Monday, April 29, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Three: Once

Why commit an act of terrorism? And why call it terrorism? What is terror, anyway and why are we at war with it?

Becker answered these questions in the 70's. Sometimes it seems impossible to me how much our society struggles blindly with evil when the 101 textbook on the subject has been around for 4 decades.

But before we get to evil, we have to talk about terror, which means we have to talk about death.

Day in and day out we exist inside of a protective bubble built out of the real and symbolic problems and joys of our lives: our hungers and aches, our careers, our loves, our families, our politics, our pleasures, our grief.

Then a flash, deafening heat, and the body is torn apart. Those who survive are forced to witness, to remember that it's only flesh after all. And to fear the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

What if that were it? What if you were snuffed out in a tragic instant?

Then they put some rotting meat into a dirt hole, and the "cosmic specialness" that was you simply ceases forever.

The mind rejects such a thought. Rather, at the very least, the epigram Becker gives his magnum opus, from Rilke:

And we also once. Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

For us, the idea of death is a terrible burden that must be dealt with.

All terror is at root the terror of death, which we refuse to allow entry into our conscious lives.

We have always been at war with terror.

Next: Immortality

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Two: First Page

Previously: Science of Man

Here's a taste of the chilling (or hilarious, depending on your palette) Introduction to Ernest Becker's Escape from Evil:

"Life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh."

Yep. That's from PAGE. ONE. A reduction of life to "a constant struggle to feed," to gnashing and excreting, to flesh and shit.

You just totally got Walking Dead. You're welcome.

Becker is very intentional in this perspective. He takes as a page one premise a vision of humanity that we've been fighting for eons. Though Freud and Darwin did a number on the collective psyche by knocking man down off his own pedestal, even today ardent creationists consider evolution disgusting.

We blaspheme to relate the grandeur that we are to mere animals. We do not descend from beasts, but from God.

We are sustained by this belief that we are God's children, made in His image, or that we are magic and have control over the forces of life and death. We must be blessed with the love of a beneficent divinity or guided by cosmic forces to some eternal bliss.

Sure. Maybe. But if we are like unto god, then it's "the god who shits."

What's on page one of a science of man? We have to deal with what the poet James Merrill named "God B": Biology.

Half of Merrill's poetry was dictation from his Ouija Board.

Confront the idea that you can only exist by consuming other life, until the gunk you are made of gets too clogged to continue.

Becker calls this our 'creatureliness.' Our self-serving stories are aimed at disconnecting us from it. At heart we dislike, even fear our creatureliness, even as we take pleasure in it. The body is our vehicle to satisfaction in the world, but it can suffer, become sick and broken, even perish.

Consider that you are wingless, flawed and fragile, and you will come up against one of the foundational motivations of human activity: death.

Next: Once.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part One: Science of Man

In the wake of the awful Boston Marathon bombing, many people will ask "Why?" A lot of answers are going to fly around. I think the best one has already been written. (But I still want to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @strangewander!)

Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning Denial of Death and its companion, the posthumous Escape from Evil, are an attempt at a "science of man." If that sounds vague, it's because "psychology" does not adequately describe this work.

One of the fundamental and revolutionary aspects of Becker's work is its interdisciplinary nature: he brings together ideas from biology, anthropology, sociology, literature and history, philosophy, mythology and theology.

He does not just include more facts. He draws connections. He reminds us that these things are already connected.

Becker's goal was to harmonize, to synthesize. To escape what Norman O. Brown called "sterile and ignorant polemics," those one-sided pseudo-conversations that go nowhere.

Looked up 'sterile polemics' in the dictionary!

So what is a "science of man?" It's a holistic understanding of how the human animal functions. How biology sets the parameters for psychology, which sets the parameters for culture.

Becker's books are about what we need, and what we're willing to do to get what we need.

Yes, Denial of Death and Escape from Evil are about death and evil and death. I know. Sounds hard, and way too dark.

Darker than what, I ask? Twilight? Hunger Games? The Walking Dead?!

All stories are about evil and death.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life Anxiety: A Table of the Contents

A Table of the Contents:

1. Science of Man
2. First Page
3. Once
4. Immortality
5. Inheritance
6. Composing
7. Theatre for Heroism
8. The Heroism of Denial
9. Root of all Evil
10. Space Opera
11. Holy War
12. Unfreedom
Epilogue: Terror Management

Life Anxiety, Prologue

The title of my blog is in honor of the late Ernest Becker, whose books changed my life.

Because his books changed my life, I want to write about him.

His work is about evil and terror and death. There's been an extra portion of that in my damn environment lately. So really I need to talk some Becker.

I'll be releasing a series about Becker's ideas over the next few weeks which I hope you will tolerate. I promise to write too many posts but to keep none too long. Why not try giving some a read?


