Friday, August 29, 2008

Annotation: Myths We Live By by Joseph Campbell

It’s important to note at the outset that Joseph Campbell did not write this book as a cohesive piece. It was pieced together by Johnson E. Fairchild of the Cooper union Form from a series of twenty-five talks Dr. Campbell gave at Forum between the years 1958 and 1971. As such, the talks vary on them and content and do not carry through them a cohesive thought or focus. However, all the talks were on the subject of mythology, and Campbell’s work is cohesive enough that they stand together well as a collected work.
Given that the chapters each encompass a specific (but different) subject, I have tried to read the book with the main questions of my study in the forefront of my thought. Those questions are:
- What does it mean to be truly human?
- How have different cultures and beliefs answered that question through the ages?
- How can we (as individuals and as a society) work to realize the highest potential within the human?

And ultimately:
- How will the answers to these questions impact my own practice and daily life?

With that in mind, I attempted to approach this book critically, looking for any instances where Campbell specifically speaks to the issues of humanity and human potential. Perhaps the best way to annotate this particular book is to those instances as I have notated them, and try to draw a cohesive thread through them.

Beginning with Chapter 1: The Impact of Science on Myth, Campbell brings out his main themes, the inescapable patterns that exist in all myths, the “meta-narratives” that can be found to recur in myths throughout cultures and times. Campbell believes that these recurring narratives are a significant part of what makes us human. He states, “Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth.” He describes how Cortez and his Spanish explorers found stories in Aztec Mexico that so closely paralleled their own “True Faith” that they could not explain the similarity. They explained this by inventing myths of their own, one about the early apostles actually journeying to North America, and the second about the devil deliberately “throwing up parodies of the Christian faith, to frustrate missionaries”(p. 09).

It would seem then, that perhaps one of the things it means to be human is to have a narrative, a story, in which to place ourselves. That narrative often (but not always) seems to involve a creation tale, a flood, a virgin birth, and a hero incarnate who dies and is resurrected. And don’t mistake that I’m talking just about Christian history here; you could do an extensive study of ancient myths with those characteristics and never even need to involve Christianity.

Campbell also seems to believe that it is inherent within human cultures to think themselves to be somehow special, or “elect.” Some, like Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth, would say that this is the “Ego” within the human being, and that it is more an indication of our current state of evolution than it is representative of humanity as a species. Campbell himself, after a long list of cultures and beliefs that he says have been “prone to interpret their symbols literally, and so to regard them selves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the absolute,” then goes on to state that such claims can “no longer be taken seriously” and seems to indicate that he himself thinks we have already moved past this stage (p. 10).

Moving forward in chronology of humanity, Campbell traces the shift from cultural myth to scientific inquiry. But he is quick to point out that science doesn’t seem to have brought us closer to any final answers about meaning or existence. Science itself, he says can only make its hypotheses based on what is known at the time. Thus there must always be room for development and change, as more information becomes known. In fact, he says, it is that change, not arrival at “truth” that is the point of the process:

“And is there no implied intention, then, to rest satisfied with some final body or sufficient number of facts?
No indeed! There is to be only a continuing search for more—as of a mind eager to grow. And that growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of modern Western man…”(p. 17).

Indeed, he says later about the search for knowledge and meaning that, “the only absolute is mystery”(p. 18).

In dealing with the question of what separates us from the rest of the natural order, Campbell points to a “differentiating figure” separating human from animal physiology; he states it in the form of two “fundamental realizations:”
1. Knowledge of individual death (our own mortality) and
2. Endurance of the Social Order (that things will go on without us)(p. 22, 23).

It is this second realization, that things will go on without us after we are gone, that, when combined with the apparent stability of the current social order, has led to people (at least in the modern West) taking those social orders for granted. Whereas primitive or previous human societies devoted great portions of their time to simply preserving that social order, today it seems to have a life of its own. Without this need to “participate” in order for the social structures to be maintained, the individual becomes an end in himself. This is an undeniably significant change from ages past, and creates an entirely new relationship between humans and the stories they use to find meaning.

This shift can certainly be seen in much current debate about Christian theology, as in the dominant themes of popular Christian theologian (and Anglican Bishop) Tom Wright, who, in his book What St. Paul Really Said, takes direct aim at the ‘individualized’ brand of belief we have inherited, stating instead that the Apostle Paul’s message was “not how individuals… come to faith… but rather the question of who belongs to Abraham’s family”(p. 121). In other words, who has a covenant with God, (as the Jews believed they did), and is by association, “saved.” This notion of corporate versus individual redemption could be said to be at the heart of why so much modern religion fails to connect with the ills of society.

Campbell again picks up this them in Chapter 3: “The Importance of Rites.” Here he reinforces the need for social structures, and the idea that we find our place, our meaning, often through our relationship to those structures. He draws a parallel between structure and hierarchy in the natural sphere, and the need for structure in the fully realized human life and society. Referring to the tendency in Western culture to abandon many of its long-held traditions and rites, Campbell states: “the crude notion that energy and strength can be represented or rendered by abandoning and breaking structures is refuted by all we know about the evolution and history of life”(p. 44).

Here he is raising a very important question in terms of the development—the evolution—of the human being, and seems to be stating clearly that destruction in any form cannot go hand in hand with what we might call progress. His thought could be said to correspond with that of Wendell Berry who, in his essay “Style and Grace” in What are People For, talks of the “connective power of culture… that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66). Berry is here speaking in the context of shared experiences that build relationship and community. He is specifically talking about fishing, but it’s not a huge stretch to see that fishing for him is every bit the “rite” about which Campbell speaks. By association, we might be able to say that “love” in the sense Berry uses it here, is analogous to that second “differentiating figure” which Campbell takes as the mark of human awareness. It is the realization that things will go on after us, and that perhaps they are worth investing in (whether people, cultures, relationships) just because they, or their effects, will outlive us.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn about Campbell’s idea of human potential, and the responsibility we bear toward the fulfillment of that potential, it might be summed up in the story he tells at the end of Chapter 5: “The Confrontation of East and West in Religion,” the legend of Shiva and Kirttimukha. Shiva, having been confronted by a terrible demon that threatened the overthrow of the gods, created a ferocious beast, with the head of a lion and a voracious hunger. The demon wisely threw himself at Shiva’s mercy, which left Shiva to deal with a ravenous beast of his own creation. The beast, seeing that Shiva was protecting his supposed prey said to Shiva, “What then shall I eat?” Shiva replied, “Why not eat yourself?”
So the beast began consuming his body, all the way up until he reached the face, where Campbell writes:

“…the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life itself, which lives on itself. And to that sunlike mask, which was now all that was left of that lionlike vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, ‘I shall call you “Face of Glory,” Kirttimukha, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever knowledge of me’”(p. 103).

Campbell draws this meaning from the tale: that life is wondrous and terrible, that all societies are horrid and inequitable, and that they will always be, but that the message is to learn how to live in it, to work to change yourself in the midst of it, and make peace with both the wonder and the terror that is life. He concludes:

“So if you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (p. 104).

This then is the goal, or at least one of them: not to avoid the suffering inherent in life, but to embrace it as counterpart to the good; to recognize that the wonder and the pain are counterparts, and that they are meaningless without each other. To be fully human is to be fully alive to the depth of joy and sadness that life brings, and to experience both as willingly and readily as one can. It also means that we must not experience these emotions in isolation, but that they are fully realized only when they are shared with others, and lived out in the context of relationships. There the sadness can be turned to wisdom, the immediate joy refined into lasting happiness, because we realize that yes, we are mortal, and we will one day fade. But the relationships that we form, the structures we build around them in the forms of families and communities… these will live long after we fade, and they are our lasting gift to those we love.

Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.

Campbell, J., & Fairchild, J. E. (Feb. 1993). Myths to live by. New York: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Penguin (Non-Classics) [Imprint]; Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated Publisher Record.

Tolle, E. (Feb. 2008). A new earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. Farmington Hills: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Walker Large Print [Imprint]; Gale Publisher Record.

