Tuesday, June 28, 2005

How To Learn

Why you want to know so much. Is it just to keep up with the intellectual Joneses? Many "smart" people just skim the surface of subjects so that they can sound smart and drop names and ideas into conversation. It's a sort of game. If you try to get into a really deep conversation with them -- if you ask too many questions -- they get defensive.

If you want to learn so that you'll really be a smarter, more well-rounded person, then you first have to cast off some baggage. You need to trash most of the academic mindset (if your experience in school was anything like mine). School trains us to think of learning as a chore. We learn and study because it is "good for us." Scholarship becomes like eating fiber. Ugh!

The only reason to learn (assuming you're not doing it to impress or to get a job) is because you enjoy it. You won't enjoy it until you stop thinking of it as a chore.

Yes, the HUGE amount of material out there can be a problem. Where do you start? It ceases to be a problem if you make learning playful. Act like you would at a buffet with too many dishes to eat. Just dip in and grab a snack at random -- one that catches your eye or delights your nose.

There is no difference between highbrow and lowbrow except for snobbery. (A cheese sandwich can be just as tasty as caviar!) So read a comic book, then read King Lear, then watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then listen Beethoven's 9th Symphony, then read a history of ancient Rome, then listen to The Beach Boys....

All the time, I hear people say, “I don’t really know if I liked that book or not” or “I can’t decide whether that movie was good or bad.” This is really really really really sad. You DO know how to judge whether a novel is good or bad. It's good if it gives you pleasure (or pain or some other interesting sensation). Perhaps you've just been brainwashed into believing one must get some sort of deep (social/political?) meaning from a book in order for it to be good. Why should that be?

There is NO difference between a Shakespeare play and a cheap western, except the writer's skill at putting words together in a way that evokes images & sensations – and this is all the difference in the world~ Judge "great books" by the same standards that you judge genre works. Did you HAVE to turn the page to see what happened next? Did Cordelia remind you of your sister? If so, it was a good book.

I'm not saying “The Brady Bunch” is on par with “King Lear.” The Brady Bunch is bad because it's poorly written (clich├ęs, lack of imagination, etc.) If it was well-written, it would be good. (Check out great genre TV, like HBO's "Deadwood" to see how it can be every bit as good as highbrow stuff.)

Once you’ve cleared your mind of all the silly ideas you learned (about learning) in school, you can begin your real education. Here are some helpful hints:

1) In addition to reading and watching, listen to people. When you meet people who know more than you, ask questions. Get over your fear of looking stupid. Ask questions about the simplest things. What does that word you just said mean? Was that before or after WWII? Was that king kind of like Michael Jackson?

2) Fill you mind and senses. Cram as much into your head as possible (assuming you're doing it because you enjoy it), there are some shortcuts. There are many times I want to read when I can't (i.e. crushed and standing on a crowded subway). So I keep my iPod loaded with recorded books from audible.com. (I generally listen to a classic, then a mystery novel, then some philosophy, then a sci-fi...). When I finally get a seat, I turn off the iPod and crack open a real-life book.

3) There are some great resources, like (in the US) The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, etc. One amazing resource is "In Our Time," a BBC radio show which you can download or listen to on the web. Each week they discuss a new topic from history or the world of ideas.

4) I'm convinced that keeping up with current events kills too much time. It's great for keeping up with the Joneses, though. So-called "smart" people nowadays seem to spend 90% of their time being "smart" about politics (and belittling people who aren't), and maybe 10% of their time researching other areas of art, history, science, etc.

Try giving up (or cutting down) on GWB, The Middle East, etc. Try picking up a Chekhov play or a book on knitting or a Beatles CD or an Agatha Christy novel...

I don't oppose politics (though admittedly it's not my favorite subject). Information is neutral. Politics is just as good/bad/interesting/boring as art, history, etc. And I agree, everything connects/informs everything else.

As a practical matter, though, I have found that for many people, politics (or current events) becomes so addictive that it drives out everything else. That's fine if you have a singluar passion for politics. Then you're a specialist.

But I know a guy -- a really smart guy -- who moans every time he sees me carrying a book that he wishes he had time to read as much as I do. Both of us work the same number of hours, both of us are in childless marriages, so what's his problem? I talked to him about it once, and he told me he feels like he "has" to read the NY Times cover-to-cover each day. Which takes up all his reading time.

There's also what I (in an unfair way) think of as "old man, newspaper syndrome." Do you know anyone afflicted with it? I'm talking about those guys who say, "I used to read all sorts of things when I was younger, but now I find I don't have the patience for anything except the newspaper." And that's all they read (or they watch CNN Headline News hour-after-hour, waiting for the tiniest change in each story.)

