Thursday, December 29, 2011
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
One game was played somewhere with a clear view of a busy street, preferably a donut shop. Every player chose a color and counted how many cars of that color passed. First one to 10, or 18, or 71, or whenever the donuts run out, wins. The name of this game was "car-car color," and it's a fair sight more complicated than it sounds. Car colors are not always immediately identifiable, leading to points being contested rather frequently, and for good reason. The blue people were notoriously shady.
Another game was played in your imagination on a freeway at night. The red guys (taillights) were the bad guys. The white guys (headlights) were the good guys. You're at the front of the column, chasing down the bad guys. (I didn't know why all the good guys were heading the opposite direction on the other side of the road. Neither did I know why when you passed someone they turned into a bad guy and when someone passed you they turned into a good guy. I was only six, okay?)
(This game also worked the other way around, with the red guys as the good guys and the white guys as the bad guys. In this scenario you're at the rear of a contingent of cohorts, struggling to escape. All of the same plot problems of the first scenario still exist, only in reverse.)
While we're talking about imagination games, I might as well mention the invisible runner game, which is also played in the car. First, look out a side window so the landscape is rushing past you horizontally. Next, place your finger on the window. This represents the invisible runner. It's your job to help the invisible runner leap puddles, vault fences, get up and down hills and cliffs and generally stay alive. This game is significantly more fun in mountainous California than, say, Nevada, but variations can be added as necessary (what about leaping telephone poles?).
(Do I use parentheses too much? I'm sorry.)
I have no idea why I'm writing about this. I guess I've been thinking a lot about childhood lately, and about how little we pay attention to - much less understand - the simple things that make us who we are. This is more than mere nostalgia. It's a way of trying to gain a clearer picture of how we view the world - some chunk that is buried deep in our subconscious, influenced by scores of experiences that we scarcely noticed. It is complex, aromatic, personal. It shows up in unexpected sights, familiar tastes, particular temperatures.
I remember very specifically the smell inside a small wooden box I had with a yellow metal rabbit affixed to the top. The box had a sliding cover and was lined inside with green felt. It wasn't any sort of spectacular smell and yet it was memorable somehow. Like certain library books. Whew!
Our senses and our knowledge keep piling up over our memories, obscuring our faces. Time, meanwhile, is spinning down. (I heard yesterday about a man who thought of his lifespan in terms of growing seasons. There's some perspective.) Most of us are on a long trek to find ourselves. But identity is not something you will finally uncover if you search long enough and hard enough; identity is something that sneaks up on you. The paradox is that you still have to go on the search. Otherwise, when it does sneak up on you, you won't recognize it.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
There is a frame of mind that is universally sought by conscientious professionals, both white-collar and blue-collar. It is a rhythm, a clearheadedness, a zen. It is a groove, or a zone. Whatever your preferred terminology, once you've experienced it you know empirically that it directly impacts the speed, quality, and artistry of your work.
When you start out in a discipline, you know nothing about it, your output is shoddy, and your creativity is zero. As you start learning more, your output improves both in quality and quantity and your creativity expands. I expected this relationship was a continuous straight line as you head towards closer and closer identification with - or total immersion in - a discipline.
I'm not so sure now that this is true.
In my own experience as a tradesman and finish carpenter, I have traveled a portion of the immersive spectrum - at least enough to ask the question that this post is about.
What I noticed was that when I identified too completely with my work, my capacity for creativity plummeted. I was no longer sufficiently detached to view the project or the task objectively - from the outside - and I was merely mimicking, or robotically implementing rote. This is not only unproductive, it is unfulfiilling.
There is a big difference between being present in what you are doing and being lost in it. (I don't mean lost in the positive sense in which it is sometimes used as a synonym for being in the groove, zone, etc. I mean lost as in not knowing where you or anything else is.) Consider the following diagram:
Obviously it is useful to know as much as possible about something if you want to work productively and creatively in that space. I am making a distinction between knowledge and immersion. Let me give an example.
Suppose you have someone who is totally immersed in Twilight. They believe Twilight is the best thing ever. They think and read about it all the time. It rather defines their life, and it acts upon their consciousness, instead of the other way around.
Now we ask whether this person will have anything objectively useful to say about Twilight. At the risk of not showing my work, I think we can conclude that they won't. Then we must ask: why?
Look at the diagram again and picture in your mind three stages along the immersion axis:
- Sitting on the beach: no immersion, minimum creativity.
- Swimming: partial, interactive immersion, maximum creativity.
- Drowning: total, passive immersion, minimal creativity.
