Saturday, December 25, 2010

Charter for Compassion

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others - even our enemies - is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge
that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~
to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Twenty-five Things about Me

On Facebook, ideas for things to write about pass over the Facebook community in waves. Many of them are like this one, in which you are supposed to answer a set of questions or build a list based on some idea.

Usually the instructions urge you to write as quickly as possible according to the questionable idea that your first impulses are the most authentically you. I reject this idea. I spent twenty-three years in therapy exploring what is authentically me, and during this time I discovered over and over that my first impulses are my defenses, not my core self. Sometimes my first answer to a question represents my truest answer - rarely - but usually it represents the least true, least authentic answer, the rehearsed answer, the practiced answer, the pretense.

Plato wrote that Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living," in criticism of the many people who lack all introspection. Sometimes I think this "answer as quickly as you can" meme is unphilosophical "culture's" crude attempt at revenge, by trying to spread the idea that introspection should not be trusted, that only thoughtless reflex is authentic.

Preferring a mindful way of life, I answered this particular essay slowly and carefully, thoughtfully, paying attention to things that I have strong feelings about, that mean a great deal to me, but that maybe I hadn't yet shared with a lot of people. I wrote it between Thursday, July 1st and Monday, November 22nd this year.

Likewise, preferring communication to mere self-expression I also wrote more than a word or two about each thing, on the theory that the short, generic answers are rarely as interesting as the whole truth in personal context.

So, for what it's worth, here are twenty-five things about me:

1. I almost never have nightmares; even the dreams with death and monsters in them are happy or exciting dreams. I rarely remember my dreams because I don't sleep enough, but when I do about half of them are lucid dreams in which I know I'm dreaming and can fly or change the dreams at will.

2. All day long - while I'm talking to you, while I'm programming, while I'm hiking, while I'm thinking - and even all night as I sleep, one of the seven or so tracks in my brain is playing music nonstop. You can ask me any time what I'm listening to and I can almost always tell you; sometimes I'm listening to two songs at once, and let me tell you, that's weird (when I started writing this on July 1st, my head was playing both Ryan Star's "Brand New Day" and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade; when I revised it in September it was alternating between the second movement of Brahms's Symphony #4 and the second movement of his Piano Concerto #2; as I finish it in November, I hear Wilhelm Kempff playing the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 8 in C minor, "Pathétique"). I rarely listen to music out loud any more because in my head I hear it all the time, in perfect detail, the way I imagine Mozart must have heard music. For example, while Scheherazade is playing in my mind, I can hear every single instrument, their pacing, their expression, the pauses, the musician's inhale before playing a note of woodwind to break a momentary silence, everything. Sometimes I think I chose the wrong profession, that I should have been a composer or a musician, but ironically, I never learned how to play an instrument, though I love to sing.

3. That said, although I took a long time to start playing Rock Band after my cats bought it for me for Father's Day a couple years ago, once I started it immediately became my favorite video game. I love being physically immersed in the flow of music.

4. I remember tasting colors even before I could walk. Sometimes I still do.

5. I was born an alcoholic. I grew up surrounded by alcohol and alcoholism; almost every adult member of my family for generations on both sides has struggled with the bottle. I never have, at least not as an adult. The only time I drank was before first grade, when a friend taught me to steal the nearly empty bottles out of the trash behind a tavern across the street so we could drink the last drops out of each one. I haven't touched alcohol since, though I have no problem with people drinking around me. When I smell a fine wine, I remember my childhood, that tavern, those bottles, but I also feel safe knowing I can trust myself not to go down that road again.

6. Likewise, no drugs. I'd rather suffer with a headache than take aspirin. When my fillings were all extracted and replaced in my early twenties, I had the dentist drill on my teeth without any painkiller at all. No drugs, except under extraordinary medical conditions. There are worse things in life than pain.

7. When I was a young boy, maybe as a result of my drinking out of empty bottles, Grandma Ann taught me to avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. She used to teach me little slogans and rhymes, which she would encourage me to say around my other relatives, especially my Grandma Pat. I'm sure it made me seem like a sanctimonious little brat at times, but it also helped keep me safe from peer pressure growing up.

8. Speaking of Grandma Pat, she once saved me from drowning. Her alcoholic boyfriend du jour thought he'd teach me to swim by throwing me in the deep end. I remember splashing frantically and inhaling water. Grandma Pat was also an alcoholic, and drunk at the time, and even in the best of times throughout her life she was often self-destructive and had scarily bad judgment, but that day something clicked for her, and she dove in and fished me out. I'd probably have died that day if she hadn't saved me.

9. My dad wouldn't let me eat candy as a child, so I did so every chance I got when he wasn't around. Even in first grade I used to spend my lunch money on candy from the little store near my elementary school. I remember vividly how many different candy flavors there used to be - by second grade I thought myself quite the candy connoisseur - but as I grew older and companies began cutting back on quality to save money, candy all started to taste more and more just like sugar and chemicals. I wouldn't touch candy today, and I'm allergic to most of it anyway, but I still remember those old wonderful flavors fondly.

10. My dad also preferred that I not watch TV, except for nature programs, so at midnight on Friday nights, after he went to sleep, I would creep downstairs to watch horror films on Nightmare Theater with the volume turned almost off. I still love horror films, the way they take me back to my childhood, the way they let us explore and come to understand otherwise taboo subjects; the way the classic horrors help us learn sympathy for the monster, the misunderstood outsider, the tragic loss of control of madness; and the way horror can help us reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of pain, loss, grief, and death. I believe the reason I have no nightmares is that I was able to experience these things in my own life and because what I couldn't directly experience I was able to explore in horror films.

11. Were it not for my Aunt Marilyn, my nephew Alex and my nieces Elizabeth and Wyatt would never have been born, because their father - my brother Rob - and I would never have been born; she introduced my mom and dad to each other.

12. I was born honest. Childhood neighbors and classmates taught me to lie in first and second grade, but my father and my stepmother Jean beat it out of me before adolescence, so I went back to being honest. I'm grateful to them that I was punished so severely for lying. It helped to make me who I am today.

13. I'm intensely curious, like everyone in my family. I find just about everything fascinating and will read voraciously about anything. The less I know about a subject, or the more an opinion disagrees with my own, the more I want to read about it.

14. I like to be criticized, but not insulted. Pseudo-criticism, insult disguised as criticism, really pisses me off because I hate to be reminded how petty and vicious some people are. Real criticism, though, I love, the more deeply insightful the better. If someone can rock the foundations of my worldview with a revelation, I'm delighted and grateful, even if I'm frowny and grumbly at first. It's not easy to do, though, because I'm always looking for new ways to criticize myself, for opportunities to become a better person, so most of my obvious flaws I already know about and am working on. I assume there are vast attics and basements of serious but subtle flaws just waiting to be found.

15. Jerry Gould, my karate sensei from third through ninth grade, is one of the most important influences in my life. He taught me discipline, respect, spirit, character, philosophy, hard work, tradition, standards, the aspiration to become something better, how to teach, how to defend myself, but most of all how to be truly gentle from a position of true strength. I use his teachings in my life every single day, and I think about him and the things he taught me all the time.

