July 22, 2004

Information, strings and eternal life

The New York Times > Science > About Those Fearsome Black Holes? Never Mind

The paragraph that really caught my attention in this story is this one:

Work by several theorists, including Dr. Andrew Strominger and Dr. Cumrun Vafa, both of Harvard, and Dr. Juan Maldacena, now at the Institute for Advanced Study, has contributed to a strange new view of the universe as a kind of hologram, in which the information about what happens inside some volume of space is somehow encoded on the surface of its boundary.

In such a picture, "there is no room for information loss," Dr. Maldacena explained.

I do not offer this as proof for eternal life, but I do think it's one more piece of evidence that points in the direction of some sort of continued existence - even of the individual. And that idea is new to me. (It has long seemed obvious to me both in terms of science and Buddhism that "life" is eternal - that is, life continues in the sense that the basic matter and energy that makes us up right now is recycled and used again - it is not destroyed, just changed. But until now I saw little scientific evidence that infromation - especially the information that makes up us as individuals - continues.)

The thrust of the NYT story, by the way, is that Dr. Stephen Hawking, the celebrated physicists, did not believe information could ever be retrieved from a black hole and made a famous bet to that effect several years ago. He now has admitted his mistake and reversed his position, conceding the bet. He ha done so through some new theoretical work that few at this point understand.

But as the story notes:

This esoteric sounding debate is of great consequence to science, because if Dr. Hawking had been right, it would have violated a basic tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole.

Behind all this is the basic concept that the universe consists of three fundamentals - matter, energy, and information. Up until now I had assumed information could be destroyed, therefore I assumed that the information that describes - informs - us could be destroyed. Now I am not at all sure of this.

First, I must admit that I am making a great leap here from little real knowledge. My understanding of modern physics all comes from popular sources. But what does seem quite clear to me is that the most mysterious and essential ingredient here is information. Matter and energy are building blocks. The plan under which they are arranged - a Buddhist might say "manifested" - at any given moment is information.

Given this, I have long toyed with the idea that a good model for ultimate reality is the radio. Using this technology we take the information that appears in one physical form - sound waves - and transfer that information (not the sound, but the information that resulted in the sound) into another form, radio waves. The fundamentals of how this is done are apprent to anyone who has done the most rudimentary study of the technology, but whether you understand the technology or not, it has to be obvious to you that sound originating in New York, for example, is not transmitted as sound to Boston, or we would live in a true tower of Babel, constantly surrounded by incdredible, unintelligible, noise.

So.. . . the information that make the sound noise intelligible to us is lifted from the actual sound and applied to radio waves which we can not see, here, or feel. These radio waves are then sent at the speed of light to another device - many devices, really - that can manifest them. That is, the radio receiver takes the information and applies it once more to the material in our everyday world, thus ressurecting the original sound. (You could think of this as the sound firstbeing alive, then dying, thenbeing ressurected.)

More recently I see the same process over and over again with the computer. This is most easily understood when we consider that no pictures - in our usual sense of a physical, two-dimensional object such as a photograph - no pictures exist in our computers. Yet over and over again we store and transmit the information that, given the correct materials, will manifest itself faithfully as a specific image - a specific picture.

I do not mean, by these examples, that when we die we becomes radio waves or the binary numbers by which computers store information. I mean only that they are understandable (and scientifically verifiable) processes by which information is manifested in different media, some of which are apparent to us and some of which remain entirely out of our reach.

Any primitive culture looking upon a radio or a computer could define this only as magic. They may, in fact, worship it, or the people who control it.

In a similar fashion I think the discoveries of contemporary physics strongly suggest that the information which forms us is stored in some mysterious fashion and could, at some other time, be manifested probably in a form which we in our current manifestation could no more recognize than we can now recognize the sound in a radio wave, or the image in a string of binary numbers. Subject to either of these manifestations of familiar informatin we would be at a complete loss to discern anything faintly resembling the sounds and images which are so familiar to us.

In all of this I am not trying to create an article of faith or even of hope. I simply find it fascinating because I see it as a rational model for ultimate reality.

Note that this model has nothing to do with good or evil, heaven or hell, god or no god - nor does it in any way suggest how we should act during this particular manifestation. That knowledge needs to come from other sources. I believe it does and that is a whole different topic which I will leave for another time, Suffice it to say Emerson outlined this well nearly two centuries ago and so does Buddhism. But I think these concepts of right and wrong - of a sense of universal unity - are independent of my speculation regarding information and our continued existence in some other manifestation. Or at least i don't see the connection. In the system I am speculating about thei nformation that once was Hitler would live side-by-side with the informatin that once was Gandhi.

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:56 AM | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

Of children, hearts and hope

Pina writes:

"Here's something that gave my faith in humanity a boost... I hope it gives you joy, too."

Me too! Watching or reading the news we get few reminders of how good the world really is - and it is really good. Pina continues:.

On Tuesday, Alma's and Leo's school participated in a "physical activity day" in one of the big parks here. It was fun, we all worked up a sweat doing aerobics led by funky chicks in silver wigs ;-) But the real "pay-off" came later.

Because Alma's teacher, Brid Keaveney-Sharp from Ireland, is one of those rare birds who's actually curious about the world around her, 1st grade lingered in the park for a while after the event was over and the other classes had left. On our walk we discovered a small exhibit, set up inside a container, by Doctors without Borders. It was about what people had taken with them when they were forced, suddenly, to abandon their homes. The children were fascinated! Why had the people in the exhibit, many of them children like themselves, chosen to take these particular things?

  • A key? In the hope of returning home one day, someone suggested.
  • A piece of cloth? To wrap the baby in, one child speculated.
  • A doll? For comfort, of course.

Since our children go to an international school, we were also able to speak of connections to their own lives. There were quite a few objects from Chechnya, for instance, which inspired Zhenya, from Bella Russe, to speak at length about his own country. And when Seif from Sudan saw a picture of a boy from his native land, he told his classmates about children begging in the streets and of giving them money. And, of course, he wanted to know the boy's name. Jacob.

And the idea of "what would I take with me if I had to flee?" really sparked the children's imaginations.

Afterwards Brid reminded the children that the class had about 65 dollars left of the bake sale money that they had earned earlier in the year. She suggested that it might be a nice a idea to donate this money to Doctors without Borders, since they work to help children who do not have nearly as much as we have here. The children ALL agreed! And they donated the money there and then, with great enthusiasm. I asked the nurse in charge of the exhibit to tell the kids what could be bought with the money they had just given. They were transfixed when she explained that they would buy very simple things: soap, blankets, vaccinations... Things we take for granted.

The kids were very happy afterwards. Joyous, I'd say. And we were very proud of them.

Posted by Greg Stone at 08:51 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 12, 2004

Just be yourself

Pina wrote recently from Sweden:

In a sudden lull admidst the mild chaos of being home with two sick kids, I had time to read an email from a friend and found the words below. Thought I'd share them with you... Good words (regardless how you feel about Osho, if you even know who he is).

