Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I do a little writing. Sometimes, too little. I should do more. We all should.

There are few people interested in what I write. Mostly, it's those who have to listen to what I write, because I take it to critiquing group, and there are usually five other people there who write who in exchange for my criticism of their writing give their criticism of my writing. Otherwise, they wouldn't read it either. A few people have purchased my book, Making Expression Less Taxing, a Freelancer's Tax Resource. Whether they read it or not is another matter altogether. My editor read it all; I paid her to help me out.

Writers, even quite prolific ones, probably never reached the type of audience they dreamed of. There are exceptions, of course, like some of the best sellers. I'm pretty sure JK Rowling and Stephanie Myer are examples.

Over the years, I have been in a critiquing group. Many aspiring writers have come and gone in that group. I am the only one who remains of the original five or six individuals who started the group. I don't know how much those other individuals write now. My friend, Doug, was one of the more talented individuals who started with the group to begin with. He was published in some historical journals and, perhaps, some other places. He stopped coming to critiquing when he signed up for a screenwriting course at the University of Utah. He utilized a manuscript he had been working on in our critiquing group to create a screenplay. He entered the screenplay after it was completed in the Slamdance screenwriting contest. The contest is sponsored, as I understand it, by Sundance Film Festival. He won and subsequently tried to market his screenplay, although he didn't have the luck he hoped to have because he became affiliated with someone who was devastated because of the downturn in the economy.

I'm not aware of others until recently who have published anything who have participated in the critiquing group, although there may be some. Oh, as I say that, I remember one person --- Julie --- besides the one I was thinking of telling you about next. Julie published a story she brought to our critiquing group in the LDS church publication, The Friend. There are probably other individuals who had success, too, and I just don't remember or know about it.

Now I want to mention Matt. Several months ago, perhaps even as much as a year or so ago, Matt obtained an agent who ended up selling his second novel --- Matt writes for children and young adults --- to Scholastic. The book, known during the days that it was being fed to us at critiquing sessions, was The Fiddler's Grimoire. Now it is known as The Clockwork Three. It will be released on October 1, 2010. Matt will be headed out to New York next week to be with all the important people relative to its publication and release.

This whole background now brings me to the reason for this posting. Envy. They say that envy will knock at your door and beg you to let it in. It will use every conceivable enticement to have you let it in and turn you green, including begging.

I don't see it that way. It doesn't seem to affect me that way. Maybe it would have in my younger years. For one thing, Matt is a young man and I am an old one --- well, relatively. (Old, that is, not manly.) My dreams these days don't go to being a big, published, and recognized author. That all sounds just wonderful, but it also sounds like a lot of work and effort, too. And I am retired. And in case you haven't tried it, someday you ought to. It's awesome. However, it isn't that compatible with being a new, published author anticipating big things.

So, I don't think envy has much play in the success I see Matt having and anticipating over against my lack of success. They say also a writer should displace their envy of another writer with hard work and produce something of publishable quality. I hope I'll do that, but I'm not looking forward to all the implications of being successfully published, including all of the work.

But I guess I could make an exception, if somebody offers me big bucks and a platform.

Not that they will. :-)

Monday, March 29, 2010

The History of Words

You can drive yourself nuts thinking about things too much. I got to thinking about the history of a word. I wasn't thinking of a specific word, but of the notion of any particular word having a history. It was all stirred up by Emily Dickinson. I happen to read one of her poems, "There Is No Frigate Like a Book", and it stirred up all this bother about the etymology of words. It's rather intimidating to think about. Take the word "intimidating." How did it originate, how many times has it been said, in what circumstances? It boggles the mind to even think about it. It makes my short history and life seems so insignificant, somehow. Even though I know that my life isn't insignificant, thinking about that history of a single word like "intimidating" almost makes it so.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What a Life I Have