People say I’m a bit loony on this subject. Guilty! Because I see the possibility for "old man, newspaper syndrome in myself." Also because when I went to school there was a sort of political snobbery in which being in the know about politics was shorthand for looking like a smart person. (It reminded me in a sickening way of times past, when the women would leave the table so that the men could have a serious discussion about events of the world. Personally, I would have stayed with the women and discussed art, music and the social scene.)

But by going-to-far in the other direction, I've developed some bad traits. I am selfish about what enters my mind. One DOES need to know something about current events in order to vote intelligently. And I never do know enough.

5) Create something. It doesn’t have to be great art. It CAN be great art. It can also be a cake. I find that stimulating material leads to an urge to create (mind-numbing material -- i.e. TV Land -- doesn't). If I watch a really good movie or read a really good book, it makes me want to cook, draw, write... It makes me want to express something. Conversely, creating my own work wants me to experience the works of others.

MOST IMPORTANT: learning should be about intellectual PLAY. If it's not playful, you won't enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, why do it? Have fun!

Imaginary Friends

I'm not sure I should admit this, but I've had them all my life. Now these aren't the kind of imaginary friends that I believe are real. I know they are imaginary. Usually, these creations have been shared between me and a close friends. We talk in their voices, make up stories about them, etc.

My closest friend for many years now is my wife, and we have a whole pantheon of imaginary friends. Some of them have been "alive" for so long now that they seem like real people. We are very emotionally invested in them, and when we talk to each other on the phone, we often ask to speak to the characters too.

As I'm nearing 40, I doubt this trend will ever end. I'm not worried about it or anything. It's harmless, really fun, and it brings us closer together. It gives us a mythology that's shared by us alone (which is why I won't go into any details about the imaginary friends, except to say that one is a dinosaur that lives in our bed).

But I am curious as to whether other adults do this too. The only other case I know of was recently exposed on an episode of This American Life about two grownup sisters who have an imaginary duck called Duki.

http://www.thislife.org/pages/archives/archive03.html (search on the page for Duki)

My Deep Dark Secret: I Don't Vote

Here's why I don't vote: I don't know enough about the candidates to make an informed decision. Is it REALLY better (for society) if I vote -- even if I randomly push buttons -- than if I leave the field and let more knowledgeable people do it? I try not to make other decisions based on ignorance, so why should I do this with politics?

I suppose many people would respond by saying that I should study the candidates and then vote. I don't do this because it is extremely painful for me. I HATE politics. There's nothing fun about it for me at all. If I watch CNN (which I try to every now and then), I want to scream. This is probably because I grew up in a highly-charged, politicized household, in which political "discussion" became associated in my mind with anger and fighting.

So is it my duty to endure something I hate for months before every election? People keep making me feel like I'm a bad person for not-doing-my-part. And I would admit that I WOULD be a bad person if I failed to help a dying person because I didn't want to get blood on my tie. But that (hopefully), would be a rare event. Elections (when you count state & local ones) go on all the time. How much continual unhappiness need one endure?

Another problem: I can't stand us-vs-them mentality. (I've never liked sports, either. I don't like teams or sides.) If a political discussion veers into "those insane democrats" or "those horrible republicans," by brain turns off. I know some will disagree, but I think there are very few complex issues that are black & white. So it's hard for me to believe that one party is all right and the other is all wrong.

Take economics: from my (admittedly simpleminded) viewpoint, there are two major economic philosophies that are commonly pushed: (a) spread the wealth, because then poor people are better off, and (b) help the rich people because then they will spend more and we'll all gain.

Which one of these is best? I don't know and I don't see how anyone can know. To really know, you'd have to run a huge experiment in some kind of global simulator. Real-world examples don't count, because the test-tube is too dirty.

I don't get how people are so sure they're right about extremely complex economic issues. I guess it's akin to faith. And I'm not good with faith.

I wish I could find some balanced editorials about candidates. Something like "So-and-so will probably be good for health-care, because he supports plan A; on the other hand, he will might hurt national security because he believes in philosophy X. The other candidate has a more reasonable take on security. Unfortunately, his environmental policy is suspect because he always votes against Z."

But most of what I read is insult-flinging. As soon as someone starts badmouthing a candidate (or praising him to the heavens), I lose trust. I lose trust because I figure, how can a candidate be all bad or all good? If a columnist is acting like the candidate is always wrong or always right, then the columnist is probably oversimplifying the candidate. He's probably doing so because of a deeply help prejudice. I.e. he just hates all republicans.

Our culture pushed people towards developing political prejudices. We're brought up to be liberals, conservatives, democrats, republicans, environmentalists, or whatever. Then we're ushered into teams of like-minded people.

TV-shows and magazines prefer prejudiced people. They cause arguments, which are always good for ratings and sales. Which is why I hate shows like "Crossfire." When people start yelling, I tune out. How does yelling solve anything? My ONLY interest in politics is as a means of solving problems. I want to vote for X because he seems most likely to solve problems and not create them. I have NO interest in politics as a sport.

