Monthly Archives: May 2013

Spontaneity

I don’t mean the it’s-8-o’clock-on-a-Monday-let’s-get-in-the-car-to-Vegas!! type of spontaneity.

spontaneity

I mean the kind where you’re ready and able to be open and engage with anyone, anywhere, no matter what is happening.

How many times have you gotten the opportunity to talk to someone you really wanted to talk to — and totally screwed it up?

Exhibit A: Eric Kandel.

In 2006, when I was working at the Dana Foundation in New York, I helped put on Eric Kandel’s conversation with then-chairman (and dearly departed) William Safire at the 92nd Street Y. I read the galley proof of Kandel’s book In Search of Memory (which you should totally get) and did what side research was necessary to help develop interview questions, and in so doing fell in love with Kandel’s work. And, I’m not gonna lie, I fell in a little bit of love with Dr. Kandel, too.

Eric-Kandel-Laughs-e1271530014222

I mean, right?

You get the sense that he goes through life with this smiling attitude just by reading his book, and then you find out he really is laughing all the time and I mean be still my heart, man, he’s just a total joy.

I knew that after the event at 92Y, I was going to have the opportunity to say hello and ask him to sign my book, and I agonized about what to say for days and weeks. It wasn’t going to be the time or the place for a long drawn-out conversation on how Kandel’s work was affecting my perspective, but I did want whatever I said to be memorable and interesting and smart. Okay, brilliant.

So the event was over, we got the place more or less broken down, and Dr. Kandel was still there talking with a couple stragglers who, luck would have it, turned to leave just as I came up.

“Dr. Kandel,” my manager said, “meet Ian. He put together your questions, did research, bugs everyone in the office because he won’t shut up about you, blah blah blah,” everything to goad me on, but aside from “uh, good job up there tonight,” nothing, not one thing, that I’d planned to say came out. I walked away feeling sure that Dr. Kandel was thinking, “Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

Which happens over and over and over whenever I meet someone I have half an interest in meeting, whether it’s something anticipated like Kandel or something out of the blue, like running into William H Macy or Cate Blanchett at a stoplight (don’t even ask).

It’s akin to the feeling of regret I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where after you’ve failed to say something you absolutely should have, you’d do anything to have that moment back, but it’s not quite the same. That had to do with knowing full well in the moment what you should say and consciously not saying it because you can’t handle the vulnerability it requires. This is about not having a clue about what to say in the moment because too many thoughts and emotions are running through your head.

Which is what I mean by spontaneity – being able to relate openly and unabashedly with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The stuff that runs through my head at such times is laden with the ogres and trolls of ego, with misconceptions about who I am and who I want to be and how I want to appear and how I’m sure I must look, and the neuroses that attend to the distances between those four Shades of Ian.

I do this because I don’t trust myself to just be “myself” – whatever the hell that is – at the drop of a hat, or any other time, really, and so I get tangled up trying to figure out how to present.

I like to imagine myself as a composed, imperturbable, unflappable person, but the truth is I feel like a little kid in these – honestly, in most – situations. I think of my dad, and I think of some of my friends’ dads, and that’s what unflappable looks like to me. I mean, when was the last time the cat got Clint’s tongue, Coop, am I right?

Imperturbability seems to come from a combination of knowing who you are, and being in general not all that impressed with people.

There are two ways to achieve this level of equanimity – through arrogance and through abandonment. Though I have a feeling the uber-arrogant are never quite as comfortable as they come off. Or they’re sociopaths, which is a different post altogether.

sunyataTrungpa would say that you abandon your ego by developing compassion, and that one of the ways compassion develops is from sunyata, or emptiness. That can be a confusing concept if you haven’t been introduced to it, so for the purposes of this suffice it to say that sunyata implies “no ground” – that is, none of the ideas you have about yourself-as-you-are OR -as-you’d-like-to-be have any basis whatsoever.

Where do those ideas come from in the first place? you start to wonder.

