December 31, 2004

US Cities with Population 120-125,000

Flint, Michigan
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
New Haven, Connecticut
Hartford, Connecticut
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Elizabeth, New Jersey

(Source: Demographia)

December 29, 2004


Believers, nonbelievers, and agnostics are conducting a lively discussion on the theological implications of natural disasters such as the Asian earthquake. Does such an event necessarily affect the belief in a person, moral, loving God?

Particularly thought–provoking and well–written comments can be found on the blog of Catholic writer Amy Welborn , on Mirror of Justice, and on The Paragraph Farmer, which leads to a secularly oriented article in The Guardian. (Thanks to G as in Good H as in Happy for initial leads.)

I am not equipped to discuss theology with the erudition of many of those commenters, but it seems to me that a satisfactory mythological interpretation was achieved in the region of the earthquake in the pre–Christian era. The disaster is the work of Shiva—god of destruction, who is also the great yogi and the Lord of the Cosmic Dance—and his consort Kali, who wears a garland of skulls and yet who is also the Great Mother.

Assuming that these divinities are merely personifications of physical forces and events, incomprehensible to the mythmakers, this is an explanation that should seem realistic to the scientific mind. In this universe, creation implies destruction.

A younger philosophy born in the same region tells us that the human suffering caused by the tsunami comes from imperfect understanding—from attachment to the objects of desire, such as life, health, and safety. This view continues to be helpful to many as a form of psychotherapy.

And yet I can’t help thinking that if we as a species were satisfied with these unblinking, unsentimental explanations of suffering and evil, we would stagnate and decay. It was necessary to discover the idea of a god who loves us and cares about us—who is an individual and treasures our individuality—in order for us to become a species that treasures our own lives, the lives of our conspecifics, the lives of our sister species, the life of our planet. (And some day the life of our universe.)

Iris Murdoch says in METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS, “Good is the reality of which God is the dream.” In order to deeply feel that the person next to us, or on the other side of the battlefield, is a suffering creature as deserving of loving care as we are, it is a great help to believe that some God cares about those persons too. (And if the story of the Incarnation of Christ is true, God himself had to descend to human form to feel that depth of compassion.) These are feelings we must nurture in ourselves, and strengthen with all our might, if we are to survive. Morality is an evolutionary necessity at this point. (I’m aware of the influence of Teilhard de Chardin here.)

I’m not talking about logical necessity, I’m talking about psychological necessity. It’s logically possible for individuals to believe in and work for the earthly salvation of this world without invoking appealing to religious belief—many secular saints have done so—but it doesn’t work well on a population–wide scale.

So, leaving the tsunami aside, these theological discussions of morality, sophistic and self–comforting as they sometimes seem, may serve a great function. They may be sparks in the forging of a more advanced moral understanding among us poor half–intelligent humans. Only by fumbling with these ideas over thousands of years more will we be able to arrive at answers that are both satisfactorily intelligent and satisfactorily compassionate.

And I am NOT suggesting that the tsunami is somehow justified as the prompting for a theological discussion on the part of cozily situated Western bloggers and journalists. God forbid. The suffering among the ants in my backyard when I pour poison on their hill would have sufficed.

God the Father

At some point he got exasperated and turned his back, grousing, “I’m sick of these people and their nonsense. Their inept attempts to call me, their impudent attempts to imitate me. They can pray all they want, I won’t answer. Not till they do some growing up.”

And we went into a tantrum—“Never, never, we’ll never learn our lesson, we’ll never wipe that smirk off our faces, we’ll never keep our hands to ourselves”—and stomped into the corner of the room and threw ourselves to the floor, acting worse and worse to try to force him to give in.

December 28, 2004

Creative Writing: The New Form

In the old days in everything I wrote I was working out my demons. Now I'm working out my angels.

It's On the Tip of My Tongue

The Tao is like an old actor whose name you can't remember. You can almost recall his face, and the approximate title of a black–and–white movie you saw him in at college. You can almost visualize the way he walked carrying a martini across a ballroom floor to his leading lady. But his name delights in escaping you, it teases you, it itches you till you say the hell with it and turn to something else.

Days later a glance at the blue sky brings it to you for no reason: William Powell.

December 27, 2004

Austin Notes: 37th Street Lights

Every December, one block of East 37th Street gives a light show that eclipses all the official extravaganzas in town. The residents of this block hang up a display of lights that brings in cars from all over, tying up traffic on the main thoroughfare nearby. It’s not just that there are so many lights, untold thousands of red and blue and green and white bulbs climbing up the lampposts and trees and arching across the street. In addition, each homeowner creates an art work out of Christmas lights. The emphasis is on surreal topical comedy. This year’s lawns have become:

• a life-size Martha Stewart jail cell, with a stuffed Martha (her face a magazine photo), three cellmates, a toilet, a cake with a file, and bars

• an undersea scene with illuminated plastic tropical fish and mermaids, and waterskiing Barbie dolls

• an angel whose wings are the fenders of a VW beetle, holding a metal peace sign as a shield

• a house that’s turned into a volcano, with eruptions every five minutes: smoke rises from the roof peak, and streams of red lights—lava pouring down the house—flash on and off

• a scene from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with a certain Saudi Arabian terrorist and a certain recently re–elected Texan as the Grinch’s helpers

• a hedge clipped into the shape of a car (with real headlights); another hedge clipped into a big wave with a surfer riding it, all outlined in white bulbs

• a tour of the gaudiest house’s backyard, where the walls and branches and lawn furniture are strung with bulbs covered with every imaginable kind of small domestic item: prescription vials, Starbuck’s containers, gelato cups, dental floss dispensers, yogurt cups, baby food jars, shot–size liquor bottles—if it’s in your medicine chest or pantry, the chances are it’s been turned into a cover for a Christmas bulb—our middle–class detritus recycled into Christmas joy—and a clothesline hung with dollars donated by visitors to help with the electric bill

No one sponsors this creation, no one funds or licenses it. It’s not listed under “Christmas Events” in “Frommer’s Comprehensive Travel Guide to San Antonio & Austin.” It’s a tradition that grew spontaneously over the years, starting who knows when. And it’s begun to spill over into the neighboring blocks—more houses lighting up each year. Buying a home on this street entails responsibilities.

After New Year’s the residents will haul out their ladders and start taking down lights, just as they hauled out their ladders and put them up a month earlier. (Some of the strands stay up year–round for convenience, but there’s always that new idea to hang, and last year’s to archive.)

Next December the lights will go up again, with displays similar to and different from this year’s, their blooming as much a cyclic life–renewal as the bluebonnets of spring.

December 26, 2004

Looking for the Tao on an afternoon in the park:

Twin sisters tumbling on a lawn, the tails of their big–flowered coats flapping

A guy waters his driveway with a green hose, then sweeps it with a yellow broom

A sharp shadow in the southwest side of every footprint in the gravel under the swings

It’s all nice but I’m feeling critical and choosy…

And then hymn voices rise from the Korean evangelical church across the street, and something shifts. Sound takes over from sight as the dominant sense:

Splash of gravel kicked against a vinyl slide

The unmistakable tone of business, in a language I don’t understand, from a man in a sharkskin suit talking on his cell phone while sitting on a swing

As if I've changed into a different species, relying on different organs. Pictures still form but they don’t register—only sounds, calling to one another from horizon to horizon: hiss of hose water hitting cement—gusts of traffic as the signals change…

Teasing me, making me turn this way and that, where is the next sound going to come from, can I somehow seize it before it’s there?

As if hearing is a metaphor for some other sense, one I strive for and don’t know how to use.

Lao Tzu's Christmas

The old man never gives a hint about what he wants. Any time he receives a gift he reacts the same way, with the same smiling little bow of thanks. For a while he turns his full attention on the gift, intently reading the instruction book or the liner notes or the author bio, using it, playing with it, as if it’s the only thing in the world. Then, most of the time, he puts it away in a closet and never thinks about it again. When the closet fills up, he gives everything to a thrift shop.

“It’s all good stuff,” he tells the thrift shop people with a little smiling bow.

Some of his friends think he’s impossible to shop for. Others claim he’s easy.

When he gives them gifts, the items are always so appropriate it’s as if they’d owned them forever. A sweater, a cutting board—they use the thing so much, they scarcely remember who gave it to them.

December 25, 2004

Creative Writing: The Gospels

From the earliest days Matthew, Mark, Luke, etc. have been criticized as inept, uneducated stylists who could not assemble a decorative Greek sentence.

“She wrapped him in his swaddling–clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.”

Where are the eloquent details of the cows’ steaming, twitching flanks, the hot stench of bovine breath, the damp straw chafing the baby’s soft skin?

Compare it to the typical contemporary novelist’s 200–word description of light slanting through a window.

Sometimes if you really have something to say, you can just say it.

December 24, 2004

More on the C Word

As Joseph Angier astutely points out in his comment on my previous post, it’s questionable how many people of the liberal persuasion really do object to public celebrations of Christmas—but there are some, and those people, it seems to me, provide the right with an easy, and justified, target for satire and scorn.

My support of the widespread and cheerful use of the word “Christmas” is not just a gesture of ecumenicism, it’s a protest against euphemism. A euphemism is always a coverup. Where there’s euphemism, there’s dishonesty. And to say “holiday” when the whole world knows you’re referring to Christmas is to engage in an especially silly kind of euphemism.

There are far too many people on the left who spend far too much of their time trying to compel others to use the approved euphemisms, and trying to invent new euphemisms to press upon the public. People who are seriously worried about whether other people are saying “autistic” or “person with autism” need to turn their attention to something else, if for no other reason than that the approved catchwords will probably change next year.

The euphemists practice a kind of sanctimony which is offputting to people in the center. I’m convinced it’s a large part of what moderate and conservative people visualize when they visualize a liberal: someone who is constantly trying to force a petty, humorless conformity upon us all.

Among other things, this loses us votes. And after this past November, we should have that foremost in mind.

And wouldn’t this be a better, saner country if left and right alike turned more of their attention to pragmatic issues instead of symbolic ones?

Merry _________

As a Jew, a liberal, a lover of the Constitution, and a loather of Fox News, I wish to declare that the word “Christmas” does not faze, throw, offend, upset, or disconcert me in the slightest.

When I was in a 90% Jewish public elementary school in the Bronx, we learned Christmas carols at this time of year. The songs were pretty, and it was a way of finding out about another culture, one that was all around us and well worth finding out about.

On the shopping street of our 90% Jewish neighborhood, the lampposts and subway girders were strung with lights, Santas, and snowmen, to attract customers.

If anyone had suggested establishing Christianity as the official religion of our country, we would have been outraged. But the fact that we lived in a predominantly Christian country was no outrage.

Many Sunday mornings I woke to the ringing of bells from the Catholic church across the parkway. It sounded nicer than the El going by every five minutes. And I took Driver’s Ed at a Catholic girls’ school, Mother Cabrini High—which is another story.

December 23, 2004

Frequent thanks are due to G as in Good H as in Happyfor widening our world with informative and entertaining links to everything from the historic origin of restaurants, to the connection between math and crocheting (with an illustration of Freud wearing a crocheted hat; the action figure of Siggie which sits on my bookshelf raised his cigar in acknowledgement to that one) to the Spanish exploration of North Carolina in the 1500s (they were hoping to get there early for basketball tickets, no doubt). Keep it up, Dilys & co.

Listening Log: Les Barker

No one makes me laugh louder than this British rhyming satirist whose routines are mostly (in my experience) recorded live in front of convulsed audiences. His material ranges from Lewis Carroll-like distortions of logic (DEJA VU, in which he proves that it's impossible to experience deja vu for the first time, and AN INFINITE NUMBER OF OCCASIONAL TABLES) to pet owners' follies (GUIDE CATS FOR THE BLIND and THE WAR ON TERRIER—the title track of his new album) to British history and behavior (THE CRAWL OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and HAVE YOU HEARD ANY NEWS OF THE ICEBERG?).

Barker's Manchester accent adds a contrasting layer of homeyness to the highbrow absurdities.

A good, though slim, best-of is PROBABLY THE BEST ALBUM EVER MADE BY ANYBODY IN OUR STREET. A tribute album, GUIDE CATS FOR THE BLIND, has Barker himself performing the title cut and DEJA VU, with other Brit singers and speakers doing 38 more of his best.

Barker's music publishing company, by the way, is named Mrs. Ackroyd Music, after his deceased dog.

December 22, 2004

passing of local laureate, 73

He played the role of boho to the hilt: sitting night after night at the same table in the same café, in clothes that looked almost as old as he was, scribbling in heavy black ink in a spiral pad with green pages, sometimes looking up to laugh. Often his table was filled with young acolytes striving after poverty, sincerity, and disrepair.

His stuff mostly sounded like Bukowski but he could do the traditional forms too: sonnets, villanelles, a double sestina about the latest military action. Every couple of years he got something accepted by a “real” quarterly, but most of his work he put out himself, in pamphlets financed by his friends.

When he died the paper ran a long obit. The café bought a portrait of him painted in thick oils by one of his artist pals. It hangs between the men’s and women’s rooms, above a dusty rack of his chapbooks, which you can buy, or just pluck and read over your biscotti.

When the college faculty hear his name, they roll their eyes. “Oh, him? Oh, God, some of my students actually like his work, even hung out with him. They actually think he was a poet.”

December 21, 2004

Burnt Popcorn

After long resistance, the tenzo—the monastery chef—finally agrees to let a microwave oven into his kitchen. It sits unused on a shelf for ages, until at last the tenzo sucumbs to the pleadings of the youngest monk to microwave some popcorn. Popcorn is beneath the tenzo's notice anyway, so that's all right. The tenzo, with much fussing and fiddling, places the popcorn bag in the oven, presses some buttons, and leaves to read a scripture outdoors, under the kitchen window.

After he reads a chapter or two he smells smoke coming from the kitchen window. Rushing in, he discovers that the popcorn is thoroughly burnt. He had mistakenly set the timer not for two minutes but for twenty.

At the sight of the charred kernels on the microwave wheel, the tenzo has a moment of realization, one he'd been awaiting for much longer than he'd been resisting the microwave oven.

Ever since, he microwaves popcorn for all the monks every Friday night without fail.

December 20, 2004

Listening Log: Heinrich Shutz

German composer Schutz, 17th century master of church music, died 13 years before Bach was born, and his Christmas oratorio,HISTORIA DER GEBURT JESU CHRISTI, has a sweet melodiousness, a simple nobility, that reaches straight through the intervening centuries to our hearts. Vivarte Sony Classical recording SK 45943, featuring the Baroque Orchestra of Stuttgart, the Kammerchor of Stuttgart, and the Musica Fiata of Koln, issued in 1990, also contains Schutz’s Easter oratorio.

Reading Log: Frederic Prokosch

(The first in an ongoing series in which I’ll call attention to works of literature and entertainment that not everyone else is reading.)

In 1935, twenty–something grad student Prokosch had a bestseller with his first novel, THE ASIATICS, a beautifully written plotless travelogue about a young man’s overland journey from Damascus to Hong Kong. The amazing thing was that the author hadn’t been to any of the places he described—but people who had been there said that he’d caught the essence of those places better than most guide books. He repeated the feat in his second novel, THE SEVEN WHO FLED, about seven archetypal Europeans who scatter across Central Asia after fleeing a strife–torn city. The Asiatics is currently being reissued.

I’m reading his out–of–print 1983 memoir, VOICES. From a very young age Prokosch practiced writing down conversations immediately after hearing him—and he sought out the best people of the 20th century to converse with. He talked to everyone: Joyce, Mann, Stein, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hemingway, Woolf, Wolfe, Nabokov—the list goes on and on. Each eminence gets a brief turn in the spotlight, often debunking and enhancing the mystique of greatness at the same moment. Most unexpectedly hilarious: E. M. Forster, needlessly protesting that his relations with D. H. Lawrence contained “no hint of impropriety.”

December 18, 2004

The Doomed Location

For a long time it was a mom and pop luncheonette, but as the place aged its customers did too, and when the old couple realized they would not be able to find a buyer for the business, they retired—there was nothing left to struggle toward. Since then it’s been one cutely named boutique after another, none of them lasting more than a couple of years. The stores on the next block do all right, and so do the stores on the previous block. Maybe it’s something about the traffic flow, or the way this block is at the middle of a hill, or an ugly juxtaposition of signs, or the way the sun glares in the gaps between buildings.

You happen to walk by on a crisp late fall afternoon: cool metallic skyshine, just enough breeze, the kind of day when everyone feels they’re doing the right thing. The new shopkeeper stands outside on a short ladder, stenciling the name of the place—a bakery, with a naughty–nice double entendre—on the window in winsome cursive. He’s a quietly friendly–looking guy, tall, lean, sandy–haired, with a face that’ll be craggy someday, as his grandchildren will remember in their dreams.

You stop and watch him at work. “Opening up soon?” you ask.

“We’re shooting for right after Christmas, maybe early January.”

You can’t tell him, of course. It’s not as if it’s something you know for certain. Maybe the past doesn’t always repeat, and anyway it would be crueler to tell him than not to. Maybe he even knows already—got a good deal on the rent, and is determined to defeat the curse.

As you watch the letters filling in, you can see just how he sees it, like in an artist’s representation of a mall: contented shoppers, clean sidewalks, perfect young trees. Then, maybe because he needs a rest, or maybe because he wants to lasso a future customer, he hops off his ladder and starts telling you his plans, pointing through the window at the various sections of the empty room.

“And we’ll put a couple of tables outside here,” he says smartly, “for people to sit and have a cup of coffee with their pastry…”

You stand and imagine it together. You can see it. You can see it clear as day.
Watching commercials with the sound off can be quite edifying. A commercial for an electric toothbrush: the appliance sits upright in its case on the bathroom sink. In strolls a lovely brunette wearing a white robe and a seductive halfsmile. With the sound off it's obvious from the appliance's position and the gleam in her eye that the commercial is also about a woman arriving for a date with her vibrator.
I'm finally figuring out how to create links on this thing—a significant ordeal for one of my pretechnological stripe.

I'll try out this new skill by recommending a couple of blogs I check regularly. The first is already known to many of my readers: Althouse. Ann provides cogent, insightful commentary on a wide range of phenomena in our world and in my old stomping ground of Madison, Wisconsin. Her forte is interpreting political developments through the lens of constitutional law. She also knows—and understands— a great deal about art.

Another one is G as in Good H as in Happy. The blogger, Dilys, is an Austin lawyer (not known personally to me) who's interested in ethics and the possibility of human happiness. She's widely read and offers lots of links to things I wouldn't usually read.

Both of these bloggers offer me the chance to encounter political views quite different from my own, expressed in literate, modulated, individualistic voices.

December 17, 2004

Dueling Mantras

One student meditates on the mantra, "There is no death." The student next to him meditates on the mantra, "There is no escape from death." Who reaches enlightenment?

December 16, 2004

Bumper sticker in Austin:

"News Is Fiction"

I don't know whether to believe it or not—it hasn't been confirmed in the media.

Feeding the Conqueror

The child ran ahead to the next zoo cage, shouting, “Look, Daddy, a conqueror!”

The conqueror hunkered alone at the rear of the cage, swinging his lowdown apelike arms. There was nothing in his cage, no tree, no tire swing, no climbing rope. Every time the zoo had given him some apparatus, some decoration, he had destroyed it. He spent his days crouching suspiciously in front of the rectangular hole that was the entrance to his sleeping chamber, making sure nothing entered.

The child read from the placard beside the cage: “’This conqueror was found starving in the desert, subsisting on sand grubs and small lizards. Like all of his species he is solitary, ferocious to his mate, and liable to eat his own offspring. Despite strenuous efforts, zoos throughout the world have had little success in getting two members of this species to remain in the same cage long enough to reproduce.…’ Look, Daddy, a man’s coming to feed him!”

The zookeeper tossed in chunks of raw meat, which the conqueror pounced upon, snarling. When the meat was gone the zookeeper tossed in a village, which the conqueror plundered, stamping it to dust. Then the zookeeper tossed in a nation, which the conqueror ripped to shreds and sprinkled on the ground like confetti from one of his parades.

“Wow, what a great conqueror!” the child said, surging toward the top of the fence.

December 15, 2004

So far I can say one thing definitely: I've got good readers. Thank you. And a big thanks to Ann Althouse for steering many of you to me and giving me the benefit of her experience.

Three things that are read bottom to top:

email reply sequences

blog post sequences

I Ching hexagrams

The 21st Century Esthetic

Stealth, precise targeting, and shock and awe: our versions of Joyce's silence, exile, and cunning.There's no such thing as being too brief. Put everything at the beginning. Sacrifice nuance for impact, and completeness for an intriguing impression. Leave off the last thing you want to say. And then...

The Medium

I’ve never been much of a McLuhanite but after three days I can already feel my work evolving in response to the demands and seductions of this new form. I started out intending to do something different from the usual blog – I would only put up polished prose pieces, not casual diaristic musings. A pure and severe approach to the blog. Now that feels impractical and contradictory, for simple reasons of time. It could take days or weeks to conceive and work up a polished story no matter how short. Meanwhile the blog would languish. This is a very forgiving medium—it forgives all kinds of sloppiness and shallowness and banality—but what it apparently won’t forgive are purity and severity and holding oneself to high standards. Which makes it, I suppose, the perfect form for our time. (The concept of a forgiving medium is in itself symptomatic of our time.)

Besides, casual diaristic jottings might ultimately turn out to have more charm and more historical value than polished pieces. So, yes, I might as well give myself the freedom to indulge in any sort of blithering about the wildlife in my backyard and what the folks in Austin TX are up to and how those nitwits in Washington won’t adopt my theories of government.

Perhaps someday the audience for all this will not be human beings but artificial intelligences, scanning at superspeed, hot to learn every single detail about who we were and how we lived.


Twenty years ago I was a novelist. Ten years ago I was a writer of short stories. These days I write one-page vignettes and quarter-page observations. This might be a good time to catch my work, before I become a writer of one-line slogans, then of single words, then of monosyllabic grunts, before shutting up for good.

December 14, 2004

Her Moment

She wasn’t always a flower arranger; she started out as a mere clipper who snipped the thorns and stem ends from the stalks before the arranger deigned to bestow attention on them. But then came a new fad, started by a famous arranger from the north, of greenery overshadowing blossoms. The meaning of the blossoms was still present in any arrangement but now something deeper called from the leaves: the highly colored blossom was where the general audience would stop—and well enough for them—but the sophisticated persisted and found the enduring secret of bud and blade, of lobe and tooth.

She was one of the first in her region to seize on the innovation, and in her few spare hours each day she toiled to master the grammar of frond and vein. She discovered a flair for it, like no other she had known, and adapted the esoteric new code from the bitter north into a warm little style that the ordinary eye could take in.

She became talked about. She made a name. She rented a grand studio with flamboyant, ever–changing window displays. She made money. It was her moment.

Then after a time the new style passed and a newer one took its place, a fad for cilia and roots.

People still liked the greenery style, but there was an air of nostalgia about it now: the people who bought it were the aging ones of her own era clinging to the past, plus a few younger people recycling her time for purposes she didn’t understand. Enough money came in from these sales to keep her going decently, though not in the lavish manner of her peak.

Then the nostalgia passed and people became nostalgia for later fads, while the newest thing once more was pure white blossom. She rented a smaller studio in an older part of town, where she continued making the greenery arrangements, not because she thought it was the best kind but because it was the only kind she knew how to make. Whenever she finished an arrangement, she placed it carefully in the window, and it stayed there, unadorned, for a long time.

She loved to browse in the shops where the newest flower arrangements were shown, though she could rarely afford to buy. It amazed her how many things people were doing that she would never have thought of. She liked the wistful feeling these new flowers stirred in her, the smile they put on her lips as she walked out the shop doors. Once in a while a shop manager would recognize her and invite her to tea in a back room.

“All my life has been built on one moment,” she would laugh modestly over the steaming cup. “An inspiration that began to fade almost as soon as it was born. It never came again. I could nurse it just long enough to build a life on. And now look where it’s taken me.”

And she walked home alone with small, careful steps, imagining that the world was looking at her, and reminding herself, “Oh, what a moment I had!”

December 13, 2004

The Grieving Monk

The roshi stamps barefoot into the hall, robes askew. Glaring at his students, he snarls, "My only child, my daughter, died today. So what?" He waits for someone to answer. He is looking at you. Answer him!

Flocking Behavior

Think of your mind not as a single entity but as a flock—a flock of birds. They move together spontaneously, clustered tightly without any physical connection, transmitting signals in a flash of wing, a tip of beak. The flock rises on a curve, slanting over a road or a telephone wire, swelling and flattening in response to air currents, angles of momentum, gravity. One bird takes the lead, then it tires and another comes to the fore, as the flock's path writes itself on the sky, exquisitely balanced between constraint and freedom. No telling what other routes it might have improvised given a different lead bird at a certain moment, a different gust of wind over a certain rooftop. Each turn, once made, is irrevocable, but everything afterward is left open.
This practice you're so proud of—this enlightenment you're so keen on reaching—is only one bird in the flock, or at most maybe a few bird–neighbors flying together in one corner. Every so often it's this bird's turn to lead the flock, and then the whole group mind turns in that direction. But after a while, a twitch of feather shows fatigue—you let air pressure push you back, while one of your flockmates surges toward the front—and you're chasing some other creature's glimpse of shadow.
The flock knows where to go. Fly within it. Accept the shifts and turns. If you strain against its direction you'll peel off alone, lost, beating vainly to catch up. Just wait for your turn to lead. And consider that someone else's lead may take you there faster than you yourself would have gotten.

The Allegory of Sitting

You sit down, adjust your posture, and it starts:
Okay, this time's going to be a good one—in, out, in, out—I'll remember what she said last week about not pushing too hard for enlightenment—that's not my problem, though I'm sure it's the problem of some of these other people here—in, out—should I say Om at the outbreaths or should I just observe the breaths?—it always takes me a little while to get settled, I need to get used to that—a lot of thoughts at first—should I think, "Thinking about…" or should I just welcome them and let them pass?—this ankle is going to cramp up in five minutes, I can tell—should I move it?—let it go, let it go—chin sinking, pick it up—don't forget to go to the cleaners' right after this—why? why is there dry cleaning?—this stupid robotic society—in, out, in, out—okay, starting to clear—starting to feel good—here comes that feeling—…—that was nice, it was light though, I've had better ones—ugh, I started thinking about it as soon as it happened, so it broke, I didn't go any deeper—I must just sit, I must just sit—no thoughts, clear sky, let the clouds pass idly—I smile and wave, "Hello, clouds!"—in, out—I'm being nonjudgmental, that's good—a bird's singing outside, and I noticed!—but I put it in words, I should try just to notice without having to comment to myself, "Oh a bird's singing outside…"—breathe, breathe, in, out—usually at this point I can start to sit straighter and concentrate more on just the breath—yeah, it's starting to happen—in, out, in, out—deeper, deeper—…—…—that was good, that was deep—oh, damn it, I did it again, labeling it to myself and it dissolves—well, is there anyone really who never has to do that—can she do that, is she completely enlightened?—I don't think so—sometimes in her talks she admits she isn't, but I think that's supposed to make us think she's just being modest and she really is—but I'll bet she really isn't—I mean, not like Milarepa or anyone—I can never possibly do this in this lifetime—all I can do is sit here and maybe even if I don't feel a single thing it'll help give me some credit for my next lifetime—yeah, in my next lifetime I'll be really enlightened—in, out, in, out, in, out—truck groaning outside—shut up, truck!—maybe I should open my eyes, would that work better?—the guy across the room always has his eyes open—but he seems so arrogant—how can he pretend to be so enlightened when he's so obviously arrogant?—forget him, forget him—starting to feel good again—oh yes—of course it's not about a blissful feeling—but how the hell else am I supposed to be able to tell what's happening?—and anyway bliss is better than pain isn't it?—if you're not going to be enlightened you might as well enjoy it—forget these thoughts, forget everything—clear away small mind, focus on big mind—I can do that, I've been doing this enough years—sitting nice and tall—"Look at her, she has good posture"—no, don't start scripting a drama!—just this, just this—better—okay, now—…—…—…—saliva in my mouth—well that's a sign of samadhi, isn't it?—but then I always wonder what to do about the saliva and that ruins it—why can't I just forget the saliva—so they'll think, "Ooh, she's drooling," so what?—maybe it's even a sign of great progress, drool spots on one's shirt—go back to basics, posture and breathing, you're never too advanced for that—wonder how long it's been—feels like at least ten minutes—if there's another ten minutes, I can do it, I can get back to samadhi—what if I suddenly achieved total realization today?—wouldn't that be something?—no one would ever expect it—but of course that's exactly when it should happen—"Who, her? She achieved total realization?"—Yes, and you can just lump it, buddy—then I'll be teaching them—one morning she'll be sick and I'll be the one who rings the bell and gives the talk—from then on I'll be known for my dharma insights, I'll be sought after—I wonder what the Dalai Lama is like as a person—maybe I'll meet him—would I want my students to call me by a title or just by my first name?—oh, shit, what am I thinking of, I should be ashamed of myself—just breathe, just breathe, just this, just this, in, out, in, out—that bell's going to ring soon, I can feel it—I wonder if I have ESP—I want to try that new coffee shop across from the bank, which reminds me, get some cash—
And there goes your sitting, and there goes your life.