Saturday, January 31, 2009

Repost - July 2007

The Wood Chopper

Often are the moments when I sit down to write… when I have the desire to write... but there is nothing there. I have composed and deleted already a few groups of words - some even made it as far as complete sentences - and still I find myself at a loss. I only know that I want to say something, but I don’t know what it is. Michelangelo would say that he didn’t create his sculptures, they were already in the marble - he simply exposed them. And so it is with writing sometimes. I will write in my head wildly disconnected thoughts and excise those that do not fit, revealing the beauty of what is left. The words don’t always have to appear written before my eyes, but they have been written behind my eyes nonetheless.

It has been several hours since I walked away from this work. Now nearly 4 a.m., it is beckoning me back, drawing me away from the comfort of my bed, away from my sleep and back to a path that leads at once nowhere and everywhere. I usually have an idea about where I’m going… at least a general heading, but today, in the still hours of the predawn morning, I am lost. As if stranded in the jungle, I keep walking… listening for the sound of water, of civilization, of something - anything - familiar to move towards. The instinct to survive drives me to keep walking, to keep writing until I find it, whatever it is.

Annie Dillard writes of the solitude and the isolation of the writer. She tells in The Writing Life of the small rooms and the self-deprivation of comfort, of companionship, of society as she sinks into the world of words. The perfection of the carefully molded elements of the sentences and the interplay of the thoughts and ideas all come out in the solitude of the writer’s world. Writing is not a performing art, but rather a recorded one. The beauty is in the finished product, not in its creation. Indeed, the creative process is often ugly, agonizing and for long periods dormant. The work, however, may not reflect the agony. The work must flow like a river. The work will either be remembered - or forgotten. But the process, however, can never be known.

I used to have a padded desk chair. Covered in soft fabric, it had a multitude of adjustments. It could move up and down, tilt backward and forward and it was equipped with an adjustment to support the lumbar region of my back. It fit me like a glove and when I needed to take a break from my world, I needn’t leave my desk; I would simply adjust the chair upward and backward, placing my feet upon my desk and my head back into my clasped hands, elbows in the air. I gave that chair to my son. I now have a hard wooden folding chair that reminds me of its presence every moment I sit in it. I am never too comfortable and although my writing space is not so desolate as the many Dillard describes, at 4 a.m. it is none too scenic with only my darkened reflection staring back at me from the window.

The writing life is my life. I chose it as much as it chose me. In fact, it patiently awaited my acquiescence. The words finally won and came forth. It broke me. And it was not without struggle and much discomfort. Pain motivates me and it is perhaps possible that although past experience formed the words, self-imposed discomfort gets them written. There are tricks to every trade, I suppose, and excellence never coexists with complacence. The struggle to create is born of need and that need might be as simple as the need to seek relief.

Dillard tells the story of how she learned to chop wood. It sounds easy enough; stand the log on end, swing the axe and split the wood. But she found that no matter how simple it seemed and how much she tried, the axe only kept whittling the top of the log to a blunt point. It wasn’t until she was told the secret that the axe found its way through the wood. “Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood you will have nothing. Aim past wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”

The metaphor works for me. More than that, it resonates within me. I rarely ever have a clear idea of what the words will be. Like Michelangelo’s sculptures, the words are already there, waiting to be revealed. I don’t operate from some outline and sometimes I don’t even know what I am supposed to be writing, only that I must write. Even if it’s at 4 a.m. in the predawn morning. When the rest of the world is asleep. In my hard wooden folding chair. With my stark reflection staring back at me. I write.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Worthy Pursuit

I have much to say. That’s nothing new, I usually do, but right now I am experiencing a moment where I want to write but have nothing in particular to say - about anything. Not specifically, at least. Except, of course, where writing is concerned. That is my default… my safety valve. I’ve been told by more than a few writers more experienced than I that we seem to always be able to pull something up about our craft. And I guess that is not surprising as it is a craft I love dearly.

But like love in any manifestation, it can prove to be frustrating as well. Feelings are not easily translated into words and as far as my personal experience is concerned, I find it impossible to completely convey exactly what I feel. I have written about this before. And although my art of expression might be improving, the more I write the more it is revealed how difficult the task of laying down words really is. And that doesn’t even truly convey the frustration I feel right now.

I am a scholar (or rather, training to be) of communication. I study how we exchange ideas between one another. It is not a perfect science nor is it static. Constantly evolving – in real time – communication is always a work in progress. I am learning as much as I can about what brought us to where we are, and in some sense, to predict where we are going. In the process, I am also learning about how to better convey my own ideas to others. It seems as though that, sometimes, the more I know the more daunting the task becomes. By design, I am sure.

