31 May 2010

Happy Memorial Day

I hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day today, and please take a few moments and remember the real reason we celebrate this day: to memorialize the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives for us to live in a country where we are free to think, free to speak, and free to live as we please.

For more information on Memorial Day, click here.

27 May 2010

Let's give this a try

Let's give this a try and see if Blogger has corrected their problems.* I don't know if they have or not, but I would like to find out. It seems that they offer more customization than WordPress does (at least the customization that I prefer), and the free customization that I am used to with Blogger is $15 per year with WordPress.

* - For those out of the loop, click here.

$15 per year?!? I'm too cheap for that! Why should I have to pay $15 per year to fix a few problems with default templates that I don't love, when I can come to Blogger and do pretty much whatever I want for free?

Well, there is the part where Blogger ate my other blog. But, I'm willing to forgive and forget, if Blogger is willing to cooperate with me and not eat this blog. I do see that they've added a pages feature - I may have to give that a try.

Hopefully this works, because I miss my friends at Blogger. (More on this later.)

* * * *

I've moved all my posts from WordPress to Blogger, and will now continue my blogging journey where it started. I just can't stop thinking about the fact that I would have to pay $15 per year just to change a few default settings on a blog template. The more I think of it, the less I like it, and the more I wanted to move back to blogger.

I know what you're thinking: "But dude, it's only $1.25 per month." Well, that's not entirely true, because I have two blogs at WordPress, so it would be $2.50 per month, and that's not even the point. The point is: I don't want to pay for something that I can get for free. Do I have the money? Of course I do, but why spend it on something as minor as a blog when I can spend it on more important things? And, why do I make such a big deal out of a few settings on a blog template? I'm glad you asked...

In short: It's the principle of the matter. Blogger offers something for free that WordPress charges $15 per year for. And, when comparing the two blog platforms, it comes down to four essential qualities:
  • Ease of Use
  • Look/Feel of Template
  • Total Cost
  • Cool Extra Stuff

When comparing the two side by side, blogger wins in three of the four categories. (I must admit, WordPress has the upper hand in cool extra stuff - like the automatically post to Twitter and Facebook feature, and the tracking that's built into the blog - but I can get by without those things. When it comes down to the real nitty-gritty, items 1-3 are the most important, and Blogger wins in those areas.)

It's not just about the $15. In fact, my wife took the time to convince me that it wasn't even that much money to spend on the blog for one year, so the amount of money really isn't the issue - it's the fact that I have to spend the money in the first place. Template customization should be a free service (I mean come on, we're only talking about a few font color settings here). And, with Blogger, template customization is free, so in the end, it's not really that hard of a decision to make.

Also, Blogger gained a lot of bonus points by adding the really cool "pages" feature, for those of you scoring at home.

* * * *

But what about the whole "Google ate my blog" issue? Well, I thought about that for a while, and came to this conclusion: I've been blogging for almost 2 years now, I've had three blogs with Blogger (I used to write about the Red Sox until I deleted the blog, and I have a blog that I use for my Panthers blog that I create charts and graphs in and store them for future use.), and I've never had a blog deleted other than the one incident that drove me away. None of my other blogs were affected, and none of the blogs of my friends were affected, so it wasn't a "Google problem" - if it were, then surely I wouldn't have been the only one in all the blogs I read to experience the problem, right? Apparently what happened was I hit a button or changed something inadvertently and didn't figure out what it was, and the end result was my blog being screwed up beyond recovery - and I didn't feel like trying to get Google to help me because it's pointless (if you've ever dealt with customer service, you know what I'm talking about).

So, I'm pretty confident that I won't have the same issue this time around. My Panthers blog is still there, and there's nothing wrong with it (yet). In fact, had I not already spent the $15 to upgrade my WordPress Panthers blog, I'd move it back to blogger too (I'm going to wait until the upgrade expires since I've already paid for it, and it's non-refundable).  So I think I'll be okay. (But, I'm keeping my WordPress blog active just in case something bad happens, because you can never be too cautious.)

