Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When is a raven like a writing desk?

Friday night, my friend Matt and I were perusing the furniture at West Elm. I happened upon a desk that I loved and, tah-dah, it was on sale! Only $200! This seemed like a pretty fantastic price for a desk that bordered on perfection, especially since I'd been doing some shopping online and found not a single desk I liked at such a decent price. I couldn't buy it at the moment--I had no way to transport it home. But I left the store feeling elated and excited at the prospect of a new, fabulous desk.

About one minute after leaving the store, I felt sad.

I told Matt that buying any item that costs more than about $20 often makes me feel sad. I still felt elated and excited about the desk, but those very emotions were already stirring within me feelings of hopelessness, disappointment and depression. Buying stuff--especially really awesome and amazing stuff that I love--often brings me in close contact with the temporal nature of the physical world. I start thinking about all the awesome and amazing stuff I've purchased in the past and how I either neglected it, broke it, lost it, or loaned it out to never see it again. Next thing you know I'm contemplating my own death and the mound of stuff I will inevitably leave behind.

I don't think I'm going to go back and get the desk.

Stuff generally depresses me. People have commented that I rarely buy stuff for myself, and my response is that this is because stuff stresses me out. I once read something by C.S. Lewis that said we should not say we "love" stuff like pens or computers or shower curtains. He said that it demeans love. We like those things. We love living beings--people, animals. He didn't have to tell me twice. Any time I've become convinced that I love an object, I know what's coming. I'm going to feel some level of indescribable loss. I'm not going to really be able to pinpoint why it is that I feel this loss in that moment. I'll think I should be happy. I'll think, "I love this thing, and I have it. Why am I not happy?" I will not be happy because, ultimately, what is an object but a momentary stimulant? I can love a person even when that person is not with me. I can love a person even when that person has let me down. I cannot love a desk I've owned for six months even if it is sitting right in front of me. I'll enter the room and leave the room and I won't even notice the desk I once fingered with joy a week into its first arrival in my house.

Then I will hate myself for being an ungrateful bitch.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I love the desk even more when it's just part of my daily experience, a beautiful object that has become entertwined with my life to the point that we're being together. Maybe I love the desk even more when it's not just an object to admire but instead becomes an active object, an object that exists with its own purpose, does it's own thing. Maybe really loving something only begins when all that infatuation with it ends.

A woman I used to know used to say that she would always leave people after she'd done her three songs and dances. Once she'd run out of her three songs and dances, she figured they wouldn't find her interesting anymore, and if they didn't find her interesting, they wouldn't love her.

Maybe I should go back and get the desk.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Man vs. The Machine

I just read this article about education reform at Reason.com. If you're not going to read it yourself, let me share the gist: our attempts at education reform (higher public school spending, vouchers, charter schools, magnets, etc.) have not lead to increased overall performance.

But this is America! We practically INVENTED progress! How could it be that we cannot come up with a workable solution that will make all of our kids test-acers and over-achievers! This just isn't possible! Everyone should be SMART, and everyone should be smart IN THE SAME WAY! That's how you build a nation of successful people!

My basic argument is that the fact that we even see this as a problem is a sign of our real problem. Modern thinking is that people should be like robots, and there is only one right worldview on what it means to be "successful." When I initially started thinking about why the idea that there has to be some way to turn us all into standardized test-acers rubs me wrong, my own argument made me sound like an elitist asshole who believes in a free market aristocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I think it's true that some people are just naturally better at certain things than others and there's really no hope for changing this by influential degrees either way, that argument reads a lot different than it's meant. Why? Because I think that the real problem isn't that people are different and there's not a lot we can do about that. The real problem is that we live in a society that sees these differences as weaknesses.

Case in point: me. I'm bad at math. I'm unbelievably bad at math. My boyfriend will write down a list of amounts of money that I owe him for bills, and I'll add them up. Then, when I show him the piece of paper upon which lies my sum, he'll look at me bewildered and say, "Where did you get THAT number?" I'll be $30 for no reason. It's addition. People who are not tall enough to ride carnival rides can do it with no effort. I spent the greater part of my work day today (7 hours) trying to add numbers and coming up with a different sum every single time I added them. I consider the parabola my arch enemy. (Get it? Parabola? Arch? It's a math joke, so I could be off.) When I was in school, I had to rely on the kindness of teachers who were very understanding of my difficulties and liked me enough to let me retake the tests over and over until I at least passed. They knew I wasn't going to be building an entire life around this stuff. It wasn't like my poor math skills were going to be a danger to anyone. One teacher even told me when I was retaking an Algebra test for the third time that Einstein failed Algebra.

