Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

I Got Nothing

You know how people say that when they got nothing?

Well, that’s why I’m saying it now.

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Consensus, Hierarchy and the #Occupy Movement

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook:

It explains the consensus process used by the Occupy Wall Street folks.

I lived in a cooperative house in college that relied on this process to make all decisions, so I am familiar with both the theory and the practice behind it. The basic notion, if you haven’t worked with consensus before, is that it is the only way to make decisions which affect an entire group in a way that allows everyone to express their opinion and agree to—or at least agree not to block—a particular decision.

Why does consensus appeal to people? It appeals because zero-sum decision making processes such as voting can often lead to an intense frustration and a concomitant sense of disempowerment. Just ask anyone who voted for Kerry in 2004. When Bush won and crowed about the “political capital” he had thereby gained, I was angered and disgusted. 44 million people can vote against you and, because 45 million voted for you, you can basically give the 44 million the finger? That’s just not right. Read the rest of this entry »

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Occupy Wall Street: An Infantile Disorder?

I read this New York Times article about the demands, or lack thereof, of the Occupy Wall Street movement and it reminded me of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

If I remember correctly, Lenin’s pamphlet was aimed at German radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and basically said that radicalism that preached “no compromise,” and which rejected all “parliamentary forms of struggle,” was doomed to failure.

When I read statements like, “Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond,” and ““The process is the message,” I can’t help but have similar feelings.

Believe me, I’ve long had a soft spot for radicalism, and my years immersed in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics certainly succeeded in making me skeptical of quick solutions and easy answers, especially when offered up by established parties invested in the status quo.

I also see in Occupy Wall Street an echo of Marcuse’s Great Refusal—a heroic, if somewhat empty, rejection of the present “situation” which one could see as a necessary, negative step towards creating a newer, better situation.

Nevertheless, I’m not filled with hope or optimism when I consider what I’m hearing about this stuff. Why not? Because Occupy Wall Street, aside from lacking demands, also seems to lack any coordinated mass militancy that could actually pose a threat to the 1%.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are symbolic, aspirational. These folks are not actually occupying Wall Street, after all. They don’t control the area as true occupiers would. Nor do they have the power, yet, to do anything radically disruptive such as call a General Strike (maybe it would take things really getting to Grecian levels for that to happen).

And not to put too fine a point on it, here’s another way to think about it.

A liberal friend of mine on Facebook wrote something like, “Yay! Now we have our own Tea Party Movement!”

I asked, “Do they have guns? Because the other Tea Party does.”

If Zucotti Park were the site of an armed encampment, this would look like a real occupation. Since it’s not, it looks like an expression of anger and frustration that generates more light than heat.

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Slippin’

I was doing OK there for a while with posting every day, but got slipped up by being out of town (after getting slipped up by the weekend). Going to get back in the game.

I must say, for the record (the eternal record of the interweb’s infinite and infinitely expanding memory), that after years of reading posts that exhorted folks to blog every day, and simply ignoring said exhortations, the fact of the matter is that y’all give me more feedback, encouragement, and food for thought the more I blog.

So, maybe all those social media experts (SMexperts, as I like to call ‘em) were actually onto something after all.

Speaking of “slipping,” I was just reminded of rollerskating in Venice with Alex and Isabelle (oh, those halcyon days of our youth) and there was some sand on the bike path, which made it a tad treacherous, and a passerby said, “Watch out for the sand. It’s slippery-dippery and you might crack open your skull.”

Except, it wasn’t said so much as a warning but as a wish. Lord, keep us from the homicidal thoughts of passersby.

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Focus Means Saying “No”

Back in August I became conscious of this fellow, Derek Sivers, who created CD Baby (later selling it for $22 million and giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education). If you poke around his blog, you’ll quickly find this post on saying “No.”

Well, technically, it’s about simplifying your life by deciding what you should do—go out with friends, take a job, live someplace, etc.— based on whether or not you say “Hell yeah!” to the opportunity or idea. If you don’t, Sivers suggests, you should say, “No.”

While I’ve never been able to apply ideas like this to my own life with any rigor, I have always admired the urge to do so because that urge is based on following one’s heart, passionately engaging with life, and not settling for anything but the best.

(Perhaps my lack of rigor has something to do with my ambivalence about the “seize the day” approach in general. I mean, do we really need the best? Always? Ever? Does the world really just consist of “The Best,” and “The Rest”? If something isn’t the best, does that make it worthless? What drives us to find the world perpetually wanting? Etc.)

I was reminded of Sivers’ ethos when I recently came across this video of Steve Jobs from 1997, in which he defends decisions to kill certain projects when he returned to Apple: Read the rest of this entry »

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In Praise of Waylon Jennings

Back in ’88 I really dug the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session. Their spacey take on country (had “alt country” been invented yet? I mean aside from Rank and File?) was deep and cool. From the spare lonesome of “Mining for Gold” to the bleak landscape of “200 More Miles” and the druggy swing of “Working on a Building,” I was hooked.

My favorite song on the album, however, was “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” a dark waltz drifting up from the void with a hopefully hopeless refrain: “Someday, I’ll get over you.”

I think I knew that the song was a cover, as was about the half the album, but I didn’t actually hear the original until, some 17 years later, I bought Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams at a cd shoppe in Santa Monica. More than a novelty or a hip re-working of hip and semi-hip tunes, I recognized this album immediately as a classic, a keeper.

Seriously, this album is rock solid, perfect. It’s focused and restrained, under-produced, but at the same time muscular, virile, intense. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” chugs out of the gate, relentlessly working it’s two chords, maintaining a tone that’s both confessional and confrontational, daring you to get in its way.  The next tune, “Waymore Blues” is surprisingly and crassly vulgar (see video below). “I Recall a Gypsy Woman” is sentimental kitsch, saved by a sincerely expressed sense of loss. And so on.

