Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Better Discussion

So yesterday in Toronto, Mr. Famous Atheist Journalist debated Mr. Famous Former Poltician: "Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world." To read the transcript, go here. Get a cup of coffee first, though. It's long.

And no, I didn't get through it all. Partly I'm an intellectual lightweight. Partly I am less impressed with Christopher Hitchens than most people are--and far less impressed with him than he is. Ditto Blair.

And partly, I think it's the wrong question. This statement is never debated: "Be it resolved, atheism is a force for good in the world." Possibly, atheists would say that they don't claim to be a force for good in the world. Except that they do, increasingly. Hitchens and Dawkins and their ilk make this claim when they describe people of belief as unintelligent and dangerous--when they equate all people of belief with religious extremists.

But actually, I don't think a defense of atheism as a force for good is the right question for debate, either. In fact, I don't see a need for debate. And that may itself explain my antipathy: I don't like shouting to no purpose. I don't like shouting in general. And I'm not a fan of either-or. I am all about the both-and.

So here's a better approach, in my opinion. It's from the world of security, but it works in the atheism/religion "debate" as well.

Alex Epstein, on his screenwriting blog "Complications Ensue," talks today about the difference between security (as in, airport security) and security theatre. He himself is addressing an article by Bruce Schneier in the New York Times's "Room for Debate" section, entitled "A Waste of Money and Time." Schneier makes the case that the current approach to airport security isn't working. Epstein characterizes today's security as a story-based approach, instead of a numbers-based approach.

Epstein concludes his post about security by saying that he believes that humans are hard-wired to understand and make stories. He continues

Stories are wonderful. They help us understand the world. You watch a movie about a relationship and maybe you take away an insight about your own relationship. But they are not a substitute for rational thought.

I would say it similarly but slightly differently. I think scientific facts tell us one kind of truth about our world. Stories tell us another kind of truth.

Here's some science: The cliffs outside my window are made of basalt. They've been there for about 1.5 billion years, in some form or other, emerging first from a rift as lava and solidifying into a sheet that eventually imploded. The cliffs are characteristic of the geology of this area--you can see them repeated in Mount McKay, in Caribou Island, even on the Sibley peninsula.

Here's some story: At the base of those cliffs, just outside my window here, my grandfather planted a vegetable garden some 75 years ago. He put a fence around it but was largely unsuccessful in keeping out the deer. He also built a road: using a block and tackle and his engineering ingenuity, he created a ledge around the cliff just wide enough to hold one car. Every time we walk past the garden, we look for the remnants of the fencing. When we walk down the road, we try to figure out which boulders he had to move.

Same place. Two kinds of enduring knowledge. Neither better than the other, neither more accurate. So why do people like Hitchens and Blair, and those who put them into ring, keep trying to make us choose between them? Why can't we have both kinds of knowledge?

Yes, we have to know which arena is most appropriate for which kind of knowledge. And another time, I might argue that science is itself a story--one we humans are constantly rewriting as we learn more.

But there's been enough arguing. Here's a story. Once up on a time, two powerful, intelligent men stopped taking money for pretend-arguing in a meaningless debate and instead turned their considerable powers of mind and money to fixing problems for the people in the world they care about. And those people did the same. And they did the same. Over time, starving people ate. Sick people received care. And little by little, person by person, the world became better. Less hostile.

Thanks to religion? Thanks to atheism? Who cares, really, who's responsible, if the world is getting better. And if the world isn't getting better--well, maybe we should stop arguing and get to work.

Even if, or perhaps especially if, our work is storytelling.
Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Long Haul

Today on Facebook someone linked to this article, from the NY Times. Matt Richtel writes, in "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction," about high school students' work habits, and how their schools are approaching the technology of which the students are so fond.

It's worth reading.

That said, here's a sample of my internal monologue about the article.

1. Five pages? Wow, this article is really long. It goes on for-EV-er.

2. Another article about how "kids today" are going to be seriously messed up by their fragmented attention spans? Again? Or is this one about how high school kids are undisciplined? Because when high school kids ARE disciplined, like Olympic athletes, everybody writes about how they're robots and don't have a "normal" childhood.

Response #1 is what my sister and I call "a thing made of things." I did skim the article, mostly because I was pressed for time but also because I have a low tolerance for bleats about "kids today." We've been heading down the toilet for generations, to hear the old fogeys among us lament.

I mulled over response #2 the rest of the morning, because while reading the article I kept thinking how sad it is that fewer people (of all ages) today seem interested in the long haul.

