This Skein of Brittle Self-Awareness

It’s one of those nights in NYC when it’s too hot to sleep. It’s hard to even breathe. So in the night, I sit down here at my kitchen table to write. The way I used to, when my horizon was so wide open I was drowning in loneliness.

Which is apropos, because today I felt an old lonely feeling, the sense of an inability to relate to people in a way that seems to come naturally to others. Since I’ve been a child, there’s been something withheld about me, something cynical and fearful, a spiteful, sensitive creature that spits at the world.

This is who I am. An imperfect, arrogant, overly self-aware asshole who wants to be loved.

I remember the first time my father took me to a baseball game, and as the people around me cheered and followed crowd protocols and shouted good naturedly at players, I sat, withdrawn, and did not understand. A burly man bantered with my father and informed him that his son was a Vulcan. Though he meant it in friendly jest, it felt to my overly sensitive self like an attack. Something was wrong with me. I seemed unable to exhibit some innate male marker.

Sometimes I wonder if I have some mild inability to comprehend certain social cues, an inkling of autism. Or perhaps some deficiency of testosterone or some other naturally occurring trait that people sniff off each other like dogs determining one another’s character by sniffing each other’s butts.

I’ve never been interested in the things that seem to be normal things to be interested in. My attention is often elsewhere.

As an adult, this has become a strength in my work, in that I’ve discovered that I have an ability to lose myself in an isolated drive to get things done.

But there are some times, like today, when I am reminded of my deficiency. Why can’t I just relax, say an offhand remark that will make a stranger laugh, remove this skein of brittle self-awareness that inhibits me from relating naturally to others?

This is my curse, and perhaps it is my blessing–the fundamental flaw that defines my character. I will never be that burly man at ease with his place in the world, savoring a baseball game in a stadium. I am condemned to be forever hungry, nipping at the heels of an internal wilderness, sitting silently in a stew of conflicting emotions, conveying little, waiting for some distant moment when I can curl my understanding into a word on a page in a stranger’s heart.

Buddha Nature

In order to write something, anything, my mind strives for some overarching purpose. But what is the overarching purpose of my life? Could this be defined? And if it could be defined, would it be worth writing?

It is better, perhaps, for me to recognize that writing itself, like life itself, is purpose enough, worth enough, to enact for it’s own sake – for my own sake – here within this very moment of being. I can write, so I will. I am alive, so I must live.

Writing is an act of transcribing waves of thought into the structured symbols our ancestors developed to amplify their minds. Through this amplification, they – and all their subsequent generations to the point of me at this point of now – enabled this text that sits directly before you on your phone or your tablet or your laptop or your desktop monitor, ferrying this current of my thought to you.

There are so many ways to amplify our minds in this day and age – due only to become ever more exponentially electrified – that it bears questioning as to what occurs when there is much amplification of little mind? Springing from that visualization (big waves circling outwards from a small pebble) comes the possible insight that the eventual zenith of all of this streamlined jetsam and flotsam is no mind. No mind as the end game of much effort applied towards mind amplification. This sounds koan enough that there must be some truth to it.

And as Meta as all of that sounded, it really is just an outgrowth of the overarching purpose from which this thought flow had begun, which of course could not be uncovered until I had allowed it to unfold without consciously steering myself to it. I commenced writing here on this post in order to calm my mind, which was preventing me from achieving the “no mind” of sleep. And in allowing myself to tap, however superficially, into the wellspring of my existence within the here and now, which is being for the sake of being, via writing for the sake of writing, I have found a sort of quietitude that will hopefully allow me to slip into the cover of my dreams. Buenas noches.

Insomniac Thoughts On Hard Work and Practice, and Some Goals

I’ve been struck, unfortuitously, with a bout of insomnia tonight, which I have been fortunate not to have had in quite some time. Before moving to NYC and plunged headfirst into a whirlwind of frenetic work and survival, I used to get insomnia a fair amount. I tended to utilize such times for writing. Which may be one reason, come to think of it, why I no longer write as frequently as I once did as a West Coast whippersnapper. During college, I wrote sometimes multiple short pieces a day. Now, many moons later, it’s more like once a month.

