Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eulogy for Pearl Soup

In 2001, the website PearlSoup.com was launched as an unjuried forum for any user to post true, personal stories that taught them something or inspired some new insight. It was a place for sharing something deeper than what is revealed by routine chit-chat, with the aim of building a better world one story at a time, as the website's motto stated.

The website was designed rather well. It was visually appealing and easy to use, and for a while the two site owners, Jeff and Alex, were on hand to fix bugs and add new features, like an "author of the month" and a discussion area for conversation or debate on any topics members chose.

It was a good idea, sort of an interactive version of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, promoting casual literacy in an era when hardly anyone writes personal letters anymore beyond the Christmas thank-you note. Soon, however, issues arose that the owners perhaps had not anticipated. It began with comments left on people's stories.

Any registered user could leave a comment on a story, and there was some confusion and argument over the purpose of these comments. Some commenters left writing feedback, something that would be inoffensive and even welcomed by an ambitious writer learning the craft, but some felt hurt and defensive. Other comments intruded on a writer's personal life, assuming an attitude of seniority that could be overbearing. Since you had no way of editing these comments, like you do on a blog, you might see your work become a forum for other members to snipe at you or at each other, perhaps on subjects unrelated to what you wrote.

New friendships were established, even romantic relationships, through PearlSoup. As with all internet socializing, however, there were also abuses. One member, in particular, sent me two emails a few years ago that were deranged and threatening, at which point I guarded all details of my private life and location, and became mostly a reader. This member knew the internet well and used it to research other members of the site and play "gotcha" games with them, exposing unwelcome personal details about them and making up incriminating or embarrassing "facts."

There was also a rating system, whereby you had the option of rating pearls one through five stars. It amazed me what a serious issue this became. It became a commonplace on PearlSoup for people to research ratings and accuse other individuals of "downrating" their pearls. This and other distractions soon established a schoolyardish tone at PearlSoup. Far from being a haven for conversation, it became turf. Opposing alliances would gather around one or another personality, accusing the other group of being cliquish, and that sort of thing.

Its unjuried nature, and the quiet disappearance of the site's owners, made PearlSoup a wall on which layers and layers of graffitti were scribbled. Contributors started posting fiction. There were occasional racist or homophobic posts. The discussion area got to be like a middle school playground.

Less than seven years after launch, the website went away this fall. I cherish the few friendly people with whom I have stayed in touch, several of whom sent gifts when my baby was born and all of whom have expressed the requisite adoration of His Royal Cuteness. I remember fondly the earliest days of PearlSoup, when there were fewer members, a delightful mix of people from around the world who found each other's differences interesting rather than annoying. It was inevitable, I suppose, that when membership got into the hundreds and then the thousands, with no consistent enforcement of any ground rules, things would degrade.

At its best, PearlSoup was like the kind of party where nice, smart people start exchanging personal anecdotes sharing their notions and memories in an atmosphere of trust and affection. With face to face contact in a real place, perhaps in the presence of food and drink, you may bring together people who are quite different in their outlook, yet everyone feels valued while they learn more about other people.

Parties like that tend to be small, not in the thousands of people. And if someone has a bit too much to drink or gets a little aggressive for whatever reason, there are ways to contain that problem and move things along. More importantly, the party ends at some point so people can go home and digest the experience.

Inevitably, PearlSoup got out of hand, the party hosts left the building, and the place got trashed. At its worst, it could feel like the closing act of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with people's tenderest places being eagerly sought and scratched at. Finally, the lights went out. Party over.

Despite what happened there, I saw users demonstrate that people can discuss religion, politics, and anything else, quite amiably provided their attitude was amiable. It's a good time to bring that lesson back from the internet into our real neighborhood.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Lighting The Lamp

When Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge taunts the apparition:

...a little thing affects [my senses]. A slight disorder of the stomach deranges them. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!

That all could be true, and yet he keeps talking, and is profoundly changed by sunrise. Does it have to mean that ghosts walk the earth literally? Is a belief in ghosts necessary to touch the meaning of this story? Certainly not. Believe in them, or don't believe in them; the point of the whole thing lies elsewhere.