What a life I have. Retired. Enough money to live on. Enough money to have what I want, which it doesn't seem like is a lot, but compared to so many others it must be considered a vast fortune. And yet some may think, and I admit I often do, too, that I don't do very much with what I have, and my life isn't that meaningful or productive, and that I don't have that much stuff. At least people in my neighborhood, in my state, in my country might say that. But they don't know what they're talking about if they say something like that; they don't know what the world is really like and how much poverty there is out there and how very rich and blessed I am.
How do you measure something like that anyway --- how well off I am? I don't know, but it seems to me like I have it extremely good. I do pretty much what I want to do, hermit that I am, and I kind of like it that way. I'm always trying to learn something new and push my understanding out there further than it is. Yet I would say that I remain relatively ignorant. I think I am rather slow-witted when it comes to intelligence and lacking when it comes to creative powers. It is difficult for me to find "flow." Some of that probably is innate and some of that is probably because I haven't necessarily applied myself like maybe I could, like maybe I should.
Today we visited another congregation, the congregation of a friend who was returning from doing work for the church across the ocean but not too far away. It was fun to see something different for a change, another congregation, other folks, and to listen to our friends report about what they had been doing the last year, to listen to them delight in their activity, but also to listen to them convey how happy they were to be back home again. As I listened to them, I sensed how very hard they had worked and applied themselves to what they were doing, and I sensed also the great satisfaction they had in so serving. I'm glad for them; I'm happy they enjoyed themselves. They are better people for it.
I am happy too. Although I don't probably do as much as I could do or should do, I'm not going to beat myself up because of what little I do do. I'm not totally content, but I never have been my whole life, and I will plod along and do what I can and see if I can improve even if it's a little bit, realizing that over a lifetime of sixty-one years --- well, almost 62 years --- I am the person I am; I do the things I do. But I have improved. I have learned. I know so much now compared to what I did when I was born it is almost hard to imagine how much I have learned and grown and experienced. Have others done better? Certainly. Have others done worse? Certainly. But I have to measure myself in terms of myself and consider that I am who I am and try to find some solace in all of that.

My Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor is a scientist, a brain scientist. She has a PhD and has written a book published by Viking, My Stroke of Insight, a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. It was published in 2006.

One of the fellows --- actually, the only other fellow --- in our --- I say our because both Shelley and I attend --- reading group chose the book. He had had, like Jill Bolte Taylor, a stroke, and wanted to read the book to compare notes, I guess. Anyway, we read the book and I have it finished now and plan to discuss it with the reading group tomorrow night.

Reading the book and gaining insight from a brain scientist who had had a severe stroke on the left side of her brain was quite interesting, particularly because my focus in the last few weeks has been on time. Not on time as in timely, but as in the nature of time itself. What is it? All about that.

Anyway, Taylor told about her experience having the stroke, what it was like, and what she could do in the midst of it, but also about her recovery and how she thinks her experience might help both those who have similar experiences and those who are caregivers and family of individuals who have strokes.

One of the reasons I was looking at time in the first place was because of its relationship to free will, the ability or discretion to choose. That subject came up as I attend church a few Sundays ago when I suggested that the infallible foreknowledge of the future, which some people propound characterizes, in part, God, is incompatible with, it seems to me and to other individuals with similar beliefs, free will. At least one other individual in the classroom that day was also interested in the apparent incompatibility and tried to keep the conversation going without any success, as usual. At the point where people differ as to the opinion about the subject matter or at the point where someone says they don't know the answer to the question, the notion of going on with that is invariably seen as contentious. And, in the congregation I attend, and probably in the church I attend in general, dismissing something as contentious is about as dismissive a tactic as is possible. Anyway, hence came my interest in time over against the notion of free will.

As I was reading Taylor's book, I was keenly interested in both of these concepts: time and free will. I will say this much. She made apparent, at least to me, that her conception of time and free will during her stroke were intact, if I read her correctly.

Here are some of the interesting citations I notated. The first one doesn't have to much to do with either of the subjects of time or free will.
Most of the different types of cells in our body die and are replaced every few weeks or months. However, neurons, the primary cell of the nervous system, do not multiply (for the most part) after we are born. That means that the majority of the neurons in your brain today are as old as you are.

The next one has a subtle reference to time:
My stroke of insight would be: peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.

"Peace is only a thought away." Another thought I appreciated was:
I desperately needed people to treat me as though I would recover completely.

Not anything on time or free will there but nonetheless a sensitive and caring God.
I noticed significant improvement in my brain's ability to learn and function for eight full years post-stroke, at which point I decided my mind and body totally recovered.

This next one goes it seems to me to free will and the notion of time.
I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.

One of the points Taylor made over and over again was the necessity of getting plenty of asleep during her recovery. She indicated that she needed far more sleep than she ever had after working hard on her recovery. She also stated the following:
... my brain needed to be protected, and isolated from obnoxious sensory stimulation, which it perceived as noise.

I was interested in the following:
I firmly believe that if I had been placed in a conventional rehabilitation center where I was forced to stay awake with the TV in my face, alert on Ritalin, and subjected to rehab on someone else's schedule, I would have chosen to zone out more and try less.

She said:
At the essence of my soul, I was the same spirit they loved.