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Making Song of It


All day in the wet air, all night almost
rain. We watched for it. Angry ghosts
stalked the attics of our houses. In the wake
of what we said shrapnel rippled out, mistakes
we'd made. It was how we read it that really
mattered, all we later saw we couldn’t see,
density determining which debris sinks or
which rises higher with each passing hour.
Too late a crack of gray spills onto black
for a boy adrift in a still afternoon.
Blood hardens instantly into fact
and the waters come for us too soon.

Follow me on twitter: @strangewander

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dirty Old Town

I've been reading about branding and thinking about poetry. I have these things I want to say about words but now I don't know how.

I spent Patriots' Day wandering around my city. Alone, without ear buds or iTunes, from the Common through Downtown to the Waterfront, I listened and I watched.

I saw the suits by South Station and wondered if they ever feel like targets, those folk (like my brother) who work in the Federal Reserve building.

You wouldn't get that idea watching dudes on their lunch break, running across to the train station's McDonald's while they commiserate about a coworker with unrealistic expectations.

Just another day downtown.

After being a New Yorker for 3 years, I've always been grateful to feel safer in my own city, my home, which I do not think of as a place you'd want to explode. But I still got a shudder walking by the World Trade Center. The name alone seems to invite evil.

At the Boston Public Library I used to transcribe the poems of a would-be Transcendentalist who shared a meal with Emerson. Copley is where I read my poetry at the wedding of two good friends. Where I got to discuss Wallace Stevens with a Berkeley academic.

And I remember witnessing, years ago, an old man collapse in the square, blood spilling slowly from his brain -- not the first corpse I'd ever seen, and not the last.

What we do in a crisis is always moving: people rush in to help and there's a feeling of being knit together. Then someone asks "Why did this happen?" and the chorus clamors for more death.

The answer to the crisis of our age won't be on Twitter and it won't be on CNN.

But tonight the ghost of John Wieners reads on the library steps. Watch for him. And listen:

Yes rise shining martyrs

out of your graves, tell us
what to do, read your poems
under springtime moonlight.
Rise and salvage our century.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

YOLO? Yes, but YOLO.

You know?

I've been thinking about that scene I love in How I Met Your Mother. Marshall and Ted decide that the bad consequences of some action are problems for future Marshall and future Ted. And screw those guys, right?

 Later, Ted and Marshall wonder how they got in to such a mess, and realize they've been set up by past Ted and past Marshall. Screw those guys!

 I want my choices to have an anti-hangover effect. I want to wake up tomorrow and feel my good choices paying off.

So a... dropunder?

That's why I proposed to my girlfriend. That's a decision I anticipate will keep paying off.

For the rest of whoever dies first's life. #YOLO

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Poems 1: Out Loud

April is Poetry Month.

Why April? Probably because a key English poem  -- one of the very first -- opens with a description of April.

T. S. Eliot
(Not this guy's.)

The first sentence is epically long. The middle of this sentence is unintelligible to modern speakers of English without help. The rest is surprisingly accessible but only if you read it out loud.

Preferably like you are doing your very best Geoffrey Chaucer impression. Think Downton Abbey minus 500 years. 

A Knight's Tale
There he is.

If you find your brain shutting down, just skip to the end for now.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne;
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yƫ --
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages --
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

Yep. It's as I've always said, "April showers make the world flower drunk. Breezes and birdsong in the sunny fields, lying awake at night fucked in the heart  -- makes you need a spiritual journey."

Poetry Lesson One, from someone who's read so much poetry he's ruined himself for anything else, is the first lesson this early poem teaches us:

You have to read poems out loud. Half of what poems mean is in the sound of them.

Poets string similar sounding syllables together.
They play around with vowel sounds.
Poets take advantage
of opportunistic pauses.

Remember in 10 Things I Hate About You when the English teacher raps Shakespeare?

This young man is thinking about taking a spiritual journey.
Sir William?!

If you're someone who says "I don't get poetry" AND you're someone who's never read poems out loud, you should instead say "I haven't taken the time to actually hear any poems."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Flavor Marriage and the Strategic Plan

Update for all you soakers:

I was just on the Food Network web page for my go-to granola recipe (Alton Brown's, natch), when I saw a comment that made me laugh. The idea here should be familiar.

The first step to the recipe calls for the usual separate combinations of dry and wet ingredients before you mix them with each other. One commenter helpfully lets us know that he likes to leave the dry oats and nuts alone for a while after initially mixed, "to let the flavors marry, if you will."

I will NOT.

OK, so this is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how cooking works. Dry + wet + time (+ heat, typically) produces flavor marriage. Your oats aren't talking to your cashews because they're in the same BOWL for an hour. That's what syrup and/or honey and/or cooking oil is for, not to mention the oven.

But it charmed me even as it tickled my condescending side. Because this is a narrative of doing nothing while feeling like something is happening. This is the kind of wasted time I've been trying to talk about.

Recently I was challenged to define instances that fit the soaking metaphor, and failed. The concept is easier in the abstract: planned inaction raises the question of whether lack of action is truly strategic or a cover for -- lack of a better plan, say, or insufficient motivation.