Wright, N. T. (Aug. 1997). What saint paul really said: Was paul of tarsus the real founder of christianity. Cincinnati: Books In Print, (c) 2005 R.R. Bowker LLC; Forward Movement Publications Publisher Record.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Annotation: Three by Wendell Berry

Critical Annotations: Three books by Wendell Berry
- What Are People For?
- In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World
- Sayings and Doings

Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is (or has been) an ecologist, a writer, a farmer, an activist, a father, a poet, a teacher… the list goes on. But at heart, it would be fair to say that Berry is a human being. He is someone intimately concerned with what it means to live, to be, and to do so effectively, with grace, love, and humility. The three works referenced here are all written with that goal clearly and obviously in mind. Berry writes almost exclusively from the realm of his personal experience. He is unquestionably concerned with the larger world, but searches for answers and perspective in his daily life and in the community of people, animals and natural phenomena that surround him.

What Are People For? Is a collection of essays (and a couple of poems) that span the years from 1975 to 1990, all dealing with the question of the human in some way, what it means to be human, how we interact with each other and with the planet. The individual essays are wonderful, but the book, when taken as a whole, creates a grid by which you can begin to see Berry’s over-arching worldview. This is a man (one could imagine) who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, who has great affection for the things that could be considered “real” (people, animals, food, relationships), and who will not be complicit (either by action or by inaction) in the ills and wrongs he sees in the world around him.

The book begins with two poems titled “Damage” and “Healing.” The first, written in 1975, is a four-page work that tells of a pond he attempted to sculpt from a hillside on his Kentucky farm. It is the story of the failure of that effort, when a heavy rain caused the downhill levy of the pond to give way, flooding several acres of his farm, and damaging not only land, but equipment and dwellings. He takes full responsibility for this failure, and feels not only the responsibility, but also the regret, deeply:

“And yet there is damage—to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.

Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it”(p. 6).

The second poem, “Healing,” is a meditation on grace, upon what he calls “The grace that is the health of creatures,” and which, “can only be held in common”(p. 9).

These poems set the tone for the book, much of which could be considered cultural critique, firmly in the context of personal responsibility. Berry is not interested primarily in telling others how to live their lives; he is interested in further discovering how to live his. But his passion for authenticity, and for the protection of the earth, of lives, of relationships and resources, necessarily forces him to take on the mantle of activist from time to time. It’s not enough to retreat to your farm in Kentucky when you see that the strip mining is corrupting the land, polluting the water, and poisoning the air.

The book is divided in to three parts. The first–the two poems already mentioned. The second part is consists of stories he tells of people who have lived on the land, and have done so (at least in some ways) rightly. He tells the story of Nate Shaw, a black sharecropper in Alabama in the late 1800’s who, despite any real education, knew the land, knew the value of people, and believed in his knowledge so fiercely that refused a plea bargain and spent twelve years in jail after confronting a group of sheriff’s deputies who had come to take another man’s stock. Berry makes it clear that “Shaw is not potentially admirable; he is admirable as he is”(p. 24). In other words, he is not to be admired for what he could have been had he not been so disadvantaged, he is to be admired for exactly who he was.

As he tells the story of “Henry Claudill In The Cumberlands,” and “Wallace Stegner And The Great Community,” you begin to get a sense of what these men have in common, and why Berry holds them in such high esteem. It comes clear in “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” as he clarifies the difference between Abbey as an environmentalist, and Abbey as an autobiographer. He says:

“As an autobiographer, his work is self-defense; as a conservationist, it is to conserve himself as a human being. But this is self-defense and self-conservation of the largest and most noble kind, for Mr. Abbey understands that to defend and conserve oneself as a human being in the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else. What would be the hope being personally whole in a dismembered society, or personally healthy in a land scalped, scraped, eroded, and poisoned, or personally free in a land entirely controlled by the government, or personally enlightened in an age illuminated only by TV?”(p. 40)

This is Berry’s goal, not just his own conservation, but that of the world in which he lives, of the people with whom he lives and works.

The third part of the book, with this groundwork of context already complete, is devoted to his pointed essays and cultural critiques. Again, these are shorter essays (most are only three to five pages), written on specific issues. But presented as a whole, and in context, they build a powerful picture of the human, and of the value Berry places on work, ecology, and community in the process of defining that idea.

He speaks of protest in the chapter “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” writing about Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.” Berry speaks of the futility of social critique, and the pointlessness of individual action in the face of overwhelming cultural disagreement. He acknowledges the futility, but makes the point that the action is still necessary because, “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by the hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence”(p. 62).

In the chapter “Style and Grace,” he compares Hemmingway’s Big Two-Hearted River with Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, wondering why Hemingway’s work troubles him so, and eventually deciding that it’s because he can’t associate with Hemmingway’s ending because it has more to do with style than it does with grace. The grace he speaks of here is the same he mentioned earlier in the poem “Healing,” where it is a grace of community, of relationship:
”Fishing here is understood as an art, and as such it is emblematic of all that makes us companions with one another, joins us to nature, and joins the generations together. This is the connective power of culture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails; when it fails, it fails into tragedy, but here it’s a tragedy that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66).

This theme, of community, and its centrality to true human experience (love) is one that emerges, almost unexpectedly, as the book goes on. Berry equates ecology, our relationship with nature, others, and ourselves, as a truly holy ground. And out of that comes his definition (although he rarely uses the word) for love itself. But this is a love that requires great work, on both an individual and a societal level. Like the land itself, it is not something that will bear fruit without diligent effort, as he says in his essay on Huckleberry Finn, called “Writer and Region”:

“It is arguable, I think, that our country’s culture is still suspended as if at the end of Huckleberry Finn, assuming that its only choices are either a deadly ‘civilization’ of piety and violence, or an escape into some ‘territory’ where we may remain free of adulthood and community obligation… We have hardly begun to imagine community life, and the tragedy that is at the heart of community life”(p. 75).

It is his belief that these tragedies, this pain and growth of community life, are the way toward being fully human, that these experiences are the ones define our lives and give it meaning (although I doubt he would use those words… or that he would even conceive of a life “without meaning”). He concludes that Twain, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, foreshadows his own eventual obsession with:

“’…the damned human race’ and the malevolence of God—ideas that were severely isolating and, ultimately, self-indulgent. He was finally incapable of that magnanimity that is the most difficult and the most necessary: forgiveness of human nature and human circumstance. Given human nature and human circumstance, our only relief is in this forgiveness, which then restores us to community and its ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy”(p. 79).

Throughout the rest of the book, and the remaining essays, Berry delves into issues of politics and religion (“God and Country”), local economics and ecology (“An Argument for Diversity,” “Economy and Pleasure”), and even technology and gender relations (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” and “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – and yes, he does tie them together eventually), but for my questions, and my current search, it’s all icing on the cake. He has made his stand in terms of community, relationships and the worth of the human being. It’s stirring stuff.


Similarly, the book In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for A Changed World is a collection of essays on a theme. It starts with an piece written for Orion magazine in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This essay (bearing the same title as the book), in twenty-seven paragraphs states the clearest, most concise and coherent response to the tragedy I have ever read. Berry presages the “War on Terror,” predicting that any violent response will simply provoke greater violence. He starts from the observation that we will soon equate that date (9/11/01) with the “unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day”(p. 1), and quickly moves to further rumination about the nature of that optimism, the degree to which our culture has placed its faith (and its fate) entirely in the hands of those who would feed that “unquestioning optimism,” and eventually on to what he calls “National self-righteousness”(p. 5), and to the need for investment in true “peaceableness.” He ends the essay by stating that the only remedy, eventually, is to “teach our children (and learn ourselves) that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve… An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy”(p. 9)

Following this, are two longer-form essays, one titled “The Idea of a Local Economy,” in which he builds the case for a truly local system of exchange and production, and finally the essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” wherein he advances the insane and potentially revolutionary idea that people should ultimately take responsibility for their own destiny, and that we must stop giving the power for our most important decisions over to organizations where the decision-making is determined by corporate interest. This essay contains one of my favorite phrases of Berry’s:

“One way we could describe the task ahead is by saying that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know—and care—what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution, but it is also common sense”(p. 41).

