a little something extra

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Principle: "Safe" is just a baseball term

While I was more than happy to stand up for the first two principles, I have a more ambivalent response to today's. But if we're gonna talk honestly about the precepts that lead to the ways we live our lives, we risk getting into some deep and murky territory.

It is my opinion that nothing and nobody is ever truly safe. It is my further opinion that thinking one is safe is a delusion, consciously chosen or not.

This is probably factually true. "Safe" is an absolute condition. Absolute conditions very rarely exist, and almost never endure.

Complete physical safety and complete emotional safety are equally impossible to come by.

Right now I'm sitting in my desk chair in my office at work. "Safe," right? But of course at any second the building could catch fire, or I could develop a violent reaction to the mold in the walls, or the lamp standing next to my desk could short-circuit and explode, shooting shards of hot glass and metal into my body.

I'm "safe" in the company of friends, right? But other people can be depended on, finally, only to pursue what's best for them. So, one can only be "safe" in relative terms, not absolute ones.

True as it may be, this is not a very useful principle on which to base decisions or live a life. It might be more useful to say, "Yes, you're not safe. Nobody is. Live anyway."

I may, however, continue to snicker inwardly at the frequent references I hear and read to "making a safe space" for this or that. (This phrase comes up a lot in artistic pursuits, maybe an occupational hazard.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Principle: Pull Your Weight

There are several corollaries, or possibly other ways to state this principle. "Earn what you enjoy." "Never assume you're entitled." "Don't be any trouble if you can avoid it."

But essentially, I think it's the step beyond gratitude. I still remember the time and place during my freshman year of college when I realized what a terrific family I was part of. Perhaps that was the time when I'd heard a critical mass of stories of other families whose members didn't treat each other with the love and support that mine did, and does. But it was a pivotal moment for me -- I identify it as a significant event in my becoming an adult.

At that moment, I realized that I couldn't just feel lucky or even just be grateful for this good fortune of mine. Now that I was conscious of it, I had to pull my weight to make it continue to be true. I had to do my part to promote loving, healthy family dynamics... for the rest of my life.

It doesn't stop at the borders of family, either. I have to pull my weight in my friendships, in my professional relationships and opportunities, in my community of neighbors and strangers.

Don't just be grateful. Take action. Pull your weight.

so many thumbs, so little time...

Your thumb...

... or mine?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Principle: Show Up.

Nothing demonstrates commitment and support like actual attendance. Appearance. Being There.

When something important is going on in the family... show up. Example: flying to DC this weekend for Drew's christening.

When something big is going on for a friend... show up. Failed example: not going to friend W.'s wedding to his beloved B., because financial and emotional energy were both too drained at that moment.

When something politically or artistically large is going on... show up.

When work is hard... show up.

When you are tired or money is tight... show up anyway.

And there's a corollary here: Keep Showing Up. Example: after a couple of years of writing recommendations for a playwright friend of mine, I saw that writer enter a prestigious graduate playwriting program this past fall. Now I need to Keep Showing Up by emailing that writer every now and again, just to check on how things are going. My support shouldn't stop just because the writer has gotten into the program; in fact, after my own bloodbath in graduate school, I know that extra demonstrations of caring and support may help that writer finish that program!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sabbath 15

This week's chapter is called "Why Time Is Not Money." Tripp's post appears here (he's been very sick, so send him a get-well email if you get a minute!), and Cristopher's is here.

In this chapter Muller develops his theme of the lack of appreciation and value placed on tasks, occupations and experiences that are accessible only through the application of time, never through the application of money.

He rails at some length against the measurement of Gross Domestic Product. I grasp his point that economic productivity is not the only or necessarily even the best method of measuring the well-being of an individual or a society. In fact, I found myself growing annoyed because I grasped the point long before Muller seemed ready to let go of it. Railing against the measurement of GDP feels to me a lot like fussing because the measurement of my height fails to take into account how much body fat I have. GDP is designed to measure one thing -- it's our fault if we try to make it measure everything.

When Muller fails to acknowledge that his reader/audience can probably grasp a complex idea, I as reader/audience roll my eyes in exasperation, and feel a little sorry for him. This would probably annoy him as much as he's annoying me.

At the end of the chapter, Muller dives into the idea of the non-money-susceptible rewards he believes Sabbath to bring. "How do we count friendship or laughter? How do we count the value of honesty, or bread from the oven? How can we count the sunrise, the trusting clasp of a child's hand, a melody, a tear, a lover's touch?"