16. I remember my Grandma Ann driving me with her in her old VW as she did errands. After dropping some letters at the post office in Edmonds, she saw a small moth fluttering against the inside of the windshield, she grabbed a tissue, reached up, and crushed it, while saying in a sing-song voice "Kill kill kill." As I write this, it's so vivid to me that I'm sitting next to her as she does it, but if you and I talk right now I can't repeat any of the conversation word for word afterward - I only remember the meaning, the conclusions we came to, the sound of your voice, where we were sitting, everything but the words themselves.

17. When I was a young boy starting out in middle school, my friend Jason Richards (later Jason Nealy), taught me to shoot a gun, a pellet gun. We were in his bedroom in south Seattle on that sunny day. He opened the window, and the sound of birdsong lit up the room. He pointed to the bird that was singing in the bushes in his back yard, showed me how to hold the pellet rifle steady, how to aim, how to squeeze the trigger. Click! The bird fell out of sight. The backyard was silent. I felt a cold wave spread over me, felt a powerful shame. The ringing in my ears seemed so loud. I handed Jason back the rifle, and I never fired a gun again at a living thing. I've never forgotten that happy bird, that silent backyard, or what it feels like to commit an evil act in lighthearted, confident ignorance. This is when I learned that evil does not come from The Devil, or from The Bad Guys. It comes from us.

18. I used to want everyone to be happy. It took me many many years to understand that what makes some people happy is hurting other people. Even for people who aren't angry and cruel, most people are made happy by things that indirectly make other people unhappy, or that otherwise injure the world - and they really don't care. A surprising number of people have no empathy at all, though in their personal lives they may try to simulate it. Either they were born without it, or somehow it withered and died, either way leaving them going through the motions of being human but without a soul. If you try to point it out to them, they just get bored with or angry at you. Most people are perfectly happy making other people unhappy as long as they don't have to notice it or think about it. I also learned early on that many of the things people think will make them happy actually make them unhappy or even sick. When I learned these things, I stopped wanting everyone to be happy. Now I want everyone to be healthier, better, kinder, and wiser. If they were, I think they would be sadder but also more content and more deserving of happiness.

19. When I walk down the sidewalk on a sunny day, I step carefully to avoid stepping on beetles or ants. When I walk down the sidewalk after the rain, sometimes I pick up worms and move them to the grass so they won't get stepped on. I worry about the health of the spider who lives behind the driver's side mirror of my car, and I adjust my driving to be sure she doesn't get blown away.

20. I'm often ill. It gives my life a stop-and-go quality that makes things difficult for me, my coworkers and clients, my friends, and my family. I strive to become heathier and steadier, but intermittently the decision is taken out of my hands. This contributes to my odd views about the nature of human will and whether our choices are free or predetermined. I think the answer is . . . yes, some of each. Many of our qualities and choices are predetermined, and unless we intervene to prevent it we become more and more predetermined, more and more caricatures of ourselves. But, if we strive to master ourselves, to tend the garden of our character, to increase our discipline and self-awareness, and to focus on those things we can influence and change, we can instead over time grow a larger and larger part of our lives in which we can freely choose who we will be and what we will do, clear more and more of our time to awake from our dreams as human sleepwalkers so we can know ourselves enough to do some good in the world. It's too much to expect for us to always be healthy and free and truly conscious, but if we always try to do better when we can, eventually we will do better.

21. I often fail, and I often need breaks to recover, but I keep trying until I succeed. This often frustrates people, some of whom wish I would either always succeed or always fail so they'd know which bucket to sort me in. Sooner or later, I frustrate everyone, but sooner or later I will also delight them.

22. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but so is the road to Heaven. I abound with good intentions, but I figure I'm bound for the soil of the good earth. I hope I can become worthy of such an honor.

23. I'm a goody two-shoes. I want to be good, to do good, to give back, to make things better. Like the track in my brain that's always playing music, another is always looking for ways to do some good in the world, to make things better. I'm not naive or idealistic about it - I'm darn near cynical about it - but I am sincere and persistent about it. Don't believe me? Next time we're in a conversation, listen to me from this perspective and you'll hear it. I can't stop thinking about it, and whenever I'm talking about something I'm always also talking about this. As a child, I never wanted to be the cool bad boy; I always wanted to be a good boy. As an adult, I'm always thinking about how to be a good man and often reflecting on the ways I fall short.

24. I have a dark view of human nature. As a child, I was conspicuously naive, trusting, and hopeful, but I became a student of history and learned how far short we fall. If we want to survive as a species, we're going to have to do much, much better. I also have a bright view of human nature, because I know that when we make up our minds to do the right thing, we have a remarkable capacity to make things better, including ourselves. Here's hoping the better angels of our nature prevail.

25. I'm susceptible to cuteness. I think my wife is adorable, I adore my nieces and nephews, and my cats ply me shamelessly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Human Nature, Part 2: We Do Not Know What We Know

Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as the greatest writer of the English language, the person most able to express insights powerfully and memorably. One of the best things he wrote is that deceit, pretense, play-acting, role-playing is at the core of human nature.

Of course, since we're so sure we know who we are, we cannot possibly hear even the great virtuoso of the English language when he tries to tell us as baldly and eloquently as possible that we're wrong about who we are, that we're not who we think we are, that we're people pretending to be who we think we are. As Simon and Garfunkel wrote, A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, or as William Blake put it so pithily long before As a man is, so he sees.

So there's another part of our answer - we can be wrong about anything. We are even capable of being wrong about the most central issues in our lives (like who we are) and yet be completely convinced that we're right. The idea that we're capable of meaningful objectivity about the things that matter is refuted even before we open our mouths, just by the things we imagine about ourselves - like who we are. The truth is a foreign language to us; we speak something else. As the Christian apostle Paul put it rather poetically in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, we see through a glass, darkly. As Heraclitus put it rather philosophically in his lost work On Nature, Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do—and, more bluntly, Human nature has no real understanding; only the divine nature has it.

Our essential subjectivity, our incapacity to recognize, observe, or understand the truth shows clearly in our efforts to be objective—we can collect "facts" (Hegel: There is precisely no such thing as a fact.), but nothing ensures we collect the right facts, nor that we interpret them correctly. Oh, does E equal MC squared? Surely that must be true so that I can find a new way to dominate the other monkeys. Obviously, the profound truths of the cosmos exist so we can pursue the pettiest of aims with greater efficiency! The twentieth century all by itself is sufficient to disprove any possibility that human nature is essentially capable of objectivity.

Too often we choose between either lying to ourselves and others about our biases and pretending to be objective or else abandoning that pretense and openly embracing superstition, bigotry, and other forms of extreme irrationalism - which is just another forms of pretense. There are better choices open to us, if we have the courage to take them. At our best we could openly acknowledge and accept our subjectivity and try to approximate objectivity not through pretense but through taking our biases into account, factoring them into our decisions - and then embrace humility and acknowledge that our ideas are tentative, that we do not really know anything but are guessing as best we can.

To get closer to the truth, we first have to admit that we don't already know the truth. If knowledge is power, then for human beings humility is the root of all real power.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Journal is Not a Story

Not everything can be expressed as a story.

