Archive for May, 2013

What Are The Odds

May 30, 2013

Recently, I received two phone calls within 5 minutes of one another, both from women with whom I had interacted (one closely over several years, the other only briefly) more than 30 years ago – and with whom I had not had contact since! Further, my connection to each of them involves the criminal (in)justice system with which we have all three been involved in some fashion. I taught college level psychology courses in the New Mexico Penitentiary beginning in 1978. One friend was active with me in a major prison reform project arising from the 1980 riot there. The other – acquaintance rather than friend – went on to do research in criminal justice after we had interacted, and wanted now to talk to me about that continuing interest of hers.
What are the odds?

What are the odds that I would date, in college, a guy whose high school girlfriend was the first cousin of one of my schoolmates from junior high? And what are those odds given that the high school was located in White Plains NY, the junior high in Saigon, Vietnam and the college at Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania. Out on a date in New York City, we walked into the Russian Tea Room and encountered my friend’s parents and his girlfriend’s parents having dinner together.
What are the odds?

For that matter, what are the odds that I would receive a call, more than forty years later, from that junior high friend, as a result of her reading an essay I published in the Swarthmore College Alumni Bulletin? Her son had briefly attended Swarthmore before his death. Clearing out his papers, she found the magazine, and my article, and tracked me down through the College alumni office.

Skeptics may try to answer the question of odds with numbers, while reciting the logical statement that co-occurrence says nothing about causality. In other words, the fact that two or more events occur simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another, means nothing whatsoever about their causal relationship. The events may in fact have a common cause, but they may equally well have no connection of any sort to one another. These skeptics (they may think of themselves, rather, as logical or pragmatic) can be heard to pronounce that it is a fallacy of humanity, to ‘need’ to find meaning in random events.

What are the odds, and do they matter? Perhaps only to those fascinated by coincidences, who have not yet taken a position with regard to the importance and role of causality – or serendipity – in our lives. A good friend of mine reminded me, when I mentioned my ‘what are the odds’ question, that I was expressing a cultural bias. Many cultures – the Navajo for example – do not believe in serendipity, or coincidence, but rather believe all events are linked. The purpose of life is to understand those links and find one’s place within them, and thus to be in balance and harmony – to walk in beauty.

Other traditions also teach that the goal of life is to learn to exist in a space of harmonious balance, often expressed as learning to “Be”. Buddhists practice stilling the mind in order to achieve a state of immediate, present, awareness. Quakers seek ‘the Light Within’ to guide them in manifesting the divine in daily life. The Catholic priest Richard Rohr (founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation) encourages us to live from the center instead of from the edges (the edges being where we define ourselves by ego, by the groups we belong to, or the codes we think everyone should adhere to). The ancient Light and Sound teachings (the poet Rumi was an interpreter of this age-old wisdom, MasterPath is a current expression of them) – these teachings guide followers toward direct awareness of Soul, and the ability to Know, Be and See as a manifestation of the Divine.

To resolve apparent either-or tensions, my teacher in MasterPath speaks of the value of finding “what the opposites have in common.” Thus, a middle road between the skeptics and those who see a connection among all events might be found by asking another question on the order of, “Is this seeming coincidence calling my attention to something I should attend to?”

What the two callers reaching out to me had in common, other than a 30 year gap in our interactions, was a connection to the field of corrections. I have taught college courses in prison, been an activist for prison reform, and I currently offer Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in the New Mexico prison system. Should I be looking at that aspect of myself?

Or does the benefit to me of noticing the conjunction of these two calls lie in a consideration of who I was 30 years ago, in contrast to who I have become since? A third possibility is that the value of reflecting on the calls lies outside myself, in my consideration of the science and logic of coincidence versus the range of belief systems which see systematic connection and order between events.