Everything exists outside of communication. Everything that was before humans conquered the Earth existed before we attached any kind of label to it. The laws of physics were every bit as valid prior to their discovery as they are now. Long before the first caveman (or woman) took a rock and put it with another rock and named the transaction, one plus one equaled two. The communication conventions we have created over just a relatively short time are remarkable, but in so many instances still inadequate. I can still not entirely capture the nebulous essence of what I feel. And I don’t know that anyone truly can.

And even if possible, the same words, configured in a way that I identify as “it” could mean something entirely different to someone – anyone – else. For the words are but placeholders and what a particular symbol or combination of symbols means relies wholly on one’s personal human experience. Sure, part of that experience is the schooling we receive that defines the communication conventions used in our society, but those definitions are largely influenced by our interaction with the world. And it happens every second of every day.

Although we have been able to accomplish much through our ability to communicate, an ability unique among the animal kingdom, we still deal largely with universals and generalities. Even with highly specific language such as that practiced by governments and lawyers, there is always room for interpretation. And that interpretation also utilizes the imperfect conventions used to create the ambiguity in the first place. Yet the effort to become clearer moves us. The desire to be understood in what we say is as old as our race. It is fascinating to study and... a worthy pursuit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Age

It is nearly impossible to contextualize the importance of this moment. It is far more than just the inauguration of the first African-American president; more than just new leadership taking the helm in trying times; and it is much, much more than just patriotism. It is the end of an era and the beginning of a new age in America. Whenever this nation, the most powerful and prosperous in human history, changes leadership, it stirs in me an overwhelming sense of patriotism. But this time it is more. It’s rooted not in ideology, but rather in utter amazement by what this nation has accomplished in a relatively short time. And that we can once again rise to the occasion.

And although the inauguration of Barack Obama brings with it overtones that transcend government itself, it should be remembered that he is just one man. No one achieves greatness in isolation. In his inaugural address, Obama called upon us as individuals and as a nation to work together, to continue to make our nation a more perfect union. His eloquence reveals a confidence that is infectious. Words matter. Will his be enough to inspire a nation that is in the midst of crisis on so many fronts? Time will tell, but history is on our side. The great orators who have occupied his office have moved this nation to greatness time and time again.

We have a responsibility to lead the world. The principles Obama enumerated in his address are timeless, and they must be embodied not only in our doctrines, policies and rhetoric, but also in our actions. It is our example, not our words, which speak loudest. However, the inspiration that moves us to rise to meet our challenges comes from leaders who speak confidently, persuasively and definitively. One man can make a difference, but no man can do it alone. In Obama we have elected not just an African-American president, not just a Democrat and not just new leadership… we have chosen a man who has the ability to stir us to greatness.

They called Reagan the great communicator. Granted, but although he spoke with elegance and confidence, he did not bring the same charisma that, prior to Obama, has not been seen since Kennedy. Johnson didn’t have it, Nixon surely didn’t. Nor did Ford, Carter, Bush (either) and even Bill Clinton, a great speaker in his own rite, didn’t have it. Perhaps trying times produce those with the quality to move us, or maybe when the road gets rough we are more easily moved. It matters not; that time is now. The palpable feeling of unity that comes with this particular change of leadership is unmistakable, it is real and it is needed now.

America will endure, but will she prosper? Today I can say that I believe she will not only prosper, but very well could usher in a new age of peace, not just within our borders, but around the world as well. We can do this; we have the might and, now, we have the wisdom in our leadership. I am not one to jump on a bandwagon just because everyone else is, however, I recognized in Obama early on something that this nation desperately needs: competent, measured and intelligent leadership. It has nothing to do with his race and it has nothing to do with his political party… it’s all about his words and how he delivers them. Then it's up to us to act.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Although his actual birth date was January 15, 1929, today we commemorate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There is little argument about how much King did for the civil rights movement in the U.S. Through righteous non-violence, he coerced a nation into looking at its collective behavior, and to be ashamed of it. He put a spotlight on the inconsistencies that no one, white or black, was willing to talk about. He illuminated for all to see that not very long ago, in this one nation, under God - all men were not created equal. The shroud that hid the hypocrisy of what we said we stood for was stripped away by showing the world what we did.

