February 27, 2008

Writing 101 - Pen and Paper

I found it! I've heard it mentioned, but didn't put two and two together until I finally started working my way through the March 2008 issue of the Shambhala Sun and stumbled upon the article "Write Your Life," and excerpt from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. In 1986, Natalie published her first book Writing Down the Bones about writing as a spiritual practice. Natalie practices in the Zen tradition. So I found it! Someone else who sees writing as a spiritual practice.

Her first chapter is "First Thought, Pen and Paper," about the implements in writing. Although the book is in its second edition with a new foreword written in 2005, this chapter hearkens back to the original 1986 publication. It speaks of the importance of choosing the right pen, the right notebook, of mixing things up and finding what works best for you. It got me to wondering how my chosen method impacts my writing.

I have never written, I mean seriously (or less than seriously), creatively written without a computer. The first computers started showing up in schools when I was in second or third grade. We played Oregon Trail on the black and green screen. I always lost half my kids fording a river and starved to death in the wilds of Wyoming. We got out first home computer, an Epson 386 when I was in fifth grade, I think. I started writing on that right away.

It is a very rare thing for me to compose anything by hand, though I have from time to time, usually when I am bored, that is all that is on hand and I am willing to take my time. Natalie talks about the importance of finding a pen which is smooth and swift enough not to slow you down. I type at better than sixty words per minute and still find that too slow. I don't like writing by hand because my hand cramps up and hurts. One thing I do notice when I right by hand is that I take the time to compose my thoughts before I write. They are less spontaneous, but often more eloquent - good in some ways, bad in others.

When my brother and I were teens, I complained to my mother that he was hogging the computer all the time and I would really like to be able to write more. She managed to find me an old word processor, made by Brother, ironically, the kind with the four line pixelated screen (like a graphing calculator) and a typewriter built in. I could save files to a 3.5" floppy disk. It made a horrible racket when it printed, like sixty typewriters at once, flying faster than even I could manage. I loved it. I always preferred to use it on the straight typewriter function. I could even correct spelling mistakes if I noticed them within a word or two. Something about the sound, the satisfaction of the letter punching paper, the way the keys felt under my fingers, just makes me absurdly happy. Modern keyboards just don't carry that same kind of tactile satisfaction. Sometimes I can find it in really old ones, but not very often. I still have that word processor. It still works, and I drag it out every now and then just for fun.

Otherwise I write on computers, my own, those in the labs and lounges. Sometimes I scribbly little thoughts and stories in notebooks during boring classes, but that rarely amounts to much. Several attempts at hand journal writing have failed miserably. But I've never stopped writing.

Thank Whomever for laptops and spell check and thank Natalie for her books.

February 26, 2008

Bump, Ouch!

So, I've fallen off the wagon. It's still trundling along before me, slow and steady, and here I am sitting in the dirt rubbing my butt and wondering if I even want to bother getting back on. Oh, the wide open spaces all around. I could literally head off in any direction. Nothing says I have to follow that rutted two wheel track. Oh, the empty spaces all around. Who knows what's out there? Maybe I'll just walk along beside until I've made up my mind.

So the intentional living, not spending money thing went out the window about the first of January, when I got a better job. Granted, I've still been good, choosing wisely. I upgraded the software on my computer, which helps a lot with school. I got new glasses to replace those I've lost (and were two prescriptions old anyway). I got the affore-mentioned hypocritical winter coat and a few new pieces of clothing as I enter into interview season. I've still managed to do a lot of weeding out and giving away of other things. None of that bothers me, but I've been spending far too much money on two other things: 1) eating out and 2) entertainment.

I never was a very good vegetarian and as time compresses my repertoire just gets more and more boring. How much pasta, frozen veggies, and soy burger can one girl take? So, sometimes I just wouldn't eat, which is not the best idea in the world. Then I started eating out, because I couldn't stand cooking anymore. I can't really keep doing that, though; it's such a waste. The money, the throw away containers, the leftovers, yikes! So I'm off the wagon. This week I picked up a package of cold chicken at the grocery store. Yummy and greasy and utterly disgusting. I'm going to see if limited meat intake can help me at least stay away from eating out. Lesser of two evils, anyone? (On the ride in this morning, as I was thinking about this, one of the campus cats, a long-haired, scruffy, black and white mop was crouched on the top of a garden wall glaring at me like "So what? You humans are so stupid sometimes.")