A story is a specific kind of thing, and as most books, movies, fans, and reviewers show, most people don't know what that kind of thing is. Most people think a plot is a story, for example, or a rollercoaster, something that has a beginning, middle, and end, and uses up time in a satisfactory way. I suppose that would make sex a story, or going to the bathroom.

Story, specifically, is a kind of tale invented to tell difficult or subtle truths about human character by subjecting a character to stresses in a specific way to reveal things the character may not have known and certainly would not have wanted to reveal about themselves. Story is a tool for exploring human character in ways that would be cruel and unusual to inflict on actual living people, a way to clarify some things about life by creating a simulacrum of it.

Hardly anyone writes actual stories any more, though there are plenty of writers creating plenty of things that substitute for stories in modern culture.

I, for example, am not a story-teller. I appreciate stories greatly and study them voraciously, but I don't create them. If I am required to express my life in stories, it will have to go unexpressed because I can't do it.

More importantly, stories can only represent certain kinds of truths, not all truths, nor even most truths. As incredible as it may seem to people living in a culture most of whose pleasures derive from fictions, fiction is a limited form of expression. It can only describe things that fit its form. When we try to squeeze other things into the form of a story, we do violence to the truths of those things. That is, we lie.

I don't want to lie. I am journaling so I can tell the truth, as best I can, so I can tell truths that matter to me and to my family and friends and maybe to others, and especially so I can tell truths that are not often publicly discussed, to break the code of silence and secrecy that surrounds so many important truths.

I can't do that in story form. I'm not convinced anyone can, since many of these truths have the wrong form for a story, but I know I can't. Therefore, I'm not going to try.

At the same time, though, I won't be dissuaded from trying to express these things in my chosen form, as journal entries and short philosophical essays. If that means I write boring things, dry things, repetitive things, confusing things, then that's what it means. If it means I never command a large audience, nor even a medium-sized one, then so be it. I don't want to be famous anyway.

I need to express these things in part because it's therapeutic for me, in part so my nieces and nephews have the opportunity to get to know me better and be exposed to these ideas, and in part because there is a powerful social value to coming out of the closet as who one really is rather than continuing to pretend to be another "normal" person. The only way people give up their hateful and violence-catalyzing prejudices about unusual people is when they get to know them for real and come to realize that they don't fit their stereotypes, that *gasp* maybe they need to change their opinions about their fellow human beings rather than eliminate them.

So, I'm writing a journal and some short essays, not stories. Most of it won't be to most people's taste, and it won't be fun or easy or comfortable enough to help you pass the time. That's okay. There are better things to do with life than just to get it over with as quickly and entertainingly as possible.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Human Nature, Part 1: We are Not Who We Are

A Modern (that's you and me) can understand the gods asking us not to kill or covet or bear false witness - after all, we don't want anyone to do those things to us, and at times we might allow as how we could use that extra nudge to help resist the occasional temptation ourselves.

But a Modern cannot understand the gods asking us to know ourselves. What kind of sense does that make? We already do; just ask us and we'll tell you all about ourselves. First of all, it's common sense that no one knows us better than we ourselves do. Second, it's also common sense that we are whoever we want to be, that we are free to be whoever we want to be. Third, it's common sense that common sense is right, or close enough. So, a priori case closed. Why would the gods need to exhort us to do something so trivial that's already done anyway?

The point of the question is that the gods do not agree with us or they wouldn't have had it carved in stone on the oracle at Delphi. They think we're full of it, that we do not know ourselves. They think we are not who we think we are, nor what we think we are, that who and what we are is something we would never think to give as the answer, something we do not identify with, something alien to us.

So there's part of our answer to begin with - we are people who can be firmly convinced we are someone when in truth we are someone else. This is the meaning too of the Italian saying about great opera actors, that they're not bad but the best actors are the ones in the audience, playing the roles of their lives. Shakespeare warned us about that falseness of our sense of identity when he wrote All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

This is Depression (Sunday, 30 May 2010)

I can't sleep. I feel like I'm burning up and itching, like I need to get out of my skin. I feel my life is worthless and pointless. I have nothing I can say of any interest. I feel like I know things I ought to share, need to share, important things, but I can't say them. I feel my efforts are futile, my skills inferior. Even if I could share these things, who would care? I have no children, no future, nothing to survive me when I'm gone, nothing to work toward. I've lost my passion, my zeal, and now I write like a textbook even when I'm trying to describe the bottom falling out of my world.

Even as depression skews my perspective it also expands it to encompass everything. I feel there is no depth of nihilism and destructiveness to which humanity will not sink, which bodes ill for the future of life on our little planet. The greatest act of pollution of our age triggers not mass protests but mere dismayed interest, a shrug, a change of the subject. Like rats in an experiment, we are learning how to tolerate anything, no matter how bad. These are the steps toward totalitarian dystopia, one additional tolerance for the intolerable after another, until we lose the ability to react properly to anything that matters. How we have shrunk in our powers for good, as a species!

I feel that none of this is real, that this is a feeling, a mood, that has swept me up before and will sweep me up again. I feel that I know my way out of this labyrinth of temporary despair, but that it doesn't matter, that in depression nothing matters.

I thought at first that this was my emotional overreaction to my friend Mike's just criticism that the public journal entries I was writing were boring, but I've realized that this isn't what's causing my tailspin. I have a lifetime of engaging positively with even harsh criticism to back me up on this.

Instead, this is an unexpectedly powerful reaction to a loss of faith.

During my two-week vacation with my niece Elizabeth, I had briefly mustered a fragile faith in the idea that my nieces and nephews value me, want to know me better, need me in their lives. I had not realized what a change this was for me, to think that someone in addition to Beverly and Linda gave a shit about me. In publicly journaling, I was trying to write for them, for my nephews and nieces, the ones who inherited the demons of our family's past and wanted help in the emotional alchemy needed to create a healthy future for themselves. I thought that I could show the life strategies and meaning that underlie even the most seemingly ordinary parts of our day-to-day lives, how everything is connected, how everything matters and is part of a larger pattern.

But Mike's right. I can't do this. Where I should be telling compelling stories, instead my writing sucks the life out of the things I describe. My struggle for equilibrium, to thread my way through mania and depression without resorting to drugs, should be a powerful story that has meaning for millions of people who struggle with these twin curses - including many people in my family who I care about and worry about - but instead I reduce it to dry, boring narrative. Instead of the Midas Touch, I have the academic touch - every subject I turn my hand to collapses into intellectual dust.

Mike thought I could just skip the journal and get on with telling the stories that will make up the book I wanted to write, the story of our family and its astonishing struggles - he thought I could skip to the good stuff - but what Mike didn't realize is that I can't even try to write that book without that faith, that hope, which is gone again. It's funny, because in the entry "Journal" I even put my finger on this problem and explained the leap of faith involved, but I guess he thought I was writing for rhetorical effect, not warning about the fragility of the endeavor. Unless I have faith that this matters to my target audience, there will never be any of the interesting stuff written. It's a Catch 22, and not the only one in my life.

