Tag Archives: Philosophy

Holding a Cup and Overfilling It

Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long

Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself

When achievement is completed, fame is attained
Withdraw oneself
This is the Tao of Heaven

– Chapter 9, The Tao Te Ching, translation by Derek Lin

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The Stars Our Destination

Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system.  But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched.  Therefore, writing is subversive.  Writing is Occupy Consciousness.  Writing is black magic.  It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap.  And we can go there together.


On the Creation of Time

When I was in graduate school (for 12 years altogether–what was I thinking?), I had a rigid uncompromising attitude toward my own deadlines.  I had to meet them, even if it meant allowing the rest of my life to collapse.

Not surprisingly, putting myself in this do-or-die frame of mind often resulted in exactly that: my physical and emotional health would suffer.  I would have fulfilled my responsibilities and I was often extremely successful in those narrowly defined areas, but I would feel cheated because everything else would be wrecked.  I’d have to begin rebuilding my life after every major work project.  It was exhausting.

Now, I’ve learned to make time.  I have more deadlines than ever, but I take an attitude of mastery instead of servitude by saying, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”  I’ve found that this nearly always makes me more efficient.  By giving myself permission to remain whole–a whole person–I am no longer a slave to some external timetable.

On those rare occasions when my work is late or when unforeseen complications lead to a less-than-desired outcome, I’ve learned to say, “So be it; I’m human; I’ll fix it now and do better next time.”  Sometimes, this means comping work, spending extra time to make things right, or taking some other loss.  But we might just call that the price of sustained excellence.  It’s easy to operate at the top of one’s ability every now and then.  It takes moderation and self-control to stay in that state of optimal performance long term.  It takes a sense of balance and the maturity to recognize the value of personal wellness.

This was a hard lesson to learn, since I am “up in my head” most of the time, planning and scheming.  I also have an over-inflated sense of responsibility linked to the need for me to see myself as a high-functioning player in every situation.  I grew a lot when I admitted to myself that I had these Type-A traits.

Now I breathe, relax, and make my demons work for me instead of being tortured by them.  I think, when we accept the need for balance, we’re accepting life instead of the deadening supposition that our worth is defined only by what we produce in certain narrow categories.


The Fundamental Strangeness of Life

Recently, someone wrote to me wanting to know how I could support myself doing what I do.  It was a legitimate and sincere question that nevertheless had undertones of skepticism.  The writing life?  Really?  Just admit you’re flipping burgers in the back of some cantina, why don’t you.  And my answer was that I really am doing this the way I say I am.  It’s not impossible—hard sometimes, but never impossible.  The bottom line is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in life.

So wRembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).hy the incredulity?  Why the outrage?  I think it stems from the ingrained assumption that leading a responsible, hard-working life is at odds with fun and satisfaction.  When I worked in law, my supervising attorney used to say, “Sleep is for the weak” and “If you’re smiling, you’re not working hard enough.”  I hated that and I suspect that such traditional attitudes about work and life begin with western religious assumptions  about what we’re here to do and where we’re headed—assumptions many of us would rather do without.  It’s also hard not to see a telling interface between this aspect of conformist culture and consumerism.

Then again, I firmly believe that once we start making small decisions about what we want, once we start saying no to the bullying mechanisms of conformist culture (see Office Space for a great hilarious treatment of this), the way we see the world begins to change.  Things we thought were dull and boring begin to reveal hidden dimensions.  Fears evaporate.  It’s like learning to swim: at first, we sank like stones but then we learned to see the water differently and we were able to do something amazing: float weightlessly.  Sure, I love college teaching, but I love it primarily as something fascinating in itself, not as a support system or security blanket.  I don’t have any fear of the non-academic life.  I’m still a writer no matter where I am.

Moreover, I find it interesting that we are encouraged to assume that there is a fundamental disconnection between the mundane and the extraordinary in our everyday lives.  Why is this?  And why do we support belief systems dedicated to showing us how monotonous and empty our lives can be?

As someone who has spent a good amount of time in academia as well as making a living doing somewhat unconventional self-directed things—freelance writing, teaching fiction writing online, editing, even surviving for a while in college as a professional tarot card reader—I’ve come to recognize the inherent strangeness and fluidity of so-called normal life.

As the linguist, Patrick Dunn, has written, we might legitimately see the world “not as a constant interaction of immutable laws—although often and in may ways it is—but as an ever-changing interaction of arbitrary and constantly shifting symbols.”  Realizing that we have a considerable degree of semantic control over our lived experience should make us pause and ask why we are living the life we’re living.  Shouldn’t it?