This sums up Berry’s whole ethos. He is a revolutionary, but only because common sense has gone so entirely out of style that it is now considered sedition.


Berry’s small book of poetry Sayings and Doings is, in many ways just like the second chapter of What Are People For?. It is a series of small poems, often just three or four lines, that tell stories from his past. Sometimes they are just anecdotes re-recorded as they happened (almost like a “heard on the street” column in a newspaper), and sometimes they are longer pieces, designed to tell a story. But in every instance, and especially in totality, they present a picture of a time and place, a recollection of a life spent with people of the land, and of the wisdom that comes from people who have lived their lives with each other, and for each other.

There’s the story of the waking up in the night when he was six. His father had taken the tobacco crop to town to sell, and they stayed up all night talking about how it might go, whether he might get anything for it. It was “a bad time,” where “a year of a man’s work might be worth nothing.” And in the end, when his father came home, he “came back in the dark that night, without a dime.”

These are short clips, snapshots that speak thousands of words. As in the poem (they are not named, nor are the pages numbered) where two men meet after some hard times, where the markets were down, and the tobacco was too cheap to even sell:

“An old man
I knew came up to me at the sale and said,
‘Well, Harry, we made it,
and we didn’t commit suicide, did we?’
And I thought to myself, ‘No,
but you’ve thought about it.’”

Berry’s belief is that it is through community, in relationship with others, and in right relationship with the earth and with God that we discover the truth of who we are. He is not interested in Thoreau’s naturalist hermitage. As the poem “Healing” at the start of What are People For? states:

“In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world”(p. 9).

Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (June 2005). In the presence of fear: Three essays for a changed world (5th ed.). Great Barrington: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Orion Society, The Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (Oct. 1975). Sayings and doings. Frankfort: Books In Print, (c) 2006 R.R. Bowker LLC; Gnomon Press Publisher Record.

Annotation: "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram melds philosophy, language, magic, tribal ritual, and the nature of belief into one rich, magical stew - all trying to get at the question of true experience, of perception and reality, and specifically how they are related to (or colored by) language, as concepts are passed through the ages. It’s a fascinating book, and one that deftly walks the line between science and myth, between belief and experience.

Abram begins with the work of two early-twentieth century philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Husserl inaugurated the study of phenomenology or the “science of experience”(p. 35), based on the notion that no observer is every truly separate from the object of his observation. We are all influencing the living world around us, and even formerly resistant areas of science are now admitting that, even at an atomic or energy level, there is an exchange taking place between the observer and the observed. Based on this concept, Husserl first, and Merleau-Ponty after him, worked to develop a new science, one that would take into account the interactivity (or “intersubjectivity” as Husserl called it) inherent in all research and observation. The goal was to further define what Abram calls the “participatory nature of perception,” in other words, the degree to which we are involved in the world that surrounds us, whether or not we recognize it.

This distinction, between being separate from the natural world or an active participant in it, is crucial to a world where separation reigns, where “objectivity” dominates the sciences, and where the resulting impact is a humanity distanced from the world in which we live, where our actions are not seen as having a deleterious effect on the natural environment, and where the goal with regard to nature is not interaction and harmony, but dominance and control.

Abram, as an accomplished ecologist and magician, studied at length with several tribal cultures in this regard, investigating the degree to which these supposedly “primitive” cultures continue to cultivate their own participatory relationship with nature. He describes in depth the degree to which the shaman in some cultures will cultivate the mystery (and even fear) that surrounds his mystique, not solely because he or she is “up to no good” but because they recognize that only a certain distance from the rest of the village (relationally and physically – as most of the shaman live on the outskirts of their tribes) can allow them the time and solitude they need to cultivate their ongoing relationship with the natural world. There they find the harmony that allows them to commune with nature, to determine and decode the signs in the weather and the actions of animals, to interpret these events and relay them in meaningful ways to their tribe (p. 7).

Turning from the more philosophical study of the phenomenologists, Abram begins to examine the relationship between perception and ecology, between our experience of the world in which we live, and our interaction with it. He writes in depth about Synaesthesia, or the “fusion of the senses”(p. 59). This is a condition wherein one sense may be experienced as another. For instance, musicians or singers with what we call “perfect pitch” often identify sounds as colors. This cross-identification allows them to name a pitch out of the air, because that sound or tone always carries the same color. So, if a “C” is always red, it’s easy to name.

Abram states that, far from being out of the ordinary, synaesthetic experience is more emblematic of the realms of perception that are available to us (which some turn to drugs to reenact) if we are tuned into the possibilities for experience inherent in our nature. Abram (building on Merleau-Ponty’s thought, as he does through most of this book) works to break down the idea that our senses are primarily “distinct modalities.” Instead, they are “divergent modalities of a single and unitary living body… complementary powers evolved in complex interdependence with one another”(p. 61). The point of this being: our very experience of ourselves and of nature is elusive. The phenomena by which we attach all meaning and value, our senses, are not only subject to change, they are often interchangeable, and far from being an unnatural or pathological experience, it would seem that the higher our level of function or awareness in many fields, the more common this is.

At this point Abram turns his focus almost entirely on language, and to what is ultimately the most stirring and thought provoking element his work. Starting from the pre-history of written language, he tells the story of language not just as a technological innovation, but as the story of man interacting with his surroundings. He describes the development of the phonetic written languages, first with the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, and through its conversion into the Greek Alpha-bet, showing how symbols that originally carried representational meaning were eventually stripped down to simply phonetic tools.

He intersperses stories of tribal and primitive cultures that, even today, maintain in their hunting and cultivation practices, such a close interaction with nature that the lines between mimicry and actual communication break down. With the Koyukon bird calls that are more than just mimicry (p. 145), the stories of Apache and Navajo place-names that carry meaning from generation to generation (p. 154), and the song-cycles of the Australian aborigine (p. 173), Abram weaves a web where language is so much more than just mere representative sounds, it is a field of perception and interaction where the human and the non-human meet and become partners in a grand natural order.

For a person raised with much Christian (and by delineation Jewish) belief, Abram’s writing about the development of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet is nothing short of amazing. He describes how the original written Aleph-Bet consisted of twenty-two consonants, with no vowels. Consequently, the very act of reading the original Hebrew manuscripts was an act of translation. The rabbis and teachers, every time they read these writings to the people, had to insert their own vowel sounds. There were no clues within the text, other than the context. And, as in many languages, different inserted vowel sounds could lead to drastically different meanings.

This is in a period of great historical transition, in the time where almost exclusively oral history tradition was traded for the written word. It’s tempting to think that this transition happened quickly and perhaps without great resistance, but it was centuries of transition from one form to another. The stories that had been handed down orally for (in some cases) thousands of years were now written down and codified in ways that were not so fluid, that could not adapt and change with the culture and the times. But even through this original Aleph-bet there was much room for improvisation, for the change that time brings (p. 243).

However, once the Aleph-Bet met the Greek Culture, and definite vowel sounds were inserted, the stories were set. The interpretations were defined, and the development of the ideas within them (for all intents and purposes) stopped.

One particularly interesting section within this story concerns the name for the Hebrew God, Yaweh. As any good Bible student knows, the original biblical name for God was YHWH. They call it the “tetragrammaton,” the unpronounceable four-letter name of God. Most current teaching states that the name was unpronounceable because it was too holy to say. God’s name was too holy to be spoken aloud. But as Abram writes, there is a school of thought that much more closely resembles the Navajo idea of the Wakan Tanka – the Great Spirit or “Great Wind.” Some scholars believe that the name YHWH, composed as it is by “the most breath like consonants in the Hebrew aleph-bet… may have entailed forming the first syllable, ‘Y-H,’ on the whispered in-breath, and the second syllable, ‘W-H,’ on the whispered out-breath—the whole name thus forming a single cycle of breath”(p. 250.) In other words, to breathe is to say the very name of God. His name is not “unpronounceable,” it’s something you can never stop saying!

