Monday, December 31, 2012

I Am Resolved

Resolution 1: sleep more
Resolution 2: abuse more children
Resolution. Isn't that a funny turn of phrase?  The definition at this time of year implies that a decision has been made, set in stone, committed to, no longer in debate. The time for conversation is over: we are resolved! To the gym! Less red meat! More sunscreen! Let's go now before doubt creeps back in!

Overcoming the debate stage is the first big hurdle we face in acting with compassion and improving our world and our lives. Debate just seems easier. We can debate and converse from our couch, or at the table, or in a comfortable classroom. We do that step with people we know, at predictable times.

Acting is much harder, isn't it? You don't know who will be at the gym, or what the light will be like, or where the restrooms are located. How do you use this weight? How long should you use a machine? Anxiety!

The anxiety is double for real action in our world. Soup kitchens can be very uncomfortable, even worse than a new job. Not only are your coworkers feeling you out, and you don't know where anything is, it's also in a bad neighborhood, and many people there might have big problems that they need to lay on you. Who needs that!

New Years is a perfect excuse to buck up and jump over that hurdle with friends and family. You can do it! You really can do better this year!

Times Square, 1907
In the spirit of sharing the pain with people I love, let's resolve together. What will you do this year?

I will:
1) Learn Spanish
2) Volunteer more
3) Finish a book

I think that will be it for me this year. Great start! You? 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Prayer

Happy New Year, everyone! Today I'd like to share a poem by one of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges. 


If I could live again my life,
In the next - I'll try,
- to make more mistakes,
I won't try to be so perfect,
I'll be more relaxed,
I'll be more full - than I am now,
In fact, I'll take fewer things seriously,
I'll be less hygenic,
I'll take more risks,
I'll take more trips,
I'll watch more sunsets,
I'll climb more mountains,
I'll swim more rivers,
I'll go to more places - I've never been,
I'll eat more ice creams and less (lime) beans,
I'll have more real problems - and less imaginary
I was one of those people who live
prudent and prolific lives -
each minute of his life,
Offcourse that I had moments of joy - but,
if I could go back I'll try to have only good moments,
If you don't know - thats what life is made of,
Don't lose the now!
I was one of those who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer,
without a hot-water bottle,
and without an umberella and without a parachute,
If I could live again - I will travel light,
If I could live again - I'll try to work bare feet
at the beginning of spring till
the end of autumn,
I'll ride more carts,
I'll watch more sunrises and play with more children,
If I have the life to live - but now I am 85,
- and I know that I am dying ...
(incidentally, Borges died two years later)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

mea culpa

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for lapsing this week. All the usual excuses apply - holiday events, extra work, creative exhaustion, etc. I will return to normal schedule - 3 posts per week, plus one quote - starting tomorrow. 



Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Story

If you have been living in a cave until today, welcome back, it is Christmas time. In addition to the gift-giving and Santa traditions that anyone can enjoy, the holiday commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure to Christianity. Christmas, then, is a pretty important holiday for a large number of humans.

Christmas and the Nativity story found in the Bible books of Luke and Matthew hold a central theological purpose of illustrating the ways in which Jesus was divine as well as human. Conversations about that topic and it's enigmatic, transcendental meaning must refer back to the story of the birth of Jesus, so the holiday has held a central ritual, theological, and narrative function for Christians several centuries.

However, it has not always been celebrated on December 25 because there is little reason to believe that to be Jesus' birth date.

Roman dish with Saturn
So, why December 25 gain popularity? Two theories:

1) Early Christians in Rome could have adapted the holiday Saturnalia, a popular Roman mid-winter festival that celebrated the winter solstice. Christians from that time used a lot of sun/light metaphors for Jesus, so the connection could have been natural. However, this practice was not particularly popular among Christians at this particular time and place.

2) December 25 could be exactly 9 months after Mary conceived Jesus, according to some accounts.

We may never know the exact date of Jesus' birth. The Bible accounts were not that interested in the specific date so they did not give us reliable enough statistical information. Curious folks ever since have made various estimations, very few of which place Jesus' birthday in winter months at all. In fact, while Western Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, other, equally ancient churches like Armenians and Russia celebrate in January. In fact, the first author we know about who talked about the date of Jesus' birth thinks it was in either April or May.

you don't want this guy at your Christmas party
The first generations of Christians probably didn't celebrate Christmas at all. Divine birthdays were popular with Pagans at the time, and popular, outspoken Christians criticized the practice. Instead, they all celebrated the last supper, death and resurrection of Jesus, which they had very carefully recorded.