While I can’t really help that my cognitive and emotional space is spent on other also fairly important things, like teaching kids, I do miss delving into this personal creative space, just as I miss other creative or emotional outlets I used to devote some time to, such as playing my hand drums or hiking/running up the sides of mountains. And I know that every day that I no longer do these things, I am slowly losing the chops that I once had.

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers at the moment, and his argument about success as attributable mainly to extensive practice, as opposed to talent, made a lot of sense to me. I remember my cross country coach in high school (a terrible math teacher, but an excellent running coach) telling us that after two days of rest we would begin losing a certain percentage of our fitness. And I remember reading an interview with John McLaughlin–one of my favorite musicians and world renowned for his lightning fast licks on the guitar–in which he stated that he could tell that he was losing his skills after only two days without practice.

While at a conference recently in Seattle, during a roundtable discussion with other educators about “hybrid” roles for teachers, one teacher who was currently in that role (1/2 time in the classroom, 1/2 time doing policy related work) commented on how during time spent away from the classroom, such as the 2 days we had spent at this conference, he felt his connection to classroom practice slipping away.

I don’t know if 2 days is some magic number, but the big idea here is that without nearly daily practice in something, we begin to lose the skills and capabilities (one could even call it a type of ‘muscle memory‘) we had worked so hard to build. Furthermore, I’m reflecting on the notion that mastery is not some peak that one reaches and plants a flag in and retains from there on out for the rest of one’s life. Mastery has to be built through a lot of hard work and practice (Gladwell says roughly 10,000 hours), and then sustained.

Though I do think that there are certain tracks and pathways that, once formed, can be more easily re-awakened, even if they haven’t been practiced in a while. For example, I’ve been running for many years, but l’ll go through sometimes long periods where I don’t run at all, for reasons such as work, the season, or travel. But when I do begin running again, after a short period of initial soreness, it’s pretty easy for me to ease back into it to the point where I was before. Of course, I ain’t a “master” runner. I don’t run races or anything. But my point is that if you’ve invested a fair amount of time in something in the past, if you begin doing it again, after a short re-learning period, you’re back on track fairly quickly based on where you left off.

All of this is essentially to say that I’m realizing that I have to get much more disciplined about investing more time back into activities and practices that are important to me to develop and maintain, such as writing as an avenue of self-exploration, reflection, connection to a larger community, and expansion of thoughts and feelings.

So here is an action plan, which I am hesitant to lay out as I hate promising things that I don’t follow up on, and I also doubt that anyone really cares about my personal goals, but I feel like it’s better to lay out concrete, explicit goals if this is really important to me:

  • I will write by hand in my journal 2 nights a week before going to bed (writing by hand forces me to produce a substantially different style of thought and writing, since I’m mainly accustomed to writing on a keyboard)
  • I will publish 1 blog post a week
  • I will play my hand drums once a week
  • I will hike at least twice a year

There it is. Now I’ve got to do the much harder work of holding myself to it.

Color Awareness

There seems to be a direct link for me between insomnia and self-exploration via blog writing, so I will capitalize upon this opportunity while my sleep cycle is being disrupted. I admit that I have been frequently opening up a blank window in order to begin writing, only to find that I don’t even know where to start. It’s not so much that I have a lack of things to explore, but rather that everything inside there is so densely intertangled that I don’t know what strand is worth picking up to examine. In a sense, these past 2 weeks have been a sort of slow uncoiling of my inner and outer worlds as they seek to realign themselves together from out of their disjoint.

My sudden career shift has me excited, while also nervous. Nervous because I know that there are many aspects of indoctrined cultural training that must still be challenged within me; in dealing with systemic racism and socio-economic inequity, I must be able to explore the notion of myself as a member of a group, rather than as a unique individual. It is a group that I have tried, at times, to pretend that I am not a part of, even as I have partook in the privileges of its membership, however unknowingly. That group is the little box that I generally avoid filling in on questionaires, the one that says Caucasian or simply–and rather yawningly–White. Attach onto that the further group membership of Male, and even further than that: Raised in High Income and Highly Segregated Area, and there you go. That’s my grouping in this society, whether I like it or not.

