Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eulogy for a Once-Worthy Career

Today I said farewell to my 26-year career as a science writer. Oh, I may linger around the coffin for a bit, just to see if the corpse magically returns to life, but I've never been great at wishful thinking and taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) has never been my thing.

It's also possible I shouldn't be writing this eulogy until my feelings are more settled, but then again, it's immediate and heartfelt.

My feelings are a mixture--that all-too-familiar hollowness of mourning combined with an expansive sense of freedom; Fear of the future and its stoic opposite; Disparagement and bewilderment--what the hell took me so long to get to this point? I berate myself for behaving like a conceited princess, "I'm too good for this!" but simultaneously for being a feeble old has-been, "I'm no longer good enough."

The circumstances of the ending are just my stumbling blocks. Maybe I wouldn't have tripped if I'd had my eyes open in the first place--or been more fastidious about my working conditions, or less patient with the folks I worked for. But now I am where I am.

The slow-motion downfall started in December when the small, New York-based magazine I've been writing for -- almost 7 years now -- was sold to a large publisher of special interest magazines in another state. I had a contract with the small publisher. The agreement stipulated that if either party wanted to change or end the contract, they had to give 60 days notice. I thought that gave both parties a measure of predictability and safety.

But when the magazine was sold, my contract evidently wasn't part of the deal. No one bothered to notify me until the deal was complete -- about the same time as I'd finalized the copy for the next issue (March-April) of the magazine.

My contract specified that I was to be paid $1000 upon acceptance of copy for each issue. That sum never changed. I never missed a deadline. But the old publisher had gotten quite sloppy about paying me on time. I once asked for a raise and was told they didn't have the money for it. I also complained (very nicely) that I would like to be paid on time, but they took no notice of my requests and I let it slide.

When the magazine was sold, the editor said the new owners still wanted things to continue as they had. She said I should go ahead and prepare another column as usual. At that point, I was owed for four months' work, so I thought it would be good to get some assurance that I would be paid what they owed me before doing more work for them. The new publisher's back office told me that it was their policy to pay freelancers when each issue of the magazine ships, not when the copy is accepted.

At that point I realized that neither my editor -- the third I've had since I began writing for the magazine -- or the new owners even realized I had a contract. So I dug out a copy and sent it to them. But I also told them that since my old contract had been voided, I would like to make some changes. I told them I would take the usual fee for past work and for the next issue (May-June), but thereafter expected an increase in my fee to compensate for 7-years of inflation:
I appreciate  that there are market forces at work eroding the value of my craft such that it's dead cheap -- even free -- to acquire writing services. But I am guilty of further undermining this valuation by accepting fees that have declined in real monetary value. Just factoring in inflation since 2006 (when I began writing for the magazine and was paid $1000 per column) would mean that just to retain constant purchasing power, my fee should now be $1225 going by UK inflation rates and $1155 going by US inflation rates. My proposal of a fee of $1180 falls between these inflation-only increases. I must accept responsibility for not being more aggressive in seeking greater compensation ... sooner -- or otherwise finding more rewarding opportunities.
Amidst all the details of getting paid, I've failed to congratulate [New Publisher] on its acquisitions. I've long felt that the magazine and its sister publications have great potential for helping people with chronic health conditions. (In fact, I've suggested other areas where I see even greater opportunities along these lines.) In the avalanche of information available today, it's great to see that someone is still willing to try find a niche where personal information needs meet commercial endeavor.
The new publisher agreed to pay me upon acceptance, and said they would pay part of the fees that banks now charge to deposit checks. But they said there would be no contract -- just issue-to-issue assignments -- and no fee increase.

The good news is that, as of February 18, the new publisher has paid me for my work in the Jan-Feb and March-April issues. My editor said the woman in charge was working out other problems associated with moving staff -- and letting people go -- but there might still be hope they would find more money for me. The bad news is that the editor and her staff haven't yet gotten back to me to finalize the May-June copy.

Since last hearing from the magazine editor almost two weeks ago, I've had time to reflect -- and to have a brief dalliance with the idea of writing for a new client, in this case a major UK book publisher.

I was swept off my feet when, shortly after all-but-kissing-the-old-client-goodbye, I saw a call for freelancers to work on a book on a subject I've long hoped to write about. They were only looking for experienced science writers. I wrote to the editor immediately, declared my life-long passion for the subject and desire to contribute to her book. She wrote back asking for my CV and a couple relevant clips (I had already included this information in my original response) if I was interested. She told me the pay would be £130 for a 600-700 -word "spread" for the richly illustrated volume. After I asked, she said the copy for the book must be done by early June.

I spoke with the editor on the phone to ask a few more questions and sat down and crunched the numbers. If I worked really hard and could manage a whole chapter of the five-chapter book,  I might just be able to stay at roughly the same hourly rate as I'd achieved writing for the old client -- but completing my year's work by June. I wrote to say I'd be prepared to begin next week, and would like to take on either chapter 1 or 5.

I should have twigged that this might be less than a dream job when the editor wrote back to invite me to look at comparable format work in two other books by the publisher. And she said they really only wanted freelancers for chapters 2, 3, and 4. She said it would probably be best if I just picked a couple of "spread" topics and had a go -- because I wouldn't be paid for the writing unless the publisher decided to use it. This essentially was a "try-out" or "writing on spec."

I can't say I was impressed by the publisher's format. I like fun, accessible, lively presentation of information, but this was more like bending the story/ picking the subjects  to fit the format, rather than starting with interesting science and good writing and finding the best way to present it. I swallowed my pride and e-mailed the editor to say I  was less confident about doing a full chapter. But I said I would take her suggestion, and offered to do two topics -- an easy one, and one that would be quite difficult because it required distilling a broad field down into 600 words. Just doing diligent research on that subject would take a few days.

The editor wrote back to say she understood. She reminded me again that the work would only be paid if the publisher used it. And she said it would probably be best if I just tried one topic -- the hard one -- for which she would send me the directions in a few days.

The penny finally dropped. This editor was retreating rapidly -- or else we just weren't communicating well with one another. Either possibility was dire. Despite having seen my C.V., and examples of my work, the editor had gone from enthusiasm for my services and encouraging taking on a whole chapter -- to suggesting two sample "try-out spreads" -- to suggesting it was chancy that my work on a single "spread" would be up to snuff. And even if I should be so lucky as to be accepted after my try-out -- the job would pay less than the amount new EU immigrants need to earn in Britain in order to be eligible for benefits. {A slightly irrelevant detail, as I am not a new EU immigrant, but this additional way of discouraging incomers had just been announced} And that would be my reward for writing articles I wouldn't be especially proud of. Having just awoken from my sleepwalking through diminishing conditions of employment at the magazine, I didn't think this was a promising place to start a new assignment.

Thus it was this morning I found myself writing two dear John letters to my old and not-to-be new clients.

