesn't speak at all. Even more noticeable is his lack of responsiveness to people. When you speak to him, he doesn't look at you, or he does so only fleetingly. He directs his attention to the objects he's playing with rather than to the people around him, even if those people are trying to interact with him in his play. He's a very cute little boy and seems as though he may be quite intelligent in some respects. But his glaring unresponsiveness to people, lack of verbal communicativeness, repetitive play patterns, strong startle reactions to unexpected noises and other stimuli, and numerous other traits and behaviors definitely raise alarming red flags.

And this became all the more apparent to us in the wake of a recent recommendation, widely discussed in the media, from the American Academy of Pediatrics that all toddlers be screened for autism twice by the time they're two years old, and our viewing of some website videos contrasting autistic with normal childhood behavior at different ages. Seeing these videos completely erased any lingering doubts we may have had about our concerns. The boy in question exhibits in spades virtually all the telltale signs revealed by the videos.

Our problem is, where do we go from here? The boy's mother and grandparents have also expressed their suspicions at times that something isn't right with the boy and that this something could be autism, but they won't do anything about it, and they seem determined to deny that there's a problem severe enough that he won't "grow out of it" in time. They seize upon any little sign of intellectual or verbal development as proof that the boy is not autistic, that's he already growing out of any problems he may have, and that he's going to be just fine without any kind of intervention.

For instance, when they and the boy visited us yesterday, they proudly told us how he could now recite the alphabet from A to Z and read out the address numbers of houses including ours. To complicate things even further, his pediatrician allegedly hasn't said anything, and one of my wife's aunts and her pediatrician daughter came here from Thailand a few months ago and stayed with them for a week, and the pediatrician daughter reputedly told them that the boy was not autistic.

I don't believe her, and I don't think they, in their heart-of-hearts, believe her either. But they desperately want to, and so they won't take the boy to a specialist and have him expertly evaluated and get him the help he needs as soon as possible to afford him the best chance of living a relatively normal life.

My wife and I don't know what to do. I, for one, feel very concerned for this boy. My mother has told me that when I was very young, she feared that I was autistic. And this was in the mid- 1950's when autism didn't receive anything like the publicity it does now. And my life has been a mess ever since as I've struggled abnormally with life's normal tasks. I don't want to see this or worse happen to the boy. But how can my wife and I persuade his parents and grandparents to do anything about it? Whenever my wife has mentioned her concerns, they become defensive and upset, and we don't want to alienate them. Should we keep bringing up the subject anyway? Or should we simply throw up our hands and say, "It's not our place to do anything about it, or, even if it were, there's nothing we can do if they won't listen to us."?

Does anyone out there have any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More On Ed Witten's Genius

I just posted an entry about Edward Witten, who is probably one of the smartest people on Earth and quite possibly the world's greatest living theoretical physicist. I just found some more material about him that I'd like to share with you.

In his bestselling book The Whole Shebang, acclaimed science writer Timothy Ferris says this about Witten:

In the high carrels of theoretical physics, where intelligence is taken for granted, Witten is regarded as preternaturally, almost forbiddingly, smart. A tall, boyish-looking man, he wears the habitual small smile of the theoretician for whom sustained mathematical thinking has something like the emotional qualities that mystics associate with meditation. He speaks in a soft, high pitched voice, floating short, precise sentences punctuated by witty little silences--the speech pattern of a man who has learned that he thinks too fast to otherwise be understood. Though he is the son of a theoretical physicist, Witten came to science in a roundabout fashion. He graduated from Brandeis College in 1971 as a history major, wrote political journalism for the Nation and the New Republic, and worked in George McGovern's presidential campaign. Primarily a mathematician, he picked up physics along the way, almost as a hobby. But colleagues who compare him to Einstein have something more specific in mind than his imposing intellect: Like Einstein, Witten is a geometer. "The great ideas in physics," he says, "have geometric foundations." String theory, he believes, provides a geometric basis for particle physics--which means, among other things, a way to make everything out of nothing. He calls string theory "part of the physics of the twenty-first century that fell by chance into the twentieth century." It caught his interest and kept him in physics. He published nineteen papers on strings in 1985 alone and has bustled on at a similar pace ever since, laying tracks on which mighty trains can run. (221-222)

And to quote from a web page dedicated to Witten:

He shows the direction for the rest of us," stated Institute physicist Nathan Seiberg, who collaborated with Witten on a series of groundbreaking papers. "His main strength is that he's powerful in everything. Both in math -- the most sophisticated math -- and physics … he has remarkable physics intuition as well as complete control over the math that is needed. And, in that respect, I think he's unique.

