Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Morning

Morning: a fine rain, and wet branches gleaming.

At one point I grew self-conscious and annoyed with myself: It turns out I begin about half my posts by informing my public that it's morning. Morning is important to me. Morning is not a time of day so much as a state of being. Morning is freedom, possibility, freshness. A whole new world with the dew still on it, and not a trammel or a busybody to be seen. I love mornings. But not everybody does, and even if they did, the whole point of writing is to Make It New (we know this because Ezra Pound told us so, which maybe should rouse our suspicions right there) and anyway, how new and fresh is this morning, when to the reader (very possibly not inhabiting morning at all, or inhabiting it and wishing they weren't) reads the same damn thing every morning? So I pulled up my socks and tried to avoid it, or at least cut it out when I was done.

But this, O Reader, turns out to be a very bad idea. Because it means I begin my morning self-consciously, in an editing frame of mind, which is a very fine frame of mind in its way, but is NOT the writing frame of mind. And besides, most of what I have to say, if you boil it down, is that it is in fact morning. I write for the same reason the cock crows. There it is. So from now on, I am going to begin every post by informing you that it's morning. Feel free to skip that part.

---

Some time ago I read a book about cultural evolution, The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Henrich. I recommend it, both for itself and for a way of thinking about our present political polarity. We do have a culture war going on, and it's important, and it's not as simple as it looks. I am thoroughly and unapologetically on the liberal side, and I think actually that we are winning handily, dark though the days look sometimes: but that's not my point, not at the moment. We liberals are outcompeting conservatives for several reasons: we pay more attention to science, which gives us a consistent edge; we're more open to innovation; our childrearing practices are more effective; we have a near-monopoly on education, the media, and the arts. Short of nuclear war or genocide, we are probably going to win this thing. But we do ourselves no service by refusing to examine the conservative strengths. They understand things we don't (culturally speaking), and they can do things we can't. We should think about that. 

The winner of this culture war is not going to be the smarter, better informed side (that's obviously us.) It's not going to be the more stubborn, belligerent side either (that's obviously them.) It's going to be the side that makes people feel safest, most special, most connected to each other, most like they belong to something, most like their lives are important and make sense. The side that seizes and holds that redoubt is the one that's going to win. We need to think about that. Because the problem is hard and the stakes are enormous.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Light of Summer

Morning: the throb of the washer: a single fat sparrow in the hedge, cautiously investigating the birdbath.

The skylights are covered with dew, and beyond them the sky is gray. A somber day: the light of summer already seems far away and long ago.

Ironic, that this new moment of nationalism comes precisely when global capitalism has made us all so much alike; and that we should be extravagantly focused on cultural difference precisely when there is so little of it left. There was more cultural distance between a Southerner and a Yankee in 1860 than there is between a Honduran and a Norteamericano now. We live in the same conditions: we respond the same way. If I were a strategist for the Right, I would put all my energy into trying to suppress language learning: I don't think there's any other way to try to keep up the fiction that we're terribly different from each other. We wear the same t-shirts and bill caps, eat the same food, watch the same kitties on YouTube. We work the same absurdly long hours under the same unremitting financial stress. We have the same loss of faith in government and the same witless loathing of our political opponents. The same inability to conduct a legitimate election. It's at this moment that we choose to defend our borders? What's to defend? Our uniqueness consists of playing football with a prolate spheroid, instead of a ball.

Speaking of which, what the hell, Thorns? losing 0-6 against North Carolina? Sheesh.

Just finished reading Jonathan Haidt's "Happiness Hypothesis," which I found disconcertingly like my own thoughts on the matter. I think I'm going to just turn back to the beginning and read it over. As always, finding my own thoughts in print makes me doubt them: if somebody else thinks the same thing, then we're both probably wrong, right? But it's also interesting. And I don't at all understand what he means by saying that "Happiness comes from between," so I need to read that last chapter again, in any case.

The other book I'm reading is La Tía Julia y El Escribor -- "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" -- by Mario Vargas Llosa, which is really quite a wonderful book, so far, though you have to be alarmed by the thought of a man dictating the story of their courtship to his lover, which is apparently how this book was written. Yikes.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Corymb



I said to myself, "I need to take a walk and figure out what it is I want to be doing for the next ten, twenty, thirty years."

I started walking, and realized: "no, I don't need to figure it out. I need to discover it. I've gone as far as figuring is going to take me. I need to speculate -- brainstorm -- and then try things out. Run pilot programs. The last thing I need, right now is to figure things out."