King was silenced by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was just 39 years old. Some are prone to reflect on what he did, others lament that there is much is left to do. Still others wonder what the world would be like if he was not struck down in his prime. All are perfectly worthy means of reflecting on his life and consequently, raising our awareness - black, white or otherwise, about who we are and who we want to be. Indeed, did our founding fathers get it right?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If so, what is so hard about letting go of our identification with external appearance? We’re not just talking about the pigment of one’s skin, but hairstyle, clothing, weight, sex and even height. These external characteristics are irrelevant to who we actually are, and should not be taken into consideration when we dole out civil rights. But we do. Even though legislation has effectively criminalized the kind of overt racial discrimination that King fought against, covert discrimination happens everyday, day in and day out. It happens in ways that can’t be legislated against. It happens in attitude, in judgment and in society.

King wrote extensively and eloquently. His speeches are the stuff of legend. As a writer, I am ever in awe of his skill as a wordsmith. It was just one sentence in an essay he wrote in April 1963 that sold me on the power of the written word. The essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was a response to an open letter written by eight Alabama clergymen that urged civil rights leaders to practice restraint and patience… to let the courts provide a remedy for “racial problems.” At the same time, these clergymen claimed to sympathize with the civil rights cause. King would have none of it. In the great tradition of responding with well thought out and extremely well written words, I offer you this, my favorite sentence of all time.

... But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is one powerful statement. It is, at 311 words, one of the longest grammatically correct sentences around. Why so long? So King could show how smart he is, to give those eight clergymen some schooling? No, it is reflective of his lost patience. The length is symbolic of the length of the battle, the complete lack of empathy from those who claim to support his cause and how little their statement meant. And let us not forget where this letter was written. The entire essay is much longer and, if I may say so, riveting. Although I had read of it in various classes in school throughout the years, it wasn’t until 2003, 40 years after it was written, that I had occasion to read it in its entirety.

Google it, read it, live it. It’s a good way to remember a man who meant so much.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I love an underdog, especially when it comes to football. I have been a fan since before the then (and again now) Oakland Raiders won their first Super Bowl with John Madden as head coach and Ken Stabler at quarterback. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we also had another professional football team across the bay, the San Francisco Forty Niners. Although the roster consisted of a number of very good players, it wasn’t until the Raiders attempted to move to Los Angeles (in 1980, finally moving in 1982) that the Forty Niner dynasty began. Many in the Bay Area, myself included, became disenchanted with the Raiders and their defection. No longer a “dual fan,” I was left with only a loyalty for another underdog, the Forty Niners.

Over the next several years, the Niners went from a Cinderella team to a dominant force in the NFL. The Raiders had some degree of success, at did others in the NFL, but those years that produced five Forty Niner Super Bowl victories were ours. In fact, the days when the team was just a hapless also-ran are rarely ever mention anymore. There are now just three teams that have won the ultimate prize five times. The Niners did it first and in the shortest period of time – and are still the only franchise that can boast of a perfect record in the Super Bowl. If the Pittsburgh Steelers win the AFC Championship game today, they will have the opportunity to become the first to win six.

They will be playing the Arizona Cardinals, who just beat the Philadelphia Eagles to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. It will be the Cardinals first Super Bowl appearance. Founded in 1898, the Cardinals became one of the charter members of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, which morphed into the NFL in 1922. In all the years in the NFL, the Cardinals have but one single championship title - a 1947 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles… years before the American Football League/Conference, never mind the Super Bowl, was even thought of. They are the quintessential underdog and even going into the playoffs this year, not many gave them a chance.

So much for history and underdogs. I didn’t come here to write about football history or the warm fuzzy feeling one might get from a team earning some long overdue recognition. I could go on and on about my team and their equally long deserved recognition. Rather, I want to speak on something a little deeper than that; and I want to ask this question. Is it God’s will that the Cardinals have finally succeeded? I ask this because yet again a little pet peeve of mine surfaced during the ceremonial awarding of the conference championship trophy, the corresponding accolades and expressions of gratitude from the victors.

One expects the players and coaches to thank their teammates, the fans, the management and the team owners - giving credit where credit is due. But it irks me probably more than it should when they thank God, or in this case, specifically, “my lord, Jesus Christ.” I didn’t know JC was a Cardinals fan. And if he were, why make them wait all these years to make it to the Super Bowl. I wonder if those same expressions of gratitude would be forthcoming if the Cardinals should lose the Super Bowl? I don’t get it. Wouldn't you think that God (or His agents) has far better and much more important things to do than to pay any attention to a football game? The Cardinals beat the Eagles for a number of reasons, none of which had anything to do with God.