The band is road-hardened, world-weary, tough as nails. Waylon’s voice, drifting as it does from a lascivious drawl to a sturdy, honky tonk baritone, is wise, human, hungry. And the songs are a perfect mix of backwards-looking nostalgia, invoking the ghosts of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers, and gritty, contemporary (mid-70s), cowboy urbanity.

Every time I listen to this record (I still call them that), I’m astonished.

Here’s the man himself invoking his poetic license:

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Depression Is Not Simply an Intellectual Error

When I tell my wife I’m depressed, she’ll often ask, “Why?”

I usually explain that, at least for me, depression is rarely a response to some negative event. If it were, I would call it “sadness” or “unhappiness” or “disappointment.”

Depression, by contrast, is an all-permeating negative attitude or perspective, probably stemming from a genetically determined neuro-chemical fluctuation. In other words, when I’m depressed, I’m not depressed because something bad happened or something good didn’t go my way; I’m depressed because I have a tendency to depression (and, some would point out, a countervailing tendency towards mania).

It’s natural, when someone is feeling down, to try and buoy their spirits by reminding them of all they have to be grateful for (much as this blogger does in response to a recent suicide). “You still have your health!” “You’ve got friends who like you and a family that loves you.” “At least you’re not rotting away in a Turkish prison.” Etc.

The  problem is that depression is not an intellectual error. It’s not something that will go away if you just “look at the facts” or “do the numbers.” In other words, it’s not a (falsely drawn) conclusion which can be rectified if you just check your work and figure out where you  went off track.

The “count your blessings” approach can’t dislodge depression because depression doesn’t arise from miscounting. In my experience, however, it can be addressed with exercise, sleep, proper diet, a change of scenery, time spent with friends, etc. In other words, actions that change the chemical makeup of your body, rather than arguments that change your mind.

Depression manifests in our consciousness; we ought to treat it by way of the flesh in which that consciousness is embedded.

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Reality Is My Religion

I can’t say that I believe in God, but I do believe that there is a real reality.

Yes, I’ve heard about relativity and multiple universes and even the astral plane. And, yes, I understand that seen at a certain scale, “reality” gets kind of indeterminate.

But at this macro-level, there is usually one and only one way that things are: my car is parked in my driveway; this skull-and-crossbones pin sits atop a pile of business cards; Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater; etc.

Needless to say, and once again depending on scale and perspective, it is not always easy to perceive the way things really are and it can be equally difficult, if not more so, to establish the way things really were in a certain time and place in the past.

In fact, it is thanks to this inherent “concrete unknowability of the real in its totality,” that I call reality my religion. Reality can be known to a degree, but not absolutely. When you cannot absolutely know something, but you assume that it is this way or that way, and in fact act, without thinking, as if it were so, then you are said to believe it is so.

Thus, I believe in reality, the really real that I cannot ever know in its entirety or infinite complexity, and I ask reality everyday to allow me to draw closer to it, to know it better and conceive it more deeply, to the real limit of my mortal consciousness and to the ultimate capacity of my mortal will.

What’s your religion?

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Taking Refuge in Gravity’s Rainbow

“Um über die nachträgliche Abspannung der Nerven hinwegzukommen habe ich leider wieder zum Chloroform meine Zuflucht genommen. Die Wirkung war furchtbar.” – Georg Trakl, 1905

I’ve begun to re-immerse myself in the intricate and densely overwrought sprawl of Pynchon’s masterwork. I first read it some 28 years ago and must declare that it remains, then as now, worthy of my idolatrous devotion.

20th Century literature begins with Ulysses and ends with Gravity’s Rainbow. The rest is either commentary or reaction.

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The Very Crown of Wisdom

“There, thought Arren, lay the very heart of wizardry: to hint at mighty meanings while saying nothing at all, and to make doing nothing at all seem the very crown of wisdom.” – from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore

I recently returned to a corporate blog I launched a few years back and discovered, much to my surprise, that a post I wrote in 2008—“What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?”—is still listed in the sidebar as a “popular post.”

I say “to my surprise” because the post, which described a dispute I had with my father while I was temping back in 1988, elicited an intensely negative response from at least one commenter. To wit:

This blog post doesn’t help anything. It’s a filibuster, and if this is what [your company] pays you to write about, I really wonder about [your company]. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your blog is called “The [your company] Talent Blog: Career Advice and Insights for Marketing Professionals”. Are you advising me to respond to straightforward questions with quotes from Heidegger? Is that good advice? What’s the insight here? “Many cultural traditions support doing nothing”? I’ll make sure to bring that up the next time my boss and I have a performance review.

While some friends of mine offered comments of their own in my defense, I actually agree with this person. In my attempt to “keep it real” and make our blog “human,” I totally lost sight of the types of stories, lessons, or advice that would be most useful to our readers (or intended readers). The image of someone brandishing my rhetorical flourishes—or a copy of Heidegger for that matter—as self-justification during a performance review shone an appropriately laughable light on my pretensions.

So, do I still believe that our culture puts undo emphasis on productivity, achievement, and doing for the sake of doing? Yes. Myriad political, ecological and personal problems find their root here.

Am I still fond of the Buddhist retort to this productivity imperative, “Don’t just do something; sit there”? Quite.

Have I learned, however, that when you are billing what you do as “career advice,” people will want concrete, practical suggestions on how best to advance their careers and not philosophical conundrums that make all activity seem futile, vain or worthless? Definitely.

In fact, this last bit of insight is something that I’ve learned over and over. In most cases, when people are looking to learn something from you, they don’t want context, history, or meta-level musings; they really prefer that you just tell them what to do.

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