There must be people out there somewhere who aren't "team players." Who are they?

These people aren't into yelling and they're not wishy-washy. I am concerned by the confusion between balanced and wishy-washy. They are not the same. Deborah Tannon wrote a book called "The Argument Culture" in which she laments the fact that we view every issue as a combat. For instance, our courts are about finding out who is right and who is wrong -- not about reaching the best compromise possible.

I am probably more liberal than conservative. I am pro Gay marriage and pro choice, but I feel for people who are against those issues. Marriage is a HUGELY potent symbol for many people. It seems cruel to say, "well, too bad for you, we're going to pervert that symbol. Get over it." In order for Gay marriage to become a reality, we may have to say something like that, but I deplore the lack of compassion for the people on the other side of the fence. They are not necessarily all homophobic in the broad sense of hating gay people. They are trying to protect something that's very important to them.

Same with abortion. If I believed that life begins with conception, then I too would believe abortion is murder. I would, then, be a bad person if I DIDN'T oppose it. How can I hate people who oppose it? I disagree with them, but I don't hate them. I think their point-of-view is really easy to understand.

Still, many people tell me that if opt out of the political process, I lose the right to complain about the result of the election. I'm not sure I buy that, but it's fine with me. I never complain about election results.

I've also been told that I'm a bad person because people died securing my right to live in a democracy. But how does my not-voting hurt those dead people? They're dead.

If simply going to the voting booth and making random decisions would make a less of a bad person, I'd do it. But in my eyes it would make me MORE of a bad person. If I met someone like me, I'd tell them that I think a good person contributes to his culture. That contribution MIGHT be through voting, but if he really dislikes politics, I would suggest that he contribute in other ways: give to charity, make public art, work in a soup kitchen, etc. Similarly, it's good to give blood, but if you're terrified of needles, find some other way to do good!

I don't understand why voting (for many people) is the most important way to contribute. Is it REALLY more important, or is it just symbolic? Have we decided that "good people vote" simply because voting is a sign that you're a good person?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Adult Learning and Computers

Some people I know claim they are hopeless with computers. As a computer trainer (multimedia apps, mostly), I have a few observations:

First of all, if you want to learn a computer topic, you're living in an awesome time as-far-as materials go. For almost every major application, there are TONS of learning options: books, courses, DVDs, online training... Check out sites like lynda.com and totaltraining.com.

Think about how YOU learn best. From books? Then get a book. From another person sitting next to you? Then take a course. At your own pace (but not from a book), then get a video.

Many people I train are hung up because they're trying to learn an application, but they don't know the basics of how their computer works. For instance, they're trying to learn Photohshop, but they're clueless about how to save a file (folders? drives? save? save as?).

Most books and classes are about specific applications. They assume people already understand the basics. But most people don't, and it holds them back. It's sad, because you can learn the basics in about an hour. So get "Introduction to the PC" or "MACs for Dummies" or whatever, and just read through the chapter on file management.

In my experience, a lot of computer phobia stems from romanticizing the machine. We all have a ton of baggage from bad sci-fi movies (even if we aren't sci-fi fans -- this stuff permeates the culture): computers that want to take away your job, computers that want to take over the world, etc. We all have heard computers praised or damned by pundits, techno-savvy friends, etc.

But computers are just machines. They don't have brains. They are just like cars, toasters, radios, etc. If we fear them, it's either because we think they're something they're not -- or because we're using them as metaphors for something else in our lives.

[Sometimes computers are splendid machines, but they (or certain applications running on them) can be poorly designed and frustrating. Unfortunately, I know many teachers who refuse to admit this. If a student is struggling with a poorly-desined feature, they make the student feel as if SHE is poorly designed. I regularly say things like, "Yeah, that's a sucky feature. They should have designed that better." Look for a teacher who doesn't deify machines!]

Okay: now the hard part. To be honest, I generally find that adults have a hard time learning computer subjects because they are unwilling to do the work. When we were kids in school, we had to study, do homework, memorize stuff, etc. Yet most adults seem to think that they should be able to come a two-day class and just GET it. Why should that be so?

We want it to be so, because studying isn't fun. And we're out of practice doing it. But most complex applications demand study.

I know Photoshop on an expert level, and people watch me and shake my head and say, "you must be so smart to have figured all that out." Wrong. I just worked really really really hard. I own about ten Photoshop books, which I've read cover-to-cover. I even read the manual that comes with the program (which WASN'T fun. I'm not one of those people who enjoys reading manuals -- BUT I DID IT ANYWAY). I took a couple of classes. I watched a training video. And I spent time on a lot of Photoshop-related websites. In other words, I did the kind of work a college student does when he's studying for a big test or writing a thesis paper.

