Monday, June 27, 2005

For Love of the Game

For all you golf fans out there…

Have you ever seen a master at work? Watched him use his mind and talents to craft something breathtaking out of nothing? Watched him look at what you’re looking at and instead of seeing a red, barren, rock-laden Marscape, see a vast, undulating and serene emerald meadow?

Last week, I had the privilege of walking at the elbow of Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the world’s premiere golf course architect as he surveyed his newest course in development outside Vail, Colorado. Meandering from hole to hole, he described his inspiration for his design, described how he would play the hole, whispered its beautiful but nefarious secrets and quite literally waxed poetic in his description of the game (it may have had something to do with the fact that we’d mic’ed him for a video we were shooting! Ego was something Mr. Jones possessed in equal measure to his talent.)

Puzzling over a fairway he didn’t quite like, he’d cock his head to one side, squint an eye, and move his hand over the horizon like he was massaging the earth. Then he’d grab his green colored pencil and make alterations on the spot. Soon the wispy sketch in his hand would become the responsibility of giant earth-moving equipment—a bombastic and jarring conception to something that will soon be carpeted in grass and tranquility.

I don’t play golf. Never have. But seeing someone so in love with it, so enamored by it, so completely submerged in its magic made me want to begin. It’s amazing how another person’s adoration of something can cause us to begin falling in love with it too.

There’s a metaphor in that, I think.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Walking the Labyrinth

I met a dear friend for coffee the other morning. Knowing I live just a few minutes from Colorado Springs' charming downtown, he parked his car at my apartment, and we walked the few blocks to Pikes Perk, one of the local "mom and pop" outfits I like to frequent.  A wise and loving man who has become a mentor of sorts, Calvin is a former corporate executive who now, along with his wife Lisa, leads a ministry that strives to reintegrate the ancient Christian practices of contemplative, meditative prayer and spiritual disciplines into our frenetic, modern lives.
As we ambled along Cascade Avenue, gestating the topics that would occupy us for the next several hours, we passed a church which, up until recently, had been involved in some major grounds renovations.
"Have you checked out the labyrinth, yet?" Calvin asked me.
I probably gave him a very quizzical and confused look. I had a sneaking suspicion he was not referring to David Bowie.
"The what?"  
"The labyrinth...this."
He guided me off the sidewalk and around a short wall to a large open area in front of the church where a massive design lay before us, composed of multiple hued stones.  It reminded me of the vast quad behind the Dublin castle, where several stone snakes coiled around each other in an intricate knot, their long bodies so intertwined that I couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. This design was far more orderly — red stones emanated from what I assumed to be some sort of starting point and spiraled circuitously to a center point that was visible, though not instantly linkable to the starting point.
"A labyrinth," Calvin began, "is an ancient pagan symbol that the medieval Celtic church adopted and redeemed. It looks like a maze, but it's not.  Unlike a maze that has confusing twists, turns, and blind alleys, you can't get lost in a labyrinth.  There are no dead ends –it's just one long path. You stay on it long enough, you'll always get to the center. The labyrinth is a tool for personal and spiritual transformation...a means in our hectic lives to pause for a short time, slow down, quiet the mind, and encourage meditation on God. It's really quite beautiful."
I agreed, and though I would have liked to stay longer, coffee called, and we had lots to discuss. But a few hours and a medium breve later, when Calvin's car was merging back into traffic in front of my old Victorian, I ran inside, collected my journal and my copy of the Common Book of Prayer, and returned to the old church.
Dating back nearly 5,000 years (though miniature "finger labyrinths" pictoglyphs have been found in Neolithic caves) labyrinths span cultures as diverse as the Native Americans, the indigenous Indian tribes of South America, the Vikings, the Mesopotamian Egyptians, the Indian subcontinent and most "recently," the Europeans.  Though no one can say for sure where they originated, labyrinths have been found around the world carved in rocks, woven into cloth, etched into tablets and pottery, arranged in tile, and inlaid in the floors of some of Europe's most beautiful cathedrals, including the splendid Chartres, in France.
These larger, walkable labyrinths emerged sometime in the ancient Classical world.  When they were assimilated into Christianity, they were used as mini personal pilgrimages as well as times of quiet introspection, prayer and repentance. Typically, ancient pilgrims would use the time spent making their way to the center of the circle as a way to relinquish those things in their lives that they tried in vain to control and adopt a quiet, humble surrender to God and His leading. When they reached the center, they would pause for meditation and prayer, seeking insight and clarity to God's will in their lives. The walk back out the way in which they came in was spent contemplating God's control and direction, empowering them to return to the "outside world" replenished, refreshed, and redirected.
Placing my journal at the center of the circle, I returned to the beginning of the unicursal path and began walking slowly, methodically, reveling in the experience, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my back, and trying to ignore the tumult of a major intersection just beyond the church's boundaries. Each deliberate step was a breath of silent prayer. I read the Psalms aloud.
At its most basic level, the labyrinth is a meandering but purposeful path, a metaphor for the journey to God and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who we are in Him. Walking the serpentine lines helps us see our lives in the context of a path, a journey, a pilgrimage.
I couldn't go far without the path bending or doubling back on itself. I was reminded of the Christian imagery of the "straight and narrow" path.  The labyrinth's path was narrow, but far from straight. Like life itself, it was full of twists and turns. The straight and narrow implies that the path is not easy, and we are bound to make mistakes and lose our way. Half the time I didn't know if I was coming or going. The center, while always visible, was elusive. Some moments I was so very close to my destination, only to veer away from it and find myself tracing the outside of the circle. Was I lost?  Did this path, in fact, reach the center or was this all some sort of elaborate joke?  Were the priests huddled around some window high above me, pointing and holding their bellies in laughter?  I was so far away from the center now. I had just been looking at it, celebratory and content, and now I was walking the fringe, so far away.
We don't often like to acknowledge the fact that losing our way in life is not only a possibility but also an inevitable part of all of our spiritual journeys.  But none are beyond the mercy and direction of God. As soon as we become aware that we are lost, we are already on our way to being found again. I spiraled, meandering, time passing with an agonizing crawl. And then, suddenly, without realizing I was so close, I was there. The center. God. Or at least my romanticized attempt to contextualize my reaching for Him.
I plopped down Indian-style in the middle of the circle and jotted down a few thoughts, read a few more Psalms, even snapped a few pictures (when my computer is operational again, I'll be happy to share them with you). Eventually I made my way back out the way I came in. This circle, this garden of stones, this labyrinth is indeed my life's path.  Sometimes close to the center, sometimes far. Sometimes the goal in sight, other times nowhere to be seen. Sometimes straightish and other times crooked. Sometimes lost and then other times...suddenly, unexpectedly, blissfully found.
With a great sense of serenity – the kind that comes when we encounter someone or something far greater than ourselves and discover it has nothing but love for us – I left the labyrinth and began making my way back home. Though I suppose, if the metaphor is correct, I never really left the path at all.
I can see why Calvin liked this so much. It is a tangible and palpable reminder that we are not human beings on a spiritual path, but spiritual beings on a human path.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Practicing what we Preach