Also, strangely enough, my new job has given me so much more time. The hours are extremely flexible and I can work from home. I don't have to be anywhere. I'm only taking three classes, not five. I'm still working at the art gallery, which is just a study hall anyway, so I find a lot of time on my hands. I've been downloading shows from iTunes. I signed up for Netflix again. I've hit Blockbuster a few times. I've been writing a lot. And this weekend I read and extremely light and fluffy set of books by Richelle Mead called Succubus Blues and Succubus on Top. (Oh, the giggles!)

I hope I get an exciting internship this summer, or I may have to take drastic measures.

February 21, 2008

Chivalry Is Not Dead

Late last night, while leaving a long senate meeting, I was walking down the steps in the Nebraska Union. I pulled my hat out of my coat pocket and out with it came my coin purse, which promptly hit the landing and spilled coins everywhere. Without hesitation, two people came to help me pick up the change. One young man even put down his cell phone and ran half way up the stairs to help gather what couldn't have been more than two dollars in pennies, nickles, and quarters. It made me so absurdly happy.

We hold the doors for each other. People even wait several seconds for the person behind them to catch up so the door doesn't slam in their face. Men, young and old, will hold the door open and step aside to let ladies enter first. Just to be fair, I try to do the same for anyone else, male of female. Entryways see the exchange of many thank you's and you're welcome's.

When my car was plowed in two weeks ago, the guys who shovel the walk at the State Capitol came and helped push me out. They said they had been told not to by their bosses (sometimes I think liability insurance agents are out to ruin the world). One guys said he would help anyway and the other said he would help just because he was told not to. They had me out in under five minutes. I never even got their names. I've seen others do the same and done it myself. When someone is stuck spinning their tires, three or four other motorists will stop, get out and push, and then go on their way again. It's just what you do.

People offer rides to their classmates without prompting on cold winter nights. Lisa will offer one to me on Tuesdays, Keith on Thursdays, and I'll offer a ride to Corina on Wednesdays.

"Studio Culture" is much debated at the architecture college. For all it's downsides, it does build a sense of solidarity. Anyone can borrow anything from anybody at anytime. Sharpies, rulers, staplers, drafting tape, knives, scales, glue, anything at all. When things seem to wander off, nobody fusses, they just reach over and borrow from their neighbor. Eventually it all comes back around. We lean over each other's shoulders, help with projects, teach new computer skills, and edit term papers.

We wait for each other in traffic. The other day, while trying to pull out of a parking space along busy 10th street during rush hour, a nice gentleman stopped his car (and everyone behind him) to waive me out.

If you drop something, someone will pick it up and run after you. I've lost my wallet twice in my life and had it returned both times with all the cash and credit cards intact.

A complete stranger once changed my flat tire on a busy street corner in Omaha.

When we pass someone on the street and make eye contact, we smile, sometimes nod, sometimes say hello - even if we don't know them. I've been told by visitors that this is odd.

We smile, say please, thank you, and your welcome to the TSA agents at the airport. They return the favor. I've noticed this isn't the case at other airports.

I love Nebraska.

DN Article - Consumerism as Religion

To comply with copyrite rules, my editor has kindly asked that I not post my entire article on my blog, but I can post the link to the DN's website. If anyone wants to quote or use excerpts from my articles within one year of printing, please as permission. (Sotto voice: I don't really care.) Here you are.

Comsumerism as Religion


February 13, 2008

DN Article - Drowning Twain

I have a book on my shelf - a compilation of essays titled "Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race."

Would that I could write a diatribe the likes of Mark Twain - but I can't, so I shan't.

Sometimes I feel like Chicken Little, yelling at the top of my lungs that the sky is falling and getting about as much reaction. I suppose that's the lot of a tree hugger.

The most aggravating objection, the most frustrating question, the most maddening, annoying, trying, provoking - and probably the most successful - protest about the environmental lobby is the one I hear most often: "What's one more?"

"Surely one more (circle your choice: aluminum can, parking lot, plastic bag, well, coal power plant, asphalt roof top, SUV, synthetic turf field) won't have a measurable impact?"

The problem is, they are usually correct. One more (whatever) has practically no measurable impact. How do you think we ended up with hundreds, thousands, millions of (whatever)? And it wasn't until we had all those (whatever) that we noticed we suddenly had a problem on our hands.