My life is already replete with rumination. I do all the ruminating I could possibly need to do. What it lacks is experimentation. I need to build prototypes, and see how they perform.

--

Corymb: an inflorescence with the flowers growing in such a fashion that the outermost are borne on longer pedicels than the inner, bringing all flowers up to a common level 

--

Woke to silent lightning, this morning. And now the daylight: slow and halting, and as yellow as evening light. The sound of a sparrow bathing in a plastic tub lid, and little chirps and quick leaf-shudders in the hedge. It's quiet this morning, as quiet as a weekend morning: maybe lots of people are already embarked on their Labor Day weekend? But the chickens are finally tuning up, with those long, quavering moans. "My God," they say, "I can't believe it's another day: why, O Lord?"

I think of moving to a riverside cottage, if such a thing is still possible, and learning to shop once a week, and going for long walks at dawn in the hills. I used to be sure I wanted to be forever in the city, where things were happening, and there were lots of new people to fall in love with. Now -- I don't know. A quiet morning and flowing water, maybe a kingfisher, the splash of a fish? I tire of fret and striving and hysteria of high-strung, overcrowded primates. Who cares what anyone thinks of me? And what new world is going to be brought to me by strangers? All the worlds are old, now.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Fall of Meredith

Illustration for George Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond. George du Maurier (1834-1896)

In my youth, George Meredith was one of those novelists you were always going to get to one of these days. There was no hurry. His novels were always sitting, fat and well-bound, on the library shelves. But I never did get around to him. A couple days ago until I happened to pick up Chesterton's little book on Victorian literature -- sheer happenstance: my eye had fallen on it at the library when I was looking for something else -- and there was Meredith, ranked beside, if not above, Thomas Hardy. Huh, I thought. I'll read a Meredith novel. After poking about a little I settled on Harry Richmond, and went to the library website to slap a hold on it: that's the usual way I obtain books these days. To my astonishment, they held exactly one Meredith novel -- The Egoist -- and that was that. The solidity and permanence of Meredith was a mirage, a trick of the light.

I was piqued, rather than discouraged, and went off to Gutenberg. Sure enough, plenty of Meredith there, although apparently not much in demand. So now I'm eight chapters in to Harry Richmond. It's interesting, so far -- well worth reading, and it casts oblique lights forward and back. Many of us young men are in a similar plight, I often think: raised to princely expectations, groomed for monarchy, and then rudely thrown into the world as ordinary people after all.

I wonder why Meredith fell? So many mysteries.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Sad Cypress; Glad Morning

Cyparissus (1670s) by Jacopo Vignali: Wikipedia Commons

Cool morning air drifting in from the windows; a light blue sky beyond the hedge. For the moment, untroubled and at peace.

It's an arborvitae hedge. Martha pronounces it, charmingly, as "arborviety," rhyming with "variety." Tree of life, that is, which seems a little highfalutin for a hedge shrub. But apparently it got the name because tea made from it cured scurvy. 

It's a kind of cypress. A thuja. The which name is another anomalous perplexity, at first sight, but it turns out to just be an odd spelling of the Greek name for a particular sort of cypress. Thuia, would be the normal English spelling. What possessed some botanist to spell it with a 'j'?  'i' and 'j' are originally just variant forms of the same Roman letter, but to anyone with linguistic sensitivities the 'th', which fairly screams its Greekness, sits very uncomfortably in the same short word with a Latin 'j'. 

I do not know why cypress trees are associated with sadness, though I suppose the internets would tell me. They don't strike me as particularly sad trees. A little dusky, but not strikingly dark like a yew.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

... I'm back! The internets say that of course cypress trees are sad because once upon a classical time Cyparissus accidentally shot and killed his pet stag, and he made such a nuisance of his grief that the gods turned him into a tree: an immortal cypress so that he could grieve forever. But then other of the internets say that Cypress trees are not only immortal but protective (here the arborvitae theme is foreshadowed, no?), so they're planted in cemeteries to guard the dead from demons. That seems more likely than the stag story, but of course you never know. So I will put Mr Vignali's picture up top. One does hope he gave the model a comfortable pillow to embrace, but artists are notoriously ruthless.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Absorbing a Setback -- Naps -- Deep Work & Deliberate Practice

Morning. Up before the sun today: for the first time since the solstice, I had to turn on lights to perform my morning ceremonies. A little sad for the waning of the light. I have, now, a late-found affection for summer and warm weather. Some combination of getting older and getting thinner: I tolerate heat much better than I did when I was younger and stouter.