One of those sayings you hear a lot from your parents and others growing up is that we all need to practice what we preach. It's not enough to espouse something unless you are first willing to put it into action in your own life.  Moreover, your commitment to that ideal is tested not in times of comfort, but in times of hardship, criticism and when the easy way out is to abandon it when no one is looking.
Since the first day of the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has made it abundantly clear that America was attacked because the terrorists hate our freedom, liberty, and democratic ideals. Refusing to concede that the country he governs is at least partially to blame for the attacks themselves, the President continually presses the point that it is the very things that make America great that the terrorists want to destroy.
After sweeping through Afghanistan and Iraq and casting a wide dragnet through other countries sympathetic to terrorism, the United States found itself with hundreds of suspected terrorists in custody. Enter Guantanamo Bay. The perfectly logical and even necessary detention center began (the public thought) as a processing station for detainees to be interrogated and, if necessary, held until trial.  What Guantanamo has instead become is a rancid symbol of the U.S. government's dishonesty and hypocrisy in the so-called war on terrorism. The prison camp has become one of this conflict's most pervasive examples of the price of unaccountable power.
Guantanamo currently incarcerates more than 540 prisoners. Held incommunicado, these men are denied even the most basic aspects of the legal process. Counsel is out of the question.  Conveniently undecided as to whether those held are prisoners of war or terrorist criminals, the Bush administration has put itself above the very laws this country helped to draft, ducking the spirit of the law while priding itself on following the letter of the law. It has refused to honor either the Geneva Conventions for treatment of POWs or the rights granted the accused under U.S. criminal law. Those held at Guantanamo have not been charged with any crime, yet they are serving "indefinite" sentences. If the U.S. is so convinced of their guilt, why is it afraid to prosecute?
The abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo has been long documented by human rights groups.  Amnesty International's recent allegations are nothing new and merely corroborate numerous reports issued since the prison's inception by such internationally credible groups as the Red Cross. Former President Jimmy Carter is calling for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, saying, "The U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation...because of reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo."
President Bush retorted, calling the allegations "absurd" and those who championed them guilty of "disassembling...that means not telling the truth." Actually Mr. President, "disassembling” means to take apart. “Dissembling” means not telling the truth.  But we knew what you meant. And the fact is, the only dissembling here is originating from the oval office.
It is not enough to insist that our treatment of prisoners is far more humane than that dolled out by our terrorist enemies, as our government has done. If the U.S. is to maintain its now tenuous hold on its place as the world leader and champion for human rights and democracy, its standards must be infinitely higher and either conform to or surpass international norms. It is not enough to tell the world we stand for freedom, democracy, righteousness and justice—we must show them we are free, democratic, righteous and just.
Guantanamo should be closed and the prisoners there charged and tried or released. But that is not enough. For the United States to regain any credibility, it must begin to practice what it preaches in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo, and everywhere else in the world that an American presence is felt.  The erosion of respect for America, democracy itself, and for human rights didn't begin at Guantanamo Bay. It is the result of an administration that operates in inflexible absolutes.  This is what happens when you devalue and demonize a people, a culture, a religion. This is what happens when you elevate, deify, and excuse your own.  
Guantanamo is simply one facet of a far larger and nearly absolute disregard for the most basic of human rights abroad and civil rights at home.  Placed beside this administration's intelligence duplicities, unjust and preemptive warfare, the outsourcing of torture, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, and the USA Patriot Act, America can hardly hold itself up as the beacon of democracy and liberty when it is smeared with the feces of its own willful and indulgent hypocrisy.
If we are to be better than our enemies, we mustn't become our enemies.  If we are the great nation we say we are (or once were), we must act like it.  We must be above reproach.  We must show the world how greatness acts in the face of fire.  For if we cannot uphold even our most basic tenets when threatened, than our democracy is a sham and our government as wicked, evil and utterly reprehensible as those who fly their planes into the buildings of innocents.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Frankenstein's Monster