Of course, the analogies are endless - the straw and the camel, the drop and the flood, the spark and the inferno, etc. I'm sure Twain could conjure some appropriately refreshing and equally visceral metaphors.

When Shakespeare wrote the play "Julius Caesar," he included a debate before the people of Rome. Each side sought to bargain for the life of Caesar; one used reason and logic, the other emotion and passion. I don't think we need to reread the play to figure out which argument won.

For decades, scientists have presented data, numbers, worrisome facts, warnings, charts, graphs and figures. For decades, others have argued with them. Heck, half of the time they are arguing with each other, which doesn't help matters.

Environmentalists are accused of being alarmist and ideologist. We are heralds of woe. We question the status quo and advocate change - the sin of sins. Worse yet, we sometimes "threaten" death and destruction and try to "force" people into giving up their well-earned comforts.

Sound familiar?

In a recent course on the legal aspects of planning, we went around the table to tell a little bit about ourselves and describe what kind of causes are of interest to us. I tossed out my flippant self-description as a revolutionary social environmentalist (it's hard to say with a straight face sometimes). My professor immediately wanted to know where I was from. I think he was expecting California or New York, not a fourth-generation Nebraskan.

"Consternation" describes his reaction lightly.

I'm sure he was wondering how that happens. How does a nice Midwestern girl from an upstanding conservative family with small town roots turn into an environmentalist? (My mother still says it like a four-letter word.)

Well, I take hope in the writings of Twain.

"Half of our people passionately believe in high tariff, the other half believe otherwise. Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. I have deeply studied that question, too - and didn't arrive. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the voice of God." (From "Corn-Pone Opinions" published in 1923.)

I am in luck then, because public opinion is changing. Enough people are coming to agree on one simple thing - that (whatever) I spoke of earlier is on The Official List of Bad Things. Enough people have stopped arguing over how much sulfur dioxide we can spew into the atmosphere before we get acid rain and have instead started to agree that sulfur dioxide is on the list. Enough people have stopped arguing over when the aluminum cans, plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups will overburden our landfills and started to agree that they are on the list.

Consensus is building. Public opinion is shifting, as it inevitably does.

And that gives me hope for one more thing - that we can stifle the final ambition of that cantankerous old man who was, and still is, our greatest voice.

As John Macy quoted Mark Twain in Macy's biography, "I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this branch office; when I retire there will be no one to take my place. I shall keep on doing my duty, for when I get over on the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark."

It would be no end of irony should we be "drowned good" of our own hand. Twain would laugh his ass off.

Leggo my Ego

EGO! Up it pops. Strong little bugger, too. I feel it pushing me around, strengthening embedded tendencies, building the walls in the maze too high to climb over. Where do I find it but in my interactions with others, including my writing, which I had been warned of.

I meet with many people throughout the course of the week – mentors and teachers, colleagues and associates, bosses and classmates – but rarely friends. I find personal stories and anecdotes infiltrating what should otherwise be business conversations. This is acceptable to a degree, but lately I find a greater sense of urgency, almost desperation behind them. That’s when I realize, among all those people I see on a weekly basis, there are very few who are simply friends. Generally I consider them all friends, but they are more as well; they each have other standings, responsibilities, and relationships which must be considered.

I realize that it has been a very long time since I had anyone I could just talk to, instead of having a meeting agenda. I want something from them and they want something from me, and none of it involves simple companionship. There is no one in my life just now who knows everything which is happening. We all tend to have someone like that, first our parents, our best friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, roommates, etc., who simply know on a day to day basis what is happening and about whom we know the same.

So I feel the push to compensate in my more formal relationships with others. I compensate in my writing. Things start getting twisted. Authenticity shrinks. I begin to feel a need to fill the gap by drawing others in. If I am just interesting enough, witty enough, insightful enough, someone will find something in me worth building a relationship on and we can become genuine friends. It is a very strange and unsettling feeling. Especially at a time when I am personally feeling very fulfilled, when my work is really starting to mean something to me and I can feel myself building a positive future.

I feel it when I meet with my editor, Chuck. (Who is one of dozens of people I suddenly find myself surrounded by who is too young to even come out for a drink with me. That was a surprising revelation.) I feel this urgent need for affirmation. I feel a corresponding need to prove myself worthy of affirmation. I can feel that showing through my work and I am dissatisfied. Suddenly it is no longer about process or authenticity or fun, it becomes about result. I have always believed the means to not justify the ends and this is no different. Intention matters. Contrivance is ego.

