Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why waste energy?

I just got angry at the internet.

And I mean really angry. So angry I swore loudly, and I try very hard not to swear ever.

So angry my heart rate shot up, and is still up now, ten to fifteen minutes later. It's racing in my chest, as if I just went cliff diving or nearly got bitten by a rabid dog.

I let a webpage do this to me. Not the content of a webpage either. Simply the inefficient workings of a search function. I became spitting mad over poor web design.

This is not because I'm a man of strong design principles, either, although I do like good design when I see it. It's because I couldn't find what I wanted right away, because the site was putting an obstacle in my way. It was like getting angry at a chair because you stub your toe on it.

It was the AAA site, and I was trying in vain to find a price for passport photos. As I searched fruitlessly, I let the anger bubble up.

Did my rage make anything better? Did it improve the site? Did it improve my day? Did it help me get what I wanted? No.

It was simple, wasteful, and absurd.

Anger is rarely anything else. May the memory of this moment give me pause the next time I feel inclined to rage at a webpage, a person, a chair, a cloudy sky.

Peace, peace, peace.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What use are stories?

Last August, I had the singular pleasure of reading, for the first time, a few essays by Brian Doyle, as part of a class about essays. At the end of that class, I had another great pleasure and privilege: that of sitting in the room during a phone interview with Brian Doyle himself. Here are my notes:

"The reason that poetry is in the end the greatest literary art is that it’s closest to music. It can be easily abused. There’s more bad poetry than anything else.

To say something big in a small space is a great virtue.

Part of our training as writers is to write poorly, you have to learn the craft by learning what not to do.

A lot of early writing is about the self, it’s kind of self absorbed—maturity as a writer involves looking at the glory and beauty in other things.

Large Irish-Catholic family—fanatic readers, floor to ceiling bookshelves—newspaperman storyteller father, teacher storyteller mother, everyone at the table was smart. If you didn’t have something to say, a story to tell, no one would know your name.

To be a great storyteller to me seems very American.

The mechanics and delight.

Sheer, joyous goofiness of writing. It’s like you built a chair.

I was put on Earth to be dad, that’s my job. Second is husband. But as a writer… Sensitivity and itch and joy and passion of writing, of telling stories.
As a writer, you develop an ear for true food. I’m very sensitive to fatuous homilizing, to telling someone else what to do… I’m wary of opinion and commentary, and I try to avoid it. Does it matter? Does it ring true to me inside someplace?
I try to listen for falsity, for nonsense.

My kids always say “Did you vote for Lincoln?”

Everybody carries loads, everybody has scars cut in their hearts. The story of the world is suffering, but the grace and courage and humor with which people carry their loads moves me to the marrow of my bones.

It really matters to share stories. Story is the most human food. If you don’t have stories, you’ll starve, your soul will starve.

Our job as writers is to be witnesses, to witness how other people do it.

Total childish wonder— I’m knocked out by everything. Total childlike idiot wonder, and a fascination with grace under duress.

Giggling seems to me to be a very powerful form of prayer. My idea of a good day is one where you giggle for about three hours.

I’m writing a long thing about sturgeon which I suspect may be growing into a book against my will.

I just wrote a thing about a series of books, how amazing is it when you read a book, and you realize “there’s more of this?!”

I write about my kids a little bit less as teenagers, because they’re a little bigger than me, and I’m worried about getting hit.

The first essay I published was when I was ten or twelve, and realized I had no present for mother’s day. I realized I had totally punted, and all my brothers were looking at me… I’d just finished the Screwtape Letters, and so I wrote a letter to my mother from Hell, denying her admission because she was so cool, and I put it under her plate.

Read maniacally, read fanatically, read read read read read… read all kind of writers, and see how people get voices on a page. Don’t worry about form—you’re a storyteller. It’s a craft. You get better with age, because you learn to work the tools better.

Working for newspapers and magazines was good for me. It taught me to smell a story, put it together, and get it down.

Ask questions and listen—we swim in a sea of stories.

I didn’t set out to write a collection of essays—I wrote them all and then collected them.

Write one little thing that sounded true, and then another, and then another.

The essay as a form breathes surprises for the writer the most. They’re playful, they’re the closest to the human voice. There’s room for direction and Coherence that you didn’t expect.

Essay collections are fun, because I actually spread all the essays out on the floor, and then I take my shoes off, and wander around and say “Who wants to be with who?”

I just like the word Utah—it indicates the square size and brawniness of the state—the Rockies. It sounds the way it looks.

Utah is the most unbelievably beautiful state.

Can we all speak straightforwardly to each other?