What are the odds that I’ll discover the ‘real reason’ for this apparent coincidence? Is there such a reason? Does it matter? Probably only if I choose to make it matter. And therein lies the kernel, the import of all the questions – the fact that I can choose how I interpret the events in my life. We each can make such choices, though sometimes it feels like the choice is made for us. Coincidence or meaningful plan, noticed or ignored, how our lives unfold and what we make of our experiences is ultimately a matter of choice. Knowing I am responsible for my circumstances, I can more easily “be”, in harmony with them. I like those odds!

Forging Ahead

May 28, 2013

OK, so I have my new computer, running Windows 7, and I’m enjoying its speed, though it’s tedious reloading programs and learning how and where to shut off its unwanted bells and whistles.

I’ve set about having this blog. I’ve registered a domain name, Comcado, and am starting to plan a web site. And instead of using my time writing, I seem to be using my time undoing problems I create because I don’t know enough about online interactions to ‘get it right the first time’. Like how to link the blog to the domain when the domain isn’t being actively hosted yet. Or how to get pieces of my identity correctly reflecting me, and not the stripper with my name, who has already tried to appropriate my way of spelling my name.

I’m on a learning curve – or at least I hope I am! Some days it seems more like an unlearning curve, sloped sharply downward into a state of totally frustrated chaos. Then I have to turn off the computer, go for a walk, and try to remember that this too shall pass. Actually, the ‘help’ people at WordPress have indeed been helpful, as has the friend whose Bluedome business hosts my domain.

I wish the same were true of customer service in other areas. Because of a rotten attitude toward customers in a new subsidiary of my longtime propane provider, I recently chose to change to a new supplier. And now I have another frustration, trying to figure out how to make adjustments to the utility room where my hot water heater has been reliably and safely performing for 22 years. Because of the supplier change, I had to undergo a state building code safety inspection which revealed the room is too small (supposedly) to safely supply enough fresh air for the heater. Never mind that the room is so poorly insulated that air already comes in freely around the windows and door. The inspector was nice, and made several suggestions – and could understand that I was legitimately more concerned about the pipes and washing machine freezing in our 30 below winter nights if I add 4 inch outside vents, than I am about a hypothetical exhaustion of oxygen to the heater flame. Building codes have changed since the heater was installed in 1990, So now, thanks to my choice to eliminate dealings with a rude and uncaring business office, I have to obey dictates and endure expenses that ignore my circumstances.

The inspector recognized that I’d probably create the vents and then stuff them with insulation to keep the cold out of the utility room. “What you do to protect your pipes after I verify that you’ve drilled the holes is your business,” is actually what he said. Nice man, just doing his job, recognizing that rules that don’t make sense are unlikely to be taken too seriously.

Maybe that’s where my problems lie with online issues – rules that I don’t understand and that, therefore, don’t seem to make sense to me? If I learn the language, understand the difference between replying to a post and creating a new thread, figure out how to explain the problems I’m having in a way that experts can help me resolve them… if I find my center in a whole new world…?

Have you seen those lists of adages, paired to show how contradictory they can be? Like “The early bird catches the worm” but “Slow and steady wins the race”. Well, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – but ”When you stop learning, you start dying.”

I’m not ready to die yet, not if I have a choice in the matter. So this older dog is learning new tricks as fast as I can. Please have patience with me while I do so!

On Being Computer-less

May 25, 2013

Much is being made about the changes in form of social interaction since the advent of cell phones, texting, and social media on the internet. “They don’t know how to talk to one another! They sit at the same lunch table and instead of chatting, they text! Nothing is considered private! Do they really think people are interested to know their every move, every moment of the day, as they tweet their locations in the mall?”

“They”, of course, are younger people, not “us” – not people who are old enough to have lived before cell phones and – oh my god – before the internet! A few of us are even old enough to have experienced a world in which not every household had a phone – or if there was a phone it was on a party line, with a different ring for each of as many as six families, and an etiquette for not tying up the line (i.e. only short talks about immediate necessities).

