Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Rehabilitation is a Dead Letter"

An interesting essay regarding the nature of racial injustice permeated by America's prison system. Here's a passage:

"Nor is it merely the scope of the mass imprisonment state that has expanded so impressively in the United States. The ideas underlying the doing of criminal justice — the superstructure of justifications and rationalizations — have also undergone a sea change. Rehabilitation is a dead letter; retribution is the thing. The function of imprisonment is not to reform or redirect offenders. Rather, it is to keep them away from us. “The prison,” writes sociologist David Garland, “is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” We have elaborated what are, in effect, a “string of work camps and prisons strung across a vast country housing millions of people drawn mainly from classes and racial groups that are seen as politically and economically problematic.” We have, in other words, marched quite a long way down the punitive road, in the name of securing public safety and meting out to criminals their just deserts.

And we should be ashamed of ourselves for having done so. Consider a striking feature of this policy development, one that is crucial to this moral assessment: the ways in which we now deal with criminal offenders in the United States have evolved in recent decades in order to serve expressive and not only instrumental ends. We have wanted to “send a message,” and have done so with a vengeance. Yet in the process we have also, in effect, provided an answer for the question: who is to blame for the maladies that beset our troubled civilization? That is, we have constructed a narrative, created scapegoats, assuaged our fears, and indulged our need to feel virtuous about ourselves. We have met the enemy and the enemy, in the now familiar caricature, is them — a bunch of anomic, menacing, morally deviant “thugs.” In the midst of this dramaturgy — unavoidably so in America — lurks a potent racial subplot."

Meditation

I've long been considering meditation, as I'm almost convinced that it will do me a world of good.
However, I'm waiting for some compelling reason to really sit down and get dedicated, and I haven't yet had it - though I should really stop waiting for when I really need something to go out and get it.

However, one of the IDEAS of meditation intrigued me, so I thought I'd get it down here. I believe it's in hindu philosophy (or at least eastern philosophy), the notion that between every individual thought of ours, there is a small moment, however brief, in which we're thinking nothing. The slightest gap, kind of like one of those rare moments when a stadium full of people happens to all be making no noise for the quickest of beats, before the sound leaps forward to fill in the space. If you happen to be concentrating during one of those moments, you hear it (the silence). Similarly, in meditation, the idea is to catch hold of those moments of nothingness, and focus on increasing that gap, bit by bit. Eventually, the time between thoughts gets longer and longer, and it is in those gaps of time, those instants of nothingness, in which you are said to be meditating.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Justifiable Expectations

I've noticed that I've never been (or maybe I've become) someone who isn't the type to demand more when something they've paid for wasn't right, and there was nothing that could be done about it when it happened. A great example is if something goes wrong in a hotel that isn't fixed the night you were there, something you have every right to expect should be right (like a hot water shower, or internet, etc.), then I'm never the one to say, "I think I deserve extra rewards points for this". It can be argued, of course, that asking for extra points in this situation is totally reasonable, totally justifiable.

But as I'm noticing more and more - if something is justifiable, then...well you feel the need to justify it. And whenever I find myself justifying something, I think...hmmm...maybe something isn't quite right. With regards to the hotel scenario, I realized that...I don't complain because I don't want to get into the habit of 'expecting' things, because I think that would be a slippery slope leading to 'taking things for granted'. The moment I'm expecting something, it creates this feeling of entitlement, and I'd rather continue living as though everything - even things I've paid for- is a blessing (because of course, even having the money to pay is a blessing). And, as I noted before, a blessing is something you must appreciate when it's there, but can't feel upset about when it's not.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

WorkLife vs HomeLife

I notice that I've become increasingly skeptical of the so-called, traditional, line between work life and home life. Isn't it sad that we must place our lives into buckets like this, where one represents monotony and obligation, and the other represents joy and freedom?

Perhaps this is the true test of a job, when it's more of a struggle to place yourself in one of these buckets than it is to just live ONE life. When you don't freak out about doing work at home, or freak out about checking personal email at work. When all these things, our work lives, our home lives, our night lives, our love lives, all string together so that we can hardly separate them in our mind, and they just make up one thing - OUR LIFE.