I have been aware of what it means to be privileged for some time, based mainly on socio-economic status. But the fact is that I grew up in an area where people of color were few and far between, isolated into small, distant enclaves. So it was difficult for me to reconcile my awareness of socio-economic status with racial and ethnic inequity, however much I knew that it existed. It existed somewhere else.

When a white person finally has an experience where they are made jarringly aware of the fact that they are White, and that they are therefore Privileged, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. They want to avoid, at all costs, such experiences. It challenges their belief in their innate value as an individual, as a unique, distinct person whose worth in society is based strictly upon merit. I can remember distinctly one of these first experiences, though I’m sure there were many more before that that I have effectively blocked from my memory. It was while I was traveling alone in Peru, and I was taken to a part of Lima where there was a huge outdoor market of secondhand goods, in the middle of the city downtown. I was told that I needed to have a guide, that I absolutely could not go there alone. I was not to carry any valuables on my person, and to be aware of my belongings at all times. This was heavily stressed to me, to the point that I was extremely nervous before I went, though I am fairly adventurous when it comes to being in sketchy situations. And indeed, when I walked through the streets of that market, I suddenly became shockingly aware of my utter Whiteness. In the midst of a crowd of dark skinned people living in poverty, here was this white foreigner. The very fact of my existence in their midst signaled my privilege; that I could even travel there from so far away. I wasn’t wearing fancy clothes, I wasn’t wearing jewelry. I had worked hard and saved my money to travel there. But I knew that I was privileged just by the fact of my skin, just by the fact of where I happened to be born. I felt like an alien. I became aware of how strange it was that in one context—my normal environment—things like a nice watch and shoes are just things you get to fit in; but here in this place, such things were what made you stand out like a sore thumb.

And so what I was experiencing, essentially, was the idea of what it feels like to be someone defined as a part of a group based on immediate appearance. I was an Other. I didn’t belong there. That feeling of unbelonging stung. It was highly disturbing. We white people don’t typically understand how it is to be viewed as a part of a group. We resent being made to be aware of this grouping, not realizing that it is something that people of color have to deal with every single day.

It makes me uncomfortable even to talk about these kinds of things, just as I’m sure that it makes you uncomfortable to read them. Am I a racist? Certainly not intentionally. But my society is racist, and unfortunately, it has embedded its racism in me such that I have to struggle to remain aware of it in order to call it out on its existence. We like to pretend that everything has been put behind us. Slavery is a thing of the past. Segregation has been outlawed. Etc. And things have certainly gotten better. But when you see the statistics of the achievement gap in education, for example, or the statistics on prisons, or just simply journey to any inner city grotto, it becomes hard to deny the fact that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.

So this is, conversely, what I am also excited about in my current career shift. I am excited to be able to be actively involved in working to struggle against this systemic racism, even if that might be only just within myself. Being an educator in a “high needs” urban public school means that you will have to struggle not only with how society views your students, but with how your students and their families view you. Who are you? Are you just another one of them? Or are you a part of a grouping that goes beyond such petty distinctions, inclusive of all of humanity? The thing is, you can’t deny where you have come from, nor what you look like. But you can deny the urge to ignore your identity as a part of a group, and to stop pretending that everything is equal, that all the world is just. Because it isn’t. Not yet. But it could be.


All of the unspoken pent up thoughts of a day string themselves down within your subconscious cells until you’ve sentenced yourself into another sleepless night of breathless anxiety. It is no wonder, in such circumstances, that hordes of the worlds populace herd themselves eagerly into mentalities of the meek, hypocritical doctrines of the downtrodden. Even if words and visions held sacred are somewhat dated, inaccurate, or even completely off the mark, still, they offer the solace of a given naming of the unknown, they can give voice to hidden worlds that are capable of being accepted blindly, or half-heartedly, or at whatever degree of compromise and diligence that one is willing to bestow it in order to make it through another day with one’s mental health still intact, however tenuous. Those of us who are not so accepting of other’s words are doomed to the hell of our own awakenings.