So where do I go from here? Despite these blows to my pride, in my heart of hearts, I do still think I'm a good science writer. But the field is just too depressing. There are fewer and fewer staff science writing positions, and they certainly aren't to be found in rural southwest England. I wouldn't rule out moving, but I also don't think I would ever land an interesting science writing job in the U.K. I have applied for some and never had even cursory interest. I don't think the British "get" me. But it's also possible that I'm just crap at what I do, or crap at presenting myself, or just too old and lazy.

So that leaves freelancing. There are precious few rewards in freelance writing beyond what inherent interest is to be had in the subject matter and of course personal pride in a job well done. There's no admiration from colleagues; no prizes, accolades, or even the pleasure of a laugh with colleagues at the water-cooler. Sometimes I am able to give a friend a tip on a health condition that I know about from my work. And of course I am lucky to be able to live in a (usually) pleasant rural location and have the flexibility to fit my work to fit around laundry, housecleaning, cooking, gardening and unpaid writing and editing.

I don't think it's just the poor  pay that bugs me. I'm sufficiently well-off and historically thrifty that I don't need to earn massive amounts of dosh. Rather, I think it's the declining pay, combined with the dwindling personal satisfaction or sense that the work is particularly helpful to--or appreciated by--the world.

The only question that remains is, where do I now want to volunteer? I'm writing another unpaid article for a free local newsletter. But then? It's a question that is being asked a million times a day as the Baby Boom generation retires. In asking, I'm only a couple years ahead of other 61-year-olds.

Maybe I'll go on a silent retreat to find myself (again) and take the next step in mindfulness meditation. Or I might be happy going back to school. Maybe I should devote myself more seriously to poetry. Or learning to play the guitar. Or gardening. Or painting. Or turning our garden into a retreat center. Or starting a village cooperative store. Or writing the World's Greatest Cookbook. Maybe I should get a dog or finish turning all the photos from my summer travels into picture books.  So many possibilities await once I stop listening for my once-worthy career to rouse itself from death and ring that little bell!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Wild Frontier of Mindfulness

There's been some gushing about mindfulness recently following the publication of a mindfulness meta-analysis and a TIME magazine cover story, The Mindful Revolution. Perversely for an avowed "mindfulness evangelist," I will argue that this is a good time to check over-exuberant claims and expectations.

First, here's an abstract of the new report, and some links to articles in the lay press about it in Reuter's Health;  The Guardian's blog; and a Guardian editorial by writer Julie Myerson on how Mindfulness cured her lifelong anxietyThe story in TIME generated a loud rumble in the blogosphere, including one in The Huff Post mentioning a wide range of applications of mindfulness meditation.

The new meta-analysis, or "study of studies," analyzed 47 scientific reports on randomized controlled clinical trials of mindfulness programs to help people with physical or psychological problems or high stress.   Controlled in this case meant that mindfulness was compared to some other treatment program similar in duration and intensity -- such as an exercise-, muscle relaxation- or education program or cognitive-behavioral group therapy, for example. Having a control group for comparison helps to rule out placebo effects:  It's long been known that people tend to improve somewhat just from the belief that they are being treated, even when the "treatment" is completely inert.

Randomized means that participants in the studies weren't specially selected for one treatment versus another -- they were assigned randomly.  This helps eliminate bias that would result from deliberately or unknowingly assigning people likely to benefit from a new treatment to one arm of a trial and  tougher cases to the other. Random assignment to treatments can help reduce "self-selection bias." This happens when volunteers enroll in a study believing in advance that they'll benefit from it. With this bias, they may be more receptive to the treatment and more likely to notice and report benefits.

The 47 experiments covered in the meta-analysis included 3,515 people who participated in a trial of some type of meditation (mindfulness, transcendental meditation [TM], or mantra meditation). A large population like this is good-- small studies can yield fluke results due to chance or conditions unique to the trial setting, rather than real effects of mindfulness. Combining and comparing studies in a meta-analysis dilutes or cancels out some of these anomalies.

Sadly, the 47 studies were the few bits of cream that rose to the top of 1651 meditation research articles the meta-analysts could find. They had to discard 444 studies that did not include an active control group or randomization.

What the meta-analysis actually found was modest: "Moderately strong evidence" that mindfulness programs could improve anxiety and depression by 10-20% at eight weeks (i.e. at the end of a typical mindfulness training program) and after three to six months. The researchers wrote, "These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population, but without the associated toxicities." There was also evidence that mindfulness meditation reduced pain. There was only slight evidence that it eased stress or improved quality of life related to mental health.

Clearly something about mindfulness works for some people. But there was insufficient evidence that meditation increased positive mood, attention, eating habits, or sleep. Nor did evidence show it helped with weight control or substance use. There was no evidence that meditation was better than active comparison treatments, such as prescribed drugs, exercise, or other behavioral treatments. The researchers found fewer studies of mantra meditation and TM than mindfulness, so support for the other types of meditation was even sketchier .

The conclusion of the study was appropriately low-key:  Clinicians were advised that meditation programs could yield small-to-moderate reductions in "negative dimensions of psychological stress" (i.e anxiety and depression). They added that better-designed studies are needed to "determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behavior" (i.e. substance use, sleep problems, weight control, etc.)

So is this mindfulness glass half-full or half-empty? Is Mindfulness really only modestly effective for a few conditions? Or is it only modestly proven because the studies aren't good enough yet? Is Mindfulness too fuzzy, too full of uncontrollable human factors to ever be proven more effective? Or is it that Mindfulness is still in its infancy -- still identifying key ingredients to make it more effective and still groping for the best ways to measure benefits?

If the answers lie in anecdotes, the abundance of positive personal testimony would paint Mindfulness as perfect already. For instance, scan the comments following the Guardian blog and you'll find plenty of folks saying mindfulness has improved -- even saved -- their lives.  But just as all the personal testimony in the world will never convince Richard Dawkins that God exists, so positive testimony from mindfulness evangelists won't nudge the science. 

But on the flip side, might there be constructive ideas for improving Mindfulness in the negative testimony -- or in comparisons of people who did vs. did not benefit from Mindfulness? 

Returning to the comments following the Guardian blog, I found the following problems with Mindfulness--at least for some people: 
  • Some (as I predicted) don't like the Buddhist references in Mindfulness (see note #1 below). 
  • Some say it's just the latest in a long line of psychobabble fads, following neurolinguistic programming, transcendental meditation,  hypnosis, or other "neurobollocks (#2)"
  • Some say there's nothing to mindfulness -- they do it all the time already (#3)
  • Some are surprised to find you must continue to practice mindfulness meditation each day to enjoy its full benefits -- and it's hard to find the time (#4)
  • Others observe Mindfulness is not a cure for life-threatening depression and is incompatible or inappropriate in some settings where it's being tested -- such as the military (#5).
Below I address these issues  and consider the differences between my experience with an 8-week Mindfulness-Based-Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and that of a close friend.  