Thinking about this has opened a lot of doors for me, doors of perception, doors of experience.  When I ask what is the meaning of life? I only hear the echo of my own voice.  And I used to think that this meant life was essentially meaningless.  But I don’t think that anymore.  Now I suspect that looking outside myself for an answer is tantamount to expecting a fixed meaning from some immutable hierarchy of values.  All cosmological assumptions serve power in some way and very few of them are in place to empower or enlighten the individual.

Now I tend to agree with Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”  The echo that comes back is the answer: the meaning of life is in the act of interpreting it.  And so I think again about everyday life, about the experience of being alive in a dance of symbols and interlocking value systems.  It’s incredibly strange to see life this way—to drop the ancient fictions associated with fixed categorical thinking and instead see experience as a matter of Will to Meaning, of interpretation.

After I sent a response along these lines to the person who asked me whether I was really, truly, honestly living the writing life, she followed up with: “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re not famous yet?”

I’m not?

All the dogs in my neighborhood know me as that guy with the cookies in his pocket.  When the balance of my life is behind me, what will I care about: that my name wasn’t a household word or that I was able to say, life means THIS!

Cookie, anyone?

Cookie, anyone?


A Meditation on the Inevitability of Death

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.


Paying it Backwards

Or How I Got a Gypsy Blessing, Lost All My Money and Had it Returned to me, Lifted a Peugeot, Encountered a Catholic Folk Saint, and Caught a Girl Flying Through the Air Within Eight Standard Estonian Hours.

My grandmother used to say, “When you got it, give it.  When you don’t got it, don’t think about what you gave because it’s not healthy to hate yourself.”  I generally follow this advice.  In spite of all the people, things, countries, foods, religions, and family members my grandmother hated passionately on a regular basis, she was still a very decent, wise woman.  She just came from a world where spite was a virtue and holding a grudge for more than 20 years was considered a mark of character.

Like all the old Italians I knew as a kid, grandma did for others, sometimes without provocation.  You might get an orange as a Christmas present or a crate of oranges on your doorstep one morning for no reason at all.  That’s how the Italians living in central California were, how their parents and grandparents had been back home.  It’s how they’d translated their village life across the Atlantic.  Mess with them and you were in for a world of hurt.  But wave politely from your front porch a few times and say something nice to their kids, and one day they might refer to you as “okay”—which, in that culture, meant “nice guy / not an asshole.”  High praise.

If they had it, they gave it.  And they didn’t keep checking for the good fu to come back around like a golden boomerang.  They gave and then they went about their business.  And if you knocked on their door with the donation cup, they might toss something your way if they felt sorry for you.  But they’d inevitably make the observation that there’s always somebody somewhere who needs their back room swept.  You know?  Brooms are easy to come by, I hear.  I’m not (usually) that old school.  But I can say that I’d rather carry pipes in a shitfield than take someone’s charity.  And I think it has to do with spending every summer of my life up to age 18 around the old folks.  In fact, I can say this because I have carried pipes in a shitfield.

But pipes and shitfields were far from my mind when I woke up today.  It was a typical morning in what I’m learning to accept as the beginning of a standard Tallinn day: slightly overcast, a crowd of models in miniskirts waiting for the bus across the street, and behind them, behind a guy who looked like The Zohan in a hot pink sweat suit with a beard that zigzagged like a lightning bolt, a middle-aged couple ran through tango steps on the grass.  Yes.  At 7:15 on a Tuesday morning.  Tango practice.  When the bus came, they both ran and got on with all the rest.  I sipped my coffee, watched the whole thing, and smiled at the universe, thinking the same thing I’ve thought every morning since arriving in Estonia: I really like it here.  It’s a weird place to be sure, but gently so—everything cast in a quiet, self-amused sort of absurdity, as if to say: I fought for this cabbage.  Now I’ve got it.  It’s mine.  And guess what I’ve discovered?  It’s a cabbage. 

Like most Americans, I’m normally not that subtle.  Still, I had no idea that today would meet and exceed my personal standard for weirdness and improbable synchronicity.  Today, as Basil Ivan Rákóczi might say, was a painted caravan.  And, like most Americans 6-of-pentacleswho’ve read the tarot every morning for 30 years (more than you might think, Harry), I shuffled up my Hanson-Roberts and pulled a card.  Now, without getting too far into my theory of how the cards work (which is a book I’m currently writing), I can say that I believe divination systems, like good short stories, show us what we already know (and perhaps cannot face at the moment) and give us the opportunity to think about what we should be keeping in mind (that maybe we don’t want to think about).  So when I drew the 6 of Pentacles, after watching Tango at the Bus Stop, I wondered what the hell it could mean.