There is much in this book (speculative though it is in many ways) that is exciting, many ways in which previously competing and un-reconcilable beliefs and ideas can be seen to inhabit the same spheres. But most of all it’s a call for interaction, not just with the “non-human” world, but with everything around us, to open up our perceptive abilities and drink in the sounds and scents and cries and calls, and to respond to them. It’s also a warning of sorts, because we can’t afford to be that open if the sounds and calls and cries that surround us are damaging. We must be aware of the noises and words and intentions that we put out there… whether they are harmful or beneficial, to ourselves, to nature, to the universe.

This is part of what it means to be human: To be alive, and in right alignment with the world in which we live. To be respectful and cultivate honor for the things (and people) that were here before us, and the ones that will be after we are gone. Abram calls this (in his last chapter), “Turning Inside Out.” As humans we are so often obsessed with our internal world, but to become truly human requires an awareness as well of what is outside of us, and the realization that “truth” does not just come from (or reside) within, but is in our actions, and our relationship with our world:

“Ecologically considered, it is not primarily our verbal statements that are “true” or “false,” but rather the kind of relations that we sustain with the rest of nature. A human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth is a community, we might say, that lives in truth. The ways of speaking common to that community—the claims and beliefs that enable such reciprocity to perpetuate itself—are, in this important sense, true. They are in accord with a right relation between these people and their world. Statements and beliefs, meanwhile, that foster violence toward the land, ways of speaking that enable the impairment or ruination of the surrounding field of beings, can be described as false ways of speaking—ways that encourage an unsustainable relation with the encompassing earth. A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world” (p. 264).

Abram, D. (Feb. 1997). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Vintage [Imprint]; Knopf Publishing Group Publisher Record.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Annotation - A Life At Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born To Do

During the January Residency in Vermont, someone passed me a note about half way through the week. It was just a folded piece of paper with a printed page on it: the pre-order page for this book. A short note at the bottom from Sarah Bowen said, “Thought this might be useful for your study.” I tried to research the book but at that point it wasn’t even in print at that time, and wouldn’t be released until mid-February. But based on the title alone, I was excited to read it.

I haven’t been disappointed. Thomas Moore comes at the question of vocation, not just in terms of a job, or even a career, but in terms of a “Life Work,” in other words: the work of one’s life. He talks broadly about the concept of the “opus,” the larger work that our vocation and calling comprise, and encourages the reader to think of that life work not solely in terms of employment, but in terms of the “opus of the soul” from which he says our work is inseparable. (20)

I found this book very freeing in terms of echoing the sense I have that my “vocation” is not tied to one particular calling or job. Moore says, “It seems important to nurture a strong sense of calling while not fixing on any particular form of work… Life is not usually monolithic, narrowly focused, or unchanging” (21). This is how I have felt, and even though I’ve grown accustomed to feeling that way in the face of a culture that often presses for consistency and specialization, it’s welcome encouragement.

The book is told primarily through two vehicles: stories from his life, many of which are borne of his experience as a psychotherapist, and using Alchemy as a metaphor for getting at the core of our own makeup. Going from the theoretical to the practical and back, he describes well the need we have to untie our activity - our work, with our soul – our purpose. It’s both comforting and challenging, especially to someone already consciously on that journey. Moore writes:
“A calling is a deep sense that your very being is implicated in what you do. You feel that you fit into the scheme of things when you do this particular work. You have a sense of purpose and completion in the work. It defines you and gives you an essential tranquility” (24).

It has been my frustration with the “unrelated-ness” of much of my work that led me to this search, and to the ADP, in the first place; a need to make things fit in the grand scheme, and for my “life work” to dovetail with the work of my soul.

Some of the most immediately helpful information came from the chapter “Life in a Tower,” where Moore discusses anger and resentment, and the role they play in the working life. Emotions borne out of past experiences can color and limit our current experience, bringing anger and frustration to situations that don’t really warrant it, and hindering our development in that task, our completion of our work, and harming relationships at the same time. This has certainly been true for me. One strategy he presents is to simply tell our stories. Not to analyze them or pick them apart, but to go back into the past and tell, as fully and completely as possible, the stories that make us who we are. In doing so, we get a sense of our grounded-ness, our history, and we also gain understanding of the forces that have shaped us. On my part this study was a conscious desire to do just that; but I think I’ve been encouraged even more by this chapter as to the potential effectiveness, not just consciously, but at a deeper level, that this work may have.

Moore writes extensively about the need for that “interior work,” and that often our career, vocation, and life frustrations result from patterns of which we are not conscious, like anger and resentment. However, when recognized for what they are, even these negative impulses can be trained to our good.
“If you are looking for your life work and carry deep, hidden anger within you, it will only work against you unless you submit it to an alchemy by which its constructive powers are released. Anger can become determination, personal power, a sharp mind, effective personal presence, clear decisions, and grounded creativity” (90).

In reading this, I made a list of my past jobs and employers, and tried to name the factors that were at work in every one of those situations. I later realized I was focusing more on the negative experiences, and could use some time spent on the positive ones, but the list I came up with had repeated experiences of frustration, feeling ill-suited to the work, being taken advantage of, underpaid, lied to, etc. etc. One of the main threads that came from the list as a whole is my tendency to unnecessarily submit myself to a situation or a supervisor in order to secure or keep a job. Then, once the job is mine, there’s no way to regain that lost self-respect. In fact, I often realize that it was never beneficial to have surrendered it in the first place. From that comes a feeling of victimization, as if that surrender of self was mandated by the job or employer, when in reality it simply came from my own insecurity. But at the time, it’s very easy to blame them for taking something from me. I see that as a pattern that remains at work in me, although I have become more conscious of it in the last five years and have taken some steps to correct it.

I might initially have liked this book to be a little more “practical,” by which I would have meant that I would have liked to gain more concrete answers from it. But it’s not that kind of book, and upon completing it, my strong urge is to pick it up and read it through again. It’s a book that at first can seem like it skims the surface of these issues, with broad theorizing on what might sum up one’s search without tools given to help one find it. But the truth is it’s a process and a search that can only be done on one’s own, and as I read more deeply I came to appreciate the value of Moore’s writing, of taking seriously the issues of work and the soul. I do feel like I take some good things away from this book, most notably a solid feeling like I am, and have been, on the right track in my journey, and that by continuing on, I might just come to that place of joy and synthesis he writes about. In the mean time, reading this once every few months certainly couldn’t hurt.

"A life work is not the same as a good job or a long career. It may not arise out of outward success. A life work is the emergence of your unique self, worked through and manifested in the things that you do. If you don’t dig deep enough into yourself and see the world around you perceptively, your life work may always appear elusive. But if you live from a deep place, your life work will blossom like a flower” (95).

Moore, Thomas. A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering what You were Born to do. Ashland; Boulder: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Blackstone Audio, Incorporated; NetLibrary, Incorporated [Distributor] Publisher Record .

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Annotation - Do What You Are

A friend gave this book to me one day after I told him the nature of my study: Authenticity, Voice and Vocation. He said it was similar to the book What Color Is Your Parachute1 and in fact the jacket quote is from Richard Bolles, who wrote that book.

The two books are similar in that they are both career books, how to get the job you want in the career of your choice. The difference between them is that “Parachute” relies on stories you tell about your life to point out to you the patterns in your most fulfilling experiences in order to help you choose a job that will likely replicate those experiences, whereas Do What You Are relies on “personality type” which is an adaptation of the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test developed in the 1940’s.

The MBTI is a personality test that uses a long list of multiple choice questions to determine where you fit with regard to four categories. The “Personality Type” adaptation in this book essentially does the same thing, but it uses a much shorter, anecdotal process to classify the reader using four areas of personality. Those classifications are:
- Introverts vs. Extroverts (“I” or “E”)
- Intuitive vs. Sensing (“N” or “S”)
- Thinking vs. Feeling (“T” or “F”)
- Perceiving vs. Judging (“P” or “J”)

Based on how you fit into these four classifications, you end up with a personality type identifier. Mine is “INTP” or: Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving. (As a side note, I took the MBTI about fourteen years ago with the same results.)