(There are those who can dive for several minutes, but they are rare. Most of us are more or less confined to the surface.)
When you are swimming, you are interacting with the water (the discipline) and you are using it to get someplace. The danger in drowning is that you may think you are going deeper into the water/discipline when you are just passively sinking into it and allowing it to act upon you and define you. You are longer acting upon it, resisting, creating.
What we are looking for is this point where more raw information and deeper immersion starts to undermine your self-awareness. You need to stay on top. Interdisciplinary activities are essential in this connection - like muscle confusion for the intellect. You have to keep crossing wires in your brain in order to stay aware. James Krenov said, "Develop the habit of being aware almost without thinking." He does not mean to lose yourself. He means to find that elusive balance between discipline and dreaming, between focus and freedom, when you are there. It's an intimate connection with the work that stops short of identification in order to preserve a detachment that keeps the door open for lateral problem-solving and self-expression.
It seems that historically people were naturally more diversified. They had to have a basic working knowledge of a host of handcrafts and practical skills just to survive. Our modern culture of intense specialization and supermarkets seems to result in this immersion and the accompanying blinders-effect we've been talking about.
I think this change has cost us something important in the way we work and live, and I think it's worth figuring out how to recapture it.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I lift and ram the digging bar, jabbing jerkily at the unyielding earth. It's a rod of steel with a rather dull edge, meant for breaking up ground. It is heavy, and to dig a single hole one might lift it a couple hundred times.
I suppose the dirt is locked together in some atomic structure and it requires energy to break it apart. Actually I don't suppose that second part. It's a little easier when you can get a void opened up and break the dirt off into it, but this is a rare luxury with holes because you have to keep going deeper in a contained cylinder. Hacking off the edge of a bank - or even digging out a trench - sounds like a vacation.
Once another layer of dirt is broken up, a post-hole digger lifts it out of the hole. If you've ever used one (or seen one), you know how they operate: spreading the handles (squeak! crack!) brings the jaws together, and bringing the handles back together (screech! thunk!) opens the jaws and releases the bite. As the hole gets deeper, it gets harder to spread the handles wide enough to grab the dirt at the bottom tightly, and that soil that was just moments ago stubbornly resisting separation now streams out of the jaws like so much sand out of a sawed-off hourglass.
I wish John McPhee were here; he might have something intelligent to say about this dirt - how it's the disintegrated crust of some ocean floor from deep time that was tectonically somersaulted two hundred and fifty miles inland one afternoon when the planet had indigestion. To me it's just an enemy with no face and no anger, which is the worst kind of enemy there is.
The work is elemental, and not in a satisfying way. There is satisfying elemental work - splitting wood, for instance - and there is maddening elemental work. Thirty-four inches, and you hit hardpan clay at eighteen. The two-cycle auger balks when it reaches the clay and just bounces around its rotation, not intending to do any more work and simply waiting for you to lift it out of the hole. Sometimes technology dominates physics; sometimes physics dominates technology.
The formal definition of "work" has always bothered me, so I try not to think about it much. There must be some mathematical advantages afforded by defining it this way, because any day laborer working for cigarettes and a milkshake can tell you that it's a bunch of hooey. If you carry a sack of concrete up a 100' hill and down the other side, you know for certain that you worked the whole time, no matter what your snobby physics professor says. How would he know anyway? He's certainly never done it.
Feynman is cut from another cloth. He's one of those people who touches the world - tentatively at first and then in a full-on fight, a knock-down drag-out brawl with the cosmos. (Fighting is an excellent way to get to know someone.) Feynman inspires an almost military respect, a respect that he is oblivious to like a decorated general who keeps all the cute little buttons in a drawer so they don't weigh him down. That is not what he cares about. He cares about the mission, and the mission is finding things out, otherwise known as being alive.
For Feynman, knowing mattered. It is an intellectual creed that becomes almost physical. You can go out and try to understand how water flows through a pipe and die, or you can stay at home and lay on the couch and die. Turbulence is so foreign and so hard to understand. Are we going to remain cavemen?
Out here on the line, I think of Feynman to help me focus. Breaking up this dirt is a physical process. (clank, thud) It's me and my puny steel bar vs. a few quadrillion muscular electrons. (clank, clank) I'm a pile of atoms, but I'm a pile of atoms to be reckoned with. (thud, clank) I hope I don't get poison oak. (clank, thud) Why in blazes am I doing this? (thud, thud, clank)
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
"Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity." -G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, VII
"[God] will entrust you with revelation to the degree you will trust Him with mystery." -Bill Johnson
Monday, August 1, 2011
It is true that Christ gave to His disciples His word and sacraments. But He did not give them naked. He left no written code which should keep inviolate for all time the essential message, and the essential requirements for the due observance of His sacraments. A vast amount of scholarly labour has been spent in trying to discover precisely that thing which the Lord Himself did not choose to provide. What He left behind was a fellowship, and He entrusted to it the task of being His representative to the world...