There was this about encouragement and inspiration:
I needed people to celebrate the triumph so I made every day because my successes, no matter how small, inspired me.

She made it clear that it wasn't and effort that could be done on her own:
Part of getting out of my own way meant that I needed to welcome support, love, and help from others.

Along with that was this:
I needed people to come close and not be afraid of me.

Extremely nervous, anxious or angry people were counterproductive to my healing.

This one seems directly involved with the notion of agency or free will:
I may not be in total control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.

So, for her it was a matter of choice and agency, her freely choosing to perceive a particular way and to act. In contrast she makes this observation:
Before the stroke, I believed I was a product of this brain and that I had minimal say about how I felt or what I thought. Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears.

So her experiences belief. Before she had the stroke, she thought she had very little control, although, it's clear she wasn't thinking she had no control whatsoever. Afterward, however, she says her eyes and opened to how much choice she really had about what goes on in her head, in her brain, in her mind. They she made this observation that I liked.
My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.

The word character in the preceding quotation is interesting. Character is defined as the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual. I'm not sure exactly what she means in this paragraph and how it relates to the notion of agency or free will. The next quotation is the following:
... these scientists identified the neuroanatomy underlying our ability to have religious or spiritual (mystical) experience.

This of course goes through the recent scientific studies that seem to have located a part of the brain associated with spiritual experience. It goes to the question of where in the brain we undergo a shift in consciousness away from individuality to a feeling that we are at one with God or the universe or whatever. Also relative to that:
First, there was a decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere language centers resulting in a silent scene of their (the subjects of the study) brain chatter. Second, there was a decrease in the activity in the orientation association area, located in the posterior parietal gyrus of the left hemisphere. This region of our left brain helps us identify our personal physical boundaries. When this area is inhibited or displays decreased input from our sensory systems, we lose sight of where we began and where we end relative to the space around us.

Here was another one of interest to me.
No matter what information is being processed (or not being processed) in my two hemispheres, I still experienced the collective of myself as a single entity with a single mind. I do believe that the consciousness we exhibit is the collective consciousness of whatever sells are functioning, and the bolt of our hemispheres complement one another as they create a single seamless perception of the world.

This is a really long quotation:
Some of us have nurtured both of our characters and are really good at utilizing the skills and personalities of both sides of our brain, allowing them to support, influence, and temporal one another as we live our lives. Others of us, however, are quite unilateral in our thinking -- either exhibiting extremely rigid thinking patterns that are analytically critical (extreme left brain), or we seldom connect to a common reality and spend most of our time "with their head in the clouds" (extreme right brain). Creating a healthy balance between our two characters enabled us to flexibility to remain cognitively flexible enough to welcome change (right hemisphere), and yet remain concrete enough to stay the path (left hemisphere).

This was a curious one relative to free will and time.
We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around.

So there is an intermixture of free will and, it appears, determinism. Curious. Next:
We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around.

Huh? Now that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. First of all, there is determinism, because she says that we're a product of biology and environment. Then she says she chooses compassion. How can you choose compassion if you're a product of biology and environment? That doesn't make any sense to me and it is confusing. Then there was this:
To monitor how things are going in my life, I pay very close attention to how things are flowing, or not flowing in the world around me. Depending on what I am attracting, I take responsibility for how things are going and consciously make adjustments along the way. This does not mean that I am in complete control of everything that happens to me. However, I am in control of how I choose to think and feel about those things. Even negative events can be perceived as valuable life lessons, if I'm willing to step to the right and experience the situation with compassion.

Well there seems to be some confusion. In the previous quotation, she indicates that we're products of our biology and environment. Yet above, she indicates that she had a choice. So there continues to be this tension, this confusion, this lack of clarity, just like the rest of us seem to have. It all goes back to the notion of time and whether everything is laid out and determined or if there is such a thing as free will.
On an energetic level, if I think about you, send good vibrations your way, hold you in the light, or pray for you, then I am consciously sending my energy to you with a healing intention. If I meditate over you or lay my hands upon your wound, then I am purposely directing the energy of my being to help you heal. How the arts of Reiki, Feng Shui, acupuncture, and prayer (to mention only a few) work remain pretty much medical mysteries. This is mostly because our what Raines and science have not yet successfully caught up with what we understand to be true about our right hemisphere functions. However, I believe our right minds are perfectly clear about how they intuitively perceive and interpret energy dynamics.