I'm pretty sure this is the only reason Algebra didn't lead to my committing suicide.

No amount of "good teaching" will ever change my math deficiency. I don't even really consider it a deficiency. It's just the way I am. I am a non-linear thinker. I look at most things from every angle. In math, there's one right way to do things. There's a point A and a point B, and you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. My mind cannot handle this. I think it's a dumb way to do things. I believe ANYTHING is possible. It's easy to see why this doesn't reconcile with the way addition works. Reconcile! Addition! I could make puns all night. You could send me to a charter school, give me a voucher, throw money at my education from all sides, and still I'd be horrible at math. My head is still in shock from today's 7 hour add-a-thon.

But when I was in college, the teacher once came to the answer 1066 for an equation. He asked, "And what happened in 1066?" I was the only one who raised my hand. "The Norman invasion!" I'm not completely useless after all.

I believe in the idea of multiple intelligences. Different people have different intelligences. Looking at this list, I'd say I'm verbally and existentially intelligent. In other words, that's how I see the world, therefore making it my strength. It's not good or bad--it just is what it is. "Gardner's theory argues that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display." When you standardize learning and what are considered successful outcomes for that learning, you ignore the way the natural world really works. We do this in the name of supposed progress, but what would cause far more progress would be to be open to the idea that everyone has strengths, and they're different for a reason. Nurture each child's strengths. That's what will really change the American educational system for the better.

This issue is extremely nuanced. There isn't just the problem of intelligences. There's the issue of temperament. A person could be very intelligent in some way but also have a very sensitive disposition, causing him or her to experience stress to such a degree that he or she cannot work as much for the same length of time as people with a higher tolerance to stress, for example. And there are environmental factors at play. Do the child's parents talk to him or her on a regular basis? Does he or she live in a poor neighborhood or an affluent one? And why is there such a disparity in what people are paid for different types of work? There is an idea in this country that intelligence is good, therefore "mentally taxing" jobs often pay much higher than physically taxing ones. But why should this be so? I would argue that it's just the idea we latched onto at some point long ago. It's arbitrary, really, what we value in this case. All of these factors and more are the reasons that I cannot wrap my mind around how we could possibly believe that there even could be one standard for measuring educational and, ultimately, life success, let alone why there should be one.

If there's one thing I've noticed through the course of my life, it's that whenever a single standard is set, things become hopelessly inefficient and unnecessarily hard. A lot of time goes into trying to herd people to the standard, and this is inefficient and hard because many people rightfully can't or don't want to go there. In all actuality, I don't see "low test scores" as a problem at all. People fail at things. People do well at other things--many of which aren't even considered part of the standard because our society has lost all respect for that which does not make you money. Are you a good friend? Who cares? The robot has love for no one. He can work and produce ad infinitum, making things and more things without analyzing this action. There is an idea that the robot is a perfect being.

But people are not robots, and I can't imagine why we'd want to be.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I don't blame the dicks...

Last night I went with my friend Brandi to see Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a documentary film about (stating the obvious here) Jean-Michel Basquiat. Afterward we were discussing how cool it would be to just give up on life and go be homeless like that. Okay, that's paraphrasing, and it was mostly me thinking it would be super kick-ass to give up on life and go be homeless. Brandi commented that it made her want to do something. She said the homeless part was easy because he was famous, but there was a scene in the film where he says in an interview that at the time he was homeless, he was prepared to be homeless forever. The fame and riches never figured in during the homelessness part. The part I admired was the willingness to give up everything and take a risk. It's entirely likely at the time that he would die poor and a nobody. That just happens to be not what happened.

I'm not a fan of the idea that eventual outcomes justify actions. Had he died poor and a nobody, would his decision to take the risk have been less worthy? My dad likes to say that if my boyfriend and I someday do get married it will justify the fact that we are now living together without being married. Is that true? Does "all's well that ends well" hold up? As a fan of the idea that it is the motivations for an action that are most important, not necessarily the outcomes, I think taking a risk and failing is just as valid as taking a risk and succeeding, but this is not even really the point of my story for today.

Brandi commented that it was worth it because he became famous. Then she said, "But it's easier for men." What she meant was that it is easier for men to live on nothing, take said risks, and, ultimately, become famous. I said, "You think so?" rather naively.

