There are a number of good things about getting older. The first thing that comes to mind is getting to a point at which you really don’t care much (at least not compared to how much you cared decades ago) about what other people think about you. Once you comprehend, in a visceral way, your own mortality, it becomes much easier, even necessary, to express yourself as you see fit with little regard to what others may think.

And so, a few years ago, I got the courage to start practicing Middle Eastern dance, often unfairly called belly-dance. It is challenging, beautiful (when done well), and my favorite part – it has lots of sparkly bits!

There is a worldwide community of belly-dancers, and several styles – “cabaret” (the stereotypical belly-dance style that most Americans probably think of when they hear the word belly-dance), tribal (in its purest form a group improvisation in which a ‘leader’ uses subtle cues of hand and arm movements that the other dancers ‘follow’), and fusions of traditional Middle Eastern dance movements with multiple dance styles, including flamenco, samba, tango, Polynesian, ballet, modern dance, and others.

I admire a large number of well-known (in the belly-dance community) dancers – Heather Stants, Tamalyn Dallal, Amar Gamal, Sharon Kihara are a few – but if I’m asked to pick a favorite, my choice is easy. Her name is Mira Betz and her style is her own. Her dancing is stunningly beautiful, except for when it’s charmingly humorous. More importantly, she is an excellent teacher and feels her most important duty as a teacher is to encourage students to develop their own unique style, as she has done, not just in dance but throughout life.

Mira Betz will be teaching at a week-long retreat near a beach in Mexico in November 2010. I would love to go, but our family’s financial situation will need to improve somewhat before that’s possible. I also need to get serious again about belly-dance to justify it. (There’s time; it could happen.) In promoting that event, the organizers put together this mashup of Mira’s dancing. This is what inspires me:

What is the meaning of life? (part two)

(This is continued from a previous post.)

The first inkling I remember that maybe ‘having a purpose’ may not be the be-all, end-all of a human’s life came a year or so ago while I was reading James Lovelock’s book, Gaia.

First some background. I have a handful of guiding principles that inform my beliefs and values. One of the strongest is that humans are not fundamentally different from animals – we evolved on the same planet from the same materials under the same processes. Therefore, we cannot be the only ones who have emotions, or the only ones who have a soul, or the only ones who … .

Using this principle, I have filtered out of my life a variety of religious traditions, authors, philosophical works and other things. But for some reason, the notion that my life needed a purpose persisted; it just didn’t register that by requiring my life to fulfill some purpose I was maintaining an instance of human exceptionalism.

Then I read Gaia. For whatever reason, while reading Lovelock’s thorough description of how complex chemical interactions of atmospheric gases, microbes, and more have resulted in a biosphere that appears to be unique in the solar system, I realized that it is arrogant of me to conceive that I might have a ‘purpose.’ And now that I’m attempting to recall and record my thought processes, I see an inherent paradox that I came to view my ‘need’ for a purpose as arrogant as I was simultaneously understanding that ‘mere microbes’ make life on this planet possible through their metabolic processes alone, not through any conscious pursuit of purpose on their part.

I was confronting my arrogance and starting to loosen my grip on the need to fulfill a purpose in life when I found out about Mark Rowlands’ book, The philosopher and the wolf. (I’m going to abbreviate this title as PAW.)

I first read a library copy of PAW in early December – I read it cover to cover in two or three days. I found it so thought-provoking I knew I would want to read it repeatedly, so I asked “Santa” for a copy for Christmas. Santa delivered. It sat on my nightstand for several weeks. I wanted to make sure I had time to leisurely make my way through it and cogitate on it thoroughly, or so I told myself.

A few days ago, I picked it up and started reading it again and realized the real reason I had delayed reading it a second time. It’s difficult to read. But the difficulty isn’t the usual failing of the author to organize his thoughts coherently, or the tendency of academics to use language and sentence structures that seek to impress rather than inform.

It’s difficult because it’s a deeply emotional story.
It’s difficult because, as Rowlands says, “it took me a long time to think these thoughts” and even though his thoughts are clearly elucidated, it takes this reader a long time to “think” the thoughts he has presented.
And finally, it’s especially difficult because in telling the story of what his wolf brother, Brenin, taught him, Rowlands presents to the reader the disturbing truth about what does make humans exceptional. It’s undeniable, and it ain’t pretty.

So, I am now reading PAW again, this time taking more time to absorb the sentences and paragraphs. Rowlands studied academic philosophy for years so I don’t have to, and he has carefully chosen and placed concepts from classical through contemporary philosophers to make a tapestry woven of vivid images of his days with Brenin, embellished with threads of profound meaning.