They come from other ideas, which come from society and memory and impressions and dreams and hopes and fears fears fears and not from anything actually solid. So they don’t actually mean anything or have any actual basis in reality. Which after a time frees you from trying to be, well, anything. It frees you from TRYING, and allows you just to be – to be whatever the situation calls for.

Besides which, Cate Blanchett, I guaran-effing-tee you, is NOT worried or even thinking about what kind of person you are. Ever.

If you can get those two ideas down – the conviction that we are always on shaky ground and the humility that no one cares – then you can begin to realize that the person you’re so intimidated by isn’t all these things that you and the world at large have built them up to be. In that moment, that person is nothing more than just a lump of flesh, decaying and rushing towards death at more or less the same speed you are. And thus can be dealt with as you are. However you are. Not as some other, whatever other, version of you you’re not.

So, then – how do you put into practice this notion of emptiness, how do you develop your compassion, how do you shrink and slay and shatter your ego if you’re not a Buddhist?

Well, you start by doing something for someone else. For your wife or your kids or your parents or your sibling who never does anything for you or that guy at work you can’t stand or that woman at the market who you don’t know anything about except that she wouldn’t know a good deed if it smacked her in the face like a tennis racket. You do these things and you put other people ahead of your own needy little needs, once a day or once a week or even just for once in your entire life, and you’ve started to cherish  your own ego a little less. You think, “That good deed didn’t come from the guy who I think would sweep Cate Blanchett off her feet at a stoplight. Where did that come from? Who did that come from? Who’s this person that does good things for other people and makes their life a tiny little bit lighter?”

gollumDo more things for more people more often, and you’re practicing not cherishing yourself more and more. And the less you cherish yourself, the more you realize there’s no self there to guard so jealously and get so worked up about – let alone multiple selves to completely freak out about – so there are way fewer walls or fences or obstacles of any kind, really, between you and whoever you happen to run into.

Which means that the next time you look up from your phone to find you’re standing next to Cate Blanchett, you can relate to her with spontaneous compassion – as a simple person, in other words.

You can be patient with your mom. You can be generous of spirit, even with that malcontent at the grocery store.

This carries over into the other kind of being-ready-to-say-what-you-mean, because in the process of preparing your soul for baring at a moment’s notice, you’re also preparing it for baring no matter what the risk. To the extent that spontaneity and vulnerability combine, you become tougher and tenderer. Tenderer, because you’re laying your heart open, and tougher, because there’s nothing that can come of it that you can’t handle.

And in case you’re thinking, “Those men he mentioned earlier, those paragons of the virtue he’s making out of unflappability, those white Baby Boomer American men, they didn’t do any of this touchy-feely pseudo-Buddhist crap. Why’d he even bring them into it? What’s he talking about?” True, they didn’t get to be the way they are by practicing lojong and reciting mantras. They got to be the way they are by having seen a thing or two in their day, and realizing through those experiences that in so many ways we’re all the same – just lumps of flesh heading towards destruction – and because of that, they’ve abandoned any pretense of uniqueness, in themselves and in others, and it’s like, “You’re a lump of flesh, I’m a lump of flesh, let’s see what we can make of this moment. Ready go.”

So yeah, that’s an option. Just keep your head down and do your thing and be generally nice to people and probably you’ll wind up a sage old dude/womanequivalentofdude. All this I just rambled about is just a way to be conscious of what’s happening to you, and to maybe speed up the sageness a little. If you’re interested in that.

If you’re not, go ahead and be uncomfortable as a whore in church next time you see Cate. No skin off my back.

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“Learn to hurt, baby.”

I heard that from a friend the other day. He was talking about what this mentor of his used to tell him when he was first kind of coming out of his shell a few years ago.

scarfe-illustration-for-the-wall

This guy talks about how he was pretty shut down for a pretty long time. He had some hard knocks as a young kid and he set things up so that nothing was going to bother him ever again.

Except, everything did.

And the more things bothered him, the thicker and higher he had to make these walls he was building to keep out the hurt. After a while, looking around, he didn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear anything. Nothing was coming in, good or bad. Which is the problem with walls – they keep it all out.

