Thursday, October 7, 2010

Here and Now -- Not

The left hand turn arrow has been green for several seconds as we enter the left hand turn lane and approach the intersection. It turns yellow just as we enter, so I am in a hurry to complete the turn and exit the no man’s land between lights. A car is following closely, trimming the yellow light a bit too close. 

Then, there he is, a driver running the red, speeding through the intersection. I see him closely as I apply the brakes hard. He does not see me, but looks straight ahead. He is talking, animatedly, on his phone. I doubt he realizes he is running a red light. 

I am exasperated, lay on the horn, and hear the squeal of tires behind me as the following car almost rear-ends us. 

No one collides, this time. No one is hurt, though I am left wondering why it is that we so aggressively pursue distraction, even when we place our own and other lives in peril. The lament has become clichĂ©: drivers are texting, CD jamming, DVDing, I-Podding, reading, crosswording, and generally running from the here-and-now task of driving. 

And this is not limited to driving. The most dangerous stretch of road in Tucson, to my eyes, is the block in front of the Memorial Union at the University of Arizona. Here, pedestrians, cyclists, long-boarders, skateboarders, roller-bladers, Frisbee throwers all walk, run, glide, stroll while wired, plugged in, tuned out, ear-budded, and generally distracted. The result is a kind of unconscious chaos of movement in which collisions are common. 

No one seems to mind. 

I think it raises a question: Why are we in such a hurry to be distracted, to flee from the reality of the here and now? Why not just focus on what are doing at any given moment and do it well? If driving, then we drive. If cutting across traffic on the mall, then we watch and move mindfully across traffic on the mall.

I am just as guilty of distracting myself as anyone. I just do so with my old-fashioned brain. It can serve up enough fantasy, worry, and fear to keep me distracted for a lifetime. I have decided to work a bit at quieting the “monkey mind,” as Buddhists like to call it, for the sake of focusing, especially writing. I am not talking about the snippets and sound-bites that pass for writing on FaceBook, etc., but the focused, sustained, attention to an idea or a question. This kind of writing seems to me oddly quaint now, if not downright incomprehensible to most readers. 

As a writing teacher, I am particularly concerned about the social lack of focus. Writing, for me, requires that I observe, or at least pay attention in order to sustain a train of thought. I see students having a harder and harder time doing this. The result is weaker problem solving ability, and shorter attention span. 

I admit that this is anecdotal, but I do count sometimes. On campus, I sometimes see 60% or more of students either on the phone, texting, or wearing ear phones as they walk to class. They seem unable to stop and continue to do so – in class

What is the aversion to enjoying the unmediated glory of October in the Sonoran Desert? Or at least watching for pedestrians...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Retirement Envy (Another Rant)

While driving to work the other morning I listened to a spot on National Public Radio profiling young millionaires. Most of these wunderkind had bolted from the workplace and were free now to do whatever they wanted. 

They seemed like nice enough people – A single mom, a young bachelor – and were the rank and file from Google, Facebook, or some other tech gold mine. Each seemed glad to be free from the stress and grind of 12 hour days and was now basking in the rewards of having been in the right place at the right time. They spent their days snow boarding or tinkering with an autobiography or volunteering at the Humane Society. The high point of the day for one was getting up to go have coffee at the local cafĂ© before heading off the chair lift. 

The subtext of the story was that these guys had done it, won big with time to spare. They were given a kind of celebrity status, were instant icons, set up as model achievers, and, actually had the problem of too much time and money. I felt I was supposed to simultaneously pity and envy these people.

These early retirees are becoming part of the American cultural landscape, and are on the fast track to becoming an archetype of the American dream. They are the Marilyn Monroe and the James Dean of the retirement world and populate our images of youth, leisure, and investment as the path to salvation. (Think of the coddled investor dropping off to sleep in his chaise lounge as the Caribbean quietly laps at the sand in the background.) They are becoming the stuff of legends, of folk tales told during breaks at work. The story goes something like this: “I heard of this guy who retired when he was 30! Can you believe it? Man, I’d like to do that.” 