A concept I learned from Rowlands that is pertinent to my main point here is from medieval philosophers: sub specie aeternitatis – under the gaze of eternity. Under the gaze of eternity, for instance, humans are little more than a bump and I am a tiny speck. There is a lot to explore in this concept. The first thought that probably came to my mind is the depressing notion that my life is inconsequential.

However, the main impact this concept has had on me is a complete release of pressure to achieve and make something of my life.

I have finally let go of the need to fulfill a purpose.


I’ve been a big fan of podcasts since I first learned about them in 2005 – to the point of even producing one (though it’s been dormant for, eegads, nearly two years).

A couple of months ago, I came across a podcast that is worth recommending. It is produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and is called Ideas. It is a daily radio show, and each week the host and producer, Paul Kennedy, chooses an epidsode to be podcasted.

I have referred previously, and will likely refer again, to the book “The Philosopher and the Wolf” by Mark Rowlands. I learned about that book from Ideas. In a more recent episode, Paul Kennedy talked with A. C. Grayling about theism, naturalism, and how to live a good life.

The podcast episodes are always thought-provoking and the topics I’ve heard have ranged from journalism in new media to the teachings of wolves. Check it out.

There’s only one rule …

Ron McKinnon, one of my colleagues in LIS, died unexpectedly on Friday, January 22nd. LIS staff gathered that afternoon to reflect and, mostly, just be with each other. Most of the reminisces of Ron were descriptions of some of the elaborate “practical jokes” (a term that really doesn’t do them justice) he light-heartedly played on his colleagues over the decades he worked here.

In remembering Ron, at least for that hour, there was laughter more than anything else. That is a worthy legacy.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that my personal motto, when I remember it, is “There’s only one rule – have fun!” Because of what Ron taught me, I have revised my personal motto. It is now

There’s only one rule – have fun and share it!

Rest in peace, Ron McKinnon. You are missed.

What is the meaning of life? (part one)

(Note to the reader [if there ever is one]: I’m never sure how much personal information to reveal in a blog, but I know the blogs I like best are those that are the most personal. So, I’ve decided to just say what I want to say. I hope you find it interesting.)

From what I can tell, most people find meaning in their lives by raising children. Early in my life, I chose not to go down that road and, perhaps as a result, a good many of my thoughts over the years have focused on what is important to me, what is my purpose, and “what is the meaning of life?”

As a child, I had a fervent desire to be a veterinarian and heal animals. That lasted through the first three years of college, until I served some time in a veterinary clinic and found that a) vets get peed on and b) vets in private practice spend far more time and energy running a business than they do healing animals. I changed my major to Physics.

In graduate school, I thought my purpose in life was to pursue theoretical physics to unimaginable frontiers. Then I realized that involves a) reading a whole lot of dry, boring academic literature and b) getting funding from the Department of Defense. (At least at that time [early 1980s], there was little if any research in Physics that wasn’t funded by the DOD. I could not compromise my ideals that far.) Besides, while my math skills are much better than average, they aren’t good enough for high-powered theoretical physics.

I landed a job as a process engineer for a semiconductor manufacturer and, after a couple of years, decided that learning how to design biomedical equipment must really be my purpose in life. I was mapping out some steps to start in that direction when I was laid off. (I rationalize that since there were two rounds of layoffs before my turn came, I wasn’t totally incompetent.)

Then, in October 1985, I got a brief reprieve from my lifelong search for purpose when I had one of the few experiences that I can categorize as mystical. A brief summary of the end of the experience: “God, if I believe in you, does that mean I have to start reading the Bible? That’s a rule, right – to believe in God you have to read the Bible?.“ My god of that moment responded:

“There’s only one rule – have fun!”

If one can have a personal motto, this is mine (though you might not be able to tell given the tenor of this blog).

Still, my search for meaning continued. To some extent, the search for purpose and meaning has been “fun.” Certainly if I’d found a purpose, THAT would have been fun! In the early 1990s, that journey led me to the work of W. Edwards Deming.

I was so compelled by Deming’s work that I wrote a manuscript for a book (rejected by a few publishers) titled Quality of Life that applied Deming’s fourteen points (modified and condensed to seven) to handling personal relationships. One of the chapters was titled “On Purpose” and described the importance of finding and having a purpose in life. While I was writing it, I thought proselytizing the importance of maintaining good personal relationships was my purpose in life. I remain convinced that relationships with other people should be the focus of our lives, but it became clear that I’m not particularly good at “proselytizing”.

As time went on, I tried harder and harder to find some purpose that would give my life enduring meaning. This became more important to me once I found myself in a job that seems anything but enduringly meaningful.