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” -Jesus
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Saturday, April 30, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
"The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless."-Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Saturday, February 26, 2011
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."
Monday, February 7, 2011
Friday, February 4, 2011
"tangerine solve problems"
Monday, January 31, 2011
"Ours is an age of doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who must not appear weak. Americans think themselves capable of nearly anything, certainly of shaping the future. We are not particularly good at recognizing our nothingness in the face of the universe, though we know our world is a speck in a galaxy, our galaxy a speck in the cosmos."- Rmy Rougeau, Introduction to Diary of a County Priest, Kindle Location 77
"[Herbert Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos, for man was always small compared to the nearest tree."- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Kindle Location 820
Friday, January 28, 2011
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight –
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Saturday, January 15, 2011
"I can see a people dispossessedBroken and brave in the face of so much fearDriven from their homes by the greed of a nationWhose treaties were as good as litter along the trail of their tears"-Rich Mullins, The Howling
"That is 'power/knowledge,' not knowledge as power, but having the power to constitute what counts as knowledge."-John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? - Kindle Location 1359
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
“If we feel the answers are too obvious to consider, then we have a worldview but we have no idea that others do not share it... What is obvious to us may be ‘a lie from hell’ to our neighbor next door. If we do not recognize that, we are certainly naive and provincial, and we have much to learn about living in today’s world.”-James Sire, The Universe Next Door, Third Edition (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 18
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Milton turned off the road and hopped the fence. He had always liked this spot, partly because it was north-facing and cool, and partly because it commanded such a sweeping view of the gorge. He sat down and unwrapped a sandwich. It was a bright fall day, and the place was solitary. Cloud shadows floated on the canyon walls.
The first time he went to the overlook it had been gray and gloomy. He had turned in his application that morning and was feeling downright scared. The place was simply crawling with hopeful unemployed strangers and there were more arriving by the minute. He had been gold-fevered; he had been a fool.
Eight days later he got his work I.D., against the odds, as it seemed to him. It was printed on honey-colored paper and laminated.
Milton Landers C-Class Detonator
DOB:12/9/1904 Sex:M Height:5-11 Weight:175
SIX COMPANIES, INC.
There was no picture; not even a fingerprint. A child of nine could have forged it, but so what. He had a job.It was 1932. Mohandas Gandhi was staging a hunger strike, the Sydney Harbor Bridge was newly completed, Bolivia and Paraguay had gone to war, the Mars Bar was introduced, and Josef Stalin’s second wife was found dead in her home with a revolver next to her subordinate hand. Back at home, unemployment had reached 33% and Herbert Hoover was packing to leave the Oval Office.
Hoover had reviewed preliminary plans for the dam 10 years ago as Secretary of Commerce. Congress authorized the project in 1928, awarding a contract for nearly $50 million to build a structure capable of holding back a new 250-square-mile lake and generating 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year.
For the next three and a half years, this was home for Milton. It was a parallel universe - filled with the din of machinery and the acrid smell of spent explosives And there was the dust. In Michigan, dust was something that you swept up off the floor every third day or so. In Nevada, dust was a food group. On windy days it was usually better, though not always. Working up on the cliffs was actually one of the more desirable places to be. This was the province of the high-scalers - men who rappelled off the canyon rim and worked with jackhammers and dynamite to bring the canyon walls down to bedrock. While other men were getting carbon monoxide poisoning in the stifling diversion tunnels, the high-scalers hung suspended in the free air, reveling in the intoxicating self-sufficiency that men feel who work closely with nature and rope.
It took about a week to get used to the exposure. The job quickly became a source of pride, even identity. As your personality shapes your career, so your career, in turn, begins to shape your personality. A man’s profession eventually shows on his face, sometimes in his walk. Within a few months, you could tell the high-scalers on the streets simply by the way they grinned and swaggered. They were, deservedly or undeservedly, the project’s heroes, as they played the most dramatic and therefore the most visible role.