Apply this towards literally any goal you have. For example: I have a career vision -- and it's easy to think "I should get more experience and training before seeking a new role." This is a sensible stance if I am actually doing the seeking of more experience and training, and if that is really what I need. It could as easily be what I am telling myself so as to avoid the hard work of a.) actually learning new things, b.) updating my resume, c.) figuring out what to do for a living, d.) seeing what kind of jobs are out there, etc.

Sometimes general strategies lack specific action plans. You do nothing but assume that things are still chugging along, just because time is.

Then some time goes by, and you're pretty much still where you were.

This is my fundamental problem with what passes for strategic planning, particularly in Higher Education. Ben Ginsberg says that strategic planning is neither strategy nor plan, but "a substitute for action."

The problem is definitional. A strategy is a set of principles for guiding future action. A plan is a set of actions that you are doing or need to do. Making a plan that is strategic is wise. But there are certain criteria that are necessary for it to be an actual plan: "A plan typically presents concrete objectives, a timetable for their realization, an outline of the tactics that will be employed, a precise assignment of staff responsibilities, and a budget."

In Higher Ed, strategic plans tend to take on the language and motive of "vision statements," which articulate goals you hope to meet.

Your goal is not your plan. And having a goal without a concrete plan will not move you closer to achievement.

Taking time to plan is essential, but the more resources devoted to planning, the less actual work that's being done. Planning for planning's sake can kill the whole endeavor altogether.

At least soaking your dishes will make eventual washing easier. But leaving your oats alone with your nuts? It's a plan, I guess, but it's not very strategic.

Selling Fancy

Microsoft will always and forever be my go to punching bag for terrible, terrible "innovation."

They have this incredible knack for integrating new features into their software that backfire, often in an effort to promote their other software.

They are always trying to copy Apple's awful proprietary model -- like how if you buy songs in the iTunes store, suddenly you need iTunes for everything, and you're buying an iPhone instead of a Droid, and.... you know. It's Apple everything.

But Microsoft lacks Apple's slick simplicity and overall user-friendliness. iTunes, iPhones, etc delivers on what users want, so they're willing to go Apple for everything. The word "innovation" seems to be paired with the brand "Apple" a lot, and for good reasons, but a lot of Apple's success isn't really about being new and fancy. It's about consistently satisfying their users' basic needs. (And much, much better marketing than Microsoft, but that's a story for another post.)

It's about asking a simple question: what does your end user WANT?

I mean that literally. Ask them, and then listen.

Marketing works this way, now more than ever. It used to be about making up a product and then finding the right narrative to sell it. It's become increasingly more fashionable (and more efficient) to just listen to people tell you what they want. Then you give that to them and they keep coming back.

As soon as you try a ploy that benefits YOU, and not your customer, you're on thin ice. Better make sure that new feature is AMAZEBALLS.

But this is what Microsoft actually tends to deliver:

The new Outlook for Mac! Now with MSN Messenger integration, for all your contacts on MSN Messenger!

Right? Who gives a f*#&?! Why don't you just link it to my old AIM account?

Because of this new feature, here's what happens. You get an email, and Outlook inserts the name of the contact in place of the 'From' email address. This is pretty standard, but actually kind of a pain if you want to know exactly where an email is coming from.

In my line of work, for example, I sometimes need to check that an email is coming from an '' address. Occasionally students from other universities email me about our programs or scholarships, or to ask for advising. That's not actually what MIT pays me to do, so...

I used to hover over the contact name to see the email address. Simple. Works in GMail! Google: good at ensuring that the delivery of basic is not impacted by the innovation of fancy.

In the new Outlook, if you hover over the contact name (which Outlook renders regardless of whether or not that person is a contact or even an actual person (see the above Sri Lankan spam as a perfect example)), you get a pop-up window that still just shows you the contact name... along with an MSN Messenger status.

Since I don't have that program, nor am I considering using it, the pop-up window just delivers this default message: "Presence Unknown."

For every email, every 'contact,' every time. "Presence Unknown." What does that even mean? Is this some kind of po-mo existentialist poetry? Outlook has decided that this is more important information than the email address of the person who emailed me.

How long do you think it took me to figure out what "Presence Unknown" means? Google it, and you find yourself in a lot of forums full of angry Outlook users demanding to know where their email is coming from.

To see the actual email address, I need to "double hover." Guess how long that took me to figure out.

The moral of the story? I despise Outlook. I am writing a boring blog post just to whine about how stupid Microsoft is for wasting my time figuring this crap out. And for slowing me down every time I need to look at an email address. (Also: can't copy/paste that little yellow box! For that, you need to open the contact or forward the email -- more clicks, more time wasted.)

Frustration! And for what? Because they tried to get all fancy in a very self-serving way, and wound up obstructing a simple, basic function that I require of my email software.

You can't sell fancy if you can't deliver on basic.