I read some of my earlier work, for this summer when I was at Shambhala. That situation and this situation are polar opposites and I think it shows. It is interesting to note the impact. It is interesting to watch my mind adjust and my ego scramble.

Do I love the mountain center so much because being provides a constant reaffirmation?

February 12, 2008

Death & Dying

“What do I want to write about?” I think to myself. Add a long mental “Hmmmm…” This is a tuffy today. Not because I’m stuck, or because I have writers’ block, or a blank mind, but because I have a strong feeling I know what I need to write about yet fear to approach it. I know the topic, but don’t have any real kind of insight to offer. I fear I won’t be able to do it justice. So instead my mind wanders off on this funny little artificial high.

“How does water work?” I wonder. “How do you take one oxygen molecule and two hydrogen molecules, both gasses (at air temperature) which require massive cooling or compression to form into a liquid, bump them together, and suddenly we’ve got a hot shower or a bowl of soup? Why are the properties of water, the temperatures at which it changes from a gas to a liquid to a solid, so disparate from the properties of its component atoms?”

I’m not actually that amused. I know I’m not as happy as I’m trying to be. I am covering up an underlying sadness which I’m having a hard time explaining to myself. Not that it really needs explanation, but that never did stop me from trying. It’s not just the sadness though, it is this odd little sense of joy or awe that goes with it. I am standing on the edge watching star beginning and star ending, beautiful and sorrowful simultaneously. I am confronting death.

Another person in my life is coming to an end. She may have already ended, though she has not yet died. My Grandmother Elaine is eighty-six years old. My parents and I travelled to see her this weekend. My aunt and uncle who live in the same small town warned us we would be shocked, but when we visited she was worse than even they expected. We stayed only a short time. She did not realize we were there. I might have liked to stay longer, perhaps read to her, but Mom and I followed my Dad’s lead when he said it was time to go. I can image it was hard for him to see his mother like this.

It was hard for me later, listening to him and his brother rehash every moment of the last year or so. She was probably feeling badly long before she let on, they though. If only they had moved her to assisted living sooner, when she was well enough to still get about. She might have learned to like it. She might not have given up, for they are sure that she has and it has led to this. If only she had gone to this specialist sooner, been diagnosed sooner. If…

As if…somehow she would not die. As if it would not have been difficult. But what bothers me more than anything is the idea that her death is this dark, evil, terrible thing. Maybe I would feel differently if I was speaking of my own mother. I’ve wondered about that a lot, even tried to imagine it, as morbid as that is.

Death used to be the most frightening thing I could imagine, especially after I left the church. Death was just the end, a big dark scary hole. That might very well still be the case. As much as I talk about reincarnation, I can’t say I have absolute belief. Despite my lingering doubts, the idea that death is in fact the end of it, I find that doesn’t necessarily scare me.

In a funny way, that makes this even cooler. (I would use the word miraculous, but that has connotations which I would prefer to avoid.) I was home last night and my cat was sitting on my lap. She is very warm and soft. Well, except for those sharp pointy things still attached to her paws. But she might as well be that microwave heating pad I use on my neck. Except when I reach out and lay my hand on her, and she squawks and glares at me. I have no idea what makes her able to do that any more than my heating pad, but so far it’s never squawked at me. Yet in a few years, she’ll die too.

That’s the tiny joy behind the sadness; it’s the idea that I don’t know how any of it works, and I don’t have to.

February 06, 2008

I'm a Murdering Hypocrit

Ok, so I bought a coat. It’s definitely the nicest winter coat I’ve ever owned. Surely better than the too small $1 rummage sale find I’ve been wearing for the last five years. It’s dressy enough for suits and skirts, but not too fancy for jeans. It’s wool with a satin lining, long enough to save my butt from cold bus stop benches and short enough not to tangle my legs on the bicycle. It’s black with good tailoring which makes it clear I still have a waist. It took me three hours of internet shopping (not fun) to find. It has the all important hood. Only one problem: the hood is trimmed in fox fur. Real, honest, fox fur dyed black.

I bought it anyway and I love it lots.