Nope - I don't know who he is and I don't think I want to know. I like what he wrote and I'm afraid if I knew who he was maybe I wouldn't, so . . . he references "humble marigolds." Well I didn't have any photos of them. But I do have this close-up of the humble flower my mother used to call a "Confederate violet." The actual flower is about the size of your thumbnail - maybe smaller. Hope it will do. ;-)

"No, the ecstasy comes from the phenomenon, the miracle of flowering, opening."

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Just be yourself, utterly yourself. And don't be bothered by what kind of flower you turn out to be.

It does not matter whether you are a rose or a lotus or a marigold. It does not matter.

What matters is flowering.

Let me repeat: the flower does not matter, what matters is flowering, and the flowering is the same whether it is a marigold... The marigold is a poor flower. I don't know about here, but in India the marigold is the poorest flower. Just to give him consolation perhaps, we call him marigold, otherwise it is a poor flower. Roses are rich people, lotuses are just super-rich!

But it does not matter.

When the marigold opens up there is the same ecstasy surrounding it as when a rose opens up.

There is no difference in the ecstasy, because the ecstasy comes neither from the color nor from the fragrance, nor from the size. No, the ecstasy comes from the phenomenon, the miracle of flowering, opening.

The marigold has become a marigold, it was its destiny. The rose has become a rose, it was its destiny. Both are fulfilled. That fulfillment is exactly equal.

The moment you become yourself you will not be me, you will not be Christ, you will not be Krishna; you will be yourself. But the ecstasy that surrounds me will sorround you.
Osho: from Personality to Individuality

Posted by Greg Stone at 09:09 PM | TrackBack

April 27, 2004

Never doubt - burn the DaVinci Code!

The New York Times > Books > Defenders of Christianity Rebut 'The Da Vinci Code'

Fearing that the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" may be sowing doubt about basic Christian beliefs, a host of Christian churches, clergy members and Bible scholars are rushing to rebut it.

The first paragraph of this fascinating, front page report in the NYT, is the most revealing. The evangelicals - and some Catholics - fear doubt.

That, I guess, is aother part of what I have come to think of as "The Great Divide" - that huge canyon between the right and left wing of Christianity. Liberals don't fear doubt - they welcome it as an enriching force. You have no prayer of finding truth if you don't doubt - and continue to doubt.

Stop doubting and growth stops. You become an immature Christian, frozen in time, thinking you have all the answers and thus denying all the richness and depth that can be mined in the thoughts and words that have grown up around Christianity.

This is true, not only of Christianity, of course, but of any world view. I recommend it highly to those whp take a scientific world view, for example. And doubt seems to be a mainstay of the Zen world view.

Actually, my Dad put me on this track when I was a teenager and he cautioned me with these words: "If you ever meet a man who says he has all the answers, he's either in an insane asylum, or should be."

Doubt - it's wonderful. To the extent that it awakens doubts and challenges us to think and explore, I celebrate "The DaVinci Code." To the extent that it is just plain wrong - as it is in a few instances pointed out in this story - it and it's author should be taken to task. But much of what it says simply is not provable one way or the other. And the questions raised by it are rich with spiritual growth hormones.

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:07 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

March 10, 2004

And speak for the Passion

Untitled Document

I thought this was one of the best defenses of the Passion I have seen. Makes sense to me. I do get a feeling that we are going overboard on the anti-semitism issue. For me the problem remains the emphasis put on violence. Yes crucifixtion is real and terrible, but this fiaxtion on the details, imagined or otherwise, seems to me nore than a bit sick. And, of course, there's the ethnicity of Christ. I like the part of this piece which the author states:

The only real problem with "The Passion" is not racism, but a more subtle form of racial prejudice. I am amazed that in all of the discussion of the film, I have not come across one article or talking head who has pointed out that - for all the efforts to depict the Passion as accurately as possible - we are still seeing Europeans playing the roles of the story's heroes. Mel Gibson went as far as to use three original languages, but could not seem to find an actor of the correct ethnicity to play the part of the central character. Jesus was not white, folks! If we are striving for authenticity, shouldn't someone have pointed out to Gibson that Jesus of Nazareth looked far more like a young Yasser Arafat, than a long-haired Italian underwear model?

       Please do not misunderstand. Gibson's embarrassing oversight is not racism. It is what scholars call ethnocentrism - seeing your own ethnic group as central and normative in the world. I also recognize that Jesus' ethnicity is one of my own particular pet-peeves.

Posted by Greg Stone at 01:31 AM | TrackBack

August 21, 2003

Once more, in dubious battle

So here we are, once more locked in dubious battle, and I suddenly discover that Steinbeck had pulled it all together in a sensible fashion more than half a century ago – 1936 to be exact.

I’m talking about man as a part of nature – man the collective and man the individual - and war and insanity and loving violence and Iraq and Bush and how they manipulate the media which manipulates us and all that stuff – including blogging and why the hell I do it.

You see, this is the Summer of Steinbeck here at 1346 Drift Road. Not for me, but for Bren, and enough of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me so that I picked up “In Dubious Battle” and started reading it. But I became bored, so I put it down half-way through. Then today I was even more bored, so I picked it up again and stumbled right across these wonderfully insightful observations from the enigmatic Dr. Burton who is helping the communists organize the apple pickers. He does this even though, as Mac, the chief communist, points out, he isn’t a “believer.”

Doc replies:

“ Well, you say I don’t believe in the cause. That’s like not believing in the moon. There’ve been communes before, and there will be again. But you people have an idea that if you can establish the thing, the job’ll be done. Nothing stops, Mac. If you were able to put an idea into effect tomorrow, it would start changing right away. Establish a commune and the same gradual flux will continue.”

[Ah – and I am the Lord of the Dance cried he!]

“Then you don’t think the cause is good?”

Burton sighed. “You see? We’re going to pile up on that old rock again. That’s why I don’t like to talk very often. Listen to me, Mac. My senses aren’t above reproach, but they’re all I have. I want to see the whole picture – as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and limit my vision. If I used the term ‘good’ on a thing I’d lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don’t you see? I want to be able to look at the whole thing.”

[Now there’s a positive definition for a skeptic! Not to mention what happens once we label someone or some thing "evil."]

Mac talks about social injustice. Doc talks about the injustice of tetanus, syphilis and “the gangster methods of amoebic dysentery – that’s my field.”

Mac argues:

“It’s different, though, men are doing one, and germs are doing the other.”

“I can’t see much difference, Mac.”
[Nor can I. All is natural. All is nature. We like to think we stand outside looking in. Doc is trying to do just that. But in the end, we are part of the problem, which makes it very difficult to be part of the solution.]

“Well damn it, Doc, there’s lockjaw every place. You can find syphilis in Park Avenue. Why do you hang around with us if you aren’t for us?”

“I want to see,” Burton said. “When you cut your finger, and streptococci get in the wound, there’s a swelling and soreness. That swelling is the fight your body puts up, The pain is the battle. You can’t tell which one is going to win, but the wound is the first battleground. If the cells lose the first fight the streptococci invade, and the fight goes on up the arm. Mac, these little strikes are like the infection. Something has got into the men, a little fever had started and the lymphatic glands are shooting in reinforcements. I want to see, so I go to the seat of the wound.”

“You figure the strike is a wound?”