The rest of us are portrayed as working wannabes, the chumps left doing the necessary work of society while the smart and lucky ones soak up rays on the ski slopes.

Now, I like to dream about retirement and writing my memoirs as much as anyone, and I am not advocating a hair shirt denial of self-interest, nor am I trying to glorify the stress of making a living, but I think that there’s something flat and hollow about holding up retirement at 30 as the perfect outcome of a life well-lived. More than the early exit, it was what people did with the luxury of wealth and time that disturbed me. The consuming focus on self-gratification and fulfillment with no real regard for anything like a common good or a social responsibility embarrassed me. You’d think these people lived in a vacuum where the only thing worth doing was feeding personal whim. 

The premise that we can somehow be separate from the social and natural world and that we can coast doing nothing without consequence is both fallacious and dangerous. Rather, I would hope that we would look at our lives as extensions of a vast web of interdependence and that we all have a responsibility to improve the quality of that web. This is a cultural choice we are making. I wonder if it is a good one.

Tom Volgy has a new book, Politics in the Trenches, in which he talks about a growing mistrust of social involvement, of political participation. People don’t want to serve as much as before because of a growing social stigma toward people who work in the political arena. 

On a small scale, people less and less serve on PTAs or run for local office because they are perceived as liars, cheats, and parasites, when in reality, most are committed people working for the common good. He is on to something subtle and wide ranging.

Have we arrived at a point where we value more those who isolate within their own self-interest than those who opt to work and serve the common good? 

Maybe this is just me, but I see this as contrary to a democratic system in general and personal maturation in particular. If the “end” of life is to feather one’s nest and stop there, problems like class disparity, environmental degradation, decaying schools will all continue to grow into greater crises than they already are. 

If we are lucky enough to achieve independence from the workday world, it is due in part to a system that made us rich. Isn’t that reason enough to put something back? Freedom of all kinds is a responsibility as well as a blessing. Tony Morrison says “the function of freedom is to free somebody else,” and the way things are right now, there is plenty of freeing to do.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Love Story

He traveled a long way to get there only to realize it wasn’t where he wanted to be. But there was no way back, so he ended up staying.

After a while he fell in love with a beautiful woman who only vaguely acknowledged him. He tried his best to win her, but the more he wanted her the less she would have to do with him.

Other women offered themselves to him, but he continued to beat his chest in the conviction that she was the only one who could make him happy.

A priest told him “find yourself” when he asked how he might win the beautiful woman. And so he tried. He looked hard into a mirror and began to see something there that soothed him and made his desires palatable. 

The people in the town noticed the difference. Even the beautiful woman paid him more attention than she had before, stopping occasionally to talk and share tea. He confessed how he always wanted to be loved, to be possessed and consumed by love. She admitted to feeling equally strong hungers and began to offer herself to him more and more as something strong grew between them. Time passed, making them older, more transparent, softer somehow. He felt pulled toward her, and as he grew toward her, he came to know himself, realizing that possession was impossible, longing inevitable.

He was not where he thought he wanted to be, but he no longer felt the need to strive to be someplace else or something other than what he was. They told him that life could never give him enough, but he felt that it was more than enough to be part of something larger than he could comprehend. He found himself turning around to give more to life, feeling that he could never give enough, that the turning world could never know enough of his ever deepening desire.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I stood at the bus stop and watched the three lanes of passing traffic, waiting for my ride. My dad was visiting and had volunteered to pick the boys up from school. We had planned to go to an early movie, but doing this required that we cut the margin for logistical error to fractions of a minute.

They were supposed to be here by now, those three in a brown car with a bike rack on the top. I had told them where I would be waiting twenty minutes ago. There was room to pull over out of the heavy afternoon traffic, but no shade, and the sun began to bother me. It was nearly June in Tucson and the desert was heating up. At two thirty in the afternoon it must have been pushing a hundred degrees.

I read the flow of traffic like words, looking for the ones that meant something to me, trusting that my mind would ferret out the salient passage, that one line that I was looking for. The sweet, single, unique passage, a little Toyota, had to appear sometime.