Witness in mercy and humor. So much of life is striving, and so much of the joy of life is witness and mercy.

Awareness is the beginning of all prayer.

Roads are forms of discipline and concentration.

We are an amazing species. We are headed I hope towards witness and mercy and forgiveness.

We’re afraid. We’re very violent. Witness and story are important in ways we can’t even understand

Spiritually, communally, morally, evolutionarily.

The more you can pay attention to the grace of your fellow beings, the more likely it is that the world will advance.

Attend to each other."

Monday, July 5, 2010

What immortal hand or eye?

I'd never thought of fireworks and William Blake as things that go together, but watching the fireworks on Saturday, I couldn't get this stanza out of my head:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Happy Independence, America. And keep on burning, tyger bright.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Carbon Monoxide

It's a well known fact that carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless and odorless, as well as deadly. This lack of features is precisely what makes it so dangerous... there is no way to sense the slow seeping of carbon monoxide without the modern technology of a CO detector (or, failing that, the proverbial coal mine canary.)

What you might not have known is that when a carbon monoxide detector goes off in your house, while you can't smell the carbon monoxide, you will immediately smell the scent of your own fear. What does it smell like? As the alarm rings in your ears, you would swear that the pungent odor of your fear is exactly like the odor carbon monoxide would have, if it had any at all.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What's in a Name? (Part 2)

Last week I was volunteering with a project called Lose the Training Wheels, as a bike spotter. Their were about 15 of us volunteers, working together for a week. We had about thirty minutes of downtime between sessions. Almost none of us knew each other at the start of the week, but we developed the sort of easy break-room relationships that come with any project like this. We'd chat about sports scores, or colleges, or how well our riders were learning. Sometimes, we'd kick around a soccer ball or shoot some hoops.

But that's not what this post is about. Here, I mean to ponder the following phenomenon.

There was another Matt in the group. A Matthew, rather than a Mattathias, but we were both going by Matt. This caused the standard confusion on the first day ("Matt, you'll be working with Nathan... Oh shoot, there are two Matts.) This is fairly common, but what happened next is interesting.

The other Matt, it was clear, felt an instant connection because of our shared name. For the rest of the week, when he came in, the first thing he'd do was greet me with a "How's it going, Matt?" and a wide grin. During breaks, he'd come over to talk. Besides the name and the interest in volunteering, we didn't have much in common, but that didn't seem to matter to him.

Matt was friendly with everyone, but obviously felt that there was significance to our fellow Matt-hood. I don't think I felt it nearly so strongly as he did, perhaps because being a Mattathias has always made me feel different from other Matts, especially Matthews.

So what is it then, that makes a shared name feel like a shared nature?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What time is it?

I have a life-long animosity for alarm clocks.

This first became apparent when I was in first grade, and had to be up in time to get to school by Eight AM (I had been in an afternoon kindergarten class, blissfully free until 12:30.) I ignored my alarm clock completely, making my mother come time and time again to call, wheedle, and threaten me out of bed. When words alone did not suffice, she moved on to diplomacy by other means: tickling, dragging, repeated threats of ice cubes (I cannot recall whether these threats ever became reality, but from the force they carried I think they must have, at least once.)

Things did not improve with middle school.

When I entered ninth grade, however, I also entered the world of early morning seminary, a Mormon religious institution designed to provide students with scriptural instruction at an hour when they were most in need of reminders about charity. The upshot of this was that my alarm clock was now set two hours earlier, and I couldn't count on my mother to be awake in time to remind me.

Fortunately, pajamas were acceptable dress in my seminary class, so I didn't have to rouse myself too early.

I got better at heeding the alarm, but as my 70% seminary attendance freshman year attests, not much better.

It was not until my senior year that I discovered the snooze button. I couldn't use it much before class (my alarm was set at 5:45 AM, and I could hit the snooze once, leaving it to call again at 5:55, and still get to seminary in time) but I would often return home and set another alarm for 7:15, sometimes hitting the snooze twice, sometimes three times, and thus surfacing to grab breakfast and rush out the door only sometime between 7:30 and 7:45.

It didn't help that I lived in a basement, in a room natural light rarely dared to enter.

These recollections come to my mind because the conflict between man and alarm clock has begun anew for me: This past week, my alarm has been set to 7:50 am. I have hit the snooze once, twice, three times, four, five, once a sixth. Other days, I turn the alarm off, but still don't rise from the bed. Today, I arose at 8:30... only to return and sleep another hour.

I don't know whether I'll ever learn to listen to an alarm clock. I hope that someday, I can learn to greet the day early, even without one, as I do on a camping trip.

