Sunday, December 2, 2012

West Coast Vibe

The grey is grounding,
After all, it is December.
Standing here
In workout clothes
On the beach in Santa Monica
And not freezing.
I look out over the Pacific
Amid the beach's paraphernalia
Restrained from exuberance
By the light drizzle.
I watch the Ferris wheel,
Bright and gaudy
Unmistakably childish
With a west-coast
Commitment to
A non-serious vibe.

I think a little of
An English grey
A little harder than this:
Slick, hard pavements
Wet and cold after the rain,

And I smile.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Stationary Glide

When the wind catches,
Their outstretched wings,
Birds glide,
suspended in space.
I'd guess, they laugh
to themselves
As the rush of air
Buoys them and holds them,
Propels them and frees them.

When my own breathing
A hidden edge
Of balance,
And lifts me
Muscle by muscle,
Bone by bone,
To a hold
Previously unreachable
I chuckle inwardly.
Not quite as graceful
As a gliding gull,
But hey.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The eyes on the wire

Oh like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

'Bird on the wire'
Leonard Cohen

I was driving from work in the early evening, waiting at a red light in the grim no-mans-land of the space beneath a freeway in Los Angeles and just glimpsed a view of a pathetic, saddening sight. A struggling, misshapen, bundle of feathers, flapped uselessly as it dangled trying to escape from a wirelink fence. I sat, a little horrified, not sure what I was seeing and the light turned green and I drove off.

It was a crow, it's legs somehow entangled and bloody on the wire. Trapped, dangling, helpless, waiting to die.

In the space of thirty seconds, I turned the car around and started looking for a place to park so that I could find some way to help. I had to park illegally and jaywalk to return to the spot. As I walked up to try to figure out what to do, another car pulled up and a guy hopped out with precisely the same thought on his mind as me.

It was a moment of immediate recognition, cooperation and shared humanity. We started trying to figure out what we could do. The crow had some sort of plastic twine wrapped around it's legs that had snagged. It was ten feet up and neither of us could reach it on our own. The only cutting implement we had was a plastic knife. The other man made a cradle with his hands that I stepped into and we started trying to cut the crow free.

Naturally, the plastic knife was completely useless and I had to try to be careful to avoid hurting the crow, avoid being pecked and scratched by the barbs of the wire. I'm not exactly a dainty, little thing: I weigh a solid 180lb and as I was dithering trying to cut the twine, my new friend was finding it hard to keep hold. We took a break to reexamine our options. It was then that we noticed a whole murder of other crows, circling and screeching. They could see what we were doing. They probably thought we were trying to kill or eat their friend and they making a lot of noise. Their caw-cawing probably meant "You bastards! Leave him alone!"

We looked at each other, hopping up to try again. This time, I tossed the knife away and just tried to pull the wire apart with my hands. My friend kept it together, holding me steady. As I came close, the crow on the wire stopped moving, his black eyes focussed on me in a moment of realization. I swear that I saw something glimmer in his eyes at that moment: a sort of desperate hope, perhaps even the recognition of me as a friend.

The twine gave way, and I scratched my hand across the barbs of the fence. The crow fell in a bundle of bones and feathers, but the sudden movement returned him to his element. He unfurled his wings and transformed in an instant from a clumsy, broken thing to the majestic shape of a bird in flight. He swooped away from us effortlessly, rising to join his brethren in the sky.

My new friend gently lowered me to the ground. We looked at each other and smiled. I held out my hand. "I'm Gully" I said. We shook. "I'm Bruce", he replied. I think I said something like "Very well done, sir" and with that we got in our cars and went our separate ways.

There we were: two complete strangers, coming together without any forethought in a moment of crisis to help. Neither of us could have managed on our own, we needed each other. We both knew precisely what we were doing and why we were there without bullshit, without ego, without any need beyond the fierce urgency of saving a life, hanging helpless from a wire.

It is this urgency that we have lost. We rarely see the sheer, bloody, inviolable miracle of looking into another creature's eyes and seeing a thinking being there. We rarely have our interactions be simple expressions of love and support, strength and courage. We sully the miracle of our lives with petty fears and concerns, with our defense mechanisms for our vulnerable egos, with our fantasies for things we see in movies or on TV, with our arguments to diminish other people and elevate ourselves.

