Staying Even Keeled By Trying To Stay Present

Posted in life with tags , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by cueball

What keeps me even keeled?  What keeps me from going over the deep end and either killing myself or just leaving one day and never coming back, disappearing into the ether.  That is a question I have asked myself many times over the years.

At one point, I was unconsciously using alcohol to do it.  With proper dosage and almost constant application, alcohol can keep you even keeled.  Terribly numb to anything going on in the world, but even keeled.  It is a false since of contentment.  Alcohol, and I suspect any drug, only mask the things that are wrong.  They don’t solve them, which is why you have to keep going back to them for more and more as it becomes harder for them to cover up your issues until they drown you.  Luckily for me, at some point I figured out what was going on and got out of the situation I was in and walked away unscathed. 

I also have used exercise and diet to keep myself even keeled.  However, much like the alcohol, it slowly took over and replaced conscious thinking and feeling.  I jumped so deep into working out and eating healthy that I was counting every calorie eaten and burned on a daily basis, weighing myself every morning and tracking every ounce lost or gained.  Instead of the numbness of alcohol I was using the hyper-vigilance of obsessive behavior to mask what was going on in my head. 

I have learned alcohol and eating right and exercise can all be a part of a healthy lifestyle.  As long as they are used in moderation. 

I have an obsessive personality.  That manifests in two ways, one I grow obsessed with things in bursts.  This is great when it comes to learning about a subject and writing about it. That is why I’m going to start channeling this aspect of my obsessiveness in researching and writing about one subject a month on this blog or elsewhere (hopefully for money).  The other aspect of this obsessiveness is that I worry about the future a lot.  I start thinking about what will happen if I do this, then what will happen next, then this other thing will happen, then this person will do this, and then I’m in trouble.  The first thing that I need to do hasn’t even happened yet and I’ve already gamed out how this will end with me in pain.

How do I stay even keeled?  I started reading more, writing this blog, and also keeping a journal.  When I say journal I mean an old school Moleskin journal in which I write in by hand every day.  I’ve also started Zen Buddhist philosophy and I’m attempting to start a meditation practice to keep myself present.  One of the things about Zen is how it focuses on the present and keeping yourself from allowing things that you can’t control (like the past and the future) from controlling your life.  The past is over and the future is not guaranteed so you should not let them control your life because you can do nothing about either of them. 

The other thing I love about Zen is its concentration on process because process is something you can control.  You can’t control outcomes.  All you can control is your work towards those outcomes, and if you do the work correctly you will achieve a desirable outcome.  Though it may not be one you thought you would get.

The sand mandalas are the best example of this.  Buddhist monks spend days or weeks using sand to create beautiful mandala paintings on the floor.  The meticulously place each grain to create these intricate designs, and when they are done, they are ceremonially destroyed.  It was never about creating the design, it was about doing the process correctly and concentrating on your task to create this representation of the universe.  They are destroyed to show the transient nature of the material world.  The beauty of the painting is incidental to the process.  It is the only logical by product of the process.  

The idea of a long term process is at odds with so much of how we function in today’s world where instant gratification and short term success are prized over the slow act of building something that will last longer than 15 minutes.  You see this often in sports where the people in charge not only seem incapable of understanding how to build something long lasting, they seem almost hostile to the idea of attempting long term success. 

One of the ways this is manifested in sports is the idea that you need to get a player with a big name to sell tickets.  The idea is you need to get someone fans will want to see no matter how bad the team is.  That will work for a week or maybe a half a season, but if your team is crap no one is going to keep shelling out money for a bad product.  Building a consistent winner is the best way to get fans to pay money to see your team in the long term and for a long period of time.  That is harder than signing some aging free agent with a big name and no game left who won’t actually improve your product on the field, but whom fans know and will want to see.  If you pay attention to a lot of the GMs and coaches who work for your favorite sports network, you understand why they not only got fire, but should never be hired to run a team again.  They have no conception of any type of long term process geared towards a future outcome and only concerned themselves with winning today. They are all so concerned with keeping their job, they don’t actually do their job.

That is the great thing about Zen.  While it asks you not to worry about the past or the future because you cannot control either, it helps you focus in the present on the correct tasks and the correct processes for completing those tasks that helps you find the best possible outcome. 