[I also wrote all the keyboard shortcuts on index cards and quizzed myself with them until I had them memorized. People ask me how I remember all the shortcuts. THATS how I rememeber them. I MEMORIZED them the hard way -- the only way.]

Now, a lot of this was fun (I was making pictures while I was learning), but a lot of it wasn't. But I just forced myself to do it.

Finally, I'd ask you if it's really a computer issue. A lot of grownups that I know simply don't learn ANYTHING new once they graduate from college. What COMPLEX thing have you learned recently? Have you taught yourself a foreign language? Learned to play a musical instrument? Taught yourself how to cook Tai Food?

Are you simply out-of-practice (and scared of) learning?

I was like this when I was about 30. I actually feared I couldn't learn anything new. Still, I kept trying to learn by flipping through a book or listening to a single lecture. It never worked. Then I HAD to master something for a job, and I wound up doing some serious studying (which I hated), but once I was finished, I had mastered the subject. And I was so thrilled that I COULD still learn. And since then I've been continually learning and studying. It's my favorite thing to do!

One CAN get out-of-practice at learning, but the good news is that the methods and materials to learn are there for the taking -- if you're willing to do the work!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Bad Opening Sentences

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest challenges you to write fake bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. In a fit (literally) of creativity, Lisa and I wrote these:

Lillian was always asking the same question in different forms (on happy days, "do you love me? will you stay with me? will you marry me?"; on sadder days, "when are you going to leave me? why don't you love me? why do you treat me so bad?"), and to Joe all these variations were like a huge mallet pounding her overwhelming neediness relentlessly into his head, and when someone is so needy, it's hard (ever so hard!) to tell them the truth, but Joe finally screwed up the courage, interrupted Lillian mid-query, and belted out (loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear), "It won't work, baby! I'm not a human, I'm a DUCK!"

"You left an 's' out of my Goddamn last name!" John Crosssssssssssssssby screamed at his editor, "As usual I get no respect around here."

The 10th edition of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "love" as "a feeling of tenderness, closeness, or traction," which is obviously a misprint, but it pretty much sums up Amy's feelings about Desmond these days.

"Please pay attention," he said, pausing momentarily to emphasize the gravity of the matter, "you have to hold down the CTRL key when you drag the file to the floppy disk icon, and when the icon gets highlighted, release the mouse button BEFORE you depress CTRL, because if you release CTRL first the file will be moved, not copied -- got it?" and that’s when she knew she was in love.

Mike was leaning against the door jamb, the afternoon rain collecting in the brim of his fedora like beer around the rim of a can, thinking, "where the hell is that dame?" when suddenly there she was, ten miles of leg with no stop sign in sight, and he said, half aloud, "damn, I should have worn my good hat."

Once again Mr. Spock turned to Jesus and said, "I want to kiss you," but alas he had forgotten to program Aramaic into the universal translator, so to Jesus it sounded like "gleed ejit ogg itsal."

Suffering (pure untethered suffering!) was the primary emotion felt by the UNIVAC, as Alister crammed a Dagwood-sandwich sized stack of punch cards into its hemorrhaging reader.

"BEEEG FEEESH KEEELL MI-TEEE HUN-TAR!" was the monster's encapsulation of Melville's "Moby Dick", uttered during the opening minutes of his keynote speech, for the benefit of all the other monsters at the Wichita chapter of the I Was Made By Victor Frankenstein Support Group, during their November Book-a-Thon, and it was met with much applause and laughter, until the spoilsport townspeople once again burst in with their damned torches.

"I say, Dickey," Fenwick drawled, grinning like the devil, "pass me the vagina and some of that lovely stilton cheese, too -- oops, I didn't mean to say 'vagina', I meant the beef Wellington, but I expect you knew that."

"Brrrrrrm ... Brrrrrrm ... BRRRRMMMM ... Honk Honk ... Brrrrm," went Pasternak, trying to convince Jenny that the car was moving, so that he wouldn't have to get out in the cold and check under the hood.

Once again, Boris stared at the seqence, 1 2 3 4 5 ..., wracking his brains to figure out the next digit, but drowning as always in a sea of numbers, realizing that (yes!) he had been foiled again by his nemesis, Dr. Intelligencio!

When I was eight, I made a list of the top ten people I wanted to fuck, Winston Churchill, Jane Goodall, Grover Cleveland, Saint Augustus, General Patton, H.P. Lovecraft, Marie Curie, Vincent Price, Dimitri Shostokovich, and the guy who invented Cracker Jacks, and by the age of nine, I had made it halfway through the list.

I crouch in darkness, paralyzed by fear, afloat in anguish, despair a-knocking at my door, then I finally take those tight pants off and feel oh-so-good!