They want to walk from the last row of the parking lot and call it exercise. They want to skip one breakfast and be visibly skinnier immediately. They want to write a novel in a month--that's a novel, not a novel DRAFT. They want every single meeting of a group to provide them with a peak learning experience. They want all comments on their writing to be tender and sensitive and immediately useful without in any way indicating that the writing as it stands has flaws of any kind.

And by "they" I mean, of course, "sometimes I." I'm as prone to this as anyone, in spite of my fogeyhood.

Yet it's the "long haul" aspects of my life for which I am the most grateful.

Like: I can read music. I don't remember learning this, the way I don't remember learning to read words. But now, even though I'm not "doing music" every day, I can follow along, and my ability to sight-sing, never strong, is even coming back a little. Is it immediately useful? No, if by "useful" you mean "making of money" rather than "making of happy."

Like: I can type. In the olden days, when we sat in willow rockers on the porch in our braided pigtails and gingham bonnets after hauling water in oak buckets uphill in the snow both ways, we called it "touch-typing." My mother and I had conversations about whether, in writing, it was advisable to "compose at the typewriter" or write out a paper in longhand first. She adapted quickly to what she persisted in calling "word processors," while my father to his dying day scrawled illegibly on pads of yellow paper with ballpoint pens according to a mysterious color-coded system.

Rabbit trail. Sorry.

I do remember learning to type--twice. One summer in high school I had an intro course as part of someone's research project (university town). Only I didn't do the mind-numbing exercises "d e d space d e d space" and "j k l ; space j k l ; space" because they were (wait for it) boring. So I didn't get far. I took typing again in regular high school, when I did do the exercises because I wanted the A for my GPA. And now I can type. It was well worth the yawns, over the long haul. Yes, financially, but also, it's a tool I comfortable using to make things that ultimately make me happy.

Both skills--reading music and typing--were relatively hard-won. I didn't pursue them because I was interested in them. I pursued them because I was forced to.

And now, because I am ostensibly an adult, I have to force myself.

I don't like having to walk, pushing myself, every day to maintain (never mind improve) my fitness level. I dislike the fact that every scone that passes my lips stays with my hips and/or thighs for months. I wish I could just write the story I want to write the first time. I wish my writing didn't improve with time and reflection and hard work.

And yet, those things are true. I must discipline myself (yes, that's what we're really talking about--again). And sometimes I even enjoy the discipline, if not for the actual work, then for the result.

And THAT is what those pesky "kids today" may be missing. The chance to try something, fail, keep trying, eventually get it, and feel proud of themselves--especially if what they're learning is something not immediately "useful" or pleasant but worthy. Valuable. Something that needs doing.

Like settling in to do the newsletter, to draft the work project, to contact those who need contacting and bug those professionals who require bugging. Like paying bills, filing the financial pile, deciding what to do with that basket o' papers. Like reading the whole article, or a book that's "hard."

Or actually WRITING.

Not bubbleshooter. For example. Although I am developing a mean bank shot.

Because yes, although I'm not sure I should be proud of this, I am in some ways one of those "kids today." And my inner adult says "Time to stop blogging. Yes, NOW." Bye.
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Unexpected Brilliance

Sometimes creativity and satisfaction comes from unforeseen places.

As an example, I share this with you, from my friend Peggy, a bookseller and otherwise extraordinary person.

How many people on that stage grew up thinking, "I want to be really good at playing pop bottles when I grow up!" ??

I'm guessing the answer is "zero." And yet, given the opportunity, there they are, doing it well, having a great time, and giving the world a smile.

Sometimes the creative comes from the unexpected--playing around, meandering, exploring a trail to its end. And sometimes, people smile when you get there. Can't beat that!
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Spirited Interpreting

I already shared this on Facebook, but I wanted to post it here, too. This is an American Sign Language interpreter--I assume a professional; she's definitely experienced--performing Michael Franti's "The Sound of Sunshine."

I used verb "performing" on purpose. Most of the time, interpreters don't perform; their role is to communicate what the speaker is saying. (At least that's what I learned many moons ago.) However, in this case, I think "perform" is accurate. It's what Michael Franti does when he plays this song. It's also what she does--very well--because she has prepared this interpretation and likely performs it much in this same way every time she does it.

Even if you don't know ASL, you can probably guess that a large part of her interpretation has to do with the heartbeat. That's what she's communicating with her hands pulsing open and closed on her chest.

