Monday, March 25, 2013

Some Slightly Different Rules

Today, I found some words to live by.  It might be an omen.

Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments by Kent M. Keith (

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;

Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;

Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;

Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;

Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;

Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;

Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;

Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;

It was never between you and them anyway.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Road

Today, we're going to pretend.  Let's say we're on a road, driving along, in the dark.  Our headlights illuminate the way ahead. We see a road, straight and narrow, lined with ditches on both sides.  Outside those ditches, only trees--an impenetrable barrier.   There's nothing up ahead we want to go to--we can see that pretty clearly.  In fact on the map, the road pretty much stretches off the page; no towns, no attractions.  Just an endless road for far longer than we've got fuel to go.   That can't be right--roads don't go nowhere, do they?  But that's what the map shows, and so far as we can see, it seems to be true.  We've driven down this road for an awful long way, and nothing.  We'd like to find something, go somewhere, but this road doesn't seem to be leading anywhere.

But there's no choice.  We know what's behind us.  Nothing we want to go back to.  We're running from what's back there--no way we're going to turn around and go back to that!  And so we drive on ahead.  We turn on the high beams.  More road, more ditches, more trees.  No way but straight ahead.  And so we drive.

This road represents "the way things are."  It's a world of violence and corruption and fear and hate and lack and deprivation.  A world where, if we're smart at all, we see nothing good coming.  We know that we've always been told the road will change--once we kill enough people and install the right governments, we'll have licked that "commie threat" and we can live in peace.  But then there's the oil crisis, and pollution, and the recession, and the Muslims and the terrorists.  And after them (if there is an "after them"), there will be someone or something else to fear. 

We're told that if we work hard, we'll get ahead and we can lie back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.  But we never actually get ahead.  We work, and we get a bigger house, a nicer car, a bank account.  But we never actually get to stop paying for it.  There's taxes and insurance  on the house, even if we "own" it thirty years and three or four times its value later.  There's hundreds of dollars of utilities to be paid each month to keep it warm or cool and to be able to wash ourselves and flush the toilet.  There's compulsory insurance on the car, even when it's paid off.  Inflation keeps eating the bank account, so it's never as "enough" as it was when we put it there. 

We know that years ago, people worked long days, every day and got paid in scrip for the company store, and we're told we're better off, and yet, even though we've got paid "vacation," we've got to check the email, answer the cell phone, and worry about what's waiting when we get back on Monday.  And God help you--if you don't, well there's a lot of people out there who want your job.  We're only a minute away from having nothing.  We know that, just like yesterday, when we turn on the TV, radio, or computer, the news will tell us that someone's been shot, stabbed, beaten, or raped; that there's a war here, an insurgency there, and someone who hates us for no reason that anyone wants to tell us.  We know that it will be the same tomorrow too.  We've all lived on this road long enough to know that the scenery never changes--maybe the names do, but the road is the same, endlessly.  And we keep driving, and the road, straight and narrow and unchanging, keeps rising up to meet us. 

Somewhere along the road, the revolutionary idea pops into our heads that our "road" isn't all there is.  Outside of those ditches and trees is something, and there's a way over there that maybe we're not seeing, because it's dark and our headlights only light up the little patch of road right in front of us, but logic says that the earth doesn't cease to exist just past those trees--it's got to be there.    But, we tell ourselves, it's too hard to get over there.  This car won't go through those ditches.  We can't just drive through the trees.  And what if there's nothing over there either?  So we drive.  And every time that nagging thought pops into our heads, and we try to rubberneck and watch for a way to the other side of the trees, we risk running off the road.  So we keep driving.

Eventually, the car begins to run low on gas.  It's becoming clear that we can't just keep driving, or we're going to get stuck out here.   And that nagging idea reappears in our minds that there's something on the other side of those trees, something that we can't see in the headlights.  Something there seems to be no convenient way to get to.  Something that we can't even take the time to crane our necks to see as we hurtle down the road, because we might have a wreck while we're looking.    And then suddenly, it occurs to us to pull over.  And as soon as we take our foot off the accelerator and begin to slow, the light of dawn starts to come over the sky.  As we slow further, it becomes apparent that there are breaks in those trees, small barely used tracks off the road.  There are lots of them.  Why did we never see them?  Well, we couldn't really look, because we were driving so fast down the road. 