And remember,  we know the date as December 25 because we use a modified Gregorian Calendar, which was invented in 1582 CE. That means that the dates we know and recognize are only 500 years old. And keep in mind that the trappings of a modern Christmas - tree, yule log, presents, Santa - are all directly related to Celtic and Germanic pre-Christian traditions.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Prayer

This year, I'm already all finished with Christmas shopping, and with Christmas giving. I love the gift-giving ritual, but I think our family does a good job of keeping it simple and enjoyable, not materialistic. Now that all my gifts have been given and received - early, before the worst of the outside pressure - the Christmas ads seem even more grating. 

I am gratified that one of my favorite people ever shares this sentiment. From Krista Tippett's excellent summary of why and how she celebrates Christmas:

Here’s what I take seriously. There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.

Friday, December 21, 2012

10 Proofs for the Continuation of the World

I wrote this short, lighthearted piece for Policymic, but I left out the most important part. 

The world could end on Friday. The world could end then, or Thursday or Saturday. Our bodies and our planet are fragile, and it is remarkable that any of us exist at all. So I hope that, instead of hunkering down in anxiety, we take this opportunity to love our neighbors and communities. If we survive we can congratulate ourselves on the perseverence of humanity over the apocalypse of isolation and fear. 

Apocalypse myths are popular forms of escapism. They can be fun, healthy ways to gain perspective on our daily routines. But if you have stocked up on duct tape and MREs then you are trading your emotional stability for emotional insecurity and giving your money to the liars who feed on paranoia. Get out of the bunker – physical or emotional – and live your life.  
1) There is no evidence that the end of the Mayan’s calendar should be associated with their  apocalypse mythology. According to cultural experts, the end of this calendar cycle would be the same as Dec. 31 on our (Gregorian) calendar – we have to buy a new calendar at the mall, not live in a bunker.

2) There is no reason to trust the Maya about anything. If we disregard their impressive building techniques, mathematics, and population, we see that the Mayan cultural beliefs were arcane and frequently wrong.

3) There is no “Rogue Planet”. If a planet was on an irregular, interstellar orbit, our own orbits would be demonstrably irregular, too. Based on our own orbit and that of our moon and neighbor planets, nothing could have disturbed our orbit pattern in at least a million years, and there is no evidence that our orbit has ever been tampered with.

Nibiru (artist's rendition)
4) There is no “Nibiru”. Some new-age groups claimed that a rogue planet named Nibiru would collide with Earth back in 2003. When it never materialized, they watched a few movies and backed the date to 2012. If a planet entered our solar system, we would know about it. If it was going to collide with Earth in four days, we would see it in the sky. Look up.

5) There is no “Planet X”. That is what astronomers call undiscovered planets that they are looking for, so even the name shows that it has not yet been observed in any way.
Laser point observing the center of the Milky Way, from afar

6) Earth will not collide with the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The black hole is an estimated 28,000 light years from the Sun, so we would probably notice if we were to be there in four days.

7) There will be no special planetary alignment. These do actually happen, by the way, but astronomers can predict them years beforehand. Also, they have no apparent affect on the Earth. They do not cause blackouts or spiritual renewals.

8) Solar Flares occur regularly and cycle through periods of unusual strength. The next strong cycle is predicted for 2014. Also, no massive meteors are predicted for 2012.

9) New Age folks who popularize these myths have been walking back their claims with language of a “Spiritual Apocalypse” or a “Cosmic Awakening”. Whatever that means, you will still have work on Monday.

10) The world did end for nearly 30 innocent people at Sandy Hook. Their families and friends may wish for an apocalypse on Friday, but their grief will continue into the new Mayan calendar. You can help them here. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Speaking of which...

I just want to reiterate that happiness or fulfillment does not come from work. Or, rather, happiness and fulfillment come from growing our networks and communities through love and honesty, which I guess can be found at work maybe.

There is more evidence humans are hardwired to appreciate networks, or rather communities. So when we say that something makes us feel happy or fulfilled, we usually mean that we feel honestly connected, respected, and loved in our community network.

"This is sincerely important to me!"
I can imagine work that can give that to us. But for many of us, our jobs give us other goods: money, for one, and depth of knowledge, power, or ease. Most jobs are looking for something else, too: speed, efficiency, and false sincerity. Not all jobs or careers exchange these, but many many do.

Those of us with these jobs (most of us) find other avenues for happiness and fulfillment. Family life is a good start, or non-work groups like volunteer and church communities. Many of us have fulfilling hobbies through which we meet with friends and our honest personalities are respected.

If you are looking for that career in which you will find fulfillment and happiness for 40 hours a week at about $50 grand a year, don't hold your breath. Instead of sacrificing your life now for a future career that may never materialize, go bowling or start writing or just watch movies with a friend. Any networks and communities you build today are more valuable than the time you spend working for a job that really might not exist.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What do you want to do Today?

I'm writing from my hometown, where we've been enjoying a sort of early Christmas morning together. As usual, no home visit is complete without late-night conversations about morals, meanings, and future wishes. Last night we stumbled on a question that resonated with all of us: what in your life is meaningful?