This is perfectly obvious to everyone in abstract. We all know about walls – especially other people’s.

“He’s so closed off.”

“She should open up more, it’d be good for her.”

“He doesn’t let anyone in.”

Etcetera.

KitchenDemoBut when it comes to ourselves, well, things are a little different. Because knocking down a wall to redo your kitchen is fun, but tearing down emotional walls is not. It requires you to pass through various – often serious – amounts of pain.

You gotta go through the bad to get the good, otherwise it isn’t even good.

Which is one of those annoying paradoxes of life, right, that so often you have to do the opposite of what seems to make sense at the time.

It doesn’t always mean you have to learn to GET hurt, though. A lot of people do that already, and do it quite well. For some people, getting hurt is their first, immediate, only reaction to anything. They build their walls out of hurt – their walls, their makeups, their very identities – and they play the perpetual victim, use their hurt manipulate people or justify really awful behavior.

I know because for a few years, that was my M.O. I couldn’t catch a break, nothing was going my way, everything was everybody else’s fault, wah wah wah, and so I numbed it all out. And then I realized that I was rather UNcomfortably numb, because I could still remember the good, somewhere back there, and I knew things could be different. That they had to be.

And this is where the learning HOW to hurt comes in. To hurt in proportion to the injury. To realize it’s not the end of the world. To hurt and then move on.

To realize there might not even be an injury.

This is also where these two slightly-different kind of Wall People converge: proportion. One’s afraid that any hurt at all is going to be the end of the world so he goes to every single length possible to avoid any possibility of hurt, and the other is absolutely sure that every single hurt he gets really is the end of the world and you’d-act-this-way-too-if-the-end-of-the-world-was-happening-to-you.

Getting out of that requires you become vulnerable. Which is part of what my buddy’s mentor had in mind, I imagine, when he’d say, “Learn to hurt, baby.”Rolling Stones Let It Bleed

Learn to get hurt if you need to, or learn how to hurt if that’s your thing. Either way, it’s about being vulnerable.

Vulnerability in the former circumstance is easy to understand – just allow it to happen. In the latter, it means laying yourself open to what comes instead of the hurt, or after the hurt, when you realize it wasn’t that bad, when you have to take responsibility for it and for all the things you didn’t do before.

Vulnerability is a different kind of hurt than the soul-evisceration of self-victimization. It can sting still, but it can also reward. And more importantly, what pain it entails is tempered by the optimism inherent “putting yourself out there.” Because you wouldn’t risk it if you didn’t think on some level that it will or at least could work out.

Case in point: I’ve been writing stories for 15 years, but I never sent one anywhere (for fear of rejection, fear of exposure-as-a-charlatan, for all kinds of reasons) until last summer. So I never got a rejection letter.

(Though I still felt victimized by the American publishing industry for not having a book deal. Seriously. That’s how I felt. I wrote about it. Several times. Thank god no one published that drivel.)

Well, I’ve gotten plenty of rejection letters now. And they suck. Every time.

But every time I get one and turn around and send the story somewhere else, I say c’est la vie. Because that really is life – especially a writer’s life. But it’s representative of this whole shift in attitude that I can even say that and mean it and not feel like I should see how long it takes to hit the water from the roadway of the Golden Gate.

Marley-truth

Like Bob says right there – getting hurt is part of life.

And it’s being okay with that, allowing yourself to run the risk of that happening, that makes you a stronger person.

And we can always do better at that. Even if you’re not one of those Wall People, you can always find a way to loosen up, to open up, to lay yourself bare. I know, I know – “laying yourself bare” sounds awful. You’re doing fine just the way you are.  But there’s always that part of you, in close relationships, in intimate interactions, when you know it’d probably be better if you said X or did Y, let the person know how you really feel.

Those moments when, if you’re like me, you think, “Get me the fuck outta here.” After which you breathe a huge sigh of relief because you maintained the integrity of your shell. That you think about for hours days weeks months years after and wish you’d just said or did whatever that soft part of your heart knew was the right thing to say or do.

