Know Less, Know More

In Arts and Education, mastery, Polemics, politicians, Politics on March 30, 2015 at 4:15 pm

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Mr. Dickens eat your heart out.

We’re a nation of experts, we’re a nation of idiots, we know what we know, except to not know, or know less. Comparison loves antitheses, despises uncertainty.

But we need uncertainty.

Counterintuitive? Maybe, but uncertainty doesn’t always mean indecision.

We’ve come to expect sharky debate. Wait-and-see gets exploited, so it’s avoided, and not having answers looks dumb, especially on national T.V., but for the person practicing a principled uncertainty, these are learning moments. Data-gathering missions. Necessary episodes in order to form a more complete picture—a picture unknowable until a singular moment in time.

It’s known as the master’s journey.

Mastery resists foolishness. Most of us want results, want them now, but mastery pushes back. Its trajectory isn’t always straight, and it chucks sandbars at you when all you want to do is stretch out and swim. Mastery won’t play by your rules, dang it, but that’s okay, you can play by his, and that’s healthier.

Practice. When we practice, we get better, (as my son’s Taekwondo instructor is fond of saying) but practice also teaches us what to value, product, or process. Too bad so sad, Mastery happens to believe in process, believes in it so much, he likes to knock us on our butts when we don’t hup two.

Socially, we’re expected to practice (there’s that word again) clearly defined political ideologies, and for the most part, we conform. We consume media reinforcing our world views, we practice anger at those who believe different things, live different lifestyles, vote for different candidates, we’re comfortable (usually) knowing what we know, feeling what we feel, and believing the world would be better off if everyone else could just get with the program.

In short, we’re all too dang sure.

Knowing what we don’t know. We’ve all heard that phrase, or some version of it, and maybe you’re someone who’s a natch with humility. I’m not. I’m a natural blow hard. (Can you tell?) Worse, I must have some kind of internal mechanism, a monthly quota for getting myself stuck out on a limb (at least once or forty-three times, depends) and then I feel like an idiot. There, I said it. Problem is: I’m a closet theistically-inclined agnostic, a liberal-minded conservative, a superstitious rationalist. In short, I’m a hot mess of contradictions.

But I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I think it’s our internal contradictions shaping the world into right and left, believers and infidels, good and evil, because that’s easier to process, and we enjoy practicing easy, because easy. But what happens when we practice?

We get better.

Deep down, we know the world doesn’t compartmentalize so easily. Life is a spectrum of experiences. Sometimes we’re reminded of this, get slapped down, maybe a well-intentioned friend challenging our ideas, maybe we resent looking wrong. (No, not being wrong—are you crazy?) Anyway, we’re not prepared for it. We forgot to practice for this moment. We don’t know what to do. Maybe we get angry—but hey—no sweat: We practiced that, remember?

Uncertainty really does have its virtues. It closes fewer doors, for one thing. Recall earlier I made a distinction between uncertainty and indecision. In music, for instance, that might translate into retaining options; a jazz improviser will have practiced multiple riffs, spontaneously choosing A, B, C, or D, as context informs which way to go. A concert cellist (something I know more about) practices similarly. A passage might go faster or slower when played with others, with one fingering or bowing working better in this context or that, depending. In practicing flexibility, we get better.

Mastery is about (among other things) principled uncertainty. That’s not naval gazing, it’s simply admitting we don’t know everything. And what’s wrong with that? We can’t know the future. We can’t be right one hundred percent of the time. Uncertainty is a thing to include in practice. It helps us to retain options and a facile mind. It promotes a world with fewer experts, and who wouldn’t want that?

Our Republican Congress

In Politics on March 10, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Imagine a Tom Cotton letter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Imagine a Tom Cotton letter going to Gorbachev.

This really honks me.

Is it treason? Maybe if words meant things. Hyperbole notwithstanding, treason is the crime of betraying one’s country. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) admits undermining the President’s negotiations are a “feature, not a bug.” Looks clear to me.

I’ll grant you, betraying the President isn’t necessarily the same thing as betraying the country. But, like it or not, we elected Obama, his administration is charged with crafting our nation’s foreign policy, serving on the United Nations, negotiating (or not) with Iran.

Tom Cotton isn’t.