“Goddammit” I muttered to myself, noticing that since my dad had been staying with me and the boys my swearing had returned to its previous frequency and rancor. My dad was full of “son-of-a-bitches,” “fuckin’” thises and “fuckin’” thats. He is a good man, but lived a hard life as a career military officer. To survive, he tapped into the power and poison of the profane. It was not his fault that I was sliding back into my rages of words but mine.

The result of several years of effort and self-searching into examining and controlling my profanity had disappeared in less than a week. “Goddammit,” I said again, this time with some real irritation. I was working myself up.

My dad and I share a deep rage at being slighted. He was a boxer and used to get into fights if he felt someone had insulted him somehow. My brother is the same way and will defend himself with force if he feels someone is assaulting his dignity. The two of them are righteous men. And I was becoming more righteous by the second as I continued to watch closely but disinterestedly the traffic passing the bus stop.

Maybe they misunderstood me and were waiting somewhere else. I had given directions to the bus stop quickly and mentioned a corner three blocks down, where they were supposed to turn. He had asked me about the street names then, when we had made our plan, with some urgency, more than I would subscribe to a simple turn. Maybe they were waiting there.

I looked at my watch. We weren’t going to make the three o’clock show and they were now twenty-five minutes late.

I decided to stay where I was because that is where I said I would be. I’m sure that my dad was staying where he was because that is where he felt he was supposed to be. I was sure he was swearing at the fuck-up, as I was.

I decided to give it five more minutes. An ambulance went by and I noticed smoke from a house fire a few blocks away. A flash of dread passed through me. What if the boys had been hurt? Surely my dad couldn’t survive another accident like the last that had left him with a shattered hip, knee, and shoulder nearly severed. I forced the thought from my mind and looked again at my watch. Time to go.

I swore and watched how the anger and irritation spread through me like a warm chemical wash. I tasted salt and dissolved metal. I rehearsed our conversation and defended myself. “I said the bus stop . . . what are you guys doing down here?” I knew that path well and moved down the sidewalk spitting fire, daring any to fuck with me. “Goddammit,” I repeated -- my mantra around which I centered my life, my way of being, my esteem.

Within two blocks I saw them coming and my dad pulled over. Sean, my seven-year-old asked “Where were you?” with a worried face. “I was waiting at the bus stop,” I answered, looking to defuse my anger, my need to make someone else wrong. My goddammits retreated behind a need to get on with things, to plan the afternoon from here, to make the best of what we had. It took a while for the poisonous invocations to pass, a moment to rekindle a reverence for for the world as it is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Watering the Mind

You were born with a wonderful mind, a mind with potential, with something wonderful -- an intelligence.
Intelligence opens doors where none were before visible. Like the Red Sea parting when Moses stepped into it, chaotic experience suddenly has a path and a pattern. Intelligence can read, interpret, solve and apply. It helps to get things done, but not by itself. It is dangerous when misused with power, if it marries a rigid morality, and become ruthless if living isolated, capable of opening mega can of cruel whupass just for fun. It travels with attitude and consciousness. The work intelligence does depends, in part, on the company it keeps.
Some call intelligence talent or capacity or genetics. Some got more than others they say and that’s just the way it is, part of God’s master plan. That’s not to say it only comes in one variety. Intelligence can be the word as much as the dance or the empathy. But not all are valued equally. The ones that maintain existing power relations get more air time, bigger pieces of the pie. It may be physical, but it’s also political.
Intelligence can be lost, abused, underdeveloped and exploited. It’s a fragile, ephemeral resource – mercurial, fleeting. Too many of the wrong kinds of drugs can demolish the strongest of minds. Too little love can turn it into a monster.
The greatest houses of intelligence crumble eventually into dementia, distortion, madness, before the light finally flickers out. So water your intelligence and be careful to whom it listens. Give it problems to solve; give it good food; take it along as you learn to dance using new steps; stretch it by speaking a new language. It will repay you if you treat it well and leave you if you neglect it. Within it lies the capacity for great work as well as the arrogance of a petty tyrant. Who shows up as a product of your intelligence depends as much on how much you care as on the wiring you inherited.