Because I've written previously about including Buddhist or other spiritual references in Mindfulness, I won't say more, except to repeat that spiritual references may encourage some potential practitioners, but will close the door for others. Even a passing reference to ancient Eastern practices with the stipulation that "you don't have to be a Buddhist to benefit" from Mindfulness may put some folks off. The alienated won't try Mindfulness, may drop out, or, if they stick with it for some reason -- perhaps as part of a clinical trial -- they may be less likely to practice wholeheartedly. 

Mindfulness is just the latest psychobabble fadTime and subsequent research will tell. I would guess that an average of four scientific articles on mindfulness are added to the PubMed database at the U.S. National Library of Medicine each week. TIME reports,

"Altogether, in 2003, 52 papers were published in scientific journals on the subject of mindfulness; by 2012, that number had jumped to 477."
Academics are holding their first international conferences on mindfulness and there are now programs around the world to train teachers of mindfulness--and teachers of teachers of mindfulness. There's now a magazine devoted exclusively to mindfulness. The new meta-analysis is a sign that mindfulness is beginning to mature as a science. I'd say the best way to avoid Mindfulness becoming a disappointing fad is to be sure claims don't push past the most rigorous science.

In an interesting article in Mindful magazine, science writer Sharon Begley describes promising evidence that even the adult brain retains plasticity -- ability to rewire emotional responses. Unfortunately, she says, the study of emotional reprogramming (which includes mindfulness) is in its infancy. Meanwhile neuroplasticity is a bandwagon starting to roll.
It’s a shame to see something as scientifically significant as neuroplasticity— the ability of the adult brain to change its structure or function in an enduring way—overpopularized to the point that it could start losing its real meaning.
I agree. It would be a shame, and the danger is there: The TIME article cites an NIH report which found back in 2007, Americans were already spending $4 billion on mindfulness-related alternative medicine Lucrative practice for the merchants of mindfulness and feel-good popularity could entrench the young field, even without more solid scientific backup. This is what happened with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator,  a personality test taken by 2.5 million people per year.  An important money-maker for the company with rights to the test and for people who train and pay for a license to administer it, the personality test is widely popular in the business community, despite lacking  scientific validity.  

There's nothing to mindfulness. I think this is largely true -- or perhaps simple Mindfulness potentially lies in many things. You can pretty much summarize the practices and attitudes of mindfulness meditation in a few paragraphs. Conceptually easy-peasy. There are lots of books on it, and free talks about it on YouTube where Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the fathers of Mindfulness, calls it "Much ado about almost nothing." The MBSR course and other Mindfulness™courses take eight weeks (and a few hundred dollars or pounds) to school you in a series of specific exercises, such as sitting or lying down and focusing kindly attention on each breath, or parts of your body, or walking, or yoga movements, or a poem, or sounds, or something you are gazing at, or just the thoughts passing through your mind. (You can find links to some of these guided meditation exercises at   freemindfulness.org). 

These Mindfulness™exercises are simply well worked-out, more-or-less standardized techniques to an end: strengthening healthy control of focus and attention. Homework exercises in the MBSR course ask you to do something mindfully in your everyday routine -- eating, showering, brushing your teeth, washing the dishes. This highlights the everyday aspect of mindfulness--almost anything that engages attention presents an opportunity for mindfulness practice, helping you be present in the present and bumping aside regrets and worriesDear Husband finds that paragliding or riding his motorcycle at high speed snap his mind into the present (thank goodness). Maybe music, exercise, photography, hiking, gardening, the tangotai chi, aikido, crossword puzzles, or playing Tetris offer informal practice for other folks, even without Mindfulness™ training.

The hard part to mindfulness is actually doing it intentionally, and mastering the skill sufficiently that you can summon mind-refocusing when you really need to--when it's most difficult, and when you don't have your camera, garden, or tango partner at hand. I would guess that only the most disciplined informal mindfulness practitioners would be as facile as experienced meditators in commanding their focus in moments of crisis.

It's another question whether mindfulness courses should cost what they do for what you get from a "science" still in its infancy. I'd say if you're a highly disciplined person, you can probably get your 10-20% improvement in depression or anxiety by following a book. If you need the assistance of a class and can afford a course, do it.

Mindfulness requires everyday practice to be effective. True. As a mindfulness devotee, I find time spent practicing mindfulness is at least partially repaid through increased effectiveness and enjoyment in daily life. Done properly, mindfulness practice  should steer you away from rumination, irritation, worry, self-loathing, anxious fears, jealousy, and other habitual, automatic, and unproductive thoughts. The more you practice, the better you should be at intentionally refocusing. You may even discover your own personal uses of the skill, as I have.

But is there a decay curve for Mindfulness skills? Is this related to how well you acquire them in the first place? How often and how intensely do you need to refresh the skills? One of the shortcomings of Mindfulness research is neglect of how much, how well, and how long trial participants actually practice or how firmly they acquire the skill in the first place. Even less is known about what's needed to maintain skills. At this point it's assumed practice makes perfect. Given that, Mindfulness teachers should be upfront and emphatic about the importance of ongoing practice.

Mindfulness is not right for all people under all conditions. True. As a field in its infancy, mindfulness is still identifying its goals, legitimate claims, and target populations --the meta-analysis is important for this.

The young field has a lush crop of published studies showing mindfulness is beneficial in a wide range of conditions, measured many different ways--a broad, but thin frontier. The way you measure mindfulness effects in post-traumatic stress disorder is quite different than in smoking cessationinsomniaattention deficit disorderpanic attacksfibromyalgia, or provoked vestibulodynia, for example. Frequently benefits of mindfulness are supported by small, uncontrolled studies of non-randomized, selected, atypical groups.  Many studies are one-offs.  For all these reasons, at this time, most mindfulness studies can't be pooled and meta-analyzed to wash out biases and anomalies.

But as broad as the applications of mindfulness might be, there are some proscribed applications. As one comment on the Guardian blog noted, mindfulness is not appropriate for the severely depressed and other people in acute crisis -- they should get emergency psychiatric help. I would hope that mindfulness teachers and others speaking and writing about mindfulness make that clear.

That comment and one about mindfulness in the military making soldiers more efficient killers and manipulators gets at another set of fundamental questions about mindfulness--what does mindfulness really want to grow up to be? What are its real goals?