Acccording to Tieger & Barron, here are some of the characteristics of an “INTP”:
“INTP’s are conceptual probem solvers. They are intensely intellectual and logial, with flashes of creative brilliance. Outwardly quiet, reserved,and detached, INTPS are inwardly absorbed in analyzing problems. They are critical, precise and skeptical.”

INTP’s: “… are ingenious and original thinkers… prize intelligence… have a strong drive for competence and are interested in challenging other people to become competent as well. … are highly independent, enjoy speculative and imaginative activities, are flexible and open-minded, and are more interested in finding creative yet sound solutions than that are in seeing those solutions made into reality.”(Tieger 43)

I found this book very helpful as I examine the “Vocation” aspect of my study. There was great information on what types of environments to search for, including possible career fields that would be particularly well-suited to my personality type. They also presented excellent information on “blind spots” for a person of my personality type to avoid, such as dismissing the input of others who might not function in the same way, and getting frustrated with those who don’t “figure it out” as quickly.

Although it’s more of a resource book than the others in my study so far, it gave me good insight into myself, how I work, and ways I can use that information to build a more satisfying future, both in terms of employment and personal relationships.

Bolles, Richard Nelson. What Color is Your Parachute?: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Berkeley: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Ten Speed Press Publisher Record, Oct. 2007.

Tieger, Paul D., and Barbara Brown. Dow What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007

Memoir - Health

At some point in this process I’m going to have to write about my health, and since it’s heavily on my mind this morning, this might be the time.

Almost exactly two years ago I woke up with the feeling like I had a mild ear-ache. It was a light pressure in my head behind and inside of my right ear. If I put my hand right behind my ear, in the little space between the corner of my jaw and the little rounded part of my skull, I could almost point in to where the pressure sat. I was not really painful, just a pressure. Almost an intuitive sense that something wasn’t quite right in there.

I didn’t mention it to my wife for a couple of reasons. First, that I was scared. I can’t really even explain why, but I was scared. I go back and forth as to whether that fear was intuitive, alerting me to something that I needed to pay attention to and get examined, or whether it was a fear based more in my perception of the universe and the way things are. I’ll explain that later, but at the time I kept it to myself.

It was January 2006, and I was preparing for a trip to New Zealand. The band I was Tour Managing had a tour planned that would take us to New Zealand for ten days, performing at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. It was a big trip for everyone, and we’d been planning and preparing for it for nearly a year. I didn’t even want to think about the possibility that I might be sick, and maybe shouldn’t go, so I just ignored it.

At some point, after a few days of this feeling in my ear, I started to get mildly dizzy. At first it was sporadic. It might just come on for a few moments and then go away. It was better in the morning, and then would worsen during the day. It’s hard to even call it “dizziness” because, although that’s the best word for it, it wasn’t like what you’d think normal dizziness would be. It was more like champagne on the brain, like being ever-so-slightly drunk and out of balance, where you turn your head, and things take just a half-second too long to catch up with that motion. I didn’t say anything. I left for New Zealand.

All through that trip I kept it to myself, and never told the band. I was to busy and too frightened to deal with what was happening, and to figure out how to explain it to anyone else. Fear was growing inside me of the possibilities. For the band and crew that trip is remembered as one big happy party, with the wine and song flowing freely; of sold out audiences in a country we’d never visited before, of hearing the new album over the speakers in the Auckland airport when we arrived, and of drinking and dancing into the night after the shows. For me that trip is remembered as separation, of not drinking or partying because I knew that whatever was going on in my head, alcohol wasn’t likely to improve it.

When I returned from New Zealand, I had a resolved to tell my wife, and to face whatever that meant. It was now about a month since I’d first experienced the pressure in my ear, and the dizziness had grown to be nearly constant. I was convinced there was something seriously wrong, and I was terrified.

When I told my wife, lying in bed one night, I shared with her the whole story: when it had started, how it felt, why I had kept it quiet… We lay in bed and talked about the possibilities. She asked what I thought was wrong, I told her my fears were of a tumor. She asked what I planned to do, the next morning I called our doctor and scheduled an appointment. The doctor wasn’t sure, couldn’t say what he thought it might be, and didn’t appear terribly concerned. He referred me to a neurologist just to make sure.

I should mention at this point that my fear was not completely without context. For the year prior to this I had had some lymphatic problems, due mainly to a series of jobs I’d worked, and the things to which I’d been exposed. About three years prior to this I’d started working as a carpenter, and spent most of a year working on the restoration of a hundred-year-old church building, removing floor tiles that we were told weren’t Asbestos, only to find later that they were, knocking out walls and unleashing century old dust and God-knows-what into the air. I spent a good portion of that year underneath the church, in the dank, moldy twelve-inch crawl space, pushing two foot square concrete blocks into place to shore up the floor for the industrial restaurant equipment that was to come.

I went straight from this job to one as a production welder, building locomotives in a manufacturing plant. Working ten-hour shifts (and sometimes twelve), breathing the fumes and smoking too much because there didn’t seem to be any difference between the air on the production floor and the smoke from a cigarette.

I moved my family to Cincinnati when I realized this cycle of manual labor jobs was going nowhere, and took my first job in Ohio, as an estimator at a friend’s body shop. I managed the office and wrote estimates for the cars that came in. It was a cushy job, in a great environment, and was perfect for us at the time, but there was no ventilation in the small shop. The bondo dust from the sanding, the fumes from the paint booth, all the smells and chemicals and toxins went straight into the little six foot by ten foot office because there was nowhere else for them to go. I would vacuum the office once a week, and no matter how many times I ran over the carpet in that office, I would collect two inches of bondo dust in the bottom of the canister. It made me wonder what my lungs were full of.

After four months at the body shop, I began to notice that the glands on my neck were slightly swollen. Between the welding job and moving to Cincinnati, I had come down with a bad bout of bronchitis, and my glands had been swollen then. I assumed it was just some of the same illness that hadn’t yet worked its way out. I saw my doctor and he informed me that the body shop environment was poisoning me. I asked him for any input or advice and the only thing my Indian doctor said, in his clipped Hindi accent was “Get a new job.”

I delayed, because this was a good job, and for a friend. I didn’t want to switch, I didn’t have anything else lined up… and in the time I waited, the swollen gland on the right side of my neck grew to the size of a marble. When I took some extra days off around one weekend, I noticed that the longer I was away from the shop, the more the swelling subsided. When I went back to work, it came right back.

I was rescued by music. I had been doing side work as a carpenter for a couple with a band I was aware of. We often talked about my radio experience, and their touring life… After pouring concrete at their farm, or framing windows we would eat together and discuss their career. I was an outsider, not threatening, and was able to give some perspective that they needed. When their tour manager left to play bass in his own band, I offered my services, and so was able to leave the body shop, and hopefully get healthier.

It was approximately six months after this that I began to get dizzy. As I said, my fear had some context.

I went to see the neurologist. He asked a bunch of questions, I answered them and told him how afraid I was. He asked what I was afraid of, and I told him. He scheduled an MRI of my brain, and a bunch of blood work. I got the tests done, and while we waited for the results, my wife and I spent the next two nights lying in bed talking about what she and my son (then four years old) would do if I was gone. We cried together, and said the things that we should have been saying to each other ever day. We talked about the future, and hoped for the best, and all the while I was consumed with fear for the worst.

During the time I’d spent in New Zealand we had received emails that a friend of ours back in Cincinnati had been quite ill. He caught a cold that rapidly turned into pneumonia, and after just a couple of days he had been hospitalized. I only got snatches of information through the emails I received, but we caught the puzzled and frantic tone in the emails. One day he was sick, the next he was in the hospital and they thought it was going to be okay. The next it seemed they had misdiagnosed him and couldn’t figure what was wrong, and then next day he was dead. He was thirty-three years old, with two sons, ages five and three. He and his wife had only moved to Cincinnati a year ago, and now she was a widow with a big new house and two boys who couldn’t possibly understand what was going on.

It was only two weeks after his death that I went in for my MRI.

It can’t have been more than two or three days before we got the MRI results, but I does seem like at least a week. The Neurologist’s office called and scheduled an appointment to go over the results. I went in with my wife, trying to be prepared for the worst. The doctor stood in front of me as I sat on the examination table and said, “So, what were you afraid these tests would show?”