This more or less sums up the first fifty years of my search for meaning. In the last couple of years, though, things have taken a different direction. I’ll probably post something about that once I’ve sorted out what I want to say.

The New Normal

No self-respecting blogger who has subtitled her blog “thoughts on life in a 21st-century library” could avoid at least a couple of posts on the impact of budget cuts on her work life.

For now I will reflect a bit on the difference in the attitudes of myself and a few co-workers between the first round of the Early Retirement Program (ERP) and the second round which is ongoing right now and includes a Voluntary Separation Program (VSP/ERP2).

ERP(1) had an application deadline of February 23, 2009 and the last few early retirees left employment in the last couple of weeks. The application deadline for VSP/ERP2 was December 1, so we are right now in the limbo of knowing about a few and wondering about many. (In case you had any doubt in your mind, I will state now that in recent years I have become the major wage-earner in my family so taking the VSP was not at all an option for me.)

I have been struck by one difference I have witnessed in my own mind and in my discussions with colleagues. During the first round, I and others engaged in robust speculation about who would and would not take the ERP, and what those possible vacancies would mean for our workload as well as opportunities for new and different work. Most of that speculation proved dead wrong (which speculation often does – I wish the cable news pundits would take note).

This time around, I find myself and (inferring from conversation topics) others are in a patient, wait-and-see mode. I think there are at least two reasons for this. First, ERP(1) proved that speculation is a waste of time.

The second explanation is, I think, closer to the truth. Even though all of the ERP(1) retirees I know of took the package “with gusto” – looking forward to the newest episode in their lives and feeling just a little more free – those of us still here see that our new environment is a little less rosy than we may have thought it would be. In the Library staff areas, there are now a number of empty offices and desks, and I’ve seen the same in other offices on campus.

I would say it’s bittersweet, but there’s nothing sweet about it. It’s something to adjust to – the new normal.

Dance: an activity of value

An invaluable benefit of being employed at Middlebury College is the opportunity to audit college classes. My job in particular has duties that can be done at any time, day or evening, so my schedule and supervisors have allowed me to use this opportunity a few times over the years.

During Fall 2009, I audited Dance 163, From Africa to America – Movement from the Core. I expect that a few of my posts here will allude to some lessons I learned in that class; this is the first.

A few times during the course, Christal Brown (the instructor who, among many other accomplishments, founded INSPIRIT, a dance troupe based in NYC) said things like “the best dancers have no idea who they are – they literally just stand there until someone tells them to move.” Or another example: a dancer or choreographer must “negate the self to embody the product.”

A creative work has its own life. In bringing a creative work from conception to reality, a dancer or artist must set aside their own limitations and expectations, either of themselves or of what the work ‘should’ be, and ‘serve the work.’

Most of my dance experience has been self-created in my living room. At the best of those times I have been so focused on embodying the music that ‘I lost myself in it.’ I think that is probably at least part of “negating the self” that Christal spoke of.

I also think ‘negating the self’ could mean losing purpose. It is the self that wants to accomplish, earn, succeed – all purposes that exist outside of an activity. To best embody a creative work, think not of what awards might be won, but only of what serves the work.

In Mark Rowlands’ interview on the CBC (see previous post), he said, When things have purposes, the purpose typically lies outside the activity … We do all these things, but there’s very little that has value in itself.

Dance has value in itself.

The philosopher and the wolf

My worldview is being shaken, not stirred. Many things have contributed to this, including climate change, peak oil, maturing past age 50.

But what I want to focus on here are some words from a recent CBC radio program (that will be available on podcast until mid-December 2009). It is an interview with Mark Rowlands, author of “The philosopher and the wolf,” about the impact a long-term relationship with a wolf had on Rowlands’ outlook on life.

Rowlands makes several fascinating points, but one in particular has stuck with me:

We experience time as a line, from the past through the present and into the future. … This way of experiencing time is fundamental to human beings and brings with it a certain conception or outlook on the value of life. Just as time is sort of an arrow flowing from the past to the future, so too the meaning of our lives is sort of built into things we’re aiming at somewhere down the line, projects we’re trying to achieve, goals we’re trying to fulfill. … I think that’s an unfortunate way of thinking about the meaning of life.

A better way of looking at our lives is not so much the meaning of our lives as the value of our lives.

When things have purposes, the purpose typically lies outside the activity – you go to school and work hard to get to University. You work hard at University so you can get a good job and the good job is to get money… The purpose is outside them, and therefore the value lies outside the activity. We do all these things, but there’s very little that has value in itself.

That will serve as a starting point for this blog.