“Yes. Group-men are always getting some kind of infection. [Think of the wound of September 11, 2001, and the infection that has followed.] This seems to be a bad one. I want to see, Mac. I want to watch these group-men, for they seem to me to be a new individual, not at all like the single men. A man in a group isn’t himself at all, he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you. I want to watch the group and, and see what it’s like. People have said, ‘Mobs are crazy, you can’t tell what they’ll do.’ Why don’t people look at mobs not as men, but as mobs. A mob nearly always seems to act reasonably, for a mob.”

“Well what’s this got to do with the cause?”

“It might be like this, Mac. When group-man wants to move, he makes a standard. “God-wills that we re-capture the Holy-Land,’ or he says. ‘We fight to make the world safe for democracy;’ [Or he says both and throws in an “Axis of Evil” for good measure.] or he says, ‘We will wipe out social injustice with communism.’ [Or like bin Laden, he wants to wipe it out with his own brand of religious evil.] But the group doesn’t care about the Holy Land, or democracy, or Communism. Maybe the group simply wants to move, to fight, and uses these words simply to reassure the brains of individual men. I say it might be like that, Mac.” [Enter the “war lover” - or "An Irish Airman forsees His Death."]

Mac’s not happy with what this implies about “the cause,” of course – he’s itching for a fight to weld the men together - and continues to argue. Doc eventually notes:

“ . . . it might be worth while to know more about group-man; to know his nature, his needs, his desires. They’re not the same as ours. The pleasure we get by scratching an itch causes death to a great number of cells. Maybe group-man gets pleasure when individual men are wiped out in a war. I simply want to see as much as I can, Mac, with the means I have.”

And later he concludes [are you listening Geroge W.? Of course not.] “You practical men always lead practical men with stomachs. And something always gets out of hand. Your men get out of hand, they don’t follow the rules of common sense, and you practical men either deny that it is so, or refuse to think about it.” And when someone wonders what it is that makes a man with a stomach something more than your rule allows, why you howl, ‘Dreamer, mystic, metaphysician.’ I don’t know why I talk about it to a practical man. In all history there are no men who have come to such wild-eyed confusion and bewilderment as practical men leading men with stomachs.”

Oh – and what does he have to say about blogging? Just this;

“I shouldn’t have talked so much. But it does clarify a thought to get it spoken, even if no one listens.”

And a bit later he seals it when Mac turns to his companion, Jim.

“Listen, Jim, you didn’t get bothered by what Doc said, did you?”

“No, I didn’t listen.”

If you happen to be listening to Doc, or Steinbeck, or even me, remember comments are always welcome.

Posted by Greg Stone at 03:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 11, 2003

Let us commence!

Please don't dismiss what follows because it is a commencement speech - we all need to commence this way from time to time. What wonderful thoughts - what beautiful ways of expressing them? This is about joy and brains and an attitude that makes us all winners!

Thanks for forwarding this Pina! With speakers like this even I would be tempted to graduate ;-)


I gave the undergraduate and interdisciplinary studies commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley in May. A number of people asked for a copy of the speech, and I told them I'd post it on Salon. So here it is, shorter and slightly fiddled with.

I am honored and surprised that you asked me to speak today.

This must be a magical day for you. I wouldn't know. I accidentally forgot to graduate from college. I meant to, 30 years ago, but things got away from me. I did graduate from high school, though -- do I get a partial credit for that? Although, unfortunately, my father had forgotten to pay the book bill, so at the graduation ceremony, when I opened the case to see my diploma, it was empty. Except for a ransom note that said, see Mrs. Foley, the bookkeeper, if you ever want to see your diploma alive again.

I went to Goucher College in Maryland for the best possible reasons -- to learn -- but then I dropped out at 19 for the best possible reasons -- to become a writer. Those of you who have read my work know that instead, I accidentally became a Kelly girl for a while. Then, In a dazzling career move, I got hired as a clerk typist in the Nuclear Quality Assurance Department at Bechtel, where I worked typing and sorting triplicate forms. I hate to complain, but it was not very stimulating work. But it paid the bills, so I could write my stories every night when I got home. I worked at Bechtel for six months -- but I had nothing to do with the current Administration's shameless war profiteering. I just sorted triplicate forms. You've got to believe me.

It was a terrible job, at which I did a terrible job, but it paid $600 a month, which was enough to pay my rent and bills. This is the real fly in the ointment if you are crazy enough to want to be an artist -- you have to give up your dreams of swimming pools and fish forks, and take any old job. At 20, I got hired at a magazine as an assistant editor, and I think that was the last real job I've ever had.

I bet I'm beginning to make your parents really nervous -- here I am sort of bragging about being a dropout, and unemployable, and secretly making a pitch for you to follow your creative dreams, when what they want is for you to do well in your field, make them look good, and maybe also make a tiny fortune.

But that is not your problem. Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.

At some point I finally started getting published, and experiencing a meager knock-kneed standing in the literary world, and I started to get almost everything that many of you graduates are hoping for -- except for the money.

I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled -- all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you -- stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies.

Slowly, after dozens of rejection slips and failures and false starts and postponed dreams -- what Langston Hughes called dreams deferred -- I stepped onto the hallowed ground of being a published novelist, and then 15 years later, I even started to make real money.

I'd been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she'd been chasing all her life -- metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn't alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn't feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit, in the same way only your own blood type can sustain you. It had nothing that could slake the lifelong thirst I had for a little immediacy, and connection.

So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you're looking for is already inside you. You've heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can't buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can't give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security -- besides which, there ain't no such thing. J.D. Rockefeller was asked, "How much money is enough?" and he said, "Just a little bit more."

So it can be confusing -- most of your parents want you to do well, to be successful. They want you to be happy -- or at least happy-ish. And they want you to be nicer to them; just a little nicer -- is that so much to ask?

They want you to love, and be loved, and to find peace, and to laugh and find meaningful work. But they also -- some of them -- a few of them -- not yours -- yours are fine -- they also want you to chase the bunny for a while. To get ahead, sock some away, and then find a balance between the greyhound bunny-chase, and savoring your life.

But the thing is that you don't know if you're going to live long enough to slow down, relax, and have fun, and discover the truth of your spiritual identity. You may not be destined to live a long life; you may not have 60 more years to discover and claim your own deepest truth -- like Breaker Morant said, you have to live every day as if it's your last, because one of these days, you're bound to be right.

So I thought it might help if I just went ahead and told you what I think is the truth of your spiritual identity ...

Actually, I don't have a clue.

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn't what you do, it's ... well, again, I don't actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you're not doing much -- when you're in nature, when you've very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music.

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes; in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Bach, whoever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark, concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with aliveness and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking in English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, "Yo!" We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it's a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person. Or even if it's terribly important you, stopping to take care of pitiful, pathetic you. In fact, that's often when we see spirit most brightly.

It's magic to see spirit largely because it's so rare. Mostly you see the masks and the holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you're doing in the world's eyes, or your family's, or -- worst of all -- yours, or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you -- much better than you -- or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambitiousness. You're not the cold clay lump with a big belly you leave behind when you die. You're not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are spirit, you are love, and, while it is increasingly hard to believe during this presidency, you are free. You're here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill -- and we're all terminally ill on this bus -- all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.