Now, barely creeping along,  we see, there are lots of exits from the road.  None of them are as wide or well-defined; some are hardly wide enough to fit through, and they're rough and crude from non-use, but there they are.  And they lead...where?   Well, if we stop our car and get out and peer down some of them, we can see a bit.   The light dawning.  A slower pace, because the road is so unused.  Hints of rolling hills and peace down some.  Hints that fear diminishes down others.  A teeny sliver of a view of happiness and contentment over there on a hill with the first ray of sun lighting it up.  When we turn back toward the road and look where our car is pointing, it's still dark, the pavement stretching endlessly in the weak beam of our headlights and the barriers along the sides still shading out all the light that's dawning over on the side roads.   And we wonder, should we turn and take the risk that there's really nothing better to the right or the left?  Or should we just keep driving.  It's hard to know, since there's only tantalizing tidbits to be seen of what lies beyond the trees.

 The fact is, we can't find out what's out there until we get off the road and start in a different direction.   But whatever is outside those ditches and groves, the real point is this:  while we were driving, we lived in the illusion that there was only the road.  We thought we knew the truth--the road goes only forward to nowhere or back to where we left.  We believed we had no choice.  But we were wrong.  We always had the choice.   We always will.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Rube Goldberg Machine

Most of you have probably heard about something called a Rube Goldberg machine. But just in case some of you haven't, it's a device that employs an insanely complicated series of devices and reactions to accomplish a really simple task. The concept is named after cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg.

A cartoon depicting one of the devices, "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin" is featured on the Wikipedia article about Rube Goldberg machines. The self-operating napkin works like this: when you raise the soup spoon to your mouth, it pulls a string, which jerks a ladle, throwing a cracker in front of a parrot, who jumps after the cracker, tilting his perch and dropping his seeds into a pail. The weight in the pail pulls a cord, which lights a lighter, setting off a rocket with a sickle attached to it, cutting a string, which frees a clock pendulum with its attached napkin to swing in and wipe your mouth.  And I thought I could make things complicated!

Rube Goldberg machines came into my mind after I read something my younger daughter wrote a while back:
Every person becomes a lighter poised at the beginning of a stream of oil that leads to a series of events or a chain reaction.  Every person is a trigger.  Even if your fire is only lit by someone else's, you are the trigger in a great circle of triggers, to carry on the flame until eventually, it becomes something great. 

It seems as if the earth, and everything in and on it is a giant Rube Goldberg machine--an enormously complicated system of actions, reactions, devices, manipulations, and ideas--designed for one very simple purpose: to teach people that we are all interconnected parts of one very gargantuan whole.   If this theory is correct, then ironically, everything matters, and at the same time, nothing matters.

On the one hand, everything matters because each and every action we take is a trigger for something.  Every kindness can improve someone's day.  Every insult can fuel a fire of fear, hatred, or anger in someone's heart.  Every time we mistreat ourselves, we face the consequences.  When we're overly critical of ourselves, we face paralyzing fear and uncertainty and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.  When we abuse our bodies, we reap what we've sown, in disease and ill health.  Every time we mistreat someone else, we not only hurt them, but we pollute the atmosphere around ourselves, too. 

So, if everything matters, why are so many of us not doing the right thing?  Nearly every person I've ever known in my life knows what's right.  If they opened their front door, and saw a sick, dirty, hungry child, 99 percent of them would know that the right thing would be to bring the child in, give them some food, and try to help them.   Most people know that you shouldn't lie or steal, that you should hold the door for the person behind you, and that most other people are doing the best they can. So why then, are so few people concerned that "foreign policy" is used as an excuse for murder and mayhem and baby killing?  Why are so many people who are "pro life," so ready to execute a "criminal," even though it's been shown time and time again that the justice system is severely flawed?  Why are so many people playing the role of the jury in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, and so few playing Atticus Finch?

I think the answer to the question why so few people do the right thing is that our culture makes it so damn easy not to.  We're fed fear and loathing in a continuous stream from morning til night.  We call this "news," but what it is, really, is personal insecurity and insignificance wrapped up in a convenient, serving-size box.   We're told that the world is a dangerous place, that people are bad, that everyone is out to get us, that we're not good enough in any of a variety of ways, that you can't trust anybody, and that you must live in constant fear.  Then, we're told that there's not thing-one we can do about all of that except to batten down the hatches, install an extra lock on the door, a home security system, and a "safe-room," put a stash of gold in a box in our linen closets, and wait for the end.  No wonder people are paralyzed.  No wonder most people's answer to life, the universe, and everything is to sit in stunned silence in front of this week's episodes of meaningless TV drivel and hope that no one notices them.