This reminds me of how I began to consider time after I left college. Up until graduation, everything in my entire life had been on a semester system - it was always what do I want to do THIS semester vs NEXT semester or NEXT year. Now it's just what do I want to get done before...well before what?! There's no horizon, no boundary, no limitation - I've got time!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Predicting Movie Outcomes

I tend to be fairly decent at predicting how movies are going to end.
Or at least at narrowing it down to a few possibilities.

Lately, however, I've noticed that this has become difficult - that movies that I might have expected to be predictable take me completely by surprise. I notice that this is a direct result of the (perhaps) intentional omission of certain pieces of information that would have been integral to coming to a conclusion about the ending.

Nowadays, I feel like only by intentionally leaving something out can you create a spot of irony, or a twist, or a full on surprise that the viewer CAN'T guess at. (The Dark Knight comes to mind somewhat, as many of the evil deeds that the Joker pulls off are random and unexplained - there's not even a hint at what will happen, and the movie never explains how the Joker managed to put himself in that perfect situation to do the deed- we just see the deed happen).

Yet there are rare occasions when a movie does leave clues, albeit subtle, and manages to pull off the twist or surprise in a way that made you sit back and think "oh! so THAT's what that was!" and it makes the movie watchable a second or third time because you enjoy noticing all the stuff you didn't notice before. (The classic movie here, I'd say, is The Sixth Sense).

One method achieves the initial surprise with almost no risk that the watcher is disappointed by their own intuition.
The other takes the risk of letting you down, but ultimately provides an enhanced experience that leads to further, repeated enjoyment of the film.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cautionary Standards

Recently, I made a remark about how depressing it was that modern music had degenerated into the semi-depraved, beat and electronic synth driven, lyrically vapid drivel that is has become. I was referring to the brand of music that currently is considered popular enough to play on the radio (I'd also suggest that much of it could be referred to by the moniker "dirty south rap".

I thought about how sad it was that THIS was what our society had come to herald as genius - THESE are the "musicians" that we'd chosen to idolize - those that could churn out a catchy hook with zero meaning every week, as long as they put a decent beat to it. This brand of music that even the most desperate of us couldn't get out of our head, and yet that would be completely forgotten within two years as though it had never existed (as, I contended, it never should have). What did it say about US, I argued, that THIS was what we revered? A friend argued that it's not as bad as I suggested - that the music made you move, and that's simply all that many people desired...but then I asked the question - when did we lose the power to demand more from the artist - the power to ask for auditory stimulation (that indeed, could "make us move") AND lyrics that we could mull over later and find layers of meaning within? I found this fairly discouraging, and representative of our short term mindset with exhaustive momentary pleasures on the surface, bankrupt of longevity or truth below.

My friend and I argued about it, and I slowly came to a realization that I was making a simple, yet potentially dangerous mistake. To set a hard standard in such a qualitative, subjective field, and then to judge others by it, and indeed condemn the majority of them by it is PERHAPS not the best mode of thinking. Who am I to judge people by the music they like? Who am I to even judge the music itself? Why should MY standard be the ONLY one? I'm sure that many people find the music I like simplistic and vapid as well. All I can contend is that I don't like the music, and that it's perhaps too bad that everyone else does because that's all that's available on the radio, which is unfortunate for me, solely. There's never anything discouraging about someone taking joy in something innocent, even in something that I dislike - indeed I should be able to take joy in the just the fact that at least its making others happy - and that alone makes it worthy of some laudation.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Two Types of Optimism

Consider the idea that there are two kinds of optimism. Thus, given a bad situation, there are two optimistic perspectives:

1) The perspective of "Maybe things will get better! The clouds will part, the lost object will be suddenly found, the sick person will heal, etc."

2) The perspective of "I'm sure that even with all this going wrong, EVEN if things don't get better - we, as people, and our lives will all be completely fine."

I think that both are awesome to feel - though the former can get you into the trouble of wistful thinking. The latter, however, seems to be infallible, though of course that kind of security is difficult to cultivate.

Then, sometimes the former is all that's possible - for instance, if you have cancer? Even then, I suppose #2 could help you - if you've got faith that even death has a meaning (and, after all, is inevitable).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tree Peace

My grandfather brought up a point that I thought was really interesting:

He pointed out the massive difference in our psyche between when we stand near a tree and when we stand near a human. A tree offers no threat to us - we are not wondering what it's thinking (let alone what it thinks of us), we're not trying to impress it, to be better than it, none of these thoughts occur to us. We find a sort of peace.

