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?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Thai Smile

My wife is now on a plane heading from Thailand to San Francisco.

Thailand is called the "land of smiles." The Thai people are renowned for their beautiful smiles. And my experience with Thai people both here and in Thailand tells me that their reputation is well-deserved. But some people take it a little too far.

Eric Plays Manhattan

I love great guitar playing. Few do it better than Eric Johnson. Here he is showcasing his impeccable tone and wonderful technique and throwing a bit of Wes Montgomery into the mix on a sweet, sweet song titled Manhattan.

What is the Self, and is it God?

As pure water poured into pure water becomes the very same, so does the Self of the illumined man or woman verily become one with the Godhead.
– Katha Upanishad

For some reason, it is very difficult for us to accept our divine nature. This has always puzzled me. We pay money for books about how destructive we are. We stand in line to see movies that emphasize our capacity for making trouble. Then, when Jesus comes to tell us that the kingdom of heaven is within us, we say, “There must be some mistake.”

It is to convince us that our real Self is always pure and eternal that men and women of God keep arising among us. More than anything, we need to hear their good news that the source of all joy and security is right within. In the Hindu scriptures there is a precise term for our real nature: the Atman. All it means is “the Self” – not the little self, the changing personality with which most of us identify, but the higher Self, our real, changeless personality.

--Eknath Easwaran

Is "God" only within me, or is It just as much outside as inside me?

If by "me," I mean my organism or body-mind, then God is both inside and outside me. If by "me," I mean the fullest and most real me, then I, in the fullest and most real sense, am God. And so, I might add, are you. At least this is what I understand many of the great or reputedly great sages to be saying, whether or not any of them happen to be Christian.

Is there such a thing as a Christian sage? If Christianity says that God and I are not the same, but the truth is that God and I are the same and that a sage knows this fundamental truth, can any true Christian be a sage?

Yet, do I understand these sages correctly, or am I distorting their message? And, if do understand them correctly, are they correct, and, if so, how do I know that they are? By doing what they do until I experience what they experience? If I try this and succeed, will I know that "I and the Father are One"? If so, how will my life be different? How will I be different? How will the world be different because I am different?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

She's Coming Home, And I Still Miss Him

My wife will be returning from Thailand Monday. I'll be picking her up at SFO in the afternoon and driving her back home here in Sacramento. She spent three weeks in Thailand at her family's home in Ayutthaya with brief stays in Bangkok and Hua Hin. I wish I could have gone with her. But I had to stay home and work and take care of our two cats.

We used to have three cats. But then I had to have my oldest cat, Smokey, put down recently. I still miss him, especially when I see photos like the one above that was taken a little more than a year ago in our backyard with my lovely sister-in-law. I've loved all of my cats, but Smokey was special.

I wish Smokey were still here. I loved him. And even though he was an old guy, he still took some great pictures. He lives on in those pictures and in my heart.

I'm glad my wife was able to spend these three weeks with her family in her beloved Thailand. But I also miss her, and I'll be happy to have her back here with me and our two "boys."

Fulfillment and Happiness

"The idea is to live a life in conformity with your essence. This is what leads to a sturdy sense of self and to fulfillment."
--Cousin Dupree

"Happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Can a Court Ruling Be Both Just and Wrong?

Genarlow Wilson, 21, has spent more than two years in prison for having consensual oral sex at a party in 2003 with a girl who was two years younger than him. He was convicted under a 1995 Georgia law that made his offense of "aggravated child molestation" a serious felony, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison without possibility of probation or parole.

There has been much publicity about this case, as many, myself included, believe that the severity of this sentence was an egregious miscarriage of justice. The Georgia state Legislature implicitly agreed by changing the law in 2006 to make consensual oral sex between two teenagers so close in age a misdemeanor rather than a felony. But the law was expressly NOT made retroactive, so Wilson languished in prison and his formal appeal and the public's protestations went unheeded by the courts. Even the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the new law couldn't be applied retroactively to Wilson or anyone else convicted under the earlier law.

However, when a Monroe County judge decided to reduce Wilson's sentence to a year and release him and the state appealed his decision, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ended up with a 4-3 ruling upholding the lower court judge's decision to have Wilson released. The minority judges expressed their disagreement by arguing that the ruling exhibited "unprecedented disregard" for the Legislature's constitutional authority. Nevertheless, the decision stands and Wilson is expected to be released this afternoon.