"[T]he crisis that we are approaching today is of yet another order. For it entails the transition, not from one form of society and power to another, but to a new environment… The present crisis […] is a total crisis triggered by transition to a new and previously unknown environment, the technological environment… The present change of environment is much more fundamental than anything that the race has experienced for the last five thousand years.”
--Jacques Ellul, French philosopher and writer  

About a week and a half ago, I turned on our home computer, a laptop, with the intention of burning to CD all of the hundreds of photos we’d just taken on our trip to Oregon. My wife and I had talked about backing up our files for weeks and now that we had dumped several gig worth of pictures and videos to the hard drive, now seemed like a good time. In a moment of supreme and spiteful irony, the computer opened as was its habit, froze, presented the infamous “blue screen of death,” and settled with an inky black display with four tiny words: CANNOT LOCATE OPERATING SYSTEM.  

That was the last time we saw our computer proclaim anything remotely decipherable.  

Over the next several days, the computer found its way into the hands of several IT friends and coworkers gifted with miracle-working powers. “The hard drive’s crashed,” they told us one after another. “Everything’s gone. There’s nothing we can do.”  


Our recent cyber-tragedies have got me thinking about how much I rely and depend on machines; how much my life has become intertwined with the mechanisms that we construct to make our lives easier; how, in so short of time, my belief and faith in them has become nearly absolute; and how much of my life is invested in their safekeeping and care.  

Why is it I feel so much of me is lost when I lose those things which I created? Do my words define me? Only peripherally. Why then do I ache when the words I have strung together—and not the ideas or the mind behind them—vanish? Do pictures alone encapsulate recollection? Hardly. Why then, at the thought of losing them, do I feel as if I am losing the memories themselves?  

In the “old days,” the world ran by hard copy. Destroying it, even accidentally, often took, at best, tremendous will and purpose and at worst, cataclysmic misfortune. These days, with the click of a mouse, the stab of a button, the surge of a breaker, or the death rattle of an old piece of hardware, everything is gone. The result is just as final, but the method is radically simplified. The worst part of all is that the more technology swallows our lives, and the more of life we hand over to its control, the more we risk and the harder the fall once it comes.  