Yet consider the avalanche of insecurities that enter our mind the moment we're near another human. Immediately our sense of self, of space, of peace is shattered, whether we realize it or not. Everything we do is designed to incite a reaction from this other person, whether it be approval, disapproval, laughter, fear, etc. What is it that steals our peace?

There is of course fear - who knows how this person could hurt us? But that's a limited explanation that doesn't account for ALL the arbitrary thoughts and concerns that buzz through our mind. My grandfather would argue from a perspective of oneness - he'd say that other sentient beings strengthen our sense of separation from the world and our concerns resulting from that separation - strengthen our "I", our ego. I'm still piecing through this set of reasoning, but, regardless -

Imagine if we could let go of all our insecurities and experience that peace, that tree peace, in the presence of humanity. That would be quite something.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Beginning

I read something I'd written a long time ago, and I realized suddenly that I still agree with it:

I love being there at the beginning.

The beginning is when you're allowed to talk big, laugh loudly with bravado about your prospects, make huge promises and swear oaths that you believe you'll keep. The beginning is also where you get to mess up and have it not mean anything, to be stupid, audacious, to act without purpose or meaning, to hurl yourself fully into something knowing that it doesn't have to mean anything. Big surprise huh? No commitment!

What happens AFTER the beginning? Some might claim that reality sets in. You realize that it won't be that easy, that you'll have to break some of those oaths, that you suddenly have a lot to live up to. You realize that already you're running out of time, that maybe you DON'T have time to screw up, or you'll be somehow 'behind' where you wanted to be, forever. This juxtaposition is what used to make me treasure the beginning.

But - screw that. I notice that recently I've begun to treasure the POST beginning phase - when you've made it past the beginning and you're still going - because it's the REAL beginning - and there's nothing more exciting than facing reality and STILL feeling like "Hell yea, I can do this." I read something on a Starbucks cup, and I agreed with it - the idea that the irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating. I feel like that relates here - the irony of getting to the 'reality phase' is that you look around and realize - wow, everything I thought was possible, and more. It's like taking your head out of the clouds and seeing the sun instead.

One last thing - remember when older folks told us to cherish college because 'those are the best years of your life'? Lord, what a miserable thought. Thank God THAT sure ain't true, eh?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Library of Congress

A friend and I were in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., an AWESOME house of learning that I could spend days in (though for some odd reason, is closed on Sundays). The beauty of the interior is augmented by famous quotes from the greatest thinkers throughout history, which of course adds an entirely new element to the building (and has a particular appeal to me, as I've always assumed my future house will be a place filled with quotes in quiet places).

One quote we read was:

"Hither, as to their fountain, other stars repairing, in their golden urns draw light"

We knew neither the author, nor the context, nor the meaning of the line itself, but something compelled us to learn it. I pulled out my phone to google it, but he said "Nope, we're figuring this out ourselves" and that was that. Here's what we came up with:

- Hither = this place
- As to = just like
- Repairing = go

And, with a little rearranging, we get:
"This place is just like the fountains to which stars go to draw light in their golden urns."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Good vs. Luck Part 2

There was something I missed in my post about being good vs. being lucky. Luckily, I remembered it!

To be good REQUIRES luck. I think people often forget this. You have to be LUCKY ENOUGH to be good at whatever it is you're good at.

All of our skills, however hard we work to develop them, however many hours we put into honing them, training ourselves patiently...the very fact that we're driven to do so, that we have the marginal initial ability to do so, the time to do so, the opportunity to USE the skills we've developed - ALL of this is pure luck. Hell the very fact we're HERE flies in the face of the blinding absurdity of odds against us, and THAT is all due to luck (if luck can be described as forces outside of our control).

In this sense - of COURSE we'd rather be lucky - because without being lucky, we'd never even get the CHANCE to be good!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Would You Rather be Lucky? Or Good?

A friend posed a classic question: Would you rather be lucky or good?

Okay, well lets start with the assumption that your success rate, however you measure it, is identical in both cases.