February 04, 2008

Mysterious Miazaki

There is a Japanese filmmaker named Hayao Miazaki. He makes animated films, anime, better than the vast majority of Hollywood movies. I love every one I have ever seen. I can’t go a month without watching at least one, even if I have seen it a half dozen times before. Luckily, Miazaki has been making movies for decades.

The thing I love about these films is the absolute sense of wonder, the mystery, the ability to accept that not everything has to be explained, some things just are. There is a young hero or heroine, sometimes both, whose courage and bravery will see them through. The power of youth carries a certain mythology with it.

The very young and very old seem to hold a special place in Japanese storytelling. I have seen this truth born out in reality as well. In some community development work I took part in last year we found the very youngest generation and the very oldest generation shared the same value sets. It was almost as if the teenagers were still young enough to have ideals and the elderly had enough wisdom to have realized those ideals were all that really mattered. The people in the middle are too busy making a living, raising a family, mowing the lawn, preparing for that business meeting, or feeding the dog.

Aside from the young and idealistic heroine, very little after that is predictable. The “bad guy” is very rarely simply evil. The “good guy” is often mysterious and more than a little frightening. There are Cat Busses, Radish Spirits, Boar Gods, wizards, flying machines, cats dressed more elegantly than a gentleman in a Jane Eyre movie, and little tree spirits whose heads shake like tiny rattles. It sounds fantastical and often is, yet it is done with a grace and wit which make it easy to embrace.

Industry versus nature is a common theme, each alternately seeming more sinister than the other. Family, trust, and love are central.

But the thing I love most is that central to the hero’s success is his absolute belief in the good within all beings.

February 03, 2008

Green Dalai Lama

It's just a day for interesting things in the news it seems. Tenzin Gyatso is Grist's (www.grist.org) #2 on their list of the top 15 Green Religious Leaders.

"The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet has been talking up environmental protection since he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He has said that he considers environmental issues to be among the key challenges facing humanity today -- and as an exile whose homeland is under occupation, he's a man who knows challenges. The U.K. Environment Agency named him one of the top 100 green campaigners of all time last year. This year, the Dalai Lama is offsetting emissions generated by his world tour, and at many of the stops he's stressing the importance of kindness to the planet. He has been outspoken about protecting forests and wildlife and controlling the spread of nuclear power. He calls a clean environment a basic human right, and declares, 'It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than we found it.'"

Cool, huh?

Speaking of Faith Today

I heard an interesting thing on the NPR show "Speaking of Faith." Krista Tippet was reading from her recent book of the same name. Toward the end of the show she said (forgive me if the quote is not exact):

“Thich Naht Hanh is not a theist, but sitting in a room with him was the closest I have ever felt to sitting in the presence of God.

February 01, 2008

Book - Geography of Bliss

Every morning I listen to NPR, just before and just after getting out of bed. Some time ago I heard an interview with long time NPR correspondent Eric Wiener, who had recently written a book The Geography of Bliss. Eric had spent a year traveling to the happiest places on earth, and a few unhappy ones just for comparison.

Eric, a self styled grouch and occasional hypochondriac started by consulting a professor in the Netherlands who runs, believe it or not, the World Happiness Database. From there he made a short list, beginning his explorations in Holland itself. Each of the following chapters is dedicated to a country – Switzerland, Bhutan, Iceland, India, Britain, Moldova, and Qatar to name a few, finally ending back home in the good ole U.S. of A.

Eric writes in a witty and conversational style which I found endearing. He’s certainly no academic, but no preacher either. He has a knack for putting the reader on his shoulder as he travels.

Over and over, one thing comes through. Each country has its own path to happiness, they are many and varied, but inevitably happiness rests not in money, time, control, or weather, but in other. Happiness lies in the people we surround ourselves with, in the connections we have, and in the communities we create.

While the happy countries are happy in a multiplicity of ways, the unhappy countries all suffer from something that disconnects people from one another. In Moldova it was “not my problem” syndrome. Eric found that envy of any kind was a type of poison. Switzerland gets along so well by making sure no one is jealous of them. No one wants what Switzerland has. Heck, they’ve done such a good job no one is even sure what it is they have.

There were no great conclusions, no profound revelations, no epiphanies. Eric manages to weave a story which is just downright fun to read without having to ever bother with trying to figure out what the point is. I recommend it to anyone who feels like a lazy weekend or a good pre-bedtime mood lightening.

Happiness is….(you fill in the blank.)