Liquid Wednesday

these aren't photographs but I think they are beautiful. Elegant, no?

Y.Z. Kami

I lay in bed this morning for a long time. Sometimes I lay in bed and wonder what is coming of me or what direction I am going. I think about love and what i've done to people, I think about how my body feels without touching it, I think about how long i can stare at the same spot on my wrist. Dead period. I usually feel good when I make myself get up, when I make a cup of coffee for myself, when I eat, when I put my clothes on I feel short sometimes, and other times I feel tall. Sometimes my stomach is big and sometimes it is not. My legs are surprisingly slender even though I ride my bike to work everyday. Today it is a windy day, as I can see looking out my living room window, the leaves are pouring off the trees. Red and yellow droplets are flowing along the sidewall lines of my house, snaking down the windows, pooling in the street, collecting in the storm drains, drowning the rats in the sewer, collecting in my bicycle fenders... Beautiful. My trip to work today will be full of resistance, it will be me thinking about the fluidity of the atmosphere, of my volume displacing the volume of the air infront of me, around me. It will be me thinking through myself as a knife, cutting through in linear fashion. Cut Cut Cut. right? Stay out of my way!

I think i'm going to go see Jonathan Safran Foer tonight.


Bicycle Diaries,: Boston

One of my favorite gifts that I received for my birthday this year was a book about cycling by the musician and artist David Byrne.

Bicycle Diaries chronicles Mr. Byrne's travels in different cities around the world and exploring their unique characteristics as be sees them. His perspective is that of a casual cyclist, perched slightly higher than the average person. From this perspective, he explains, not only is vehicular and pedestrian traffic more easily observed, but so are cultural nuances, urban characteristics unique to each city he visits. Perched on a bicycle, the view licensed to him allows a very free flowing commentary beginning with street layout and urban planning structure and continuing on to local creativity, history, music, art, behavior, customs, societal problems and idiosyncrasies. The theme is quite inspiring. Sitting on a vehicle that is self-powered leads one to harness his or her own self-powered mind and ideas.

If you are unfamiliar with the experience, long-ish distance cycling is quite an affecting experience. Mr. Byrne has experienced a feeling that is experienced by many choosing a bicycle as their usual mode of transportation. Riding around Boston, there are many people on bicycles that undoubtedly are each experiencing their own mini-conclusions, -questions and -epiphanies. In the past 3 months living in Boston and Cambridge, I have discovered a little bit of interesting unique touches to this area. I live in east Cambridge, across the street from a large park and a 5 minute bike ride to M.I.T..

Many many things are accessible by bicycle from here and so this makes life very easy. Cambridge, and to some extent Boston, has many bicycle lanes on their streets. While not perfect, they are a great improvement to what I am used to. In a way, I believe that I am going to be quite spoiled, they are so abundant. Riding down southeast through M.I.T. is how I usually get to the Harvard Bridge to ride over the Charles River into Boston. I love that ride over the bridge so much. At night it is particularly dramatic. If Andrew (my roommate) and I ride together over the bridge, one of us usually manages to exclaim "I can't believe we live here!". Usually the yelling is drowned out by the cars and busses buzzing by amid a dazzle of city lights in the near distance to the left and right. Most days of the week I would expect to not cross over into Boston. Usually I am spending most of my time either at home or at work. The bike ride to work contrasts significantly from the ride into Boston. I work in Belmont, a township that is west of Cambridge. In recent weeks the trek (ha, I ride a Trek bicycle) has been decorated by fall foliage with leaves littering the sides two-lane roads through small neighborhoods. I really enjoy the fact that I pass two lakes, one of which is belongs to the local high school and is ringed by a park. Belmont is in a county that pays the most taxes in the state. My workplace, Mclean Hospital, is situated on a large hill in the middle of the town and as seen from a distance as I slowly approach, is covered in brilliant trees.