This is a particularly poignant conversation in our time. Millennials - talented, educated, driven young people - are struggling to balance work, ideals, morals, and "off time". We as a community have new standards for what constitutes work time, as we are virtually present to each other at all times, answering emails and networking from home. We have also learned that no job is secure. 

Now, doubtless, the ideal is to find a job that a) supports you and yours, b) gives you enough freedom to feel autonomous and family-centered, and c) is also meaningful to you.

But last night we discovered that many of us would rather have a) and b) and sacrifice c). For us, we found that our family life, our home life, or our side projects and hobbies were more important to us than a job that is deeply meaningful. And in real life we had chosen jobs that had better hours or benefits over jobs that had greater personal appeal but were high stress and long hours. We did so because the job, the career, was simply never worth sacrificing our home time, hobby projects, and autonomous pursuits.

Sleeping on it, I remember Dewey and the pragmatists. They would say, "Do whatever makes you more free." Whatever career path leads to a greater sense of freedom and potential is the right answer. I think that any job that consumes all the time breaks this law, even if it is a personally fulfilling and meaningful job, because with that level of time commitment and stress forbids any other activity or life commitment. On the other hand, entrepreneurs work non-stop on their jobs, which are their lives, but a successful entrepreneurial venture leads to freedom as the head of a company, with total autonomy, and an organization that does exactly what you want.

I commit that, until I can work for myself in a meaningful way (author, blogger, speaker perhaps), I will continue to sacrifice meaningful jobs for freedom. What is your perspective?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Prayer

In light of Friday's tragedy I was considering a prayer that was sentimental to help share in the grief. But instead I found this remark from Henri Nouwen, from Reaching Out. Let us remember that our personal spirituality is empty and incomplete until we consider ourselves as part of the larger community, because at the heart of any spiritual life lies Compassion - the ability to grieve with.

It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as "a contrite heart," have come to refer only to the personal experiences of guilt and willingness to do penance for it.... [I]f the catastrophical events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and the illness of millions of people and he unnamable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remains no more than a pious emotion.

Friday, December 14, 2012


  was a bad news day. To facilitate grieving and coping, even from a distance, I want to share two links that particularly spoke to me.

First, Krista Tippett's quote and reflection  provide the groundwork for grief - embrace of the sadness followed immediately by the embrace of the community, whose net provides a sense of stability and permanence when those things otherwise gone.

Then, the quick next step for those of us who experienced today's events at a distance, I directy you to James Martin's well-researched and outraged consideration of the causes and effects of today's tragedy at Sandy Hook. Read it, get mad, take action, hug your family.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Ya'll, I'm really not feeling it today. So much family in town, so much over indulgence, and so little time to write. I'm throwing a Hail Mary pass (pun) and posting a funny Hanukkah video. Please don't leave!


Monday, December 10, 2012

Hanukkah - a good time had by all

Fox News believes that Christians worry about a "war on Christmas," but the fact is that cultures around the world have always celebrated in the wintertime. That means that, regardless of your allegiance or spirituality, now is a great time to get together with people of divergent faiths than your own.

This holiday season, why not resolve to experience the mystery of God that crosses religious borders, and be inspired by the plurality and diversity of deeply faithful, spiritual people. If you join me in doing this, here is the information you need to celebrate Hanukkah.

Saturday night found the world's Jews enjoying community as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, began. Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that occurred in Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE. The Syrians occupied Jerusalem and began suppressing Jewish customs. During the conflict, the temple's menorah, or ritual lamp, was running out of oil.

Although it only had fuel enough for one night, the lamp burned brightly for eight nights until help could arrive.
Although this story has been a powerful symbol of Jewish identity and resilience over 22 centuries of oppression, Hanukkah was not a particularly important holiday until modern times. Jews do not abstain from work and children do not normally get out of school. It has always been a popular part of Jewish identity,
and the symbolic menorah is usually lit in a public place to share the miracle with the world.

A typical modern Hanukkah evening for an American family will include the lighting of a candle on the menorah, a unique 9-armed candelabra. Songs and psalms will be sung, simple gifts like toy dreidels or chocolate coins will be given to children, and oily foods like potato pancakes and donuts will be eaten. If you'd like to try a spin at dreidel, check out these online rules.

A good time is had by all.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Prayer

Sorry for the day off; nothing happened, really. Except for the release of a study that draws predictive parallels between the growth of brain cells, internet networks, and galaxies. As readers of the manifesto will know, I strongly feel that we network in all areas of our life and our existence, so it is gratifying and intensely interesting to see a scientific study formally investigate and recognize what religions have suspected for eons.
When the team compared the universe's history with growth of social networks and brain circuits, they found all the networks expanded in similar ways: They balanced links between similar nodes with ones that already had many connections. For instance, a cat lover surfing the Internet may visit mega-sites such as Google or Yahoo, but will also browse cat fancier websites or YouTube kitten videos. In the same way, neighboring brain cells like to connect, but neurons also link to such "Google brain cells" that are hooked up to loads of other brain cells.

