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Oct 26, 2012


They say men are better at it than women. They say we can put work into one compartment, life into another, and just keep them separately. I don’t know about that, but we all have to do it, and I don’t think any of us are really doing it well.

You hear about a friend‘s tragedy, and within 30 minutes you have to go back to doing the most mundane tasks, or answering simple, routine e-mails. The people on the other side of these e-mails do not know anything, and don’t care you’re upset. Your mind wants to think about the life and death; it wants to reach out, to connect. Yet PeopleSoft sends you reminders twice a day – “you have timesheets to approve.”

We all can do it; it is not an issue of capacity. It is just somehow feels wrong, no matter how you justify it. There is a dissonance, a gap here between the unevenness of simple human experiences, and the routine of our lives, especially of work lives. We cannot stop.

Sometimes, going back to the mundane offers solace. It helps to imagine that life is back to normal. I will never forget the story I recorded from F.F.Briukhovetski for my Russian dissertation in late 1980-s. The Southern city of Krasnodar was destroyed before and during its liberation in the winter of 1943. One of the few buildings still standing was the school #58. People thought, if only children can go back to school and sit behind their little desks – it would the best thing. And they did make it happened first, before there was water or food, or anything else. There was no ink, and they had to brew it from a local kind of thorny bush. There was no heat, and kids, teachers, and parents cut and split enough wood to keep the building warm till spring, when the rest of the city struggled to keep warm. It was not because they valued education; they craved normality. The city still loved that school with unusual devotion forty five years later, although very few of them remembered why, exactly. There is such a thing as elevated normality; we just need to find another meaning in it. The compartments in our minds do exist; we just need to learn to connect them.

Oct 19, 2012

Communications should cost more

As we are preparing for marketing campaign for our 2013 off-campus cohorts, I am worried and wondering about getting the word out. As the cost of communications got very low, the supply understandably increased. Anyone can communicate with anyone in the world for free. In the past, every piece of communications had cost: books were expensive to print, postage and paper used to cost real money. The labor of handwriting or typing something up was significant. Now it is all very cheap, which is good, right?

However, when distributing information used to cost more, the cost served as a barrier. You would not put up money to print a book if you did not believe it was important. Now anyone can self-publish, and we have no idea if it is even worth taking a look. More recently, it took some significant skill to put together a decent-looking website. Now with Work bench and Google Sites, it takes no skills at all. Anyone can s end an e-mail to thousands of people for free, so we are drowning in e-mail.

The information market, however, did not go away, because while the supply of information is limitless, the supply of human attention is not. People simply ignore most of the information they receive. This is why it is so frustratingly difficult to get anyone’s attention, even though it does not cost anything to send them a message. For example, we do not have teacher’s individual e-mails, but we do have principals’ emails. So when we have a program for teachers, we send it to principals. But a school principal’s inbox is a graveyard of information. I suspect they won’t even open most e-mails, not to mention trying to read it, consider, and forward.

Of course, we can call them on the phone and leave a message, but this would cost much in time. We could design a viral campaign, using the social media. But it requires an enormous creative input, because people won’t recommend their friends something that is boring. We would be competing with real marketers who can hire the best creative talent. You see the paradox – as information is getting cheaper, it actually becomes more expensive to communicate. The proposals for e-mail tax have been around for a while. Just try to Google for it. They have encountered much resistance, but I would welcome it any time. Just stopping the African scam alone would be worth it. Indeed, marketers like us should pay for the school principals’ attention and time. After all, it is taken away from running their schools. Of course, we’re not selling cologne, we’re selling better teachers, but they don’t know it when they see our e-mails. So I want to pay, if I knew how. Ideas?

Oct 12, 2012

Keeping still

Our species evolved to do something – run away from danger, find food, hunt, fight – to solve problems. Our languages evolved to help with doing: we have categories words for objects and for their qualities and actions. We are not very good at dealing with situations when there is nothing to do and nothing to solve; nothing important to say. Those include death of someone we love, despair, love, natural disasters, and many, many others. We live in an unpredictable and chaotic world, and we only learned to control a small part of it. We like to pretend that we can do more, but it is not true – the most important things like life and death, we cannot control.

In some traditions, meditation keeps the mind clear of all language-derived thought. In other traditions, including many Abrahamic prayer practices, the technique is to repeat the same words to the point where they lose literal meaning. Those are the things we do to overcome our propensity to always do and say something. The abilities to act and to speak are hindrances as much as they are assets. Humans are perpetually frustrated with their inability to solve problems – from love to death, from justice to beauty. Sometimes it is good, for it makes us move. However, it also causes us to suffer when no solutions can be found and none should be sought.

People’s experience with meditation and prayer are different from each other, but collectively different from those of every-day life of work, leisure, action and speaking. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the universal spread of spiritual practices among people of different religions or no religion. Keeping still and stopping our brains from the constant search for solutions is good for us. With some practice, we reach Bodhi (awakening) or are able to see the divine light/the Holy Spirit, which is essentially the same thing. How “real” that is depends on what you mean by reality and, even more importantly, why you need the concept of reality. The point of these practices is exactly to get pass the real/imagined dichotomy, so it would be unfair to measure something with what it is trying to overcome. People who ask if this is real miss the point. 

I can sometimes see the objects and people around me starting to disintegrate. It is as if the whole world is painted on glass, and someone from the other side of the glass is slowly hosing the paint down. The paint is very strong, but I can see some spots washed away, and white light shining through. I cannot see the light directly; I just know it is there. 

Oct 5, 2012

The autumnal light

The light is different. Even if it is just as warm, and when you find a completely green patch to look at, the light is undeniably autumnal. The sun is lower, the shadows are longer. The light is yellowish, and somehow a little more desperate. Even the air is somehow more transparent than in the summer; one can see further back and further forward.

And then there are leaves, the little yellow signaling flags: “It is time to think about the winter! Warm weather is not forever! You have been warned!” I was going to write about ideas, issues, solutions, and dilemmas – like always. Aha, but the light and the leaves can switch my brain gears easily. Their intrusive thrust of beauty and nostalgia makes the life of mind less important and less self-absorbed. A little tree in the distance has succumbed to the temptation; it is but a brief flash of the radiant red. I can see it through the row of those big trees that are still strong and green, and so sure. They disapprove of the little red tree – it is changing too early and too fast. “Everything in its own time,” they say. “I know, I know,” – says the blushing red tree, and “Too late, too late,” – it thinks, excited and dreading the inevitable. They really don’t care what I think, and it feels so great to know that.

Another giveaway is smell, even in the car with windows up; even in the office. Even when nothing is burning, I almost always sense the distant smell of burning leaves. It is the aroma of soil and pickled leaves, and of yesterday’s rain; of steps and worries dissolved in little puddles, of autumn. Take a chestful of fall air before sleep, every night. I guarantee activation of memories you forgot you had.