One way or another, there is no escaping your self. The subliminal structures of nature work tirelessly to shock you into conscious awareness of all of the evolving life around you. Look, listen, learn! Yet all you want to do is sleep. To allow the unmanifest worlds within lie dormant for another day, until eventually, of course, they must explode outward from the slowly accumulating pressure. But all one can do momentarily is end the charade of tossing and gasping and sit in front of a computer screen in the early morning hours to vent what little known words there be, with the hope that this sacrifice, this little cutting from the heart will be enough to allow mindlessness again for a little while more. A truce with rebel subconscient forces. However imperfect and ineffective these words might be, at least they are all your own, strung out limply on the roadside from the unspeakable suffering of physical existence.

Middle of the Night Math Blather

Ah, insomnia. Sometimes sleep is just not an activity that my mind wishes to engage itself in. I thought I was done with journaling after returning from Colombia, yet find myself unable to step back into my somewhat standard methods of disassociative discursive writing. Partly this is due to existing currently in a state of limbo, as well my current dedication to studying for an inane test, the GRE, which apparently was crafted to “weed out” people who shouldn’t be applying to grad school, i.e. people who have better things to do with their free time then study irrelevant things for an unimportant test. I have not intended to neglect writing on this blog, in fact I kind of need it to stay sane and balanced, I just have not had the personal mental space necessary to turn within and get it out. Hence the insomnia.

I am well aware that the details of my personal life holds little of meaning nor interest for the outside world, and I generally cringe from bothering to sit to transcribe my mundane existence onto a blog, except when I am traveling and my mundane existence is somewhat more interesting—but I have little recourse at the moment. This is therapy, in a sense, a salve to my sleepless and seeking self. An attempt to write myself into a stability and stillness necessary for movement onward to hopefully a time when I can write something much more meaningful and applicable to the general populace.

Anyway, I need a topic to write about in relation to myself, so I’m going to write about math, because it’s been on my mind as of late. First, a brief personal history: I have never been “good” at math. I used to explicate this deficiency as a result of the way my brain worked: I was “fuzzy brained”. I didn’t think logically. I was a writer, a draw-er, a right-brainer. But I have since realized that these were simply excuses to cover over my laziness and lack of will to learn something that I believed was useless. I have always been stubborn, and when it came to math (and science), I simply didn’t want to learn it. In my old age, I now realize that I was and am perfectly capable of applying myself to math. The problem is, with math you are supposed to keep building on the foundation of what you have learned, so that one year you learn decimals, and then the next fractions, and then the next ratios, that kind of thing. You are suppose to retain information and then develop your understanding with this foundation intact.

I stopped retaining my mathematical learning in the 3rd grade, when I decided that I didn’t think math had any purpose in my life. This obviously made things difficult in school, as I never really learned how to do much except the most basic of arithmetic. The only way I got through was by utilizing the fact that even when you don’t understand how to do something, there are always examples for each type of problem. So you can look at all the answers to the odd numbered questions in the back of the book, which are essentially identical to the even numbered questions, except with different values. It takes little effort, as it’s basically monkey-see-monkey-do rather than an innate understanding of concepts. That’s how I got through math, up to pre-calc. And then, other than the SAT, I thought that I was done forever with math. This was a more or less accurate assessment, except that I had to ostensibly tutor high schoolers in the subject when I was working as an instructional assistant. However, the math was easy, and my students were all special ed and needed extra reiteration (don’t think for a second that I’m saying they’re stupid; they just don’t generally grasp bullshit standardized subjects very quickly because their brains don’t function in a “normal” manner), which meant that I got pretty good at explaining how to do things just by doing examples over and over again. But other than that, I’ve always been able to do what little math I’ve had to do in my life with the assistance of the handy invention of the calculator.

That is, until I started recently studying for the GRE. I breezed through the reviews of the antonyms, the word comparisons, and the reading comprehension sections. There are a lot of weird words that I’ve never really learned that I’ve got to memorize, such as pulchtritude, or splenetic, but on the whole I find the exercises fairly straightforward, if annoying and snobbily academic. Then I got to the math section. And suddenly I went from swimming in the sea to fumbling in the rocky rapids. My self-confidence dropped to my knees. And I was reminded, harshly, of the fact that I had stopped applying myself to math in the 3rd grade.