In fact, there is a Foreign Relations Committee, led by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Sen. Corker is trying to cut a deal too, a bi-partisan bill ensuring Congress has the chance to approve the President’s deal (really the United Nations’ deal) with Iran before it is approved. If Sen. Cotton was serious, he’d work with his own government (and/or his own party) before moving on to Tehran’s.

Much has been written about Obama’s so-called “Imperial Presidency,” but perhaps little as revealing to the GOP mentality as this, Sen. Cotton’s short-sighted undermining of the executive branch as a whole:

…the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics. For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms. As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatolla Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

Most senators stay on for decades. Sadly, this is just one of the incontrovertible failures we Americans have chosen to live with, the Kardashianization of our campaign financing; but the real power isn’t the scarecrow they hold up to call “dictator,” the real power is the loony minority fringe that keeps taking the country hostage, because drama.

On the world stage, this weakens, no—betrays—our country’s best interest. By Sen. Cotton’s logic, any foreign nation negotiating with a sitting president is doing so at their own peril, nothing from the United States of America can be trusted. Or, short of that, it can be trusted only as far as you can trust the craziest person in Congress.

Kid Magic

In parenting on November 23, 2013 at 4:53 pm

The ancients believed words had magic. They were right.

Take the words “mommy” and “daddy.” Two more magical words have never been spoken. Admittedly, there’s not much that’s magical about mini vans and pick up lanes, screaming babies and poopie diapers. For that matter, there may be nothing magical in the parents’ daily grind; but perhaps it’s because we weren’t meant to grind in the first place. Perhaps our daily lives were meant to be lived nearer to the magic.

My wife and I are the proud parents of a young superhero-in-training who sometimes answers to Superman, and other times answers to Batman. Today, it’s Batman.

Batman is four, but don’t let his age fool you. He has every conceivable advantage over the grownups.

For one thing, he’s new here on earth; his heart and mind are still pure. His body, freakishly efficient. For another, he absorbs data faster than the Borg Collective. The world is teeming with exciting lessons he can’t unravel fast enough. Brushing his teeth, using the microwave, putting away toys and generally building self-reliance. He has to learn, and so he learns.

Read that again: He has to learn, and so he learns. Our little Batman is compelled. He wants to do these things, naturally.

Fact is, Batman takes us to school every day. His sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity are contagious. As we pay closer attention, dial into his channel so to speak, we’re learning to be better parents and adults. And it isn’t just brushing and butt-wiping. It’s space and planets. Continents and countries. State capitals and football scores. (As I write this, Batman informs me that cows have one stomach with four parts.) In short, it’s all we can do to get the heck out of the way. At best, we manage a balancing act. When we don’t, we fall. We dress him because he’s taking too long. We put his boots away because it’s easier than calling him back to do it right. Sometimes we can’t figure out how to frame answers to his questions in a way that a four year old superhero can understand. I struggle not to interfere when he’s learning—something apparently even an errant “Good job” can derail. But, mama and papa keep at it.

We talk to him. We watch his body language for cues. We see the way he hops when he learns something particularly exciting. We hear the squeak in his voice when he chokes up with excitement. There are also the sad cues, like when he withdraws silently to the study to sit facing the wall with slumped shoulders. It’s a self-imposed thing he does when he feels defeated. Maybe when mama and papa have put him off for too long. “Just one more minute, buddy,” four hours after the first time we said it.

But, the parenting gig is magical. We don’t always get it right. Sometimes it drives us absolutely nuts, but I think the magic is always there, buried in our brains, to save us from those nuts times. The times when things tilt; dishes go unwashed, cupboards go bare. Sometimes we can access the magic and save the day. Sometimes we lose our way completely. But we’re grownups. We’re the lost ones. It’s not like we’re kids, whose magical compass shines brightly from their DNA. Our handicap is that we have to find a route back to the magic.

For me, it’s hearing the word, “daddy.” It’s kind of my Mjolnir moment, Thor’s magical hammer, which only the Thunder God can wield. Its inscription: If He Be Worthy.

If He Be Worthy.

Mommy. Daddy. Magical words imparting the power to do dishes, scrub tubs and fold laundry. Magical words, just like the ancients claimed. We only need open our ears and hearts and all things are again possible. We are reminded of the sanity that comes from a life in balance—reminded because, when we follow our little Batmen, Wonder Women, princesses or police men and women, it’s them leading us to more balanced lives. It’s them returning our sense of wonder and peace.

Batman is my Superman

Batman is my Superman


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