Well, it's done now. I doubt that house of cards is going back up any time soon. For now, I'm done with Verbal Medicine, and I'm back to writing only what I can't tolerate keeping to myself any longer (though now here in Live Journal instead of publicly), to writing what I have to write in order to heal.

I had planned to sleep my way through this depression tonight to reset my mood and start over tomorrow with a new perspective, but unfortunately in just a couple hours it has entrenched itself deeply enough to destabilize my sleep cycle. I can't sleep now, which is going to destabilize me further. Damn this delicate balancing act! It's frustrating as Hell trying to keep everything lined up enough for my life to cohere when it's so easily disrupted.

Still, it is what it is. This is the hand I've been dealt, and I have to play it. If I want to leave anything of value behind me after I'm gone - assuming that's even possible, contrary to my present mood (speaking of leaps of faith) - then this is the balancing act I have to stay on top of, no matter how frustrating it is.

Or Not to Journal

Well, after a week of experimenting with public journaling, I've been convinced to journal privately instead. I've moved my first six journaling entries to my private journal and removed them from Verbal Medicine.

I'll continue to use this space to work on the biography of my family (which if I write it correctly may be more interesting), but there's no need to inflict my day-to-day life on the innocent. I make no promises about how often I'll be able to write entries about the story of my family, which is a much more difficult subject to grapple with and may well prove beyond my capabilities. I may take a hiatus from this blog for a while until I figure out how to proceed.

Return of The Nap (Monday, 24 May 2010)

Monday the 24th, after my Songs and Nieces day Sunday, launched my week well.

I put in five hours of work taking care of Oroville Hospital for my nonprofit. One of the hard things about my job is how many things I have to keep track of as executive director, engagement manager, and project manager (not to mention programmer). I spent four and a half hours just reviewing where I left things when I left for my vacation, and another half hour reviewing the progress of our work on Oroville's Pharmacy package.

Beverly, Linda, and I ate sushi from Sam's Sushi in Ballard (well, I suspect Linda ate teriyaki; and I ate salmon teriyaki, salmon shioyaki, seaweed salad, and agedashi tofu; but I think Beverly had some sushi).

After lunch and after the Pharmacy call, Linda and I walked around Green Lake together to keep our exercise program on track and discussed Elizabeth and Wyatt (yes, we talk about you when you're not around). I told Linda earlier this year that any day I don't exercise when I should is a failure regardless of what else happens, and any day I do exercise is a success regardless of other events. With this in mind, we were pretty happy with ourselves when we stumbled up the stairs to the porch at my house.

When we returned home I planned to resume work, but life happened instead. What I didn't realize was that my work day was over and the next two hours would be spent on my body's needs, specifically, to accelerate its rebuilding in light of my ongoing higher exercise level.

When we got home, I sat down at my computer and did nothing productive for the next hour. I vaguely remember reading e-mail, Facebook, and other webpages, but I'm not entirely sure what all I looked at because I was semi-sleep-walking through the process. You see, my body needed to recover after the walk and it wanted me to take a nap, but I'd planned to work so I resisted. The end result, a groggy hour at the computer, made neither my brain nor my body happy. These are not the kind of hours you get to bill for as a contractor, since nothing of value takes place.

In the end, my body won, as bodies always do. After an hour at the computer futilely resisting a nap, I finally dozed off and slept for an hour. I felt vastly better afterward. If I only had a brain, I would have remembered then what I finally remembered this morning, that when I ramp up my exercise level I also need to ramp up my sleep - I don't know why, and I'm sure plenty of other people don't need to do this, but I've always had to do so, so I really should have remembered. But no, no brain, so I didn't figure it out then, which led to Wednesday's grogginess and Thursday's illness. It is not, in fact the thought that counts, since the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; the things we do or fail to do have consequences, such as my failure to increase my sleep leading to the return of The Nap as well as to a rocky and comparatively unproductive work week.

Your Aunt Beverly woke me up (with a start) at 5:22. My first thought was alarm that I'd slept away the rest of my work day, followed by the realization that I felt vastly better, but not the further realization I should have drawn, though I was looking right at it. I believe I may have made it as far as thinking "Wow! I feel great. I have to remember that I like naps," but otherwise my brain just did not follow that logical train to the important station with the big neon sign. I have a reputation for being a very smart person, but I'm saved from excessive pride by my overfamiliarity with incidents just like this one, in which I walk right up to an important realization and then stop just before it, sometimes repeatedly, before much later eventually realizing the big truth and that I've been staring blindly at it for weeks or months or years. The word "Duh" comes to mind.

Beverly reminded me I said I would review chapters seven (Skylands) and eight (Reunion) of Sunflowers, the Bella Sara book she's writing, so I spent the next hour reading and giving her feedback. A year ago Beverly made the change from being an editor, which she'd done all her career until then, to becoming a writer, something she'd played at being as a child but abandoned in her professional life until then. As an adult she'd always felt more comfortable making writing better than creating it from scratch. The empty page oppressed her, as it does so many writers. But now she's a writer and determined to learn as quickly as she can how to be good at it. One of my jobs at home is to be her training wheels, to review her chapters and help her find ways to improve it before she submits it to her editor. Chapters seven and eight were much better balanced than her early chapters. She's improving. The first five chapters of her book are published online as a free download here:

After the review we fended for dinner. I don't remember what she ate, but I'm pretty sure I ate breakfast: soy yogurt, and granola in soy milk. We watched TV, continuing our way through the backlog of shows that piled up during my vacation in the Southwest.

While we ate and watched TV, on Facebook I chatted with Wyatt for forty-five minutes. When I mentioned that I was reviewing Beverly's chapters, Wyatt wrote that she hoped to become a writer. I pointed her at this journal, which at the time was still published on my Verbal Medicine blog ( and she directed me to Ruby Moonlight, a wolf role-playing website where she's been prolifically writing for two years (

After dinner I browsed Ruby Moonlight and began to realize just how much Wyatt had written there. I quickly shifted tactics from looking for her stories, to scanning them, to cataloging them, which is mainly what I spent the next two hours doing. She's interested in feedback, which is commendable, but to do justice to her writing I'll have to study it and think about it a while.

That reminded me I hadn't journaled yet, so I spent the last two hours of Monday writing "Bipolar Judo" before going to bed and falling asleep around midnight.

I went to bed feeling good about returning to work, and about walking Green Lake, and about journaling, and about getting more involved in Wyatt's life, all of which are good things no doubt, which is partly why I failed to realize that the most important thing about Monday was the post-walk nap.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Salmonberry Mush Kind of Day (Wednesday, 26 May 2010)

Some days you wake up with an empty tank of gas.

I used to confuse days like this with depression, but they're nothing alike. On depression days, it's not just my energy level that shifts but my mood, and the mood is the crucial indicator. If I think I suck, my plans for the day suck, the world sucks, then I'm depressed. If I wake up out of gas, feeling like I just ran a marathon or stayed up twenty-four hours straight, then it's not depression; it's this other thing.

This other thing doesn't happen very often, which is partly why I don't understand it - insufficient data. Also, my cognitive skills are fine (if skewed) when I'm depressed, but when it's this other thing my brain only has brief periods of being fully awake. I had several of them today, but not enough to string together. So much for my plans to make a magic necklace of wakefulness.