 The research papers covered by the meta-analysis assumed that the function of Mindfulness is to improve measurable well-being or reduce the impact of particular health problems.  But, the authors write,
Historically, meditation was not conceptualized as an expedient therapy for health problems. Meditation was a skill or state one learned and practiced over time to increase one’s awareness and through this awareness to gain insight and understanding into the various subtleties of one’s existence. . .  The interest in meditation that has grown during the past 30 years in Western cultures comes from Eastern traditions that emphasize lifelong growth. The translation of these traditions into research studies remains challenging.
Some Mindfulness teachers -- even if they avoid invoking Buddhist traditions -- still resist a physiological view of the practice. Consider this from mindfulness teacher and author Ed Halliwell:
 Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can they do justice to the inner transformation that occurs for many people who practise it? Isn't something lost by presenting its effects purely as a physical or mental health benefit? Indeed, by setting up mindfulness as something that produces guaranteed results, isn't there a danger of distorting one of its key messages—that striving for a concrete future is antithetical to the practice, which is about staying with the uncertain present?
The question about use of mindfulness to make soldiers better killers also reflects a different view of fundamental goals. My understanding of MBSR in the military is that it is aimed at preventing psychological injuries from war ('mental armour' from Mindfulness training before deployment) or treating such injuries (PTSD etc.) post-combat. Whilst I would like to think Mindfulness may contribute to responsible, respectful behavior toward others and ultimately contribute to world peace -- those objectives actually go beyond inner-focused MBSR remit.

Goal ambiguity may also start to explain why Mindfulness worked for me, but did little for my dear friend.  In the absence of universally accepted and communicated goals and unequivocal areas of effectiveness, mindfulness is a wide-open frontier. Like the Wild West--there's gold in them thar' hills -- promise and opportunity, but also hype, bravado, claims that won't pan out, and maybe some snake-oil, fast-talk, smoke, and mirrors.

People come to mindfulness with different expectations. Their motivations may be strengthened or diminished by what they find, as colored by personal traits of different participants and mindfulness teachers. My dear friend didn't start with the same open attitude toward MBSR that I had. He didn't "click" with the MBSR teacher.  I don't think his class attendance was perfect--as mine was. I can't say the same for my homework practice, but I probably did more than my friend. My ongoing practice tends to be brief, but daily. I expected more of MBSR than my friend; I put in more effort; and I continue to get more out of it.

What's needed now, in my opinion, is improvement of mindfulness pedagogy. Learning the practice should be like learning a foreign language, Aikido, or the tango. People considering signing up should know what they'll get (subject to specified effort and practice, as with any learned skill) and what it's good for. This will first require taming the wild frontier --narrowing, unifying, and clearly defining goals and then assuring -- based on research -- that practices and benefits are conveyed as efficiently, effectively, and honestly as possible.

Some downsides of Mindfulness (from comments following the Guardian blog
#1-The Buddhist / Psychological Basis of Mindfulness are problematic for some: Kikichan: I don't find the religious associations with mindfulness or any kind of psychological therapy to be at all helpful. Perhaps I've just... seen too many priests trying to milk too much money out of grieving people by means of emotional manipulation ... When my husband was a child, his grandfather died, and he was sent to a Zen meditation camp, where he was walloped by a monk for moving to avoid a wasp. Living among Buddhists, I really can't credit the religion with any power to make people healthy mentally.
PatLux: As an atheist I find the links to Buddhism don't sit well with me. However I did do a short mindfulness course and as a result when I go out for a walk I do tend to notice more of the beautiful details of the world around me. It is like any selfhelp programme for me. I take from it small aspects that are useful and then move on but my personality does not allow me to buy into the complete package.

#2-Mindfulness is the latest psychobabble fad, a reincarnation of neurolinguistic programming etc: Amendall: Some folk will believe anything. A new fad, lacking in evidence but harmless if kept to oneself.
CrewsControl: ... I wonder if the attempted scientific explanation, the uncoupling of the insula, as Prof Williams describes in his presentation isn’t just the sort of neurobollocks we’ve seen before.  It also has the strange feel of an embryo cult, following the path beaten by NLP. Discobedient: I suspect that after mindfulness the next buzzword in psychology is going to be "cheer up, love-ness". Fieldeffects: The only meditation technique recommended by the American Heart Association is Transcendental Meditation as they said that it has the best scientific evidence. A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials on TM and anxiety (which looked at 600 papers) found that it was better than controls.

#3-There's nothing to Mindfulness -- I'm doing it already! Mauinglionz: I don't get it. Based on the description in the article I feel like this is something I'm doing anyway?

#4-Mindfulness requires everyday practice to be effective: OxfordBiker: I've a friend who has suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety who got send on a mindfulness course by her GP. She enjoyed it but 'didn't realise' she had to go on doing it every day! 

#5-Mindfulness does not work to make all people happy under all conditions:
Elmondo2012: ...Speaking as someone who has been meditating and doing aikido for years (AKA Zen on Wheels) and who also has a hell of lot of experience with very severe depression mindfulness or whatever you ant to call it isn't that helpful when you're suicidally depressed. Jodro: ... One additional remark: mindfulness has become very popular in the US recently and now also is gaining a strong foothold in the UK. However, in Buddhist traditions mindfulness is always taught in conjunction with a set of values. These include respect for life, including of animals and plants, respect for the environment as a whole, not stealing, social justice, helping those in need and sharing our resources with them, and responsible sexual behaviour and responsible consumption. While very beneficial, IMHO mindfulness practice alone is not enough. Witness for example the fact that the US army has begun to use it. Becoming a more effective killing machine, or becoming more effective at exploiting the system and becoming rich, and so on, miss the point as these actions will not foster happiness or contentment, which is what it's about.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Do-It-Yourself Holy Ground--Here and Now

I got to Rob Bell's latest New Age Parable Challenge after he'd already posted "the answer." But I stopped myself from reading the post with the answer(s). You're just going to have to take my word on that. I went back to the parable(s) Bell had posed as a challenge for his readers' interpretation. [And I invite you to play along with me and take the challenge yourself before you read any further and see our answers.] I slept on it. Nothing came to me by this morning (maybe the bed was too comfortable?) so I read it aloud to Dear Husband (DH).
Not Larry, but DH and Sam, oblivious to the
possibility that Dublin airport may be Holy Ground

But as I was reading, The Answer came to me: Bell had told three stories about amazing real love, lost and recovered, that could have been unfolding at the baggage claim area of an airport (while you wait with Clueless Larry for an aunt and uncle from Sarasota). You, standing with Larry, think you may be witnessing the kind of love many of us are lucky enough to experience just once or twice in our lives--the sometimes-bittersweet love made only more poignant for all the work (emotional, physical, artistic, charitable...) that we and others did, all the obstacles that were overcome, to get to that miraculous place.

Yes, I was sure of it. Bell had given us three mini-parables about love, loss, and the heavenly joy of recovered treasure. In this case--and maybe every great case--the recovered treasure is love. Love Wins, as they say.

So in response to the first part of Bell's challenge, which was replying to our clueless friend Larry, who does not appreciate the miracles unfolding before him,  I would say: "Larry, the Kingdom of God is like this baggage claim area."

I'm not good at citing chapter and verse, but -- in response to the second part of Bell's challenge, guessing what part of the Bible this parable is inspired by, I would say: "This alludes to Jesus' three 'lost' parables describing the Kingdom of God." The great thing about Bell's parables is that they're not about Pie-in-the-Sky-when-we-Die Heaven, but rather describe heavenly possibilities right here, right now, in 2013--almost 2014--if we only have eyes to see it, ears to hear it, hearts to find it.