The smell of flesh blood woke me, but only for a moment, cursed as I was to be a zombie with narcolepsy.

Tompkins has left me, she thought, and now I'll never find the love I crave, never, never, NEVER, and a tear slid up her cheek -- that's right, UP -- and Alice suddenly realized that the laws of gravity had reversed themselves.

Halfway through the cocktail hour, Doris Green realized that she and Mary Willoby were wearing the same teal dress, except Mary's didn't have that little coffee stain on the hem, and she wondered, absently, if there was any way she could rip the dress off Mary the way a magician pulls a tablecloth out from under the plates, glasses, and silverware without disturbing anything, and then leap gracefully out of her own dress and into Mary's, and then (abracadabra) place her old dress on Mary, all without anyone noticing.

Step after step, he walks, step after step, from here to there, one foot following the other, but that's life, dear reader -- that's life.

My life was essentially ruined that day when I sent the spring from our old mattress plummeting down the staircase, and there at the bottom was my brother Nat, smirking at up at me, holding a brand new slinky.

On the subject of women I say Bah! because many a man has tried and failed to fathom their ways of thinking, and now that they've all been killed by the androids, I guess we never WILL figure them out.

The cold wind bit through Morty's soul, withering all his parts (heart, mind, even elbow joints) until he found himself transported to that awful numbed state, in which, once again, he gave nary a passing thought to whether the shadow looming on the castle wall was cast by a plumb pit or an Apollo Lunar Module.

"What do you think?" Cookie Monster asked Grover, "Is Oscar's poem closer to the Apollonian or Dionysian drive, as defined by Nietzsche in 'The Birth of Tragedy'?" but just then Gordon came around the corner, eliciting a yelp from Grover, who barely had time to hide his reading glasses, but Cookie Monster kept his cool, hiding Oscar's manuscript behind his back, rolling his googly eyes, and saying "Me want coo-kee!" in his loudest, gruffest baritone -- and the hapless Gordon was fooled again (but for how long?).

Alicia recalled her summers in Nice fondly at first, but then she thought of Eugene, and a tear slid up her cheek -- yes UP, gentle reader, for Alicia Mortensen was the first female commander of the International Space Station, and, due to cutbacks, she was also the entire crew, and she often wept silently in zero gravity as she polished the controls.

"Egad, Freud was right!" thought Mrs. O'Reilly, as her son Arthur ripped her dress off and carried her to his bedroom.

And my English teacher, Ms. Sparks, told me never to start a sentence with "and" or no one would want to publish my novel, but she was wrong, oh so wrong, ba ha ha ha ha!

George stared forlornly at the paper loaded in the old Smith-Corona for a moment, sighed with resignation and half-heartedly began pecking away, the sound of his keystrokes just a few more notes in the cacophony that filled the huge hall, but as all around him hundreds of heads were bent in concentration, diligently banging at the keys in front of them, George himself could not help but think “what am I doing here? where’s the reward for my years of service? when’s the BIG PAYOFF?,” and as if he had been reading his thoughts, George’s supervisor suddenly appeared behind him and said, “Just keep typing my little simian friend, keep typing.”

Even as John tried to patch things up with Carla, he felt her love flapping away, like a cardinal flying south for days and days until it reaches some remote spot in Brazil (or someplace equally remote from John's heart), where it builds a nest and sits in it, cooing and waiting for its sweetheart, who finally arrives, and together they set up house, raise hatchlings, and when summer draws near begin the long flight north, only to be shot through the head by some snot-nosed kid with a pea-shooter and, like Carla's dying love for John, never return.

Edwina looked at Timmy and felt lust, lust with a capital L, but the other letters in the word -- u, s and t -- were all lower-case, and the font was Helvetica, point size 12.

Henry unfolded the napkin and carefully tucked one corner under his generous chin, settling into his upholstered chair with a self-satisfied grunt and eyeing with pleasure the hefty cut of medium-rare prime beef on the plate before him and the Idahoan baked potato overflowing with melted butter (not margarine! oh no, never!), and as his gaze shifted upward to the fine silk draperies and imported wood paneling of his well-appointed dining room, he thought to himself, “yes indeedy, old Henry has done pretty darn well for himself,” but as soon as the thought had formed in his mind, there was a terrifying rent as the fine mahogany chair collapsed beneath him (the result of several years of supporting its owner’s enormous girth), and Henry landed with a resounding thud, shattering his spine and simultaneously biting off his own tongue, the very tongue that, if not for the unfortunate accident, would have soon been wrapped around a piece of succulent, grade A grain-fed steak.

Her pedantic, moralizing prose was only a thin veneer for the teeming salacious thoughts bubbling just beneath the surface, for though her exterior remained the lily white of a certain kind of white lily that only blooms at night, Genevieve's soul was as black as the tar pits of Le Brea.