Really, I think many of my everyday struggles would disappear if I lived in a tent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why do I procrastinate? (Part 2)

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon in the past couple of years.

I spend a large amount of my time coming up with ideas for things to do. I have long lists of these things, of projects I want to work on and finish. I am fairly certain that I could work all day on these projects, and still have ideas left over.

And yet on an equally regular basis, I find myself telling myself that I have "nothing to do". Grasping for something to keep my attention, I will check my e-mail four to five times a day, check and re-check my favorite blogs, spend hours on facebook (I waste time off the internet as well, by staring at walls or sitting idle).

How do I reconcile the tremendous amount of things worth doing with my frequent claim that I have nothing to do? Clearly, I am lying to myself on a regular basis. But how do I break through this mental trap of idleness and keep myself engaged in things that matter?

Friday, April 9, 2010

What is THAT?

This is a question my 5-year old niece asks pretty often.

Today she asked it to me when she and her parents came to drop off some perishable food before they drive to California for a wedding.

The that in question was my bicycle tire, which was hanging from the corner of a bookshelf.

"That's a tire for my bicycle," said I.

She pondered this.

"Why is it so huge?" she asked.

"I am a huge person, and so I need huge tires." I said.

She pondered this.

"And what is that?" she asked, pointing, "Is that the cover for the wheel?"

"No," said I, "that's the tube. It goes inside the wheel, to keep it fat."

She pondered this.

"It has a sticker on it," said she.

"Yes," said I, "it's called a patch. I put a patch on the tube because there was a hole in it."

She pondered this. "A patch?" she asked.

"Yes," said I, "like pirates wear. Pirates wear eye patches because they have holes in their faces."

"That's weird," she says. "They only have one eye?"

"Yes," says I. " That's why I don't want to be a pirate."

She ponders this.

Then she looks up at my eyes, which are covered by my glasses.

"I don't need glasses," she says.

"No, you don't," says I, "but you might need them when you're older."

She ponders this. "Yeah, like when I'm a grandma."

We both ponder this.

"I'm not a grandma," she tells me, "but I'm practicing to be a mom."

I ponder this. "Yeah?" I say.

"I have an imaginary husband," says she.

"Yeah?" I say.

"Yeah," says she.

"What's his name?" says I.

"David Bowie," says she.

I ponder this.

"But's he's fake," says she, and wanders off happily to eat her Raisin Bran.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

If not now, when?

Wrote a long letter to a good friend tonight.

I've been looking at the world with the intent to write it with a while now, which means that I'd see something or hear something and start writing a paragraph in my head, trying out how it would sound to describe it to Joumana.

Two months of that kind of thinking made for a six page letter. I think I enjoy letter writing almost more than anything else, so it's a pity I don't do it more often.

I'd kept putting off writing it, telling myself I didn't have the time, that I'd find time in the evening, that I'd find time over the weekend.

Finally decided that the only way to find time is to look for it. Strangely enough, as soon as I looked, there it was.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How did you get to be well read?

This question occasionally after people have known me for a few months, because I have a strong habit of making references to this and to that. I don't answer it very often.

The explanation is really very simple. I'm not well read at all. I'm just good at looking that way. I haven't read most of the books I'm familiar with. I don't have the depth or thoroughness of a classical education, or even simply of a dedicated reading program. And along with all the books I haven't read at all are the books I've only half-read: Les Miserables, The Sun also Rises, God in Search of Man... My apparent erudition comes largely from a few semi-encyclopedic, scattershot collections I've flipped through over the years: The Jewish 100, An Incomplete Education, a book my mother had with pictures and essay of great works of art in the Western tradition that I would sit with for hours as a child.

But this answer may just raise more questions: Why develop a passing familiarity with so many things? Isn't depth of understanding more fulfilling? And why read such collections so urgently at such a young age.

The answer to these questions is even more simple, and I share it far less.

I was raised by wolves.

But no ordinary wolves. No, these were highly intellectual wolves, for whom a pup unable to converse about Early Romantic Literature was a disgrace and a liability, fit only to be left alone to starve in the cold, harsh world of academia. From my earliest days, appearing well read was a matter of life and death.

It is fortunate, then, that I found so much pleasure in a matter which was essential to my survival.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is it really possible to complete a goal?

This question began my sister-in-law Nicole's g-mail status for several weeks. It continued, "The anticipation, work, and dedication is so all-encompassing that the completion still feels incomplete."

I know what she means. It's part of what I felt when I finished my Eagle Scout.