But there are rare and real moments of pure clarity that provide the antidote. They are what matter and strangely enough, attempting to construct them artifically almost never results in their authentic expression. Better to live true, be kind, and be ready for them when they appear. I hope that I will be able to.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Walled Gardens

Last year, I signed up to a 300-hour teacher training apprenticeship program in a new up-and-coming school in Santa Monica. I should not have, I had nothing like the sufficient time available in my schedule but I knew a number of the teachers at the school personally and the owner charmed me. He promised that he would do everything he could to make my experience really fantastic. I had the impression that there were things I could learn with this man - his wit, his sense of humor, his laid-back approach to the practice. It all spoke to me of places in life that I, with enough instruction or patience, could one day arrive. It spoke to me a place that I did not inhabit, a walled garden, a sanctuary. I wanted to live there.

Fast-forward a year and the final, guillotining communication from him that severed my contact with this studio echoes with condemnation of me as a person.
"I am sure you are angry ... it is your anger that prevented me from discussing the [DELETED] matter with you and kept me from quickly responding to your demands. You scare me and you have for a long time."
Here, the walled garden was now protecting its serenity, through force.

When I was still in the program back in February, I was going through a rough time. I had met someone at the studio who I had developed strong feelings for. Those feelings were not reciprocated, however, and there followed several weeks where the woman I liked was not attending class. I sent her texts: "Am I the reason you're not coming to class?". "No, no, I'm having roommate issues" came the replies. Something was wrong and I wasn't sure what. I finally came to the realization "No, no, you are the reason she's not coming to class, (you stupid douchebag)" and I immediately left the program, informing her voicemail that I was going and it was now OK for her to return.

During this time, I felt pretty low. The feeling of rejection surrounding the entire experience was traumatizing. I wanted to talk to the owner of the studio about this and maybe ask for a partial refund of the money I had spent to sign up. No dice. He was slow returning my emails or calls. After 6 weeks of waiting, I got angry and told him so. It all degraded even further from there. I wrote a strongly negative review for the studio online and the owner posted a number of quite hurtful, dismissive rebuttals and then sent his final email to me (partially quoted above). He said nastier things in this mail, some of which were deliberately intended to be hurtful, coercive, threatening even. I was quite careful not to make my communications personal (either private or public), but even then, he obviously interpreted the whole event as an attack on him.

I think back on this interaction and furrow my eyes in perplexed confusion. As a business owner, his handling of my participation took a perfectly straightforward situation requiring a little humanity and turned it into something really nasty. Some of the things he did were things I consider both egregious and unethical.

Why would someone apparently committed to the pursuit of yoga treat one of his customers so badly? He seemed genuinely frightened of the 'negative energy' that I had suddenly introduced into his world. I think that he felt that he was fighting for his livelihood against someone who he couldn't empathize with or understand.

All of his actions were geared towards excluding my 'issues' from his life. He initially ignored my requests for communication. When I posted my review, he tried to have it taken down. He then attempted to silence me by discrediting me and then his final communication has the tone of an act of violence: an emphatic rejection of me as a person. Naturally, this had a strong impact on me. I thought that perhaps that it might have had a traumatizing impact on him too, but no, he only really cared about the negative 'one-star' Yelp review I posted about his studio online. When I published this post, I also took down the review since now, it's time to move on.

As he wrote in his email to me, I scare him. Perhaps the purpose of yoga is to make people happy, and it's natural to attempt to preserve a space of happiness around ourselves. It's natural to attempt to avoid negativity, and to shy away from people with issues. We hang out with people we like, we avoid people we don't. It's simple, right?

Well, no. To paraphrase some Sanskrit (and hopefully do justice to millennia of ancient wisdom), yogic philosophy describes the four essential causes of suffering as egotism (asmita), desire (raga), revulsion (dvesha) and our own fear of dying (abhinivesha). These can all be bundled together so that each is a different expression of the same underlying root: a misperception of reality (avidya). Dvesha is related to this fear of negativity. The act of pushing away and ignoring the things that we recoil from prevents us from engaging powerfully with them. One might say even, that it is the basis of hate, of non-acceptance, of cruelty.

How do we learn to mistreat people? We start by distancing ourselves from them.

It seems that we think of 'happiness' as an idyllic walled garden: peaceful, tranquil, and full of gorgeous, happy, perfect people who never cause problems. Here, negativity can feel a little like a smelly homeless man mumbling quietly to himself in a corner. Most people just stay the hell away from him. Some people want to tidy him up a little and maybe make him a little more palatable for everyone by giving him some new clothes and a bath perhaps. Some people want to chuck him out, make sure he doesn't ever come back and attempt to eradicate any trace that he was ever there. Now, that's dvesha in a nutshell.