Here's what I think causes this other thing: when I have been comparatively inactive for a year or more and I abruptly shift into a high-gear exercise program and drive my way back to fitness, which I've done several times in my life and am doing now, every so often I hit a day like this one.

My hypothesis about them is based on how much they remind me of my adolescent years, when from time to time usually right before or after a growth spurt I would be exhausted and sleep all the time. So my hypothesis is this - this is what happens when my body's rebuilding itself in response to the early stages of an intensive exercise program. My body has more reconstruction work to do, but instead I get up and try to have a day. My body disapproves and chatters to me all day long on my inhibitory nerves, but instead of having the good sense to go back to bed, I press on ineffectually. Eventually, I fall asleep again and my body goes back to finish its interrupted work.

In other words, although it's not pleasant and basically blocked my ability to work or do anything else constructive today, I think it's basically a good thing, a piece of the work I'm demanding my body do in my 2010 overhaul of myself. I'm not committed to this idea, but it's the best guess I have about what happened to my fabulous plans for Wednesday.

So what can you do with a day like this? This is what sick leave is for; I can't do any of my work tasks with my brain half asleep. Instead I slept in, ordered my brother Rob a Greyhound ticket to get to Seattle for Folklife Festival, read (a lot), went to counseling, ate three cups of lentil soup for lunch, walked around Green Lake with Linda in defiance of my grogginess and then promptly passed out asleep in retaliation when I got home, ate vegetable dishes from Genghis Khan restaurant for dinner (the mu shu vegetables in plum sauce are strangely delicious), watched the TV series Parenthood with Beverly, made plans to hang out with my nephews and nieces this weekend, and then discovered I didn't have enough gas in the tank to write about more interesting days like Monday or Tuesday, so I settled for writing about how groggy today has been.

Thrilling, right? No? I didn't think so, but from days like this you make what you can. They say when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, but days like this are far too blah to count as lemons. Lemons are exciting. This is more like life handed you salmonberries, whose flavor your great grandpa Fred aptly described as "insipid" (look it up), from which you get to make a bland, slightly bitter and seedy mush. Yay!

Incidentally, "Yay" is what little Navajo children say when they need to go to the bathroom, an appropriate response to salmonberry mush, which doubtless contains lots of fiber. Clearly, I need a new exclamation of joy. To avoid confusing anyone, I'll be sure to say "Yay" only when the bathroom calls. And perhaps when I'm about to eat a high-fiber meal. I'm sure that won't confuse anyone.

Good night, dear nice!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Songs and Nieces (Sunday, 23 May 2010)

After a good night's sleep and with my mood recentered, I embarked on my plans for Sunday with a will.

I was at Wyatt's door at 10:10 a.m. After family greetings all around, Wyatt hauled me back to her room to meet her two eight-week-old kittens, Ducky and Pie, who were obligingly adorable, meepy, and pouncy. I was struck by how clean her room was - is my niece a very tidy young woman, or had she cleaned the room knowing I was coming over? Or was it a coincidence; had I just happened to arrive after a rare room cleaning? This bears further investigation, I'm sure.

But not just then, because we returned to the living room to watch Lion King 2: Pride of Simba, which is among the better Disney animated sequels. Wyatt clearly loves it, and I enjoyed it too. She and I share a high appreciation of the value of our animal cousins, but for me there was an added charge; there's something about seeing chapters of your life coincidentally reinterpreted in public art that never fails to surprise.

When I was young, I learned the hard way a lesson about the ways in which good people will oppress you if they misjudge you as a bad person. That can happen either through prejudice against a good person or through failure to see the emerging goodness in someone who has publicly made mistakes in the past. Redemption, although a powerful story, is unfortunately something many good people block in their efforts to avoid having their trust betrayed again. It's understandable but it's more than regrettable. It can make good people the enemies of rehabilitation, make them actively struggle to keep people down when they're sincerely trying to be better.

Ask me how I know.

Good people in America rarely like to reveal the ways in which they can fall short of the mark, the ways in which they can behave like bad people. Our culture twists us into purity freaks, neo-Platonists (look it up), anti-miscegenationists (look that up, too); we want our heroes to be all good and our villains to be all bad, angels and demons - at least when we're not trying to pass off villains as heroes. What we can't stand is the recognition that everyone contributes to the problem, that the supposedly pure good people themselves help make the world the mess it is. Evil mostly comes from people who believe they are doing good.

The film fumbles in some ways, of course, but there are other good qualities to Lion King 2. We'll save those for another time, maybe another viewing.

When I returned home with groceries from Puget Consumer's Co-op (buy organic, buy local, and vote with your money), Beverly and I made lunch and started into our project together.

Around the campfire on the Navajo reservation the night of Wednesday, May 12th, Guitar Tom and Harry Walters played guitar and sang as usual, and I sang my two songs a capella, like last year, but Thursday night Anna Lee Walters encouraged us to improvise, to get everyone involved in the music, so after some fumbling around for the right format we settled on going around the circle and having each person sing something they knew. I discovered it's been too long since I sang freely and often, and I've forgotten the words of many of the songs I once knew. I also discovered that of the songs I do remember, few are songs known to many, songs that anyone else could sing along with. So on the drive home Elizabeth and I discussed the need for a songbook containing an excellent selection of songs to sing and the printed lyrics.

This was Beverly and my project together, which we began Sunday. Song by song we went through our music lists proposing songs to each other, listening to them, singing along, deciding which could stand alone without instrumental accompaniment, which had enough soul to them in a campfire setting. We'll be at this off and on over the next year, I'm sure.

As planned, we were interrupted at 3:30 in the afternoon by the arrival of Elizabeth and Raoul. Introductions were made and then my niece, her sweetie, and I headed off to join the crowds strolling around Green Lake. During that pleasant hour we discussed our past, our present, and a little of our future together. Elizabeth and I had talked extensively about her life on our vacation together, and I was eager to begin getting to know this man who's become so important in her life. So I did.

After our return and recovery, they headed back home to House Decided to clean up and prepare for Sunday potluck night dinner. I remained behind with Beverly converting three cans of vegan Indian food I like into an Indian stew I could take for my last-minute contribution to the potluck. As I prepared the food, Beverly and I continued work on our project, listening to and critiquing music for its suitability for our songbook.

Having arrived at House Decided in the nick of time at 6:30, I joined the household and its guests for two hours of dinner and conversation together. I was fortunate enough to spend time afterward speaking at length with Canth, the woman of the house, whose company I enjoyed greatly, but not enough time to find the opportunity to tell her how much it means to me that she and Raoul took in my niece and gave her a home. That will have to wait for another time.

When I returned home, Beverly and I finished off the day refining our first-draft songbook list. We still have a long way to go, but by the time we went to bed at 11:30 p.m. (later than I prefer), we had forty-five songs initially selected, including an agreement to write an original song together for Harry and Anna Lee Walters in time to sing it to them when I return to the Chuska Mountains with Wyatt in May 2012.