I'm delighted that he's going to be free, and I hope that being in prison for over two years hasn't seriously undermined his chances of making a good life for himself on the outside. He is reportedly "committed to talking and working with young people to spread the message that he made a mistake that night and doesn't want it to happen to anyone else." However, I'm not sure I understand the higher court's ruling. I agree wholeheartedly with its statement: "Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children." Yet, if the state Legislature does, indeed, have the constitutional authority to make laws that are not to be applied retroactively, and the Georgia Supreme Court itself court upheld that authority with respect to the very law in question just a short time ago, on what strictly LEGAL grounds could it turn around and negate that authority and its own previous ruling?

It seems to me that we have a rather clear case of, in Wilberian Integral terms, "second tier" or integral values overcoming "first tier" values, which, it seems to me, is what true justice often demands. That is, true justice often requires that we look beyond and rise above the mere letter of the law to embrace and manifest its motivating spirit. It would seem that four of the Georgia Supreme Court justices were able to do that, although one can't know for sure what really motivated each of them to decide as they did, and three justices could not. The latter and those who side with them are trapped in a conventional "the law is the law" mentality or worse, and they would have let Wilson spend another eight years in prison for being a seventeen-year-old boy who engaged in one documented act of oral sex with a fully consenting fifteen-year-old girl.

Again, it seems to me that justice triumphed over legal formality in this case. But I wonder if some court somewhere might just as easily violate legal formality to inflict injustice. For instance, might a court rule that a law can be applied retroactively to impose a much harsher sentence on someone than he originally received under the previous law he was convicted of violating, or could it even decide that someone can be tried for breaking a law that didn't even exist at the time he allegedly broke it? If it does, I hope there's a quick remedy for it and that justice ultimately and swiftly prevails.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Renewed Memories

Five years ago I stood on my neighbor's front porch across the street watching flames and thick black smoke rise from my roof. When it was over, my garage and its contents (including my beloved and almost new Honda Goldwing motorcycle) were destroyed and my house was considerably damaged from fire, water, smoke, and holes firefighters had punched in the ceiling to fight the fire. These memories have been revived by viewing news media reports of the devastation left by the fires now raging in Southern California, and they likely enable me to empathize with the victims of these fires more than can someone who hasn't been similarly victimized to some degree.

However, I was much more fortunate than some of these recent victims probably are. Since my house was not destroyed, I was able to move back into it after three months. The Red Cross put us up in a motel and paid for our meals for several days afterward until we could move into a nice and nicely furnished apartment while my garage was being rebuilt and my house repaired. My insurance covered everything. And we eventually moved back into a house that was in far better shape than it was before the fire. I had a new and improved garage, a new roof, a new paint job inside and out, and new carpeting. All of this home improvement undoubtedly gained me tens of thousands of dollars more from selling the house less than a year later than I would have received otherwise. Unfortunately, my girlfriend at the time was not so fortunate. She lost cherished photos and family heirlooms that no amount of insurance money could replace.

But I can well imagine that some in Southern California are not as fortunate as I was. Some have lost everything but their lives, and it will take far longer than three months before they can move back into their homes. Some may never be able to move back in because they were either uninsured or underinsured.

I hear some, as always happens at times like these, blaming the victims for their misfortune. They should not have lived in the dangerous areas they did. They should have known that they were at serious risk for what ended up happening to them; therefore, they don't deserve any sympathy or help. Or so the argument goes.

But where should they have lived instead? Where can people live that is free of any threat of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, rising seas, and other natural and man-made disasters, and what would these few-and-far-between places be like if everyone moved there?

I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the reasons I left was to avoid the danger of catastrophic earthquakes. I moved to Sacramento thinking I was relatively safe only to find out, after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, that Sacramento is universally considered to be the most flood endangered major metropolitan area in the entire country. I can't afford to move to anywhere else right now, and even if I could, where would I go that didn't present its own set of potential dangers?

My heart goes out to the people in Southern California displaced by fire. And those intrepid firefighters and dedicated Red Cross and other relief workers have my unbounded appreciation and admiration for their extraordinary public service.

Love Everyone No Matter What?

In every veil you see, the Divine Beauty is concealed, making every heart a slave to him. In love to him the heart finds its life; in desire for him, the soul finds its happiness. The heart which loves a fair one here, though it knows it not, is really his lover.
– Jami

It is very difficult for most of us to understand to what extent our love can be expanded. Everybody has a few people with whom he can be friendly, with whom she can be tender, but the Lord tells us, “That’s not enough. If you want to become whole and never be separate again, you should have love and respect for everyone.”

Jesus said, “What is the special achievement in loving those who love you? Even selfish people are prepared to do that. Bless those that curse you.” I can see the twinkle in his eye as the gathering gasps. This is the daring of Jesus. Today we talk about revolution, but I think there has never been a greater revolutionary than Jesus the Christ. He tells us that by loving those who hate us, we can win our freedom, because we will no longer be dependent on how others act towards us. The person who practices this can reach the summit of human consciousness, for it is only by loving people who oppose us and learning to bear with them that we can heal ourselves and heal them too.