Of course, I knew what the card meant in itself.  When I give readings, I tell people that 6 is the tarot number of beauty, grace, and style.  The 6 in the Major Arcana of the tarot is the card of The Lovers, which is the abundance of The Empress magnified until Venus is so radiant, so present, that victory is the inevitable next step.  Translated into the suits of the Minor Arcana, the 6 brings that beauty and grace into more specialized elemental contexts.  So one way of translating the 6 of Pentacles from the symbolic language of the cards is to call it “the beauty of earthly concerns” because pentacles, as a suit, deals with earth, with materiality of all kinds.  In a more literal sense, it is often called the card of alms-giving, patronage, generosity.  Sitting in the window with my coffee and the first light rain of the day coming down, I had reason to question what sort of generosity I should have been keeping in mind.

It wasn’t long before the universe, in her usual gentle, relaxing way furnished the answer.  My wallet disappeared somewhere between a vanilla ice cream at Rimi and me dropping my daily .50€ into the cup of the old gypsy lady who gives me a blessing every morning.

Like grandma, I give it when I have it.  My mom used to call it, “paying your way.”  And that’s how I’ve always thought of it—paying your way on the street, on any street, means giving a little.  Only today, I gave with that image of the 6 of Pentacles in my thoughts.  The old woman in her black cloak straightened up, bowed to me in a very dignified way, as always, and made the sign of the cross over my head.  This morning, I decided to take her picture.  She didn’t seem to mind.

It was only several hours later that I discovered my wallet was missing.  I immediately began blaming myself, wondering whether it was the old woman or someone else or whether my credit cards were currently floating out to sea; turning my suitcases inside-out; cursing; vowing to never leave the house again; developing cruel theories about my upbringing and DNA that would explain this stupidity.  I have never lost a wallet.  Ever.  This is because I fear it like a fat boy fears P.E.

Trembling, vehement, cursing myself and all creation, I thought, 6 of Pentacles my ass.  I’m the one who needs some goddamn charity now, huh.  I spent most the day doing exactly what grandma always said was unhealthy: hating myself.  I was in a foreign country on limited funds (which probably had already been siphoned out of my bank account down to the last cent) and my dreamy drifting around Tallinn—thinking about short stories and tarot cards and birds and why we think we see pictures in clouds and wondering whether someone could walk in the exact same footsteps as someone else all around a city and what that would mean—had gotten me destitute and ashamed.

After going back to the market (“What?  Lost found?  Can you please again speak in Russian if no Estonian?”) and retracing my steps around town twice in the rain (“Mama, looka the man.  He all wet!”), I went home and did what every stupid person does in my situation.  I wrote to the US embassy:

Dear Duty Officer— I seem to have misplaced my wallet and will need to cancel my credit cards.  Can you advise me on how to obtain an emergency money wire from my bank in the States so I can set up a PO Box here in Tallinn?  I do not have a mailing address and will need one to receive replacement cards. Your advice is most appreciated.

I had to resist signing off with And, yes, I really am this stupid.  Two more hours of self-loathing and introspective angst ensued.  And then something very interesting happened.  I was about to go to bed and just consign myself to spiritual darkness, but I thought I should maybe check my email one last time.  Given my previous experiences with the US embassy in East Africa, I didn’t have high hopes that they would even write back to me.  But they had written back! In fact, they told me that an Estonian citizen had found my wallet and phoned them with his information.  Does this happen? 6 of Pentacles?  Talk to me, 6.  You can’t just be all “beauty of earthly concerns” and leave me hot and bothered with an address on Lootsi street in my hand and a Borgesian fable in my head.  Can you?  You bastard!

After calling and talking to the man’s grandson on the phone, I looked up his house on Google Maps and plotted a course.  I was actually quite close.  In 15 minutes, I was there.  The place was old and the top panes of the front windows were completely missing—a crumbling green bungalow in the same unpaved lot as an auto garage.  It had a rusted metal door and so much water damage on its front wooden steps that someone had laid a narrow strip of particleboard over them like a ramp.  Everything sagged with rain.  A diamond-shaped yellow sign had been nailed beside the window: Hoiduge Koer!, beware of dog.

After knocking and waiting and knocking again and waiting again, I began to wonder if this wasn’t some elaborate Estonian prank: unintelligent American drops wallet in the city center and is led on a merry chase while funds are siphoned and many beers are toasted to the goddess Schadenfreude.  But eventually someone did come—one of the mechanics from the garage: completely bald with a wicked scar laterally across his forehead and a tight, controlled smile.  He squinted at me and we began the laborious process of communication in broken German.