A little compassion goes a long way. Negativity is usually based on some sort of unresolved trauma. Even aggressive, argumentative, upsetting negativity is worthy of an ear just to listen to. In fact, people who are upset often only want to be heard and understood. Some of the most profound moments of communication I've had in my life were with people who were angry and shouting. When I was able to hear what they were actually trying to tell me, the whole situation usually transformed in a heartbeat. Sadly, that has not always been possible and, God Knows, I've been on the other side of that situation, saying how I feel, trying to be heard, but using a tone or a timbre that frames the conversation in a way that prevents the other person from hearing me. I'm sure that this is what happened with my experiences at the studio.

The defenses of these little walled gardens of human perfection are cold, hard and sharp.

Even now, I value my negativity, my shadow, my 'issues'. It serves as a barometer to gauge people's resilience. If someone can't handle a little honesty about a sticky point of conversation or the authentic expression of an emotion, what sort of person are they going to become when genuinely difficult situations arise? What will they do to protect their own little piece of perfection?

Life is as it is, negative and positive. For me, yoga is somehow to seek a sense of equanimity that treats the negative with the same respect and attention as the positive and isn't afraid of it. My personal challenge is certainly to understand the impact that my negativity has on others and be responsible for that impact (in some contexts though, I still assert that it's not unreasonable to expect a little courage, humanity and compassion from the people around you, especially in the context of something so personal as yoga). Having said that, there is a trend in the emerging multimillion dollar self-help and self-improvement industry towards the complete eradication of negativity. We are encouraged to try to build some version of the pristine, perfect, personal walled garden. These are now being sold as services, practices, tapes, books, courses, gurus (and yoga teacher trainings) as possible vehicles for you to transform your life into something beautiful, a place where you can strive to be perfect and happy: a walled garden all for yourself.

All I can say now, is 'Buyer beware'.
"Don't try to transform yourself.
Move into yourself.
Move into your human unsuccess.
Perfection rapes the soul."

- Marion Woodman quoted in Stephen Cope 'Yoga and the search for the true self'"

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I am a point mass

I am a point mass
Swept up in the flow of folk
Conducted by boys in blue.

Do drops of water have take off their shoes, I wonder?
Do they become strangely uneasy when others move faster than they.
Do they make idle conversation, loitering in tide pools?

I am a point mass,
One amongst many,
To be shuffled and sorted and guided.
I regain my humanity only when I arrive.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Love, Sex toys and Gucci couture

One particularly awful date a couple of years ago tattooed itself into my soul. My date spent the evening describing how several other men (who had also shown an interest in her) made her feel. She used an interesting analogy to explain what was going on to me: one man she had been seeing was like a 'warm cuddly sweater', but she was looking for a guy like a 'Gucci dress'. I suspect this was all a not-so-subtle attempt to explain how she was not even slightly interested in me. She never got around to telling me what kind of fashion accessory she saw me as. By that time, I was too disgusted and angry to care.

To me, this seemed the quintessence of why dating in Los Angeles sucks. I'm not a bloody handbag, I'm a person.

'Objectification' may be thought of the process by which a person is made into a thing.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that something is objectified if certain criteria are present. These include instrumentality (if the thing is treated as a tool for one's own purposes); denial of autonomy (if the thing is treated as if lacking in agency or self-determination); fungibility (if the thing is treated as if interchangeable); denial of subjectivity (if the thing is treated as if there is no need to show concern for the 'object's' feelings and experiences). Note that one of the categories is violability (if the thing is treated as if permissible to damage or destroy) which, when applied to people is widely considered unacceptable. All of the other criteria, however, are habitually and routinely applied by people on each other within the context of dating.

When men do this, it's generally based on treating women as sexual objects and is justifiably recognized as denigrating, dehumanizing and exploitative. When women do this, its usually related to finding a sugar-daddy or a protector. At their worst, men seek women as sex toys; and apparently, women are looking for Gucci couture. I think that these are just the worst, most obvious examples, but the underlying attitude is absolutely pervasive, widely accepted and wildly destructive to everyone touched by it.