I’m going to leave you with another motivational-quote meme that the internet says is attributed to Bruce Lee:

BruceLeePrayDifficult

I’ve got a lot more to say on this. I was going to segue into a different vein that has to do with the Rolling Stones (hence the album cover up there), but I think maybe that’s its own thing. You’re probably happy to get outta here in closet to 1,000 words for once anyway.

Thanks for coming.

Now go forth and be strongly fragile.

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Hunger

This post is about hunger.

So, put down your chocolate éclair or whatever you’re eating on whatever break your taking to read this. (Thanks for doing that, by the way.) I don’t mean to guilt you out of it, that scrumptious snack, but you’re probably just not gonna feel much like eating it by the end.

An old friend of mine, Shekinah Pugh, is doing this World Food Program five-day challenge called Live Below the Line. You subsist on $1.50 a day, which is the US equivalent of the worldwide “extreme poverty line.” People sponsor you to stretch yourself thin to raise money for, as the Web site says, “some of the best U.S. charities that fight extreme poverty around the world.”

lbtlOne in four kids is stunted due to hunger. It’s the world’s largest solvable problem.

Shekinah’s eating a hardboiled egg for breakfast and some reheated frozen broccoli for lunch and some white rice for dinner. In addition to the paucity of food $1.50 gets you, Shekinah’s also realizing what poor quality food it gets you, too, because decent food costs a lot of money, which is one of the myriad reasons why poverty = poor health. She did her grocery shopping for the week at the 99-Cent Store, which as you can imagine a) a whole lot of people have to do, and b) means she doesn’t have the world’s freshest ingredients.

I know it’s totes #firstworldproblems to not be able to shop the organic kale section at Whole Foods for a week, but it highlights just one of the innumerably shitty things about living in poverty. Whether undernourished or obese – both of which go hand-in-glove with poverty – you’re low on energy, your brain ain’t workin so you get behind in school or fired from your job, you’re feeling horrible, depressed, even suicidal – your entire life can be ruined by malnutrition.

Says Shekinah, after only a few days on this little food: “Never before in my life have I felt the pains of hunger the way I experienced this evening. Never before have I been brought to tears as I felt my stomach cramp and turn inside out. My emotions have hit a wall today. I’ve been crabby, tired, sensitive, sad, angry…. A roller coaster. Irrational.”

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Hunger_first_edition.jpgThose of you looking for a literary meditation on just how insane hunger can make you should check out Knut Hamsun‘s Hunger, a Dostoyevskian investigation of the lengths of self-denial and self-destruction to which a man’s pride will drive him. The protagonist is an unnamed wannabe author who’s roaming the streets of Kristiania hoping to be recognized for the genius writer he thinks he is, sure to strike it rich if an editor would just read the latest and best essay he’s figuring to prepare, just as soon as he can get a full stomach, or at least enough for his brain to work a little. His pride keeps him from begging and his delusions from stealing, and the narrative gets weirder and weirder as he descends further and further into starvation insanity:

I was fading helplessly away with open eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. Finally I stuck my forefinger in my mouth and took to sucking on it. Something began stirring in my brain, some thought in there scrabbling to get out, a stark-staring mad idea: What if I get a bite? And without a moment’s hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.
I jumped up. I was finally awake. A little blood trickled from my finger, and I licked it off as it came. It didn’t hurt, the wound was nothing really, but I was at once brought back to my sense. I shook my head, went over to the window and found a rag for the wound. While I was fiddling with this, my eyes filled with water — I wept softly to myself. The skinny lacerated finger looked so sad. God in heaven, to what extremity I had come!

If you like heavy, if you like disturbing, if you like moving and incredibly good writing, you should pick it up. If you need a pedigree-type reason, Hamsun won the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, and helped usher modernism into Norwegian literature. Paul Auster said about the book, “you can tell something new is happening here.” He’s kind of a big deal.