As I noted above, the irony of the Rube Goldberg Theory of Life is that while every action we take matters, in the big picture of things we are like a single cell in a body, and so nothing matters.  All the infinite minutia that we twist and turn and lose sleep over, is all like one of our skin cells.  It comes and goes, and leads to little of significance, most of the time.  Of course, there's that odd time, when one skin cell goes cancerous, and leads to a really big problem.  But 99.9% of the time, whatever it is that I'm worrying about today isn't going to matter a hoot 30 or 40 years from now, as I lie on my deathbed.   So why are we constantly worrying about something or other?  Why do we think that getting a new car, or a particular wardrobe, or a bigger house, or more money in our retirement account will somehow "change things."  And if we don't believe that, then why do we seek those things in the first place?    How many of you have ever heard that someone had died and said to yourself, "Poor thing, she never did get that Mercedes?"  We're conditioned to ruminate, worry, and stew over the stuff that 99.9% of the time makes no difference at all, while ignoring religiously the opportunities we have to really matter--by being a trigger.  And every single one of us can be that trigger, on a small scale or a large one.  I must pause to tell a story to illustrate this point.

I was a bit of a problem child.  My kindergarten teacher found me to be so disruptive that she actually asked my parents to remove me from the school.  They refused, probably because they didn't know what else to do with me, and I guess the school didn't have enough on me to justify expelling a 5-year-old, so I spent the rest of the year torturing that teacher.  She retired at the end of the year.

Then I was in first grade, and I went to a tiny, two-classroom "primary school" right around the corner from my home.  It had only first and second grades in it, and so everything there was geared to those grades.  It didn't take long for my teacher to notice that I finished my work faster than the other kids, that I was bored silly by the books that were available in our "library," and perhaps more importantly, that I was only a disciplinary problem when I was unchallenged.  So she took it upon herself to make the arrangements and get the permissions to send me to second grade in the other classroom half of the time.  Much of the remaining time I spent in the first-grade class, she had me help the other kids who needed it with reading or making a good "R" or whatever.   I felt very important, which was not usual for me at that time in my life.   She also got permission to take me, every Friday after school, to the middle school a mile away and let me check out books to read and work on the following week.  She'd load me up, each week, in her big, beat up pearl blue Chevy pickup with a huge camper on the back, and, in essence, drive me to a higher grade.   I thrived academically, and besides thinking that it was infinitely cool to go someplace with my beloved Mrs. Mahoney every week, I was kept occupied enough with my part-time middle school curriculum to stay out of her hair the rest of the time.  I became a model student.

Mrs. Mahoney had a couple of choices when she found me as one of her students.  She could have decided to maintain the status quo--try to make me conform, punish my misbehavior, and treat me like "one of those children"-- or she could have done what she did.   She chose to be a trigger.  I went on to skip from Mrs. Mahoney's class to third grade.  I graduated high school at 16 and college at 19,  as an honors student both times.  After a few years working, I went on to law school and finished high in my class.  And it all could have been very different if it weren't for Mrs. Mahoney.  She was my "trigger."

If it weren't for her, every student I tutored in college might not have gotten my help, and every person I represented as a lawyer might not have found someone to take their case.  Had I been in a different place in my life, I wouldn't have met my husband, had my kids, or done any of the good stuff I've done in my life.  It all could have been very different, had I been labeled as a troublemaker, instead of a smart kid, when I was 6.  Who knows where that chain-reaction ended, or even if it has yet.  Who knows what each of those graduates I tutored have done with their lives, or what bringing their case meant to each of my clients and their families?   At the very least, Mrs. Mahoney changed everything for me.  

I tell this story because we need to realize that what we do matters--it's what we fear that doesn't.  We're not pathetic schmoes, stuck in a world of degradation beyond our control--we're infinitely powerful.  A single teacher in a ratty blue pickup can change a kid's life, and who knows how many others.  A single blog post or YouTube video can reach millions of people.  A single person can inspire others--maybe a few, maybe a million.  Every one of us could become the first gadget in the Rube Goldberg machine that once and for all proves to everyone that we're all connected and all necessary to each other, and starts the chain reaction that fixes all that is wrong in our world.