--Eknath Easwaran

"Cousin Dupree" would no doubt disagree with Easwaran on this, insisting that it's further evidence of the man's foolishness. But I strongly suspect that Easwaran is right on the mark. This doesn't mean that I'll ever be able to love everyone, and I'm not going to wear myself out trying or beat myself up for failing. But I do see it as an ideal, and I believe that the older and wiser I get, the more closely I may be able to approximate it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

In the Beginning

1.1. Dhritarashtra said: O Sanjaya, after my sons and the sons of Pandu assembled in the place of pilgrimage at Kurukshetra, desiring to fight, what did they do?

In The End of Sorrow: The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, Eknath Easwaran begins his commentary on the great Hindu scriptural classic by quoting Mahatma Gandhi:

The Gita is not a historical discourse. A physical illustration is often needed to drive home a spiritual truth. It is the description not of war between cousins, but between two natures in us--the Good and the Evil.

Easwaran agrees with Gandhi and tells the story of how a train on which he was traveling once stopped at Kurukshetra, the field immortalized in the Gita as the site of a devastating battle between the evil Kauravas and the good Pandavas, and most of the passengers disembarked to wander the hallowed field while Easwaran remained on the train because he knew that Kurukshetra was actually a metaphor for the battle against "all that is selfish, self-willed, and separate in us." Easwaran continues:

The violence we see about us is a reflection of the anger and self-will burning deep within us. Most of us carry a conflagration around with us in the depths of consciousness, and many of us are skilled practitioners of guerilla warfare right in our own homes. The war the mystics of all the world's great religions talk about is not the one erupting in the Middle East or in Southeast Asia that makes newspaper headlines; it is the one erupting from the fierce self-will afflicting all of us, estranging individuals, familes, communities, races, and nations. (23-24)

Easwaran argues that we can win this battle and that a careful study of the Gita shows us how with its eightfold path of meditation and allied disciplines that Easwaran has adopted into his own spiritual system that he's spent much of his life sharing with the world.

I read Easwaran and don't know whether to believe him or not. Is the strife and violence we see inside and around us really simply the result of our egoistic selfishness and self-will, and can we really triumph over them by waging a skillful battle against them armed with meditation, mantram, mindfulness, training the senses, slowing down, putting the welfare of others first, reading spiritual literature, and enjoying spiritual companionship?

What's more, are Gandhi and Easwaran correct in arguing that we often need myths to convey truths that expository prose cannot? Isn't the world full of people--like Christian TV evangelists and their followers or the train passengers who wandered the field of Kurukshetra--who take the myths literally and, in so doing, never understand the real point of the myth and never become transformed by its truth?

I don't know the answers to these questions, and I'm tired of reading other people's opinions and speculating. I want to find out for myself. I want to read, reflect, and blog on the Gita and Easwaran's commentary while I follow Easwaran's eight-point program within the wider context of an integral life practice and see where it all leads.

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey begins here.

A Beautiful Smile

I deposited a check at my bank this morning. The teller was a very pretty young woman who smiled as though she meant it. She always does that. She couldn't have been smiling like that because she saw me as a handsome young man she wanted to attract. I'm several decades older than her and not at all handsome. And, besides, she smiles at everyone the same way: with a kind of bashfully warmhearted radiance . She smiles as though it comes from the depths of her soul.

I wonder if it's all a marvelous act and nothing more. I hope not. I hope she does it because she sees and loves what Eknath Easwaran calls the "original goodness" in everyone.

Wherever it comes from, I hope she never loses that smile or that life's hardships and betrayals don't steal it from her. There are few things that can warm the heart and brighten a person's day as much as that teller's beautiful smile. How I wish we could all smile like that. It would bring us all closer to heaven on earth.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

HBO's Remarkable New Series

One young couple is planning their wedding until the woman overhears her fiance confiding to someone that he'll "deal with" the fallout of his inevitable unfaithfulness when it comes. A young man feels turned off by his wife's constantly pressuring him for sex so she can get pregnant. A man approaching middle age loves his family, but he and his wife haven't had sex in over a year, and the thrill of any kind of real intimacy between them has given way to weariness and numbing routine that she can no longer tolerate. An older woman (Jane Alexander), who happens to be a marriage counselor conducting therapy with two of the aforementioned couples, says to her husband of 42 years that they have worked their way through the very problems she's assisting the other couples with.