So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?

First, find a path, and a little light to see by. Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things: 1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there. 2) You reap exactly what you sow. 3) You must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can't help you.

You don't have to go overseas. There are people right here who are poor in spirit; worried, depressed, dancing as fast as they can, whose kids are sick, or whose retirement savings are gone. There is great loneliness among us, life-threatening loneliness. People have given up on peace, on equality. They've even given up on the Democratic Party, which I haven't, not by a long shot. You do what you can, what good people have always done: You bring thirsty people water; you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog.

Anything that can help you get your sense of humor back feeds the spirit, too. In the Bill Murray army movie "Stripes," a very tense recruit announces during his platoon's introductions, "My name is Francis. No one calls me Francis. Anyone calls me Francis, I'll kill them. And I don't like to be touched -- anyone tries to touch me, I'll kill them." And the sergeant responds, "Oh, lighten up, Francis." So you may need to upgrade your friends. You need to find people who laugh gently at themselves, who remind you gently to lighten up.

Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down. Some of you start jobs Monday; some of you desperately wish you did -- some of your parents are asthmatic with anxiety that you don't. They shared this with me before the ceremony began.

But again, this is not your problem. If your family is hell-bent on you making a name for yourself in the field of, say, molecular cell biology, then maybe when you're giving them a final tour of campus, you can show them to the admissions office. I doubt very seriously that they could even get into U.C. Berkeley -- I talked to a professor who said there is not a chance he could get in these days.

So I would recommend that you all just take a long deep breath, and stop. Just be where your butts are, and breathe. Take some time. You are graduating today. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is trying to shame you into hopping right back up onto the rat exercise wheel.

Rest, but pay attention. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is stealing your freedom, your personal and civil liberties, and then smirking about it. I'm not going to name names. Just send money to the ACLU whenever you can.

But slow down if you can. Better yet, lie down.

In my 20s I devised a school of relaxation that has unfortunately fallen out of favor in the ensuing years -- it was called Prone Yoga. You just lie around as much as possible. You could read, listen to music, you could space out, or sleep. But you had to be lying down. Maintaining the prone.

You've graduated. You have nothing left to prove, and besides, it's a fool's game. If you agree to play, you've already lost. It's Charlie Brown and Lucy, with the football. If you keep getting back on the field, they win. There are so many great things to do right now. Write. Sing. Rest. Eat cherries. Register voters. And -- oh my God -- I nearly forgot the most important thing: refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you'll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you've just eaten. The pants may be lying! There is way too much lying and scolding going on politically right now without your pants getting in on the act, too.

So bless you. You've done an amazing thing. And you are loved; you are capable of lives of great joy and meaning. It's what you are made of. And it's what you're for. So take care of yourselves; take care of each other. Thank you.

Posted by Greg Stone at 11:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 10, 2003

It all started with Lot

The archbishop of Canterbury has called a rare, emergency meeting of the leaders of the Anglican Communion because of the split caused in it by approving an openly homosexual person as bishop.

Fascinating. I applaud the approval. But as usual sex causes more of a stir than murder. Still, this got me thinking and I decided to reread those sections of the Bible that deal with homosexuality. More fascinating still. It all starts with Genesis 9 and this fellow Lot.

Seems these two guys - angels of the Lord - come to the gates of Sodom and Lot lets them in, giving them the hospitality of his home. But soon a crowd of men gather outside of Lot's home wanting "their way" with the strangers. (Sounds like a scene out of a biker movie of the '70s.) I guess they were tired of sex with the same old folks and two new men appealed to them. Lot is appalled and refuses to turn the men over to the crowd. But he offers an alternative. "Look. I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof."

Wow! What a guy! This is morality? I guess it is Old Testament style. Like slavery and slaughtering every man, woman, and child of the enemy nation. Lot protects two strange men from this sex-crazed crowd, but offers his virgin daughters in their place! Anyone who wants to point to this as an example of God's law needs to see a psychiatrist. Show me a man who will turn his daughters over to be gang raped and I will show you a coward and a criminal.

All I get out of this story is a strong affirmation of the ancient patriarchal culture of the region and the extreme emphasis placed on hospitality - the protection "of my house" - within that culture. Interesting as insights into the culture - but bankrupt as a moral guide for how we should live today.

But please note - there is something going on besides sex here and it is of fundamental importance. What is going on is violence. What is going on is promiscuity. What is going on is forced sex. The real problem is not homosexual sex versus heterosexual sex. The real problem is force. The real problem is violence. The real problem is rape. These are the abuses of sex. These are the ways in which we take a joyous gift and turn it into something ugly. It is not the sexual acts that are ugly. They do not, in themselves, separate us from God. Done in love they bring us closer to God. What is ugly - what separates us from God - what is commonly called "sin" - is the force, the rejection of love in favor of lust - the doing unto others what we would never wish done to ourselves. That is the lesson of value from this ancient writing.

It is the old story. Someone points to God. We study their finger instead of looking at where they're pointing. So it is we get hung up on the sexual acts per se instead of the violence with which they are done. I'm not saying this is what was in the mind of the author of the story. I don't know what that ancient author was thinking. I am saying this is the only value I can draw from the story as told.

And if you look closely at the letters of Paul - at Romans 1:24-27, Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8 you will find something very similar. Yes, Paul writes in these passages of homosexuality. And yes, I think Paul appears to be condemning homosexuality in general. But as I look at the specifics I see something else and it raises a fundamental question: Is he condemning homosexual sex - or sex without love? Read these passages in context and you will see that in each case he includes the homosexual acts with a whole cartload of other evils. The common thread here is not the acts - but the abuse of the acts. Was that his intention? I don't know. Again, this is what I get out of reading it today.

In Corinthians, for example, he condemns "drunkards and revilers" in the same breath as he condemns "male prostitutes." Yet Jesus not only drank wine, but he urged his followers to drink wine in remembrance of him. And it was not only in this formal way that Jesus drank wine. Jesus drank it joyously at weddings and other social gatherings - and was, himself, a party goer. So Paul's condemnation of drunkards is not a condemnation of the act of drinking alcoholic beverages.

For me the lesson is simple. Good things - gifts of God - can be abused and it is the abuse that separates us from God, not the acts in and of themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with sex, homosexual or heterosexual. There is nothing inherently wrong with wine. There is nothing inherently wrong with a joyous gathering of friends. But all these good things - and many others - can be wrong when we do them having abandoned love. This frequently happens when we pursue them in excess and it certainly happens when we pursue them for money.

Paul will argue for a celibate, monastic life. I would argue that such a life is unnatural - for me. Does that mean it was unnatural for him? Only Paul can answer that. I can appreciate it that some feel naturally inclined to celibacy. Perhaps they have no, or very little, sexual desires. But if they are not so inclined - if they are biting their lips and rejecting sex, then they too are separating themselves from God, for they are rejecting the gifts of God. But these gifts must be accepted in love and it is love that is the arbiter - not the act, but the spirit in which it is carried out.

It is not love, unless the feelings are mutual.