We still have a long way to go, but it was a good start, a good day, a good weekend, and a good note to go to bed on, with family and music on our minds.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bipolar Judo: Rolling with the Fall (Saturday, 22 May 2010)

If you work hard to cultivate a regular sleep cycle, your body will learn your rhythms and help you protect them. Though in my slight manic spike I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. journaling, my body woke me up at 6:30 a.m., which was too early so I rolled over and went back to bed, and then at 7:30 a.m., which I accepted.

There's a tradeoff with these things. Get too little sleep and your day is shot, so you have to decide whether you can afford to be less than fully functional in return for protecting your sleep cycle. If your immune system is like mine, another risk of inadequate sleep is falling sick - no risk at all but an easy recipe for bronchitis in my case if I let it go on for a few days in a row - but even I can short myself sleep for one or two days in a row without risk. Get all the sleep you want after staying up too late and you risk not being sleepy when bedtime comes. Six hours seemed a reasonable compromise.

If you're bipolar, the other risk of inadequate sleep is further destabilizing your mood. Since I was a bit up the night before and come from a family of rapid cyclers, I knew the odds were high that my mood on inadequate sleep would overcorrect downward, and so it did.

Knowing it would, I could prepare a little judo for it.

Some people try to fight the downward swing, but that's a mistake. It's not just an arbitrary change, an undesirable symptom you need to suppress. If you're bipolar you're swinging downward because you emotionally overextended yourself with your manic spike. Mania may feel good but it burns through your neurotransmitters and other emotional-nutritional reserves too quickly, leaving you depleted. Afterward, you physically need the recovery time; trying to keep yourself amped up when you need to swing down just results in a larger and more catastrophic crash later, so go with the flow to help keep it mild.

Some people just ride the rollercoaster downward revelling in the plummet, though many won't admit they do this. This is also destructive. The point of the drop is not fun or drama; it's healing. Your body needs to recover.

If you choose the golden mean here, a low-energy recovery day structured around what your mood and body need, you can gently recover from a manic spike without crashing.

So I took the day off from my exercise program to lighten the load, but ate nutritious food high in amino acids, essential fatty acids, complex carbs, and vitamins and minerals to help my body reload my neurotransmitters.

Another problem with bipolar days - spikes or crashes - is a lack of continuity with the days before and after. It makes it difficult for your mind to create a whole out of your life when each day is too radically different; the high days can feel like bizarre adventures and the low days like black holes, making them impossible to knit together into any coherent life story. The best days for trying new things are neither the highs nor the lows, but the ones in between, when your emotional baseline is most stable and therefore best able to fully accept the novelty as real.

For a post-manic crash, even a mild one like mine, I've found mild entertainment and mild socializing with a high degree of continuity to the day before and the day after to be the best recipe. It helps fight the impulse the withdraw into a shell - which isn't actually what you need, just what you feel like you need on a crash day - and it deliberately weaves the days together into a multi-day story, a whole, part of a life, not just disjointed events.

For the entertainment and socializing, Beverly and I decided to spend the day catching up on the TV shows we follow, which had piled up on our Tivo during my two-week absence. We watched The Mentalist, In Plain Sight, Castle, and Gray's Anatomy over the course of the day - nothing too emotionally overwhelming, but gently stimulating and diverting, and B and I talked over the episodes in between. We always enjoy disecting Hollywood's efforts to depict highly intelligent people.

For the continuity with Friday, I finished cycling through some laundry and continued journaling. I wrote Honesty as Faux Pas in the morning, which I greatly enjoyed writing, and then after discussing my posts with B added Nephews and Nieces.

For continuity with Sunday, I made plans. I called my sister-in-law Niki to catch up on life then texted all day with my nieces Elizabeth and Wyatt, discussing everything from family dynamics to kittens to silly You Tube videos to Navajo culture. By the time I went to bed (on time, around 10:30), I had Sunday scheduled up to be an active day. I planned to sleep in to recover from today's sleeplessness and from Friday night's mild manic spike, and then to use Sunday's activities to get me good and tired in time for bed Sunday night.

The little bipolar judo worked out just right. By Sunday morning I had my emotional feet back on the ground.

Considering how mild the manic spike was Friday night, this might all seem like overkill to the casual observer, but it's not. The way to keep bipolar in check is to stay right in sync with your mood, learn its patterns, and use them to help yourself keep an even keel.

There was nothing florid or dramatic about my ungrounding Friday night - those who let Hollywood define their understanding of mania would have had no idea anything at all was amiss - but after twenty-two years of therapy I know my patterns well enough to know that my oscillations always amplify over time if I let them. The trick for my emotional wellbeing is to nip them in the bud when the oscillation first begin, to damp them back down gently and naturally and recenter my mood so I can experience the full range of emotions without swinging my mood along with my emotions.

To put it more bluntly, if I keep my mood on an even keel, my emotions are free to range widely because they have a home base to return to. And - bonus - I can use my more clearly expressed emotions to help diagnose whether my mood is stable by whether the emotions return there or not, which lets me plan corrective days like this one for when they don't.

Days like Saturday are an essential part of my mental health, part of what keeps me fit for life in general, and particularly part of what keeps me fit for the work I do for my nonprofit, where reliability and consistency are crucially important. In my experience, managing your mood with responsible life choices is a far more effective treatment for bipolar than artificially damping down your emotions with prescription drugs.

Your mileage may vary, especially if you have a different form of bipolar than I do (type two), but this strategy has been working well for me for seven years now, and it's the first strategy I can say that about. As other elements of my lifestyle management approach come up over the days ahead, I'll point them out so that over time you can get a good picture of how I keep my life together despite the rollercoaster our family's moods predispose us to.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Honesty as Faux Pas

I avoided keeping a public journal for two main reasons. I wrote about the main reason last night, but the second deserves a little exploration since it will shape everything that follows.

Despite the CIA's motto "And the truth shall set you free," despite the courts' admonition to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God," despite the media's claims to show you "all the truth that's fit to print," we're a culture of liars. Our commitment to the truth is precisely skin deep. We're committed to the appearance of the truth, to the appearance of honesty. We strive to appear admirable regardless of whether we are. We're so concerned with controlling how others perceive us that the truth itself cannot possibly compete for us. The race is over before it begins. We're committed to crafting the message, to spinning the revelation, to shaping the truth into something much more to our advantage, that is, shaping the truth into varying intensities of lies.

Everyone in our culture does it, and we all do it all the time. And we do it so automatically and thoroughly that we often convince ourselves of the truth of our lies. Indeed, many people are deeply convinced that they are strictly honest people, because their commitment to their performances and delusions is so total that they can no longer distinguish the truth from the lies.

In such a culture, honesty causes problems. There is a price to be paid for the truth, always, but in modern cultures the price is very, very high. Here are three problems you'll have to deal with.

First, when you sacrifice for the truth, you must accept that society holds your sacrifice in contempt.