I'm writing about a startlingly realistic new HBO dramatic series about intimate male-female relationships titled Tell Me You Love Me. This series, with its extremely revealing glimpses of marital accord and discord and its graphic simulations of sexual intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation complete with visible ejaculation, is like nothing I've ever seen on TV or at the movies before, and, judging from the first three episodes that I saw today, after recently subscribing to HBO for a six month discount, may well end up numbering among the small handful of TV shows that have made me genuinely and profoundly wiser about life.

Almost everything about this series--except, perhaps, the invariably fast and furious sex scenes--shines with extraordinary authenticity delivered by exceptional scripts and acting. Virtually every act, gesture, and spoken and unspoken word is ripe with meaning and intensity, so much so that it can often make one squirm in one's chair with the discomfort of self-recognition, and fill one with apprehension over how any marriage or intimate relationship, one's own included, can reasonably be expected to avoid or surmount the obstacles that beset the troubled couples in the series. Indeed, after watching a few episodes, one marvels that the national divorce rate isn't significantly higher than the 50+% that it's reported to be

Yet, if experience can enable one to live more wisely, avoiding the pitfalls one has encountered or seen others encounter before, then watching this HBO series all the way through and reflecting on the issues it raises may be a shortcut to wisdom and an antidote to failed relationships. Because the intimate revelations of these four couples are so powerful that they sear themselves into one's brain and consciousness. The scenes are so effective that one vicariously experiences and is changed by the relationships he observes on the screen. It's almost like they become one's own personal experiences supplementing and complementing one's actual personal experience.

Maybe I'm just swept away by excessive enthusiasm and hyperbole in the wake of today's viewings and will come down to earth or even indifference after I see a few more episodes. But I doubt it. I think this is truly an extraordinary series, and if you get HBO and haven't seen it, you might want to give serious thought to checking it out. Or renting it after it comes out on DVD. Just be prepared to squirm a lot.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Quitting One Job For Another

I quit my job today for five reasons: (1) I wasn't any good at it and probably never would be; (2) It was an on-call, part-time job; (3) Somebody could die if I messed up; (4) I've already been offered another job that seems better suited to my aptitudes and career aspirations, and I'm now just waiting for HR to complete the paperwork so I can get started; and (5) The new job is full-time with regular weekday hours.

Having said this, I feel uncomfortable and even a little ashamed over leaving a job I had only barely begun, especially when my supervisor and co-workers have been so decent and accommodating and have invested so much time and effort and the agency that hired me has invested so much money in my training . And I also wonder if I'm going to be able to do my new job all that much better than I was able to do the old one. That is, will I be merely jumping from one frying pan into another, or, worse still, straight into a blazing fire?

Reservations and questions aside, I sincerely believe that I'm doing what's best for everybody, and I suppose that this is the best I or anyone can do.

Easwaran on Learning How to Fly

He that loveth, flieth, runneth, and rejoiceth. He is free, and cannot be held in. He giveth all for all, and hath all in all, because he resteth in one highest above all things, from whom all that is good flows and proceeds.
– Thomas a Kempis

This spring I watched six baby swallows learn how to fly. They were huddled on the telephone wires observing their mother, who came flying slowly by in front of them, doing the easier turns and showing them the basics of flying. There was no need for these baby swallows to read books or attend lectures on how to fly. They have an inborn instinct for it. Learning to fly may not be easy, but this is what birds are born to do.

The Lord sees us sitting on a perch made of pleasure, profit, power, or prestige, quaking with every variation in our bank account and every critical comment that comes our way; and he asks us if we would not rather forget our failings and learn to fly.

This is what we are born to do: to leave our perch of selfish interests and soar aloft. To soar to union with God means that all the faculties and resources which have been hidden in us can come into our lives, to the great benefit of those around us.

--Eknath Easwaran

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Linking to a Great Review of a Great Movie

"I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'"
--William F. Buckley

I've just finished watching a wonderful movie. I don't have time to review it here, and, besides, I've just read a review of it that is leaps and bounds beyond anything I could muster even if I had all the time in the world. But I agree with everything it says. So, if you're curious and are able to access it in Salon, here is a virtually perfect review of one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time by someone who has become one of my favorite movie reviewers. The film, set in the repressive bleakness that was East Germany in the mid 1980's, is titled The Lives of Others, and the reviewer is Stephanie Zacharek.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

New Job

Later this morning, I begin training for a new job as telephone operator for a local health care system. My supervisor assures me that the job is "a piece of cake," and for him it probably is. It remains to be seen what it will be for me. I have a book written by, for, and about people with nonverbal learning disorder and Asperger syndrome that says we shouldn't be telephone operators. I hope it's wrong about me and this particular job.

Time will tell.