Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Self As Aphorism

Should I explain who I am in a way that leaves most of me hidden, protecting my precious insecurities and dreams? Or should I share the lucid fullness of the images populating my unconscious mind (and my hesitant, halting deliberations) to give a gift of daring and reckless art, and perhaps create a more inspired collaboration?

I do not read much nor am I well-read now - though I read voraciously in the past, and reading has made me who I am today. Though I am missing many cultural touchstones and I am additionally ignorant in the realm of foreign languages and travel, I spent my childhood reveling in geography; secluded from the world in my backyard. Now I live the other way around, and I take great pains to stay informed.

I seek to explore many areas of human knowledge. In this effort I look to other people and to the Internet. I am constantly assembling intellectual projects. Many of these initiatives are self-serving, meant to increase my compatibility with other people - to secure my understanding of the world - and ease the awkwardness of my interactions. Therefore I am my own bullshit detector. This guides my senses of humor and irony, which are well-used if not well calibrated.

I take many things extremely seriously. But the act of taking something seriously, I put very little weight or faith in. I am a bulldog as light as a snowflake.

I live an existence of transitory and enthusiastic delight, combining the thrill of the moment and the relentless pull of the narrative past. (And I have not escaped from either orbit.)

I am in love with the past and the present, and the future is by far my least favorite tense. I have always been a severe and profound procrastinator. I have always suspected what will happen, because I have never expected it.

My inclinations are extremely deep and thorough, but my methods are entirely superficial (and I feel a great surfeit of guilt in this regard).

I have long struggled to understand subtlety. Now its definition consumes my character: I weigh my actions in levels upon levels. To how many people am I a different person?

Usually I do not mislead because I intend to deceive, but because the complicated truth is usually irrelevant. Truth is not a scale of weight but a scale of vision. (There is a microscope of honesty, and an anatomy of truthfulness.) Very few people bother to learn the most difficult boundaries, or the most obscure bodies of fact to decipher. The truth is more than simply what exists, but truth is written in what you see and do not see - in how you choose to perceive the world - and by how others choose for you.

My truth is not a state of being but a creation. Most people only demand the result of that process. To know truth more intimately is to know how and why that truth was born - to know the passionate fullness of truth in all its banality - and the passionate fullness of deceit. Usually the lies and the truths are equally hidden. Who am I? That is trivial. Why am I? That is the revelation of my spirit.

Poetry Digest: #3

From time to time, I hope to publish a collection of a few of my recent poems. I will refer to this series of posts as my "Poetry Digest". This is Poetry Digest #3.

Delays in Both Directions

If you inhale the spirit through the ribs
Supporting a city's circulation,
Then you feel the breath exit as I feel
With the heaving masses, a crushing weight

Lifting its own chest within these tunnels -
Gasping for air among the Metro stench.
Why we wait so long to repair ourselves -
To ascend, to escalate our greatness --

That's the mystery of Gallery Place.
I am the blood animating the limbs -
A nerve protruding under this body -
A lonely note rising from the wind pipes:

Orchestrating an unknown symphony -
An unpaid musician beneath the streets -
I earn tips from single track siren songs
Passersby play on their way to stardom,

Strutting across a lowly makeshift stage,
Seizing the proper moment and platform.
There is artistry even in one gasp:
Not in the air, but from where it travels.

Upon This Rock

If you are not the story, tell me why
I am listening. I hear boom and bust,
Cataclysm and the great extinctions
Carve our instant in geologic time.

Rising, falling ecosystem empires
Stagger past catastrophic disasters.
Survival is the next imperfection.
I am the latest in this same series.

Know my checkered, fragmented history;
The vulnerability in all life.
I am not an inch in a continent.
I am made in the image of chaos.

Fighting order to avenge indifferent
Does not make our world a product for us.
Listen to scriptures in the sediment:
Our myths are footnotes for another tale.

Cognitive Dissident

I seek shelter from illusions of thought:
Protection from harsh gusts of reflection,
As doubts soaking the ground to germinate
Creep up as intellectual kudzu

Mounting the walls of ideology
Seizing the fortress of my correctness.
No one shall challenge my exactitude!
Therefore, I flee and take up asylum:

Before I ask experts or - how quaint - books,
Today I declare my independence -
I protest empirical observance.
I don't need to know anything at all.

Since reality is a passing fad,
I will triumph in my own history.
What happens is always irrelevant -
What counts is that I'm in control of it.


Against the walls shrouded in silhouettes,
I peer into blue, electric dimness.
A siren square bears the violent angles
Caroming at each other in the dark.

In the urban forest of high black beams,
An army witnesses against the night:
Marching in place, wielding its faint banners -
I sway with the waving shadow trumpets.

This glow is a baton between my hands,
In my imagination's concert hall:
After the stars have stacked their music stands,
Let blackness unpack its song, and play on.


poets never sleep
our dreams are wakefulness
our lives are dreams
we recycle

we recycle
pain beyond words
our dreams are wakefulness
there is pleasure in seeing

there is pleasure in seeing
even in anguish
pain beyond words
yet words are redemption

yet words are redemption
our lives are dreams
even in anguish
poets never sleep

Money for Obama

I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message
do you have any money?
(I ask again)
do you have any money?

do you have any money?
Mitt Romney shouldn't be President
do you have any money?
(words Mitt Romney never says)

(words Mitt Romney never says)
Mitt Romney shouldn't be President
put your country above your money

put your country above your money
(I ask again)
I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message






Keep the Customer Awake

Not sure if philosophy is a meme
Or a profession. I enjoy labels,
So I'll coin a name for my condition:
The one where I cannot stop listening

When I'm tired, when Simon & Garfunkel
Are keeping this customer satisfied
And the lyric is in the description
As the cure is inside the malady

And I'm trapped inside this syllable count
I'm too afraid to write what comes to mind
To spend my time this way before I fret
Searching for an abundance of nothing

My pulse the key of possibility
My words warble although I am tone deaf
Gee but it's great to rely on meter
And sarcasm so I can say nothing

I'm one stead ahead of plagiarism
Two steps behind getting the sleep I need
I'm not even sure why I'm writing this:
I act in ambivalent defiance!

Where I've Been

I quit updating this blog at the same time that I started volunteering with President Obama's grassroots campaign in Alexandria, Virginia. I am proud to tell you that not only was President Obama re-elected, but that we also won Virginia and overwhelmingly won Alexandria.

There are many stories I have wished to relate from this campaign, but I have waited until now to share any. My sense of caution is over-abundant. Nevertheless, it's been an eventual period in my life.

After two lengthy stints campaigning in Alexandria, for the first time I missed the King Street metro stop because I wasn't paying attention and had to double back from Eisenhower Ave.

I was introduced to the show Archer.

Canvassing is more of an art than a science. It's also much easier once the other Fellows from your office start drawing directions on your maps instead of leaving you to determine a walk order by yourself. It can hair-raising to spend 15 minutes trying to decide what direction you should travel with a super anxious volunteer who has never canvassed before. In short, canvassing: don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Voter registration is at the times the easiest and the most difficult form of campaigning. Most people don't view you as primarily partisan and even Republicans registered with me. While there are a few weird things about completing a voter registration form, it's not that complicated. You stand in one place, generally, and ask people the same thing over and over again. The main challenge, besides burnout, is boredom. There are few things worse in campaigning than standing in the same place for over two hours and failing to register anyone.

There are many signs you can observe that you've grown your aptitude and fondness for campaigning. First of all, if you find yourself actually reading the half dozen e-mails per day you get from the Obama campaign, see a political professional immediately. Second, if you start a campaign enjoying persuasion phone calls because you never talk to anyone, but end a campaign enjoying volunteer recruitment calls because of all the people you hear from, you may actually enjoy your job. (Warning: if your call time lasts longer than four hours, see a field organizer.)

One of the more annoying things about campaigning is that you always have the same conversations every time you meet a new volunteer. The standard chat goes roughly like this:

How'd you start working on the campaign?
How often do you campaign?
What are you doing now other than the campaign?
Oh, where'd you go to college?
What are your future plans?

I remember how tired I was the day before Election Day. On 99.9% of days, I would not have had the energy or the desire to get out of bed in time to make it to the campaign office. For some reason, I popped out of bed that day because my first thought when I woke up was "I might as well try". That attitude, more than anything else, describes what it means to campaign.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Poetry Digest: #2

From time to time, I hope to publish a collection of a few of my recent poems. I will refer to this series of posts as my "Poetry Digest". This is Poetry Digest #2.

This collection of my poems is a group of six pantoums. I've written each of them in the last few hours, actually. These six pantoums are listed here in the order I wrote them. I hope someone else enjoys my pantoums, and if by chance you're reading this, please don't hesitate to share your reactions.

Famous Charles

Scotch is not very hard,
One sip at a time.
All that burns, stops.
The smell lingers.

The spell lingers,
Even after the taste disappears
One day at a time.
I'll thirst again.

I'll quench my thirst:
My glass is half full,
Even after the scotch disappears.
Can't let my spirits down.

Can't let my spirits drown.
All that stops, burns.
My glass is half empty:
Scotch is not hard enough!

Lost Words

These aren't the words I'm looking for.
That phrase fled to another state:
An incomprehensible place,
Beyond all measures.

Behind all measures,
There is a standard convention.
That phase fled to another state:
There is only flux.

There is sometimes flux -
Please don't take my word for it.
There is a stranded convention,
Awaiting your breath of discovery.

Wading in your breath of discovery -
An inconceivable place -
Please take my words from me:
Those aren't the words I'm looking for.

Authorial Discontent

I'm breaking the fourth wall,
In sets of four lines.
Give me rules -
I'll break them all.

I'll fake them all -
Every hyperbolic word.
These sets of four lies
Deceive you now.

Receive me now!
You have no choice.
My hyperbolic world
Is your delight.

My delight is
Rules I give.
I have a voice,
When I'm breaking the fourth wall.

Against The Sun

I closed the blinds,
To glimpse Edward Hopper's sunset.
The idol and the heretic:
Conspiring until dawn.

Conspiring until drawn,
I bitterly resist sleep
To mock Edward Hopper's sunset
By a constant light I keep.

By a constant slight, I keep
Hemorrhaging darkness.
I bitterly insist sleep
Observe another time.

Preserve another time!
The idle heretic
Hemorrhages darkness,
And blinds the closed.


I am not a form.
I am not a principle.
I have no end.
I am only a beginning.

I am only a beginner.
I have no idea what I'm doing.
I have no principles,
Unless you tell me.

The less you tell me,
The more I'll learn on my own.
You have no idea what I've done.
Would you like to know?

Wouldn't you like to know?
You have no end,
The more you learn on your own.
That's how we form.

On Vine Dating

I have a profile.
Far too long.
Far too strange.
Still too hollow.

In the hollow,
There is a root:
For too long,
Growing in solitude.

As solitude grows,
Nourishing silence
Is a route there,
Away from trampled paths.

A way to trample paths
For two strange,
Silent, flourishing

Friday, July 20, 2012


My mother once told me that she sees the world much like I do, only that she can't imagine that there isn't "something out there".

A friend of mine told me yesterday that his life lately has been reverberating between depression caused by loneliness and a feeling of emptiness. During a conversation with the same friend, we agreed that individuals are often the product of their friends and their experiences. The interactions I have with my friends form a critical part of my personality, my values, and my character.

If I am without friends, then I am without scaffolding.

A former professor once gave my class an analogy: Alexander Calder was a famous sculptor, known for his mobiles. In a mobile, one object hangs at the top. A number of other options are attached one-by-one in a succession of linkages. The analogy to philosophy is that the object at the top in a mobile is the like the first premise of an argument or the first assumption in an ideology. Each premise or assumption in a philosophical idea is connected to its original ancestor, and a student of philosophy can't properly understand an idea without understanding its structure.

Perhaps one common thread from these experiences is the idea that society is a structure of people, and each individual person is somewhat responsible for developing his or her own structure of important people in their lives. So, a tempting question to ask is, what kind of structures is our society building?

In some ways, people are detached from each other more than ever. There are more alternatives for choosing parts of an identity or community, but the options available tend to be more superficial and less meaningful in terms of in-person relationships.

What does it mean to have a structure in life anymore? What does it mean to have a community? Besides my parents, I have little extended family that I can call very close. Even some of my close friendships seem to have a tenuous footing, and I have no other relationships. I live in a large city, surrounded by strangers. I have some powerful but alien-feeling tools at my disposal, but I'm not sure how I can bridge the gap.

The Internet is a great blessing to me. I can research different interests and try to find individuals or groups of people who enjoy some of the things that make me happy. Yet, many things I enjoy tend to be individual pursuits which are not readily experienced as a community. (Here, I note that the types of things that bring me pleasure are also expressions of the structures of my society.)

There is "something" out there, even if that something doesn't exist in the way my mother intended. There's a whole horde of people similar to my temperament and interests who could enjoy my company, but I will never meet most of them. I have given up belief in fate, but probability is a stranger master. It is humbling but perhaps self-indulgent to think this way.

When I was talking to my friend the other day who was complaining of loneliness and depression, he sought advice on how to develop a deeper friendship once he meets people. For that, I cannot help much. All I could tell him was that his chance of meeting people increased if he did things he loved. So that is what I will do. I will continue doing the things I love, and at least find a way to be happy through that.

So often, I think about my limitations and the limitations of my life, what I don't have, what I want to do yet haven't done. I need to staunch this overly negative apprehension before it dissolves my patience. I have some amazing blessings in my life (if someone like me can use a word like blessings, and I don't see why not), and I have a lot to give and create.

I am not yet empty, though I am emptying and filling again. Whether I seek nature, writing, or laughter -- the cycle of isolation followed by joy is my constant guide. Life, like the telling of a joke, doesn't contain its satisfaction in the punchline, but spreads its infectious ironies through every set up and every staggering contradiction. Emptiness can be its own scaffolding.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Improv and Sex: Best Thing Ever

I've always suspected that people who have the skills to be very good at improv also share the skills required to be very good at sex.

First, what is improv, and how will developing improv skills improve your sex life?

Improv is the creation of organic scenes between different actors who have no previous ideas about where their interactions will take them.

While creating improv, it's foolhardy to think of a singular idea for a scene and then rule out any other ideas before you begin, because your relationship with the other character(s) will always determine the scene for you. Sticking to a preconceived plan in improv is almost always a bad idea.

In improv, listening to the other people in your scene and leaving yourself ready for adjustments is critical. The first and most important rule of improv is "always accept". You can't accept the ideas of other people if you aren't actively listening.

The best and most fun scenes in improv usually happen when the performers use their characters' relationships to riff off of each others' actions and collaboratively build adventures greater than the words or deeds that any individual performer could compose.

The best improv is sensitive to the needs of other people, completely unpredictable, and functions best as a collaborative exercise between equally and actively invested parties who give their full effort and consent to their scenes. Sound familiar?

Sex and improv are not very different. If you're not ready to agree with me that improv will help you markedly improve the quality of your sex life, at least you can agree that improv is one of the most fun things you can ever do with your pants on.

To demonstrate once and for all that improv and sex are fantastic bedfellows, let's bring this analogy to another level (even, to a climax): really awful sex can be quite similar to very bad improv.

When people talk over each other and none of the characters are able to agree on what direction their scene should's like two people who can't communicate effectively having bad to mediocre sex, with neither person getting what he or she really wants.

When one character makes all the decisions and takes all the initiative -- robbing the scene of any intrigue or comedic possibility whatsoever, because there's no elaboration in the relationships of the's like one-dimensional sex that may feel mechanical when at least one of the people having sex has no reason for enthusiasm or attachment.

When performers aren't willing to accept their instincts and overthink their interactions, denying the vitality and flexibility inherent to's like people who aren't willing to explore their sexual boundaries, and therefore keep doing the same things over and over again, and refuse to consider spicing up their sex life -- to the detriment of their partner and to their own satisfaction. (I should add here that respecting the appropriate boundaries of other people is also vital in improv - and listening to and observing the other people in your scene is the best way to know and respect those boundaries. Learning improv is an excellent way to discover how to safely explore your boundaries with people who will respect your decisions. The parallel to sex proclaims itself here.)

Practicing improv is a tremendous way to gain skills that also apply quite well to sex. Listening, consent, communication, flexibility, collaboration...improv will help you improv(e) each of those abilities dramatically, and developing all of those traits will help you gain more confidence and will make you a better, more caring partner...not only during sex, but in all phases of your life.

By the way, have I mentioned that I've been performing improv for over three years?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Disambiguation": A Poem In Two Parts

Disambiguation, Part One

I’m running. Split into 4 guys remaking Cool Runnings. Like the Epic Rap Battle of History.

I like history jokes. I don’t want to know what happens below your 38th parallel. There is no cease fire. The fire burns white hot.

I heard a TED Talk. As far as talking goes, it’s a fine medium of communication. Not that I would know lately.

Some woman with schizophrenia, mentioned her obsession with wordplay. That reminded me of a poem: I wanted to write yesterday. I’ve wanted to write every day. I’ve wanted every day. I’m overrun with wanting.

It’s why I’m still running. I have so much left to prove. Yet it is mathematically impossible, to divide by zero.

I take the remainder of my wants: the silence divides my wants...but I cannot continue. I cannot produce irrationality.

The answer is not infinite. The answer does not exist. I live without answers, even as I have every answer: a list of possible references and explanations.

I see everything and know nothing. I’m the epitome of my age: too little skill, too much meandering. Overstimulated and underexperienced, underqualified and overwrought.

I forsake knowledge. I forsake friendship. All I have is instant gratification.

Will I never learn? Will I always be this empty?

I am sorry. I am very sorry.


Disambiguation, Part Two

I shaved today. I saved face. I shaved my face. I cut myself, and my chin wouldn't stop bleeding.

If it bleeds, it leads. That's what my dad always said. That's what I told my friend Michael yesterday.

Yesterday I had not yet shaved. I saved that for today. Every day the blade of time grinds against the face of humanity.

The blade is a decade. If only I could get each decade spayed, the moments of my life could have stayed.

Judgment cannot be stayed. Justice is blind, but it must be paid. There is no karma, or if there is, it's delayed.

Delayed like the Metro and the bus. An omnibus. Everything slows. Distance only grows. Perhaps those are inextricably linked.

I've got to hit the links, but I can't play golf. I can't save Rolfe. I just watched The Sound of Music. How can you watch a sound?

Time is already at the pound, that's why it's spayed. Time's never made a sound. Therefore sound does not exist, yet somehow sound persists.

I saved time and sound today. I saved spacetime by shaving. Is this the expression I'm craving? Is this incoherent raving?

I'm caving in. Like Plato's Allegory of the Cave. What's shadow and what's real? What do I hide and what do I conceal? The answers refuse to congeal. The wound on my chin refuses to heal.

There's too much depth, I cannot feel. Too much death, but it's a wheel. I'm taking life for a spin, I'm finally caving in, but I'm short a tail-fin. Fin. As in, the end. What is my end? What is my design? What is my teleology? Perhaps my questions are a matter of psychology. I do not question that psychology matters, but I'd like to thank the woman from the TED Talk for an educating me phenomenally.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Privilege, Defensiveness, and Anger

Last week, I was reading a friend's status on Facebook. She was mildly annoyed at all the sports talk on Facebook. Soon after I read her status, I began talking about my fondness for sports in my replies to her status. A few minutes after that, I realized something spooky: when my friend chooses not to talk about something, why do I immediately begin to discuss the very thing she doesn't want to talk about?

I was insensitive. I placed my own rights to discuss what I feel like discussing, at any time I feel like discussing it, over her right to feel comfortable. Thinking about this moment even more, I realized that a similar dynamic unfolds in discussions about feminism and whenever women raises concerns about how they're treated, period.

I label myself as a feminist, but that doesn't make me an automatic ally of women. Sometimes, I'm insensitive because I have privilege. There's no iron-clad law that says I've immediately overcome my experiences and inclinations, just because I'm trying to help women stand up for themselves. Men who seek to support women in their efforts to gain equal treatment need to remember our vulnerabilities.Calling yourself a feminist doesn't magically solve the problems of patriarchy, any more than saying you have a black friend magically solves the problem of racism.

Ask yourself: am I making a statement that implicitly ignores, marginalizes, and belittles women? Check your rationalizations: if you're making them, you probably need to stop talking for awhile. You can have concerns, but your concerns are not more important than women. Anything else is an excuse. It's time to quit making excuses, and it's time to start listening.


It's a frequent canard that feminists are angry and hate men, which is amusing when you consider that I'm a man and a feminist, so I must hate myself. The scary thing is, there's probably someone out there who's sure I must hate myself if I'm a feminist. Call me crazy, but how can the world get worse once we stop preventing half the people in it from reaching their full potential? That's not hatred, that's love. Shoot, that's self-interest. Most people are capable of clearing that low bar.

Anger is another story. As an atheist, I've had lots of fun with anger. Greta Christina has her 99 Reasons Atheists Are Angry. I've learned that anger is often necessary and justified to propel social change.

I've also learned that tone is not all-important. The suffering of helpless, innocent people is more important than tone. The happiness of half our planet is more important than tone. Tone is also a source of privilege: if you have privilege, you can get what you want by being nice and not rocking the boat. People who aren't normally heard need to be louder.

Often, I've found myself on the other end of anger. What should you do when people are angry at you? I recommend pausing, taking a few steps back, and reassessing your situation for awhile. Walk away. Once you've learned that anger can be justified, use that knowledge to discern how the anger you're currently facing may be justified. Even if you disagree with the complaints, try to imagine yourself in the position of the person who's angry.


Speaking from probability, every person has some privilege in his or her life, whether it is: race, religion, gender, class, nationality, physical condition, mental condition, etc. If skeptics can agree to use skepticism to deflate the emotional baggage of religion, then why can't skeptics agree to use skepticism to deflate the emotional baggage of privilege? Religious privilege is one type of assumed, unquestioned, poisonous privilege among many, that both depends upon and enables other destructive types of privilege.

Yes, widening the appeal of skepticism is a good thing, but I'm not asking a question about popularity. I'm asking a question about the basic responsibility of skeptics, and whether skeptics will remain accountable to their own beliefs: are you prepared to accept the full consequences of skepticism, once you understand that religion is just one type of privilege among many -- yes or no?

I hope you say "YES!". If you say "YES!", then let's join together and create a world where no privilege lies unexamined, unchallenged, or any longer undermines the well-being of any human being on this Earth.

Is America (and President Obama) Afraid Of Greatness?

I'm tired of small-minded, lazy, simple explanations. I'm tired of horse-race, he-said/she-said reporting that pretends to be objective but isn't and covers trivialities instead of issues. I'm tired of talking points.

I'm tired of cowering in fear after the deaths of a few thousand people. I'm tired of using the hatred of our enemies as a blank check to expand the power of government, shrink the accountability of government, and erode our privacy.

I'm tired of a government and political class that values the feelings of the wealthy over the well-being of the unemployed.

I'm tired of politicians who demand freedoms for journalists, dissidents, and protesters in other countries -- yet remain silent when those freedoms are threatened or denied in our own country.

I'm tired of politicians who demand liberty for themselves -- but deny liberty to women, gay people, racial and religious minorities, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

I'm tired of politicians who endlessly caterwaul about the deficit threatening the future of our children -- yet do nothing to address issues like global climate change, overpopulation, or renewable energy.

I'm tired of politicians who think endless war is the solution to every problem. There is no war on drugs, war on terror, or war on poverty that America will ever win alone. The biggest, most complex problems demand ambitious, large-scale, heroic solutions.


Conservatives often taunt liberals by stating that government is a parasite, but without government, America cannot and will not remain a truly great nation. Our government fails us because the people we put in charge of our government were incompetent and chose the wrong priorities. America is fully capable of attaining greatness, and our government should be fighting for its people on the front lines.

President Obama wants to help a few people with their mortgages, a few people gain jobs, a few people face less discrimination, a few people avoid deportation. President Obama wants a smidgen of deficit reduction, a token amount of investment: but all the small changes amount to nothing, so people see a status quo that hasn't changed and isn't acceptable.

President Obama is afraid of greatness. Mitt Romney won't stop talking about greatness and America at all hours of the day and night, but he doesn't mean a single word. When voters have two alternatives -- one candidate who has no vision and one candidate who has a vision that isn't trusted -- which candidate do you think will win?

When the candidate without a vision represents an unacceptable status quo, and the candidate with a vision successfully represents (in the minds of voters) a change from that unacceptable status quo -- which candidate do you think will win? If people don't like Mitt Romney, if people don't trust Mitt Romney, if people don't trust Republicans -- none of that will matter if Mitt Romney offers some kind of vision of America and President Obama doesn't. That's the current political situation, and President Obama and his advisers need to wake up.

I'm tired of hearing that America is the greatest country in the world from political leaders who do nothing but erode everything that's ever made America great. In 2008, President Obama won the White House because he offered a chance to change that situation. During the past four years, he hasn't done enough to fix the deterioration of American greatness, and he hasn't offered a plan to restore or expand American greatness during the next four years. The time is not too late for President Obama to change course and offer that specific, compelling vision. If Barack Obama can't win re-election in November, it will be - as Jimmy Buffett sings in "Margaritaville" - his own damn fault.

Religious Traditions and Individualism

One of my friends posted a New York Times Op-Ed called "Congregations Gone Wild", complaining that members of the American clergy are suffering burnout as members of their congregations demand more entertainment and less moral guidance that could disturb the feelings of the flock. My friend wanted my thoughts, even though I'm an atheist, and I don't have a dog (don't have a sheep?) in this fight.

The idea that any particular religion's primarily about entertainment and good feelings is possible because there's no agreement about the primary purposes of most religious traditions. Most people appear to go to services, then those people feel better about themselves and superior to others for an hour or two a week -- and then continue their normal lives.

Religious ideas have been in flux throughout history - have always been part social, part religious, part political. When the same people run all three areas of a society, maybe you get a distorted idea -- but at least everyone believes a distorted idea in the same way. When different people control different parts of society... then you have all of these wonderful tensions, and eventually, nobody knows what to do anymore.

There's a trade-off between having no hierarchy and little guidance with lots of room to question authority and think independently...and having lots of hierarchy and guidance but little room to question authority or think independently. Of course, lots of people don't question authority or think for themselves at all, but continue to selectively follow traditions that have been handed to them, and over time, those traditions get weaker and weaker as you get farther from the original reasons people believed their traditions.

Can members of religions find ways to instill the principles of their faith in a rigorous, disciplined way -- in the middle of a diverse, pluralistic society that encourages different answers and different points of view? It's an interesting problem. Personally, I hope people will support traditions that encourage critical thinking and grappling with tradition on the individual level. There are religious people who stand by their faith tradition and its teachings while incorporating other opinions and other teachings.

I'm not religious myself, and I'm not sure that religion carries more benefits than harm to the world -- but if you're going to be religious, that's what I recommend. I do feel sorry for the people in those congregations that are demanding more amusement and less substance: those people by and large haven't been taught to think for themselves, but they don't have a tradition to provide them ready-made answers. That's a paradox of our society: is it better to have uninformed people with freedom, or informed people who don't have freedom? Hopefully, we can have people who are informed and have freedom. That's my goal, and I think many well-meaning religious people can help achieve that combination.

In a world with fewer shared values, all is not sour for practitioners of religion: there's an opportunity to reconcile doubt and tradition, critical thinking and moral principles, individual learning and strong communities. Even people who don't accept religious ideas have limited opportunities to find such balance.

Our world continues to change. How will religious beliefs adapt? If you're religious and you sincerely believe in the truth of your faith, then I hope you'll help the rest of us inform ourselves and gain the power to choose the beliefs that most powerfully affirm each of our values. If you're right, you'll gain followers. If you're wrong, you're only postponing the inevitable exposure as a more democratic, pluralistic, informed world continues to awaken and to demand answers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

False Equivalences and Philosophical Politics

Earlier tonight, several acquaintances of mine were arguing on Facebook about Senator Scott Brown, the No Labels movement, and the political climate for Democrats and Republicans. Here's my contribution:

Fiscal liberal, social liberal, less hawkish on foreign're called a fringe, "professional left", un-Serious progressive, ignored by the Democratic establishment.

Fiscally conservative, socially conservative, hawkish on foreign're called a standard, mainstream, establishment Republican.

See the problem here? Liberals are losing the war on framing every day, and there are just far more ardent conservatives than liberals in America anyway. Conservatives have a party that fights for them -- do liberals? The Democratic Party and President Obama, if anything, are both moderate overall and hardly "socialist" as the hyperbolic Republicans claim.

Democrats continue to reward Republicans for their message discipline and intransigence by refusing to solidify and reinforce their own beliefs before the eye of the public. Democrats need to grow a spine. Also, I agree that No Labels as fool's gold in this political climate. Our main problem is conservative overreach and Democratic "compromise". You can't compromise with people like Richard Mourdock. I'm from Indiana, I know! When Lugar loses his seat for being a moderate, watch out. It's not a "both sides" problem. No Labels and people who agree with them are not seeing the problem clearly.


When I was describing this conversation to my roommate, he told me about a documentary he watched tonight that argued against the wind industry. He was annoyed that the documentary bashed the wind industry while refusing to offer solutions to the problems of energy consumption and climate change. I share my roommate's frustrations.

While talking to my roommate, I observed that we live in a world where there are often no good alternatives to some of our most pressing global problems. Sometimes, there are numerous flaws and drawbacks to even the best of all possible policies. To have a genuinely productive discussion, a responsible person must try to consider all the positive and negative consequences of every alternative.

Politics is often extremely superficial, short-term, bottom-line, and deeply unimaginative. At those times, I'm astonishingly thankful that I also studied philosophy while I was in college.

My roommate suggested that one reason that people behind the anti-wind industry film were criticizing the wind industry is because those filmmakers may be reflexively anti-business. I am a liberal, but I'm not anti-business. I am deeply skeptical of the idea that businesses can regulate themselves. Businesses are run by human beings. The market isn't a magic elixir that fix mistakes people make. I support well-regulated business. I'm a capitalist, but I am a realistic one!

In response, my roommate replied that government is also run by human beings. True. Those people in government also make mistakes. That's no reason to arbitrarily limit or abolish government. Liberals may be skeptical of unregulated business -- but there's no overwhelming desire to produce as little business as possible, in the way conservatives desire to produce as little government as possible.

Perhaps this difference exists because government is an unfortunate necessity, while business is neutral to positive in its effect on the world -- that would be a conservative position, and perhaps the opposite view is a far-left position. Why not compare those positions, their implications, and their effects? That's a realistic, thoughtful, genuine debate.

I don't want politics to remain a series of talking points. I want a meaningful, substantive, evidence-based examination of assumptions, values, and outcomes -- because I want the best possible policies that improve the lives of everyone. Politics shouldn't be a game, a horse race, or a pissing contest.

You don't have to be a liberal or a conservative, but you should strive to test your views against your best examination of reality. That one political movement (conservatism) attempts this practice far less often than another political movement (liberalism) is one of the greatest tragedies in modern American society. That sure doesn't sound like a "both sides" problem to me.

Atheist Meditation: Two-Part Morality

Since I first became an atheist about four years ago, I have read, thought, and encountered many different ideas about ethics and morality. I have attempted to reconstruct my moral views since I decided that my former Christian ideas were no longer adequate.

Previously, before my deconversion, my sense of morality was influenced by my Christian faith, but it wasn't strictly defined by the Bible or by the teachings of my church. The ideas of my friends and family, as well as my personal intuitions, were another strong influence on my beliefs. I was usually able to reconcile my faith with these more personal views.

As a cynic would note, it is not surprising that my values and my interpretation of Christianity coincided. That is not what I want to discuss, however: I'm trying to showcase how I formed some of my views of morality as an atheist.

While I majored in philosophy (along with political science), I'm afraid that my views on ethics are not influenced in a major way by the individual foundations of any philosophers. My take on morality now is mostly formed by intuitions I've formed based on a combination of philosophical and academic readings, discussions with intelligent friends, and personal experience.

In my opinion, many philosophical arguments about ethics are misleading and don't encourage relevant discussions of what is actually moral. One of the biggest offenders is the subjective/objective morality argument: is there some set of concrete moral values that exists outside the whims of humanity, or is morality a product of human experience?

My current conclusion about the subjective/objective morality question is that the question is a red herring - the question itself is too limited. A better question, and line of thinking, examines the nature of morality and then decides which labels fit the phenomenon of moral thinking.

Morality concerns human action or inaction, so morality is really a study of decision-making. Different sorts of decisions tend to achieve different sorts of results, but which decision to choose often depends on which result is desirable. Morality concerns both questions: 1) which moral decisions are effective, depending on the result? 2) which moral results are desirable, depending on the situation?

Different situations may require different results, and different results may require different decisions. There are empirical answers to tell you which decisions will bring which results, but there no empirical answers to uncover which results are desirable.

Thus, when someone such as Sam Harris argues that morality can be illuminated with research, he is partly right and partly wrong. Once you agree on your assumptions (about what results are desirable), then yes, research can hone your knowledge about which decisions are effective in bringing your goals into being, and therefore, moral. However, there is no empirical process that can state definitely which results and assumptions are important in a situation - that is a judgement of values, not physical reality.

From this perspective, morality is objective on one level, and subjective on a deeper level. Once you decide what results and conditions are important, you can use evidence to conclude which decisions will drive the results you desire. Decision-making is objective, but value-making is subjective: morality combines the value-making and decision-making elements, and a fully developed sense of morality requires both parts to function properly.

I hope you weren't expecting me to devise a moral system. That's beyond the scope of this blog! I encourage you to read ethicists if you are interested in the subject (haha). I can't let my audience leave without returning again to philosophy, can I?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Up All Night: Soliloquy

I enjoy talking to myself, as I've already mentioned in passing while writing a different entry ("Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Other People: It's Complicated"). I think about Hamlet, the protagonist of Shakespeare's play of the same name. Hamlet gives so many speeches to himself. His thoughts race almost endlessly. His feelings careen wildly through the curves of manic anger, resentment, and depression. Hamlet really has no idea where he's going until he utters fateful and apprehensive words. One of the Hamlet's greatest strengths and weaknesses is that his words are his deed. Words can be a powerful deed, but the word alone is not always the entire deed. An ironic lesson for such a prolific wordsmith as Shakespeare to give us?

I've directly confronted this personal epidemic of talking too much and listening too little. How many Horatios are trying to give each of us good advice, as Horatio tried to help his friend Hamlet relax and focus his thinking*, while their advice is too long and too often ignored?

Hamlet also needs silence. In many cases, silence is a proxy for ambiguity. The incompleteness of human knowledge is a hallmark of what it means to be alive and deciphering our existence. It is commonplace that each individual must be content with the exotic vastness of what we cannot know. Yet Hamlet couldn't leave space to contemplate the things he didn't know. Hamlet filled every waking moment with talking, thinking, scheming, plotting, consorting, pondering...Hamlet sealed his fate in part through his inability to stop doing anything.

It is this balance of expressing my thoughts properly when I talk to myself and leaving space to consider the consequences of what I cannot know that I seek to keep practicing. I once asked my poetry professor about my practice of writing poems in great spurts, and then not writing for a similar period. I hoped my professor could alleviate my dry spells, but he did not offer me advice on that matter. My professor simply told me that I need to let my mind lie fallow sometimes, so I don't use everything I have at once. That was tremendously strong advice.

I also notice that I've talked too much at once sometimes when I would talk to my ex-girlfriend or when I talked to other women that I felt an interest towards. Perhaps I didn't feel secure enough, complete enough, confident enough to let go...and that's a shame.

I wish I had felt stronger during those interactions. I wish I had felt the strength to let go...that's not easy when you're feeling like you barely have the strength to hold on! Perhaps that's another lesson for me: don't try to hold onto something that you can't let go. I'm not really sure if that's true. There's only one way to find out, isn't there?

Yes, there's an insane, heart-pounding, wildly unforeseeable world that none of us can corner. That world is waiting for us to explore its endless boundaries. There's only so much I can tell you about that world, or about my portion of it. Eventually, you need to return to the world and experience it for yourself - just like I do!

*(To let it be, or not to let it be...that is the Shakespearean/Beatles question!)

Up All Night: Eternal Meaning

I've had many debates with one of my closest friends on the subjects of politics and religion, those twin goblins of good graces in conversation. Recently, he shared his opinion on the differences between a secular and (his) Christian view, when one compares how the differing views perceive the meaningfulness of human actions over time.

My Christian friend notes that the reasons I give to establish the meaning of my life - as a non-religious person who doesn't believe in an afterlife - are fleeting, brief, ephemeral. A Christian has eternal meaning, he said. Eternal meaning? Let us examine this eternal meaning.

The very language which I'm using to speak to you is deeply and hopelessly flawed, if you accept my friend's interpretation of Christianity. I'm speaking in early 21st century American English, in case you couldn't tell, my brave future anthropological readers. English has evolved at a very high frequency for hundreds of years, yet I am writing this paragraph and you (wise future interpreters of ancient English!) somehow manage to read my thoughts. Despite undergoing extensive change, my words are somehow...not meaningless!

When you're reading my words, do you understand what I say? How is that possible? People who lived hundreds of years ago would not be able to understand, yet their words gave birth to mine. If people exist in hundreds of years, I'm sure they will barely comprehend my present speech, even though my words will have made their own possible. Yet this change has absolutely no point of relevance to our current conversation. Past and future changes in meaning have no impact upon our current meaning. This present moment is fully meaningful, just by itself. If you want eternal meaning, stick with mathematics:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Do you see what I've just written? I wrote a series of zeroes. I wrote eternity. Eternity continues for an uncountable number of years...if we tried to count the time, it would begin with a one, and conclude with some combination such as:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Eventually, the weight of zeroes eclipses the relevance of all which existed before its passage. Memory is another important example to demonstrate how present meaning is more relevant than any possible eternal meaning. Let's assume someone is currently reading this text: are you going to remember every word I've uttered? No. Does your inability to remember much of what I've said strip my words of purpose? No. The purpose of my words is not directly related to your ability to remember everything I've said. The purpose of my words is related to the immediate and to the long-terms effect they unleash on you, the reader. These effects occur on a finite basis, but they are meaningful and they are important.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

This focus on the zeroes, and the focus on eternity, just doesn't matter. Now matters. I defend the present, the temporary, the things that deteriorate, the things we forget, and the things we lose. Why? Because those are things that truly matter in our lives. How we treat each other at this instant determines the kind of world we have, because in

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

years we won't have a world - if we do have one, it will cease to resemble the world we have now, and it will be entirely foreign to us in such a profound degree that it will cease to be our world at all. That's why we need to concern ourselves with the present, with all its fleeting, brief, ephemeral warts and worries. Now is the only time that's truly important, because now is the only time we truly own.

Leap Into Song: "Telephone" and "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa

This is the second installment of my recurring "Leap Into Song" series, where I examine my thoughts about different songs and artists that have influenced me. Previously, I covered the song "New Born" by Muse.

Currently, two of my favorite songs are "Telephone" and "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa. I love writing while listening to these songs - their rhythms are food for my brain. They're also both catchy as anything I've ever heard before.

I love the defiance of "Telephone". I love the sustained beat. I love the independence conveyed by the lyrics: you could be spending time with me, but you blew me off. Now, I'm doing what I want to do, and I couldn't care less. It's a great feeling that the speaker communicates to us.

I love the lyrics "sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station. Tonight, I'm not taking no calls, 'cause I'll be dancin'". I also love the progression of "I'll be dancin'", repeated several times. I always feel like I can take on the world when I hear that part of "Telephone". The spirit of the song matches whatever goal I have that I want to accomplish. There's some serenity in the knowledge that the speaker knows she'll be dancing. There's pride, defiance, and confidence. That's a fantastic group of characteristics to celebrate.

In "Bad Romance", I also like a lot of the progression in the music and lyrics. The cumulative, sustained effect is great. Each part of the song builds onto the next. "I want your ugly"/"I want your disease"/"I want your everything, as long as it's free"/"I want your love" is just great, as a formula - and it is a formula, one that is clearly evident, and almost poetic in nature: "I want [specific thing]", "I want [specific thing]", "I want [specific thing with extra detail]", "I want [overall quality that ties everything together]". It's a stanza! If it were in print, it would jump off the page. When I hear this progression in the song, its spirit flows through my mind, my arms, my legs -- all the parts of my body move. Yes, it's a crappy pop song! And it's poetry! It's a terrific combination!

"I want your drama"/"The touch of your hair"/"I want your leather-studded kiss"/"You're insane"/"I want your love" is also great. This section of the song is formatted similarly to the one I just discussed, but there are some key differences. "I want [specific thing]", "[extra detail]", "I want [specific thing]", "[extra detail]", I want [quality that ties everything together (repeat)]. The stanza repeats, but it's altered enough to retain its interest and vitality. I like that effect. 

Perhaps I'm especially inspired by the steady rhythms and the steadily increasing power of the repeated musical and lyrical ideas in "Telephone" and "Bad Romance". When I hear these songs, I feel more alive. I feel that I'm growing stronger and more dangerous. I like those feelings a lot! 

I also feel quite Nietzschean when I'm listening to "Telephone" and "Bad Romance", but that could be a whole other essay! It's probably the implied recognition of my own power and confidence that I feel when I hear these songs that reminds me of Nietzsche. Certainly, Lady GaGa is not a master craftsperson of music or lyrics, but her creations are an impressive craft of their own. Ultimately, why do people enjoy pop songs? The best reason to listen is to help feel better, and that's certainly true for how I feel while I'm listening to "Telephone" and "Bad Romance", and that alone is enough for me to recommend them to you.

Up All Night: Self-Identifying

For many years, I've struggled trying to decide whether I should self-identify in academic settings and in job applications as a person with Asperger's Syndrome. While I've had difficulties in social settings, I always sailed through my academic work until I graduated from high school. I got by pretty well, so I never saw the necessity of raising questions about a "disability", when I wasn't sure that this condition was disabling me at all.

Another issue that complicates my thinking arises when I compare my situation to the situations of other people who have a less high-functioning form of Asperger's. I've been very fortunate. That I can even write these words and tell you about my life is a major success. That I've found the self-awareness to question my own decisions and analyze my interactions with other people has been a major milestone and a great gift.

There are many people who have suffered through much greater impairments than I have. When I perceive that I'm indistinguishable from a typical person of my age, I can hardly justify to myself that I should self-identify as having some sort of disability. The only person I've met who's spotted me as someone on the autism spectrum was another college student with very high-functioning Asperger's -- which is extremely funny once you think about it.

Today, I heard some of my friends discuss some mutual acquaintances of ours who happen to have Asperger's. When my friends mention some of their unsettling experiences with other people who have Asperger's, it's hard for me to discuss my experiences: I'm torn between feeling sympathy for people following a similar outline and a crushing need to defend myself. I know very well that my lack of finesse with social skills in the past has at times brought me great chagrin.

I used to never make eye contact when I was speaking to other people. My dad would sit with me and drill me. He made me look him in his eyes over, and over, and over again. The overwhelming blueness of each of his irises encouraged me to concentrate beyond any ability that I knew I had. I swam into socialization on the cresting tide of that blueness.

I never knew how to join the conversations of other people. I had a terrible habit of interrupting people in the middle of their sentences whenever I saw a group of people I don't know and I wanted to approach them. I've always been pretty talkative for an introvert - since I finally started talking after a delay of a few years, I've barely stopped for breath. My feelings of anxiety and insecurity in social settings haven't helped - time has always ran fast for me when I'm around lots of people I don't know. I still have trouble finding a way to relax, slow down, and remain patient without disengaging entirely.

Every time someone tells me that they would never know I had Asperger's Syndrome is a victory lap. I have spent so much time and effort trying to be like my peers. Why do I want to identify myself through the prism of a disability, when I'd rather identify myself by the struggle I've undertaken to overcome my condition? Perhaps that's the best reason to self-identify: so I can provide some frame of reference for the sustained campaign I've waged against my own mind to free a little bit more of my soul.

Up All Night: Honesty

I love my friends. Joking and trading stories with my friends makes everything I do meaningful. I would choose not to live if I had to live alone. I've never realized how badly I needed other people in my life until I moved to a new place and had to establish an entire life for myself! The course is mine...time to play. Friends are one of things I have now that I haven't always had. I've been extremely diligent in my pursuit of learning social etiquette. However much I've embarrassed myself while travelling this path, I'm glad that I'm on it.


Earlier today, I swam with a few of my friends. I'm not an accomplished swimmer. Mostly I enjoy stretching, floating, and kicking my arms and legs around in a wayward and uncoordinated fashion. When I was very young, I had just moved into a new house with my parents. We had an above-ground pool. I was playing in it with some other kids my age, and my parents made me leave suddenly. They told me that I had to leave because some people were working on our deck, but all the other kids were still there. I found out that I had to leave because we were all going to eat. That's when I discovered the concept of the "white lie".

"White lies" are like breathing to me. So many people around me do it, and now I catch myself telling them so often, that I'm no longer sure if honesty in itself is a virtue. There are so many other priorities that I've observed people to place over honesty: comfort, personal safety, simplicity, time-saving, peace, politeness, discretion, flattery...there are so many reasons not to be honest that I can't even list most of them.

I still prefer friends who are too honest over friends who are too polite. I'll take honesty over politeness any day of the week. When I hear negativity or criticism, it's easy for me to have hurt feelings. It's easy because I tend to take criticism personally. That's the problem: what if people didn't take the observations of other people personally? Every human being is equally fallible, makes mistakes, screws up, is ignorant about most things...there's no shame in being wrong. There's only shame in refusing to make things right.

I prefer people who help me overcome challenges and improve my character over people who pretend that I am without flaws. I like people who have moxie. I like people who are assertive. Am I still going to use a lot of "white lies" in my daily life? Yeah, I am. I'm not sure what else to do. Honesty, in a social context, is one of those sticky prisoners' dilemmas: honesty past a certain point only works if everybody is using it, but people won't start being more honest by themselves. Who has to start?

I've learned an immeasurable amount in my life up to this point, and many of the things I've learned have taken me much longer to learn than most other people. I know sarcasm, snark, and white lies. I can deploy all of these in my interactions on a daily basis. Most people don't know that I used to have no idea how to do any of that. While I'm glad that other people understand me, I'm still puzzled that I need to learn how to hide my feelings to more clearly communicate with the rest of humanity! We are so weird.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Other People: It's Complicated

Yesterday, I was irritable while sitting alone on a bench outside my apartment building. I was waiting to meet a friend of mine. People that I didn't know kept walking past me while I was sitting there.

I kept checking the time. I don't like to wait. I can wait in the abstract sense. What I especially dislike is waiting in public. It makes me feel insecure and anxious. I feel defensive. I feel like I have to justify being there, wherever it is I am while I'm waiting for someone or something.

I also dislike the uncertainty of not knowing when whatever I'm waiting for is going to happen, or when the person I'm meeting will arrive. Normally, I don't care so much when something is not in my control. It bothers me when I feel like something is not in my control *and* that I have no other alternative. I don't like to feel boxed in. I also don't like having nothing to do but wait.

I can't even talk to myself while I'm waiting, because people in public think you're weird or not entirely there if you talk to yourself while other people are around. It's how I sort my thoughts. It's just easier for me to think when I can hear my own voice, choosing words to match my feelings. Sometimes, I'm not entirely sure what I'm thinking until I can find words to express myself.

When I'm alone, I don't mind uncertainty as much. Uncertainty bothers me more when it involves other people. If I'm going somewhere by myself, it doesn't matter very much to me whether I am lost for a bit or whether I don't know what I'm doing. When I'm with other people, not knowing where I'm going or what I'm doing make me very nervous. I feel like people are judging me for not having a better idea of what I'm doing.

While I was alone yesterday, I lamented that I let the potential criticisms of other people affect me so easily. I wondered if I worry so much about what people think because I have a high regard for the opinions of other people. If I had a lesser view of humanity, perhaps it would be easier for me to not take the treatment of others so personally.

I'm not a very secure person. I have achieved some meaningful things, but I still have many doubts. There are still areas of my life that plague me with insecurity. My interactions in public with other people are one area of my life that still flusters me from time to time.

Because I feel less insecure when I feel more control over a situation, I often prefer to do things by myself. Spending time around other people can drain me, especially if most of them are strangers and I have to consider the impression I'm making. I have spent much of my life concerned that I'm about to say or do something unbearably embarrassing. My concern about the reactions of other people is an instinct of self-preservation, but now I'm wondering if it's an instinct that preserving me or whittling away my confidence.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Atheist Meditation: Grace Like Rain

I love being outside, and feeling a sudden tinge of excitement as I sniff the air and survey the clouds, and I realize that there will be a rainstorm soon. It's a visceral feeling for me: somehow, the atmosphere has had enough - there's so much tension and pressure, yet everything is quiet - the stillness and its promise of disruption fills me with delight.

When I reflect on this foreboding, I think of my adolescent time at church camp. The rain was never stressful. I can't recall feeling that the storms were an interruption. The rain was a pause. The storm was part of the flow of life at church camp. I loved listening to the rain bounce from the eaves of buildings and cabins.

I was promised, again and again, that I wouldn't remember this. At least, my counselors promised me that my memories were conditional. If I failed to keep thoughts of Jesus, redemption, sin, and divine forgiveness close to my heart -- every other experience that I wanted to keep in my thoughts would lose its meaning and value. Everything would slip away, like pebbles on the trails we walked that had eroded over time.

I have not forgotten. My memory lingers. I still feel warmth and happiness when I contemplate the times I spent at church camp. I no longer pray, but I feel the stillness of a forest and then I remember walking to chapel in reverent silence. I no longer sing hymns, but I feel the joy of companionship when I lose my sense of self and drunkenly sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with my friends. I no longer believe in eternal life, but I have memories that I will never relinquish while I live.

Most fondly, I remember when everyone was together. I remember our campfire sessions, late at night before each cabin and its group would leave for devotions and then go to sleep. We sang tenderly. We told stories. We laughed, we cried, we shouted, and we danced. I know what it's like when people love one another. I've heard that it's God's grace.

Where is this grace? It is abundant, and it is everywhere, but I can't tell you that it involves a god, a scripture, or a savior. I see it in my Jewish friend who left to teach underprivileged children for two years with Teach for America. I see it in my Muslim friend, one-time leader of the Muslim Students Association, who just left to spend two years in Kenya serving with the Peace Corps. I see it in one of my Christian friends, a former Buddhist who exemplifies conscience and compassion while working tirelessly to oppose suffering in many areas of her life. When I was at church camp, we used to sing a song about a Bible verse, 1 John 4:7-8 -- "beloved, let us love one another..." -- my friends may not have heard it, but they live its message every day.

Growing up in the Christian faith and settling into adulthood as an atheist and humanist, I have learned that love and compassion are values for every creed. I have learned that anywhere there are people who support each other without hesitation, you can find a love worth remembering. I think of the rain again. Often, the rain is so ordinary and common place for those who already witness it, that we cannot know what it's like to live an arid and parched life. We are fortunate. The rain replenishes and nourishes us. The rain surrounds us, yet it does not belong to any of us. There are so many who don't have it, or don't have enough of it. We don't need to quarrel about who really has the rain, we just need to ensure that we all have some of it. This rain, and this grace, is worth the effort to remember -- and no one can remove those memories from us, or prevent us from bringing their spirit into our lives again.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Everything Is Unfair

Here's a series of lovely thoughts: Life is never fair, and no one ever plays fair. If the appearance of fairness exists, it is either a temporary equilibrium or it has been imposed by force.

The best way to achieve a semblance of fairness is through empowerment. Expect the process to be slow, painful, and difficult. No one will listen because no one has to listen. You will repeat yourself - constantly. Other people will deliberately misinterpret, distort, and misunderstand your words.

Human beings spend a significant amount of their lives acting irrationally. You can try to convince other people to change their minds, but this will probably not happen until:
1. People are convinced by arguments (you thought this was the only step, didn't you? oh, no!)
2. From their perspective, there are more benefits to changing their mind than not changing their mind
3. They consciously decide to change their own mind and take ownership of that change

There is no guarantee that any notion of progress is inevitable. Things can always get worse. Society does not necessarily improve in every generation - but each new generation has an opportunity to improve on the previous one. That is the only advantage on the side of progress: death.

A generation can be as short-sighted as it can be, and another generation will still take its place. Death is a guarantee. What isn't a guarantee is that there will be another generation, or that younger generations won't inherit the stigmas of their elders.

If you really want people to follow, you must make it easier for people to join you instead of being passive and doing nothing. Defaults are powerful weapons: change expectations, and you will change behavior. Very few systems that are entirely voluntary make a real difference. (Sorry libertarians, you need to wake up and smell the civilization.)

Any successful political movement needs to remember the three steps of persuasion that I've outlined here. Additionally, the first step I listed is not necessarily the first step. Often, it will be more useful to start with the second step, and then the ground is prepared for your audience to tread the other steps in your path to persuasion.

Sometimes it sucks to be a liberal. Change is hard, and annoying. <-- Is this true, though? Is that thought worth thinking? Conservatives know quite a bit about change. Liberals can learn from their example. You don't take a country from FDR and LBJ to Reagan and George W. Bush without change.

There are some specific, extremely useful things you should have to change expectations and shift the default consensus to your views. You'll need: 1) money 2) journalists/other popularizers 3) ideologues/strategists 4) politicians 5) organizations [not listed in order of importance]

The "Occupy" movement disappointed me greatly. Protest without context is an empty, meaningless, futile exercise. You need organizations. You need spokespeople. You need message discipline. The bottom-up structure is a good way to attract anarchists and Ron Paul supporters, and it's a fantastic way to ensure that everyone else in America is ignoring you. Do you want change, or do you want martyrdom?

"Occupy" gave America a blank canvas. When only liberals talked about "Occupy", that was fine. When conservatives also talked about "Occupy", that decision became a disaster. When you have no clear, concise identity and agenda, people can attack you without end and those attacks will stick. You have to own your messaging. "Occupy" didn't.

People aren't going to listen to you because you're in the streets. People will listen to you if you're in the streets and you have a clear, simple, powerful narrative that is frequently repeated and echoed by credible authorities that your audience trusts. Being right isn't enough. Is that fair? No, no, it's not: but nothing in life is fair, and if you want people to change their minds, then you need to be smarter, more efficient, and more organized than the people who have an interest in silencing you. Let's go do that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Frustrations Of an Old Soul: The Internet

I'm a product of the Internet Age, yet I am still not used to living in an Internet-centric world, one which provides me a constant stream of information. I haven't fully accepted the immensity of knowledge I can access on my own, nor have I realized the implications of my access to such staggering data.

Numerous times in the past few weeks, I have asked some of my friends to send me advice, only to find my efforts redirected to Google or other corners of the Internet. This derailing upsets me. Yes, I am fully aware that I can find the information I want on my own. Is it unacceptable that I still consider human input more valuable? 

Maybe I'm upset because it's how I was raised. My father is a reference librarian. He's a member of a seemingly antiquated profession, one which still holds that actual human beings can help one another in their quest to more effectively find information. 

The Internet is so vast and impersonal. Is it wrong that I trust my friends to help me discover answers that are more meaningful and more personally relevant? Further, I'm annoyed that the social default among my friends is to trust the Internet for all queries. Even if using the Internet is more efficient, does relying so much on technology degrade friendships and relationships with contemporaries? I have believed in the past that the Internet has potential to bring people together - are we instead increasing the isolation between us?


For my second Internet-related complaint of the day, I'd like to disembowel (or, more helpfully, disemvowel) one of the most particularly aggravating instances of Internet-speak. 

I keep hearing the phrase "I'm jelly" or "Are you mad jelly?". People say "jelly" instead of "jealous". As a writer, a poet, and a lover of words -- I am greatly offended by the vulgarity and inelegance of this usage. Consider the sound of "jelly" and its connotations:

1) It sounds weak, lame, juvenile, petty
2) It makes me think of actual jelly (as in, what goes well with peanut butter): soggy, sticky, gloppy -- saying "jealous" this way takes all the power out of the word - consider again:


^These are all undeniably powerful, awe-some (in the original sense) words. "Jelly" renders "jealous" as a shell of its former self, and mashes a thumping, spirited, aggressive word down to a mushy pulp that's barely recognizable and hardly worth the same meaning. 

What would it sound like if we used the same pattern for zealous and righteous that Internet dwellers favor for jealous?

Imagine reading about the apostle of Jesus, Simon the Zelly. Imagine Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction" -- remember that badass speech he gives before he shoots someone? Try to imagine Samuel L. Jackson furiously, feverishly intoning the "righty" wrath of his god. Doesn't sound so fearsome, does it? 

The sound and meaning of words are important. Now, I'm acutely aware that language and its usage evolves over time. I'm mocked Samuel Johnson for decrying the use of "chicken" as a singular noun in the English language. In this instance, though, when we consider the advantages and disadvantages of using "jelly" or "jealous", I hope I've convinced you that "jealous" is the clearly superior option.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reflections From Leaving College

I became an entirely different person during college. I lost faith in the religion of my childhood (and became an atheist). I acted in a theater group for the first time. I started performing improv comedy. I started drinking (shortly after the theater and improv). I had (and ended) my first relationship (also after the theater and improv).

I thought honestly about my history with Asperger's Syndrome, and I met other people who shared some of the same stories. I had no close friends my entire freshmen year of college. During my sophomore year, I began to have more friends, but doubts and insecurities about the reliability of my friends plagued me constantly (shortly after the theater and improv). In that same year, I failed my first (and so far only) class (shortly after the theater and improv).

The summer after my sophomore year, I started seeing a therapist and continued doing so until the end of my junior year. Most of the times I went, I felt miserable while I was with a therapist. I didn't know what I should say. It was extremely difficult for me to express my feelings to a stranger...or even to myself. This chance to sort my emotions still helped me immensely, and the lingering impressions of this experience continue to benefit me. It's a strange wonder that I was able to journey through my senior year without any therapy and without paralyzing myself emotionally.

Senior year was rough, but mostly I dealt with my problems better than I had when I was a sophomore. First semester, I was insanely busy. I was struggling with keeping my internship, my classes, and my relationship functioning. I partly succeeded, then I spent the second semester of my senior year trying to save the things I still had left after my first semester. [That was supposed to be funny.]

One of the best and worst moments during college came for me near the very end of my sophomore year. I was at a Cinco de Mayo party with some kids from my theater/improv group, and two of my friends were talking with me - while they were quite buzzed. They told me that they were quite impressed by my ability to do improv, especially since one of them knew me as a freshman when we lived on the same floor of our dorm. She noted that I seemed very shy and not the kind of person who would thrive in improv, but she added that she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of my participation.

I was extremely happy to hear that praise: at that moment, I was very depressed because I had quite recently realized that I was, in fact, about to fail an important class - that I had yet to inform my parents - and that I was moving out and going back home the next morning. It was a dark moment for me, and it was the precise time when I needed to hear some reassuring and uplifting comments. That's one aspect of my life during the past four years for which I am especially thankful: that every time I've felt most alone, least capable of handling my problems, or most lost and vulnerable -- that I've still found some consolation to ease my way through the anguish, and somehow become a stronger, more resilient person.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Poetry Digest: #1

From time to time, I hope to publish a collection of a few of my recent poems. I will refer to this series of posts as my "Poetry Digest". This is Poetry Digest #1.

half court scheme

real life has no rhyme scheme
it's not a sport or a team
there's no buzzer at the end
just space-time to bend
flying towards the rim
there's no box score to skim
no assist to parents for creating me
no rebound to friends for sympathy
everyone fouls out
nowadays the game is about
a bit more long
the players are a bit more strong
I don't need a post game report
if I send a prayer from half court
even if no one will watch such
pithiness in the clutch
I still have a double-double in infinity
even while alone in serendipity
I don't regret losing my innocence
let my questions be incense
a desperate heave as the clock winds down
let words and feelings be my crown

lifting off

My glasses escape the pull of my face
I stare into a blur of fuzzy flashes
There are swirls of darkness
There are smudges of light

There is no one left to race
These solitary dashes
Atone for my lateness
Which is a blight

A disgrace
Each delay clashes
With the precision of greatness
And the countdown of a mind in flight

I'm leaving space
If everything crashes
While I'm weightless
I won't regret this sight

I will singe this place
With the signature of my ashes
A trail of fiery brightness
Breaking the barrier of the night


I'm pulling apart the strings
Where my thoughts attach
I hear my recollections ring:
It's the final dispatch

I'm tearing all the wires
I've buried in the ground
Then I'm setting fires
To burn records of the sound

I'm prying up the track
I'd rather travel another way
I'll trade the pieces I crack
For the strength of another day

I will never charge a fare
No passengers will pay a fee
Because no one needs to go there
Least of all, me

not even trying

anything can be a poem
even this
somebody hates it? blow 'em
I persist

poets self-indulge
no one wants to read verse
that makes the pride of a writer bulge
and the apathetic reader curse

writing about writing
should be banned
there is nothing less exciting -
even I know it's canned

I'm tired of being a smartass
(and self-referential) -
I wish my poems were as good as
their potential

21st and Winter 

give me paper and a pen
I can write as well as any citizen
remember when I said that our bus intersection
(and transportation selection)
reminds me of a Simon & Garfunkel song?
so let's once again amble along
to tales of 21st and Winter

"when I left to visit her
I had to catch a train
and a bus - John Coltrane
and Paul Simon:
who would I rather lead me on
to the city of brotherly love?"

"the one clue I'm thinking of
informs my knowledge of deduction
BBC series have excellent production
but I don't have to be Sherlock
to write something silly you can mock
while we're sitting on the bus"

"when it was the two of us
standing on a street corner
at 21st and Winter
I told you I would write this song
aren't you glad you brought me along
to the corner of 21st and Winter?"

Friday, May 25, 2012

Resistance Is Strength

I first wrote the following thoughts in the weeks after I completed a course on Friedrich Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil". Most of the ideas below reflect but do not necessarily emulate Nietzsche's thinking - that would be impossible, because I am not Friedrich Nietzsche, and because I am hardly qualified or well-read enough to suppose that I could speak for him. Yet I can speak for myself, so here are some of my thoughts:

I have had an insight: resistance is strength. Neither acceptance nor denial of anything is enough to develop and build strength. Resistance is key.

Why resistance? Because children leave their parents and become adults. Because human beings form their own identity from the remains of their youth: the inspiration of their families and the influence of their peers. You tear down a muscle and you rebuild it – you nourish and flex and try your muscles until you're stronger. You test yourself against your fears. You prove yourself abler than you imagined. This resistance is how children become independent, compassionate, responsible adults. They resist!

Why resistance? Because intimacy is unspeakably powerful. Because people bring down their pride and their ego and share it with another person, or with an audience. Because our vulnerabilities can lead to our greatest passions and our greatest ambitions. When you feel lonely, you write. When you feel depressed, you tell jokes. When you feel isolated, you try new things. Limitations inspire creativity and fuel new horizons. Ask an author - (or a lover) - (or a comedian). They resist!

Why resistance? Because resistance is the catalyst of rebirth. Because gradual change accumulates to demolish old structures and creates a more astonishing order -- an order that is partly new, but entirely distinct and wondrous in its innovation. Because the entire process of biological evolution demonstrates the destruction and brutality and wastefulness of life itself: everything a challenge, a struggle, or a fight to the death. We emerge, we live, and we fight back...against astronomical odds. We resist!

Why resistance? Because the ability to incorporate novel ideas into existing beliefs is how knowledge advances. Because the abilities to accept nuance, to accept uncertainty, to reject uncertainty for something more powerful, to keep searching, and - most of all - to challenge your own biases, your own complacency, your own comfort...are all forms of resistance. Our world is not a black-and-white, always accept or always reject, kind of world. We inhabit a hazardous hypothesis, turbulent theory world. We resist!

Why resistance? Because it’s not wrong to make mistakes, but it’s wrong to keep making the same mistakes. Because evil isn't entirely your fault, but ignoring evil is your fault. Find the darkness in yourself and confront it. Recognize that you are its rightful owner: put it in its rightful place. Don’t blame someone else, a god, or a demon. Take responsibility for your vulnerabilities, anxieties, and fears. Realize that good intentions or inexperience, by you or by authority figures, may lead to evil. You must think for yourself. So, resist!

Resistance is strength: Because it's as profound an insight as anything in scriptures. Avoiding temptation isn't enough: temptation must be dared, lured, and faced. Evil isn't the opposite of the good: evil is a lack of the good. (Thomas Aquinas and I agree.) Evil is dishonesty - not enough honesty. Evil is ignorance - not enough knowledge. Evil is weakness - not enough patience or discipline. Evil is miscalculation - not enough empathy or foresight. You can't eliminate evil: you can only change it until it’s good. So, resist!

Resistance is strength: Because there has never been a world without temptation. Temptation is in the competition, the arms race, the nonstop grudge matches of nature. Our world's built on temptation, made in the image of temptation, dedicated to temptation. We can't create a more just world by merely overcoming that temptation: we must alter that temptation for our own purposes. We must incorporate that temptation into new ethics and new ways of living. We will neither accept nor deny temptation: we shall resist!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leap Into Song: "New Born" by Muse

I wish to begin what I hope will be a recurring feature on this blog, although I can't guarantee that. While I am hopelessly inept when it comes to singing or playing any instruments, I am still a keen lover of music. So I hope to occasionally post a song that's one of my favorites or just taps into something within me in an especially vivid way, and to describe some of my thoughts related to each song.

My first example is from one of my favorite current bands, Muse. Admittedly, "New Born" isn't one of my favorite songs by Muse, but it interests me for another reason. I listened to "New Born" again today for the first time in a long time, possibly ever. Instantly, I loved the music - but the lyrics underwhelmed me. So I set a challenge for myself: could I write lyrics for "New Born" that I liked better than the ones Muse wrote originally?

Here's the original video for Muse's song "New Born":

Now, I hope you will listen to the video so you can hear the original lyrics and understand their role in this song. If you have trouble following along in the video, here are the original lyrics to "New Born" (copyright 2009, Muse/Warner Music Group):

                                                                  Link it to the world
Link it to yourself
Stretch it like a birth squeeze
The love for what you hide
The bitterness inside
Is growing like the new born
When you've seen, seen
Too much, too young, young
Soulless is everywhere

Hopeless time to roam
The distance to your home
Fades away to nowhere
How much are you worth
You can't come down to earth
You're swelling up, you're unstoppable

'cause you've seen, seen
Too much, too young, young
Soulless is everywhere

Destroy the spineless
Show me it's real
Wasting our last chance
To come away
Just break the silence
'cause I'm drifting away
Away from you

When you've seen, seen
Too much, too young, young
Soulless is everywhere

Destroy the spineless
Show me it's real
Wasting their last chance
To come away
Just break the silence
'cause I'm drifting away
Away from you

Now, here are my new lyrics to "New Born" - note, I tried to keep as many of the elements of the original lyrics intact as I could -- because of how they work with the music, and because I want to trust Muse's judgment as much as possible -- even when I try to "improve" their lyrics, haha:

Say it to the world
Say it to yourself
Shout it like new birth pangs
The unknown power you hide
The burning love inside
Is growing like the new born
Since you've gone, gone
Too far, you know, know
Silence is everywhere

It's your time to roam
We all call one place home
We all start from nowhere
How much is life worth?
We all walk the same earth
Keep looking up, you're unstoppable

'cause you've gone, gone
Too far, you know, know
Silence is everywhere

Always be fearless
Show me what's real
Using our last chance
To find our way
Just break the silence
'cause we're trying to say
that we're here, too

Since you've gone, gone
Too far, you know, know
Silence is everywhere

Always be fearless
Show me what's real
Using our last chance
To find our way
Just break the silence
'cause we're trying to say
that we're here, too

What do you think? Try watching the video again, but hum my lyrics this time. Does it work? Which version of the lyrics do you prefer? (I do realize that my more optimistic lyrics may undermine the darkness of the music, but I feel the two could be complementary. However, I am not a world-famous musician - you, dear reader, probably aren't, either - but I could still use your input!) Thanks!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why I'm Writing (Introduction)

I'm not good at spontaneity. I should be. I write in spurts. I don't have enough discipline to write regularly - it's why I've never been able to keep a diary or a journal for more than a few weeks at a time. I want to change that.

I'm going to write whatever comes to my mind. This blog will be a space for me to accomplish that goal. I don't care if anyone else even reads these ramblings. Perhaps a few people will, although if they do read my writing in this space, I doubt they will go all the way back to my introduction. So, if you are reading this, consider yourself one of a happy (or unlucky?) few.

One of the great luxuries in life is to have close friends. This is especially true when you need someone to listen to your greatest fears, your insecurities, your ambitions, your dreams, and your hopes. Close friends aren't really a luxury - they're a necessity - yet not everyone has them, or has them to the desired degree. I don't.

That's part of why I'm writing - here, now. I'm writing for myself. I've heard advice before that said (here I'm paraphrasing) - "if you are writing for anyone besides yourself, then you won't be able to maintain the willpower to continue writing". I believe that's true, so I make two promises today:

1. To continue writing at least 500 words every day. 2. To write for a primary audience of one: me.

I am probably going to fail in at least one of these objectives. It's a personality trait that my ambition vastly exceeds my work ethic. I'm reasonably confident that, if previous efforts are any guide, I'll ratchet my pace down from once a day to a few times a week and then a few times a month. If I am able to write any more often than that, then I will judge this blogging effort to be a great success. That is my only guideline (besides trying to write at least 500 words every time I post).

On that point, why promise to write at least 500 words every time I post? While 500 words is an arbitrary goal, I don't want to cheat by writing something that has next to no content. I want to explore my thoughts - I want to roll around in my subconscious like a child rolling in a pile of fresh autumn leaves. I want to taste that freedom, so I need space to jump into.

Further, having a tangible goal is a great way for me to concentrate my thoughts. I've found that limits inspire my creativity, and I feel that this observation is true for many writers. Also, I can be an awful procrastinator, so without a specific guideline, it is likely that I'll only do the bare minimum when I'm not feeling inspired.

Lastly, I hope that writing more often will help me feel inspired more often. I want to unleash a virtuous cycle of writing. This project may help me begin that cycle. If you are reading this, thank you for following my journeys! As a final disclaimer: many of my entries will be extremely personal, difficult, or obscure. Sometimes, writing what's inside my mind will be a painful process. Please judge sparingly. I am striving to be as open as possible - that is all. Any other standard is beyond the mission of this blog.