Outward Bound Ideas

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Monday, March 23, 2015

145. Try To Be Kind To Others by George Saunders

Try To Be Kind To Others by George Saunders

It’s long past graduation season, but we recently learned that George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, and George was kind enough to send it our way and allow us to reprint it here. The speech touches on some of the moments in his life and larger themes (in his life and work) that George spoke about in the profile we ran back in January — the need for kindness and all the things working against our actually achieving it, the risk in focusing too much on “success,” the trouble with swimming in a river full of monkey feces.
George Saunders
The entire speech, graduation season or not, is well worth reading, and is included below.
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .
And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

144. How the Grinch Stole the Oil Glut by Joe Queenan

How the Grinch Stole the Oil Glut
Economists can find a downside to anything
Dec. 11, 2014 12:02 p.m. ET

Until recently, the crash in oil prices was widely perceived as a Christmas present for consumers. More money for gifts, food, warm clothing, toys and, for that matter, gas. Who wouldn’t rejoice?
Economists, that’s who. Geopolitical experts. And anyone who owns stock in oil companies. No sooner did ordinary people start celebrating their cash windfall than the Grinch showed up and started lecturing them about the dark side of lower oil prices. All that glitters is not gold, the experts told the public. Always look a gift horse in the mouth. Don’t you nitwits know anything?
Here’s what the experts have to say about plummeting oil prices. Lower fuel prices will lead to a consumer spending binge and that will lead to inflation. The drop will also destabilize foreign economies, contributing to political unrest, and discourage energy companies from looking for new sources of oil. It will hamper the development of alternative forms of energy. It will encourage consumers to buy gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. It will encourage people to drive more, wrecking our highways and costing us billions of dollars in lost productivity because of employees stuck in traffic jams on I-95 or the 405.
That’s not all. The drop in fuel prices will prod the Fed to raise interest rates, traumatizing the bond market and sabotaging retirees’ golden years. It will lead to even more crowded planes and delayed flights. It will make people even less likely to use public transportation. It will wreck the staycation industry because everyone will go back to vacationing in Antigua instead of the local Motel 6. It will help the Chinese climb out of their economic rut, and nothing that helps the Chinese can possibly be good for us. In short, we were much better off when gas was $4 a gallon.
Poorly informed laymen might think that economists are only saying these things to be mean or because they couldn’t care less about plummeting oil prices, since they all bike to work or own Priuses. But this is not true: Economists are coldblooded rationalists who would react the same way if any other industry suddenly slashed prices by 40%.
“On the surface, massively reduced movie-ticket prices might seem like a boon,” an expert might say. “But cheaper tickets will attract larger crowds to Sylvester Stallone films that would otherwise bomb. This will lead to ‘The Expendables XI’ and ‘Rambo: Thirty-first Blood.’ Lower ticket prices will bring in far more teenagers, who will drink a lot of soda loaded with sugar, which will wreck their teeth, burdening our massively overextended dental-care system.”
Economists would react the same way if candy makers slashed prices 40%. “Cheaper candy means fatter kids,” a typical economist would argue, “which means higher clothing prices because you need a lot more denim to cover their humongous butts. Higher clothing costs lead to higher wages, which lead to inflation, which leads to labor unrest in developing countries where most of the clothes are made, which destabilizes the global economic system. And that helps the Chinese. The last thing we need in this country is lower prices on candy. Especially Swedish fish.”
Massively reduced milk prices? Makes babies fat and leads to heart disease. Slashed prices on hats? Even more ironic hipster fedoras. A 40% plunge in the price of a college education? It will simply encourage more dumb kids to get a college degree, further debasing the coin of the realm.
Finally, how about a huge reduction in the cost of tickets to see Lynyrd Skynyrd or Bob Dylan, allowing impoverished baby boomers to enjoy the heroes of their misbegotten youth one last time? “It will only encourage more reunions,” economists will argue, taking into account the fitness of a society in which AC/DC has just released a new record and Journey still exists. “We’ll never get these guys to retire.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

143. Abundance Without Attachment by Arthur C. Brooks

DEC. 12, 2014

“CHRISTMAS is at our throats again.”
That was the cheery yuletide greeting favored by the late English playwright Noël Coward, commemorating the holiday after which he was named. Less contrarian were the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
Which quotation strikes a chord with you? Are you a Coward or a Coolidge?
If you sympathize more with Coward, welcome to the club. There are many more of us out there than one might expect. A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans were bothered “some” or “a lot” by the commercialization of Christmas. A 2013 follow-up confirmed that materialism is Americans’ least favorite part of the season.