The alternative, of course, is to sit and do nothing and wait in fear, hoping that someone else will find the answers and fix everything for us--waiting and waiting, fearing and fearing, while the world crashes in on itself.  And who knows, if you're a good little member of the herd,  maybe you'll get your Mercedes. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Battle of Good vs. Evil

We have this notion in Western culture (Judeo-Christian, especially), that there is a qualitative difference between good and evil.  Stuff that "hurts" us is evil.  Stuff that keeps us in our cushy-squooshy comfort zone is good.  

Today, in opening a series of posts that I think are the "point" of everything I've been learning and doing for the last decade or so, I'd like to challenge that notion.  The ultimate idea, I'll telegraph here, is that the real difference between good and evil isn't qualitative (a difference in kind)--it's quantitative (a difference in amount).  And of course, now is the time for a story about me to help illustrate that point.

Those of you who have read my writings for a while know that I am an alcoholic.  I got clean first in 1994, and then after a relapse, again in 1996.  Being an alcoholic is a self-medication.  It is the refuge of someone who cannot face their own problems, or their own potential, without an anesthetic to take the "edge" off.   Staying drunk a good share of the time is a very handy tool for self-pacification.   When we've done something stupid, or when we've been the victim of a harsh, unfair or wrongful action by someone else, booze serves to dull the sense of need for action, whether that action is change in ourselves or standing up to our oppressor.  Basically, it allows us to easily put off thinking about it as we "drown our sorrow" at the bottom of the bottle. 

Likewise, when we've done something productive, booze allows us to easily withdraw, congratulate ourselves, celebrate with a few belts,  kill a few brain cells, and go back to sleep, instead of recognizing our new heights as a challenge to even greater things.   It is this very anesthetic effect that makes drunkenness, in the Judeo-Christian vernacular, "evil."   It allows us to accept anything without feeling the effects of that experience to their real and proper degree.

The whole point of being here on Earth, in my opinion, is the experience of being human.   Experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, changes us.  The more we experience, the more we change.  And the more consciously we experience it, the more we are able to consciously direct that change, rather than just allowing it to take us, willy-nilly, wherever the wind blows.

I've been thinking a lot about this concept of conscious change--of deciding how we will be affected by our surroundings and our peers, and how we will use our interactions with the world not to just "change," but to  grow.   Conscious evolution, one might call it.

So, over the next few posts, I will be thinking aloud, exploring how we can more fully engage with our lives, our experiences, and our fellow humans in order to change for the better.  In the meantime, I was struck by a phrase that popped into my head the other day, that seems to buttress the idea that the real evil in the world is that which allows us to stay right where we are and stagnate, unevolving, in a kind of thoughtless, changeless, cesspit.  Where exactly this phrase leads, I guess we'll have to see.  But here it is:

It doesn't nearly so much matter what you do--what really matters is that you do. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Search for Radical Simplicity

A little more than a decade ago, my family was a standard suburban family. I was a lawyer in a big city. My husband had a good office job too. We went to work everyday and acted mostly like everyone else. We paid someone to look after our children, clean our house, mow our lawn, and wash our windows. Evenings and weekends we ran from place to place, activity to activity, store to store. Several nights a week, I'd be too 'tired' to figure out something to cook, so we'd eat out, or get takeout or heat up some kind of frozen 'food.' We rarely stayed still, but it seemed normal, whatever that is. In fact, we seemed to be a bit less preoccupied and over-busy than most of our compatriots.

I always tried to make sure we weren't shallow, artificial people. I worked from home a lot. I always tried to get my kids "healthy" frozen entrees. I insisted that the processed child kibble my kids ate and called cereal didn't have too much sugar or too little fiber. We watched a lot of PBS and read books aloud, and went for walks and made homemade play-dough, and did embroidery together, and baked and decorated our own Christmas cookies.

People would sometimes comment that they didn't know how I could do it all. I would beam with pride about being the quintessential modern woman. I could go to work and disembowel an opponent in a legal case and come home and make life-sized papier mache sets of a Babylonian temple for the church play.

But I remember at one point starting to feel like it wasn't working. I didn't know why, but I knew it was growing more and more difficult to pretend like I belonged in my own skin. I remember longing for something, and I didn't know what it was. One time, the series 'Frontier House' came on PBS. It was a show where families went and lived for a summer as if they were in the 1880s frontier. They had to prepare as though they were trying to survive a winter, and got graded at the end. I watched it religiously. I felt a strange pull to that life--the chopping wood and carrying water and growing food and cooking over a fire.