The parable brought DH to completely different places. The first was reflecting on a time when he was flying out to meet his late wife (who had been working for the U.N. in Kosovo) in what had very suddenly become a war zone in Eastern Europe. Not sure he'd make it back alive to see the 18?-year old son he and his wife had left at home in the UK, he wrote a letter with all the things he meant to tell son-Rob about how he loved him. When both DH and his wife survived, he wondered why he hadn't realized that every day is just such an opportunity to tell others how we love them.

But DH knew this was a very personal response to Bell's challenge. From there he stepped back a bit and thought about how, all too often, (especially when it comes to religion?) we try to strong-arm other people into seeing one particular, narrow view, namely OURS--rather than just opening a skylight and inviting people to identify their own bit of heaven (gratuitous Woodstock reference).

And then DH said how moved he'd been by something I'd emailed him -- a brilliant exchange from my old church's seasonal "Twittering Through @dvent." Evidently my old (--sorry, Ron, I should say my FORMER) pastor had opened a skylight in his sermon last Sunday, and this week #PhuongBui, a member of the congregation, had made quite a heavenly sighting. You have to read that to appreciate it. DH and I were both gobsmacked, blown away by this sighting, and by the power of just opening the observatory roof and letting people have a look. That's what Rev Ron Foster had done, what Rob Bell had done... It's what parables do. Maybe what all would-be evangelists should aspire to.

So DH, being a Franciscan (St. Francis evidently having been misquoted on advice to use words only as a last resort in preaching the gospel) fills in the blank in Rob Bell's challenge thus: "Larry, let me buy you a coffee." Presumably this invitation will also include your aunt and uncle. Who knows what little bits of heaven will come upon you all in that conversation.

And the bit of the Bible that DH concluded Bell was drawing on follows the parable of the sower and the many types of ground/ears that seed (or The Word / enlightenment from God) falls upon. Back in Jesus' day, when they used broadcast sowing of seed, some landed amidst weeds, some on rock, some in the mouths of varmint. Some gets lost to Larry's preoccupation with air dryers.

But some seed lands on good soil/receptive listeners. Phuong Bui hears Ron Foster's message, sees the generosity of the person working on the cash register, and is moved to pay the last bit on the grocery bill for a woman who can't cover it. But I digress. DH, struck by Larry's obliviousness and the fact that this is a parable challenge, responded to Bell's Bible citation quiz with Matthew13:10-17:
"10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
. . .
"17 For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them"
So what was the "real" answer -- at least the one Bell claims he had in mind? Bell says respondent sethbthomas got it right:
You look at [Larry] and say - 'That isn’t just two people embracing. That is two people realizing life will never be the same again.' This is based off the story of Jacob Genesis 28? Jacob falls asleep using a rock for a pillow (Serta, if you’re reading this, ditch the memory foam - nothing says good night’s rest like stone), had a crazy dream with angels climbing a ladder, and God said 'Dude, the ground you're on is yours” Jacob is given insight and was made aware that surely, God was in that place
Holy Ground in Aller? Sunset over
the Levels,  Dec. 19, 2013
[Choristers may now suddenly hanker for the Gaither classic, "Standing on Holy Ground..." or one of my favorite bits of spiritual/gospel, "We are climbing Jacob's Ladder".]

We're just going to have to trust Bell when he says he really did have this answer in mind when he wrote the parable. This despite abundant clues that Bell is an imp, full of playful fun, laughter, and sly humor. I wouldn't put it past him to toss out a parable with no rational, logical answer in mind --  just a feeling that there was some kinda holiness in these seeds he was broadcasting -- and faith they would hit some good soil among his online congregation.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Eulogy for Koz

I wrote this in 2001, in the week before my husband's memorial service. I gave it to my pastor, #Ron Foster, to use in preparing the eulogy that he gave in church, complete with a video clip from Ferris Bueller's Day off. Sam and I attended the service with our Siberian husky, Voi. Probably not the most dignified memorial service ever, what with kids running around, a dog sitting quietly in front of one pew, and my singing along with Twist and Shout. But maybe Koz would have wanted it that way. Besides, I didn't actually have much control at the time. It felt like an out-of-body experience.

Michael Thomas Kozlowski
Apr. 10, 1953 - Dec. 31, 2000
We come here today to mourn the untimely loss of a dear friend, husband, father, brother, relative, and fellow geek. But more importantly, we come to celebrate a life lived to the fullest by a just and loving man. 

Who was  Koz? 

Koz called himself the Big Bear. He was not a ferocious bear—just a giant Teddy bear. He had a generous, childlike spirit, a curious mind, a loving heart, a winning sense of humor, but above all, a vast zest for life.


Koz could be compared to two movie characters. He was in many ways a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller, and a male, geek version of Babbette from the film “Babbette’s Feast.”

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was a bit of a prankster, but his little tricks were always meant to help and delight his friends and family. This year he hid rolls of pennies in a package of sox for Sam at Christmas. After Celia complained repeatedly about his pulling the sheets out from the bottom of the bed at night, he pulled every summer camper’s favorite prank -- he short-sheeted Celia’s side of the bed.

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was charismatic, lucky, and lovable—he made you want to join his parade and dance and sing to Danke Shoen or Twist and Shout. And like Ferris Bueller, Koz believed there was no problem that couldn’t be tackled with a creative technological fix—a new gizmo, a program, some software, a re-wiring. When his beloved Westfalia van was in peril of failing inspection because the
Koz's Westphalia van with Dave, above,
and Sam playing computer games on a
trip to Maine

defroster didn’t work, Celia jokingly suggested installing a hair drier in it. An hour and a half later, the fan and heater had been removed from a spare hair drier, the electricity converted from AC to DC, the unit inserted into the van’s air system and connected to the fan switch. The soft hum and small amount of air the jerry-rigged thing produced were just enough to get the van through inspection.

When Celia proved unable to remember to close the cupboard doors, he installed light-sensing crickets that chirped until the doors were shut. But surely what Koz most shared with Ferris was his pure enjoyment of life.

Babbett in the 1987 film “Babbette’s Feast” was a cook in a sad, aging Danish village. When she wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, she spends the entire sum on an astonishingly sumptuous feast that she lovingly prepares for her conservative employers and their spartan Lutheran neighbors. 

Like Babbette, Koz loved good food and cooking. He saw his role in life not as the center of attention, not as the boss, but as the one who prepared the feast that brought people together, gave them joy, and catalyzed priceless interactions among them. He made a creative, loving environment for friends and family; whether through his food,
Koz in the Kitchen, many
years before I met him
his love, his nurturing, or his technical know-how, Koz laid the feast that brought people together to work, laugh, grow, and enjoy life.