Objectification tends to be obvious to bystanders watching it happening. Recently, I was standing in the lunch queue at my local sandwich shop and two women standing behind me were describing a friend of theirs who was in the thrall of a particularly exploitative man. This is something we have all seen. It sounded as if she was simply being used by the man she was interested in and both friends were delicately talking about how she didn't want to hear them tell her the truth. We've all been there. The person being used is always the last to realize and the person being used is often strangely complicit in their own exploitation. "They'll only like me if I give them something" or so the logic goes.

I think people objectify one another (and themselves) all the time in romantic relationships, especially in Los Angeles. If you find yourself asking the question "Do I love this person?" and you rationalize your perspective via a pros-and-cons sort of logic then guess what? You're objectifying the person you're evaluating. That person is now a thing that provides you with something like sex, or money, or romance. It might be framed as someone who makes you feel a certain way, or someone who fulfills a romantic (or sexual) fantasy or caricature. Where are they as a person in this calculation? Why is love so resplendent, so shockingly glorious and beautiful, so selfless and unthinking amid all the cynical calculations? Well, it hinges on the thought of the loved one as someone you treat with the same consideration as you treat yourself, or more. Quite the antithesis of the sorts of selfish calculations I find so sickening.

So, please, take a moment and see the person sitting across the table from you. The person who has spent hours in front of a mirror or on a treadmill to look their best, and be the specific-type-of-object you currently think you're looking for in a man or a woman. Take a moment, throw all that nonsense aside, be yourself and talk to them as a person. You might find a little moment of transcendent vulnerable beauty shimmering in the darkness. In that discovery, you will make the world a happier, more radiant place for all of us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The 'Fundamental Virtues'

Flying is one of those interesting contexts when people will usually be happy to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. It can be awkward when you realize that you’re falling into a political discussion with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. I view these situations as an opportunity: a moment in time where it’s genuinely possible to learn something. I was sitting next to an older gentleman on a flight from LA to DC. As we were pulling back from the gate, I noticed the title of the chapter he was reading: “The Battle of Britain” and I immediately saw an opening.

“My granddad flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain”, I said. He looked up, a little baffled and I repeated myself by way of introduction. We started to chat. The book he was reading was a catalog of the seven moments in history. Seven separate events that the authors singled out as signature moments when 'Christian Freedom and Democracy' were preserved from the onrushing invasions of malignant invaders. One chapter was about the Persians at Thermopylae, another about the conversion of the Emperor Augustine, another about Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, and of course, the Battle of Britain. I had reservations and voiced them. Isn’t that ignoring a whole slice of history? Wasn’t that conveniently forgetting the excesses of the Borgias and the Catholic Church in the days just before the reformation? He fielded my questions with some grace but not much engagement and we left it at that, for the time being.

Simplicity is appealing when we’re talking about virtue and goodness. Complex things, grey areas, pragmatic issues of contradictions lead to all sorts of issues and so it’s expedient to simplify matters to the simple dichotomy of ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, or more sinisterly ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Complexity leads to hemming and hawing, to moralistic relativity and the apparent slippery slope of compromise. Having said that, a simplistic view of what is right and wrong invariably leads to the sort of intractable argument that our political dialogue is currently, ridiculously, engaged in: a clash of core values that leads nowhere.

I hold the following boldly stated view: there are three fundamental virtues: (A) Compassion, (B) Integrity and (C) Understanding. These are inviolable, sacrosanct, absolute and, for want of a better word, ‘good’. Their inverse: Cruelty, Dishonesty and Ignorance embody what I consider as ‘evil’. The simplicity of this holds me in a strong grasp and interestingly, involves subtle complex pitfalls when applied to other people. Am I being compassionate or understanding towards others if I insist that they adopt my virtues as their own and judge them negatively if they don’t? This is where the complexity and depth lives of any truly moral person: in the consequences of your deeply held views to others.

In my mind, a Christian who preaches the Bible’s lessons of love and forgiveness only to turn around and say that homosexuality is a sin (and by consequence, any gay man or woman is damned) is a shocking contradiction with real, painful consequences to those people. The act of compassion requires you to ‘dethrone yourself from the center of your world and place another there’, leading inexorably to the golden rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you. I doubt that any living soul would actually ask for someone else to issue a judgment of eternal damnation on them based on something as arbitrary and unconscious as sexual orientation, but I guess there’s a whole doctrine of sin to worry about. No, I say, let’s keep it simple: focus on Compassion, Integrity and Understanding and everything else will be fine.