Reading Aloud

A friend wants to create his own audio-books and asked for advice about reading aloud. (I'm assuming that he's talking about reading stories with characters):

I'm a director (theatre), and I would urge you to approach this the way professional actors approach their work. Actors (since Stanislavsky) are trained to work from character rather than to make mechanical choices. By this, I mean that one shouldn't say "I need a two-second pause here and then I will raise my voice."

Instead, the actor thinks about what his character WANTS. For instance, in this scene, my character wants (say) to seduce a beautiful woman. I will then try different tactics in order to get what I want. The woman (or the circumstances of the story) throw various obstacles at me (if they didn't, there would be no conflict in the scene). When met with a conflict, I change tactics and try again to get what I want.

Eventually I either get what I want, in which case the scene ends (or my needs change and I now want something else) or I'm thwarted.

Actors learn how to go after goals (using tactics) with their voices just-as-much-as with their bodies.

As a reader, you will be playing dozens of characters, so you'll want to break down the text and learn what they all want. And I think you should think of the narrator (even if it's third-person) as an additional character and try to figure out what HE wants (to amuse the listener? to shock? to prove a point?)

This technique has been taught for years and their are dozens of books (classes, etc.) that go deeply into it and explain how to do it.

But I recommend A Practical Handbook for the Actor. It's the Strunk and White of Acting Theory. It's brief and to-the-point.

Recently, I cast an actor who had a lot of natural talent but had never taken an acting class. At times he would recite his lines without putting any emotion behind him. I loaned him my copy of A Practical Handbook for the Actor and in a couple of weeks he was on-par with the rest of the cast (all trained actors).

Life Has No Meaning

A depressed atheist friend hates living without meaning. He says, "It seems very unnecessary, and very unfair."

It's VERY hard to be an atheist to the core, and though you may be speaking figuratively, your language suggests that -- like most atheists -- you cling (maybe against your will or even your knowledge) to some subtly theistic beliefs.

If the universe is truly un-controlled -- if it's all random or following some "robotic," deterministic rules -- then it's a little odd to say that anything that happens to you is "unfair."

I suspect that we develop the notions of fair and unfair when we are small children. We're good and yet our parents don't give us a treat. They are treating us unfairly. The very idea of unfair (or fair) implies a controller (parent, God, etc.) who is treating us poorly.

If you truly embrace a non-theistic universe (or a universe that isn't controlled by some plan or intelligence), then nothing is really unfair. Stuff just happens.

I think it's pretty easy (for most atheists) to accept this intellectually, but I'm talking about accepting it on a gut level. Really FEELING it.

When I was younger (but already an atheist), I still found that when something really bad happened, I would blame or beg some force (“How could you let this happen? " or "Please, please, PLEASE don't let this happen!") I knew it was a fiction, but it was a very strong feeling. Slowly it faded. I DO think it was intellectual at first. I would beg or plead and then say to myself, "That's silly. There's no one to plead TO..." And eventually it penetrated beyond the intellectual. Now I never find myself talking to even an imaginary force. It feels natural for the universe to be impersonal.

And it's SO hard to escape anthropomorphism in language. "Impersonal," conjures up the image of a person who is aloof. But I don't mean that. I mean that the universe doesn't have a mind or any sort of relationship to you (other than one of sub-atomic particles interacting with each other via random or determined rules). The universe is like a rock or a sheet of paper. It can’t be unfair. It’s just an object.

Anyway, I no longer care that my life doesn't have "purpose" or "meaning," because nothing has purpose or meaning (except for human constructs, like novels or songs). A rock just IS. A person just IS. I'm in the same boat as everything else.

Which isn't to say that life is empty. Evolution endowed me with the ability to think and feel, so I can still get perplexed by a crossword puzzle, savor a bowl of split-pea soup, etc. It feels good to eat, to love, to dream because ... because it FEELS good. And that's as profound or as banal as it may seem. But it DOES feel good.

To be truthful, I am skeptical that anyone could really be deeply concerned about whether or not their life has meaning -- IF they are living it fully. If you cook gourmet meals, drink fine wines, make love, listen to beautiful music, etc., your senses will be so full that you won't care if any of it means anything or not. Why does it have to mean anything? It feels SO good. If you crave meaning so much, could it be that there's something else missing from your life? Are you lonely? Do you hate your job? Maybe you should work on THAT stuff and leave the universe to itself. (You live in a house. Does the house have to have meaning? Of course not. Who cares. It’s just where you live. But living in that house gives you the fun opportunity to sit on the sofa and eat a big bowl of ice cream!)

The result of this type of feeling is that the "romance" is taken out of death. Death isn't DEEP or SPECIAL or tragic. No unfair parent doles it out to me. It's just is what happens. And it no longer scares me.