Early years—The making of a geek

Born on April 10, 1953, Koz grew up in Hammond, Indiana.  As soon as he could count change, he worked the cash register for candy sales in his parents’ grocery store. He had fond memories of early-morning weekend trips into Chicago’s Maxwell Street market with his Dad and brother, followed by visits to the Museum of Science and Industry. Later, when his parents, Lucille and Casimer, bought an A&W Root Beer stand, Koz worked every job, from making the root beer to dealing with difficult employees. Money from his work at the drive-in allowed Koz and his brother John the luxury of buying a van, which expanded their boundaries as well as their appeal and opportunities with young ladies…

Koz’s childhood pastimes included riding his bike, building things with his Erector set, experiments, and astronomy, He loved playing with model trains and learned about electricity by building electrical devices and sticking his fingers in a few live circuits. His love of these activities was cultivated and encouraged by his Dad’s tinkering and by his Uncle Frank Wegrzyn. At Hammond High School these interests channeled into working as a stage crewmember and participation in a Boy Scout program that gave him early programming experience on the main frames at Standard Oil. Tragedy struck the family in 1971 when Koz’s Dad Casimer died at age 53.

Koz attended Illinois Institute of Technology, but his fondest memories of the place had little to do with academics. Working with some fellow geeks,  Koz was able to find a way  of hooking into the transmitter for the campus radio station. For a number of weeks, he and his friends pre-recorded the “IIT Underground”—a program of music and irreverence that went on the air after the regular station’s midnight sign-off. The pranksters were careful to make their pre-recorded broadcast sound “live” and made themselves conspicuous in public when the show was airing. The show earned a circle of late-night devotees and Koz and his friends were never caught.  Ultimately “IIT Underground” was blown off the air by the demands of studies and exams.

Career

Shortly after leaving IIT, Koz began his first job in the computer world as a Computer Operator with Computer Science Corporation’s Infonet Operations. His connections to Infonet would continue until the day he died. He advanced at Infonet to Senior Tape Librarian, Customer Systems Representative, and then Manager for Technical Training. Koz particularly enjoyed this teaching job, as well as his next Infonet position as an International Support Manager. This position included extensive travel to the Far East and Europe.
Koz as a teacher & author of
Koz's Hitchiker's Guide to CSVS

In 1986, somewhere in the lost years of computer science that lay between the pre-eminence of mainframe computing and the dawning of the internet, Koz was laid off at Infonet. Not one to waste time worrying about his unemployment, Koz sat down with a map and asked himself where in the world he would really like to work. His finger landed on Washington D.C. and the just-stirring Dulles high-tech corridor. He bought himself two plane tickets, two weeks apart and flew to this area to find a job.

The position he took was with NetExpress Communications. After lining up the job and a house, he flew back to his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., packed his things and flew back here, as planned, to meet the moving van and settle into a large, peaceful house in a woods in Herndon, Va.

Koz worked just over a year for NetExpress, then spent a year as an independent consultant,,  doing database work and technical training for contractors to the U.S. Army and Department of Justice. By 1988 he was back at Infonet, although by now Infonet was no longer a part of Computer Sciences Corporation.  Koz worked six years at Infonet during this stint as an EDI Services Support Manager.

EDI is a data format that companies use to communicate with each other, and it was in this work that Koz met Mark North, a client with big dreams of creating a standard EDI and a company that would link up the far-flung parts of the container shipping industry—from giant steamship lines and rail-links to the tiniest container  depots around the world. Koz joined North’s new business, called Cedex Services International, in September, 1994 as Manager of Technical Operations.

CSI, with  headquarters in San Francisco, remained a small, close-knit  company devoted to its niche clientel. For a while, Koz closed up his Virginia house and tried living out in the San Francisco area, but decided it wasn’t for him, although he loved to visit the area. He moved back to Virginia and became an early “telecommuter” with frequent flights back to San Francisco.

In the fall of 1999, Koz helped Mark North sell CSI to Sterling Commerce Inc., a large computer services company based in Dublin, Ohio, just outside of Columbus.  Six months later Sterling itself was bought, by the giant SBC Communications, a conglomerate that grew up from Southwestern Bell. [Update: SBC became AT&T when they acquired that company in 2005. In 2010 AT&T Sold Sterling Communications to IBM. So, were Koz alive today, he might well be working for Big Blue.

Some of the key computers that handle the business communications Koz oversaw are still located at Infonet’s operations center  in El Segundo, Calif., and he continued to fly out there periodically to maintain and oversee his beloved Vaxes.

Koz as a Husband

Koz was a beloved husband. He married Sharla Cerra in 1987 and was embraced by Sharla’s large family, the Sitzmans. Koz and Sharla hosted a series of foreign exchange students in their home, with Koz serving as cook and tourguide. Sharla also brought her son Chris into Koz’s life. Although Sharla and  Koz would eventually get divorced, Koz always considered Chris to be his son. The two greeted each other with whole-body bearhugs last November when Koz attended a national awards ceremony where Chris was honored as the top political cartoonist for college daily newspapers. Koz  was enormously proud of Chris.

Late in  1998,  Koz answered an internet ad and met Celia. On their first date he wowed her by folding a spider out of a straw wrapper. The spider came to life when you sprinkled a drop of water on it and Celia knew this was one special guy. On April 11, 1999, he proposed, and on  June 5, many of you were right here for their wedding—perhaps the only Pokemon wedding ever.

As short as it was, Celia and Koz’s marriage was happy. Koz was only half-joking when he gave Celia the modest nickname “Chomolungma.” This is the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest and means “Goddess Mother of the World.” Whenever an e-mail from Koz arrived on Celia’s computer at work, Koz’s booming dramatic voice proclaimed, “Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World, I LOVE you!”
Celia and Koz clowning at Alcatraz

Beyond all his great sensitive new-age guy traits, like respectfulness, willingness to share the chores, commitment, devotion, and ability to express his love, Koz enriched Celia’s life with his infectious happiness. He was her rock and embraced the concept that love is not just the warm fuzzy feeling you get around someone you adore. Koz lived the idea that love is choosing to give of yourself to help another person grow.

Koz as a Dad

Koz was never a biological father, but he was a terrific Dad. This was especially important for Sam, the son he adopted last year, and for Chris. Koz was a natural at being a father—playful, funny, and dedicated to finding creative ways to help his kids learn, overcome problems, grow, and have fun.
Koz emerges from a leaf pile with Sam

Koz at a Renaissance Fayre with Sam,
Celia & Sarah & Adam, bottom right
Koz truly enjoyed being a Dad and his joyful parenting spilled over abundantly to any and all the kids around him—nieces and nephews and cousins and in-laws; to his neighbors Adam and Sarah; to the exchange students he hosted over the years; and most recently to Sam’s buddies, including Will, Daniel,  Samuel, and Alec.

Spirituality

Koz’s spirituality couldn’t be measured by his time spent in church, although he put in many hours as an altar boy in St. Kasimer’s Catholic church as he was growing up in Hammond, Indiana. But if the soul is the source of truth, honesty, courage, and vision, it is certain Koz had a deep well of spirit.