I laughed a bit in my nervousness and said, “I’m afraid I have a brain tumor.”

He laughed back and said, “Well, you don’t. So don’t be afraid.”

He went through the results with me, through every slide and every blood test, and showed how my levels looked good, how my brain was clear, except for two tiny spots that he couldn’t identify, and which he suspected were from some childhood trauma (I fell off a wall when I was two and cracked my head open). He said there was no “recent activity” that would cause him to believe there was a tumor, and the spots he saw weren’t even in the part of the brain that would relate to what I was experiencing. He didn’t know what was causing my dizziness, but he said as far as he was concerned it was not a tumor and there was no further need for me to see him.
I was relieved, to put it mildly. I felt pardoned. But I was still dizzy, and I still didn’t know why.
Over the next year, I saw different doctors. No-one seemed to know what was causing the dizziness, nor did they seem very concerned about it. I went back and forth between paralyzing fear and apathy. The dizziness reached a low-grade, constant plateau that never went away, and I got used to it.

I eventually stopped trying to figure it out. My fear was so great, and the buildup around any and every appointment caused so much turmoil that it just didn’t make any sense to come away with no answers. I began to just internalize it, and try not to talk about it. I didn’t tell people, I stopped talking with my wife about it. I tried to ignore it. But every day, all day, it was in my mind. It was the thing I thought about the most. And the fear was constantly there.

Fear is insidious. It steals the energy and life from inside you, and from those around you. It clouds every emotion, every experience, and dulls any sensation. For every hope, every vision, it has an answer and an antidote.

Throughout this time, I was on the road. I toured most of the time with the band. We would be gone for two weeks, then back for a week or so, then gone for three weeks and back for a month. We might have two months off, but then we’d be gone for three months, at three-week stretches with a week between each one. When we were working, I could avoid thinking about illness. I didn’t have to think about the future. But when I came home, it was there. I wasn’t making great money. We were on Medicaid, and renting a small one-bedroom apartment over a café. On the road we spent each night in a different city. We stayed in hotels and had people greeting us at each stop with welcome and appreciation. We didn’t live the high life, but we had fun and enjoyed our work. When I went home, there was poverty and illness. And they were both mine. Being home was hard.

I tried at one point to talk through some of my feelings with a friend. I’ve made reference in this story already to my fundamentalist upbringing and the effects it has on my though patterns. Possibly the greatest effect is that I look for the activity of God in everything. I look for life, and the hope that a personal, loving God would bring to the situation. If I believe (as I professed I did for so long) in a God who’s plan is for the redemption of his creation, then I should be able to see that at work, right? And if I have some kind of “relationship,” some kind of “communion” with that God, then that hope, and that redemption should be at work in me. Right?

And so I looked for that in myself. But I found something else. I found fear, and disappointment. I found a profound lack of faith in that God. And I discovered that I couldn’t see the future. I couldn’t look into the mist and envision a time when my son and I would walk together as adults, where the lessons I would teach him would become fully realized and where he would turn from being my son into being my friend. I couldn’t see him older, in college or even as a teenager. And all this because I didn’t actually believe I would be there to see it.

Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that God teaches mainly through discipline and disappointment. In the stories of Job and through the Old Testament, God’s basically saying, “It’s my way or the highway.” There are the stories of God punishing people who disobey… even though sometimes it appeared they didn’t know the rules. There’s the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son… Sure you can take it as a precursor to God’s own sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the whole “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” theme. But even there, the idea that in order for creation to be restored, for God’s redemptive purposes to be fulfilled for creation, that someone has to die? It may be the foundational belief of all western religion, but it doesn’t make any sense! In my years of Christian Education and Bible teaching, I may not have picked up a strong sense of the mercy or grace of God, or of his love or compassion, but I sure did pick up the idea of sacrifice. And so it was that when I got sick, I believed that this was part of The Plan. That God teaches primarily through disappointment and sacrifice, and what bigger disappointment and sacrifice than taking me away from my wife and my son?

This realization was shocking to me. I’ve always considered myself an optimist, a believer in people and things and the future and hope. It was crushing to realize that because I could not believe in a future, there might not be one. I was writing my own prophecy, telling my own story, and it was a depressing one with a quick and ignominious end. The only way I could see around this was a complete rejection, a repudiation of that way of thinking. By focusing on my fear I was giving it power, and the only way to end that cycle was to decide to live, again and again, over and over; to make the decision to believe in life and to pursue it.

I still don’t have a diagnosis. When I first went to my doctor in 2005, what I asked him for was a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, an E.N.T. Although I feared I had a brain tumor, what I actually wanted it to be was just an inner-ear infection that was upsetting my balance. My doctor went straight to the neurologist, and somewhere along the way we forgot about the E.N.T. option. But I’m thinking that might be the next step. While I was in Vermont for my first ADP cycle in January of 2008, I met a woman who mentioned that she had hearing loss and dizziness in one ear due to Meniere’s disease. She said it’s a chronic infection of the inner-ear which affects balance and hearing. I’ve since looked it up online and found that many of the symptoms coincide with mine. Another interesting discovery is that people have said that while it’s apparently incurable, they notice a drastic decline in the severity of symptoms if they avoid sugar of all types.

For the last six months, in an attempt to take control of my health, whatever the cause of the symptoms, I’ve been on a fairly strict diet, and have been exercising regularly. Over that time I estimate (because I didn’t weigh myself at the start) that I’ve lost about thirty-five pounds (I was around 225lb, I’m now 192), and have definitely increased my fitness. I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine entirely, and have drastically reduced my sugar intake. I’m becoming more and more convinced that for many reasons I need to eliminate sugar entirely.

But I’m still a little dizzy. I’ve got used to it. It never goes away, but as long as I avoid sugar and other harmful things, it never gets really bad either. The swelling in my lymph glands has almost entirely disappeared, and in general I feel better than I have for quite some time. I’m running about 5 miles, three times a week, and considering entering some runs around Cincinnati this year. But somehow, as a part of this whole process, I’ve become incredibly chemically sensitized. Early on, I thought maybe the dizziness was related to mold in the building I was working out of. But when I moved out, it didn’t go away. Then I thought it was the building we were living in, but when we moved from there, it didn’t go away. What I have learned is that I am incredibly sensitive to any environmental irritant or toxin. If there is mold in the building, I’ll feel it. If there are solvents, or VOC’s or any kind of toxic compound, I’ll feel it.

Last week my friend Kevin offered me a job back at the body shop where I worked two years ago. The shop has moved to a new location, with more space, a different layout, and better ventilation. We both thought it might be different. The job he offered was absolutely perfect for my life right now. Apparently he called a temp agency and asked to hire someone to answer phones and help manage his office. The temp agency wanted eighteen dollars an hour. He offered me just less than that to answer phones, do a little estimating when it gets busy, keep the records up to date, pay the bills and manage a little bit of the accounting. Ten to forty hours a week, as much or as little as I want, with total flexibility, the ability to take time off for school or other reasons when I need, and no expectation for how long I’d be there. Oh, and as long as the shop is running well and everything’s in order, he welcomed me doing other work while I was there, whether school work or other side jobs I’m doing, like writing articles or doing band management work. Perfect.

I spent three hours there yesterday morning, and could already feel the dizziness and the swelling in my neck returning. I was sick at heart. This morning I called and let him know that I just can’t do it. I’m still too sensitive to the chemicals. I told my wife that I’m the canary in the coalmine. I don’t want to be, but I am. So, I turned down the only offer of steady work that I have. I had no choice. And it’s for that reason that I’m sitting here this morning, ruminating over the past two years, and the ongoing state of my health.

I still don’t know what’s going on in there. I have no diagnosis. Most days it’s healthier for me mentally to ignore it and just get on with living, than it is to focus on the uncertainty and feed my fear. I do need to get in to an E.N.T. and get some answers. It might not hurt as well to get another MRI done. Things can change over two years. But the most important thing right now is to be present with my son and with my wife. That’s true regardless of any prognosis. If I am sick, even if I’m dangerously ill, I want every moment to be spent in the present, not worrying about a future I can’t see, or living wrapped in my fear of the unknown. The future will work itself out. The present is what matters. At this moment, my son is six years old. He learns more every day than I could have imagined. He lost his first tooth last month. He read his first sentence last week, “Dots, dots, and more dots,” sounding it out letter by letter until he got the whole meaning. It was beautiful. He is beautiful.