So the Anglican Communion is split over homosexuality. If I were still an Episcopalian I would try to remind my associates that the first commandment was to love God and the second our neighbor and how you get from those commandments to hating and fearing homosexuals is beyond me.

I honestly hope that in the end this controversy will prove helpful to the Episcopal Church - that it will make people face reality, consider significant issues, and consider what the true priorities of Jesus were. Come to think of it, the man was over 30, unmarried, and spent most of the time running around the dessert with a dozen other guys. Maybe the Episcopalians have been worshipping a homosexual all along?

OK, I'm being rhetorical here and trying to shock those who are offended by homosexuality, yet love Jesus. Of course there can be many reasons for a person to be 30 and unmarried. And in the kind of patriarchical society in which he was raised, it would certainly be natural for a man to choose all male leaders and surround himself with them. But the bottom line is we don't really know much about the historical Jesus and his sexual orientation. I think it's healthy to ask ourselves - what if we suddenly had incontrovertible proof that Jesus was a homosexual? Would it matter? Should it matter? Would we suddenly reject his entire message? The Man was all about love - he preached it and he lived it better than anyone before or since.

The real question is, are we so hung up on our sexual identities (and the demands of the body and evolution for procreation) that we would reject the "son of God" simply because we did not like his sexual choices? Do we really find such a Jesus less appealing than our man Lot, who is so eager to protect two strangers that he offers his innocent daughters to be gang raped? Christians need to ask themselves whether they want to live within the writings of the Old Covenant with their God, or the New Covenant - the New Being.

To give Lot his due, he did oppose the crowd. But his solution is as appalling as the crowd's desire, if not more so. One can argue that within the context of his time and culture it made sense. Exactly. We need to see all writing in context and we need to make our own decisions within our present context. As for me, I really don't feel I can learn much from the guy who was eager to sell out his virgin daughters, nor can I learn much from the writer who thought it was good to hold this man up as a role model.

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 07, 2003

Brights, Dulls, Quakers and Forces

Facilitating Paradox: Stretching Bright?

Aaaaccccch! I guess I just hate labels - in fact, I don't much care for naming anything. So the current discussion going on in several places over the newly coined term "Bright" bothers me on levels other than those being discussed.

Oh, I see the practical advantages of both labels and names - but so often we name something, then set it aside and never look at it again. Well, we look at it again, but we never see it again. Thus it was that I feel I long ago lost the night sky because all the stars fit into named patterns for me. I can't see the stars as they really are - I see them through the eyes of ancient people who made them into patterns, or I see them through the eyes of modern scientists who attach all sorts of descriptive labels to them. But I can't just see them. And thus, too, I am in constant danger of losing the magic of birds as I strive to identify them.

What a strange battle it causes, this striving to identify and name helps us to communicate - and yet destroys our deeper sense of wonder and of seeing. If it is so with a bird or a star, how much more so with a person?

With that caveat I do agree that all is natural - and that includes all the so-called "creations" of man. We haven't created anything - we've simply rearranged what was already here using the natural material of our brains and bodies to do so. I just don't think we know all - whether we are "bright" or "dull." I think we tremendously over estimate our knowledge of everything.

Yes, we know a lot about relationships - if you do this, then this other thing will happen. We can tell you under what conditions hydrogen and oxygen interact to make water. But we know very little about the how and why of things. It's all a string of descriptions. We hide the reality of our ignorance behind names - such as "gravity," or "the weak force." As much as we're able to deconstruct things we never get at their essence. We keep taking them apart until there's nothing left - well, nothing more that we can detect with our current collection of detectors. Yet we don't know what anything is, perhaps because in trying to know it we have destroyed it. (Hmmm... is his the uncertainty principle again?)

The names give us a way to talk about these things that is extremely useful in curing disease and building airplanes - but I feel it also hides them from our view. It gives us a false sense of knowing. If it is so with scientific names, how much more so with the labels we apply to these complex collections of apparent contradictions we call human beings? What is really hidden behind names such as Quaker, Christian, Unitarian, and Buddhist to mention just a few? I could apply any of these labels to myself, but I know none would really fit - but if I did they would help you think you know me. And maybe they would help satisfy my herd instinct - make me feel a little less alone - for awhile.

Perhaps I'm going too far afield. Perhaps I just don't like the self-application of the term "Bright" because it sounds too self-congratulatory. As someone said, so what are the rest of us - dull? "Bright" sounds like an adjective, not a noun - a challenge, not a name. Who invented this, the Wizard of Oz? Afterall, he handed out labels and certificates to help a lion and a tin man recognize their better qualities. Have the skeptics been skipping down the Yellow Brick Road all these years? Who woulda thunk it?

Frankly I know a lot of very intelligent people who in the past have called themselves skeptics. I admit this term carries negative connocations that are perhaps undesirable and undeserved. I certainly understand the desire to want to better define oneself. But "bright" - it sounds like these folks have been nursing this sense of being wronged for too long and now have simply over-corrected. And no, I won't suggest another label. I've kinda had it up to here with naming - come to think of it, one of my pet peeves is yet another label we toss around very, very loosely - "god." Now there's a word I'd love to see a moratorium on! It means everything and nothing. It has the practical disadvantage of hindering communications (because we don't even come close to agreeing on a definition) and the more subtle and important disadvantage of erasing that sense of the greatest mystery of all.

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:06 AM | TrackBack

June 02, 2003

Running, writing, teaching and the self

An aboriginal runner in Australia started me down a whole train of thought and exchanges with Dom that get at a theme I feel is important, but can't quite pull together in my mind, but I'm going to try.

It started when Dom wrote:

Cathy Freeman is larger than life in Australia. She is the only aboriginal to win individual Olympic gold: 400 metres, Sydney Olympics. Before that she had won silver in the same race at Atlanta. I admire her beyond her athletic achievements... I admire her for remaining a charming, unspoilt person in spite of gold and glory. Her teeth are still uncapped, her manners country girl, and her speech broad Australian.

After a long letup, she's back in training. This morning's news says:

Freeman admitted that it was only recently that she got back "that feeling" about the track. "I actually feel electricity at the tips of my toes," she said. "And I feel like I'm flying -- with wings, sailing down the track. It's like I'm being carried."

Strangely, I thought of you when I read this. Your writing, at times, has the quality that you were flying, with wings, sailing down the keyboard. Your words are uncomposed... something is writing them for you.

Yes, when they're good, something is writing them for me and I don't know what - when they rattle around like marbles in a can causing an irritating noise, then it's me doing the writing. At such times I'm usually tripping over my ego which has a tendency to jump in front of me and grab the pen from my hand ;-) Anyway, Dom went on to ask me if I had considered writing a book about writing. I responded in part that I really did not know how I wrote, but . . .:

Oh I know a lot of the conventional wisdom. I used to teach writing to the students on the college newspaper. But while I was doing it I never considered it so much teaching, as coaching. Writing is a very holistic activity. It involves - and quickly reveals - your whole self. Maybe that scares some people, subconsciously, so they choke and don't write the way they could. A lot of people don't want to be known.

But because it involves the whole self it's very difficult to teach. I'm sure no one taught Cathy Freeman to run. But they saw the natural material that was there and they worked with it, coaching her to bring out the best of what she was capable of doing. That's what I tried to do with students.