As I said, it probably bothers me more than it should, and after I finish this little rant, it will take its proper place in my list of priorities – last. Just as I am sure that there is no supernatural influence on the outcome of any sports contest, I am equally sure that my opinion is no more than simply that. But it applies, at least in my life, to so much more. God does not somehow “favor” the U.S. over any other country; does not reward good guys or punish bad guys; does not create war or peace. We do all that, and so much more. Perhaps with credit or blame more realistically assessed, we can strive for those qualities that actually do produce champions.

Friday, January 16, 2009


With my first semester of graduate studies now behind me and with just one week left in the winter break, it is not too soon to begin getting mentally prepared for the next round. Indeed, I have already acquired many of the books needed for my coursework. Although this semester promises to be every bit as challenging as last – perhaps even more so – I now possess a commodity that bolsters my confidence; one that has no price but cannot be underestimated. It is experience. I have done this before… at this level, in this school, with these professors. I know not only what to expect, but also what is expected.

And there is great comfort in that, for as much confidence others have had in my ability, the only way I could ever know for sure is to make the attempt. And in that attempt I have succeeded, there is no reason why I cannot do it again. This is not to say the work will be any easier, quite the contrary, I expect it will become increasingly difficult. But my fascination with my chosen course of study has increased exponentially, due perhaps to the simple fact that my perseverance – and patience – has ignited me.

Like many, I took communication for granted. We learn how to communicate at an early age and as we grow, we become more adept. Of course we learn about the mechanics in school, and to some extent we develop a style and a voice in our communication, but these are just structures, we learn little if anything about why we communicate as we do. Furthermore, communication is at the root of all other learning. Understanding why one way of saying something is more effective than another, why some comprehend where others do not and how to convey exactly what we mean are just some of the reasons to study communication.

As a writer, I am often frustrated in finding ways to convey the precision in what I am trying to say. Even with a large vocabulary and access to many more words, organizing them with the punctuation necessary to open my head to others is always a daunting task. I’ve been told I write well. Okay, I think so too. But I still struggle, often, over how to get it just so. And here’s a little honesty: Even the best pieces I’ve ever written are not perfect. Not one. I have yet to write anything that exactly conveys what I am thinking. I get close sometimes, but I am not yet there and although “perfection” is perhaps impossible, I believe there is much room for improvement.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lesson Learned

I am at peace - more so right now than in quite some time. It’s not my locale, although sitting in my backyard with the sun shining and a gentle breeze ringing the wind chimes certainly doesn’t hurt. But the peace I am feeling did not come without cost. There is turmoil in a part of my life. It is not unfamiliar but it is infrequent; alas, I have been here before. And though it is not easy to take the path I must, it is nonetheless the correct one, of that I am sure. My impulse, however, is to fight back and in this case, as with so many others in any number of similar and not so similar situations where the truth is on my side, it is a fight I cannot win.

Being right is a dubious luxury. There is only one truth. It is what is. How does one determine what that is? There are a number of means, but in the big picture most of what we know is what we believe. There Earth is round, but I don’t know that because I went out and measured it. I take it on faith based on the evidence presented that it is so. I am convinced it is the truth. The same goes for almost everything I’ve learned in life. There are other things that I know to be so – or not – because I was there. If I can believe my own recollection of certain events, then I know what is so.

Others, however, can come to completely different beliefs based on the very same events. Just ask any cop who has to interview multiple witnesses to the same crime. There are any number of factors that can influence one’s recollection, proximity being one of them. In this particular instance, I know what I know and that has to be good enough. All I have is my word and I know something about that, too. Whether others believe me based on that is really not my business nor is it my concern. There no way I can prove what I know and, furthermore, I shouldn’t have to.

And that is the hard part. But if experience is worth anything, then I have to be content with the facts as I know them and leave the battle behind. It is unwinnable and even if victorious, there is nothing left to be gained anyway – the damage is done and as far as I’m concerned it is irreversible. Oddly enough, I find serenity in that. I am relieved that this battle, or at least my participation in it, is over. The sun is still shining, a gentle breeze is still making the wind chimes sing… and I am at peace.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Back in 1981, when I graduated from high school, the 21st century seemed like a lifetime away. In a sense, it was, but this is not so much about my personal experience as it is the human experience. Technology has transformed us in ways few could ever predict. Technology in 1981 was advanced compared to just 20 years prior, but the gains made since make the technology of the 80s look down right primitive.

This is hardly news to anyone not living in a cave. Anyone old enough can remember the days before the CD, the cell phone or the personal computer. My first programming class in high school consisted of programming in BASIC on dumb terminals connected via a telephone coupler to the Stanford University VAX mainframe. The desktop computer was just in its infancy. I remember in grade school we had a desktop calculator (performing only simple arithmetic tasks) that dwarfed the MacBook I am using at this very moment.