By the time I was holding up the Peugeot for him, I discovered he spoke perfect English and had perhaps feigned the broken German to get me to help him out—which I would have done anyway had he but asked.  There is something about someone grinning at you and saying Komm mit! Komm mit! that is entirely more persuasive than saying, “Look, I don’t know when the old man’s coming back home, but could you give me a hand in here?”

I came mit.  I gave a hand.  I even gave two hands.  The jack he was using to hold up a Peugeot hatchback looked like it had seen better days.  For that matter, so did the car.  He showed me that part of the jack had been crushed.  And I wondered, if the car could do that to the jack, how could he possibly expect me to lift it?  And would my spine look like the jack if I tried?

Stark,” he said and winked, doing imaginary bicep curls.  Yeah, right, I thought.  Stark but not Tony Stark.

Only after I was grunting and holding the rear fender of the car with both hands and thinking deep hernial thoughts did my new best friend say, “That fucking jack was bullshit, man.  You can let it down now.”

“Bullshit?  Bullshit?  You can speak fucking English?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

All I got was a bashful smile and another wink.  And I thought: it’s not that I’m stupid and gullible, I mean, I am those things, certainly, but it’s more that people don’t know how to ask for help.  If he would have only asked, I would have helped.  And then I thought of myself, broke in Montana one summer, working day labor so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents for money.  When I applied at the Ready Labor office in Missoula, the woman behind the desk asked me, “If someone said go plunge all the toilets, would you do it?”  “I guess I would,” I said, “if I were getting paid.”  She nodded and checked a box on the form.  Later that day was my first shitfield experience.  So maybe, provided certain exigencies of time and space had conspired to make me an Estonian auto mechanic instead of a pissed-off grad. student with an over-exaggerated sense of pride, I’d be the one fronting the broken German and some other fool would be holding up my Peugeot.

Still, he wasn’t a bad dude.  He helped me get ahold of the old man, who’d been called away suddenly (I never got an explanation) and was on his way back.  I sat in the auto garage beside the hatchback while the guy worked and told me all about how shitty Peugeots are.  He gave me a bottle of water and things weren’t so bad after that.  The rain made interesting noises on the corrugated metal roof.  And my new friend’s deep abiding disgust with all things Peugeot was a thing to behold.

When the old man arrived, he was like nothing I expected.  He stood about 6’6” in khakis, a white button-down, and a red beret.  He was extremely thin, and smoked a pipe.  His grip was so strong that, when we shook, I felt like he could lift me up that way.  I went into the bungalow behind him.  It looked as water damaged inside as it was on the outside.  The ceilings were falling in.  Everything inside was particle board.  And it occurred to me that this wasn’t where he lived.  It was an office or a workshop.  He was far too well-put-together to be living in a place where the top windows had been blown out and half of the living room was a puddle.

But specifics at that point didn’t matter.  All my money was in my wallet.  My credit cards.  My Communication Workers of America union card.  My 1st Gup membership  card in the United States Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation—awarded to me in 1997 by the famous Tang Soo Do master Lloyd Francis which I have kept in my wallet everyday since then out of respect for that great teacher.  My drivers license. My House of Rice frequent diner card.  Everything that defines me.  Still there.  I would lift 10 crappy Peugeots for that.  I thanked him profusely.  And, after a few minutes of me grinning at him, he lit his pipe and I took my leave, still smiling.

Expedite1Could the day get any stranger?  Yes, yes it could.  Drifting home in an existential haze, trying to figure out what it all meant, I came across a slightly larger-than-life size statue of Saint Expedite completely made of marzipan in a glass case in the center of a mall.  If I’d had my camera, I would have taken a picture of that, too.  Suffice it to say, I was shocked because underneath the statue was the motto “Patron of Emergencies Lost Items, and Financial Needs.”  I stared until people started to give me funny looks, which granted, in Estonia, is not that long.  But still.  But still.

Yet stranger: almost home, a girl tripped and I caught her before she knocked her head against a concrete pole.  Good?  Saving the populace?  Lifting cars?  Interacting with marzipan Saints?  I’m Billy Dee Williams, son.

Now I’m home.  It’s late and I’m blogging this.  But somehow I don’t feel like I’m doing the day justice.  Every one of these experiences had enough emotional tender to merit a post all on its own.  And I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel a bit overstimulated.  So, okay 6, I think I understand by now.  I think I finally get it.  I can look over at my wallet on the table and say, I fought for this cabbage. Now I’ve got it. It’s mine. And guess what I’ve discovered?