Which inspired Dom into a wonderful description of how his wife, Daphne, teaches.

The significant part of your email (writing can be coached, not taught) qualifies it for inclusion in my file. I had never thought of writing from that perspective.

If I remember correctly, the word "education" comes from the Latin "educare" = "to bring out from within." And that's exactly what the coach does.

But teaching English has bogged down in form and restraint. In my file I have a book by Tom Romano, an English teacher, who says: "... some teachers, no doubt, do want such lifeless writing. In fact, they actively solicit it. Instead of celebrating each student's unique personality, particular way of seeing, and personal brand of English, these teachers neglect them in favor of stressing artificial writing forms..."

A great coach is sitting at a nearby computer. Daphne is a living example of your definition. Over many years I have observed her coaching students. After establishing a good rapport with the student, she begins from what the student knows. She encourages the student to type (or write) whatever he or she knows, and the expression is not hampered by form or spelling or grammar or sequence. Once the knowledge is recorded, student and coach discuss it. Do you think that idea belongs up there, and not down here? That's a great idea: could you say it in shorter words? Let's discuss this important sentence; I'm sure you know more about it. This process goes on through several passes. (A computer essay really helps; the changes can be done instantly). In the very last pass spelling and grammar are edited. The student is usually amazed at the end result. He/she still has ownership of the essay. It is genuinely his/her work. The coach has written nothing that is not the student's work. Coach and student have together adjusted, rearranged and edited.

First, that last paragraph is a great example of good writing, for in all the concrete specifics Dom brings the abstract coaching concept to life. But Dom is a warm, thoughtful observer, as revealed here, and that too makes him a good writer. And what is it that makes Daphne a great teacher? Something that can be learned in teaching classes at college - or something deeper, something involving her whole self, something that makes her genuinely care about the student?

I can remember, long ago, watching a wonderful first grade teacher at work. I was an education writer at the time and this teacher violated every rule of what was passing then as the leading edge of educational technique - yet one thing was clear. She loved the students and they loved her and her class was small enough so she could treat each student as an individual. Right then I abandoned my fixation on "modern" education techniques and decided that the core truth was class size was the most important factor in determining quality education, not technique - and that, only if the teacher had a certain, indefinable something that made him or her genuinely care about their students.

Teaching and writing are holistic activities - they involve and reveal, for better or worse, our entire selves. Too often I've seen that "self" - in both teacher and writer - being one that is insecure and more interested in looking good - looking bright - in front of their student or readers, than they are in communicating anything that will really help the student grow.

(Hmmmm... I wonder if this is why so many student athletes seem to remember a good coach long after memories of most teachers have faded? Coaches know they can not teach certain capabilities - that like a good sculptor, they see what is in the block of stone and they free it. )

Running, writing, teaching . . . they all tap into some inner resources that are not always there when we want them and are hard to objectify and articulate, let alone transfer to another. Sometimes you get it right, though, and then, it's like Cathy Freeman says:

"I actually feel electricity at the tips of my toes," she said. "And I feel like I'm flying -- with wings, sailing down the track. It's like I'm being carried."
Posted by Greg Stone at 08:14 AM

May 31, 2003

Great depth in a small word

book cover "Give you joy!" That expression first sprang into my consciousness as I read – and reread – a wonderful series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian. They are usually called "the Maturin – Aubrey series" in honor of the two main characters, Stephen Maturin, doctor, spy, and naturalist, and Jack Aubrey, successful ship captain and bungling fool when on land. They are, what Richard Snow declared in the New York Times, "the best historical novels ever written."

Set in the early 1800s, these novels intrigue me, not as action adventures (which they are), but by the way they convey the ambience of the times – the music, the medicine, the culture, and the adventure at being a midwife at the birth of modern science. One small aspect of this ambience is the use of the phrase "give you joy." They frequently employ it is a combination compliment, blessing, and greeting. For example, Stephen might say "Give you joy Jack," upon seeing his friend for the first time after a victory in battle, the birth of a child, a promotion, or even a particularly good meal.

It sounded awkward and affected at first to my modern ears, but through repeated use in the novels I came to grasp it is as a special greeting with real depth. I like it, much the same way as I like the Hindu greeting where you fold your hands, look your companion in the eye, and bow silently. To me that greeting is recognizing what the Quakers call "that of God," in everyone. Give you joy is a greeting of similar depth, but I'm afraid we don't understand this because we don't understand the word "joy."

Paul Tillich photo
Paul Tillich does. He was my Dad's favorite theologian and in "The New Being," one of several collections of his sermons, he expounds at depth on "The Meaning of Joy." Notes Tillich:

"For the men of the Old and New Testaments the lack of joy is a consequence of man's separation from God, and the presence of joy is a consequence of the reunion with God."

To be separated or united, that is the whole story in a nutshell. The world divides into two classes of beings, those who feel separated - who live in "sin," another much-abused and misunderstood word – and those who feel united with the ground of all being. So when a 19th Century Christian of Stephen's depth of learning says "give you joy," he is talking about something much more than a simple smile or lightheartedness.

The complete text of Tillich's sermon is available online here. But here are several excerpts which explore the true depth of meaning in this simple, three-letter word, joy:

Joy is demanded, and it can be given. It is not a thing one simply has. It is not easy to attain. It is and always was a rare and precious thing. . . .

. . . many Christians try to compromise. They try to hide their feeling of joy, or they try to avoid joys which are too intense, in order to avoid self-accusations which are too harsh. Such an experience of the suppression of joy, and guilt about joy in Christian groups, almost drove me to a break with Christianity. What passes for joy in these groups is an emaciated, intentionally childish, unexciting, unecstatic thing, without color and danger, without heights and depths. . .

Joy seems to be the opposite of pain. But we know that pain and joy can exist together. Not joy but pleasure is the opposite of pain. . . .

Our joy about knowing truth and experiencing beauty is spoiled if we enjoy not the truth and the beauty but the fact that it is I who enjoys them. . . .

Power can give joy only if it is free from the pleasure about having power and if it is a method of creating something worthwhile. Love relations, most conspicuously relations between the sexes, remain without joy if we use the other one as a means for pleasure or as a means to escape pain. . . .

Every human relation is joyless in which the other person is not sought because of what he is in himself, but because of the pleasure he can give us and the pain from which he can protect us. To seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure is to avoid reality, the reality of other beings and the reality of ourselves. . . .

Mere pleasure, in yourselves and in all other beings, remains in the realm of illusion about reality. Joy is born out of union with reality itself. . . .

And so we use them for a kind of pleasure which can be called "fun." But it is not the creative kind of fun often connected with play; it is, rather, a shallow, distracting, greedy way of "having fun." And it is not by chance that it is that type of fun which can easily be commercialized, for it is dependent on calculable reactions, without passion, without risk, without love. Of all the dangers that threaten our civilization, this is one of the most dangerous ones: the escape from one's emptiness through a "fun" which makes joy impossible. . . .

Do joy and pleasure exclude each other? By no means! The fulfillment of the center of our being does not exclude partial and peripheral fulfillments. . . .