My newly found friend and I started, inevitably, to chat about politics. He is a fiscal conservative, a bit more centrist on social issues and a frequent viewer of Fox News. He doesn’t like Hannity, Limbaugh or Coulter, but still feels that the Fox perspective is fair and balanced. He doesn’t believe the liberal media’s biases and positively loathes the demagogues of the left. He despises Barney Frank and Al Gore and argues passionately about Obama’s budgetary foolishness, about the importance of deregulation and the various ways in which the wealthy shouldn’t be penalized for their success. He and I talk about Health Care and the various sins of the left (from his perspective) and the right (from mine).

I suddenly realized that something important was happening: that he and I lived through the same events: the town hall meetings in 2009 where so much appalling propaganda was pumped through the airwaves surrounding the Health Care bill (mainly, in my mind, originating from the right wing, but he asserted from the left as well) and we had completely different experiences of those events. We literally were living in different worlds, with different logics and different narratives. There was no possible agreement or consensus between us largely because neither of us was getting the full picture. For whatever reason, whoever is to blame, there was almost no way of making an impartial, well-informed, fact-based evaluation of the issues since everything had been reduced to a polemic ‘them-against-us’ sort of argument. So many of the talking points we see in the public forum are geared to denigrating and dismissing our adversaries; of scoring points and killing off; of ridiculing and disingenuously undermining the others arguments.

Here was a man who had spent his life in business finances and he was sharing his expertise with me. The least I could do is listen and think carefully about what he was telling me about the tax code. I’ve read in the Economist (a publication with some chops in this area) that the latest wave of regulations in this arena are just too cumbersome and yet, as a good little liberal, I’m offered a moralistic justification for this legislation based on how the ‘banks are bad’. How can I, as a responsible citizen in a democracy, hold the reigns of power and hold my government to account if I have no accurate access to well-informed information? It’s impossible.

I dread the next few months as we all dissolve into the sepid, vile dialogue of a particularly negative presidential campaign where the three evils of aggression, bullshit and ignorance will reign supreme. I enjoyed my conversation with my new right-wing friend. I learned some things and I hope that he heard me when I said to him: “Don’t demonize the people involved in the conversation but listen to what they have to say”.

I walked away from the interaction feeling more far strongly that these fundamental virtues are the only things that really matter. On the whole, I could care less and less about a person’s political views. I do care very deeply why they might feel the way they feel. Are they motivated by compassion, honesty and understanding? If not, do they understand why? I will probably become a little strident concerning these virtues during the coming presidential campaign.

Let us elevate the level of debate, treat our adversaries with consideration and tell the truth. If anyone wants to make the claim that the USA is the greatest democracy in the world, they should be prepared for my comeback: “Show Me”.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Embrace of Iron

Here, amid the cold flat solid shapes,
Of plates, and stacks, and grips and bars
Of movement, knowledge, effort and breath
I feel safe, at last.

Here, judgement lives only in the weight and the strain
The heft and the shift and the breath and release.
The iron's hands embrace my own as I pull and lift and push
Learning through mass and gravity

It never condescends, it never confuses
It promises nothing other than itself
Exhaustion, strength and peace

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Riding the bus with the Rose King

Tonight, I met the Rose King. A gregarious fellow holding a Big Gulp cup full of roses, fussing away removing petals and, like me, waiting for a bus from Marina del Rey to Santa Monica. He was fussing with them, pulling petals, stripping thorns and just as the bus was about to pull in he handed me one and said 'give this to your girl'.

"I don't have a girl" I replied.

"Use this to get one" he shot back. Seeing him standing there, I started to think of a refrain from a poem. I started to try to recite it but the Rose King turned to me and said "no, write it out". So I did.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angy and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
                                    And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

- 'Virtue', George Herbert.

I scribbled it on a random sheet of paper and gave it to him, trying to recite it so that he could read over my terrible handwriting. We chatted on the bus, he let me take a picture of him. He's Iranian, with a son over here. He has political asylum, obviously concerned about the whole immigration process since that's what he mostly talked about, but he also explained what he is doing with the roses (in a roundabout kind of way). He said "Sometimes miracles happen" and told me a tale of how a young guy, with a beautiful girl on his arm, one time bought his roses for $100 and then gave them back to him. An act of magnanimity that seemed to reaffirm his faith in the world's goodness. Like everyone here, he has his thing, and his thing is roses. 