In the left-hand column toward the top of that web page in a box titled
WATCH THE VIDEO is a link to a fascinating and fairly lengthy interview with Witten about his work in superstring theory and his life as a mathematical physicist. If I've succeeded in piquing your interest in this mathematical and scientific genius, I highly recommend that you check out the video. You might also want to listen to this Witten lecture, aimed at nonspecialists, on the future of string theory.

Finally, below is another video segment featuring Witten talking about string theory.

Monster Mind Ed Witten

Yesterday, Bill Harryman at Integral Options Cafe speedlinked to an article reporting a poll in which 4000 members of the British public selected the "top 100 living geniuses." I agree with some of the selections. But not only were the "top 100" disproportionately British, but I think some very deserving people got left out. The two who spring most readily to mind are Ken Wilber and Edward Witten.

I would venture to guess that just about anyone reading this blog is familiar with Ken Wilber. It certainly seems to me that he belongs on the list. However, there's a theoretical physicist who didn't make it who surely belongs there as well.

Of course, Stephen Hawking is on it, possibly mostly because he's British, is an extremely well-publicized victim of ALS, has written a very popular book about cosmology, and has made some important contributions to astrophysical theory. It's also true that Hawking occupies Isaac Newton's chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and is popularly thought to be Newton's and Einstein's successor.

Yet, the person regarded by his fellow physicists and mathematicians to truly be the most likely successor to Einstein is an unassuming scientist at Einstein's old stomping grounds, Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. His name is Edward Witten. He clearly possesses what the late, great physicist Richard Feynman called a "monster mind." Or as one prominent cosmologist said of Witten: "We all think we're very smart, but he's so much smarter than the rest of us."

Witten has won a MacArthur Grant, the National Medal of Science, and has the highest h-index of any living physicist. This is a measure that attempts to quantify scientific productivity and impact. He's renowned for his grasp of and contributions to both mathematics and physics and is a winner of the extremely prestigious Fields Medal, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The great geometer Sir Michael Atiyah said this of Witten:

Although he is definitely a physicist (as his list of publications clearly shows) his command of mathematics is rivalled by few mathematicians, and his ability to interpret physical ideas in mathematical form is quite unique. Time and again he has surprised the mathematical community by his brilliant application of physical insight leading to new and deep mathematical theorems.

Witten is probably most famous for his spectacular contributions to superstring theory, and the video below features theoretical physicist Brian Greene touching upon Witten's involvement in this area and also shows Witten briefly.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Genius of Art Tatum

I'm inspired by Bill Harryman's post over at Integral Options Cafe of Georges Cziffra playing Lizst to post a video of of the incomparable Art Tatum playing jazz. It is said that awesome classical musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz would walk away from Tatum's performances astounded by his "genius,"that fellow jazz musicians called him "the eighth wonder of the world," that Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff proclaimed him the greatest piano player in any style, and that the great jazz pianist Fats Waller once introduced Tatum by saying: "I only play the piano, but tonight, God is in the house." It is even the case that, quoting Wikipedia, "In 1993, an MIT student invented a term that is now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: The Tatum. It means 'the smallest perceptual time unit in music.'"

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Art Tatum playing Yesterdays.

And here is a clip from a documentary about Tatum.

How to Choose a Spiritual Teacher?

I had a very good discussion with someone in the comments section of one of my recent entries. Part of our discussion was about how to progress spiritually. This person suggested that one needs to find an authentic spiritual teacher and that Eknath Easwaran, although he seemed like a "nice" enough guy with some commonsensically sound things to say about religion and spirituality, was essentially just an "English teacher"and not a "genuine vehicle of the divine grace." When I asked how one knows an authentic teacher from a charlatan, this person replied:

it is so important to remain within orthodoxy, as these are guaranteed sources of grace. They have an established record, like a boring mutual fund that you know will appreciate over time, as opposed to some hot stock that may or may not grow.

To cite a banalogy, let's say you have a big social function coming up, and you want to look sharp. But like Gagdad Bob, you don't know anything about fashion. Whom do you trust? On the one hand, you could go to some cutting edge place on Melrose Avenue and get the latest style. You'll probably end up looking like an idiot. No, better to stay with a classic look, something timeless, something that will never go out of style. This is why Cary Grant always looks impeccable, while those who follow fashions look very silly five or ten years later.

This seems like excellent advice. If one selects a venerable teacher from within a time-honored wisdom tradition, one is largely "guaranteed" a legitimate teacher who can act as a "source of grace."