Speaking of thinner and stouter, I dropped back below 160 lbs yesterday. During the stresses and disruptions of this Spring I went off the rails with my eating for a week or two, and skipped or reduced a bunch of my workouts, and found myself at 165 lbs, with a 34 1/2 inch waist. It's taken four weeks to bring things back to where I want them to be. One complexity is that I don't have a goal weight or waistline, any more. My goal is a relationship -- the hips measuring three inches more than the waist -- and what that may work out to, in absolute pounds and inches, I can't know until I get there. Plus, I don't know whether the three inch thing is really appropriate for my age. Some people think that more padding is to be desired, at my advanced age, but what they base that on is (so far as I know) a single study that shows that you die slower if you're fatter. I don't know that I want to die slower: I just want to die later. The active and healthy-looking old people I see are skinny as a rail. I suspect that's the way to go. Not having absolute numbers to aim for, though, is a bit of a psychological disadvantage. My graphs show me moving in the right direction: but the waist and hip measurements are mushier than the scale's. It will be nice when I have a simple stable number of pounds that I want to weigh. 

Anyway -- to the purpose of my rather thought, as Mr Chaucer would say -- this is important to me because I had two criteria, from way back when I started this weight loss enterprise. One was, I had to keep the weight off for five years. The other was, that I had to be able to absorb a setback -- to go off the rails and get back on. For the first, well, I won't know for another three years whether I can declare success or not. But I seem to have demonstrated the second, now. I can recover from driving into the ditch, using exactly the same methods I used for the long march. They haven't magically become ineffective. (If that sounds absurd, well, it is: but it is also my experience of all the diets heretofore that have failed. Once they "broke" their effectiveness was wrecked.)

So -- that's all good. 

The other thing: I'm learning, in earnest, to take naps. In experimenting, a la Cal Norman, with trying to make space for blocks of "deep work" in my schedule, I discovered something important: the problem was not so much that social media was sucking up my time as that I was too fatigued. That is, I was lingering on Facebook and so forth because I was too tired to do real work, and I was too tired because my nightly sleep is regularly broken -- BPE -- and I was never making up the deficit. So I'm learning to sleep in the day. So grateful for having the flexibility of schedule to make that possible. A huge luxury.

There are two things I want to focus "deep work" time on: "deliberate practice" of Spanish, and "deliberate practice" of massage. I have periodically little fits of anxiety and dismay about whether my massage is good enough, which have never been wired to actually doing anything to improve it. But it does get better when I study and practice it. There's nothing magical about it. It follows the same path as any other skill. 

The anxiety is kind of stupid anyway, since it's already good enough, in practical terms: there's no way that the average kid just a year or two out of school is going to do work as effective as mine, and about half of the massage therapists out there are kids just a year or two out of school. From the business point of view, it hardly matters how good I am. It only matters from the point of how I feel about myself, and how I respond to anxiety. I'm sick of responding to anxiety about my worthiness with extravagant spiritual projects or literary enterprises that never quite happen. For more decades than I care to think about, my response to doubting my skills has been to work on a new and secret set of skills that I will someday unveil to the astonishment of the world. Screw that. I can just work on the things I actually do, and actually get better at them, right out in the light of day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Venustas Ergo Venustas

I find the world much more difficult and obscure than most people do. I have friends to whom it seems obvious that a person belongs to herself: a statement which I find fascinating, bizarre and indefensible. But to them it is self-evident. I have friends for whom it is self-evident that there is a God who created people, and who believe that they therefore belong to Her: again fascinating, again bizarre, again indefensible. 

It's not clear to me that we exist, in any way similar to the way we imagine we exist, anyway: so Descartes' clear starting principle is for me the iffy conclusion of a dubious chain of assumptions. What are my responsibilities, even if I was created, even if by some unknowable fiat I not only exist, but belong to myself, even if "I" and "myself" are meaningful categories that can be meaningfully linked by a property relationship? That's not clear to me either. To me these are speculations in the outermost spheres of wild hypothesis. To my friends, they're daily realities worth killing and dying for.

Really. I'm not making this up, I'm not trying to invent difficulties. I'm just saying it's dark, to me: I stumble through an obscure world of shifting shapes and dissolving outlines, punctuated by moments of brilliant, wounding, transcendent beauty. 

Which vanish almost at once, leaving behind longings, traces, puzzlements. Descartes, bless his heart, was sure that he existed. For my part, I'm sure that the experience of beauty can exist, momentarily at least, however we conceive of the experiencer. And that's about as far as I get with first principles. This is why I'm so fun at parties.