I wrote an essay about it, at the time, trying to make sense of how far I'd come and where I was going, trying to understand how something "finished" could still feel so far from done. I went through about four or five giant outlines, and then wrote the final draft in one crazy weekend, after coming home from a Model United Nations conference in Illinois.

I was looking at that essay a few weeks ago, because I was going to link to it on my other blog. And as I read it, I realized that if I wrote it now, it would be a different essay. And I wanted to sit down right then with my outlines and start it all over again. But that's my past. I have other essays to write. Maybe, someday, it will be time for me to come back to it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why make new mistakes when you can just perfect the old ones?

Every week, I have economics homework due Thursday morning. It takes four hours, at least. Every Wednesday, I suddenly remember that it's due the next day. Every Wednesday night, I'm up past two.

This is the seventh week. You'd think I woulda learned.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

what does it mean that I've spent hours knitting a hedgehog for you?

This question is from the last post's comments, by the way. I don't really know the answer, but I did want to show off my knit hedgehog.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What did you get this year?

My birthday present from my Dad:

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark.

I think it's apropos.

On the subject of gifts: Economists are very curious about gift-giving, and the question they like to ask is "Why don't we just give people money?" I read an interesting explanation of this in The Armchair Economist (by Steven Landsburg): He rejects one of the common explanations, which is that people give gifts to show that they're willing to spend time shopping, by pointing out that since time is money, it would make just as much sense to give them the monetary value of the gift you would have got and the time you would have spent getting it (or better yet, give them the money and use the time by taking them out to lunch.)

He suggests that the opposite is the case. People buy gifts to show that they don't need to spend time shopping. What? It's simple, he says: the better you know someone, the less time you'll need to spend shopping for them. You won't have to spend hours thinking "Will he like this? Would it look better in blue? What's his size?" You'll know. So buying someone a gift is a way of showing someone that you know them so well that it's really not difficult at all to be their friend. I rather like this explanation (Even if I'm not so sure that time=money is a universally true statement.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why suffering?

I’ve been reading the Book of Job, looking for an answer.

This question has been asked by person after person, year after year, struck by fire or flood or disease or war. Why, why, why?

Usually, the question is addressed to God. If humans knew, why would they ask?

And yet we also offer our own answers, and sometimes accept them. Two of the standard answers go like this:

1) It’s our fault. We’ve done something wrong, or our ancestors did something wrong, and we’re being punished by God. This is the view expressed by Job’s friends, who tell him that he’ll suffer no more if he only repents of a wrong he doesn’t know he’s done.

2) It’s God’s fault. Usually for not being there. After all, if there were an all-powerful, good God, he would prevent suffering, right? Those who accept this answer see suffering either as proof of God’s non-existence, or as proof against God’s benevolence. Job’s wife expresses this approach when she tells him to curse God and die, since his suffering is, in her eyes, a demonstration of God’s injustice.

The marvelous thing about the book of Job is that it rejects both these answers. Job is not at fault– he is the perfect and the upright man. Nor is God at fault.

So why does Job suffer? The book that bears his name doesn’t tell us. There is no easy answer. Yet what I know about suffering why I know because of Job and because of Jesus, another sorrowing man who experienced sufferings he never deserved.

Here are some thoughts:

Job’s trials aren’t a way for God to test his faith: God already knows that Job is faithful. But Job’s trials do show Job that his faith is stronger than his suffering, that he can hold fast to his faith that God is good even when life is not.

As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, I believe that by suffering the pains of our transgressions, imperfections, infirmities and illnesses Christ became Savior and Redeemer. God sent his only begotten Son to suffer. Why?

I do not know. I will not be truly able to say until I hear an answer from God’s own mouth. But in the meantime I have His scriptures, which say that Christ “will take upon him [our] infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). Which means that Christ’s suffering was also Christ’s education, and what he learned was how to care for us, how best to love us.

And maybe that’s part of why we suffer too. We suffer so that we can be broken out of our own lives, so that we can learn to care for each other, so that with Job we can see God.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Is Matt older than my Dad?

This is one of the questions my four-year old cousin asked my Grandma this morning, when he came over to play.

(He also asked her "Are you older than my mom?" which led to a visit to one of the family photo albums (The one with pictures of his mother as a baby.))

Little kids ask lots of questions, it seems, because they're still trying to figure out how the world works. Most adults have already given up.

(Or they've somehow gotten the dangerous notion that they understand it all, which can lead to some pretty magnificent missteps.)

So hurray for questions, and may we never stop asking them!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How am I supposed to answer that?