As a sideline comment on the clothing metaphor, I recently felt the need to purchase a sport coat for an important job interview for which wearing my one and only suit seemed "over the top," but anything less than a nice sport coat with dress shirt and slacks and matching tie seemed insufficient. My problem was that I have such dismal fashion sense that I hadn't a clue as to what to buy. I had the idea that I needed to get something more on the Cary Grant than Carson Kressley side of fashionability, but whom could I trust to show me what filled the bill? I decided on the Men's Wearhouse because I'm a sucker for those George Zimmer commercials where he earnestly boasts in a mellifluous tone, "You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it." I believed that I could go to one of his stores and find something recommended by someone who knew what he (or she) was doing without having to pay what's left of my bank account for it. I'd like to think I made the right decision not only on where to shop but also on the sport coat I ended up buying, but I don't know for sure. It's not the coat I would have bought on my own by any means, and, as for trusting Men's Wearhouse, I could probably find people who know about clothes who would say that Men's Wearhouse is a good place to shop whereas others would say that it sucks big time.

In much the same way, I could probably find disagreement between even the most spiritually knowledgeable people about who, among even the most revered, is an authentic spiritual teacher and who isn't. For instance, some swear that Andrew Cohen is a great spiritual teacher, while others insist that he's an egomaniacal, cult-leading nutcase. It seems like, in the end, one just doesn't know for sure. Not only does one not know who's a genuine spiritual teacher in general, but one also doesn't know whether that teacher is right for him or her in particular. "Different strokes for different folks," and, perhaps, different teachers for different seekers. It seems to me that if one is really looking for a good teacher, one may need to find someone who not only has a sterling reputation among people who seem qualified to judge (whoever they are), which isn't always that easy to do, but also that he (or she) must strike a chord deep within oneself.

In their own ways, Spinoza, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eknath Easwaran, Ken Wilber, and, yes, even Tony Robbins have come the closest to striking chords deep within me of anyone with whom I have any familiarity. All seem to have pieces of the spiritual puzzle, even though no one seems like a sufficiently complete teacher for me in and of himself. I know that Cousin Dupree would probably roll his eyes in disgust at my mention of at least two of these gentlemen, and he probably wouldn't think much of the remainder as spiritual teachers, but why should I trust Dupree's judgment about spiritual matters more than I do my own deepest instincts? Because he's far smarter and much more widely read than I am and has even had his own book about spirituality published and praised and has been interviewed in a leading magazine about spirituality? Some would say that this is reason enough, but is it?

In any case, I can't force myself to go against my instincts to embrace Dupree's or anyone else's conflicting judgments even if I wanted to. The best I can do is listen to and reflect upon what others have to say and then proceed to make my own choices based on what I think (or feel) is best. And I suspect that there's something to be said for following through with conviction and purpose with one's decision after one makes it instead of wavering diffidently from second-guessing.

What I'm trying to say is that it seems to me that I must make a choice of whom to follow or what path to walk and totally commit to that choice long enough to get a clear sense of where it leads. I can listen to other people's recommendations, but they can't make the choice for me. I must make it for myself.

Interestingly, Easwaran, who, incidentally, moved on (or up) from being a professor of English literature (Wasn't Aurobindo also an English professor for a time?) to becoming a world-renowned spiritual teacher and writer and the founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation where he lived with and taught, in traditional Indian fashion, a devoted community of students or disciples, had the following to say about choosing the right teacher:

My advice has always been to select your teacher with great care. Use common sense and don't get carried away by personal appearance. You don't go to just any stockbroker and ask him to handle your accounts, do you? You study his record; you ask your friends about him. Now, if choosing a stockbroker can command so much attention, you must pardon me if I say that you should take at least as much care in choosing a spiritual teacher. Look closely at his or her life. That is the surest test. Talk to people who have been with the teacher, who have spent time with him or her. See whether he gets depressed when things go wrong, whether she can return good for ill, love for hatred--whether he can support those who offend him, whether she can forgive those who malign her. How consistent are his actions with his words? I give students years before I accept them fully. I watch them carefully, and I expect them to watch me carefully at the same time. And I ask them to give me a reasonable margin for human error. (The Making of a Teacher, Jim and Carol Flinders, 43-44)

That, too, seems like excellent advice, although it raises its own set of questions. Primary among them are: (1) How much "human error" should we accept in an enlightened teacher? and (2) Should we turn to a living teacher with whom we can be physically present, or can we "settle" for a teacher who has either passed on or whom we can never hope to meet much less study with on a continuing basis?