* * * *

Now, to my friends. I've not been as attentive to some of my favorite blogs as I should be, and I know that this is a lame excuse, but part of the reason is because when I moved to WordPress, I stopped signing in to Blogger because I wasn't blogging there anymore, and I didn't see the updated feeds from the "blogs I follow" widget on the Blogger dashboard (WordPress doesn't have one of those, btw). I know that it's still my fault for not reading, but at least now you know part of the reason why, because for some reason I don't click on blogs if I don't see that they have a new post, even though I know that most of you write something every day. It's a flaw that I need to work on, I admit that, but now it shouldn't be a problem because being back at Blogger means I don't have an excuse any more.

* * * *

Overall, I think that I'm making the right decision, primarily because since I moved to WordPress I really haven't had the desire to blog as much because I can't get over the dislike of the blog templates. If I don't like the way my blog looks, I'm not going to have a desire to write (as was evidenced by my lack of posting over the past few months).

I know you're probably thinking: "But, your blog is so plain and simple, what's the big deal?" Well, I know it's plain - but that's the way I like it. I like the font, the font color, the link color, the design - everything about it is what I want, and WordPress can't provide it for me. All of their templates are either girly, gay, or ugly (not that there's anything wrong with that). The few that are similar to mine all have things about them that I don't like (and I'm very picky - just ask my wife), and it's enough to make me not want to use them. The template I had was the one that I hated the least of all the ones available, and there are at least three things that I don't like about it, so I think it is best for my blogging psyche to just move back to Blogger where I can change the blog as many times as I want and not have to pay a single penny for the privilege.

Anyway, I'm sure you're getting tired of this rambling mess, so I'm going to stop now. I'm glad to be back here where I belong, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with each and every one of you.

Thanks for reading.

25 May 2010

This is Water: an in-depth outlook on life

The text of this post is taken from a Wall Street Journal article on the life and death of David Foster Wallace (the author of Infinite Jest), written a week after he committed suicide. The text that I have posted is from a commencement speech Wallace made at Kenyon College in 2005. A friendly word of advice: If you take the time to read this -- don't skim over it, or you will miss the point of the article. I have also broken some of the text up to make it easier to read. (If you are not familiar with DFW's work: he can get quite wordy at times, to the point where it is difficult to follow along.)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If at this moment, you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real -- you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue -- it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master." This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in, day out" really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home -- you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job -- and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.

It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth...

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am -- it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -- it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

19 May 2010

I really am lazy

As I sit here I realize that I haven't written anything on this blog for several weeks now, and it was a month between my last post and the post prior to it (are you confused yet?), so I need to take more time to sit down and gather my thoughts and put them here, because that's what a blog is for, right?

(Note: I looked back at my archives and realized that since March 2, I've written a grand total of four blogs, including this one - and one of those was just sharing a link I found. I really do need to get back into writing more often.)

In my defense, I have been writing, I just haven't been doing it here. I've been keeping up with news concerning the Carolina Panthers at my Panthers blog and I've been writing as a featured blogger at CSR and The Gab, so I haven't made the effort to put anything of substance together for this site, and I feel like I'm cheating myself out of the ability to just write about whatever fills my mind - kinda like what I'm doing right now, you know - talking on and on about mostly nothing but doing it anyway just to hear my own self think and talk.

Maybe I should see a professional or something, I don't know.

Anyway, I've been lazy - and I don't like being lazy, I just am. (I can't help it.) I'm sorry to those who I used to read and comment on blogs all the time, but have slacked off over the past two months (you know who you are). I don't have any fancy excuse or way to repay you for not being as attentive as I should be, but I do have an apology, and I really am sorry and promise to make more of an effort to read and comment on your blogs like I should have been doing all along.

(Totally random thought: Do people with OCD get pissed off because their disorder isn't alphabetized? I've always wondered about that.)

I'm sure that over the next few days I'll have more to share, but I just wanted to let all my loyal readers know that I'm still here, even if it hasn't seemed that way lately. I do have a few items in the ole' brain that I need to discuss, so be on the look out for that.

Or don't - since I haven't written anything in the last two months to make anyone believe I'm going to start now.