Powerful, yes.  But not a beautiful quote. In the spirit of Youtube distractions, let me offer this rendition of my holiday favorite. Also, stay tuned for a piece in PolicyMic on Hannuka!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Meal, Seriously, Eat It

One of my favorite food writers just published a review of one of the ultimate, iconic, classic restaurants in New Orleans: Galatoire's. I think he summed up why and how shared meals are an essential human ritual, worth savoring and preserving.

The holidays remind me of the joy of dining in restaurants. When we dine out we overturn bad habits of TV dinners hastily eaten, or cafeteria leftovers consumed alone for the calories. Dining out makes encourages us to really enjoy each others' company, to connect over shared food and service, in a relatively predictable environment. Alcohol lubricates all this, too. I think that restaurants provide a deeply significant social service by providing the venue in which we connect.

Galatoire's has a number of problems. After over a century of continuous service, the menu and ambiance feel dusty and tired. Foodies (from other cities) will scoff at the high-fat, traditional dishes like Filet Bearnaise or Pommes Souffle, cooking styles that are more at home in the 1950s kitchen. They are  unapologetic, old-fashioned, and unwilling to accommodate vegetarians or take reservations. They can be a real pain, in contrast to some of the newer, brighter lights in our local culinary sky.

But that's is missing the point. If you dine at Galatoire's like it is another restaurant, with a waiter and three courses in about an hour, you will have a terrible time.

What's the most significant part of this picture?
Not the bird or linen: it's the community
Galatoire's challenges us to really, really, enjoy a meal.  A meal there should last four hours, should be a big party, should involve lots of alcohol and no menus. A meal there is free-form - adult, professional waiters guide guests through various courses of fresh seafood, oysters, vegetables, meats, based on daily availability. Diners, meanwhile, allow themselves to be guided, enjoy each others' company and build momentum. A meal at Galatoire's is a celebration because they encourage guests to lower their defenses, abandon anxiety, and place themselves in the hands of a truly capable institution.

Galatoire's is famous for their holiday meals, seats for which are auctioned off every year for charity. Midnight Christmas and New Years meals might as well be block-parties, with little clear distinction between tables and families.

As we enjoy meals in our homes and favorite restaurants, I hope that we can remember the lessons of Galatoire's - leave your routine behind, enjoy your friends, and do not stress about the food (it will come in glory).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent, We Get Together

Today I read a lovely reflection on the Advent season by James Martin, SJ. Martin, who is the editor of the popular, slightly progressive Catholic journal America and a regular media contributor, revives the notion of Desire as a positive human - even Christian - emotion.

Advent is the name given by Christian churches to the twenty-four days leading to Christmas, ie, the whole of December. During this time special activities are planned, decorations are dusted off, and annual traditions are revived, all in the spirit of putting people in the Christmas spirit. Coincidentally, Advent starts just about the same time that radio stations play holiday tunes nonstop.

What's the point of Advent?
The point is to build the anticipation that makes Christmas such a special, harrowing, or intimidating part of the year. In Christian circles this comes in the form of language of desire, hunger, for the birth of Jesus. James Martin writes that, contrary to the popular culture of fasting, discipline, or asceticism, Christianity has a rich, deeply ingrained tradition of desire - physical and spiritual - as a holy emotion.

Remember, to share our desire we must first drop the wall of self-sufficiency and confidence that, for me at least, gets in the way of real relationships.

Last week I wrote about Brene Brown's vulnerability revival. Remember that desire is a type of vulnerability, and expressing our hunger or longing with our community is a way to help us remember how much they support us - and we support them.

For Christians this might take the form of finding ways in which Jesus plays an instrumental role in our lives, and expressing our need for that influence. That's a pretty positive, growthful, and inclusive Advent practice.

Holiday meals are really important
spiritually and anthropologically
But for the rest of us this time of year can be growthful, too. People around the world have celebrated harvest and winter festivals throughout history. As it becomes cold and dreary outside, we want to share our storehouses with each other, and each others' warm company. Snuggling is still better than a space heater, and if nature tells you to carbo-load anyway, why not bake a cake and invite friends over.

The holidays really are for all of us. This year, during Advent, we can desire each other without fear or shame, and we can give support to each other openly. Advent might even kick-start New Years resolutions to be more open, make more friends, and feel less isolated, stressed, or anxious.

Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sunday Prayer

I can't wait to sink my teeth into Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection. I appreciate how she contradicts the notion that love is an object that is exchanged, or which has an economy.
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.