Koz’s God was not confined to traditional images and concepts. He found God in the stars—the mysteries and beauty of the universe; the elegance of mathematics and physics; in the love of friends and family. On Sunday mornings he cultivated his spirituality through walks with his beloved Siberian Husky, Voi, along the C&O canal, the Potomac River, or the parks in Virginia and Maryland.

Koz’s spiritual journey reflected his off-beat, curious take on life. He was always ready to entertain a new idea. A few weeks ago he was reading Scientific American in bed and came up with a new hypothesis, which he realized would be profoundly heretical to people with more traditional beliefs.

 What if, Koz speculated, Jesus was an early inter-galactic traveler sent to earth to elevate the understanding of then-primitive humans? The trinity, he suggested, might actually have been a way of trying to explain the three fundamental forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetic forces, and sub-atomic forces. Perhaps to make the alien visitor more acceptable to the humans, he was given human form through immaculate conception and birth. His many wise teachings sprang from the innate knowledge programmed into him by a more advanced civilization. As Koz spun out the analogy, he wound up at the conclusion that that Jesus’ crucifixion suggested that this intergalactic mission had gone very wrong and he was called home—somewhere in the heavens.

Passions and Dreams

In addition to his love of cooking, eating, and creating technology, Koz loved music—especially Wagnerian operas and Mahler. He loved travel and exploring new places;  he loved dogs, especially his big dog, Wotan. Koz was a football fan (Chicago Bears, naturally), and loved classic films. He was practically a life-long subscriber to Scientific American and Sky and Telescope. He loved science, especially physics and astronomy. He loved wood-working and building; long walks, gardening and beer-making. Two years ago he enjoyed playing a bit part (Sir Edward Ramsey) in a local theatre production of “The King and I.”

Koz died in the midst of many dreams and plans, large and small. A succinct summary of the big plans streamed across one of his computers as a screen-saver: Love Family (dot, dot, dot), Plan Renovation (dot, dot, dot), Travel (dot, dot, dot), Learn piano (dot, dot, dot), Continue education (dot, dot, dot). 

Koz was in the midst of building a system for launching backyard bottle rockets, made from soda bottles and fueled by air pressure and water. He was digging the foundation for a solar shed where he and Celia would start the seeds for next year’s garden. They were discussing plans for meeting with an architect and enlarging their house. Koz wanted a big kitchen where he could carry out his culinary dreams… and a great hearth, dining, and family room where he could again host a lively circle of friends, family, and kids.

Koz wanted to show the world to Sam. High atop Koz’s shoulders, Sammy had already seen San Francisco, Chicago, Greenfield Village in Michigan, and Pittsburgh—where they took in science museums and baseball. In November, as he’d done every year for a long time, Koz took the family up to Norwood for Thanksgiving with his brother John, sister-in-law Lynne,  niece Sarah, and nephew Matthew.
Koz with Sam and Voi


Koz, Celia, and Sam enjoyed venturing a few hours west, beyond the light pollution of the night skies to look at stars with Koz’s big Dobsonian telescope. They loved visiting the animal farm of Mike and Sue, and twice camped out at the western Maryland farm of Sam’s friend Sam Lichtman. They were hoping to buy a beautiful spot out in the countryside where Celia could set up a microscope to look at algae, and Sam and Koz could set up an observatory to look at the stars.

Koz also had dreams of learning to play the grand piano he had bought in Chicago in  the 1970s, then moved to California, Virginia, and now Maryland. He also wanted to continue his education. He took some courses at Northern Virginia, but was looking forward to more classes. His wild and crazy dream for retirement was to become a high school science teacher when he left the computer world.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chronos, Chorus, Mindfulness

My Dear Husband thinks I'm obsessed with mindfulness -- or at least getting carried away with it as a panacea. Maybe. But today I personally discovered a new musical application of mindfulness, and read about research on yet another amazing payoff from the practice: controlling the passing of time.

First the research.

As described by Emily Nauman on UC Berkeley's "Greater Good" website, University of Kent researcher Robin Kramer and colleagues Ulrich Weger and Dinkar Sharma studied the effect of a single 10-minute mindfulness exercise on time perception.

The researchers trained students  to distinguish short (400 milliseconds) versus  long (1600 milliseconds) appearances of a shape on a computer screen. Participants then took a baseline test, estimating duration of appearance for a series of shapes presented to them.

Next, the participants were assigned to a control group or to an experimental group. The control group spent 10 minutes listening to an audiotape reading from The Hobbit. The experimental group listened to a 10 minute mindfulness exercise focusing attention on the breath.

The participants were then re-tested on duration of appearance for the series of shapes. The researchers found that participants who had done the mindfulness exercise rated the durations as being longer than they'd estimated on the baseline test. The control group showed no change in their estimates.

I haven't forked over the $36 to obtain a copy of the full research paper, so I have lots of questions about the study -- for example, how many participants were involved; whether assignment to the groups was random; whether the two groups differed in any important ways; and whether the difference seen between the groups on the second test was a fluke or statistically significant and repeatable. I am disappointed these details are missing from the abstract.

But assuming this was a reasonably large study, participants randomly assigned, groups comparable, and the end difference significant, the study would seem to suggest that even a very brief exposure to mindfulness can slow a person's perception of time.

Nauman's article gives more information about the researchers' view of their results:
"Because the mindfulness meditation exercise cued participants to focus on internal processes such as their breath, that attentional shift may have sharpened their capacity to notice time passing."
Kramer said the ability to slow perceived time could help people feel more in control in situations where it seems like time is running away from them.

Nauman reports that Kramer also speculated that a different mindfulness exercise could speed up perceived time:
"a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to an external event could potentially make time feel like it’s passing more quickly. If this were true, mindfulness could have clinical applications for people who feel like time is moving too slowly, such as those experiencing depression, who tend to overestimate the duration of negative events."
The idea that we can intentionally slow time down or speed it up sounds pretty amazing, and until the research has more data to back it up, I won't rule out the possibility that it's too good to be true.
But it's not inconsistent with my experience. I've never been patient--I hate to wait. But waiting has become much easier since I took my mindfulness class. Or consider how time flies when you are in that mindful state known as being totally caught up in a favorite activity.

Today's personal discovery of a new application of mindfulness was completely accidental. I dedicate this discovery to my music-loving friend, the Living Anachronism.

For no good reason, I've had the song Paint with all the Colors of the Wind going around in my head today. Typical of my earworms, it's schlocky, melodic, and passionate--in a Disney sort of way. As much as it may shock the musical sensibilities of the LA, the songs from Pocohontas are one of my guilty pleasures.