Just the other day another friend of mine said the same thing, and, again, my reaction was a sort of wide-eyed, "Really? You think so?" This morning I was reading some blog posts at feminist websites, which is something I do often partially just because some of these ladies write some really great, snappy, witty commentary. But I have to say, I just don't really feel all that oppressed. In fact, I don't feel oppressed by men at all. I think there are some real douche bags out there, to be sure, but I also think there are some ladies with whom I'd rather not associate, either. The existence of douche bags--even female-hating ones--does not equal oppression, though. Oppression is when someone else actively makes it impossible for me to try to accomplish whatever life goals I've got going on, and, really, I think someone can only make this impossible by passing a law that says, "You, ladyperson, cannot try to accomplish your life goals." Notice the use of the word "try." That's all I have a right to--the right to try. Women failing at something is not proof of sexism. Plenty of men fail at things, too.

My father loves to trot out my grandmother as the original feminist. He points out that she did what she wanted to do, period. I know this is true because I remember her, and I remember exactly who was in charge whenever she was around. It was her. I don't think I ever even heard my grandfather speak until she died. My dad likes to point out that she worked and was very, very opinionated about pretty much everything. That stuff runs in the family. All of the women in my family are opinionated, pushy to varying degrees, and ultimately make our own decisions. In a world full of men I've managed to get a college degree, get jobs, have relationships, and mostly do my thing with the amount of setback I'd expect anyone to face. I will say that I think modern life is kind of a bitch, but I think it's pretty much a bitch to everyone in some way or another.

I just don't feel like anyone's sexism is holding me back. People can have opinions; those people don't necessarily have power over me.

I'm left wondering if maybe we've come to define ourselves by these ideas for so long that we just continue to believe they're true even when they're not. I was raised with the same ideas. I believed them for a while. I used to get into heated arguments with people over every single seemingly lady-hating comment or action, believing these things to be evidence of my oppression. Then I got wrapped up in trying to accomplish my own goals--a motley and rag-tag set of goals to be sure--and woke up one day to realize that at no point had I been beset by sexist foes. Could it be true that maybe men don't hold as much power over my ability to try my hand at life as I once thought they did?

Being empowered doesn't equal having sway over the outcomes of anything. It means understanding that you can do whatever you want. It means understanding that you might not succeed easily or even at all, and, yes, this struggle or lack of success might be due partially to the fact that there are douche bags out there. But unless they pass a law saying that women don't have the right to pursue their own goals, then I'm just not so sure it's as hard as we really like to think it is.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Yoga for Flexibility

Tonight I did headstand for the first time in years. Whenever I do headstand, I think of Dan Paul.

When I first met my friend Dan Paul, he was very into yoga. We worked together, and because of the free-for-all nature of our internet-based company culture, we would do yoga during the afternoons sometimes. I never imagined I could do a headstand. But after a while watching Dan Paul do headstand, I wanted to try.

What always stands out about the hardest yoga poses for me (tree pose, seemingly so simple, caused me undo fits for years) is that I can't do them when I push myself. When I go in with the competitive and ambitious attitude that this time I will do it, I invariably fall over. After years of struggling with tree pose, one day I just did it because I was asked to by an instructor. I'd given up on the idea of being able to hold the pose without putting my foot down early or maybe even losing my balance completely while struggling to maintain control. I felt light and free from any ideas about what the outcome would be. And then I just did it. When I lowered my foot, I felt elated as if a miracle had just occurred. It didn't feel like something I had done consciously. It felt like something that happened on its own through me. I once heard a yoga teacher say during tree pose, "If you begin to sway, don't give up. Trees sway." This perfectly illustrates acceptance.

After years of doing it again and again and failing in frustration, I gave up and opened myself up to any possibility. Then something changed and I was let in.

If tree pose was so hard, headstand seemed truly impossible, a pose for the big boys and girls who were much prettier than me. I have no idea what looks would actually have to do with such a thing, but that is usually how I translate my sense of deficiency. Dan Paul was always so light. That's the word I would use to describe him--light. Light in the sense of glowing and radiant, but also light in the sense of unfettered. I know there are times when he feels weighed down, but I always experience him as light. It is his gift. Having Dan Paul there made me feel like it was at least worth trying. After a few failed attempts, which are to be expected with almost anything, I performed headstand. I wasn't propped against a wall. I was in the middle of a room on a wood floor, and I was doing headstand.

Moments ago, as I did headstand, I thought of Dan Paul. The immediate impulse was to think, "I never would've done headstand without Dan Paul!" As I became conscious of this thought, I countered with, "But aren't I the one doing it? Is there really any credit due to anyone but myself? Isn't it possible that I might've learned it from somewhere else eventually?" Then I thought about change. I've read and heard a lot about change lately. People wondering if they change themselves or if life's events change them. People wondering when the change they so desperately seek will happen. People wondering how they can change and why they cannot seem to will themselves to change, and people wondering why other people won't change their minds so that they may have the change they seek.

The truth is, every single moment and event, no matter how tiny, changes us. When we're asking all those questions above, what we're really saying is, "Why won't reality bend to my will?" or, "I refuse to admit that I've been affected by anything other than my own conscious decisions!" The truth is that what happened is what happened, and Dan Paul influenced me to take on headstand. I do headstand without Dan Paul, but I do headstand because Dan Paul helped me. It's not an either/or proposition. When someone and I interact and after that interaction I am never the same again, it is because this is the nature of change--two forces bumping up against each other, exchanging molecules or changing trajectory because of the collision, after which neither are the same again. Even if we don't notice the change immediately, even if it is only a tiny shift, it is happening within and without us. As with tree pose, the change isn't about bending anything to our will. It is about becoming flexible and open to the change.

I do know that I like it very much that I always think of Dan Paul when I do headstand.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

-Max Ehrmman

Thursday, April 1, 2010

True Love is in Awareness

The summer after I graduated from college, my family went to Galveston for a family reunion.

At some point in the afternoon, my mother, brothers and sister were all in the ocean, leaving my father and I alone on the beach. At some point, my father turned to me, and I've never forgotten what he said.

"If you want to sing in a bar band for the rest of your life, I don't care as long as it makes you happy."

I'd been singing since before the moment when memories are formed. As a very small girl, I sang and hummed incessantly. I loved it. It drove most everyone else crazy. I once stood up in the middle of a lesson in kindergarten, pushed in my chair ceremoniously, and began to sing for the class with my head held high. I was told this story by my mother, and, knowing me, I'd probably been sitting there for ten minutes fantasizing about performing as a famous adult and completely forgotten I was actually a five-year-old in class. It was an integral part of who I was--both the singing and the dreaming. So when my father told me he'd be happy with me singing for nothing for the rest of my life, it struck me as one of the sweetest things I'd ever been told.

And it was one of those rare moments when one feels completely seen.

Singing for nothing wasn't my father's dream for me. I knew that, given the option and complete control, he'd have chosen I be a lawyer like him or something similar. But my father knew me. To this day, some 13 years later, he still refers to me as his "artsy" daughter. "Artsy" is code for "unconventional" in pretty much every way. He knew me then, at 18, and he still knows me.

A few years ago I got sober. I'd been drinking for so long I didn't know what anxiety felt like anymore. One day I was sitting in my parents' den with my father when I realized I felt anxious. I was shocked. Drinking always made me feel "laid back." I said, "I feel anxious!" out loud because I was so impressed with the level of anxiety and the alien experience.

"You've always been anxious, even when you were a little kid."

It was in that moment that I realized again how well my father knew me. It felt almost as if he knew me better than I did, or at least was able to remember things about me that I'd purposefully tried to forget. I always thought I'd done such a good job at pretending like I didn't care to cover up all the anxiety, and as far as most people were concerned, I probably had. My father had noticed it, though. His little artsy, anxious daughter.

I remember these moments because there was no judgment in them. Would my father have wished me less anxious? Would he have wished I be more ambitious in making money? Would he want me to be more like him in these ways I was different? One would think so. This is what we always hear about parents. But he pointed out these things as matters of fact. I remember these moments because they were the ultimate acts of love--he saw who I was without putting the limits of his own opinions or wishful thinking around what he saw. He wasn't blinded by denial, and he wasn't admonishing with disappointment. He was simply pointing me out.

No one feels more loved than when they are simply noticed when they think that no one is looking.

I try to remember this. I want to give this to other people. At times I fail. I'm sure that at times my father failed. What's interesting is that I can so clearly remember these specific moments when he saw who I really was, but I can't think of a specific instance in which he failed. This isn't to say he's always approving, but even in his disapproval I can feel the love in that he will still care about me even as I do the thing of which he disapproves. It is not in his approval that I feel loved. It is in his awareness of the reality of me that I feel loved.

So much of what we think we see in people is actually what we make up about those people based on our own assumptions. When we see past those assumptions, we give people the ultimate gift--the freedom of being in love.

A couple of months into our relationship, my boyfriend and I celebrated his birthday together. As we sat on the couch at the end of the night, he leaned in close and said, "I like you just the way you are." I almost cried because a simple, "I like you," can mean so many things. It can mean, "I like who I think you are," or, "I like you, but I have a few reservations." It could mean, "I like you, but there are a couple of things I'd change." It was the "just the way you are" that struck me, partially because years before I'd been asked to whisper into someone's ear the thing I'd always wanted to hear, and he'd said it word-for-word.

Just the way you are is all of you, and all of you wants to be loved.

Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.

-Mother Teresa