Here's another one:
Before my stroke, I thought I was a product of my brain and had no idea that I had some say about how I responded to the emotions surging through me. On an intellectual level, I realized that I could monitor a shift my cognitive thoughts, but it never dawned on me that I had some say in how I perceived my emotions. No one told me that Apple took ninety seconds for my biochemistry to capture, and then released me. What an enormous difference this awareness has made and how I live my life.

So the deterministic elements only works for something like ninety seconds and then were free again. But then she makes a statement like the following:
Ultimately, everything we experience is a product of our cells and their circuitry.

There's that word "product" again. We are a product of our cells. Isn't that akin to fatalism or determinism? It seems to me that it is. How about this?
To experience pain may not be a choice, but to suffer is a cognitive decision.

Or how about this one?
As an independent agent, I and I alone, in conjunction with the molecular genius of my DNA and the environmental factors I am exposed to, will decorate this space within my cranium. In the early years, I may have minimal input into what circuits grow inside my brain because I am a product of the dirt and seeds I have inherited. But to add good fortune, the genius of our DNA is not a dictator, and thanks to our neurons' plasticity, the power of thought, and the wonders of modern medicine, very few outcomes are absolute.

Wow! That's one you have to read and think about for a while. So there is this interplay between the determined and between the and determined self somehow, and it all suggests free agency. Free agency amidst determinism. Hmmm. Then there is this:
Your body is the life force power of some 50 trillion molecular geniuses. You and you alone choose moment by moment who and how you want to be in the world.... Own your power and show up for your life.

Hallelujah! I'm all for that. Just one more:
Own your power and show up for your life.

That one needs to be said twice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hunger Games

It's been a couple weeks now since I finished this book. I liked it. It explored some interesting themes that I like to contemplate: liberty, self-sufficiency, cooperation, loyalty, manipulation, exploitation, power, love, and envy come readily to mind, among others.

I believe it represents the best of commercial fiction. Of course, that's a rather evident observation given the rate at which it is selling and has been selling for quite some time now. It is fast-paced and its protagonist, Katniss, is in peril almost all the while. (Well, let me amend that to say all the while.) There's a nice set up even at the resolution for a sequel. It has a nice, conventional story arc.

Targeted at young adults, it taps the dystopian feature of many successful science-fiction/fantasy narratives. Two of my favorites are The Giver and The Road. I like them both better than this book, though. Of course, the former is targeted at the same audience as is this book, whereas, the latter is not.

I liked the main character, Katniss. She had many dimensions and was capable of introspection and compromise. She was nicely textured. I didn't like the set-up so much. It was contrived and manipulative. Furthermore, for me, the outcome seemed quite obvious and predictable. It's not that there weren't surprises along the way; there were, but the overall outcome seemed quite clear. On the other hand, there were some nice surprises along the way.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

High School Graduation Rates

The other day in the newspaper they had an article about high school graduation rates, listing the graduation rates of some of the worst cities in the nation. As I recall, some cities were below a forty percent graduation rate and many bigger cities were around that figure. I just couldn't believe it. It seemed so astonishing to me. It doesn't comport with my experience when I graduated and so for days now I've been intending to look up the graduation rates here where I live in Utah and where I was a youth I graduated.

I was pleased to see that overall Utah graduation rates are high. In the school district where I graduated more than forty years ago, ninety-two percent of the enrolled students graduated. The lowest graduation rates were in Ogden, where the rate was only sixty-three percent, which is quite low, it seems to me. Also, in Salt Lake, the graduation rate was sixty-nine percent. So, I guess my astonishment at the low graduation rates reflects some of my naïveté when it comes to understanding what is happening in other places.

In Utah there is a disparity between the number of whites who graduate and the number of people of color who graduate. Like he does have a tougher time. The most recent rates indicate that they graduate about seventy percent of the enrolled individuals within their ranks. Individuals with limited English proficiency graduated at about the rate of sixty percent. Blacks graduated at seventy-seven percent. People with disabilities graduated at eighty percent. Whites graduated at ninety-one percent.

Utah does a lot with the resources it devotes to education. On the other hand, Utahans do a lot despite the fact that they are limited in the resources devoted to education. I am firmly for upgrading the pay of teachers and the amounts of money and resources devoted to education, both in the public schools and in the public institutions of higher learning.

Spring Is Coming

It's one of those days when the sky is a solid sheet of light gray. There is no color in it at all. It's not a dark gray; it's light, very light, but not white. There is no blue, no other color. The clouds up there are blocking out the blue. And there isn't much contrast, either. Maybe a little bit, but not very much at all. It's more like a solid shield of gray that the tops of the trees contrast with.