Currently, I am reading a book about the Middle East: a 1200-page tome called 'The Great War for Civilization" by Robert Fisk. It's a masterpiece about the wars, horrific persecution and disgusting hypcrocrisy that have torn through the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran (and I'm sure we'll get to Lebanon, Syria, Israel as well quite soon, I'm only up to page 200). Rather than read about the torture methods used by the Savak (the Iranian secret police, back in the day) to carve up dissidents, I got to chat to this charming fellow who must have lived through that oppression at some point in his life. 

I don't know this man. I don't know what to make of him. Riding a bus at 11pm with a whole bunch of roses, just to give away to strangers. His story sounded a little sad, a little regretful. He's probably poor and even maybe a little desperate. In the way that matters, and with a twinned Persian gregariousness and Angeleno semi-pseudo-spirituality with that simultaneous shabbiness and dignity, he conjures up the last, powerful stanza of the poem as a sweet and (somewhat) virtuous soul. 

Here he is. If you see him, say hi. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Step Outside

Let's step outside this too rich place,
Where all our thoughts are bought and sold.
Our eyes and ears bombarded with,
The catcalls of this branded world.

Let's sip creation where we can.
Drink down its strength, imbibe its scope
Let's dine on any tastes we find,
To move our hearts and seize their hope.

And then, and only then, we may
Possess the wealth we use and see
By knowing all the bargains struck
For creativity

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Yoga Practice

These field of wire, that intermeshed,
and joined to loose-limbed bones,
Pull in swathes of fibers,
To wash these limbs in force.

The tissues of this jagged form,
Discover geodesics in its grain,
To coruscate with breath like
Crops under summer's breeze.

    Thus, coiled uncoiled,
    I move unmoving.

Every final goodbye is a killing

Every final goodbye is a killing
Even when one softens the blow
The kindness you showed me at leaving
Is nothing to those in the know

Since there's nothing left for the future
Just another door closed with a slam
Soft words are all empty and heartless
A deflection, a lie and a sham

And I don't understand all this meanness
Surrounding my deeds and my acts
When all that I said was just what I felt
And all that I did was react

But that's just not enough for you, is it?
I say the wrong thing and you're gone
No discussion, no wisdom, no patience
Just anger, goodbye and we're done

Kingfisher's Wings

Bright and blue, glittering flashes,
They hide behind your smooth eyelashes

Swoop, dive and flutter in flittering dance,
They rise and they soar in your every glance.

Rare and elusive with glimmering light
You hold, in your eyes, Kingfishers in flight

Dancer Dancer

Sparks of light uncoil from you
As, moving, you unleash a grace,
That swirls and cascades through the air
Weaving poetry in space.

The cadence of your movement,
The flutter in your spine,
Are far more simply eloquent
Than these poor words of mine.

Since I can only try to please
With clever little rhymes,
But you, in flowing elegance,
Breathe life, make love, stop time.

L.A. Observatory

(first impressions of the evening view from Griffith's Observatory)

The view seizes my breath
As I glimpse this city's too vast soul.

The sky is a gauze, bathed by photons,
Washing out the distant raging stars,
With a net of rising light,
Cast by fifteen million souls.

The earthbound constellations glimmer through ozone.
They ignite and die in a clicking of switches.
The ground seethes and shimmers
And the Universe, upstaged, is devoid of stars.

Why am I not surprised?
After all,
This is L.A.

A thread of gently falling stars is strung across my eye.
A queue of Boeings,
Sparse along the border of quiescent heaven and boiling earth.
Each mote of light is three hundred lives.
Like me, they await their immersion in a sea of bright and seething light.

A stunning video of Nightfall over Los Angeles (By Colin Rich)


I had my eye of calm quiet space,
amid confusion wildly hurled,
in which I used to watch and wait
as about me whirled the world.

And looking up, out of myself,
I saw your face amid the bustle,
With calm, bright eyes, and lucid health
Your thoughtful voice devoid of hustle.

And I leapt out, into the wall
Of shifting, moving, whipping things
It caught me, threw me, made me fall
Just like a bird with broken wings.

And now when I have no defense
When I can quietly stop and see:
All the things you said make sense:
The only thing that moves is me.

I am the wind about my heart
That shreds and flays my confidence
I keep me wild and set apart
I treat the world with violence

And so, right now, I have to slow
This frenzied, whirling, crazy spin,
To search and find what I can do
With this, my strange cyclone within.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What is a life worth?