She uses this metaphor because, of course, Deaf people experience the "sound" of sunshine differently. The "sound" communicates itself in their heartbeat, in the vibrations they feel from music, in whatever they do hear with any residual hearing they may have. Deaf people, like hearing people, also appreciate the feel of the sun on their faces, which this interpreter also uses.

Michael Franti says nothing about heartbeats. But that's what he means: the vitality that sunshine brings after a storm, whether that storm is rain or poverty or a life without love and fun. By using the heartbeat metaphor, the interpreter captures the spirit of the song--not the literal meaning of each word, but the larger meaning of the message.

It's good stuff for a creative life. For one thing, I have learned more about the song by seeing the interpretation--the interpretation enriched my understanding of the original. I don't know enough of another written language to experience a written work in two languages, but I imagine the experience would be similar.

And of course, communicating an experience or feeling is often what drives writers to their keyboards in the first place. This interpretation reminded me to not be too wedded to "what really happened" but instead to look for the best way to communicate the larger meaning.

And to celebrate the sunshine, whether it's in rays on my face, in the sounds that reach my ears, or in the beating of my heart.
Monday, November 1, 2010

That @$&*!! Buzzing Fly

This is a season when buzzing flies multiply inside our house. During spring and fall, flies come out of nowhere (not literally but I don't want to think about the literal) and hurl themselves at the window, over and over again. They buzz. And thunk. Randomly.

Bzzzz-thunk. Bzz-zz-zzzz-thunk. Zzz. Z. BZZZZZ-thunk.

Because they move slowly, they're not that hard to kill, except that they can be sneaky. Get out a flyswatter, and suddenly they hide behind the blinds and behind furniture. When you start doing something else, the buzzing starts up again, just loud enough to annoy the hell out of you. Me. One.

And some weeks are just full of the damn things. Like this past week, which was full of doing things for others. (Aha! The meta-phor you've been waiting-phor.) Also, to be fair, last week was full of a certain amount of not-doing things, and to be fair to me, that was caused largely by a big two-day storm and a power outage that I wasn't prepared for. It's not that I mind doing things for others, either, except that doing each thing breeds several more things that could be done, that need to be done, that require/beg doing, bzzz-zzz.

And yet. The winds of time still rip those pages right off the calendar. Writing gets done, or doesn't, amid all the other tasks that circle me. Damn buzzing flies.

Yesterday, I was pretty tired. Tired on the inside. Irked with myself and others. Tired of doing, especially on a day that I prefer to spend being. A long walk helped, but I still finished the weekend feeling behind. I had to start a new work-week by scaling back expectations--my own and others'.

I don't like weeks like that, the ones that are less than I hoped before they even start.

However, sometimes that's what happens. So by the time I went to bed last night, I was pleasantly physically tired and somewhat resigned. I closed my eyes.

And then, the buzzing. In the dark. Bzz-zz-zzzz-thunk. Zzz.

I don't mind a fly that buzzes its last against a window. Rest in peace and all that. But I hate the ones that pinball off the other walls of our bedroom, that choose the corner near our bed for their death throes. Because what if those throes involve falling onto/into the bed? Landing on my face? Getting in my hair?

Of course I came awake: annoyed, attention-thready, aching behind the eyes, ready to throttle something. I turned on a light and got the flyswatter.

Silence. That sneaky so-and-so.

I'll spare you the blow by blow, but rest assured that in semi-darkness, several dark fuzzles from my husband's socks became quite dead, while the fly bzz-Zzzzz-ed on.

Eventually I realized I was only hurting myself (and the fuzzles) and figured out another fix for the problem: pulling the sheet over my head and doing relaxation exercises till I finally fell asleep.

Which, come to think of it, is also a useful strategy for getting the writing done. It's a form of extended will, a tool that helps define an environment in which you (I, one) can be successful. (Or accidentally smother, but I managed not to think about that.)

This morning, the fly was still alive, though barely. (zzz. zz.) But sometimes, when you don't pay attention to things like that, they go away. They work themselves out. Someone else with better aim or more tenacity or a better flyswatter gets the damn thing.

I was/am also alive this morning, and I did sleep some, and I'm ready to start the week of scaled-back expectations. But I'm starting by getting back under the metaphorical sheet.

Here's why: while other people are perfectly capable of swatting flies, nobody else can do my writing.

Eventually I may need to adjust my expectations around that too, most likely relating to its quality. But first I have to produce it. Scaling back expectations not allowed there.