We must challenge not only those who seek pleasure for pleasure's sake, but also those who reject pleasure because it is pleasure. Man enjoys eating and drinking, beyond the mere animal need of them. It is a partial ever-repeated fulfillment of his striving for life; therefore, it is pleasure and gives joy of life. Man enjoys playing and dancing, the beauty of nature, and the ecstasy of love. They fulfill some of his most intensive strivings for life; therefore, they are pleasure and give joy of life. Man enjoys the power of knowledge and the fascination of art. They fulfill some of his highest strivings for life; therefore, they are pleasure and give joy of life. Man enjoys the community of men in family, friendship, and the social group. They fulfill some fundamental strivings for life; therefore, they are pleasure and give joy of life. . . .

But Jesus, in contrast to John the Baptist, was called a glutton and a drunkard by His critics. In all these warnings against pleasure, truth is mixed with untruth. Insofar as they strengthen our responsibility, they are true; insofar as they undercut our joy, they are wrong. Therefore let me give another criterion for accepting or rejecting pleasures, the criterion indicated in our text: Those pleasures are good which go together with joy; those are bad which prevent joy. . . .

Joy is more than pleasure; and it is more than happiness. Happiness is a state of mind which lasts for a longer or shorter time and is dependent on many conditions, external and internal. . . . Happiness can stand a large amount of pain and lack of pleasure. But happiness cannot stand the lack of joy. For joy is the expression of our essential and central fulfillment.

Blessedness is the eternal element in joy, that which makes it possible for joy to include in itself the sorrow out of which it arises, and which it takes into itself. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst, those who are persecuted, "blessed." And He says to them: "Rejoice and be glad!" Joy within sorrow is possible to those who are blessed, to those in whom joy has the dimension of the eternal. . . .

This cannot be otherwise, for blessedness is the expression of God's eternal fulfillment. Blessed are those who participate in this fulfillment here and now. Certainly eternal fulfillment must be seen not only as eternal which is present, but also as eternal which is future. But if it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all. . . .

Where there is joy, there is fulfillment. And where there is fulfillment, there is joy. In fulfillment and joy the inner aim of life, the meaning of creation, and the end of salvation, are attained.

I do not walk the world in ecstasy, or perpetual joy – but I strive to. No, "strive" isn't the right word. Maybe I should say, I "yearn" to because I have been fortunate enough to experience it. Joy is a state of grace, and you don't achieve it by striving. But that's another sermon ;-)

What I am trying to say is that I want this Web site to be a reflection of that yearning, of that state of grace, of joy – for you and for me. And so I named it "Give you joy," for that is my wish.

Yes, there are things in the world that pain me and bring sorrow and yes, I write about them here – but through it all I try to keep a perspective of the deeper joy of living and I continuously look for that greater joy and hope that I can share that experience somehow with the visitors to this site. If nothing else, I hope that the title - and this little essay about it - borrowing as it does so heavily from Paul Tillich – will perhaps open up your mind and heart to a new depth of meaning in a very old expression – give you joy, my friend – give you joy.

More Tillich resources:

Posted by Greg Stone at 02:12 PM

May 24, 2003

Facing our worst enemy

I'm nearly 62 years old and I am struck more and more by the idea of how absolutely brief life appears from this end of it. That is, when you are younger - especially under 30 - it seems like you will never grow old and everything is moving incredibly slowly. From here it is just the opposite. You were young only yesterday and whatever time is left you, it is much too little. Like flipping a telescope around and looking through the wrong end.

This different perspective of time leads to a more profound assessment of reality and what is happening to us as a country, a world, a species. For me, the great turning point in society is about 1830. Before then all the important things were the same. People communicated face-to-face, or very slowly over time and space with writing on paper. That had not changed in a fundamental way for 5,000 years. People transported themselves then at the speed of a horse - or their own feet. Never faster than about eight miles an hour and even that speed was maintained only for relatively short distances. That too, had not changed in a fundamental way for 5,000 years. And in that same 5,000 years it's hard to see any genuinely important advances in medicine. Medical treatment varied from locale to locale, and age to age, but the results were all roughly the same. Lots of children died before they became adults and adults died very easily from a wide variety of illnesses and what we would see today as simple injuries.

But in 1830 all that began to change and it has been changing rapidly ever since. Now I have close friends half a world away in different directions with whom I communicate regularly, sending words and pictures at virtually no cost. And the advances in medicine and travel are obvious, as well as thousands of other lesser things. When I give medicine a thought, I realize that had I been born in 1820 there's a very good chance I would have died in childhood and given the various things that have happened to me, I certainly would not have made it much past 30!

This is all obvious, yet I think it is overlooked and underestimated. 1830 was only yesterday. Stack up three 62-year-olds, one on top of the other, and you get to 1817! I have no trouble at seeing 62 years as an incredibly brief time, as I'm sure anyone who has lived that long or longer will agree. All we are talking about here is three such spans, one of which is our own life to date. That is very little time indeed. And yet look at how much has changed?

There is one more thing. We are amazingly adaptable. We accept these radical changes in our lifestyle and a few years after a change is introduced, such as the Internet, life without it is difficult to remember or imagine. We take it, and all changes, for granted. There's a little resistance at first, but pretty soon it is absorbed into our lifestyle and it is very difficult to imagine that life was ever any different. Certainly we can accept the differences in the abstract - but we quickly lose all feel for those difference - for how life was without . . . well, without whatever.

Bottom line? We don't appreciate how different things are. We don't appreciate all the subtle ways these changes are impacting our individual psyche and the collective psyche of society. Old institutions and values have new challenges - and yet certain basic challenges involving individual integrity and mortality remain the same. But those aside, we face new an unprecedented problems as we mix the age-old temptations of greed, jealousy and hatred with the modern environment of high technology, and communications capabilities that are as rapid and pervasive as they are subtle.

For me there is a growing sense of being overwhelmed by change - of being absolutely out of control. At the same time I can't shake the impression of a population spreading out of control as well - I see the human race as I see a mold in a petrie dish, spreading suddenly to cover the entire surface. All sorts of images jump to mind of overpopulation in nature - images that include lemmings rushing to the sea. But the strongest one is from an old computer game called "life" where populations would suddenly spread on the screen like a little spider web of cracks. Before you could blink the whole screen would be covered with lines linking to lines and somewhere out of sight you knew the expansion was still happening.

We are inside this adventure and it is very difficult to step outside it and get the big picture. like being trapped in that computer and seeing only the lines right in front of you. Yes we see ourselves as the dominant creature on earth and we think of ourselves as in control of our destiny, but we are far from it. We're just buying into our own press releases. We simply don't understand what is happening to us, let alone control what is happening.

We do totally insane things. When we are not starting wars we are destroying our environment. None of us would be so stupid as to destroy our homes - but we can't see beyond our own front doors - or refuse to do so. Thus we go on consuming non-replaceable oil reserves, spewing crud in the very air we breathe, and overheating the planet. We take great pride in our political boundaries, but all the real forces on the planet - economics, disease, hunger, environmental rot, racism, religious fanaticism, insect pests, ideas - these all laugh at the political boundaries. We have viewed our planet from space. We see there are no lines on it - nothing to denote states. Yet we don't learn.