The movie 'Margin Call' is a Wall-Street thriller, almost a re-enactment drama, almost a disaster movie. It depicts the events of a single night when a brilliant financial analyst, working alone, suddenly discovers the oncoming financial tsunami of the subprime mortgage crisis. It is simply brilliant, showing the startling, horrific influence of unfettered money-making on everything. It shows the impact and impotence of almost every positive, resilient human trait when faced with the sheer unmitigated power of wealth fighting for its own survival. 

Whilst watching the film, I was struck by how inexorable, how irresistible the force of this leviathan was. There's a scene when a senior analyst, previously fired by the firm and masterfully played by Stanley Tucci, looks over his life with a sense of regret and ponders his previous career as an engineer. He had built a bridge for commuters so that they spent less time in their cars and more time doing whatever they wanted to do. Tabulating in his head the millions of hours that 'his bridge' had saved over its lifetime, he could honestly claim to have made a tangible difference in the lives of the people who used his bridge. He could make no such calculation for his exorbitantly expensive career in finance. I was left feeling a little shocked and nauseated by the message of the scene, partially because it was so well delivered, partially because it was true. At some level, in the world today, the worth of a life is mainly measured in dollars, pounds and cents (or maybe even in yuan).

I'm a scientist, with healthy annual income, so why should I care? I think it matters what we value as a society since that's where we put our energy. We are immersed in the conversations of the wealthy and powerful. Donald Trump makes headlines by making the most absurd assertions and happily basks in undeserved notoriety and influence. I always have this almost uncontrollable urge to scream obscenities at the television whenever I see him on it. One day, I swear, I'll be unable to contain myself and get myself into all sorts of trouble. 

So let's ask the question: What is a life worth? How might we measure this? 

Christians (and some cartoonists) talk about the conversation you might have with St Peter at the Pearly Gates when he takes a long, lingering look over the balance sheet of your life to decide whether you may pass into the kingdom of Heaven (or not). I think of this often (although as an atheist, not with this particular imagery). When I die, looking back over my life, what would my balance sheet look like? What might I be proud of? What might I be ashamed of? Moreover, extrapolating from this sort of internal, private conversation, would it not be valuable to society as a whole to be able to evaluate this accurately and empower the people who make the biggest difference? We might stop paying such a lot of attention to ridiculous blowhards on TV.

A recent study by Kahneman and Beaton shows a distinction between emotional well being and life evaluation as measures of 'quality of life'. They show that there is a ceiling to the effect that money has on your emotional experience of life, beyond which, making more money has little effect. Broadly speaking, they did this by asking people about their day-to-day experience of positive emotions (laughing, happiness), 'blue' feelings (sadness, worry, anger) and stress. Having a family income of less than $75,000 per year seemed to exacerbate the impact of negative life events and simply makes it hard to cope. But having more money than that doesn't necessarily make your experience of life more positive or less stressful. This is in contrast to the way in which people evaluate their life in response to a question where respondents are asked to rate their 'current life' to their 'best possible life'. That question is directly correlated to how much money you have. There's always somewhere better to get to in the land of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Another statistic mentioned in this study is that, tellingly, of the 151 countries surveyed, Americans ranked 5th for their high levels of stress. 

This is significant if we think of our emotional experience of life, our impact on others and their impact on us. Even though this would probably be impossible to do, what if we could calculate the duration and intensity that the consequences of my actions had on another person's emotions? How many days of happiness, sadness, or stress did my actions convey to other people? There's a quotation that says "people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they'll always remember how you made them feel" which speaks directly to this. This even correlates somewhat to a financial argument. If a product makes more people happy, it will sell more units.  The financial argument doesn't necessarily run too deeply though. A financial evaluation of worth is predicted by market forces, so that the value of something is based on the presence of a market for it. If the worth of something cannot be easily perceived (or measured) then there will be a disconnection between its perceived worth and its actual worth. 

Consider the lives of two giants of the Information Technology world who died in 2011. Steve Jobs was eulogized and celebrated (justifiably so) but only a relatively small number of people lamented the passing of Dennis Richie. He was the inventor of the C programming language and the UNIX operating system. In the words of the historian Paul Ceruzzi: "… if you had a microscope and could look into a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside." To compare these two great men is unfair, but at some level, the contribution of Richie is an order of magnitude greater than that of Jobs. But, because Richie's contribution occurred two or three steps removed from the glitzy iMacs, iPods and xBoxes that people would buy (including the machine you're now using to read this blog), his 'worth' may well have been recognized by some industry insiders and computer scientists, but would never have had any real financial reward. The challenge of understanding causality is an unsolved problem in most scientific fields. Understanding each of our parts in the grand web of interaction that makes up life with its messiness and complication is so difficult to be considered impossible. 