So now in my belated adult existence I am attempting to teach myself math all over again. It’s akin to learning a new language for me, and it takes double the effort because I still have an ingrained bias against math in my mind. I keep telling myself that I am fundamentally incapable of learning it, even though I know this is untrue. And I know this is untrue because while I was reviewing the verbal sections of the GRE, I came to a sudden realization of something: analyzing literature and utilizing words effectively is actually much closer to the process underlying mathematics and science then one would think.

I have had this realization before. In college, I had some roommates that were studying engineering, computer science, and pre-med, and inevitably the issue arose in conversation regarding the nature of the different majors, the fuzzies vs. the logical reasoners, the English vs the hard sciences. I was always frustrated that people seem to think that when you are writing an essay about literature, that it is all completely subjective bullshit. Sometimes it is—but then it isn’t good writing. The fact is, all good writing is based quite firmly on what is given and established, just as a scientist proceeds with his hypothesis based on established research. When analyzing a piece of literature, the essayist must thoroughly examine it, and accumulate the evidence that will contribute to his thesis. He then takes all this evidence and ties it all up into a convincing argument, bolstered by flourishes of flow and nifty word placement. It’s like what a lawyer does when he researches past cases and nuances of applicable law in order to write up his case. It’s an effort that is completely logical, and defensible through evidence and a coherence of presentation.

Such literary efforts can always be made through differing points of view—but these points of view must be defensible by what has already been established, or else they hold no water. You can argue, for example, the far-fetched notion that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is really a covert parable of a spiritual science of the seven chakras—but you’d better be able to provide concrete evidence from the movie that corresponds directly to metaphysical literature on chakras. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. In other words, you can posit any kind of thesis that you want, but you have to be able to defend your position, and convince others that your position is superior. If your thesis is confirmed by the wider community of critical scrutiny, then it becomes part of the established canon of literary criticism. Just as the process that occurs when a scientific hypothesis is confirmed as valid and takes its place as established theory until another theory comes along that is more inclusive.

Anyway, so the gist of what I’m saying is that the process of thought that is applied in either the conceptual effort of math or writing is essentially the same. It just takes some rote memorization and a concerted effort on the part of the thinker. So I’m like a little kid again, going back to school. We’ll see if my experiment in applying myself as fully as I can to mathematics will work or not. So far, the outlook is dim, as I still remain just as stubborn in my old age as I was when I was a young whippersnapper. But I’ll give it a go.

Wish me luck and let’s both hope that I am able to not only get some much needed sleep, but that I also eventually start writing some good non-mundane and non-mathematical posts real soon.

Early Arrivals and Late Departures

Insomnia = blog post!

Trickling through the latticed filters of my mind is the truth, the reality, the bare unspeakable raw edge that is everything and nothing. Cutting and shadowing. The barriers between my self and this empty plenty are not so easily shed. They accumulate, they stack upon themselves until those few occasional moments that forcefully sweep them all away. Death does this. Deep ecstasy does this. And all of the smaller flexes and bends that serve to keep me flitting from day to day. Contemplation, dance, drink, conversation.

How tightly we hold onto our illusions! Thinking that we are keeping ourselves safe we only increase our danger. We cover our eyes as if that would make us invisible. We cower behind easy definitions, behind given lines of thought, behind someone else’s design.

The world, of course, is ours. Ours to create, ours to destroy. Ours to allow to dwindle into mediocrity. Ours to discover ourselves discovering.

It is easy to get caught up in manufactured beauty. To think that if everyone is all sniffing at the same tree, then there must be something. There must be some reason that the world functions as it does, why all people so easily fall into place in lines, as objects, as subjects, in patterns and predictable rates.

It is hard to seek the beauty that exists unknowable, incapable of capture.  To seek the understanding that is without scribe. The very journey towards such efforts has already been doomed by its own seeking.

I analyze the world at the detriment of my own necessary demise. It is I who must be crumbled, I who must be scattered, I who must wrenchingly be given to the universe like a sky spread out under the stars. There can be no expectation of this. There can be nothing but blind and senseless hope in my mind, and open wonder and hunger in my heart. All of the world will flow, wend, stomp, shove its way through, one way or another. I will be the road leading the way from myself.