Writing for Parabola magazine in 2003, David Fideler made a succinct presentation of this point:

One of the most persistent human problems is the tendency toward literalism, and the perceptual habit of looking only at the outermost surface of things. This can't help buit lead to trouble because the world is not shallow but deep and complex; it requires multiple ways of knowing to unveil its inner dimensions, and to perceive the relationships that bind the world together as a meaningful whole.

Nowhere is literalism more of a problem than in the sphere of religion, where a certain subset of believers assume that sacred scriptures are just a collection of "facts" -- reported like a newspaper story from on high -- and that scripture should be understood, and acted upon, in the most literal and concrete way possible. In this approach, however, the more subtle shadings of meaning evaporate, for meaning is never a question of simple facts, teachings, or injunctions, but of relationships that bind things together at deeper and more intimate levels.

Il che yu shim jo, and at the risk of tautology, our experience of the universe is our experience of the universe, nothing more. It comes through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Since our encounter with the Absolute takes place no other place than here, and no other moment than now, the material and the "profane" is, in fact, how we understand and act upon the esoteric meaning and the "sacred."

Whatever we believe, let us use our concepts well for the benefit and happiness of all people.

In 1757, after narrowly escaping a brush with death at sea, Benjamin Franklin responded thus:

Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sailing the Rough Galleon

This morning after sitting I was reading about Thomas Paine's youth, at the time he left Thetford for London in 1756.

Imagine this young man. The average life expectancy then was 37 years. That's how old I am now. At age eighteen, an intelligent and energetic young man could look across the horizon knowing his life might be halfway over. Middle-aged at 19. In the United States today, the average is now 77.8 years -- and yes, I looked that up and divided it in two.

Paine took off for London and initially signed up to be a privateer, essentially a legalized pirate. He was about to board ship when his Quaker father showed up at the dock and talked him out of it. Instead, young Paine got a job making corsets in slavish conditions somewhere in Covent Garden. The typical workday ran from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, pay was low, and unions (or "combinations") were illegal.

In just a couple of months, he boarded a pirate ship after all and spent six months squinting across the ocean for a sign of hostile ships to capture and loot. He was highly literate, and may have passed the time reciting poems or maybe composing bawdy verses to amuse his shipmates. We don't know what work he was assigned to do. Maybe making and repairing sails? Most of the guys on the ship were low-skilled, warm bodies needed for fighting. Indeed, Paine's ship narrowly avoided an exchange of cannon fire with another vessel. Many people died when ships fired on each other not because of the cannon balls themselves, but because of splinters - huge ones that could impale a man.

Young people do sometimes make choices and find themselves impaled upon them. You hazard that risk and board the galleon, it sets sail and your commitment is at that moment irrevocable. You're on board and things will happen to you. At that point, the game is whether you can make it back where you started having obtained something new and useful.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Perverted Time

Il che yu shim jo, we chant in Korean. Our world is created by our minds. In practical terms, our experience of this world is processed by our notions and definitions. We don't understand this and regard ourselves as possessing a better understanding of matters than our neighbors.

Which is how the Mormon Church committed so much money, not to education or the eradication of starvation in California, but to making sure Bruce and Joe can't get married. Focus on the Family spent so much money supporting the same proposition, that it has just announced job cuts. This matter is not just about marriage. It is a bid for establishing religious dogma and social prejudice into the law of the land, binding on everyone. There is not much sympathy here for the notion that law should be a neutral zone with respect to religious teachings, for the dignity and equality of diverse citizens.

This summer, I heard a local pastor say, "You know it's a perverted time when we are debating the definition of marriage." His meaning was, it's a perverted time because Massachusetts and Connecticut now permit couples of the same sex to marry one another, and a number of people think that's okay.

On election day, Proposition 8 narrowly passed in California, amending that state's constitution to define marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman. I did not expect it to pass, and was deeply disappointed by the outcome. I agree with pastor's statement that there is something perverted about the debate, although I'm not sitting in the same pew.

The newly-elected President of the United States is the child of a union that was until fairly recently illegal. Up to 1967, several of our United States banned marriage between couples of different races (calling it "miscegenation"). It was in '67 that the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, that "marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man'... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications...so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."