And I skated off into reflecting on how Muller's Sabbath emphases lack insight into typical women's experience. A woman on the Sabbath doesn't get to stop nursing the baby who depends on her for sustenance every two hours. Who makes sure that the pantry and fridge contain the ingredients for the bread he's so rhapsodic about? Etc. That led me to think about how multi-person households might conflict on how to spend Sabbath time. What if one person wants Sabbath time together, but the other one only wants time alone (the classic extrovert/introvert dichotomy)?

Despite my lack of enthrallment with this chapter, I was quite turned on by the exercise. Muller asks, "What are some of the inviolable precepts that guide your life?... Make a list of the principles that shape your days. Include both those you currently follow and those you would like to be able to follow."

Well. Now we're talking! I think I will post one principle per day this week, making clear which are current and which are hoped-for future, and invite your comments on them. I hope Tripp and Cristopher will consider doing the same -- and anybody else who reads this particular post and feels like playing along!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

at the top of the ski jump

And I know it's going to be a long, fast ride with not a lot of control!

I start rehearsals on Friday for New Play #1. It overlaps by a week with the beginning of rehearsals for New Play #2. Once I've completed both of those, I have one week of regular office work before I start rehearsals for the Festival Workshop. Two weeks later, four more playwrights arrive, and a week after that about 100 of my colleagues from across the country arrive for the Big Fat Festival we run every year.

This is all good work, but man! It's a long chain with no breaks.

Happily, I managed to get all my tax documentation together and it goes out in the mail to my magic tax person tomorrow.

The remaining personal to-do list includes:
  • getting info together and scheduling an appointment to take my car in for its 120,000 mile checkup
  • printing personal photos to put in their assigned frames and hang up
  • cleaning my apartment thoroughly before my two houseguests arrive
  • making an appointment to get my hair trimmed on Saturday morning so I won't look shaggy in photos from Drew's christening festivities
It goes on and on... not really complaining, just amazed!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sabbath 14

I'm the latecomer this week -- Cristopher and Tripp have already posted about this chapter. I was out of town for the weekend, but read the chapter over breakfast this morning. Now it's lunchtime, and I want to post at least a few scattered thoughts.

Re the description of the factory going to six-hour shifts and then back to eight hours later, I immediately began to wonder whether that factory's workers had a pension they could count on at the end of their working years.

Nowadays, I work one day a week for savings (10% of my pre-tax income into the 403(b), another 10+% of my take-home pay into cash savings for emergencies, big planned purchases, etc.) and four days a week for the money to live on.

Would I rather work a 30-hour week now? Absolutely. But even if it were possible from my employer's point of view, I would be trading off any retirement security I'm ever going to have, in favor of additional leisure time now. Personally, I'd rather be tired and overworked now, than be reduced to eating cat food when I'm old.

Re the altar exercise, I think of my whole home in that way. I keep photos of people I love in the living room and bedroom. I hang original artwork by people I love in different places in my apartment. I keep the whole place as restful and comforting-feeling as I can. I'm not so much interested in having an altar at home that I would be expected (by someone who will never know me) to sit and look at, by myself, in silence. The heck with that.

Cristopher, re your joke about Muller asking me to read a new play for relaxation -- I'll just invite you to remember that I was a dancer, trained in the art of communicating thought and emotion in gestures... and leave you to imagine my response to Muller thus. :-)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

not just reading

I realize that my non-Sabbath-related blogging has fallen off a lot in recent weeks. This period has been the beginning of my long busy season at work that runs from the turn of the year through the middle of May, nearly nonstop.

So, personal blogging has slowed on two fronts: one, I often don't feel like plugging the computer in when I get to spend time at home, and two, I don't have much going on apart from work to blog about!

I thought I would at least make a stab at it tonight. Nothing terribly heavy, just a look at a few things besides Muller's book.

I've just almost-finished getting my tax documents together; one more thing to print, and them I'm done. Tomorrow or Thursday, I will try to pry a moment free to call the professional person who has prepared my taxes for the past few years. I'd love to work with her again this year, but she's changed "day jobs" in the interim, and I don't know whether she will still be running her tax preparation business on the side. Here's hoping.