I think the end of this weekend is one of the most appropriate times to write about cycling in Boston. The Daylight savings time change that has occurred over the past night has resulted in a much earlier sunset and when combined with the extraordinarily good weather that we experienced in the past 2 days, I am reminded that bicycling season is over. Yesterday was Halloween Saturday and I managed to use all 3 of my bicycles extensively during the course of the day. Beginning in the morning after baking chocolate-chip scones in our oven, I took my commuter cycle to Jamaica Plain southwest of Boston to visit the Bikes Not Bombs co-operative. This organization has been operating for 23 years and after receiving donations from the community of unwanted cycles, packages them to be shipped to Africa or other countries that have their own exploding used bicycle market like Guatemala and Ghana. I enjoy volunteering there and there exists of course an entire network of people around this shop. It also reminds me my bike co-op I helped start in Ann Arbor, MI. The types of bikes that are commonly encountered and also the programs they do are all established and mature versions of ideas that we had back in Michigan. And they have a ton more space and even multiple buildings that are used for their operations.

Andrew was running errands while I was gone and we agreed to meet up in the early afternoon to go on a long-delayed roommate bike ride. So we put on our cycling shorts and mounted our road bikes to ride to Mclean so I could show him my hospital and then we took a turn south through Watertown and Newton to pick up some craigslist purchases: Backpack, wooden cutting board, iron, glass measuring container, french press, espresso maker, two espresso cups and saucers. Everything but the backpack was 20 dollars. Many of our purchases made for the apartment in the last 2 months have been from Craigslist. We are voracious consumers through that website. The beautiful thing about Boston is that by bike, nearly everything is accessible. And it is also likely when you mount your bicycle that you will take less time reaching your destination than a person stepping out his or her door and walking to a bus-stop. This is the best reality there is when you are using your body to reach a destination. My trip to work takes 30 minutes by bike and 50 minutes by public transit! So not only are Andrew and I reaching our places faster, we obtain our purchases of nearly all of our goods from within Boston, using a system of bicycle lanes and our own legs. Unfortunately this isn't true with food (yet…). Traveling home we rode through more small towns that run into each other (Brighton and Allston) on our way into Boston, stopping to check the dumpsters of some bike shops for treasure and also for some coffee.

The beautiful evening continued as I came home to put on my bright red union suit and took my fixed-gear back into Boston. Being Halloween, there was organized a spectacular parade of costumed cyclists to travel through the squares of Boston and Cambridge. I missed the beginning, which was starting back down in Jamaica Plain, so I crossed the River and sat down in Kenmore Square near Boston University, waiting. I observed several bus-loads of costumed ghouls and sexy-maids filing out of and filling up buses, costumed young people moving up and down the street. And then! A bright announcement of that which I had been waiting fore: A cycle with a large stick pushing out of the back of it, brightly lit and driven by a cow. The parade snaked through Kenmore square to the chagrin of taxi drivers and to the delight of pedestrians and I joined in, a perfect rendezvous. Bicycles carrying speakers and stereos joined in playing Ramones songs and disco music, people were yelling and whistling, moving slowly enough so that the parade would not thin out and allow cars to weave dangerously in between the riders. Even after the front of the parade moved out of Kenmore square, the tail of the snake had not even entered! It was quite a site and I was proud to be part of it. With so many people out on the town, we had a permanent croud cheering us on. Quite dramatic and quite fun.

The parade could be interpreted as a canary for bicycle transportation culture vitality. With such a diverse turn out last night it made me feel really good about being a regular cyclist on these streets. May there be more reports about Boston and Cambridge bicycling from this blog. Maybe this kind of direction is what this website needs in order to keep going. Change might be in good order and healthy for a blog that has lasted this long.






“Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.”

The CERN Large Hadron Collider creeps me out. Really interesting article about its fate in the NYTimes this morning. Truly fascinating.

I met a new friend here in Boston named Kawan and this is his uncle!



This is an excellent time to celebrate the pleasures of emptiness . . . to extol the virtues of the blank slate . . . to be open to endless possibilities but committed to none . . . to bask in the freedom of not having to be anything, anyone, or anywhere. Are you smart enough to need no motto to live by? Are you resourceful enough to rely on nothing but the raw truth of the present moment? If so, you will thrive in the coming days.


Inside to Outside

Have you ever gone to a museum and seen an exhibit or a work of art and felt like you were in love with the world? That is a silly question? Does it happen to you? I feel like I empathize with creativity. It triggers in me a response that makes me want to rush out and express myself.

Here are two thoughts to bring that big thought up there into focus.