So how is it that one of the “us” – I – have come to feel so disconnected when my laptop (I have advanced from a bulky desk computer, but do not have a smart phone nor a ‘connected’ notepad) is gone for two days to be repaired? Suddenly, I cannot readily work on my novel-in-progress, complete the job search required by my unemployed status, know what is happening with former United World College students now scattered around the world, communicate easily with professional acquaintances, nor ‘talk’ (via Skype) with distant friends. I have thought of my life as consciously ‘disconnected’ to the extent that I do not shop on line, my finances remain in my physical hands (in the form of cash and checks), and I scrupulously avoid any sort of ‘automatic’ interaction with my bank accounts except for those government programs which demand the use of electronic deposits. How can I have nonetheless become so internet-access dependent?

I live in the epitome of rural America, where only dial-up internet access was available as recently as three years ago. Now there is satellite and – within the past six months – phone company-provided DSL has reached my home,though it is not yet available two miles farther up the road from town. I recall raging at the mechanical voices telling me, as I waited on hold for a person to speak to, that I could access my account on line at www… The customer service person who ‘got’ me inevitably was told to report to the higher ups that “there are a lot of us who live were we don’t have internet access, and it’s aggravating to have to listen to recordings telling us to use an option that doesn’t exist”!

Over the years I’ve collected enough points on a credit card to ‘purchase’ a tablet. It just arrived – and guess who is learning to use it to check the email and websites I’m expected to access daily? I still can’t store data, work on my manuscript, keep my accounts or job log up to date – but I can at least respond to critical, time sensitive messages with a stupidly slow two finger poke-type typing. I’ve gone shopping for a new laptop, in case my present one needs more expensive repair than it is worth, a highly probable outcome, given our throw away economy. As I search, I find that everything I most dislike about my new tablet is virtually all that is available on new computers – Windows 8.

It’s the equivalent, for lazy surfers, of the only gear shifts available on new cars – sloppy excuses for the tight, single engage point, hang-on-a-hill-using-just-the-clutch transmissions on which those of us with a little age and experience learned to drive… gasp … back before there were automatic transmissions! We also learned to type before there were electric machines! We’re really old!

So what, you ask, am I writing on, to complete this essay, if I do not have a computer? No, not an old fashioned electric typewriter, though I have one of those – I even have a standard, non-electric, dings-when-you-come-to-the-end-of-a-line, manual-carriage-return machine like the one I originally learned on in typing class, in high school. No, I’m writing on an AlphaSmart Neo – three double A batteries last about 900 hours of use of a keyboard as lightweight as the slimmest of tablets, with eight separate memory files, simple editing and correction commands, and ability to cut and paste, and to link to a computer to transfer documents for printing or transmitting. It’s the ultimate in flexible, go anywhere technology designed for a writer!

When will the techies discover the world of people who mourn the loss of the tools of typing, who are appalled by the concept of devices and software designed exclusively for those who want to ‘swipe’ their way through life? When will they remember that there are writers who don’t feel the need to be instantly connected to anything and everything – people who still turn off the phone and silence the doorbell in order to focus and work uninterrupted, unconnected? When will they remember that there are people who choose to live in places not yet wired to the rest of the world?

I’m set. I can check email with the tablet, write on the Neo, and hunt for a replacement laptop that still comes with Windows 7, though my choices are apt to be quite limited. I’m set for this go around. I don’t know what I’ll do when, too few years in the future, I yet again have to get a new laptop. Oh, I know – by then equipment will respond to my thoughts and I won’t need my fingers to type! After all, monkeys with electrodes in their brains already use thought (or desire?) to control mechanical arms that reach for food. Can automatic computer writing be far behind?

Like Dust Devils Through a Card House

May 25, 2013

Like Dust Devils Through a Card House.

Ain’t No River Wide Enough

May 21, 2013

“Choose a topic you’re interested in, something you’re willing to talk about on a regular basis.” Such is the advice routinely offered to people considering starting a blog – especially writers who want to get themselves and their ideas and their books – “out there” to be read. Simple advice, and totally useless to me, as my interests run wide more than deep. They are the Mississippi, not the Grand Canyon.