Here's what DOES scare me: pain and losing loved-ones. And this ties in with what I wrote above, because those both involve FEELINGS. No one wants to feel pain. No one wants to be lonely. So I don't care about my own death. But I DO want to die without pain. And (selfishly) I want to die before my wife dies, because I can't imagine a happy life without her. And I know of no solution to those problems -- except not to love or not to live.

[Incidentally, though I have been able to pretty much banish ALL theistic feelings -- even very weak ones, I have not been able to rid myself of the feeling of free will. I don't believe in free will, but I FEEL like I have free will. I used to think it was impossible to avoid that feeling, and it may be. But psychologist Susan Blackmore claims to have done it. She said she very gradually lost the feeling -- much in the same way that I lost all feeling of even a fictional controlling force. It was intellectual at first -- then it sunk it.

Even if God and will are fictions, is it healthy to totally avoid them? Interesting question. I wish I knew the answer.]

Overcoming Shyness

By nature, I am introverted and shy -- I suspect I may have Aspergers, though I've never been diagnosed. Yet I teach for a living, and I also act and direct (theatre). I was TERRIBLE at both when I started, but I forced myself to persevere. If you're like me, you have to MAKE yourself interact with people. It doesn't have to be big interactions at first. Work on meeting people's eyes as you walk down the street -- but FORCE yourself to do it. If it freaks you out, stop for the day, but then force yourself to do it again the next day. It will gradually get easier.

One thing that worked for me -- silly as it sounds -- was to make a game of it. I would set goals (today I am going to meet ten people's eyes and not look away before they do; today, I am going to get ten people to smile at me; today, I am going to start conversations with ten strangers...)

Some people are born with a gift for understanding others. I wasn't. Yet I now regularly help other people do just that. When I'm directing plays, I help the actors understand the psychology of their characters. And, of course, I must be very quick and expert at reading my actors and students. It's funny -- I always get praised for how insightful I am and how good I am with people.

How did I get this way? It was totally mechanical. I didn't understand people, so I made it my life mission to overcome this defect (even my choice of occupations relates to this). I read every psychology book I could get my hands on (scholarly work and self-help), I studied people, I read a lot of character-based fiction. Now I am sort of an expert on people in the way a Frenchman can become an expert on English literature. I'm good with people, but I'll also always be a bit of an outsider -- which gives me an interesting perspective.

[By the way, when I first started down this path, I was helped by Eric Berne's books (i.e. I'm OK, You're OK). Berne's model of human nature is over-simplified but compelling (it's awesome for fiction writers), but the over-simplification makes it a good starting point.]

Also, don't be afraid of "putting on an act." For years, I held myself back from interacting with people, because I hated falseness and realized that I would be pretending to make smalltalk with them -- or whatever. But ALL social interactions are, to some extent (some of the time), an act. If you keep acting, eventually the act will sink in and become real. And in the meantime, give yourself the permission to act.

Of course, there was a time when I would have said, "fine, act. HOW should I act? Make smalltalk? WHAT ABOUT? I can't come up with topics!!!" Eventually I learned that it doesn't matter. The point of smalltalk isn't the actual information being communicated. It's the meta-message of "I find you interesting enough to talk to." So you can free yourself to talk about complete drivel: that's a nice tie you're wearing; it sure looks overcast today; etc.

The Two-Sentences Game

Write a sentence that suggests a narrative.
Write another sentence that furthers the story.
There should be tension between the two sentences.

Suggestions: define "tension" however you want. Try writing the first sentence without thinking about the second sentence. Then write the second sentence.

You could play this with a friend. You trade off writing second sentences to each other's first sentences.

He ate my portion. But I didn't know until after I kissed him.

Gently, I touched her hair. She cursed.

I walked for hours before I found the store. Why was my brother working behind the counter?

She always lied to me about David. If I'd read her novel, I'd have known the truth.

He could do magic. Still, he dressed like a pig.

He looked back at me, matching my own bewildered stare. It was my reflection in a window.

She stretched out on the back-yard grass, watched the night sky, and listened to the wind moving through the leaves. She giggled.

The air was fragrant and soft under the big pines. Then she saw the bear.

I long for war. It's the only time I see you.

The doorbell rang. All was lost.

I tried not to wince as he licked my knuckles. I used to long for this.

She took a small bite. Jesus, how long would it take her to finish the whole thing?

It looked so harmless. Then I stuck my finger in it.

I didn't want to believe. The book said I had to.

The screaming was horrendous. Then he turned the page.

It was mine. So I smashed the glass and took it.

She looked carefully into his eyes. There it was. .

He read it carefully. Then he read it again.

She moved against the hand on her body. Then she wondered whose hand it was.

They rubbed and rubbed their hands. The chalk still would not come off.

He paused to brush a tendril of hair from my eyes. Then I saw the extra digit.

She felt the hand move up her back. Surely it was a hand.