Tonight, I figured out the mileage I put on my car in the last year, some of which I can list as deductible expenses. This is a scary set of numbers to grapple with when you live where I live. I put 10,000 miles on the car just commuting to and from work last year. I put over 2,000 miles on the car going to see theatre hither and yon. Yowza.

I'm planning to run away for the four-day weekend and visit some friends up in the Bay Area. My theatre will be closed on Monday for Presidents' Day, and since I worked all through this past weekend and had to stay late last night, I have claimed Friday as an additional day off. I'm going to hit the road going north early Friday morning, and come back sometime Monday. I'm meeting with theatre folk while I'm there, so, more mileage to claim on next year's taxes!

For now, I must to bed. The alarm will ring at 6:00 and I want to be well enough rested to get my butt to the gym before work.

Happy Valentine's Day to you all! I'm going to spend tomorrow being the Generalized, Undifferentiated Valentine's Day Fairy to everyone I know, spreading love regardless of people's romantic status.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sabbath 13

Tripp's post is here. Cristopher's post is here.

With this chapter we enter the next section of Sabbath, entitled "Time." The chapter title is "A Life Well Lived."

This is one of my favorite chapters of the book so far. In it, Muller makes the point that certain elements of life simply cannot be obtained with any currency other than time invested in achieving them. No matter how much money you have, you can't buy wisdom. Only investing time results in wisdom. No matter how much money you have, you can't buy understanding. You have to invest time to gain understanding. Etc. etc.

Some of Muller's reflections in this chapter reminded me of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam's seminal 2000 book about the degradation of American people's involvement in public life from 1945 to the publication date of his book. I read Bowling Alone a couple of summers ago. It's dense, but I recommend it to you.

This chapter does require us to forgive Muller for not being an economist. Several times, he compares the amount of money individual Americans spent on consumer goods in 1947 (he gives this as $6,500) with the amount they spent in 1999, when Sabbath came out (he gives this as something over $14,000). The point he tries to make is that we spend more money than people did decades ago, and then we lament that we don't have the elements of life that Muller argues can only be purchased with time.

To begin with, I agree with Muller. I think that as a culture, we Westerners and specifically we Americans self-medicate by spending money.

However, Muller's picture is way too simple to support his point entirely. He mentions no factor of price inflation -- the grocery budget of a person in 1947 would not suffice to buy the very same items today, or in 1999.

There are some expenses considered de rigeur now that would not have been present in the 1947 person's budget. A personal computer, for example -- the laptop on which I'm typing this post cost me just over $1,200 almost two years ago, and that would have been nearly 25% of the 1947 person's expenditures for the year.

Muller goes on to argue that we, collectively and culturally, have gone too far in exchanging our time for someone else's money. He presses his readers to rebalance that equation. Again, there are places in this chapter where his class bias shows -- he seems able to imagine only two possibilities: people with too much money and no time, and people with no money and too much time. Immediately, my imagination goes to the working poor, who may hold down two or three jobs simultaneously, and wind up with not enough money and no time. Just worth mentioning.

Muller's exercise for this month is very general. He writes about a couple of families and individuals he knows who consciously set aside time regularly and keep that time unavailable for any part of their working lives. Then he asks his readers the following questions:

When do you set aside time for play? How inviolable is it? Make sure to create a regular period for enjoying your children, spouse, or friends. Play nourishes our delight. When we engage in "purposeless" enjoyment of one another, we harvest some of the sweetest fruits of life.

A few thoughts arose in my mind in response to this exercise. We'll push past those that have to do with family and friends being too far away for the kind of enjoyment I believe Muller intends, and go towards two thoughts I found more interesting.

One, most of my forms of play involve "work" -- that is, they involve effort towards a goal, and mastery of a skill or task. Choral singing is a great example. I love the mere experience of singing with other people who know what they're doing. I don't care about the performance -- as I told my friend Jonathan long ago, I would continue to sing choral music even if nobody ever showed up to listen to a performance. And in fact, during my last year in Minneapolis I was part of an octet that got together once a week to sing, under the explicit agreement that we would not perform. We just wanted to sing together and enjoy the experience. It was great -- different people brought different pieces of music to the table, and we had a fantastic time. When two of us took job opportunities that would move us out of town, the group did decide to perform for a select audience of families and friends, just once before we separated. That turned out to be fun too. But to return to my thought, my other forms of "play" tend to follow that pattern of involving or requiring commitment and effort, learning, and mental and sometimes spiritual growth.