Damn these activist courts! Damn them for redefining marriage!

But wait - we have always defined marriage and re-defined it as we please. Marriage is a human institution, and it has often been redefined. We have, for that matter, re-defined a lot of concepts as we have traditionally come around to expanding equality and dignity to minority groups. For me, an interesting aspect of this drama is that people are regarding human concepts as immutable laws of the universe. Just as it was once conventional opinion that black people were an inferior race who were best off working on our farms with no liberty or legal recourse, we have also held that a homosexual person is necessarily ill, deranged, wrong. Homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder even after it was formally dropped from the diagnostic scale. There are churches purporting to "cure" homosexuality.

What people fail to understand is that this is all made up. We make marriage, we make sin, we make rights, it's all stuff that humans have dreamed up and treat as conventional reality. For that matter, the God that really exists is not likely to resemble the God that dwells in the human imagination. I sincerely respect human religion, but all religions are human. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

When Bill Richardson was a candidate for President, he was asked at a political forum whether he regarded homosexuality was a choice or not. He botched it and chose a side. A better answer would have been, "I don't know. It doesn't matter. Gay people are citizens and in America, they are entitled to dignity, respect, and legal rights."

Dignity, respect, and equality are all notions as well. In light of qualities such as compassion and humility, we can choose the notions that guide us in light of how we wish to treat other human beings. If we desire to rule over human beings and subjugate them, we find reasons for doing so. If we desire something else, we can do it. I participated in a human-made ceremony in which I swore human-made vows about something called "the Bodhisattva way," which is a human concept about how we would like to treat other human beings and other life forms on our planet. I take these concepts seriously, but not literally. Il che yu shim jo.

The perverted thing about this debate with respect to marriage is that we defend prejudice and unnecessary human suffering, pretending that the concepts keeping it in place don't come from us. The fact is, Californians wrote Proposition 8 and defended it. Californians then voted to deny homosexual people the right to form full legal unions recognized by the State and human society as "marriage." And they use vapid dogma to pretend it wasn't their choice to make. How sad, when we blame our petty bigotry on God or discredited science.

My friends Brian and Stephen have been together longer than most heterosexual, "normal" marriages. Their relationship has been tested, and they have prevailed. They own property and have contributed much to their community, just as respected middle-class "married" people do. They could go to Massachusetts and get married, but they have been together this long, DOING what we talk about when we discuss marriage, and for the moment are content to wait until their home state comes to its senses and grants them the dignity and respect that is their due.

A perverted time, indeed, but it has always been this way with humans, and we live for those days when a new crack appears in the door to our tomb, and a ray of sunshine (credit God for that!) comes in and dispells another bit of ignorance for a while.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Another Monday Already In Progress

Instead of blogging, I've been working on two scripts, one of which is now on its way to the National Audio Theatre Festival. The other one, also an audio play, is crawling along. It's the sort of thing that might in the end be more fun for me than for anyone else. The story involves a brash reporter, a hurricane, Al Capone, and a gigantic whale.

All is well up at the Silver City Zen Center. Sarah brought the baby up there this weekend to meet some of the folks up there, on a beautiful, chilly autumn day.

Gabriel (who is six months old, can you believe that?) has been enjoying his first solid foods, although he went nine days without a poop and worried his parents for a while. And when the poop finally came yesterday, lo, it was astonishing. Opening his diaper, I was reminded of footage of mudslides in southern California, and imagined I could see houses in there. Gabriel was well pleased with his efforts.

And another Monday is already in progress, so it is time to be presentable and impart the mysteries of theatre. Adieu for now...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drat! Blog Tag!

Are these things fun, or are they annoying? I don't know, which is why I'm shy to play these "tag you're it" blog games. Two readers have 'tagged' me today, and I wouldn't mind a break from this script I'm finishing (another submission for the National Audio Theatre Festival's annual competition), so here goes.

My assignment is to tell you 7 "random and/or weird facts" about myself. Then I am to tag 7 random people at the bottom and let them know they've been tagged.

Really? 7 random people? Rockin'!