If your tastes run more towards the cinematic, there’s always Hunger the film, by Steve McQueen (the Brit, not the biker) with Michael Fassbender, based on the 1981 Irish prison hunger strike. Besides the mind-blowing twenty-minute dialogue (shot in one take!) between Fassbender, who plays strike leader Bobby Sands, and Liam Cunningham, who plays his priest, the film’s also impressive for its gritty display of what hunger does to people. Fassbender lost what looks like about 93% of his total body weight for the last-days portions of the film, and the makeup artists did an incredible job mocking up the sores and skin-cracks and other horrible things that happen to a body wasting away from lack of food. The political history stuff is interesting – it’s why I picked it up – but by the time Fassbender’s convinced you of the reasons he’s pursuing this hunger strike (it has as much to do with his personal grit than anything about The Troubles), politics takes a backseat, and you’re watching this man just shrivel up but you’re pulling for him in his revolting and pathetic attempt to maintain his dignity, despite the fact that it’s killing him. It shows better than anything I’ve seen or read a) just how horrid and unfeeling The Machine is and b) just how powerful the will of men can be.

It’s because of Hunger, but even more because of Hunger, probably, that I’ve had such a strong reaction to the hunger strikes going on at Guantánamo Bay. In case you don’t know, some of the 166 prisoners down in Cuba – about half of whom have been cleared for release yet continue to languish – have gone on hunger strike. The latest discussion – dealt with well in this NY Times article – is whether prisoners have the “right” to starve themselves to death in our prisons, or whether our military has the “right” (they call it “responsibility”) to keep them from starving. Doctor Jeremy Lazarus of the AMA says that, “Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.”

That might be true for American ethicists, but Gitmo supervisors, I’m guessing, aren’t too concerned about the finer philosophical points the Tweed Coats are debating. They’re probably more worried it looks pretty. fucking. bad. when your prisoners start killing themselves to protest their imprisonment. NYT’s changed the article since Tuesday to include Obama’s assurance that “I don’t want these people to die,” and his belief that Gitmo is a “recruiting tool for extremists,” so I can’t get you the exact quotes by the Gitmo staff that I’d wanted to, but basically they were saying that they added more staff to help do this “enteral” feeding, and that as guards, it’s their duty to keep prisoners alive so that, ostensibly, they can go through the justice process.

Perhaps, as it may fall out, to be put to death.

What that means is that the US is trying to maintain a level of control over their prisoners’ lives to goes far deeper than what we normally think of when we think prison-as-controlled-environment.

“I do not want to kill myself,” one of the Gitmo detainees is quoted as saying. “My religion prohibits suicide. But I will not eat or drink until I die, if necessary, to protest the injustice of this place.”

Albert Camus wrote that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical question.” Everything else outside of that is secondary. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus is referring mostly to the reactive, seemingly inexplicable act: “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps.”

Death-by-hunger-strike is different in that it very much is a planned event. It takes place over a long period of time. Its practitioners are far from “ignorant of it.” But it very much gets to the core of Camus’s project in “Sisyphus” – the meaning of life. Camus argues that just because life is absurd does not mean the actions we take within it do not have meaning. In fact, life’s absurdity endows our every single action with meaning – that’s existentialism’s whole project.

And it’s this notion – of self-determination, of rights and responsibilities – that is at the core of this force-feeding debate at Guantánamo. These people have nothing – nothing – with which to assert their humanity except by starving themselves, by putting themselves through the most drawn-out, agonizing death imaginable.

Sieges on cities worked because starving people breaks their spirits. Warlords and mafias control entire areas by controlling food – some would say dictators control entire countries or populaces that way. World hunger is a solvable problem – that’s what Shekinah is raising awareness about and money for.

And we, the Superabundant, are controlling people’s continued existence by force-feeding them. Brutal fucking irony, that, no?

What do you think?

Are we robbing these people of their humanity?

Or am I missing something?

Should you be allowed to starve to death?

How different is that from euthanasia?

Is is the context that makes it different?

What is the context in which it’d be okay?

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