In the eyes of the law, no matter how hard you work to break free of the delusions and sleepwalking, no matter how you end up suffering for speaking the truth, the law holds you the equal of the vilest liar alive, just like everyone else. All of society's institutions, which evolved within a culture of deceit, are built under the assumption that you're probably lying, and you will be treated as such by government and corporations alike no matter what you do. Our institutions respect no one and nothing. They have the heart of machines, the soul of the abyss, and they act not from any human motives but only according to their rules, which change from time to time to benefit those who have the power to change them. If you want respect, you must seek it from individuals, not institutions; you must appeal to the person, never to the office. This is one of the unchangeable evils of the modern world. Unless you steel yourself to it, it will break your truth-seeking heart.

Second, even from individuals you'll get a mixed response to your honesty.

Most people can't distinguish honesty from deceit, except that in general lies have been crafted to be delicious and the truth is often bitter, so they'll tend to prefer the tasty tasty lies. You can sometimes get away with saying the truth around most people on the questionable but widely accepted grounds that "everyone's entitled to their own opinion," but if you try to push the truth on most people they'll push back, redefining you as "not one of us," not a part of the herd. In general, the herd won't attack one of its own, but if it can define you as a true outsider you'll be amazed how quickly your life can be put in danger. Never underestimate the danger of the herd.

So if you're going to speak the truth as best you can, you're going to have to cultivate manners, learn how to de-escalate angry people, learn how to mediate between angry people, develop your empathy and appeal - in short, you're going to have to make yourself as nice and appealing as possible to overcome on an emotional level the herd's sometimes violent antagonism to the truth. After all, in speaking the truth you're causing them real pain, so you're going to have to give them enough happiness and pleasure in return to make it worth it to them.

A few people will share your commitment to honesty, to the struggle to be true. These people are treasures. Be willing to turn over a lot of weresheep and werewolves in your search for these actual people, and when you find them make sure you hang onto them. I've been lucky enough in my professional life to find and work with many people who share my attachment to honesty and are willing to suffer some for it. Usually, though, you're lucky to have one or two people like this in your life, and to find more takes many years of diligent searching.

Also, keep in mind that even people who want to be honest have their limits. Most honest people are only willing to suffer up to a point for the truth, and after that point they just have to have the relief of more lies and lying to stop the pain. Hardly anyone can hear or speak every truth. You don't really know your friends and family until you know where their limits are, where their tolerance for the truth ends and their need for another hit of the soothing lies begins.

Third, honesty attracts crazies who make it their mission to stop you.

We pretend to have a commitment to free speech, but that's just another lie. When you cross certain lines - and everyone has different lines, so those lines are all over the place - you identify yourself as an alien, an outsider, an outlaw, bootless, a legitimate target for persecution, and some people with no real meaning in their lives will make you their meaning, will define you has a threat and make it their job to hound you. Although the compassionate truth lover in you will want to engage with these people, you shouldn't; every time you engage with them, you make them feel more alive and meaningful and reinforce their need to hound you to try to make their lives mean something. Unless you want to end up like John Lennon or Doctor King, you need to be on the alert for the crazies and always be ready to practice gently disengaging when you can.

Some of the crazies will be too subtle for you to notice. These crypto-crazies will identify you as dangerous and remember you, but they won't stalk you; they'll just calmly and persuasively spread stories about you to poison your social wells, to hinder you subtly from a distance.

There's nothing you can do directly about these people, so you just have to accept that this is a price you will pay for your openness and honesty - some things in life are just going to be harder for you than for friendly liars. You need to make peace with that and with the cryptocrazies and weresheep and soulless institutions out there. You aren't really being cheated. They can't help themselves, since they aren't really sane, and you know in advance that this is the price of being a truthseeker, so don't complain about it. Just decide whether that price is worth paying to become an honest person, and if you decide to pay the price then pay it as cheerfully as you can and move on.

For what it's worth, my advice is to pay the price because the costs of honesty, however painful, are finite, but the costs of deceit and dishonesty are bottomless.

Which brings us finally, in my overly wordy and cumbersome way, back to the second sentence of this entry.

Some people know about the choice you have to make in life between open honesty or secrets and deceit, and pretty much all of us choose some degree of secrets and deceits in order to get along in this world. Although like most people I self-identify as an honest person, and although I'm open about some things (alcoholism and manic depression, for example) that most people try to hide, I have my share of things I don't talk much about. I'm about to break my own rules for you, dear nice, and talk openly and publicly about some things I've kept quiet about.

The problem is this.

Much of our professional life is about role-playing, and in my life I play the roles of programmer, VISTA expert, and executive director. Just as with the roles people play in their sex lives, professional roles only succeed if people feel a certain way about you, if they can emotionally commit to the idea of you playing those parts. If I jar them too much emotionally, if I don't fit their idea of those roles, then they won't accept me in those roles and I will suffer professionally.

The most fragile of the roles I play is executive director, because I'm already a very unusual looking and behaving person to be running an organization. I came out of the closet about my manic depression and my family's struggles with alcoholism long ago, and I have long hair, and I have weird opinions about things, and I don't give presentations the way normal people do, so people have already made a lot of concessions to accept me in the community as an authority figure. No one thinks of me as any normal kind of authority figure. They're already making allowances and accepting me only provisionally or as an exceptional case. They're a bit too aware that I'm playing a role, whereas with people who hide more of themselves they more fully believe those people are leaders.

Other leaders are pretty aware of this necessary quality of leadership and work hard to groom themselves for the role, to be acceptable to people as a replacement parental figure. Experienced and effective leaders are usually the ones most aware that they're playing a role, the ones who are least open and honest about who they are but who can pretend to be the most genuinely present. Such experienced leaders are critics of the performances of other leaders and recognize a failure to act the role properly as a naive character flaw. That is, would-be leaders who don't lie sufficiently well are seen as at best immature leaders who will need to become better liars to reach their true potential, and at worst as people who will never really be capable of leadership.

To such people, some of whom I need to work with in the years ahead, what I'm about to do with this journal is proof that I'm unfit to lead. Most people think a real leader reserves his true self and only offers people the confident, commanding persona, the act, that proves he's worthy. To do what I'm about to do is considered an amateur move, like accidentally belching very loudly through the microphone at a State of the Union address. In such circles, excessive honesty (defined as hardly any honesty at all) is a political faux pas, so I'm going to pay a professional price for this journal.

It's worth it, though.

On a professional level, I will probably benefit as well as suffer for it. Engineers respect the truth and feel contempt for those who lie or evade to make themselves look better. Some of them will respect me more for trying to be a different kind of leader, someone who doesn't just pretend to be what they want but who actually tries to become that person with his whole heart. By showing who I really am and where I came from, they'll be better able to estimate my true worth and decide whether I'm good enough to meet their needs. That will give me an advantage over those they know are merely playacting, however convincingly. So I'll lose some ability to negotiate with the powerful, but I'll be able to work more easily with the people who really understand or need the software.

Sure, it's considered more noble to suffer purely for the truth, but life rarely works out that way. There are almost always benefits to striving for virtue, however imperfectly. The benefit of virtues is not a matter of opinion, which is what makes them virtuous.

On a family level, though, the main reason I'm going to do this is that you deserve it, dear nieces and nephews. You deserve honesty and openness, freedom from the tyranny of secrets, and you deserve to see by example that it really is possible to escape our family's cycles of shame and pretense. You don't have to be afraid and angry. As long as you're polite about it, and generous, and friendly, and careful, you don't have to hide who you are. You can be real with people and have them still like and accept you, even if they think you're a weirdo.