Years ago, he played a woman in realistic drag in a stage play, and was luridly curious as to whether he was attractive as a woman - but never dared ask any of his friends.

He has a weakness for sudoku and online chess.

Flirted with Gillian Anderson in Chicago in 1989, when they were both at DePaul University's theatre school, while he was blacked-out drunk. Friends at the party said he was actually more charming drunk, and he found this information very alarming. Besides which, he doesn't even remember the encounter with Ms. Anderson. (Unsurprisingly, he only lasted one semester at DePaul.)

He rarely gets around to cleaning his car and feels quite embarrassed about it. The other day, wife and mother-in-law took a drive in it, and he just wanted to crawl into a crack in the bathroom tile.

For some reason sub-conscious, being around mountains makes him want to chant his old Korean Zen chants. On foot, in the car, whatever. Mountains = chanting time. A long time ago, camping with a Buddhist friend in West Virginia, this caused a little bit of tension. One companion wanted to honor the mountain with silence, and the other wanted to sing the Dae Dharani.

Was nearly struck by lightning several times as a child - so often that for a while he was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, as he came to think nature was seriously coming to kill him, as family and friends edged away from him when the weather turned bad. His flesh still creeps a bit when the lightning is close, but he feels much better about it now.

Was strangely obsessed with the Marx Brothers' biographies as a teenager, and even wrote and staged a full-length tribute to Groucho Marx when he was 18 years old. People say it was an entertaining show, if a little bit odd.

All right, that was my seven. Wasn't that FASCINATING!?

Now, following the directions quite explicitly, I tag these 7 random people:

* Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com (one of the very best legal/political bloggers right now).

* Kip Hawley at the Transportation Security Administration

* Andrew Schark, who never tells his friends how he's doing.

* Ji Hyang Sunim, Buddhist nun and trapeze student.

* Mr. Steven J. Smith, exposer of the "Tehachapi Covert Underground Complex."

* This dude who seriously thinks JFK was assassinated by the vatican.

* Last but certainly not least, The Amazing Randi.

Go read more about these interesting and randomly-assorted people. Maybe they will respond to my tag, maybe they won't...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Leaders of our Nation Meet

"No, sir, Ms. Winfrey is not named after the vegetable. The vegetable is called okra, sir."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

...And THIS Is Shinola

My mother forwarded me a lovely, affectionate column about post-election manners written by Gail Collins. Indeed, it is a time for compassionate speech among neighbors, for intelligent conversation and affection.

The national elections are over, and there is exulting and gloating, griping and sulking. People who were calling the President-elect a socialist and a terrorist as recently as November 3 are now praising him, to get themselves on the right side of history if nothing else. There are some who accept political defeat with grace, and others with hypocrisy. Some genuinely wish success for the next administration, as indeed we all should; others are anticipating the inevitable reality check when actual government begins.

My comfort in the final weeks of this campaign has been John Keane's 1995 biography of Thomas Paine. There are many reasons I admire Thomas Paine and have wished for more of his spirit in 2008. Consider this, from Keane's introduction:

[Paine] counted himself among the modern believers in the originally Greek idea that what makes us clever, language-using animals is our ability to rise above the contingencies of time and place and know the nature of things. Paine nevertheless pointed to modern humans' bad habit of forgetting those same circumstances. We moderns continually attribute universal importance to our own particular ways of life and we therefore have an alarming tendency to boss ourselves and others, using sticks and stones and bigoted words, into accepting our preferred version of the world. Paine despised bossing, and he had a fine ear for language masquerading as Truth. "Bastilles of the word" was Paine's phrase for needlessly haughty language, and he consequently wrote as it it were the duty of the citizen, and certainly the political thinker and writer, to be on the lookout for hubris. He prodded and poked at it wherever it appeared, his overall aim being to encourage individuals to become citizens capable of thinking, speaking, and acting clearly and confidently in public.