So here we are - back where Pogo the cartoon Possum told us we were about 30 years ago. "We have met the enemy and he is us!" Can we defeat ourselves? Of course not. Can we rise above our petty behavior? Maybe. Does it matter? In any ultimate sense, how could it? But in the particular sense of you and I alive today, it matters. We can't know any ultimate answers, but we can sense an ultimate direction and we can move towards it.

Posted by Greg Stone at 06:36 AM

May 12, 2003

It's magnetic!

The grandchildren were here yesterday and among other things they seemed awed by the power of the magnets in the darts of a magnetic dart game. I wish the adults were as awed.

After they left I played with the magnets a little. What magic! Hold then a few inches apart and start moving one towards the other. When they get within about a half inch they suddenly jump together with amazing speed and power. Why?

There is no obvious mechanism. Oh sure, we all know it's magnetism. But what IS magnetism? Some smart person will say there's a magnetic field. Ok - so what IS a magnetic field? I know how one works. I know we can predict the results of such a field being present. I know we have a model of such a field that helps us make predictions about how it and objects influenced by it behave.

But all of this involves simple descriptions of consistent and repeatable behavior. That's very useful for the scientist or technician, but not so useful to me. To me this is pure magic - it is action at a distance. It is two objects interacting when there is no visible connection between them. From a common sense viewpoint this doesn't make any more sense than mind reading, or other discredited magic.

I have more confidence in it than mind reading. I "believe" it. I just don't understand it on a meaningful level and I'm not sure anyone else does.

And that, by the way, is much the same way I feel about the new Hubble photograph described in Natural High today. We seem to have moved from awe to knowledge - and we need to move back to awe again because the type of knowledge we have is limited.

Posted by Greg Stone at 07:41 AM

May 04, 2003

The "force" is still with new sci-fi movies

SCiFi summer movies - sequels to "Marix," "Terminator," and "X-Men" - get sophisticated treatment in this review that see deeper messages in the new films. Some samples:

These films address an almost primal longing we have about the definition of life," reflects Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of Toward Tradition, a Los Angeles-based interfaith educational foundation. "They're about what distinguishes human and animal, man and machine, mortal and immortal."

and later . . .

The questions raised in the films are simple and timeless, Basinger says: "What are we? Who are we? How do we deal with change?"

Their answers are very much contemporary, complicated by new definitions of humanity in an age of genetic and technological engineering. They are further compounded by religious expectations, suggests Ann Matter, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania.

Posted by Greg Stone at 11:38 AM

April 02, 2003

Meandering somewhere East of Eden

Meandering somewhere East of Eden

(I posted this in Peace Passion, but feel it belongs here as well.)

I am continually haunted by the title of Chris Hedges' book: "War is a Force that Give us Meaning"

My first interpretation was the more-or-less obvious one of the war lover - the person who's trapped in a mundane life and suddenly finds himself - or herself - on the battlefield in a kill or be killed situation. Sort of brings you down to basics. All other problems seem trivial and can be ignored. Life in the here and now, or not at all.

But maybe it refers to all of us confronted by war? As this war approached it became more and more the focus of my life and I certainly have been living with a new intensity because of it. It is not an intensity I like, but it is one that forces me to consider and reconsider my fundamental beliefs about life and death and . . . well, life and death. Not to mention good and evil and all the shades in between.

And for those who remain relatively oblivious of it all - perhaps it is a test for them as well. In their ignorance - chosen or otherwise - they are simply avoiding the essentials of life and will pay the price when they eventually come face-to-face with them as we all inevitably do some day.

So do we need this war - we who see ourselves as peace loving?

I don't know. Do we need hate to define love? Death to define life? Laughter to appreciate tears? War to know peace? Does knowledge exist only in contrast with ignorance? For me there's a compelling logic there that says "yes, we need pain to appreciate pleasure." I need doubts to have faith. None of these opposites can exist alone - can define themselves. Thy are defined by one another.

I long ago gave up trying to imagine heaven. You know, the cartoon version where you wear white robes, float from cloud to cloud, and your soul soars on perpetual harp music. Boring.

I suspect - I fear - we can only appreciate heaven once we have tasted hell. And perhaps we can only appreciate it if the threat of hell is in the air. And not to push a cliché too far, but war is hell.

And perhaps, as Chris Hedges says, in the end it is a force that gives us all meaning - just because it is so repugnant.

But that repugnance is so strong I can only entertain this perspective for a moment before I'm repulsed by it. Maybe Daniel Quinn is right. Maybe the old Eden myth is right. Remember, we were thrown out of the Garden because we gained the knowledge of good and evil - knowledge of - that used to puzzle me, but in this context makes sense. Maybe the Eden myth really does refer to the time when we stopped being hunters and gatherers and took to farming. Farming! It seems so harmless, but in "Ishmael" he certainly builds a case for it having been where we made the wrong turn.

And once out of the Garden, once having tasted of this fruit, there is simply no way to unknow. Good and evil - we need it. War may well be a force that gives us meaning, or at least it does in our travels east of Eden. And is it just a coincidence that this war - the place where people of all ages, sexes, and beliefs are dying today and calling out in the most horrible agony - is not this indeed, east of Eden? Cain and Abel. Bush and bin Laden. And as a dramatic backdrop, the birth place of civilization - and now we are about to enter Baghdad whose original name was Madinat as-Salam, City of Peace. God must love irony.

Posted by Greg Stone at 08:07 AM

Here and there (I wrote

Here and there

(I wrote this March 29 intending it for this space, then published it in PeacePassion instead. On reflection, I think it belongs here as well.)

As I walked out to get my paper this morning I noticed the red wagon in the front yard filled with sticks and the black tar of the driveway was broken now by a hopscotch game and drawings done in colored chalk. Mattie had been here yesterday and these reminders were much better news than the paper could possibly give me.

The fun thing about the wagon was after dragging her around the yard a few times in it, I got the brilliant idea to make a game of picking up the sticks the winter storms had scattered on the lawn. (Thank you Tom Sawyer!) Early on she came to me with a stick too big for the wagon, so I casually broke it over my knee. That was it. Nothing thereafter went into the wagon, no mater how small, that Mattie didn't first break over her tiny knee! She got real adept at it, but I smiled and sometimes laughed out loud every time I saw her do this.

The wagon incident had followed about half an hour of flying a paper and stick airplane I had made this winter. I would wind it up, she would carefully launch it - she's a real quick study - and then she would run after it, laughter trailing behind her in a sparking stream of pure joy. She would retrieve it, bring it back to me, and flop down beside me in the grass as i wound it again. She explored the dead grass around her, twirling it into a little birds nest, then adding part of a walnut seed and explaining that was her "egg." The depth of pleasure in having a child flop down beside you on the grass and giggle is hard to explain - maybe someday I'll find the right words.

The hopscotch? When Bren came home she and Mattie played, as girls do, in the driveway. Boy, when you're in your sixties you really do appreciate the rejuvenating effect of kids.

My world is good. Now I guess I'll have to read the paper and be reminded that my tax dollars are making the world miserable right now for many, many children and grandparents, half a planet away.

Posted by Greg Stone at 08:03 AM