In seventh grade, I knew the daughter of Charlie Spork, the founder of National Semiconductor – one of the early leaders in creating what would become known as Silicon Valley. Through her, I was able to obtain my first handheld calculator – one that not only performed simple arithmetic tasks, but also was able to store a number in its “memory.” Due to my connection, I bought it for the bargain basement price of $75. Those are 1975 dollars, mind you.

By the time I finally got off my butt and went to college in 1983, Tandy, Commodore and some others were marketing rudimentary home computers. The telephone coupler had been replaced by a MODEM that did not need to have the handset nestled into it; one could simply plug a telephone cable into it (modular and touch-tone telephones were also relatively recent developments - rotary phones used to be hard-wired right into the wall). The Internet existed, but it was only accessible to a select few… the World Wide Web was science fiction. I would connect my Commodore 64 to the San Diego State University Vax and write my programs in Pascal and Fortran – lines and lines of code did what the Graphical User Interface, so ubiquitous today, does with apparent and invisible ease.

Fast-forward to 2009. In looking back, it is simply amazing how much technology has progressed. It begs the question – where will it be by the end of my lifetime? By the time my children reach their twilight years? And my grandchildren’s? Could it be that technology could extend the life expectancy of humans beyond the limits of biology and, more importantly, what will that mean for the advancement of science and technology.

As it stands right now, our children must learn what has already been discovered before they can pick up the baton and run with it. The amount of knowledge held collectively by the human race must be passed from generation to generation before new advances can be built upon prior achievements. But what if we could continue to pursue these frontiers for 100, 500, 1,000 or more years. The advantages would be realized in the ability to extend the period of one’s education by many years and the ability to build upon one’s own research without having to pass it on to succeeding generations.

We’re talking about the possibility, through any number of technologies, to achieve veritable immortality. The rate of advancement would increase logarithmically. With virtually unlimited life expectancies, time would become so plentiful that the human race could conceivably colonize the vast distances of intergalactic space. And we would have to, for our population would expand without constraint. There are, of course, philosophic and ethical overtones to such a scenario, but today we must face the real possibility that technology will advance… and probably at a rate and in ways no one can predict.

Are we tomorrow’s Gods? Does the power to create and extend life – to be the complete and total masters of our own destiny give us what has been the dominion of the all powerful? One hundred years ago, space travel was laughable, man had only just learned how to fly and automobiles were still a rarity. My computer from just ten years ago is today an ancient relic, good for next to nothing. So much of what was once considered impossible has today become not only part of everyday life, but also a necessary part. What will tomorrow bring?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Not Another New Years Resolution

This should be an interesting year. I am not one for New Years resolutions, but I would like to see a couple of things come to pass this year. After a bit of directional uncertainty, I believe I have set in motion a course of action that will carry me through the next two years at least. My primary purpose, therefore, is to remain dedicated and diligently pursue my Master’s degree to the best of my ability. After making it through the first semester of postgraduate studies, I now have some experience - and there is some room for improvement. That pursuit will bring with it many challenges and I am resolved to meet them.

Over the summer, I plan to enroll in a class at my local community college – the very same one that was so instrumental in the academic success I have achieved thus far. I will finally, hopefully, learn how to type. Oh, sure, I know where the keys are and I am, after all, a writer, but the art of typing is not one I possess with anything resembling grace or competence. Now part of any child’s curriculum, typing was not a class that most boys enrolled in when I was a kid. Computers were still being programmed with punch cards… the ubiquity of keyboarding was not foreseen by many.

Until I really started writing in earnest, it was a deficiency I could live with. The speed of my typing was, for a time, a benefit. It slowed me down enough so that I could better crystallize my thoughts. However, I cannot type with any real speed without looking at the keyboard and the mistakes generated because of that are becoming an even bigger waste of time. Where the speed limit imposed by my rudimentary typing was once beneficial, it has now become an obstacle… I cannot now get the words out fast enough. And grad school will have me writing far more than ever before.

Oddly enough, I make this decision with a fair amount of trepidation. I am not so sure how well I will take to it. It might prove to be just as challenging as my graduate studies have been, though in a different way. I am not at all sure this old dog can learn this new trick. But there is only one way to find out – indeed, the only way to guarantee failure is in the failure to try. It will also provide me with a distinct comparative measure as the coming spring semester will be completed as a “pre-typing” semester and the fall semester will be completed after my summer typing session.

In the meantime, I will continue to hone my hunting and pecking skills, such as they are. It is not optimal, but it is sufficient.