My restlessness grew, and I longed to move away from the city, to stop practicing law, and to live more simply. Eventually we did. We sold our house and I closed my practice and we moved to a tiny rural town sandwiched between corn and soybean fields. We ran a couple of businesses, and got to know just about everyone in town. My girls went to a school where K-12 had about half as many kids as my high school graduating class. I remember going around for a couple of years on Cloud 9 about how much simpler everything was there. People seriously didn't lock their doors; merchants opened accounts for you and would bill you for the merchandise you bought. When someone's house burned down or someone got cancer, people held fundraisers to help them and donated furniture for them to get back on their feet.  Everyone knew you and expected you to act right. It had the effect, mostly, of making people live up to that expectation.  Phase One of the Radical Simplicity Experiment complete:  You can be happy with less, and people can take care of each other.

Then it became clear we would have to leave. Four years after moving to Iowa, my husband got a job offer that was too good to pass up in another city, and we were headed off to become suburbanites again. I worried that the burbs would suck us back in to the harried and hurried lifestyle. But we've changed. If anything, coming back to the suburbs has made us cling together even more. Our family sits down at the table and has a home-cooked supper nearly every night. We get up early so my husband and I can do yoga and I still have time to make everyone a good breakfast every morning before I drive my girls to school.  I'm "wasting my education and earning power" by staying home and taking care of my family.   I pick up fresh milk from a farmer who names his cows and goats.  I grow an organic garden year round with the help of a homemade greenhouse that drives the homeowners' association types absolutely nuts.  :-)

I make yogurt and cheese.  I'm learning to cook Indian food with the help of You Tube videos and a couple of my kids' friends, who are from there.  Last fall, when my youngest needed a suit for debate competitions, but was too small for juniors' sizes, we ordered fabric and a vintage pattern and  for about $60, we made it--together.  This spring, the fabric and pattern has been purchased for a 1950s style retro prom dress--$50.  The 10 or 12 hours we'll spend sewing and pinning and fitting (and tearing out mistakes) will be priceless. 

Back in Burb-land, there are more malls and restaurants close by, but oddly there's little there we feel like we need. We like our home-made food and our weird little homespun life. In fact, this year for school shopping, I introduced my kids to a hip little consignment store that specializes in young-person clothes, and they did 90% of their clothes-buying there, and got twice as many clothes for half as much money as if we'd hit the mall. As a bonus, we didn't contribute an extra dime to mass-manufacturer exploitation of twelve-year-old third world sweatshop workers.  My elder daughter is probably the only young person in our city who works in a fast food place but takes homemade organic vegetarian meals with her and refuses to eat what she serves to the eager masses.   Phase Two of the Radical Simplicity Experiment complete:  You can be in a world, but not of it; you can resist the temptations of what "everyone" does and be happy.

We're strange people, by modern standards, and all of that is well and good. But lately, I've been feeling the pull again to simplify some more. We had always thought that when this gig ends, we'd go back to our little Iowa town--and we still might. But I keep looking at rural real estate--really rural.   I keep imagining having a tiny, cozy house with a very small contingent of nice, multi-purpose things, and some land to grow a big garden and a small orchard for fruits and vegetables, some chickens for eggs, and a couple of goats for milk and cheese. And dogs, just because dogs seem to make me a better person.

In my mind's eye, my life would be much like those old episodes of Frontier House--growing a garden, canning the surplus, buying only what we can't make or grow ourselves.  I realize that it won't be nearly as much fun on a cold winter's morning to feed animals and gather eggs as it looked on TV in a nice temperate summer day--but I also know that I'll connect with that "hardship,"  just as I have with being the tie-dyed, organic weirdo in a community where having a Lexus, a Hummer, and a 6,000 square foot house is the ultimate way to say you're a more worthwhile human being that everyone around you.  Somehow, I view the "hardship" of not being like that as something that's not all that "hard."

So, I'm watching and waiting--checking out cabins and little old farmhouses on 10 or 20 acres, somewhere where you can grow a garden, but they don't do much commercial agriculture (too many chemicals).   I've got a catalog of chickens, so that I'll be ready to pick some when my time comes.  And I'm going to help a small-scale organic farmer this spring and summer, to learn some more tricks of the trade. 

And I know that soon, the chance to put it all to use will be here.  And my experiment in radical  simplicity will begin Phase Three. I've got to go--I must find some old episodes of Green Acres to watch.  At least I make better coffee than Lisa.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Does This Seem Right To You?

Not much to say on this one.  Please watch it and tell me:  is this the country you want to live in?   If not, what are you going to do about it?