My second thought was about an experiment I've been conducting since I moved to my current city last July. When I was setting up the details of my move, I decided not to subscribe to cable TV for a while. This was partly an economic decision, but I thought it might also be a nice change of pace. When I got here, I discovered that my TV's internal antenna, unaided, got no broadcast signal at all. So for the last eight months, it's been Netflix or nothing.

It's amazing how much more time I have with no TV. I use my Netflix subscription for movies and to catch up on series I never saw, or want to see again. I always have a couple of Netflix DVDs on hand, but now I might watch one episode of Deadwood or Northern Exposure or half a movie in an evening, instead of flipping on the Food Network when I come home at 7:00 and leaving the TV on until I go to bed several hours later. I'm also completely protected from television advertising, which was an unplanned bonus to my experiment.

I read the newspaper more now than I did before I started this experiment. I play more solitaire, I read more books faster. I probably blog more, though I'm not always tempted to turn the computer on when I'm home. And I'm simply not as tired -- not because I'm necessarily getting more sleep, but because I'm escaping the level of overstimulation TV can subtly provide.

I don't intend to turn into one of those affected, snobby people who brag about how they don't watch TV. As I kill my debt off, I may well decide to rechannel some of that money into the treat of a cable subscription. But for now, it's nice to have my evenings feel longer because they're not chopped up into half-hour or hour-long show chunks, and further subdivided into six-minute intervals between commercial breaks.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sabbath 12

With this chapter, we reach the end of the section called "Rhythm." The chapter title is The Book of Hours.

In this chapter, Muller advocates for the internal and external benefits of private prayer guided by the established practices of a faith community, and of participation in communal liturgy and the paraliturgical events that mark religious festivals.

The internal benefits he describes are the antidote to the stresses of continual striving towards progress (remember his riding forth to joust against commitment to progress, a couple of chapters ago?) Muller writes regarding following the prayer prompts of the Liturgy of the Hours, "When I stop to pray, I feel my body release, disengage slightly from the rush of activity and progress, and float on the tides of a deeper time..." Wouldn't many people's cardiologists, psychologists and endocrinologists just love to be able to report such benefits from their treatment or their patients' lifestyle adjustments?

Moving into discussion of the collective liturgy, Muller makes a cogent point about how the mistake of striving for progress can mount a sneak attack there. He remarks on how many religious professionals and devoted volunteers grow desperate, frustrated and vastly overworked when they try to make this year's Easter service or Christmas pageant more moving, more meaningful, more glorious than last year's or the one the year before that. There's a risk of piling too many lilies on the altar, having too many parts to the procession, too much involved in the pageant, and finding oneself and one's congregation way out on the other side of the point of diminishing returns.

Instead, Muller writes, "The perfection is in the repetition, the sheer ordinariness, the intimate familiarity of a place known because we have visited it again and again, in so many different moments."

And my antennae and hackles go up.

Muller, as his photo on the Bread for the Journey website reveals, is a white dude. Now, he's a white dude who has devoted a great deal of his time and energy to working with the most disadvantaged people he could reach, and I want to give him credit for that.

But I also want to point out that by advocating for liturgy as-is, Muller fails to recognize and root out the sexism, racism and homophobia that is embedded in liturgy as-is. It's possible that he misses this because the sexism, racism and homophobia have never been directed at him. When you're the target of such hate, you learn to recognize it and resent how mere repetition equals tacit endorsement. When you're not the target, you can be blissfully ignorant.

Muller's exercise for this week starts out simple, but rich, with the idea of the lectio divina, the practice of contemplative reading which originated (like most things with Latin names) in the Roman Catholic Church. While the phrases he gives as examples are all drawn from Judeo-Christian scriptures, it's clear that the function and effect are much like mantras in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

Muller cautions against employing analytical faculties when choosing to do this kind of reading, saying instead that one should "allow it to quietly work on you, as leaven in the bread, as water on a stone. The key is to read slowly, chew over the words, and allow them to quietly nourish and heal you."

While I appreciate the benefits of meditation as much as the next gal, I am frankly quite suspicious of any recommendation that a person stop thinking, especially when that recommendation comes in a religious context. But if one is going to do so, I'm certainly less worried if they do it in the private setting of lectio divina than in any of the public settings of life.

This chapter is full of references to Henri Nouwen, so I expect that's going to make Tripp happy -- his post is here. Cristopher's post is here.