I'm taking a survey on undergraduate engagement. It's a pretty well-put together and thorough survey, designed to see whether college students are actually doing all those things that are reported to make college experience so great. It's useful information for my university, and for educators in general, but it's also a useful self-check for me, to see how I've been doing.

How often have I connected ideas from my different courses?
How often have I talked with my professors outside of class?
How often have I worked harder than I thought I could in order to meet a professor's expectations?

Most of these question are pretty easy to answer-- I either have or I haven't (although there is a four step scale: never, sometimes, often and very often.)

Here's the question that made me stop, open a new tab, and start writing this post:

How often have you "had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own?"

The university that I attend is probably 90% Caucasian. That was actually one of my only qualms about coming here, because I believe firmly in the truth of what this survey question implies: one of the greatest ways of getting an education is by talking, with sincerety, to people who are different from you, or who you think are different from you, or who come from backgrounds you have never heard of before, never thought possible.

But that is not why this is a hard question to answer. This question is hard because I am Caucajewmexdian. Which means that in a very real way my personal ethnic experience has been so different from that of my peers that every conversation I have with someone who is not a member of my family is a conversation with someone of another ethnicity. And all of my conversations are serious.

And yet for me to answer "very often" could be to give the survey inaccurate information. Because they're not interested in simply the fact that conversations take place with diversity of background. They're interested in conversations where both participants are aware of that divide in the conversation. Because usually, when you talk with someone or a different race or ethnicity, something about how they look, or speak, tips you off to the diversity without it even being mentioned. And that's when the growth occurs. When you're aware of the difference, and something about the conversations changes the way you think about the world, that person, and yourself.

And my conversations are not generally like that, except to the extent that all conversations between two people are like that. Because I don't look like a minority (in fact, my brother Stephen invented the term "stealth diversifier" to refer to our impact on demographics). The subject of difference only comes up when I wear kurta pajama, or refer to the Talmud, or note my family's observance of various holidays not celebrated in most Caucasian-American households. While these sorts of things occur on a frequent basis, I still don't have the same sort of diversifying impact on daily conversation that more visible minorities would.

So I don't know how to answer this question. I'll probably settle on a compromise answer, like "sometimes" and move on to simpler considerations. But I still won't feel good about it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Would you like to Dance?

Because I do. Like to dance, that is.

I'm taking a formal dance class for the first time in my life. It's introductory social dance, and the number is Dance 180, which I like because it reminds me of 180°, whi
ch in turn reminds me of Poetry 180, the collection which moved me from reading poetry to writing poetry.

Dancing itself reminds me of the Indian weddings in California where I first learned the rythyms and movements of Bhangra, and of the times in my childhood when someone would just turn on some music and before you knew it the whole family was there, in the living room, dancing like crazy, throwing our arms and legs all over the place. From a technical perspective, none of us were very good, but when the music moves through you that doesn't matter.

Dancing reminds me of the night I got back from a Model UN conference and went straight to a concert, and ended up dancing all night long in my three piece suit. It reminds me of last night, when I went through the same foxtrot steps again and again, trying to make the movements part of me, trying to make them even more fluid and natural than my daily walk.

It reminds me of my friend J, who once told me that he does ballroom dance because "there are two kinds of contact sports, and really, which is better, the ones where it's me and twenty other sweaty guys, or the one where it's me and one beautiful girl?"

The thing about dance is that it takes your whole body and heart and mind, and when you're willing to put it all in it's magic, and when you're not it's nothing.

I love to dance.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What's in a Name?

Nearly every time I'm asked my name, my answer is immediately followed by another question, usually "Where's that from?" or "What does that mean?"

Recently, I've answered the first question by saying, "It's the Latin transliteration of the Hebrew name which Matthew is the Greek transliteration of" which is more honest than saying "It's Hebrew" but also may be more than most people want to know, and doesn't really give them much that's useful to go on.

When I have more time, I tell the story of Mattathias of Modin and his sons, the Maccabees. The way I tell this story has also changed considerably over time, and changes with my audience.

I don't think I've ever satisfactorily answered the second question, and I don't think anyone else has either. What does it mean that I am named Mattathias (and not perhaps Matthew or Methuselah)? Has the name become a part of me? Have I become a part of it?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What If none of the answers is right?

A while back, I had to take a grammar tutorial, which also included a grammar quiz. The rules were fairly simple: just choose the sentence with no mistakes. I was doing great until I got to a question where this was the only grammatically proper answer:

"Because it is a Catholic country, its government is a democracy modified by authoritarianism."

I don't know about you, but I have some trouble saying that there isn't a problem with that sentence. It may be grammatically perfect, but there's definitely something fishy going on there...