My wife and I are learning more about ourselves and our spiritual journey than ever before. Through the writings of Rumi, Deepak Chopra, Robert Pirsig, Eckhart Tolle, Annie Dillard, David Whyte, David Chilton Pearce, Paramhansa Yoganada, Joseph Campbell and many others we’re freeing ourselves from the constraints of religion and beginning for the first time to become people of spirit and life. It’s exciting and it’s freeing. And there is no time or place in this journey for fear. I have no regular job. I spend my time studying, writing articles and ghostwriting for friends and colleagues, managing, consulting and booking bands, and producing records for musicians I know and respect. And that’s just what I did yesterday. Who knows what today will bring.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memoir - The Arts, The Music Industry, The Future

My friends have always been artists. I have always had a special relationship to the arts, and the ability to somehow communicate with and understand the artist in a way that the rest of society cannot. Perhaps it’s the Androgen wash. Maybe it’s just sensitivity to the same concerns, but throughout my life I have found myself as an advocate and encourager for the artist in society.

I “managed” my first band when I was eighteen. At the time all this really meant was scheduling a show for them at a nearby coffeehouse and coming up with the sound equipment for the show. They were a punk band called “Jeremiah & the Cuties,” and they were all friends of mine. We all volunteered time at a coffeehouse ministry run by a local church. The place catered to the youth of the city, and at the time (in the early 90’s) was the only all-ages place that stayed open late in downtown Boise. We opened at 7pm and stayed open until 4am, or whenever people finally cleared out. All the kids who couldn’t get into the bars would hang out there and drink bad coffee, and the bar-goers all came by when they closed up at 2am. That hour between two and three in the morning was always sketchy, when the two crowds would meet and have to make room for each other.

Although it was run by a church, there wasn’t a great deal of proselytizing taking place there, it was really just a hangout. The coffee was bad, the service was too, but no one cared because it was the only place of its kind. It lasted for a couple years, and in that time was a real landmark for the youth culture, and especially the street culture of the city.

Jeremiah and I came up with the idea of putting on a show there. He was new to Boise, a Native American from Alaska who’d just moved to town with his mother. He played punk and metal guitar, and he couldn’t sing well, but he could scream for days. The band had just formed as a trio, Jeremiah on guitar and vocals, and two brothers, Matt and Jack, on bass and drums. Somewhere I still have cassette tapes of their early rehearsals.

I’m not sure how we did it, but somehow we got permission from the city to block off a portion of the street in front of the café. It sat right in the heart of Downtown Boise, but at the end of a cul-de-sac where the city had closed off Eighth Street when they put in a five-lane interstate connector. We put up barricades, and erected a small stage out of plywood and two-by-fours. Someone borrowed a small sound system, and I managed to set it up without breaking it or blowing the speakers.

We cranked it up as loud as we could, and put on what was likely Boise’s only free, outdoor, punk show before then. We probably had about thirty or forty kids, all in combat boots and duct tape, pierced and stapled, moshing and abusing each other in the street for an hour. And everyone had a blast. We caught someone selling LSD in the bathroom and kicked him out. I don’t think the café made a dime during that time because everyone was pretty much giving stuff away, but it made an impression, and beyond the quaint notions of getting people into church or getting someone “saved,” I know that there were friendships made that day that actually provided at least a couple of people with paths to get off the street.

When the curfew came and we had to shut down, no one wanted to quit so we packed the gear up, loaded everyone in the back of a few pickups, and drove up the hill to the giant empty warehouse the church owned. It was a converted supermarket, and was basically just a giant box of a building. We set up inside there and continued the show until the wee hours. As far as I know nothing was stolen.

From that time, and actually starting before then, I consistently cultivated close relationships with musicians and artists. I wasn’t a musician myself, and although I sang in the school plays as a kid, I had not actively participated in the arts for years. But there was something there, some connection that allowed me to not only understand what they were saying, but to communicate it to others in a way that facilitated understanding and cooperation. It was innate. Part of it was my understanding of the business. During this time I was already working in Radio and had some knowledge about the “industry.” Mainly I’d just read a trade publication or two, or I happened to have actually seen a copy of “R&R” (Radio & Records magazine), but that was more than anyone else, so it qualified as industry knowledge.

I worked with musicians, put on a few shows and eventually decided there was nothing going on there I couldn’t do as well. I bought an old “Carlos” guitar from a room-mate for forty bucks and had my friend Joe show me some chords. The first song I learned was “Shooting Star” by Bad Company. It was just C, D, G, with an F thrown in that I skipped for the first few months. I took that guitar with me to Hawaii in 1993, and when I moved back to Boise a year and a half later, I knew how to play it.

During the time I was gone, the church I’d been a part of had grown considerably, bought a new building and was now one of the largest churches in the area. My good friend Casey, who had been the underling to the Worship Pastor, was promoted when the other guy started a recording studio, and the fringe musicians I’d been hanging out with when I left were now established and doing their own work. There were performance venues in town that hadn’t existed a year before, and a thriving coffee-house music scene had sprung up that would eventually spawn a number of artists now touring nationally. It was a different place, and I related to it differently. I joined Casey’s band as backup singer and acoustic guitarist, and within six months started my own band, playing in front of fifteen hundred to two thousand people every Sunday morning.

It was a baptism of the kind unavailable to musicians outside the church. Anyone else at my age, with my experience, would have been playing to tiny crowds, and with sub-standard gear, slogging away in obscurity. We had a built-in fan base (small and insular though it was), and played every week on state-of-the-art gear for a listening crowd. Of course there was very little “artistic freedom,” we had to play the songs the church wanted to hear. But there was great creativity, it was a progressive church, and the music we played on Sunday morning wasn’t too different from what we were playing in the coffee-houses on Friday and Saturday night. We had no idea how good we had it.

And so it went for a few years. I went away to Switzerland for most of 1996, where I continued to perform and lead songs in a church setting, but where I also began to write some of my own music. I returned to Boise late that year with a couple new songs in my pocket, and a serious desire to get out and start playing around town. I convinced a coffee-house owner to let me play on Friday nights, and for a while I had the house gig there all to myself. I formed a succession of bands and performed regularly in the summer festivals and fairs in the area. We even recorded a CD in 1999, a four song EP recorded in one day, and produced for about $500. I made two hundred copies myself, burning each disc on my computer; designing, printing, cutting and assembling each cover and jewel-case. Each one was signed and numbered, and all two hundred sold within a few months. It got some local airplay (on the station I worked for), and one of the songs charted on “,” a site that’s now gone, but was the first of its kind for digital music at the time. They were small victories, but it was heady stuff at the time.

For the next few years, and through many changes, I continued to write and perform my own songs. In addition to my own performing, I continued to act as a liaison between the artist and the culture. Upon returning from Switzerland, I developed a curriculum for the church, teaching adult education classes on the Arts, Worldview, and Critical Thinking. I was specifically working to educate the general population about the value of the arts to their everyday lives, as well as teaching artists how to relate to the world and their culture in ways that could be understood and appreciated.

Over time my wife and I transitioned away from the traditional church. I have many friends who remain disappointed with our decisions. Had I gone the standard “Christian Music” route, I would almost certainly have got some big “deal” along the way, and would probably be touring and supporting my own music, playing in churches for people who all believe the same thing, reinforcing that isolation. It wasn’t for me, from the start I knew that. One of my friends let me know how disappointed he was with me because, had I stayed at that church, I’d now be the “Worship Pastor,” making a very comfortable salary, with benefits and a 401K. I’d have “security.” As it is, I’ve gone from job to job, from career to career, and always tried to write my songs along the way. I won’t say that kind of security isn’t appealing, but I won’t do it differently.