[From Thomas Paine, A Political Life, 1995]

The citizens of the United States stepped up this year, turning out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Let us keep the bar there, please, and even raise it even higher. We might expand our notions of national service to include helping our elections process (more volunteers working the polls or being non-partisan poll-watchers) on election day, and one more important thing for all the other days: detecting and calling out horseshit. Seriously. Political horseshit is every bit as dangerous as terrorism if not more so, and you don't need to be military age or in good physical shape to do the job. It was cheering to see that this year, for a change, the politics of smear, fear, and outright lies, did little to help any candidate. It sank Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Whenever Obama went personally negative, even his popularity sank. It's a hopeful sign.

Maybe we're starting to tell the difference between smear and shinola. If Thomas Paine is watching from heaven - well, to begin with, he must be very surprised! - but I hope he is also smiling.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Decision

As some of you know, to the fury of my friends and to some readers of this blog, I sometimes vote for minor-party candidates for President. To my mind, Democrats and Republicans are not better suited for office simply because their parties are more familiar and better-funded. We have more choices and sometimes we have better choices. So my presidential choice is not limited to two candidates.

We also had Cynthia McKinney of my old Green Party, Bob Barr for the Libertarians (both of whom, by the way, had long careers in the United States Congress previously, as members of the two "major" parties); we had Chuck Baldwin thumping his Constitution, Brian Moore explaining real socialism, and for a while we had Ron Paul making the best case possible for a libertarian administration in the White House following George W. Bush. And of course, outside the restaurant pressing his face against the window getting it all foggy, is independent candidate Ralph Nader. Don't stare at him.

I'll vote for any candidate who is offering the right message and the right platform for the time, even if that candidate isn't likely to win. I'd rather be right than vote for the winner.

Everything has already been said about the pet issues such as war, taxes, and healthcare. Too much, in fact, and at times we have given the most absurd lies equal status to the truth. In such an atmosphere, it is impossible to say anything sensible, and anyway it has all been said, written, blogged, robo-called, and spoofed on television.

Pulling backwards, then, to two "super issues," if you will. For a long time, this election was dominated by one super-issue for me: a return to Constitutional order after an administration that ran amok, rounding up human beings and keeping them imprisoned for years without any charges or basis. The wars, the torture, the denial of any Constitutional restraint on its power created a tyranny that defended itself with a craven nationalism - even when confronted with its obvious incompetence. This, coinciding with the crisis in confidence over our electoral process, threatened the very legitimacy of my country's government.

No candidate has answered my concerns on the issue of Constitutional order and the divisive, partisan strafing that has become the language of political discourse in the USA. Senator Obama has, however, offered something just as important: a strong message of American unity in the light of our differences.

If the conduct of a political campaign is any measure of how the candidate would govern, then Senator Obama looks fit for the job after all. The messianic nonsense around him will dissipate when reality takes office and the man must govern. His campaign suggests strongly to me that he will be thoughtful, sensible, principled, and will act decisively when the need arises. A politician could be more honest, more positive, and more right, than Barack Obama has been - but not by much.

And what is clear to me tonight, hours before I go vote, is that he is the messenger of unity that most Americans believe, whereas the Republican party is selling division, lying their souls into hell, and peddling discredited economic ideas. The minor parties aren't singing the song of unity and citizenship, either. Nader is - just Nadering. Somehow this razor-sharp kid from the Chicago Democrat machine is the winning spokesman for the idea that we are a union.

"Our opponent says that there is a real America, but ...there aren't a real America and an unreal America. Soldiers in the trenches don't ask each other if they are red or blue. You can support the war and be a patriot, and not support the war and still be a patriot. We are tired of these old divisions and ways of separating Americans from each other. We are all Americans and what we share is greater than what divides us."
Sigh. All right then. Fine. I don't think the arid deserts will bloom colorful wildflowers singing hymns of justice and prosperity, but Obama might just convince enough of us that we are one America. I have my doubts about him, but they aren't grave doubts. I'm not afraid of him, like the people who think he's a muslim Communist in cahoots with Al Qaeda. He is not the messiah, but he is not Satan, either. And he can be a good President. He doesn't believe insane things. He can lead. If anyone can put us on a better course at this moment, he can recruit the right cabinet and woo Congress, see it through and explain it to the people. And damn it, he has the right message, and people are buying it.
So I vote for Obama after all, with a rueful smirk but a dimming optimistic glint in my eye.