Off in the distance, I see the roof lines of a couple of houses. Mostly, however, I see the bare branches of the Gambels oak trees. I suppose if you studied the patterns of those branches long enough and hard enough you could find some symmetry or design in them. However, the cursory looks and attention that I give them, leads to no such symmetries or design. Yet, somehow, their patterns against the sky brings some comfort and artistic beauty within my soul. I can't explain it or rationalize it; perhaps I could but doing so would somehow make it less meaningful and moving.

In the days ahead, the branches will begin to reveal their hidden secret, the new growth that hides within them. Life will begin to burst forth from them, the yellows mixed with blues that will slowly evolve to solid green that will not be so solid if you look closely at it. I can see the first imaginings of the buds within those branches now.

Such life, such hidden color, rests within each of us, waiting to get out.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Ramblings of a Mad Hatter

Confucius advised that one should study the past and divine the future.

Divining the future. Hmmm. Why should divining be limited to that?

I guess as well as divining the future, I could also divine "a" past. Isn't that what the author Elizabeth Kostava --- Is that how you spell her last name? --- did in her novel The Historian? You know, the one about Vlad? Isn't that the same notion as divining the future? Isn't it the same for any fiction? Isn't fiction simply a divining of something set back in history or of something set in contemporary times or something that could happen in an unset future? So we can study the past, but there's no reason we cannot put a spin on it that didn't actually exist except in our subsequent imaginations. After all, any subsequent imagination or remembering is a fiction. Similarly, we can do the very same thing with the future.

I guess, though, truthfully we can't do that with the present. The present is that knife blade that is cutting through the past and the future. It is here instantly and then gone; it is a point of decision making and acting.

Lately, I've been a little obsessed with the notion of time, which doesn't seem much like a notion at all but a reality. Only the Mad Hatter questions the reality of time. Each of these words on this page or screen come in succession. I can change their order and rearrange them, I guess, but doing so also has an order and succession. None of it is a mumbo-jumbo and totally at random. However, it seems like there is also mumble-Jumbo and totally randomness, like the dust floating through a ray of light.

The reason I hold time to be so critical is because I believe in free will. If time is simply a construct that doesn't exist, then it seems to me there is no free will. If time is simply another block, like we perceive height or breadth or depth, and has always existed in full form, then my will is not free. And if my will is not free, life doesn't seem to have any meaning or necessity to me. And intuitively I know it's not that way.

So I'll be studying time and the notion of free will even more in the next while. Those notions --- of time and free will --- seem so critical to me, although, if they are not real, I have to ask myself whether my life would be as meaningful as it has been in recognizing the possibility that I have misperceived it all along.

It just seems so unsettling to contemplate that as a possibility.

I have purchased a new book entitled From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. Its subtitle is The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Fruit on the Tree

One of the things I liked most I think growing up as a boy was my neighborhood.

I liked going to the various yards I could get into without getting into trouble and there in the spring and summertime finding some fresh fruit still on the trees to eat. Cherries, apricots, apples, peaches, and plums. The people whose fruit I took I don't think cared one iota. They had no plans to harvest the fruit as far as I ever saw or knew. Of course, there were other yards I didn't go into to take fruit because those people did harvest and preserve their fruit.

I don't know why I was always so hungry to go find some fruit to eat; it wasn't like my mother and father starved me at home. We had plenty to eat as far as I can remember, so it's a curiosity now to remember those long-ago escapades into other realms to feast.

I don't know what made me think of those days tonight except that I've been reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. There's plenty of reason to think of food in that particular book.

Anyway, the past few days have hinted at spring and soon there will be blossoms on the trees. However, we don't have a single fruit tree in our yard and I don't have much of an appetite for fresh fruit these days. The thing I liked most I think growing up as a boy was my neighborhood.

I liked going to the various yards I could get into without getting into trouble and there in the spring and summertime finding some fresh fruit still on the tree to eat. Cherries, apricots, apples, peaches, and plums. The people whose fruit I took I don't think cared one iota. They had no plans to harvest the fruit as far as I ever saw. Of course, there were other yards I didn't go into to take fruit because those people did harvest and preserve the fruit.

I don't know why I was always so hungry to go find some fruit; it wasn't like my mother and father starved me at home. We had plenty to eat as far as I can remember, so it's a curiosity now to remember those long ago escapades into other realms to feast.

I don't know what made me think of those days except that I've been reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. There's plenty of reason to think of food in reading that particular book.

Anyway, the past few days have hinted at spring and soon there will be blossoms on the trees again. However, we don't have a single fruit tree in our yard and I don't have much of an appetite for fresh fruit these days.