My first thought (perhaps unfortunately) was - well would would other people think of me? From this perspective, it's hard to say which creates more illwill - being good creates jealousy and envy, while being lucky makes other people despise you for...well for just being so goddamn lucky! Positives (again from the perspective of 'how would other people treat me') - if you were good you'd garner a lot of admiration from people who were secure enough in themselves to allow for it. If you were lucky you'd get a few rare souls who could just enjoy themselves sitting back and marveling at how you'd stumble through life and screw things up, only to come out on top.

Now, ignoring that perspective entirely (as I might propose we should) - what effect would being either good or lucky have on myself? I think I might fear being just that good that luck wasn't a factor - it might lead to excessive pride or vanity, cockiness, excess, etc. On the flip side...being good at something might help me build self-confidence, give me a purpose, bring me the joy that comes from doing something well. Personal negatives of being lucky?...I guess I can't really think of any! Maybe in an extreme example, you'd get lazy and just end up depending on luck to carry you through every time? I suspect even the luckiest of us don't end up like that, somehow. Positives of luck - ah, for me, it's the divine sense of humility that so much is out of my hands, and of joy that the universe deemed it my turn to come out on top.

Didn't think I'd end up here - but hell it looks like I'd rather be lucky!

Of course you could take the cheap route that another of my good friends loves, and quote Thomas Jefferson: “I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Flip Side to Acting

An addendum of sorts to the post about Acting Like You Own It: there's a danger here - that you might actually be ACTING.

The key to this little tidbit of advice is that you must fully BELIEVE it - not just pretend like it's true. Pretending gets you into the sticky situation that SO many people get into, for instance, corporate America get into - pretending like they own it (which I've definitely found myself in), symptoms being:

- Saying things just to say them
- Repeating other people's words as though they're your own
- Disagreeing with opinions just to have a point of view

What's funny about this is that some people are REALLY good at it! They go into meetings and somehow some of the people leave thinking 'Wow, that guy knew what he was talking about!'. But people aren't stupid - eventually they all figure it out - and you're worse off then where you began.

Acting like you own it, in my definition at least, means that you have NOTHING to prove. You're already there! This sets you at ease to speak with confidence when you have something to add, knowing that if you've judged it to be worth saying, then it is. And if you remain silent, you don't worry that people didn't notice you.

Perhaps then, I should revise the phrase - instead of ACTING LIKE you own it - KNOW that you own it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Everybody's Protest Novel

This passage by James Baldwin, one of my favorite essayists ever, in his essay, Everybody's Protest Novel, an essay which helped make me want to be a writer, wows me nearly to tears every single time I read it:

"It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, the both alike depend on the same reality....Bigger [the main character in Richard Wright's novel, Native Son] is Uncle Tom's descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses. And, indeed, within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and and counter-thrust, long for each other's slow, exquisite death; death by torture, acid knives and burning; the thrust, the counter-thrust, the longing making the heavier that cloud which blinds and suffocates them both, so that they go down into the pit together. Thus has the cage betrayed us all, this moment, our life, turned to nothing through our terrible attempts to insure it. For Bigger's tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult - that is, accept it."

Act Like You Own It

One of my best friend's dad's at some point told him this, and I thought I'd pass it along as an AWESOME piece of advice to really anyone of any age. When my friend reached a certain age (18?), his father sat him down and said something like:

"From this point on, when you walk into a room, realize that you are absolutely equal with everyone in that room. You have no reason to believe that anyone is superior to you in any way, no reason to shrink away from anyone, to be afraid of talking to someone for fear that you're inferior. They may be older, they may know more than you, have more experience than you, be wiser than you but nevertheless, approach them as equals. There is nothing they know that you cannot grasp, no conversation they can have that you could not ask intelligent questions about or offer insight into. Approach everyone as equals, and they will treat you as such."

A good friend of mine rephrased this simply and said "Act like you own it." Because you do.

I think for a kid (and, as I said, anyone, really) to hear this kind of reinforcement is astoundingly important, because of how true it is. How many people walk into a room and shy away from those they think are 'too above them'? How unfortunate that must be! Every person should know that he or she is incredibly valuable, and that all those around them, regardless of their achievements, are still human and only just as valuable - still equal in every way. Every time you walk into a room, make it a goal to find a way to speak to the person that seems most impressive - and resolve to teach them something valuable, just as you learn from them.

The key here, it seems, is to keep this confidence checked - to never tip this scale in the other direction to find yourself feeling SUPERIOR to anyone.