Home alone, I threw myself into a full-throated run at the beautiful chorus:
Did you ev-er hear the wolf cry to the new-born moon? Or ask the grinning bobcat why he grins? 
Voi,  A Gentleman's
Canine Companion
Koz
By the third note, my voice shattered into a croak and tears filled my eyes. The wolf reference reminded me of my dear departed dog, Voi. And the moon reference made me think of my dear departed husband, Koz, an amateur astronomer who loved nothing better than gazing at the newborn moon.

Over the years, my propensity to dissolve into tears has prevented me from singing several beautiful hymns in public. I think the English have a special affinity for these. But I digress.

My mindfulness discovery was this: If I "did mindfulness" when attempting to sing the heart-wrenching bit -- intentionally focussing attention on the sound of my voice, rather than the emotional updraft of the melody and lyrics -- I could sing the chorus without breaking up.

I look forward to testing my discovery the next time one of those great anthems starts pulling on my heartstrings ...  This is my Song (sung to Sibelius' Finlandia tune ...This is my home, the coun-try where my heart is..." Shattering for an ex-pat). Or Hubert Parry's Jerusalem. Or Holst's I Vow to Thee my Country...


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Toe-Rag Parables, Rob Bell, & Foolish Risks of God

I've long been a fan of Rob Bell. Now even more so, having seen Bell's Tumblr series, especially What is the Bible?  Part 15: Everybody Loves Stuart and Luscious and the preceding post, What is the Bible? Part 14: What are you going to do with Stuart? I think these posts present a very creative way of reading, then thinking about and discussing the Bible through parable.

In Part 14 of Bell's Tumblr series, and without giving many clues about what he had in mind, Bell threw a modern-day parable at his Tumblr readers. It was a story about a nephew, "Stuart," entrusted to care for your house while you're away, but who massively screws up and throws a nightmare party. Upon returning and seeing the chaos, your opening gambit is to comment to Stuart on an unwatered plant.

Another of my Faith Heroes, (retired) Bishop Michael Ball (who lives in my tiny village) wrote a Lenten study, Foolish Risks of God, which is devoted to the parables and has a similar view to to the thinking I surmise lies behind Bell's approach in these posts, namely that parables are a compelling, shape-shifting way of teaching. Compelling because in trying to understand and apply the parable, you become much more deeply hooked into the text. Shape-shifting because the stories / analogies have a flexibility that makes them readily adaptable to every age and life.

Father Michael spoke about parables at a home group I went to a few years ago. He gave me a copy of his introductory comments. This will give you a flavor of his humble brilliance:
These stories [Jesus' parables] are like a jigsaw whose pieces can constantly be rearranged to portray all things necessary for the needs of each age, for every condition of humankind. What we must never do (again it seems to me) is glue the pieces of the puzzle onto the table and surround it with a reinforced edge, so they can't be moved around. Parables are flexible pictures of God's wonderful nature, his forgiveness, his acceptance, his love, his treasures, and best of all, his saving grace...
Even the verbal structure of them has a timeless ingenuity ... Situations of his age yet transferable to every era. The cunning of the telling and the choice of words are constructed so that they are repeatable with different emphases for different occasions. The colours of the painting are so exquisitely, incomparably brushed on the canvas that the different lights of different centuries reveal new unrealised glories...
Rob Bell is seizing exactly this power of the parable to engage his readers/followers in the Tumblr posts. In Bell's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, he says we can read the Bible as a trajectory, a demonstration of the direction God has been leading humankind over the eons -- the way forward. The parable exercise on Tumblr may extend the trajectory by a few microns. Bell's looking at where and how God is moving in his relationship with people, and inviting readers to participate... help sniff out which direction God is leading. At least "have a go" as the Brits say. It's pure genius that Bell's using the ultimate "trajectory" verbal medium -- the time-travelling, shape-shifting parable. (Can you tell I tuned in to the Dr. Who special?)

In Bell's Tumblr post, Part 15, he shares readers' responses (Including mine!) He also discloses the message he intended with the Stuart parable:
... This will take a while...
[upon returning home to find the chaos] your priority probably won’t be finding out who Luscious is and where the AK-47 came from and why the dog smells like beer and is cross-eyed pacing in circles ... However important those are, you may not get to them for a while. Stuart may not be ready…
  • Is this why slavery isn’t condemned in the Bible?
  • Is this why polygamy isn’t forbidden in the Bible? 
  • Is this why certain barbaric and primitive actions and practices aren’t prohibited?
You can’t deal with the entire mess all at once..... First you’d get the kids off the roof because that’s a matter of life and death. Then maybe you’d ask Is the kid in the refrigerator OK? . .. However you went about it, there would be something happening underneath everything else, something that is more important to you than all the rest of it: You and Stuart making things right together. 
Wow. Talking about God working with his creations to restore creation by telling a contemporary story about setting things right which works with readers via parable interpretation. The echoes are deafening!

Here was my interpretation (responses were limited to 400 characters):
Stu’s Everyman, beloved child of God & he’s screwed up, like we all do. Pointing out the minor fault, not yelling & threatening to throttle the little toe rag, gives Stu something he can apologize for & fix. He starts with that & goes on to get the drunk friends off the roof. The friends pitch in to help. Pretty soon the whole world’s restored. I’ve been there. Cheerios & ping pong balls everywhere! Son did apologize and make some efforts. Friends picked up some trash. Mom cleaned up the rest. 
Lke most parable interpretations, this comes from personal experience. Yes, we have come home to find caretaker-son having screwed up in throwing a party. One time there was a hole in a wall and Cheerios everywhere. Another time, a bizarre selection of things disappeared (bamboo toaster tongs, stacking container for coasters); the good crystal wine glasses got used; there was goo inside the layers of glass in the oven door window; and there were ping pong balls everywhere. Beer pong. Who knew? 

But we love Sam. I wasn't thrilled to wash the floors, dig goo out of the oven window and go through the rubbish (Sam's friends had helped him clean up, but put the numerous bottles and cans in the trash rather than recycling). I am hopeful that the next time Sam has a party, he'll  be better at social engineering. More shalom, less mess.

And,  in case he's reading, and because he asked, this is just for Rob Bell (a fellow Michigander, but one who has not been living in the UK soaking up these coloUrful expressions): About "toe rag," From the Urban Dictionary:
The definition derives from old England where convicts used to tie bits of shirt around their toes and feet as a makeshift sock, hence "toe rag" means scoundrel, criminal, thief, indecent/unlawful person etc. ..."Come back with my wallet, you little toe rag."
I can't resist including Definition 2, pretty much the same, but offering a slightly different background:
2. toerag--A derogatory British insult made antique by more popular words ... Used to describe one who is seen as worthless in society. The word 'toerag' is believed to come from a rag used to wash the feet... making it very lowly... "They were just a bunch of toerags anyway."
I think the connection to foot-washing makes"toe rag"  a perfect word to describe parable-wise, all of us humans, us party-throwers, polluters, climate-changers, war-wagers, gamblers, haters, thoughtless stewards... Jesus washed our feet, asked us to do that for one another. Nothin' but toe-rags, all of us.