For nearly three years I wrote a weekly commentary column in a local paper, so I know I can keep to a regular posting schedule on a blog. Sitting in a workshop session at the recent New Mexico Book Fiesta held in Albuquerque, I suddenly realized that if I think of a blog as simply an updated, online weekly newspaper column, I know how to do that!

I’ve taught workshops on improving communication skills that include two exercises which are the inverse of one another. The first is “Making the Familiar Strange” – i.e. describing something with which one is intimately familiar in a manner that suggests one is seeing/experiencing it for the first time. Doing so helps the participant to appreciate how much in communication is taken for granted, and how easily therefore, it is possible for misunderstandings to arise.

The second, inverse activity is “Making the Strange Familiar”. That is what I accomplished when I was able to equate a blog (web log, web-related, still part of a relatively new world to this older person) to an opinion or commentary column. Suddenly the project transformed from daunting to fun and familiar. And here we are, with the first posting to 1eclecticwriter. I vividly recall a similar transformational insight, which occurred during a Southwest Writer’s monthly meeting, where the speaker used the phrase “character-driven plot.” I had, up to that point, published a host of articles and essays, but was stymied when I tried to ‘tell a story’ – i.e. generate fiction. I’m the opposite of a raconteur, quiet rather than voluble in groups. But I know characters! Boy do I know a host of characters – and once I recognized that I could be their ‘voice’, they began clamoring for me to tell their stories. Some pretty dark stories, so dark that I had to ask myself, “where in the world did that come from?” Because, yes, I’ve had some difficult times, and yes I’ve devoted time and energy to working toward understanding my own mind and emotions, and never did I come across anything THAT twisted!

I talked with Annam Manthiram at the NM Book Fiesta about these dysfunctional characters and how they take over and demand that I write what they want told. She laughingly acknowledged having the same sensation as she produced the stories collected in her recent book Dysfunction:[Stories]. What I didn’t get to ask her, but will try to going forward, is the same question a good friend recently asked me – why are there so comparatively few stories about good, happy, fulfilled people? I replied to my friend that, for me at least, it’s hard to write a good, happy, fulfilled character who doesn’t come across to the reader as insipid, or a goody-two-shoes. Stories require tension, conflict, something to move the characters to action and in search of a resolution – and a good, happy, fulfilled characters are the opposite of tense.

But there’s more. The unenviable human characteristics of envy, jealousy and mistrust seem to come into play quickly whenever a really good person is under consideration. “No one can really be that perfect,” is how the doubting may begin. I remember that there was carping about Mother Teresa’s interpersonal qualities with the sisters she supervised – along the lines that yes, she did good works but she was not an easy person to work with. Good, happy, fulfilled characters are apt to not be believed by the reader, and their stories will thereby not hold interest.

Sad, that fact… but proven true with every failed ‘good news’ paper or magazine. Even proven true in the difference in number of lines of print, and length of aired story about the rescuer of the three kidnapped girls in Cleveland, versus the number of lines of print and length of aired stories about their abductor. We think we know and understand and don’t need to hear more about goodness; we are fascinated by its opposite.

So what do good and evil have to do with being a renaissance writer, or offering a home to other eclectics? Being ‘focused’ is considered good. Having in-depth knowledge is considered good, while its opposite, being “a jack/jill of all trades” condemns one to being thought “a master of none.” I’m not even supposed to be able to blog until I select a topic! Well I’m selecting the topic of eclecticism – of interest in many different things – whether to the mastery level or not remains to be determined.

I hope you’ll join me, exploring the huge diversity of human nature, animal awareness, plant communication – you name it, we can reflect on and communicate about it. I’m working on a (fantasy? really?) story about animals attempting to communicate with humans regarding the challenges facing our environment. And a story about a man with multiple personality/dissociative disorder (the shrinks can’t agree on what to call the phenomenon, although those living with the problem are very clear about it). And an historical suspense novel set in Vietnam in the mid-1950s. And a short love story for Woman’s World. And… and… and. Eclectic. The Mississippi, in all its broad a sweeping variety. Join me!

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