And because I'm doing this for you, I also get to be just that little bit more whole myself, a gift I was unable to give myself until I decided to give it to you.

See how powerful love is?

Friday, May 21, 2010


A few times in my life I kept journals. They helped me remember and process my sometimes difficult experiences and practice the art of writing. My older niece, Elizabeth, keeps one now, as did my paternal grandmother, Ann Saling, who wrote for a living, who taught me to read, who encouraged me to write, and who nurtured my love of this ancient craft. They both wrote about some very difficult experiences indeed. Reading their journals has brought me closer to them and helped me better understand the story of my family.

My friend Gary Tepfer thinks I should write that story. I'm slowly coming around to his way of thinking.

For a long time I thought our pains and joys, our political and religious arguments, our moments of brilliance and periods of madness and addiction would be of little use to anyone else, that they were mainly the grist for our own mills, for my family's struggles for sanity and health. Over the course of twenty-two years of personal therapy, though, I've learned lessons from my family's experiences that have made the difference in my life between success and disaster and between vitality and malaise. More importantly, these lessons have sometimes helped others who battled the same problems. Most importantly, every day in the world I see people suffering needlessly because they haven't yet learned these same lessons.

If I share my family's story, maybe some of you can learn from our sorrows and joys, or at least recognize the truth of them and know you're not alone.

For the rest of you, for those who think life is just supposed to pass the time as entertainingly as possible until you die, the ups and downs of my crazy family are at least as entertaining as half of the stories I've read. Maybe you'll agree.

In my life I've learned two stories worth telling that I might be worthy to tell. The story of my family is the first one. This journal will in part be my practice space, my story sketchbook.

The other part of this journal will be my remedial diary for keeping track of what's left of my life. Doing this is not at all easy for me. It is an act of faith, a suspension of disbelief. Without meaning to, my parents taught me early on that I'm unimportant and uninteresting; how I came to learn that will doubtless emerge over time within this journal. Horrified that I drew that lesson from our life together, they've struggled mightily for decades since then to unteach me that lesson. Even as I appreciate their efforts and love them the more for it, I've come to realize that some early lessons cannot be unlearned. I've been given the gift of humility (however imperfect), it seems, at the price of self esteem - a fair trade considering the hubris that plagues humanity.


In a nutshell, I don't really expect anyone to care about my life enough to want to read such a journal - I can't emotionally truly believe it - but I recognize that enough friends and family members have asked to be more a part of my life for long enough that I'm willing to take the leap of faith and try it. I do this partly for their sake, to be a better friend and relative.

My passion for journaling died with my hopes of having children, but it seems I have nieces and nephews who insist upon taking an interest in me. I do this mainly for their sake, because I love them and want to invest in their future by sharing my life more fully with them.

For those who fall into neither camp, those who find what follows to be just more noise taking up precious bandwidth, you have my sympathy and my genuine apology.

To use my blog as a journal represents a big change in the tone of this blog, but more of an addition than a replacement. I still love philosophy and will continue to write about it with the same frequency as before, but now the times in between will be filled with entries about my life rather than the barren desert of silence it has so often been.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Gibberish, Part One Redux Redux (Text Choice)

Dear Reader,

Text is perishable, so the original manuscripts of older texts are usually lost, leaving us to read copies, or copies of copies, or worse.

Comparing Red Pine's translation of these lines to the work of other translators - or even reading the Chinese text - might bring us closer to understanding Laozi's original meaning, but that's only true if Laozi wrote those words. New research has uncovered evidence that those two lines may have been added to chapter 81 long after it was written, replacing two very different lines.

Between 1972 and 1974, at Mawangdui in Changsha, China, three tombs were excavated: (1) the tomb of Xinzhui, Lady Dai; (2) the tomb of her husband Li Cang, the first Marquis of Dai and the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha, who died in 186 BC; and (3) the tomb of a man in his thirties believed to be a relative of Xinzhui and Li Cang, perhaps their son, who died in 168 BC. Although tomb two had been plundered repeatedly by grave robbers, in tomb three archaeologists found a treasure trove of manuscripts written on silk, including two copies of Laozi's Daodejing older than any other version we know of.

These older versions are clearly the same document overall, but equally clearly they are not identical. Studying, translating, and trying to explain the differences from the versions we know has helped keep a number of scholars busy since then.

Interestingly, chapter 81 is one of the chapters containing an interesting difference from the text we've all taken as authoritative. Here is the text as translated by Robert G. Henricks in his 1992 book Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching - A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Classics of Ancient China):

Sincere words are not showy;
Showy words are not sincere.
Those who know are not "widely learned";
Those "widely learned" do not know.
The good do not have a lot;
Those with a lot are not good.

The Sage accumulates nothing.
Having used what he had for others,
He has even more.
Having given what he had to others,
What he has is even greater.
Therefore, the Way of Heaven is to benefit and not cause any harm;
The Way of Man is to act on behalf of others and not to compete with them.

Contrast that first stanza with this more classic fusion version based on Red Pine but including Henricks's correction and with two parenthetical amplification from me to cover the range of translations:

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
A good (/knowledgeable/wise/virtuous) man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good (/knowledgeable/wise/virtuous) man.
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise.

The first couplet matches, and the third couplet of the classic version matches the second couplet of the Mawangdui version pretty well, but then we're at the crux of the difference.

In the classic version, the second couplet repeats much of the meaning of the first couplet, recasting it in terms of the man rather than the words, and argumentation/persuasion rather than mere attraction. That is, it reads like an elaboration of the prior couplet. By contrast, in the Mawangdui version, the newly discovered (original?) third couplet sounds like a line out of Jesus's beatitude, blessing the poor in an eloquent echo of Rabbi Hillel before him, which here in chapter 81 is more of an original thought than an elaboration of the lines before, which better fits the terse style of the work overall.

This Mawangdui line seems to add a new dimension to the message of chapter 81. And thus, in a nutshell, the problem.

For two thousand years we thought that in chapter 81 Laozi wrote one thing, and now we come to find out he may have written something meaningfully different. Or did he? Are the newly discovered but older Mawangdui manuscripts more authentic than the classic but younger manuscripts? Or are they a parallel tradition, or maybe even an attempted editing of the classic line that died out because it was not authentic?

The immediate truth is, we just don't know.

But of course, the underlying truth always matters whether we think it does or not. It is not the responsibility of the cosmos to lay the truth in our laps for us. If we are not willing to work for the truth, sacrifice for the truth, suffer for the truth, then what we get as "truth" will be worth exactly what we paid for it.

We may not like the problem of having variant texts, but that's just our human foolishness talking. As Heraclitus wrote, It would not be better for men if they got what they want; or as the colloquial puts it, Be careful what you wish for. Up until 1972 or so, we didn't have this problem. We were "fortunate" enough to have only one version of chapter 81.

And it may have been the wrong one.

Your truly,

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's Your Name

Dear Reader,

Due to the high volume of spamming by anonymous posters, I have reluctantly banned further anonymous posting to this blog. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Yours truly,