1. My mother is a psychiatrist and with older individuals that struggle with drug abuse and addiction. It is interesting that in this city and in the environment I find myself socially sometimes, people are quite fascinated with why I am here in the first place. ("Whoa, what a name! I've never heard one like that before...") "Where is that name from?" and so I explain. I've had to explain my history many times to strangers in recent weeks... a lot. And it forces me to confront my history. Why am I here? Things more often than not spiral back to my mother and her efforts to become a doctor in this country. People are confused, though, amazed. What happened in Russia around 1992, something with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Huh, what did happen there? What does a sponsor family do? Why did he lose his language? What is West Virginia like? The questions that I am confronted with, directly and indirectly, eventually force me to re-evaluate them, too. I have a history that I seem to lose sight of at times. If I stand in a museum like I did on Thursday at the ICA in Boston , I become separated from those questions. My emotions are universal, inspirational. I am lifted out of my body! I float on the beauty of two artists I learned about. philip-lorca diCorcia and Damian Ortega[see above].

That is the emotion where I feel endless love. I want to rush out and create. My mother told me a story about one of her patients. She had him deconstruct the word ExPress. Ex has latin roots and means to go out or away from, out from within. Press could be loosely associated with pressure. Expression is the release of pressure from within. Art makes me want to release that pressure that I have after a long day of silence and observation and frustration, after a week of wide-eyed ferocious labor at the lab, 10 things on a check-list, marked off one by one. It is amazing how much I can store inside of my body. I am but a speck in the universe and, like an atom, can release much energy. The task: find creativity.

2. empathy. A theory on empathy, the significance of yawning. Yawning when someone else yawns is a good sign. Can you feel the feelings other experience? What does it mean to feel what others feel? Does everything in my mind, my subconscious, have a structural, cellular correlate? Yes... I do believe this is true. The mystery of neuroscience is the elucidation of how protein and voltage potential and physical change at the cellular level results in consciousness, art, expression, emotion. Why do I yawn when you yawn? Mirror cells exist in our brains that activate when we observe others doing an action or feeling an emotion. And these cells activate in the regions of our brains that would be active if we ourselves were doing the action or feeling the emotion. I seem to recall that the level of activity when we are empathizing is at about 20% if we were doing it ourselves. Yawning could indicate that you are an empathetic person. If I see a work of art that moves me, do I activate my own creativity? Is it then surprising that my mind spirals off into its own creative processes? No... but how do I harness that? Strengthen that desire to create? I believe it is possible. Practice. Where to start, huh? Well, I decided to begin bringing my journal to museums and writing as I experience the situation. I think that would be fantastic. I will see where that leads me.

Also, I want to have a small exhibition here of my own. I wanted to explain about patterns. What patterns do I see in my life? What negative and positive patterns happen to me that I perceive and also that I fall into. Fall into indicates a sense of negativity and I do believe I have negative patterns in my behavior. When I was little my mother explained to me how my nail biting gets wired into my brain to a ferocious degree. So from then on I had quite a concept of behavior being structurally based in the mind. Yes. This is reinforced by continuing the behavior and if you want it to stop, it seems logical that you must practice the opposite, to really reorganize your mind. It is quite healthy, I think. Expound, expound, posit, posit.

to patterns:








to chaos:






and to a fellow explorer of both:


The Human Brain

weighs an average of 3 pounds in a man and two pounds, twelve ounces in a woman. It is the size of two clenched fists held tightly together.

The capacity of the human brain has been expressed as the number one followed by 6.5 million miles of zeros - a number so large that it would stretch from the earth to the moon and back again more than thirteen times.



Going Strong.

Many things are moving. Fast! I am caught up in a new life that lays all around me. Currently, I am reading a book called Letters to a Young Poet and I couldn't have been found by this book at a more perfect time. My first weekend I found a craigslist advertisement for a free stuff give-away and ended up carrying a plastic bag covered arm-load of books home with me through the rain. Among these titles was this book by Ranier Maria Rilke. The author encourages a young man to embrace the trials of living in this world. Everyone is alone but people seem to forget that the aloneness is what actually allows us to grow. I am not alone in my life. Many people care about me and love me, yet still I live in infinite space of possibility. Tonight I saw a man that works at the Adult Education Center where I take my art class on the street and approached him. I introduced myself. The interesting thing I learned today from Mr. Rilke is something about risk in life. I combined this with principles I recently learned about the evolving brain and thought about risk. What is taking risk in life? Thought processes and thought mechanisms in the brain are thought to be adaptive. People, genetically, possess rules and guidelines for thought and interpreting the world. Our brains have evolved certain capabilities that are seen in many people. Binocular vision, language and syntax, emotions... Everyone has them because they evolved. And what about risk? I thought today that it was healthy for us to experience risk because our ancestors experienced it everyday. We feel good when we do something challenging or possibly risky because we have minds that are created to use risk to grow. I grow.