Computers of varying size and power control the alarm clock that wakes me up in the morning, the coffee maker that brews my coffee, the car that takes me to my job, the music I sing along to, the traffic signals that guide my way, the machines on which I make a living. I am surrounded. Everywhere I look, I am in the grip of technology.  

This is not to say that technology is malevolent. Technology has revolutionized medicine—expanding life and eradicating disease. It has made travel to the next continent or the next planet possible. It has disseminated communication and culture like never before. (Technology has certainly enhanced photography—or at the very least, its proliferation. With digital cameras, everyone is a photographer. In several decades hence, generations to come will have a far greater, richer record of their lives because digital photography made it possible to take so many images of both the momentous and the mundane, a trait I recently read referred to as "promiscuous photography.")  

This all puts me in mind of Godfrey Reggio’s staggering “Qatsi” film trilogy which merges mesmerizing hyper-accelerated images with the hypnotic music of Phillip Glass in a non-linear, non-verbal docu-experimental fashion.  

In “Koyaanisqatsi,” a Hopi Indian word which translates as “Life Out of Balance,” Reggio presented a devastating film showing how urban society moves at such a frenetic pace and is so beholden to technology that it is utterly detached from the natural environment around it. “Powaqqatsi” (Life in Transformation) looks at the complicated and often devastating effects of technology in the developing world. The final installment, “Naqoyqatsi” (Life as War), concludes the harrowing exploration of man’s slow devolution through technology, speculating that technology has radically altered how we wage war. Worse yet, asking who is the master and who is the servant, it speculates that life itself has become sustained warfare. The films are both brilliant and nearly incomprehensible and prophetically challenge viewers about their inescapable place in a universe where technology is so prevalent it is altering reality as we know it.

Technology is manipulating everything around us: media, art, entertainment, sports, politics, medicine, warfare, ethics, nature, culture and the very face of the human itself. Technology does not affect our lives--it is our lives. It does not affect our environment--it is our environment. Technology is the new nature. We've traded an old, living, organic environment for a synthetic, engineered environment. We do not need to wait for the future to travel to another world--we live in one already. Urbanites might as well be living on a terra-formed world, moving through life on surfaces of asphalt, cement, glass and plastic and lulled to sleep each night to the thrumming lullabies of machines. Science Fiction is now science fact. There are no cyborgs--half man/half machine--in our future; we are very nearly cyborgs already.

Can we not see beyond to a world in which nature has been subverted by artificiality? We already live outside of and above nature. How much longer until we live off it as well? How long until we realize its already gone?

Is technology neutral? Can it be used for either good or bad? How can one tell when we do not simple use technology but instead are technology--a sort of "how can one see the forest for the trees" metaphor wrapped in silicon. What does it mean for our futures when, being sensate beings, we become the very things we see, hear, eat, smell and touch? Will humanity fundamentally change? Will the organic side of our souls vanish with the rain forest or the dodo bird? Will natural diversity be subsumed by the infinite appetite of technological homogenization?

Have we looked beyond the glowing, shimmering surface of technology in an attempt to ascertain what it is doing to the human soul? Have we bothered, in our rabid embrace of that which makes our lives easier, to try to look past appearances to the complex, hidden dimensions? Is technology the new universal religion? Is technology fruitful; does it multiply and if so, does it reproduce the world in its own image and likeness? Is technology a way of living or is it an addiction? Does our consciousness inform our behavior or does our behavior inform our consciousness? Or do we now simply live in a world beyond the senses? Is it as Elias Canetti, a Nobel Laureate for literature said, "A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality."

In the phenomenal film, “Contact,” Father Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughy, asks, “Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web…at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.”  

Pretty heady stuff, especially when its inspired by an all-too routine computer crash. Contrary to what it may sound like, I'm not a technophobe. That said, I guess I don't plan on answering any of the above questions, but rather plan to simply leave them floating around in the very medium I've just concluded criticizing. I think that's necessary sometimes. We so often want quick answers, decisive conclusions, and unambiguous wrap-ups with neat and tidy bows. But life isn't like that and sometimes it's enough--or all one can do--to simply ask the questions. I suppose I'm much like Father Joss: "I’m not against technology. I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”  

What do you think?
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus