Monday, December 6, 2010

The Stress of Technology as Exemplified by Microsoft

For many years I have been writing about Microsoft products and a great deal of my success has come in making difficult situations palatable for readers; however I have gotten to the point myself where the stress of using stuff that doesn’t improve over time has almost overwhelmed me.

It is interesting to note that as far back as January 2003 Bill Gates wrote a famous memo excoriating his subordinates for problems with Windows XP and MovieMaker software. Now XP is being clung to by many users for its relative stability.

Like many users I have come to depend upon the Office suite on a daily basis for doing my work; last year I wrote a book on Using Office 2010, the latest version and scratched my head over the added complexity in order to adopt a few new features (the exception is PowerPoint which was markedly enhanced).

But these days I rely mainly on Outlook for my email and calendar; on my laptop I am still using Outlook 2007 and Windows Vista.

Last week, from one moment to the next, the Outlook slowed down in sending out email and eventually just crashed every time I tried, bring up a pale white screen that informed me it wasn’t responding and had to be shut down.

The same symptoms started happening with Internet Explorer—I suspected a virus but I use a Microsoft security suite which showed nothing wrong, and also scanned the system with another service.

The problem occurred in the evening and I thought I might have solved it before going to bed, but then it began again in the morning and I realized that unless I did some serious troubleshooting I would be unable to send and receive email or surf the web normally.

I had already done several System Restores, each taking about 15-20 minutes to try to revert my system to a time when it worked properly. I went on Google and found many references to similar problems, and over the next day and a half, here is a partial list of things I did to solve the issue:

Uninstall and reinstall Office – twice.

Run Office Diagnostics and fix

Try alternative browsers and email programs – couldn’t connect properly and the browser crashed

Tried to use Google Gmail – didn’t retrieve all of my old email in timely manner

Install service packs 1 and 2 for Vista – each taking an hour to download and another hour to install
Try to replace faulty files in Windows folder

Try to fix several registry entries manually

Use Safe Mode for Outlook 2007 – this actually got me my email to send and receive but limited some other Outlook features

Installed two cleaning programs and purchased a license for Registry Mechanic to try to fix installation and registry problems

Got rid of my Outlook data file and replaced it with a smaller file

At each turn I considered the prospect of reinstalling Vista and all of my programs clean – something I used to have to do at least once a year just to keep Windows running – but which meant hours of restoring settings and looking for programs on disk and online.

Finally the second Vista service pack and running Outlook 2007 in Safe Mode – obviously not an optimal solution, stopped the crashes in Internet Explorer and enabled me to use my email with stability and reliability… finally.

Needless to say I was exhausted by the time I reached this point and was grateful for any solution—even one as unsatisfactory as using a scaled down version of my Outlook email program.

OK – I know many readers have had similar experiences. I know of many users how have taken computers to friends or places like Best Buy to get them to work properly—and frequently they simply break down from one moment to the next.

The question is why can’t a company like Microsoft get it right? (I know many readers will suggest using Apple, and that is an appealing option except that many people have invested in Microsoft software and compatible hardware, know the programs, and Apple does sometimes have its own issues).

They key point here is that Gates’ memo was written in 2003.

We all experienced the old hourglass when things froze much earlier—and now, with Vista and Windows 7, all that seems to have changed is the hourglass has been replaced with a spinning squiggly circle to let us know things are not happening – or sometimes a shiny green slider bar.
Most of us need to rely on Google or an IT department to provide answers, if they even exist. Typing something like “Outlook crashes when sending email” can get you hundreds of possible suggestions—and if you can understand the explanations you might even find a few on Microsoft’s own web site.

And this is almost 30 years since the operating system was first created, and about two decades into Microsoft Office.

And yet – “upgrades” to these products are foisted on us every two years! Each one is chock full of new features, but the one thing we all crave – stability and reliability –apparently cannot be achieved.

We can all joke about this stuff as they do in the Mac and PC ads on TV, and shrug and muddle through, but I believe that this lack of accountability and control is taking its toll on many peoples’ psyches – I know it did on mine last week.

First there is the stress of not being able to work properly and be responsive professionally.
Then there is the added stress of trying to fix the problem and wondering if it is even soluble.
At root is the sense of things out of control and beyond our capacity to fix.

This sense is exacerbated when watching TV news, and sensing that the same symptoms are happening on a larger scale planet wide, and certainly in Washington DC.

On a more mundane level, the Microsoft experience is repeated daily with things that have gotten more complicated each time they change – like ATMs, credit cards, cell phones, satellite and cable systems, remote control and now even parking meters which demand credit cards.
Is the answer denial, withdrawal, meditation, therapy – or just acceptance?

Perhaps it’s the reason one in nine people now suffer from depression.

Our corporations like Microsoft promise so much in their advertising—would it be too much to ask that they at least deliver on some of their promises and provide a product that works stably and reliably after it’s been on the market for nearly three decades?

I don’t know what the answer is—I need to “reboot” regularly with a nap and reach for my cat.
Sometimes I think about Maui or Costa Rica, but I wonder if I can count on an Internet connection.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Blast from the Remote Past

Sixty years ago when I was a tiny boy in Vienna my parents had a nanny named Elsie with a young daughter, Sylvie. We were playmates as Elsie was close to my mom, and recently I remembered how much it hurt to leave them behind when we began the long journey to the U.S.
Many years later when my parents retired Elsie and her husband came down from Canada and visited; I can barely remember the occasion but I do recall how much my mom savored the reconnection.

Then, a couple of weeks ago on Facebook I received a message asking, “Are you the Tom Bunzel who was born in Vienna?”

The profile showed the portrait of a horse, and I knew immediately who this was. Elsie had mentioned how her daughter her taken to horses when they moved to Canada. An hour or so later I was chatting with Sylvia, whom I had known as a young boy as Sylvie.
It was remarkable how our humor and attitudes ran parallel, although our lives c
ould not have been different. Sylvia runs a bookstore and manages a farm with 20 cats and livestock. She’s been married for 40 years and has three children; I never married.

My ego got stroked by how she found me; apparently she had seen one of my technology books in a Canadian bookstore.

Both of our memories of Vienna are dim but we both stirred some recollections out of the cobwebs.

For me the main memory is of a bombed out divided city where my Czech parents were afraid of being caught or dragged outside the American sector.

Sylvie later told me a funny story about getting punished for letting a bunch of caged rabbits loose in the countryside—she was an animal lover early. She mentioned getting spanked and I know that my bottom also got it on a few occasions.

Then we arranged a video call on Skype. I was both excited and apprehensive and it was a bit odd for two older people who hadn’t seen one another for decades to suddenly be face to face.
Sylvia had two cats crawling over her and with my recent adoption of a cat we had lots to talk about on that score.

As we described our respective pasts, I was struck about how similarly difficult her acclimation to her new country was from my own.

I described how my first day in kindergarten the well meaning students had been prompted by the teacher to “help me learn English”, and they held up objects yelling, “pencil,” “pen,” “eraser,” “chalk” and so on until I cried and was overwhelmed. It wasn’t until another teacher took an interest in me helped me learn how to read that I settled down and could go to school without crying.

Sylvie had had a similar experience – she had not been allowed to begin school for a year because she still spoke only German, which put her a year behind.

I was struck by how much this person who was a relative stranger on the one hand shared with me in terms of a common life experience during our formative years—experiences and feelings which wouldn’t have been similarly understood by many of my closest friends.

I tried to evoke memories of my parents and a connection to my distant past and felt bad that I couldn’t come up with memories that might help her. At times I felt a bit awkward and distant, and yet at others the reminder of a legacy that goes without attention for days or weeks at a time reminded me of who I am and where I came from.

Many of my more recent memories of my parents are from their time in retirement in California, and sometimes I can go back to my boyhood in New York.

But here was a link to a childhood that I know still affects me, and yet which I largely know mainly from my parents’ description.

But the kind and funny woman who I saw in the webcam made that personal history real in a way that no photograph or dim memory could. As we shared more of our parents’ early difficulties and our own experiences growing up, it was as though a new pathway reopened to my earliest years.

A day later the impact of this sudden opening is still with me. I can only wonder how the man I am today was formed by experiences that occurred when Sylvie and I were playmates, and which we can barely even recall together today.

For me, it’s interesting to consider how just a few years ago I might have resisted even opening this small door to my distant past, preferring to leave the comfort of my present circumstances undisturbed.

But now I saw the synchronicity as amazing and exciting, as I reflect more deeply on just exactly who I really am, where I came from and why I showed up here in the first place.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Toward a New Theory of Bio-Relativity?

One of the most common phrases scientists have used when talking about a search of for other life is to possibly find “life as we know it.” This is a telling phrase because so much of what we can experience depends precisely on who and what we are.

As neuroscience advances, it is getting closer and closer to locating thought and ideas at the molecular level, and as such a field is evolving known as “bio-physics.”

It may be worth speculating then whether just as Einstein revolutionized Newtonian physics with his Special and General Theories of Relativity, it would now be appropriate to consider new theories that take into account the nature of the human being him/herself—and with it the very nature of consciousness.

If we assume that consciousness—whatever it is—manifests through our physical being while we live, it is obvious that the nature of consciousness is a function of at a minimum the circuitry of our brain, and as is becoming more and more apparent, also the entire physiology of our body/mind.

And we can probably surmise that consciousness is evolving. We know that embryos go through the various stages of evolution from single cell organisms, to reptiles, to mammals and finally humans.

We also sometimes talk about a “Reptilian” brain, which is presumably more primitive, reactionary and less capable of warmth or compassion than a mammalian brain. We might even presume that compassion evolved with warm blooded mammals, and among some humans at least, it is hopefully still evolving.

When I look at my cat, I can get a sense of warmth and love but I also know instinctively that if I try to “figure out what she’s thinking”, I am wasting my time. She is also reacting in many ways—and she is literally on a different frequency than I am—with some overlap which involves shared needs and a bond that can gradually develop.

I think where Eckhart Tolle refers in his writing to knowing some cats as “zen masters,” what he means is that because they don’t have an egoic mind like humans, they are always in the present, and so when they repose they exude a sense of calm that many humans would envy.

So again, while it may seem obvious to the point of irrelevance, what we know, experience and can see is a function of the frequency on which we’re operating. In fact, our eyes can see only a certain range of light; but through instruments we know other frequency are operating and influencing; for example gamma or x-rays which are beyond our ability to naturally perceive. Similarly dogs hear in a range beyond our own, and dolphins communicate with sound in ways we need instruments to monitor.

So as our study of consciousness and mind goes to the subatomic or quantum level, what does the Einsteinian model of relativity potentially suggest for being itself?

General Relativity as I understand it says that it is the geometry of space and time which is influenced by whatever matter is present – space is curved – and gravitational forces bend space so that time is relative and truly moves at a different rate depending upon where you are—it’s “relative.”

Special Relativity says that the laws of physics (nature) are the same for observers in uniform motion relative to each other and the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers.

A famous example is of an observer on the ground watching an airplane overhead, on which a flight attendance is walking. Her speed for the observer on the ground will be different than for someone seated on the plane; there is no objective motion—everything is linked to a frame of reference (of an observer).

How might we slightly adjust some of these concepts—speculatively—to a theory of being or consciousness?

Well, our frame of reference, besides being a function of where we are, is also a function of what we are.

If we begin with the fact of our existence and bodily nature, we can say that what we can know or experience is a direct function of our being; for example, we perceive in a space of three dimensions so that if other dimensions exist, they would be beyond our direct perception.
Science generally presupposes that what we are is all that there is, or is all that is knowable.

But though we might not be able to measure or completely comprehend it—we know that we have a mind; perhaps we can make a leap of faith that nothing can exceed the speed of mind.

If we consider that a mind functions through thought—where is a thought? Presumably in the quantum space between two neural cells as they “fire.” This may well make a thought outside of space/time in the same way that a subatomic particle may appear or disappear beyond cause and effect.

Perhaps not mathematically, but more poetically, we might then create a formula something like
M=C/P –

or Mind is the result of consciousness based on physiology – our software running through our hardware and expressed, as Epigenetics has suggested, through our genetic code responding to the environment.
These concepts would shift the assumption of science that nature is objectively knowable to a more reasonable position that it is only knowable based upon our observation of it—and the nature of the observer is a critical and generally ignored factor.

This concept was known as “being in the world”—seeing existence as a process by the philosophical school of Phenomenology and much of today’s “new age” thinking deals with the potential of knowing ourselves better so that nature becomes more understandable to us and we evolve in some way.

Certainly the absence of such a position is at the heart of scientific efforts to “control” nature with the assumption that we can know it objectively without taking into account our own being and participation in its processes, have yielded disastrous results and miscalculations.

As neuroscience delves more deeply into our brain and our “being”, however, if we begin to think in terms of relative scale to the subatomic and perhaps even the astronomical, we may begin to fathom and ultimately discern the true nature of mind or consciousness.

One effort along these lines is the trend toward meditation and its scientific basis—where we can change our nature (human alchemy) and thereby experience life differently—and alter our own reality.

And as we decode our genetic makeup (with vast areas of “junk DNA” that is simply not decodable or knowable at present) we can get a sense that higher levels of intelligence might become knowable and accessible—perhaps even intelligence that is not dependent on physical form for existence or influence.

Our very sense of life “as we know it” would expand—and with it we might get a more realistic sense of our true relative position in the universe, as sense of awe, reverence or purpose we may have of which we’ve been unaware, and strike a balance and harmony with existence/nature, instead of trying to control and manipulate it.

Such an opening and change in our attitude to existence may also, I would suggest, make it possible to connect with higher levels of life and intelligence which have to this point been largely hidden from us, as we’ve evolved from only the single cell organisms of eons ago to human beings at an evolutionary crossroads, and still largely unaware of our true nature, mind and purpose.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reconcile or Perish

The heartbreak of watching television, particularly the news, is seeing the apparent chasm of understanding between the two hugely polarized segments of society, here in the U.S. and also around the world.

To summarize the essence of the conflict as I see it:

On the one hand there are Traditionalists who adhere to a strict set of moral standards that they firmly believe come from a higher power that renders those ideas sacrosanct and immutable.

On the other side there are what we might call Progressives that believe we can "improve" the circumstances of human existence according to ideas that come from human beings and that scientific advancement, along with removing past moral divides among people, will create a better world.

The choice of terms or names is not meant to favor either of these camps over the other.

The heartbreak, for me, is to see both sides mauling one another verbally and sometimes even physically, and generally parroting the pronouncements of the most shrill and extreme proponents of their respective positions, without any compassion or understanding of the other side.

To watch cable news in particular is to never see spokespeople for either side actually listen, take in, weigh and appreciate the point of view of the other.

To allude to a Christian concept, or actually one attributed to a spiritual master named Jesus, the idea of loving one's neighbor as oneself, and thereby at least being open to his/her ideas, is absent from current dialog.

To see children thrust into these disputes, carrying placards and voicing ideas that they have gotten from others, is even more disturbing.

Clearly if these two camps cannot somehow be reconciled, our society is in serious peril. To his credit Obama mentioned this in his campaign but for various reasons his administration has so far been unable to effect a way of letting both sides hear the other and work out their differences.

I believe that a road to reconciliation may exist if we align the two camps to what they hold sacred; for the Traditionalists that would be God or Religion; for the Progressives that would be their God or Religion, namely science (or what man has discovered and achieved).

Perhaps the preeminent proponent of the Scientific perspective would be Stephen Hawking, who in his lastest book, The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, has attempted to strip all mention of God out of any explanation of reality, claiming essentially that natural phenoma alone can explain existence and that a "multiverse" came into existence out of nothing.

On the surface, this point of view flies in the face of the Traditionalists and Religious community.

But what was interesting was to see these ideas discussed on of all things The Larry King Show, and to hear Deepak Chopra "take in" the Hawking/Mlodinow ideas and describe them lovingly as actually embracing both the sacred and the idea of higher consciousness.

What Chopra suggested as he questioned the co-author, Mlodinow (with whom he will now collaborate on a new book) is that the very natural laws on which Hawking bases is complete theory of everything are at their base… Intelligent –of an order of intelligence much higher and far vaster than what ordinary common sense would have us believe.

When Quantum Physics demonstrates that at the subatomic level particles behave or exist only according to how they are observed, that firmly places an 800 lb. gorilla into the domain of science—namely Consciousness.

Whether you use the term "God" or "Natural Law" to refer to higher levels of intelligence or consciousness that are being discovered at the macro and micro-cosmic levels makes no difference—clearly such energies, forces or realities are now accepted by both camps under different names.

From this perspective, with a sense of awe of the unknowable that seems to lie at the heart of smallest and the grandest scales of at least our portion of the "multiverse", I would submit that the Scientific Progressives might offer an olive branch to the Traditionalists by acknowledging that certain things are in fact sacred or simply "higher": for example, Life.

After all, for all of our advances we have still not managed to create life out of non-life; we can only manipulate life for our purposes.

Now before Progressives excoriate me for threatening womens' reproductive rights let me say that this doesn't necessarily mean the adoption of one extreme belief or another.

Rather, it should merely represent the first step for showing respect for one aspect of the beliefs of the Traditionalists; Life is not possible without a degree of Consciousness—whether we call that God or simply higher form of Intelligence or Energy.

One would hope that once the scientific community can come to this conclusion and become open to the concept of the higher or the sacred, that the less extreme members of the Traditional camp will similarly open and accept some of the tenets of the Progressives—namely that we are all expressing the same genes (or God's children) and worthy of respect.

In a nutshell, we are not better than them—we literally are them. We're all really the same stuff.

One would hope that this sort of reconciliation in the middle might lead to a way for new leaders to emerge and truly begin to solve the many problems facing our society by respecting the foundational beliefs of both sides, as they begin to come together.

Unfortunately this can only be achieved if we begin to re-examine and alter our attention and subjugation to the mass media, because clearly the FOX/Traditional and the CNN/Progressive channels have a vested interest in continuing to foster hostility and controversy.

I believe that this is where the Internet comes in. If the Internet and social media can foster a new paradigm of communication that is not based on advertising and conflict (and mass consumption) but rather participation and acceptance, reconciliation has a chance.

At its core, true social media is exactly that, embracing the social and cooperative and rejecting the zero sum concept of limited resources and winners and losers. It represents reconciliation through listening and understanding.

It's important that individuals embrace the values of openness and tolerance for other ideas and perhaps even change their own points of view if properly influenced, so that the social institutions that are currently unable to transcend sharp divisions can do so and begin to function effectively once again.

The essence of such an attitude is compassion; I happen to believe it is of a higher order of intelligence in the same way that consciousness or life is, and that if we don't begin to manifest it in significant ways we're in serious trouble, both domestically and globally.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tools of Engagement: How the World of Communication is Changing

I'm proud to announce that my new book, "Tools of Engagement:  Presenting and Training in a World of Social Media," is now available at As someone who has written extensively on video and presentation, I wanted this book to reflect the many changes that are impacting how we communicate with each other using technology.

The main theme of the book is that where presentations used to be targeted one-time events, they are now part of an ongoing conversation, and while authority figures may still claim the main podium, all presenters subject to a new democratic set of expectations of participation and engagement by their audience.

I strongly urge anyone with a message to avoid a "broadcast mentality" and simply give a PowerPoint presentation—and hope for the best. Such a strategy is doomed to failure today on many levels.

First there is the expectation of engagement and participation by any modern audience. Audiences expect a speaker or expert to have done a lot of research into their needs, and to be transparent and available online prior and subsequent to any presentation or event for interaction and feedback.

Whether the information is for internal or public consumption, a speaker today needs to have a presence, either through a blog, YouTube channel, Facebook group or event page, or some other interactive venue where the audience can get in touch and develop a sense of who they are—and often begin to interact with the speaker and become involved in the material directly.

There is also the phenomenon of the "Backchannel"; which is the reality that many of those attending any presentation are actively commenting and reacting with smartphones or PDAs, so that if the speaker is not aware of the sense of the audience, or engaged with the commentary, he or she will be tuned out.

Getting a sense of the reality of social media allows a presenter or trainer to be attuned to the needs of an audience and provide significant value. In terms of ordinary PowerPoint—it's the difference between trying to impress an audience with a spinning logo and information about YOU, as opposed to leading with insightful questions and foreknowledge of issues of importance to your audience.

For example, if a presenter has been active on blogs, monitoring and participating in Twitter and Facebook, or uploading video or images relevant to their field, they will generally find a receptive and knowledgable audience eager to hear more and open to calls to action.

These ideas have been well documented and presented in popular books like Groundswell, Tribes and Trust Agents, so what I've tried to do in my book is to provide some examples of the actual social and desktop tools and how to make them work effectively together.

For example, while PowerPoint is a staple for live presentations, its stale title and bullet slides are old hat, and professional speakers generally opt for more powerful visuals using image metaphors, analogies and diagrams. What I try to do is suggest how social tools like YouTube can set the stage for PowerPoint prior to an event, and then YouTube and its cousins SlideShare and AuthorStream (presentation hosting sites) can become powerful sources of additional content to maintain a connection with an audience.

I am also a big believer in the new web conferencing technologies which provide instant communication with a large group of attendees, but have the issues of maintaining a connection with an invisible audience, using just the power of the speaker's voice, message and visuals and graphics. In a world where getting anywhere is proving to be a challenge, going to a virtual event is proving very popular, but it has its own set of rules, risks and rewards.

What I want to do in Tools of Engagement is provide a reader with enough ideas and scenarios to spark the imagination in whatever his or her field may be—from an entrepreneur to a marketing executive at a large organization, to engage their colleagues and customers in ways that make the style of presentation effective and valuable.

I conclude the book with some speculation as to how social media and its impact on the organization may be evolutionary, in my hope that as a new "worldwide nervous system" the social Internet will either force or simply shift organizations to be more responsive to human and planetary needs, as opposed to simply making profits for shareholders.

Certainly it seems as though brands are having to listen more and more to customers online—we can only hope that this trend also translates into more than just public relations initiatives but eventually, with the instant involvement of customers and workers through the web—to a more natural and real awareness of higher values, like cooperation, philanthropy, compassion and wisdom.

If you're interested in discussing issues raised in the book, please feel free to comment here and perhaps we can demonstrate the power of social tools for engagement in a flourishing dialog.




Monday, August 16, 2010

Twitter and the Power of Now

I've been intrigued for some time by the attraction of Twitter to the social media crowd, and more specifically the concept of @Jeff Pulver, the creator of the 140Conf, about the "real time Internet" and immediate communication.

Last week they had a reunion cocktail party at a trendy bar in Hollywood and you couldn't help but be impressed by the energy in the crowd. Everyone was upbeat and thrilled to reconnect in person with those with whom they'd been in touch electronically, and much of the time was also spent taking pictures together which were immediately posted online.

A cynic might well judge that much of these connections are superficial, but if one opens one's mind to what might really be happening, Pulver may be onto something.

Like many my age I had an initial aversion to the triviality of much of Twitter and the seeming irrelevance of much of what comes through. I got into trouble early on when I commented sarcastically when one of the Twitter heavyweights let everyone his plane was taking off, and I tweeted essentially, "So what?" It was later explained to me that while it may have been pointless to me, it had significance to some of his followers, and that's why he wrote it.

Beyond the spam and the "brand building" there is the sense of being ultimately connected in a world in which the soul is screaming out for being part of a larger meaningful whole.

While an older person like me might scoff at minions checking in and "connecting" endlessly on their iPhones and Blackberries, I got a profound taste of it today.

As I was thinking about this I received an email from a close friend letting me know that he had just had successful emergency surgery and was recovering well—I had had no idea.

My initial instinct was to email back, but instead I picked up the phone and was able to hear his voice and reassure him with mine—it was truly the power of now.

Eckhart Tolle of course wrote a book by that title, and while it may appear that tweeting is the antithesis to being in the moment—as it may appear an incessant distraction—from the perspective of many who are its adherents it seems to connect them in a larger network in which they know about earthquakes, as well as Michael Jackson's death, in the moment.

How this ultimately plays out is anyone's guess. When others ask me about Twitter I tend to suggest that the key is filtering those who you follow with Lists to keep it relevant—but who is to say?

One of the tenets of meditation and being in the "Now" is to focus on one's connection with all beings. Another is to sense compassion and understanding for others. Both of these are actually components of Twitter, where sometimes there seems to be compassion for people one doesn't even know.

That's why on another level it was refreshing to see people hugging at a cocktail party with those they'd only previously "met" as "@+identities" online.

Is the depth of connection between those who connect online comparable to that with an old friend from high school who has just faced a life crisis?

The ego would be quick to judge it as an emphatic no. But maybe it is precisely this aspect of connection—it's ability to transcend individual ego—that is most significant.

But what if evolution toward community is a real global phenomenon that is critical to the survival of our species? That's the thesis of one biologist, Bruce Lipton, who believes that we are literally learning to reprogram our own genetics toward cooperation from competition, in his book The Biology of Belief.

Then even if many tweets seem irrelevant, our exercising this new nervous system with which to stay connected might actually be meaningful in a larger context. Since we're only at the beginning, maybe opening our minds to the power of now, online, is something we should seriously consider.




Friday, June 11, 2010

We Really Don’t Know Very Much

For the past year and a half I've been privileged to know a very prominent psychologist who combines her discipline with extensive work in the incredible field of neuroscience.

And, recently I experienced some profound changes—I recognized that I had shifted my outlook and way of relating to others in a way that probably was the result of a specific physiological change (possibly in my brain) and asked about it from a scientific perspective when she replied with the words that are the title of this blog: "We really don't know very much."

I was taken aback and shaken by this remark for a number of reasons—at first it was a shock because if anyone could give me an answer to why my life had changed by adopting a cat, it was her. She has advanced degrees, years of research and experience, and incredible insight. Yet that was her initial response.

But her subsequent explanation of my response was more poetic and metaphorical than one might expect from a scientist – she said that I had opened a door into another area with unknown results, and I was experiencing a depth of emotion I hadn't let in previously.

I couldn't argue with this description. The undeniable reality is that since I let another small living being into my life, and connected and let it attach itself to me and show mutual affection, many things that used to weigh me down seem less significant.

But does that mean the cat is like Prozac? Does it directly affect specific areas of the brain or emotions in ways we can document and understand?

My understanding is that the actual effects of chemicals like Prozac aren't entirely understood either; for one thing the results vary from person to person. Certainly there are volumes written about how drugs work with the brain chemistry and activate other chemicals like serotonin, or inhibit them.

And science goes on to unearth a tremendous amount of information about how we work, our world, and even the universe; for example, we seem to "know" that the universe is over 14 billion years old.

But returning to the psychologist's remark, I think what really troubles most thinking and feeling people is that yes – we really don't know jack about things that are really important.

That's because despite our worship of science and technology, the really big questions either cannot or will not be addressed by science.

For example, this 14 billion year old universe – what the heck is it? Why is it here? Why are we here? Where did it come from? Where did everything else come from? And so on.

The last time many of us raised these questions we were children and our parents and perhaps a teacher indulged us briefly but then gently patted us on the head and suggested we not concern ourselves with such matters.

When I studied philosophy in college I discovered that the prevailing school of thought in academia simply dismissed these types of questions as "unknowable" and redefined philosophy to those things we could know with conviction, narrowing its scope to a degree that make it, to my mind, irrelevant.

Other schools of philosophy did address areas of "being" and "existence", but these were excommunicated outside the bounds of holy science and thinkers like Sartre and Camus were seen more as novelists. Other philosophers in this realm, whom I read, remain relatively obscure even though they were courageous enough to attempt to introduce concepts only recently embraced by quantum physics: that knowing anything without taking the "knower" into account (namely that illusive thing we sometimes call consciousness) makes any attempted explanation of reality incomplete and erroneous.

Indeed even Einstein, who probably knew more than almost anyone else on the planet about how things may really be, made frequent mystical remarks about his own relative ignorance in the face of all that might be knowable.

Why is this so important?

Because when we think we really know stuff, individually and as a species, we really screw up.

For example, we know that more is better and more profit is best of all, so maximizing shareholder value is more important than taking into account the well being of the planet that sustains us.

This is only the most currently obvious example of our ignorance of our own ignorance.

Fortunately it may serve to make many more people raise the question of priorities and what is really important and at stake for our species.

At the same time many individuals and groups are engaged in various paths of "personal growth" similar to what ultimately led me to the conversation with the psychologist.

There are many different versions of what may be "other doors" that can be opened at various times that bring a different level of insight and experience beyond the logical.

At the same time, an attitude that must be nurtured to sustain these sorts of activities is one of comfort with "not knowing." Another psychologist I know uses the phrase "I don't know is a good place to be."

On the other hand, when we interact or particularly when we consume mass media, we are bombarded with people who seem to be very certain of a particular truth.

But only relatively recently has the prevailing attitude of the public turned to rampant cynicism, to the point where if you try to sell a product , service or idea, you'd better have more than just facts but the concrete experience of other people to back you up to sustain credibility.

What people are slowly discovering, I believe, is that what is really true is also a function of who and what we are – and as we study that we constantly fall into error, get in our own way, and come up against our own physical, mental and perhaps spiritual limitations in our quest.

Go back to the age of the universe. It's easy to say the words, "14 billion years" – but can you really grasp the meaning or scale of that span of time?

Is it not likely that anything that "lives" or exists for such a span is beyond the comprehension of a being that lives for perhaps 1200 months, with a brain that evolved over perhaps less than a million years?

And yet we can seem to connect with such an experience, sometimes briefly and fleetingly, but not with the part of the brain that "knows" the age of the universe, but rather the part of the brain that feels it.

That's why adopting a cat changed my life. It altered my daily experience in ways that are unfathomable without engaging the other part of the brain – that part that laughs at the cat's antics, loves the feel of its fur, and is constantly surprised by its independent being and vitality, and particularly relishes its love as it licks my hand or nose in greeting and warmth.

Perhaps in the next century geneticists and scientists will map the chromosomes and neural circuits that make these reactions possible, and graph them to within milliseconds of the response.

But they still will not touch the meaning of my connection with the cat, or with other humans, unless they take into account "the other doors" that we sometimes open– those parts of existence that defy our current logic.

Some branches of science – like quantum physics and astronomy are already there – coming up against incongruities in reality that are functions of our own limitations as beings.

14 billion years. Billions of galaxies as big as the Milky Way. Don't think about it—you can't. Just feel its meaning—we really don't know very much.



Thursday, June 3, 2010

Human Hubris – “We Created Life (In a Lab)”

Several weeks ago we were treated to the following headline on CNN, "Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced Thursday that he and his team have created artificial life for the first time."

Under closer scrutiny, it turns out that Venter's team had used code created on a computer to sequence DNA that was then placed in an already living bacteria, and "reprogrammed" it – they used the term "booted it up."

This speaks again to two important points.

First, that there is an underlying aspect of natural life that follows logical laws and programs that can be altered genetically, just as we reprogram software in our PCs. If I change the code for a web page, for example, it displays differently in a web browser. Turns out if I change the genetic structure of a cell, it behaves differently.

But then the second question arises, where did the cell itself come from? – it turns out that it is life that was already in existence – it was not "created" in a laboratory.

And based on the genetic code, what is it really doing? It is interacting with an environment according to laws being unearthed daily by geneticists, biologists and even quantum physicists and more and more we discover that is doing so intentionally.

Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief describes his own epiphany as a biological researcher when he discovered that the same single cell bacteria with identical DNA will behave differently in different environments (they don't really have brains). It led him to the conclusion that the brain of the cell is not the nucleus (or the DNA, which we can now sequence) but rather the cellular membrane, that exchanges energy with the environment and in effect decides what to do next.

In the computer analogy with life, it turns out that what we can replicate genetically is simply the code, which is amazing enough, but using the web page analogy, it means that we know how to rewrite the HTML, but we still have no idea of how to create a "natural" web browser (the organism that manifests the code and responds to input from the user and the Web (environment) -- or the intelligence behind it.

The problem for our civilization is becoming more and more apparent.

Our incredible scientific achievements have certainly given us what seems like mastery over our environment – until an event like the BP Oil Spill occurs.

I believe that the reason this is so troubling to so many people is that it is a stark reminder that we're not as smart as we think we are, and that when we follow our analytical minds at the expense of our emotional senses in the belief that "we know better", we get into some serious trouble.

I might add that it is not just BP that is at fault. Our entire culture has blindly followed the flag of "progress" and technology to this brink of self extermination—to the extent that we drive on the freeway and power our air conditioners, we are all part of the problem.

BP itself is an interesting phenomenon. It is a corporation comprised of organic beings but dedicated to an abstract concept – profit. One could say that its DNA (corporate bylaws?) program it one task – maximizing shareholder value.

Where does its lofty mission statement fit in? Probably in that part of the corporate brain that is similar to our own – dedicated to rationalization and self delusion.

The Oil Spill is just the latest in many events that dramatize our disconnection from the natural universe of which we are a part (and now technologically apart).

If you read the mission statements of credit card companies, tech firms, law firms and any other corporate entity, and compare them to their actual behavior you will see the same disconnect.

Watch commercials on television and you will think these are wonderful companies creating products and services for the benefit of mankind. Get into a conflict with any corporate entity and discover how human they are as you try to navigate through a voicemail menu specifically designed to keep you from talking to another human being.

The same technology that has provided so many real benefits to mankind, and many through corporations that have brought them to market, has also now separated many of us from our own natural feelings and better instincts in order to achieve what the mass media suggests will satisfy us – wealth, fame, a full head of hair, and so on.

No wonder so many people are on antidepressants and unhappy – even when they have attained many of the material rewards our culture can provide.

In his book (and upcoming film) Life Inc., Douglas Rushkoff maintains that "most Americans have so willingly adopted the values of corporations that they're no longer even aware of it."

To me that is why the BP Oil Spill is a wakeup call. As we discover inevitably (as 60 Minutes has already reported) that the entire episode might have been avoided if safeguards and regulations had been put into place – but for the exigencies of profit and performance (getting the oil out faster), maybe people will realize the consequences of making real corporate values of pure profit (and not their mission statements) as priorities.

Of course in this case it is so dramatic and tragic how these values impact not only the human species, but all life on the planet and particularly the oceans. While global warming is in the headlines, the oceans have already taken many body blows with toxic chemicals and wastes and many "dead zones" where no life can exist. This will only make it much worse.

The question is whether this will truly wake us up? Many humans and animals will suffer, to be sure, and the extent is yet to be determined—every gallon that leaks into the sea increases the jeopardy for organic life on the planet.

It is interesting that many (and I include myself) see social media as a hopeful sign for calling corporate entities to account and reintroducing the voices of individual humans into the discussions of what matters most in our world.

So far, predictably, there is a movement to boycott BP on Twitter and that certainly has its place.

But I think we need to look much more deeply into our entire relationship with the natural world out of which we come, and in which we live. We need to realize that we still cannot "create life"; we can manipulate it and certainly threaten it and maybe even make ourselves extinct.

Or we can continue our evolution by reexamining our relationship with the natural world, with our scientific breakthroughs as a guide, and realize that whether you believe the natural world was created, evolved or just simply is – it represents a level of mind and intelligence far beyond our own, and when we think we know better, we do so at our peril.

Life, the earth, existence and indeed the universe itself is sacred in a way that transcends all of our arguments about religion or philosophy. We've shot a puny spacecraft out of the solar system; the universe is vaster than we can even comprehend or imagine.

We are better served by also feeling and sensing our rightful relationship with what is – and consciously proceeding based on a degree of reverence that it sometimes takes a disaster to make us understand.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Feline with Benefits

It's been almost two weeks since I adopted my cat, Eva, and we've both needed to adjust and have learned more about each other.

Probably because of her sense of security, Eva is not as affectionate as she seemed to be when she first arrived. She basically conned me into thinking that she was going to be a real snuggly little beast; the first afternoon, possibly because she was unsure, she burrowed into my armpit and let me hold and stroke her.

This continued the next couple of nights, but then abruptly her nocturnal nature kicked in, and she decided that nighttime was for frolicking, not nuzzling. When I left the bedroom door open she would jump up when I was going to sleep, and accept a few strokes, but soon enough she had her own agenda.

Sometimes she wanted to hop on my chest and legs – not conducive to sleep – and then she brought her favorite toy, a little felt mouse, into the bed and wrestled with it. I decided to toss it out the door, which was a big mistake, because for Eva that became an invitation to a game of fetch, and the faster the mouse was tossed, the more rapidly she was back on the bed with it.

I felt bad but by the fourth or fifth night I knew I had to close the bedroom door to get some sleep, and let her explore the living room. I felt really guilty and worried that she would be crying outside the door or scratching to get in, but Eva doesn't seem to be the sentimental type – she accepted her exile gracefully and was none the worse for it the next morning when I opened the door at 5:30 (out of guilt) to let her in.

Unfortunately she came barreling in with her toy mouse expecting that I was eager to play.

Not so much.

It was at this point that part of me began wondering whether this had been a mistake. But I managed to extend the time before bedroom access until later and later in the morning with no reprisals on her part, and found that flinging the infernal mouse around the room was somewhat cathartic.

Mornings have always been a challenge for me and for better or worse the sudden presence of this other intelligence with its own needs has taken some of the focus off myself and made it easier to bear getting up.

And Eva trained me well, because she would then reward me with a bit of purring and licking, and actually allow me to stroke her very soft fur. Not that she would make this easy – I would have to leave the comfort of my pillow to lean down and pet her.

During the first few days Eva also seemed as she had been when I met her to be fairly nonverbal and quiet. But that also changed.

When she hops on the bed or careens into the bedroom, she announces her arrival with a distinctively shrill noise. She has also evidenced a very unique sound when she is annoyed – as when I reach to pick her up and she doesn't want to, or if the toy is suddenly placed in an unfamiliar location. As the weeks progressed I have actually noted difference nuances to these sounds to the point where I can almost image her saying, "Oh cool, he's in the bedroom, let's play fetch with the mouse!"

Her enthusiasm and energy are contagious, even for a curmudgeon like me.

One thing that intrigues me is how my rather mundane apartment is a source of constant stimulation, intrigue and curiosity. Any new cabinet I open, or closet that becomes exposed, is a journey into a new world for her – sniffing, looking, and inspecting.

Her favorite spots are currently an older desk chair near the balcony window, and the top drawer of my dresser, where she can lie and sleep with only her eyes staring out for hours at a time.

I find myself wondering what she is doing if I don't see her, and as I come home to the apartment I am already looking forward to hearing her chirping sound and seeing what she's up to.

I'm not enamored of sifting the litter box and cleaning up after the few times she missed was no pleasure, but I soon was able to balance these unpleasantries against the surge of pleasure I would feel when I was feeling dull, and suddenly a raised tail would glide by and I would realize I was no longer alone.

While the honeymoon is over with respect to nuzzling my armpit, Eva is still affectionate on her own terms. If I get down on the carpet I can sometimes rub her belly and neck – other times she will scoot away – it's like a mind game.

She will allow herself to get picked up most of the time and seems to enjoy being held briefly – but the fantasy of having her peacefully next to me while I watch the Lakers is not happening.

Maybe it's because everything is still so new. Birds fly by, the dishwasher churns on, a toilet flushes, and she needs to know what the heck that is.

I have to admit that I never understood or appreciated other peoples' stories about their pets, and how their cats did "funny" things. But now I've become one of those people – imagine that – almost 1000 effortless words about a creature with whom I now cohabitate.

The biggest adjustment for me has been not being in complete control of my environment for the first time -- and being subject to interruptions and distractions at odd moments.  But I've begun to balance that against the feeling I get when she grooms and licks my hand and purrs as I gently stroke her.I wonder what she's doing now…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Is Everyone Angry?

You can't watch CNN or the evening news without seeing a segment on "voter anger" with a poll and frequently interviews with disgruntled citizens. A great deal of focus has been given to the Tea Party movement which seems to be a festering, seething mass of pissed off people over various issues.

Certainly a lot of the anger stems from how many peoples' circumstances changed dramatically in the financial meltdown of 2008. Suddenly many families were under the gun, losing homes and jobs, through no fault of their own—but through the apparent greed and market manipulations of Wall Street speculators and the real estate bubble.

When emergency measures were taken to stem the economic collapse, anger focused on the massive debt that has been incurred nationally – and this has fueled the Tea Party in particular.

To me, the underlying thread to all of this distrust and anger is one central theme – loss of control.

I believe it really started with 9-11, when people suddenly realized that there were hostile forces that threatened them—we were the target of predators.

This survival wakeup call triggered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which gutted our economy in many ways and made the financial meltdown worse than it was.

Combine this with natural disasters like Katrina and the many floods, and our inability to marshal all of the resources normally available to deal with such situations, and people became fearful.

Through the economic collapse and these disasters one heard and read of many families who had counted on our institutions and insurance companies to come through—and in so many cases they were thwarted and disappointed – so fear turned to anger.

On a deeper level, before 9-11 and through the economic prosperity of the 80's people felt secure and relatively safe economically and socially. Things seemed to work. Now suddenly it seems to many people that matters are beyond the capability of institutions and leaders to address.

Nowhere is this more dramatically brought out than in the oil spill in the Gulf. All of the worst aspects of the previous problems are coming to the surface in this situation: a multi-national corporation that cut costs for safety and lost eleven people through its negligence; an inadequate government and institutional response; and the suffering of millions of innocent people.

It is becoming apparent that BP was able to circumvent regulation of its activities due to its lobbying and connections in government, just as the coal industry was able to overlook safety standards in favor of profit.

In addition, on a daily basis, citizens are up against banks, credit card companies, and bureaucracies of all kinds that take advantage of their power to make profits at human expense. Medical insurance companies that throw older or unhealthy individuals off their books are just one example – we all know of many more.

Worse, cynicism abounds. As you watch television you see the advertising of many of these companies that promise so much, and how they care for you and you're like family; they have wonderful mission statements but then when you have a problem or need them to address a human concern, their procedures and bureaucracy is strategically designed to avoid communication and beat you down.

So is wholesale anger against corporations justified?

A conservative web site that I read, written by a friend,, takes the position that corporations are responsible for much that is good in our country:

  • corporations are owned by free citizens, and are just a way we organize ourselves economically in the modern world
  • corporations provide the bulk of our employment
  • corporations produce the wealth that makes our lives easy: the plentiful food, the cars, the drugs and medical innovations that allow our longevity, the amusements that enrich us etc.

And that is what makes it complicated – we all want the benefits, but there is a suspicion that these behemoth entities, many of them multinational, are now running amok.

At the same time, many of us participate in an economy and use social media, for example, build our own brands and support the brands of corporations we use and even admire.

My father was born in 1900 and saw the entire 20th century for better and for worse; he fled what was then Czechoslovakia in 1949 to escape from the Communists who stifled free enterprise and wanted to control all aspects of the economy and personal lives.

This is the anathema that the Tea Party folks are afraid of as government tries to fix health care and regulate Wall Street—they see government as threatening as others see multinational corporations.

Still, my father saw that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction by the time he died in 1986; where corporations that had no loyalty to any nation or true ideal were plundering the planet.

The problem is that both extreme positions – that corporations are evil and the opposite, that free markets can be allowed to self regulate have been shown to be fraught with peril; as the pendulum swings between these extremes ordinary people find themselves tyrannized either by government or by corporations.

In a land where citizens pride themselves on self reliance and independence, our media trumpets all kinds of "freedoms" but we assume fewer and fewer responsibilities.

At this point, if you see things clearly, you must come to the conclusion that one's prime responsibility is to hold oneself and leadership accountable for the circumstances under which we live.

Unfortunately there is a lot that is beyond our control – nature imposes its will regularly. But at the same time we need to remain conscious of our reactions to the circumstances that affect us day to day.

Simply being angry is not a solution. Venting that anger in large venomous groups can become dangerous, as Germany discovered in the last century.

I believe we need to use the technology afforded us by corporations in particular to raise the consciousness of the consuming public – not just consumers of products but also of ideas and information – so that the powerful corporate entities must finally address human needs, even occasionally at the expense of profit.

Just as animals evolved from simple predators to what we now consider ourselves to be – more conscious thinking beings – we need to use the power of critical thinking to make our institutions more responsive to human needs—and also the needs of the planet.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Gulf of Mexico. What we all sense is that life and livelihoods are threatened because an entity that is out of control has had its way for only one purpose – profit.

If you remember, BP ran many commercials "branding" itself as an environmentally conscious oil company.

If the tragedy in the Gulf is good for anything, it must be that our corporations and institutions will need to evolve – with the technology of the Internet and our active participation – into structures that serve human needs and not just generate paper profits for a few of our most powerful people.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Year of the Cat

I've been living alone for the better part of 40 years; never married and never living with anyone for longer than the duration of a vacation.

Recently friends and colleagues suggested that I think about getting a pet—some suggested a dog while those that knew me best thought that a cat, with its more quiet nature and independence, would suit my lifestyle much better.

To say that I was resistant and scared is an understatement. While I love animals, and am particularly fond of dogs, the idea of having a living creature, unpredictable in temperament and needing my attention, always around and especially waking me up in the morning was inconceivable.

Close friends tried to convince me that until I experienced the payoff I wouldn't know what I was missing, and that I wouldn't feel the love until I took the plunge.

I was also told that the right animal would choose me and be obvious, and I doubted all of it, but knowing that I needed to expand in some areas, I started looking.

I checked ads on Craigs List and visited adoption events, getting more and more information. A good friend suggested that the Maine Coon breed of cat would be the best choice for its warmth and affection.

I went to pet stores with adoption events which depressed me; the pets were in cages and the shelves were stocked in ways that made it seem like the animals were an industry.

One morning I went the West L.A. Animal Shelter for the first time and hour the loud barking dogs and visited a few cats in an environment that made me feel awful and want to adopt them all.

I emailed about several animals an never heard back, some events which were scheduled never happened and a lot of flakiness made me wonder whether I was barking up the wrong tree.

I almost fostered a dog that I took for a walk but backed out at the last moment when it turned out it needed medication that had not been mentioned and that was a bit more than I wanted to take on.

Then I met a woman from an rescue organization that seemed very nice and she knew of a Maine Coon that she thought would be perfect for me. I visited the cat, liked it, but when a home visit was to come off the next day there was controversy between the rescue and the foster home, and it became a lot of drama that made me again wonder whether I was doing the right thing.

A close friends with two lovely cats told me I wasn't doing anything wrong but that I was still on the fence; when she knew she wanted a cat she just went to the pound and got one.

So the next afternoon I returned to the West L.A. shelter looking for a particular dog, and decided it wasn't right, and visited the cat room on the way out.

A wonderful volunteer told me of "the sweetest cat" and took her out of her cage; I noted that she had never been a stray and had come from a home. The cat pawed at me right away and nuzzled my chest; later I was able to hold her in my lap and she licked my hand.

I knew that it was time to take the fateful plunge – if I ever really wanted to grow and receive love in this way I needed to commit, so I went to the desk to do the paperwork.

Again a tech informed me that there was an infection on her wound from being neutered, and I would have to take her to a vet for antibiotics.

My stomach churned – part of me wanted to back out again, and just go home and keep things comfortable and the way they were – far from perfect but manageable.

But another voice said, "not this time – time to choose change and take a risk—you may suffer but it's the only chance to also feel the love you're looking for."

The volunteer came out with some toys for me to take home and promised to answer any email questions I might have.

I took Eva (named after my mom) over to a vet and fortunately they looked at her right away and I bought the medication and took her home. She also had to wear a cone to keep from licking the wound.

When we got home I figured she had enough to deal with and took off the cone. I got her set up with a litter box and some water and went out to get some food for her and for me.

When I got back and fed her, it was time for my nap. I opened the door to the bedroom not expecting much, since she was still kind of shell shocked from the trip.

Twenty minutes later she was lying blissfully in my arms, her nose in my armpit, purring and licking my hand, as I called my friend with the two cats to tell her what was going on.

Putting in the medication was a huge challenge. Eva did not want to sit still or open her mouth and kicked and fidgeted and I spilled a bit of the medication on my bedspread.

Later we watched the NBA playoffs together, and before bed I put the cone back on her head which kept my up as it banged around the bedroom throughout the night.

As someone who has had complete control over my environment for as long as I can remember, this was a bit of a challenge. As dawn approached I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.

But suddenly a wet nose was next to my cheek and two little paws were burrowing into my arm, and a warm furry snuggly body was pressed against my side. As I slept fitfully through the remaining hours until I got up, I realized that I was in a Brave New World—I don't know what the future will bring but it will represent a sharp departure from the status quo in which I had been mired.

After breakfast I went back to the pet store for a scratch pad; when I got home Eva was stretched out on her little pillow bed, her face pressed up to the window, soaking up the sunlight.





Monday, April 5, 2010

Owning Life

When I was still in high school I wrote a paper in which I said that I defined religion as "the way one accounts for the existence of Life in the universe."

For that matter, if you look around and take a deep breath, how do you account for the existence of anything and everything at all?

Whether you believe in a divine Creator, a spiritual force, higher energy or intelligence or even nothing at all, you have to admit that stuff was here long before we got here, and may be here long after we're gone.

So it was with some amusement and a twinge of horror that I watched the 60 Minutes segment last night on patenting genes. It seems that women have been denied gene therapy for cancer because the rights to any gene that would need to be tested and manipulated for any cure is owned by a corporation.

This is not a new issue; it was addressed in mainstream fiction by Michael Chricton in his thriller, Next.

But the piece on 60 Minutes was not fiction – it involved real people with real lives who were being affected by a legal abstraction for profit over their wellbeing.

Attorneys for the corporation which owned the patent made the usual arguments that research would come to a halt or suffer if ownership is not granted to those who make discoveries in biology that would ensure their prosperity.

Still, it seems to me that the executives of the company which owns the genetic patent in question would still live quite well if they did not enjoy complete dominion over those who needed their discovery to live healthy lives.

But more obvious is the issue of ownership of life itself—or ownership of anything one has not oneself created.

We're still wrestling with the legitimacy of European colonists claiming lands on which they planted their flags as their own.

With respect to genes, this is the stuff or blueprint of life itself. Has any human ever created life from inanimate matter?

Science now speculates that life "evolved" from organic material, but where did the impetus or energy for living come from?

To me, it is the very height of arrogance and presumption for any person to claim ownership of something that was here before he or she ever arrived--based on its discovery rather than its invention or creation.

To be sure, those who make such remarkable discoveries are to be held in the highest esteem, and should be able to profit from their talents and insights.

But just as we are finally having a conversation over whether health care itself should be a profit-making activity, and insurance companies should be able to withhold care for the sake of their bottom line, it seems that it's time that we take a deep look at where we stand with respect (pun intended) to life itself.

There is certainly speculation that we are at the point in our scientific advancement where we might actually assume control over our own evolution. Our athletes are faster and stronger than ever, and our science is uncovering the secrets behind life and the universe.

But is getting richer, bigger, stronger and smarter the ultimate purpose of our existence?

Those with children, or believers in something higher, generally espouse another purpose—making life better for those around them and acknowledging their connection with life itself.

Patenting a gene enforces separation—I own this (life) and you can't have it unless you pay me.

Acknowledging connection brings in a higher level of intelligence and perhaps—love and reverence.

These are human values beyond accounting or a balance sheet.

Some countries do not recognize genetic patents while civil libertarians are challenging their validity in the courts.

But in an age when the Supreme Court has held that corporations have the same rights of individuals to contribute funds to candidates, I have my doubt how that will turn out.

At some point humans may have to appeal to a court higher than the one comprised of Ivy League grads and lawyers.

I have to wonder when the owners of genetic patents might actually meet a Creator. At that point would conscience and fear finally kick in, or would they try to buy their way into heaven with their stock options?

We can have legitimate disagreements about when life begins and even where it came from or what it is—but as to who or what it belongs to—that needs to remain an issue for something or someOne that hasn't been interviewed on 60 Minutes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Making Peace with the Past

I had been apprehensive about going to lunch with my two old friends from high school, but William was coming in from the Bay area, and we'd had a wonderful reunion two years earlier, and I looked forward to seeing him again.

Robert had live in L.A. for a long time and we had gotten together over the years a number of times, and he was always generous, warm and cordial. But through no fault of his own, he had had the career that I thought I always wanted. While I floundered as a screenwriter he went from one success to another and is now very successful in the entertainment industry. On a personal level too, he has a family, a house in a wonderful location, and seemingly everything anyone could want.

By many standards I have also done well for myself in high tech, but I couldn't help comparing myself to Robert.

And as Robert retraced his career for William and me, I realized that he had actually been well-connected in Hollywood when I was writing screenplays. He'd been bi-coastal, but if I'd been a bit more aware, I might have reconnected with him at that time, and things might have turned out differently for me.

We had worked together closely on the high school newspaper, almost as partners; surely if we had been in touch when I was first in L.A., other doors might have opened.

At one point Robert said that he had realized at the time that the movie business was not about writing or creativity so much as it was about deal-making, and that had been what he was doing.

I couldn't help but wonder, if we'd connected at that time, if one of those deals would not have been mine. But I was 35 at the time—I knew it all—I lived in my own world and was not open to many of the opportunities that the greater world afforded me.

As the lunch continued, instead of enjoying the vibe, questions churned inside me along with feelings of jealousy and regret.

And I did not like myself for these feelings either, so I castigated myself for having them, and after the lunch I told William about my feelings and how I wondered whether I had really missed the boat almost 30 years earlier when I didn't realize that an old friend was in a position to possibly help me with my career.

William was empathetic and said that one never knows what might have happened. Indeed, I have written in the past about my own demons and how if I had found great success early on, I might very well have succumbed to forces that would have damaged me badly or even killed me.

And there were many other reasons why I probably didn't connect with Robert sooner. For one thing I never felt comfortable with the entertainment crowd and made my feelings known in ways that often pushed them away – not a very good networking strategy.

I had also assiduously avoided the rat race of "making it", settling into a comfortable existence that allowed me to play tennis and enjoy my life in many other ways while others were climbing corporate ladders.

It didn't make a lot of sense for me now to try to reconstruct my choices and come up with alternative scenarios that simply did not come to pass, and wallow in regret, and yet that was what I was in jeopardy of doing.

And worse, I was watching myself doing it and knowing it was unhealthy.

Later when I reflected on this with other people, I remembered how warm and friendly both guys had been, and how much we still have in common.

William is also the child of Holocaust survivors and an immigrant, and he had shared with me at one point how much therapy had helped him understand and come to terms with his own unique background and challenges, and face many of the same demons that have plagued me.

For example, I realized sitting there that in many ways the success I envied in Robert is not something I wanted so much for myself, but for my father, who had struggled so hard for my benefit.

Now that I've been working on myself, it was so great to be reunited with William and feel his compassion as I revealed some of my feelings of regret. I also met his son who is graduating from college this year, and William said at one point how wonderful it would be if I moved to the Bay area so we could spend time together—and that we would be like brothers and his son could be my nephew.

I realized how incredibly loving that connection was and still is, and how fortunate I am to have found it now. Somehow I need to shift my focus from what might have happened 30 years ago, and didn't, to what actually happened just yesterday, and its great promise for the future.

And even my renewed connection with Robert, with all of its negative subtext—and again none of that is Robert's doing—can be a source of support and enjoyment if I just let it be what it is—an old friend who now lives in Malibu.

So much of the work I've been doing concerns a shift from the left brain and analysis and judgment-- to the heart and acceptance of love.

Perhaps this experience is a crucible---literally a necessary test for me to witness the folly of my attachment to dreams that never happened, and an ego that was outsized and out of control.

In many ways, thanks to the work I've been doing, I have come out of the isolation that kept me from connecting with Robert all those years ago, and now have some deep connections with people that love and accept me.

I know that I need to join those people in my own love and acceptance of myself, and have compassion for a young man that made many mistakes so long ago—and be grateful for the man that he can still be today. I need to finally let all of those burdens and expectations go, and accept the many blessings I currently have and the ways things are right now.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Can You Handle a (Cosmic) Truth?

Two events that happened over the weekend impacted me on a deep level – the earthquake in Chile and the death of the trainer by the Orca at Sea World in Florida.

The troubling nature of both has everything to do with that word – "nature."

In my day to day life I am often content to concentrate on my important tasks – work, social connections, and maintaining the status quo.

Both these events made me realize that no matter how much I try to ignore it, my life is part of a much greater reality.

The earthquake, coming so soon after the one in Haiti, makes me realize that I live on a dynamic planet that is constantly shifting and changing, and transferring energy between its various parts and its inhabitants, along with other energy which we can only begin to suspect with the solar system and galaxy.

Given our own physical scale, and the length of time we spend on the planet, we may be spared these influences and blissfully remain oblivious to them. Because of the lights of our cities, we can ignore the fact that we live in an immense universe of unfathomable scale and power—until an event like an earthquake makes us confront, until the next political scandal takes over CNN, that we inhabit a physical universe of incredible power and with forces way beyond our control.

Nature has ways of getting our attention, and reminding us that we exist, physically here and now, and that our existence is in many ways precarious.

The Orca issue made me also cognizant of the fact that we humans are a species of animal exercising dominion over other species – for the time being – which has moral consequences.

While I felt good that a sizable number of commentators pointed out that an Orca should not be kept in confinement and made to entertain with dumb tricks for a living, the fact that this is not obvious to every human on a deep soulful level is troubling.

Our inability to hold other life, particularly intelligent life, in the its proper reverence has been evident for a long time, and it's nice that some folks are waking up and science for example has realized just how remarkable these sea mammals are—but one look at the depressed dorsal fin of the animal that killed that trainer would indicate to any sensitive soul that that animal was deeply troubled and if it was filled with rage, who could blame it.

My mother, who unfortunately would have known, once called Sea World a concentration camp for penguins.

But to sense all of this deeply and profoundly, you would need to no longer take your human-ness for granted – you would need to acknowledge that you're part of a natural order that has consequences, even if you are the "dominant species".

Both of those issues bring me back to the matter of scale. If the universe is truly 14 billion years old, life on this planet is quite a recent development, we (as a species) have only been here for the tiniest fraction of that time, and as individuals of course we live here for a split second of cosmic time.

Within that period of our lives, many of us think we are in control of circumstances – until an event like Chile or Haiti imposes the reality of the higher scale upon us.

But can we be conscious of our lack of control without such an event, or simply by taking it in?

And what if anything of consequence do we really control?

Some teachings suggest that the only thing we can really influence is our own attention.

If that is the case, then remaining oblivious to the matters of scale that could crush us at any instant is probably part of our survival mechanism – because otherwise we'd be terrified all of the time.

So how to balance the reality that may come into our senses, however briefly and frighteningly, when we watch CNN, with our day to day need to survive mentally and emotionally and yet try to be conscious and sensitive?

It's interesting to consider that other societies may have used various drugs to let these feelings in on a limited and traditional basis—with the guidance of shamans and priests—while we have science to provide us with frightening "facts" of scale to which we have little relation, and media to scare the crap out of us.

Lately there has been quite a bit of speculation about the Mayan calendar, and its ability to connect with a 26,000 year planetary cycle that some see as ending in 2012.

Not surprisingly books and movies have focused on cataclysmic events that may transpire.

But it would be interesting to know how the Maya really experienced this planet with their combination of science, art and religion—although it seems that if you were a slave in that culture interesting might not be the right word. Or exactly why the Egyptians (or someone) apparently decided to use a million blocks of stone to construct an almost indestructible scale replica of the earth and connect it to the Sun and perhaps even other stars.

But certainly our day to day existence totally denies the reality of the cosmos in a way the Maya and Egyptians apparently did not. Millions of us go through life hypnotized by media and with a certainty that we know what is going on and what our lives mean: a paycheck, a relationship, raising kids, and so on.

Then suddenly for a brief instant we are connected to realities of a much higher scale. Do we ignore them, and simply move on to the next event in our own lives, or can we take them in, connect to their power, and let them influence us in ways that are not merely terrifying, but speak to the potential for our own spiritual or higher purpose and evolution?



Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tiger Woods and the Single Guy

To me, the most interesting guest on the many talk shows about Tiger Woods, was John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—because what is so clear is that both genders see the situation from a different perspective. Another guest discussed how hard it would be for Woods to repair his image with women.

I'm not sure women can understand the extent to which men are conditioned by a culture that demands that they succeed and win at all costs, and that their payoff is sexual gratification with the women in beer commercials and girls gone wild videos. For men, this fantasy is the same as the need for a perfect body is for women—a compulsion they know is self defeating but is deeply programmed.

So for many single men like me, there is a sense of compassion and understanding for Woods' situation. While his breaking of vows of marriage is indefensible, I can understand how it happened and I took his statement at face value.

What struck me the most was his discussion about Buddhism and his reference to "attachment." That is what leads me to feel that he is sincere—because only a sense of surrender to something higher can heal the illusions men carry of what will make them ultimately happy.

Let me admit that I have been in therapy for my own wounds, not nearly as dramatic as Tiger's but for me very powerful and difficult demons.

When I was in college I came home and told my dad, "money isn't important to me. I don't need it to be happy."

This was a blow to a man who had struggled his whole life to make it here in America after a horrific ordeal in Europe, and who saw money as freedom and the key to fulfillment.

Despite what I said to my dad in college, I eventually began to see things the same way, and embarked on a mission to "make it". Somewhere along the line I found myself with a nice bank account but it was never enough, and I had no idea of how to love and be loved.

I also bought into the notions of my peers, and my father, that seeking my own sexual pleasure was a worthwhile lifestyle. At a low point I tried to connect to women who I only believed would be with me for what I could provide or give them materially, and my feelings of unworthiness led me to dull my emotions in any way I could.

My romantic fantasies were such that I believed that only another person's love would complete me and make me a man among men. Women were a prize or possession, not human beings with energies and feelings with whom I could deeply connect. And many women I met ratified those feelings and fears by only granting me their attention and devotion if I fit the image they had in mind as a provider.

Now, in my own work on myself with a therapist, I am trying to ascertain exactly who I am and what will fulfill me—because I tried many of the things Tiger tried. While I wasn't outed by the media, I realized on my own that it wasn't working. In my case, I broke up a relationship to pursue my "independence" and deny my need for deep connection—and all it did was make me confront my own loneliness and isolation. I hit the wall and needed help.

And that brings me back to Woods.

From a very early age his own bond with his father made him need to prove himself and make it—and he certainly did.

I would not be surprised if like me he had to deny his childhood wants and desires and become a man very early—his obvious drive and discipline as well as the sense of control testifies to that.

Then his father died, and the main reason he had for living died too—but he kept doing the only thing he knew –competing and winning and he tried to fill the void with the traditional roles of a marriage and a family.

And at the same time he finally felt he had the right to try to satisfy the need to fulfill what he believed were desires that would make him happy—he said that he felt he had earned that right—regardless of the consequences. We can view that as narcissism to be sure, but it is also quite natural.

What Woods has discovered, I believe, is that in his ability to control others economically their love was completely false. Those that truly loved him, and he could not control, were now deeply hurt and distrustful and this sudden awakening left him more alone than ever.

His activities with women, while disgraceful for a married man, still seem to me the acts of someone desperately looking for meaning in his life. He seemingly had everything and it still wasn't enough. Certainly his confrontation with himself came only when he was discovered, but in his position that was inevitable.

As a single man, my own struggles in this area—mainly stuffing down my feelings and trying to make inappropriate women love me and fill me up—did not hurt anyone but myself.

Woods of course played with much higher stakes and his actions had far graver consequences.

But to me, and many people remarked how depressed Woods looked, Tiger seemed like a guy who finally realized he needed help. He had abruptly realized that what really mattered were the people whom he really loved and who loved him—and that he might lose them.

Unfortunately for him, his actions have driven these people away and created deep feelings of hurt and distrust. And then, when he was discovered, his own sense of shame was such that he began to doubt that he was worthy of their love.

To him right now, I suspect he doesn't know quite who he really is, and while others urge him to just play golf and win, it has temporarily lost its meaning for him. The self he worked so hard to build and sustain is no longer viable.

For a single guy in L.A., it is hard to develop and maintain a network of people to fill those deep needs of connection and mutual love. People come and go and they are best friends for the evening.

As an only child, like Woods, I was doted on and spoiled on one level, and very alone on another. I learned to meet my own needs in ways that proved to be empty and vacuous. I believed money and control could get me what I wanted and needed and that my own personal comfort was paramount.

And, like Tiger, I spent a long time trying to live up to a notion of manhood and achievement that I assumed would fulfill me, only to learn that it left me empty.

So much of my life was consumed by a fear that I might not make it, or measure up, or succeed and when I did I could not enjoy it or let it fulfill me. Now I am trying to learn to get filled up with love, not fear, and to accept it naturally instead of trying to seize or control it.

Like me, Woods needs to learn to trust others, ask for help, and yield control and become vulnerable.

That doesn't mean all of his sins should be forgotten or even forgiven—but he is still just a human being—and he deserves some measure of understanding and compassion.

Which brings me back to Buddhism. This week the Dalai Lama is here, and to me his message is, simply put: be compassionate with others and yourself. Observe your own tendencies, emotions, fears and beliefs, and don't fight them but accept that they make you human and be kind.

My own struggle is finding fulfillment outside of the roles that I took on unconsciously. Meditation and therapy has made me able to observe (but so far not completely change) how deeply ingrained these "scripts" or "programs" are, and how removed my real core self is from the compulsion to follow these impulses.

I'm trying to connect to the person I was before all that programming and conditioning, and it's hard.

For one thing, those beliefs came from and are connected to those I loved most in the world—my parents. Every act of going against many of these tendencies feels a bit like betrayal. My father's voice is there often telling me – be tough, keep working and struggling, don't show any weakness.

My former girlfriend once asked me what my mantra or central belief was, and I said, "don't screw up." She suggested I replace it with "let love in." But it is very difficult trust in love and lose what you think is a measure of control.

In fact, it's so hard that lots of times I want to go back to stuffing down those feelings or dulling them, or avoiding them with work and achievement.

What I've begun to discover is that I need to connect to the little boy I never really got to be because I was so determined to live up to what others wanted. I need to protect and stick up for that core part of me and connect on a deep level with those that truly love me---and not succumb to the pressures of a world that want me to be a winner while I lose my deepest self.

It's an ongoing battle, and fortunately I have gotten help--and I won't have to please millions of people by sinking a high pressure putt and selling products for large corporations.

I also have no pressure to be a role model for others. But I now believe that each person who awakens to the need to be loving rather than self serving is an integral part of human evolution. Tiger is no different—except that with his presence and fame, if he can transform he can also be a powerful force for the awakening of others.

Hopefully it won't be by taking on another role and pontificating, but rather by becoming a quiet and humble example of how compassion for others and oneself can lead to peace and contentment.