On sunday I went on an Epic trip to the beach, literally and figuratively. I forgot how much I love my road bike. I love it so much. And how empowering is it to pick up and ride to the beach? Wow! So much energy.

I thought you would appreciate my friend I met near my new house in Cambridge. I took a picture of him for you.


I then went to fix my bike...

...before the Epic trip!








Hello from Boston, MA!

Today was my first day of work at my new job. To be direct, I am filling out my W-4 tax form right now (which, I just figured out [all by myself!] is to tell the govm'nt how much money to take from you so you don't have to pay them later and be screwed) as a non-dependent. Oh yes.

Why does this always have to be about me? This blog, I mean. Perhaps it is because that is all I really know about right now. I know that I enjoyed my first day of work today. I know that it took me about 50 minutes to get there today. I know I had to walk up a long, gradual hill for 15 minutes after I got off the bus and then was really sweaty, flustered, embarrassed. Embarrassed that I forgot my passport and my belt and my lunch and had no tax forms with me. I forgot my pen in the human resources department. A dream, a whirl of novelty today.

New faces, new people. New laboratory. Its like being away from your parents for the first time! Different protocols, roles, habits, like different dinners, kitchens' silverware drawers, smells. I have a new desk, no longer by a window but by a fume hood. I spoke for an hour with my new professor today about science, asking questions, trying to follow, getting overwhelmed but nevertheless feeling satisfied, leaving the office with a stack of reading material. But this was all good! I feel at home, appreciated. I look forward to being there tomorrow.


"Variations on a Fragment by Trumbull Stickney"

I hear a river thro' the valley wander
Whose water runs, the song alone remaining.
A rainbow stands and summer passes under,

Flowing like silence in the light of wonder.
IN the near distances it is still raining
Where now the valley fills again with thunder,

Where now the river in her wide meander,
Losing at each loop what she had been gaining,
Moves into what one might as well call yonder.

The way of the dark water is to ponder
The way the light sings as of something waning.
The far-off waterfall can sound asunder

Stillness of distances, as if in blunder,
Tumbling over the rim of all explaining.
Water proves nothing, but can only maunder.

Shadows show nothing, but can only launder
The lovely land that sunset had been staining,
Long fields of which the falling light grows fonder.

Here summer stands while all its songs pass under,
A riverbank still time runs by, remaining.
I will remember rainbows as I wander.

-Mr. John Hollander

And now, encroaching the sea.







Last day in Ann Arbor, first in Boston

It was interesting that while packing up my room in Ann Arbor, I spent a lot of time nonetheless engaging everyone I possibly could. I have been really focused on this idea that departure does not have to be a severance of bridges and connections but should be perhaps an affirmation of the linkages that do occur have been present between me and other people.

I call it, "Saying hello instead of saying goodbye."

This idea has been inspired by several experiences and people in my life that have passed by me and through me this summer (and stuck to me, I must add). I do believe that something passed around between two very important people in my life, when it finally landed in my lap, helped me to bring together all that I have learned this summer. I am including it in the body of this post. You do not have to read it but it is there and it is important.

Today I write from a hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. I am far from things I know well and now am confronted with a set of skills, ready to approach things I could only imagine I understand. Ready? Am I ready? Well, at least I sort of know how to think. I am confident that I am.

This Commencement was delivered May 21, 2005 at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

I want to thank these people:







,Matt Bendure (who took most of these photographs), Alex, Bill, Shaelyn, Kayla, Melissa, Chris, Marshall, Matt Bourke for their friendship this final year of college and especially this summer. Strength and health to all of you this next year.

Good luck, away we go.