So, how do I stay even keeled?  I try to always be present and trust in the process. 

The One Where I Ask a Bunch of Questions I Can’t Answer

Posted in life with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by cueball

I’ve been reading The Rebel by Albert Camus this week.  It is an interesting coincidence that Ferguson, MO blew up at the same time.  It has been an interesting juxtaposition to read Camus’ ideas about rebellion as a populace battles its own police department in the streets they share.  Camus’ book was meant to be a critique of fascism and communism particularly communism.  It is also a tour through many of the rebellions and revolutions of humanity starting with Cain and Abel. 

I am thoroughly enjoying it. 

With the book and what is happening in Ferguson, the concepts of power, freedom, and community have been in mind constantly.  How does the power dynamic work?  How should freedom be expressed?  What makes a community/society?

It was Tommy Tomlinson on Twitter last week who said something like, America isn’t revealed in its most famous places, it comes out in the small places no one has ever heard of like Ferguson. 

In a city like Ferguson that is two-thirds black, yet has only 5 black officers on the police force, and all the governing structure is white, except for the aldermen from “the black part of town” who has the power?  Those who govern only have power by the consent of those whom they govern.  In theory the people are ultimate holders of power.  What happens when the people withdraw that consent?  Does the group in charge have the right to use its power, i.e. guns, to keep control? Is an insurrection by the people acceptable? 

Does freedom give the people the right to an insurrection if they feel the government is not responding to their needs and wants?  Is there a way to use freedom to protest a government without one side or the other escalating the situation into violence?  Can one group’s quest for freedom impinge on the right of another group to be safe?  Ultimately, what happens when freedom and power crash into each other?

Most importantly, what makes a community?  What makes a society?  Are societies simply groups of people held together by laws alone? If a society is held together solely by laws, isn’t that like building a brick wall with nothing by the bricks?  What is the mortar that holds a society and a country together?  The Soviet Union and many of its satellite countries were made up of disparate groups that were only held together by the laws governing those countries. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed all these countries flew apart.  There was no there, there.  They had few commonalities outside of the power of the state holding them together and as soon as they went away, so did the country.  What is it that holds our 50 states together? 

I’m full of questions, but not many answers.  I just think what is happening in Ferguson is something that could happen across America.  From the feelings of not being heard or respected by the residents, to the over militarization of a police force, to tone deaf reactions to the situation by the power structure, this could happen in almost any city in America.  I guess I’m asking why it doesn’t.

Power and Freedom

Posted in life with tags , on August 16, 2014 by cueball

Power and freedom.  When people hear those words they think they mean to be able to do what you want whenever you want.  In a sense that is true, but those rudimentary definitions miss the fact that those two concepts are dangerous at best when they aren’t combined with an understanding the responsibility both entail.  The responsibilities are related but slightly different.

Power comes with the responsibility of knowing when and how to wield it.  The first rule of power in this case is, if you have constantly have to show or tell people you have power, you really have none.  Flashy shows of power come about for two reasons.  First the knowledge that you really have no power and second the knowledge that what power you did have is quickly disappearing. 

On one hand watching people and organizations run amok as they try to prove or hold on to power is fascinating.  They cast about wildly striking at anything and everything they see as a threat and thy think the more they do or say is strengthening their argument when it in fact is only hurting it.  On the other hand, as they swing about they are at their most dangerous and sad. The sadness is primarily because someone will be hurt for no good reason it is usually the people on whom this power is being exercised. 

In a perverse way, having the power to crush someone and not using it can actually give you more power.  The ones you don’t crush when you could have will be grateful and feel they are in some kind of partnership with you and give you a benefit of the doubt when you use your power. 

Freedom carries with it the same type of knowing when to use it.  With the freedom of being able to do what you want comes to responsibility of knowing when not to do something.  Freedom is a little trickier then power because the over use of freedom is not governed by fear as much as it is by a self-confidence that you can handle anything and an ignorance of your own limitations.  That ignorance is not only of your own limitations but of the power of things outside of you. Part of adolescence is the discovery of your limitations and the power of the things around you.  Part of life is the constant recalibration of both of those things. 

An important question is, how does one exercise this responsibility collectively in the public sphere, particularly when it bumps up against power. 

In a free society, when one group feels that another group is using its power in an adverse manner, how does one exercise their freedom to protest?  Protests are either nonviolent or violent. I use nonviolent instead of peaceful because protesters can be non-violent, but those they are protesting do not have to respond in kind and often do not.  That is actually the beauty of nonviolent protest.  It both shames those being protested and those who are “neutral” into correct action.  The nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s worked because it shamed moderate whites who up that point ignored what was happening into working to eliminate the inequality and violence being perpetrated. 

That’s the thin line.  When power is challenged it reacts violently.  To hold the moral high ground necessary to win eventually the challengers should not strike back with violence.  However, the fact that violence against a foe that is entrenched in power and has all the advantages that entails is a viable option for protestors should say a great deal about how dire they feel their circumstances are. 

With the granting of power and/or freedom comes the responsibility to use both for the greater good.  Only by functioning in concert through the judicious use of power and the responsible use of freedom does society function. 

Art and Craftsmanship

Posted in writing on August 15, 2014 by cueball

One of the best bits of advice I’ve read about writing is from someone whom I cannot remember and it is, “Get out of the way of the words.”  The other best bit of advice is, “You don’t know what you’re writing about until you’re finished.”  That is from Mark Twain and I think I have the wording correct.  Either way both pieces of advice work hand in hand. 

When I first started to try and become a writer in college I resisted the idea of character and plot development beforehand.  I thought it stifled the creative process and screwed up my flow.  The more I wrote the more I understood why you did all that work.  You are attempting to internalize as much of the background of your characters and setting as possible so that you write almost without thinking.  In other words, to getting your conscious mind out of the way of the words as much as possible. 

For me the goal is to have a character driven plot.  I start with my characters.  This is a general sketch of the type of person each character is.  Sometimes, I don’t even choose sex or race at this point. Second, I need to figure out where my characters start emotionally and where they end emotionally.  Next, I try to fill in just enough of the characters background and history to make all of their decisions and actions logical to the story and their universe.  This is where I solidify sex, race, age, etc.  I’ll figure out their family situation, their job, as much of the general background as I can. 

Next, comes a basic outline of the plot.  The best way to think of it is a chronological listing of the plot points I want to hit leaving space to for the characters to help me find them. Then I work on the setting, again just trying to get a broad enough outline to make the physical movements of the characters logical.  At that point I might create a couple of new characters or change and/or combine the original characters I created for this story. 

Finally, it is time to write.  Hopefully, I’ve laid out just enough detail to let the characters move and grow on their way to their destination.  I want to know just enough to get me from scene to scene.  I think it was Saul Bellow who said writing a novel was like driving at night.  At night you know your destination but you can only see as far as your headlights.  The act of writing fiction for me is in part discovering things about the characters and setting as I go along.  That keeps it fun and interesting.

Twain’s bit about not knowing what you are writing until you are finished fits hand in glove with the getting out of the way of the words and learning about your characters as you write.  If you are discovering different aspects of your characters and setting as you go, you do not know where the journey will really take you until it is over.  That is why editing becomes just as important to the writing as the actual writing.  In fact, it could be stated that editing is the actual writing.  At the very least, that is the true craft of writing.  It is where you see the faint outlines of what you are actually trying to do and you cut and mold it into something worth consumption.  The editing lets you see into your own unconsciousness in away by showing you what you were actually writing about. 

This is the art and the craft of writing.  You start with the imagination to create a whole universe of people, places, and things that did not exist before (well maybe parts of them exist).  Then, you let the craftsmanship mold something coherent out of the raw clay that sprang from your mind. 

A String Of Thoughts On Last Night

Posted in life, society with tags , , on August 14, 2014 by cueball

What is a society?

Is it simply a conglomeration of peoples who agree to live in close proximity to each other without attempting to kill each other?  Is it more than that, is it less than that?  It has to be more.  It has to be more than just a social contract that takes us out of a state of nature by keeping you from stealing my stuff or me from stealing your stuff.

In a real society, the answer to the question, am I my brother’s keeper, has to be one in the affirmative.  If your brother feels aggrieved and beset by you, you cannot respond to that with the back of your hand.  Not in a real society.  If your brother complains that he believes his anguished cries to be unheard, you cannot respond with tear gas.  Not in a real society.

There is never one thing that sets people off and sends them to the streets to protest.  We mistakenly believe in the great man and great moment way of looking at history.  The idea that history is made up of these momentous occasions in which everything changes all it once.  That is only partly true, the world does change all at once, but it is gradual.  The seeds of change are sown over time, but only spring forth once the moment when the combination of rain and sunlight are in perfect harmony. 

If people take to the streets in protest, it is not because one young man died tragically.  If people take to the streets in protest it is because they feel systematically ignored and betrayed by their government and their fellow citizens and feel this is the only way they can finally be heard.

A strange moment occurred last night.  On one channel, the police chief of a small Southern (or near Southern) community used the words “outside agitators” to describe why some of the protests in his city began and on another channel US troops were being mobilized to go fight a war in a place our government seems trapped in fighting against its own will.  The word quagmire comes to mind. 

Tear gas in the streets and troop ships flying off to foreign lands.  All this has happened before and all of this will happen again.  That is one of the depressing things about humans.  While history does bend itself towards justice, it is a very slight and slow bend.  Humans congregate towards the familiar and the comfortable.  When given two choices the human preference is for the one that causes the least amount of work and pain for the greatest amount of pleasure.  History may bend us towards justice, but only with a kick in the ass.

A society whose government enforces the law with two separate standards, a society who creates laws to protect one group over another, a society that treats one group of citizens as citizens and the other group as something less, a society whose government doesn’t accept dissent or allows itself to be questioned in any way is an unsustainable society. 

We must ask more of our government then just to collect taxes and enforce property laws.  We must expect more of our fellow citizens then to drive on the right side of the road.  Everyone in a functioning society must be their brother’s keeper and government must be the main mechanism by which a society takes care of its own.  This country’s government was built to allow itself to be dragged back towards justice no matter how painful the dragging may be.  Ferguson, MO is the latest reminder of that.

Here is another reminder for your reading pleasure. 

Everything Is Entertainment

Posted in life with tags , , , on August 13, 2014 by cueball

I took a few philosophy classes in college and one of the things I remember most is reading Jacques Derrida.  I remember thinking how useless this was.  Why did it matter whether an actual horse, the word horse, and a picture of a horse were the same thing or not?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to understand what Derrida was actually getting at.  Another case of reading something at the wrong time in your life to understand or appreciate it.

We do not see famous people as people.  Take Lindsey Lohan.  Most people see Lindsey Lohan as the image you see on a television or movie screen or the name or photo you see in a tabloid newspaper or website.  So, essentially she has multiple existences in the collective conscience of the world.  Unfortunately, only one of those existences is of an actual flesh and blood human with a myriad of emotional issues.  The other existences, the most prevalent of those existences in our collective conscience are used purely as entertainment.  She isn’t a person, she is a character in this live action play we are watching and we in the end don’t care whether she lives or dies as long as we are entertained.  That is until she dies then all the writers who made fun of her and took shots at her will decry the industry that enabled and ultimately killed her without taking any responsibility for the part they play in that industry.  The most destructive part of this however is when the people we treat like characters begin to think of themselves as those characters and not as a human being.

It is not just Lindsey Lohan, however, most famous people on some level are not thought of as people.  Through tabloids and reality television, we have turned people (particularly famous people and people we do not know) into characters in some never ending play.  Our constant and insatiable news cycle has created a world where anything that happens to these people is abstracted to the point of not being real and not really happening to a human being.  So much so, that moments in these people’s lives are critiqued and commented on like a sporting event.

Two things have occurred in the last week that are made more disturbing and/or tragic because of the reaction of people.

The first is the death of Kevin Ward, Jr.  I say the death of Kevin Ward because lost in all the sturm and drang surrounding Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward is the one who actually died.  That is one of the things that bothers me about this incident.  Almost immediately on Sunday morning this started to become about what Tony Stewart did in this incident or in his past and what did it mean for his team and career.  To be clear, this isn’t about the actual man who had a part in a tragic accident that led to the death of another person, but about a character named Tony Stewart who is a hot-headed race car driver.  The other thing that bothered me was that even before the news cycle started to completely obscure the person most harmed by what happened Saturday night, the death of Kevin Ward, there were people talking about this like it was a football game and saying this Tony Stewart character should go to jail for manslaughter like they would say a quarterback should be benched after throwing three interceptions.

All they knew was Tony Stewart was involved in an incident where he hit a fellow driver and that fellow driver was dead.  By the way the name of the fellow driver didn’t matter.  Kind of like how in a television police procedural/murder mystery, the name of the character who was murdered is almost forgotten completely by the beginning of the second act.  Everything is about catching the killer at that point and the reason for the preceding is incidental.

For many people the character Tony Stewart was a murderer who needs to go to jail.  Once they decided that, it was time to move on to the next story to entertain them.

In this case the next story was the death of Robin Williams.  This is interesting because Robin Williams almost became incidental in the coverage of his own death.  As soon as it happened people started Tweeting and posting on how his death affected them.  How sad they were they would never get to see any new work from him.  Too many of these public expressions of condolence become about the person doing the expressing and not about trying to comfort others.  Once that vein collapsed, everyone had to weigh on with their thoughts about depression.  At that point, I turned off my computer and started reading.  It had completely stopped being about Robin Williams and his death and started being about people entertaining themselves with how they and their friends thought about Robin Williams and his death.

Because of the ubiquitous coverage of these events, the people involved and things that happen become entertaining abstractions.  Everything becomes almost meaningless wallpaper that we kind of notice as we pass from room to room with the television or computer on giving us updates.  That’s a dangerous way to live for a society.

Why Fresh Cut Grass Is Important

Posted in beer, food, life, soccer with tags , , , on August 9, 2014 by cueball

Fresh cut grass.  Not cookies, cakes, or pies baking in the oven or the smoke from a grill on a summer’s evening.  It is the smell of fresh cut grass that I love the most. 

That aroma reminds me of being young and on a soccer field.  The sun beating down on you.  You watching the ball on the far end of the field waiting for it be played.  Then you see the ball take off and hear the thump of the kick and watch for a split second to check the flight of the ball and judge the run of the man you’re marking.  In that split second your mind does thousands of mathematical and physics computations that you could not explain in a million years to know how fast and where to run.  Then you are both off like Labradors after a tennis ball.  You beat your guy to the ball by the width of your shoe and deflect it away to the right.  You knew your plan instinctively so you are able to gain a little more space as you both sprint towards the spheroid.  You collect it, take a couple of dribbles and play a long ball to the other side of the field and watch the last 15 seconds of your life play out in a mirror image 60 yards away. 

You would entertain yourself for hours chasing a round ball all over a grassy meadow with a bunch of other likeminded individuals.  You would push yourself, test yourself, and entertain yourself in the pursuit of what?  Freedom, joy, happiness.  Yes. 

That smell is probably why I love hoppy beers.  When I have a good IPA poured into my glass I always take the time to get a good whiff taking in all the fresh cut grass and piney aromas I can before I sip.  That is the power of good food and good drink.  Not just the enjoyment at that very moment, but the memories it conjures of the past. 

That breakfast plate you are so fond of at the diner across town isn’t about the greasy goodness of the eggs and bacon, it is about the Sunday mornings you had as a kid watching your father cook his one meal of the week and the joy of sharing that meal and that time with him.  That double cheeseburger at the new place down the block you love so much isn’t about your love of cheddar, it is about the burgers your uncle cooked on those long summer nights of your childhood.  You and all your cousins would eat and then go chase fireflies until it was too dark to see while the adults sat, watched, and heckled from their lawn chairs.  Everyone a big happy mostly functional extended family.  

Food and drink aren’t important just as nourishment and fuel.  They are important because they are a key that gives us access to memories we hold sacred in our hearts and in our minds.  The memories that make our life something more.  That is why cooking real food still matters and why the slow food movement has taken such a strong hold.  Yes, you can get your vitamins and minerals from a host of semi-edible substances and you can get your caffeine from semi-drinkable liquids, but you lose that connection with your past and the world that way. 

That is the difference between existing and living.  You can exist by joylessly performing all the necessary functions to keep your body alive.  However, to live is to enjoy the food and the drink that not only nourishes your body, but also your mind and your memories. 

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