I spent the last two and a half years as Tour Manager and Personal Assistant to the band Over the Rhine. I worked closely with the two founding members of the band, a husband and wife who have been writing their songs and performing them for over fifteen years. In the junkyard that is the Music Industry, they are one of the few minor level success stories. Which simply means they have been able to fashion a life for themselves, and to actually make a living at their music without either going broke or breaking up. That’s saying something.

Over the time I spent with them, I did a lot of jobs. Tour managing is an all-consuming pursuit. Basically the job description is: “Everything.” Everyone works for you. Your band, your crew, the musicians, the local crew, the venue personnel, even if they don’t work for you, you have to treat them like they do to get the job done. I was told that I did this job very well, in fact more than a couple of touring veterans said they’d never seen it done better.

I realized recently that my greatest value to Over the Rhine was not as a Tour Manager, or running their local office. It was not in securing distribution deals or in making sure they got paid. I think my greatest contribution to them was in the form of encouragement. I saw what they were doing, and I was able to encourage them in ways that actually inspired them to continue. I never related to them as a fan, but as someone who “got it,” who understood what they were driving at, and could help them refine, clarify, and better state their goals in order to more fully achieve them. I see now why I was constantly troubled with regard to my “job description” with them: they thought they needed a Tour Manager. And they did. And in me, they saw someone capable, someone bright and quick to adapt, who was able not only to do that job, but do it well. They had someone who not only could manage their touring machine, and get their business affairs largely in order, but who could do so while at the same time providing great encouragement and inspiration. I think it was a win/win for a while.
But I began to sense that we were at cross-purposes. As things got better, as the songs got played on the radio, and the guarantees got bigger, and musicians left and were replaced… as things grew, we got further from where we started. I could see clearly that “success” for the band, in terms of money and exposure, meant that I would be less involved in doing what I truly loved, and more involved in the daily drudgery, the business of it all. What I loved was talking with them about their art, helping them see the need and application for it, and reflecting back to them what they were giving off in such a way that they could do it better, with more focus and greater purpose. I think I loved this not so much because I loved them and their art in particular (although I did), but because that’s who I am. I love doing that for anyone.

I work now with several different bands and artists on several different levels. I have turned down invitations from internationally touring acts to manage and book them because I just can’t stomach the thought of diving headlong into that world again. I work closely with several friends, advising them on aspects of their careers and giving them help where they need it. In some cases they pay me for this work, but for the most part it’s just relational. And I enjoy that
immensely. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay the bills.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an idea that might make some sense: I’m thinking of starting a consulting business for musicians and artists. Something along the lines of “Music Industry Consultant and Artist Coach.” I’m not interested in managing artists or bands, taking a percentage of their earnings (which are usually scant) in exchange for some nebulous agreement to make them bigger and more famous. That almost always plays out as some Svengali relationship where the manager seeks his own interest, and the band is lucky if that translates into theirs as well.

The music industry is a mess. The labels are disappearing, either due to consolidation or atrophy. Digital music is going nuts, but the industry seems dumbfounded as to how to make any money off it. They lament the death of the industry, but ignore the fact that more new music is hitting the marketplace than ever before. And in that picture is arising a whole new landscape of independent artists, who understand how to market themselves, to get their music on the internet and into the hands of fans through iTunes and other digital delivery portals. There are sites like DiscRevolt, where fans can buy download cards at the show, and that night they can download the show they just heard off the Web. There is so much creativity going into the marketing and promotion of music right now, and every day less and less has anything to do with the traditional structures of labels, and managers and agents and publicists.

I think there’s a role I could play here, helping those artists to focus their energy in ways that are meaningful and productive. Many of these people are completely willing to do the work themselves; they just don’t know where to begin. My friend Pete hires me occasionally to do publicity work for his band, not because he’s not capable of doing it, but because, when he picks up the phone or creates a new email, his mind goes blank before the vast expanse of numbers and people and places he could be calling and emailing and sending things. Which is most important? What is crucial today?

Working with artists in this way, I think I could provide a valuable service, and maybe even make a living, while not leeching off their creativity and tying my financial health to their artistic output. Why has no one ever realized what an unrealistic and unhealthy proposition that is? I can offer my services as a consultant, for an hourly fee with no strings attached, give them the clarity they lack, and a push in the right direction, and then they’re on their way. If they need follow-up help, either by phone or in person, that can be part of the agreement. But they’re not signing over fifteen percent of their gross earnings to me for some service I may or may not ever be able to perform.

It’s crucial to me that any services I provide for artists (for anyone for that matter) not tie them down. I’m tired of the compromises where we do what we “have to” do, recognizing that it’s killing us, but chalking it up to the “greater good” or at least the need to put food on the table. Artists enter into usurious deals with shady managers and agents and outright crooks in the hopes that this well-connected sleazebag will at least grow their enterprise while he rips them off. It’s a given in the industry. And the few artists that know their way around, who can read a contract and not get dizzy, are forced by the nature of the business to become assholes themselves just to deal with the people that are supposed to be working on their behalf!

I can’t function like this, and I won’t. I would sooner give up on the industry and go flip burgers than to spend my time and my energy arguing with people, and working to make sure my ass is covered. I’m not interested in working with people I can’t trust, and I’m not interested in cultivating anything untrustworthy about myself. I believe that I can function in this world in a way that is mutually beneficial to all involved. I believe that there is no-such thing as scarcity, that there is enough to go around for everyone, enough money, enough power and influence, enough resources, enough food, enough space, and air, and hope for all of us. And I believe that the way toward finding and promoting this great wealth of resources is through generosity and honesty.

I’m still far from working out all the kinks in this plan, but I’m considering the creation of a new pricing structure for my services from now on. Not just for my consulting or coaching services, but for everything I do from the cost of the CD’s I sell to the amount I charge for a performance, to my hourly fee for carpentry or writing services. Recently I came across the concept of “Not-Just-For-Profit.” There’s a website:, that lays out this idea; business as means of building social capital and creating other kinds of wealth. It’s based on the idea that profit, in and of itself, is not bad, but there’s a balance to be struck between greed and the fear of money. As it says on the website, “money is like fire, it can warm you, or it can burn you.”

For a long time I’ve been thinking about this idea of fair commerce, of an economy that is not based on scarcity but on the belief that there is enough to go around, and that my success is not contingent upon someone else’s failure, my “wealth” (in whatever form) is not dependent upon another’s poverty. To that end, I’m working on a new system of fair transaction built around several factors, including: The value of my services to another, the actual cost of living for my family, and the state of that person and their ability to pay. For instance, this might mean a scenario where I actually post online my budget and my projected living costs, in much the same way that a non-profit or a corporation would make their financial dealings public to shareholders, I would simply disclose what it actually costs me to live, and why. I would price my services fairly to start, but then would include some provision for those who could not afford them.

For instance, if my monthly budget were $3,000: I would state where that money is going, $300 a month for food, $600 a month for rent, and so on. And then would state that once my monthly expenses are covered, I really don’t need anything more. I would factor wisdom into the budgeting, so saving for the future, for my son’s education, for retirement would all be in there. Insurance costs would be included, including life insurance to cover my family if something should happen to me. I’m not talking about just giving my money away, but about acknowledging that while I have certain legitimate needs, to become obscenely wealthy is not one of them, but the care of the less fortunate around me is.

So, within that system, once my monthly expenses are covered, there would be a plan for the use of any income beyond that. For instance, you might say that for every dollar above my expenses (profit), twenty-five percent would go to charitable contributions, twenty-five percent would go toward subsidizing the cost of my services for musicians or artists who could use them but cannot afford them, twenty five percent would go toward a “rainy-day” fund for when the industry changes, or the business collapses or other “unknowns;” and the final twenty-five percent might be returned to my clients in some form of credit or rebate, in other words, the more people are supporting the business, the less it costs everyone. This is just a hypothetical, and of course it would require a lot of fleshing out to ensure that it’s fair and takes as many variables into account as possible. But the idea is there. An economy of generosity, of concern, of humanity.

I think this is a way to make a difference, to structure my life and my future so that I am leaving behind something more than I brought with me.