This is lots of fun. It can't be healthy.

Justice has finally graced us. Although, the whole truth is yet to be revealed.

The engine's whining stopped. Now the sound of the river could be plainly heard.

I thought his words spoke truth. I was so very wrong.

He stood in the darkness, looking up at the stars contemplating the next move he would make. What was that sound?

He finished writing the final chapter. So how would it all begin?

Her eloquence swept him off his feet. She was full of shit, of course.

It wasn't until the Big Mac began snarling into the curdling bowels of his essence that he realized his mistake. Still, to cover the guilt of his gluttony, he went for seconds.

The wind blew through her hair, reminding her of days gone by. With an effort, she shut the door of the hurricane shelter.

He brushed her hair aside and grinned. She bared her fangs and snapped.

So, there you have it: e=mc2. Can I undress you now?

He pondered his punctuation for a long time. When he looked up she was already gone.

As the day wore on it grew increasingly hot and sticky. Pepsi doesn't taste good like that.

She squeezed her father's hand so hard it broke. He never hit her again.

It smelled like slow death in there. At least, that's what it said in the script.

Spinning out of control they slammed into a pole. The kid in the green bumper car #4 screamed with joy.

He greeted everyone politely. Then he taunted them with his vacation plans.

Shannon regretted the overly broad interpretation of information theory. Rhineheart only regretted the extra serving of ice cream.

His tongue reached for the ice cream. But it had already fallen through the hammock.

The peaceful lake stretched out before him like glass. As he sank the cool water closed in around him.

She scanned the distant purple ridge but saw nothing except its sharp edge against the hard blue sky. A shadow flickered just beyond the river.

The night was long and the dew gathered on the grass. Then the morning came.

The cute little bird hopped around at the river bank. The alligator smiled.

The flowers stretched all the way to the ceiling. It was really hideous wallpaper.

As she walked, the cool breeze blew through her hair. The gun at her back was all the encouragement she needed to keep walking.

She was a compact bundle of fun. Her hair really was green.

The darkness had now, finally, completely enveloped him. He suspected there was more to blinking than this.

Seeing him with his pants around his ankles, she imagined the worst. He was still in the process of simply getting them on in the first place.

We could hear children laughing just over the hill. Then, it got dark.

Getting To the Bottom of Disagreements

As has been noted in philosophical writings, and in many other forums, arguments about God can get quickly bogged down in misunderstandings about words and concepts. Often, one person is talking apples while the other is talking oranges -- yet both think they are talking about pears.

To have a real, meaningful discussion, one needs to first figure out if the people involved are really more interested in feelings than ideas. For instance, I might be having an argument with my friend about whether or not God exists. In my mind (perhaps) we're talking about cold-hard facts; in my friend's mind, we may be talking about which one of us is smarter than the other.

Once emotional issues are out of the way (if they ever really are), we need to deal with linguistic issues (what do you mean by "God"?) and issues surrounding basic assumptions (does anything really "exist"?). If we're not sharing the same assumptions and definitions, there's no point in further discussion. (How can we discuss "programming" if I mean "instructing a computer" and you mean "what's on TV tonight"?)

So I'd like to discuss the following basic statements. Please help me refine them, add ones of your own, tell me what's wrong with them, and -- if you want -- respond to them. I realize that 99% of real-life arguments are so emotionally laden -- and that so many of them are between people who don't think logically -- that this list may not be practical. But in the rare instances that I find myself in discussion with, say, a rational and intelligent Christian, I would like to save a lot of potentially wasted words and get to the bottom of our disagreement.


(a) You can deduce God through pure reason. If you don't believe in God, you just haven't thought things through.

(b) One can't prove or disprove God through reason. So one must use Occam's Razor. God NOT existing is the simplest explanation, so don't believe in him.

(c) One can't prove or disprove God through reason. So one must use Occam's Razor. God EXISTING is the simplest explanation, so don't believe in him.

(d) One can't prove, disprove or use Occam's Razor on God, so one might as well believe what one wants to believe.

(e) One can't prove, disprove or use Occam's Razor on God, so one might as well roll the dice and choose randomly.

(f) The only evidence is one's feelings, and feelings are a strong indication of reality, so if you feel like there's a God, there probably is one.

(g) Feelings are unreliable, so if your only "proof" of God is your feelings, you should give it up.

(h) Something else I haven't listed here.

NOTE: I realize all of these stances have been argued for centuries. But my main objective here isn't to show how, say, statement (e) is right or wrong. My objective is to make a complete, clear list of the fundamental stances one might take. This is useful because in some circumstances it might save a lot of useless words. For instance, I am (pretty much) a Materialist. So if someone clearly lets me know that their core belief is (f) "feelings are the only reality" then we can simply agree to disagree. We have no basis for discussion.