Another example of the tragedy implicit in our lack of knowledge of our contribution and impact to one another is the story of William Carothers. He was a brilliant chemist, well-recognized for his work during his lifetime and was the inventor of Nylon. The crowning irony was that he committed suicide at the age of 41 largely because (so the story goes) he couldn't "satisfy women" within his turbulent private life. In some way, he was the ultimate creator of every kind of lingerie elegantly and flamboyantly worn by women since the 1940s. At the end of the day, his balance sheet would have had a sizable checkmark in the 'made women happy' column. But that never translated back to him, even with recognition, even with fame, even with money. This resonates with me as a scientist, even more so since I am now the same age he was when he died and even more so since, as a bachelor, it's hard to know just how much I matter in the emotional lives of others. How do we really see or understand the contribution that we make? 

On the other hand, I sometimes think of Joesph Stalin as a man who's balance sheet was firmly skewed in the red, quite literally. He famously said "When a single person dies, it's a tragedy; when a million people die, it's a statistic". I think we have an obligation to give that measurement some teeth, some impact. A parent who raises their children well has an impact on their children's emotional life in its entirety. A musician who gives voice to a sentiment felt by people at their saddest (such a blues singer) might alleviate that sadness in millions. A medical scientist might contribute to make a great many people just a little bit happier, or even save the lives of a few. A nurse might alleviate the suffering of people in such pain so that they can die with dignity. A murderer might traumatize an entire family for life by killing a loved one. A politician might send troops to war, causing untold destruction in lives and subsequent conflict. A financier might sell mortgages to people that ultimately means that they lose their homes, bankrupting nations as they go. 

We are bound to impact others lives. At the very least, we must be aware of that impact and strive, to the best of our ability, to have that impact be a positive one. A 'man of consequence' is a weighty phrase. I would like to see us understand what that means, based on a person's actual consequences.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

And Let Me Be

And let me look with bright blue eyes,
on beauty's heart, on beauty's face,
and let me feel her breathing sighs,
with all of true love's style and grace

And let my heart not quicken so,
when shadows crawl across my eyes,
to darken and disgrace my sight,
with unknown fears and useless lies.

And let me be someone to trust,
who will not lie, who does not hurt:
someone who is not ruled by lust,
but loves to laugh and dance and flirt.

And let me show that I can be:
a man like no-one else or other;
a unique soul who lives for truth;
who loves the world and is its brother.

And now I know what I must do,
in life, in love, in work, in play,
and all my thanks must go to you,
for simply showing me the way.

I think that I'd like this poem to be written on my headstone when I die.

I wrote it in 1999 for someone who had a surprisingly strong attraction to. She really didn't reciprocate,  and even then, I found a powerful emotional driving feeling at my core in the small hopeful act of falling head-over-heels for someone. Although I was seeking a deeper emotional connection when there simply wasn't one there to have, the poem was a wonderful end-product of this process.

I took a 'transformational life-training' course at a company called Landmark Education in 2001, which had a really profound and beneficial effect on me. This course was all about personal discovery, self-realization, breakthroughs and re-charting the course of my life. It consisted of about 200 people and was lead by a remarkable Australian woman call Cathy Elliot, who must have lead this course to literally hundreds of thousands of people over the course of her career and I was determined to make sure that she remembered us, the people from our course, out of all the hundreds of courses she's participated in.

So, I wrote out this poem in a frame, and read it to her in front of the entire room full of people on the last night of the course. I then asked every single person to sign their name around the border of the frame to represent how the sentiment in the poem was true for everyone else as well. It was just a wonderful night and I filed it away as just one of those fantastic moments for posterity.

About 3 or 4 months later, Cathy sent me a small note of acknowledgment for this: the postcard shown below. This was really a small gesture, but is certainly a token that brings me a remarkable amount of pleasure and satisfaction to see.

And now, as I sit, reflecting on my current experience, amid my failings, the seemingly impossible challenges I face, and the unquenchable thirst for suffering exhibited by my shadows and my fears, I think of this poem. I think of how, at its heart, these few scribbles on a page is a true expression of who I really am and of what I really stand for in myself. Perhaps, we all need such a declaration to seize on in troubled times. This is mine.