Keeping his eyes on the river, Milton pulled an apple from his coat pocket. He bit it slowly. Even with all that, high-scaling wasn’t just a swashbuckling showcase for the ladies. In his time on the ropes he had seen a man killed, and heard of several others. Fatal falls were rare; the greater danger was being struck by falling rock. It was Chick who first took his cloth cap and dipped it upside-down in tar, letting it harden into a stiff shell. These came to be known as Hard-Boiled Hats, and were quickly in widespread use among the high-scalers.
It was also Chick who caught the Government inspector who managed to fall under the safety rope. Chick saw him sliding, let out a quick, fluid rappel, traversed a swift arc along the cliff, intercepted the tumbling uniform just before the cliff edge, secured the man to himself with a long prussik, and then swung back out so he could be hauled up. The whole rescue took about sixteen seconds. Politics was already a sore spot around the dam site, and the incident didn’t favorably influence the workers’ opinion of their bureaucratic visitors, falling into a canyon being generally regarded as undignified.But not all dam politics were that simple. On weekends Milton would go to The Silver Spigot in Boulder City where he often found himself defending Hoover, who was continually being posthumously maligned. Hoover, Milton felt, was a man’s man. He had worked internationally as a mining engineer, spoke fluent Mandarin, and when the battle of Tientsin trapped him and his wife in Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion, he personally guided U.S. marines to the front line. He was surprised at how many people didn’t know these things. He was also surprised at the number of people who expected the president to change the destiny of a nation in four years and faulted him personally when he didn’t. Perhaps the president was really nothing more than an effigy for the country to burn. The idea disgusted him.
Now here he was, back at his overlook with some savings and confidence in his pocket. The dam was built - a giant solemn gate to a still-empty lake - and Hoover wasn’t even present at the ceremony. What father is not invited to his son’s baptism? Politics certainly looked like a rough ride sometimes. But time erodes pretension, and greed and greatness will both haunt a man. Truth is like a cactus; it’s hard to uproot and carry around with you.
Milton threw his apple core into the canyon and knelt to cinch up his boots. The day was wearing. He flailed his jacket against the fence three or four times and put it on. Crunching sagebrush, he made his way back to the road and stuck out his thumb.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
"The newcomers had been shown about the land by the family renting it to them and toward the end of the first day felt they had taken possession of it with all their senses. They had welcomed into their nostrils a rich assault of barnyard and plant odors, they had tramped the amply watered earth, fingering its bounty of vines laden with Mission grapes, they had knelt at the edge of a ditch and passed their hands through the water. Just beyond the vineyard was nature in a more armored, truculent mood: a vast solemn plain dotted with cactus and scrub, steeped in silence. They gazed out at the deep-blue sky and, as the sun hovered nearer and nearer the mountain's crest, feeling the need to absorb in quiet their surfeit of new impressions, with no more forethought than precedes sinking into a chair and staring at the ceiling or taking off for a stroll in a leafy park, they drifted apart, and one by one wandered into the desert"No landscape, not even the swampy jungle of the Isthmus of Panama, had struck any of them as this awesomely strange. And they were not being borne through it, receiving it as a view, but walking in it, on it, for it was all pale surface, the sky so lofty and the ground so level, and they had never felt so erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls. Pausing, they could hear the hiss of skinny desert-colored creatures scurrying along the pebbly surface. Slithery fanged creatures (a snake!), but down there, speeding off. Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling - and nothing had to do with anything else. Each alone, each separate. The sense of jeopardy that couldn't altogether be stifled (was that a scorpion?) quickened their pace for a while, as if they thought they might soon be arriving somewhere. In the clear air the mountains looked deceptively near. And how small, when they turned around for a moment to see how far they'd gone, their little green world. They walked on, lost in the brightness of their sensations, walked and walked: the mountains came no closer. Their fears had long since subsided. The purity of the vista, its uncompromising bleakness, seemed first like a menace, then an excitement, then a numbing, then a different arousal. Their real initiation into the seductive nihilism of the desert had begun. The soundless, odorless, monochrome landscape, so drastically untenanted, had the same effect on everyone: and intoxicating impression of aloneness, which gradually gave way to a more active assent to the experience of solitude. All were visited by a yearning something like Maryna's - to be alone, really alone (what if I, what if she, what if he...?) - and allowed themselves to imagine the disappearance, without drama, without guilt, of those nearest to them, somewhere out here, too. And isn't to imagine to desire? The surrender to the desiccating of feeling was swift but it palled almost as rapidly, as something, a deeper fear, made them pull away from it, purged, chastened, and then it was time to turn around and walk back to dampened land and their moist lives."
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Sunday, January 2, 2011
1. Identify What You Have To Say.2. Say it.3. Do not say other fancy stuff that is unrelated to What You Have To Say.