Call it the Christmas Conundrum. We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity, yet the season’s lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold. The underlying contradiction runs throughout modern life. On one hand, we naturally seek and rejoice in prosperity. On the other hand, success in this endeavor is often marred by a materialism we find repellent and alienating.
On a recent trip to India, I found an opportunity to help sort out this contradiction. I sought guidance from a penniless Hindu swami named Gnanmunidas at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Hindu temple in New Delhi. We had never met before, but he came highly recommended by friends. If Yelp reviewed monks, he would have had five stars.
To my astonishment, Gnanmunidas greeted me with an avuncular, “How ya doin’?” He referred to me as “dude.” And what was that accent — Texas? Sure enough, he had grown up in Houston, the son of Indian petroleum engineers, and had graduated from the University of Texas. Later, he got an M.B.A., and quickly made a lot of money.
But then Gnanmunidas had his awakening. At 26, he asked himself, “Is this all there is?” His grappling with that question led him to India, where he renounced everything and entered a Hindu seminary. Six years later, he emerged a monk. From that moment on, the sum total of his worldly possessions has been two robes, prayer beads and a wooden bowl. He is prohibited from even touching money — a discipline that would obviously be impossible for those of us enmeshed in ordinary economic life.
As an economist, I was more than a little afraid to hear what this capitalist-turned-renunciant had to teach me. But I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.
“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”
This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.
The assertion that there is nothing wrong with abundance per se is entirely consistent with most mainstream philosophies. Even traditions commonly perceived as ascetic rarely condemn prosperity on its face. The Dalai Lama, for example, teaches that material goods themselves are not the problem. The real issue, he writes, is our delusion that “satisfaction can arise from gratifying the senses alone.”
Moreover, any moral system that takes poverty relief seriously has to celebrate the ahistoric economic bounty that has been harvested these past few centuries. The proportion of the world living on $1 per day or less has shrunk by 80 percent in our lifetimes. Today, Bill Gates can credibly predict that almost no countries will be conventionally “poor” by 2035.
In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.
In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.
In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction. But how to do it? Three practices can help.
First, collect experiences, not things.
Material things appear to be permanent, while experiences seem evanescent and likely to be forgotten. Should you take a second honeymoon with your spouse, or get a new couch? The week away sounds great, but hey — the couch is something you’ll have forever, right?
Wrong. Thirty years from now, when you are sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, you’ll remember your second honeymoon in great detail. But are you likely to say to one another, “Remember that awesome couch?” Of course not. It will be gone and forgotten. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is physically permanent stuff that evaporates from our minds. It is memories in the ether of our consciousness that last a lifetime, there for us to enjoy again and again.
This “paradox of things” has been thoroughly documented by researchers. In 2003, psychologists from the University of Colorado and Cornell studied how Americans remembered different kinds of purchases — material things and experiences — they have made in the past. Using both a national survey and a controlled experiment with human subjects, they found that reflecting on experiential purchases left their subjects significantly happier than did remembering the material acquisitions.

Countless studies show that doing things for their own sake — as opposed to things that are merely a means to achieve something else — makes for mindfulness and joy.
In one famous experiment, college students were given puzzles to solve. Some of the students were paid, and others were not. The unpaid participants tended to continue to work on the puzzles after the experiment was finished, whereas the paid participants abandoned the task as soon as the session was over. And the paid subjects reported enjoying the whole experience less.
FOR those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable. But for those of us blessed to be above poverty, attachment to money is a means-ends confusion. Excessive focus on your finances obscures what you are supposed to enjoy with them. It’s as if your experience of the holidays never extended beyond the time spent at the airport on the way to see family. (If you’re thinking that’s actually the best part, then you have a different problem.)
This manifestly does not mean we should abandon productive impulses. On the contrary, it means we need to treat our industry as an intrinsic end. This is the point made famously in the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, where work is sanctified as inherently valuable, not as a path to a payoff.
And finally, get to the center of the wheel.
In the rose windows of many medieval churches, one finds the famous “wheel of fortune,” or rota fortunae. The concept is borrowed from ancient Romans’ worship of the pagan goddess Fortuna. Following the wheel’s rim around, one sees the cycle of victory and defeat that everyone experiences throughout the struggles of life. At the top of the circle is a king; at the bottom, the same man as a pauper.
Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” uses the idea to tell of important people brought low throughout history: “And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously. And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.”
The lesson went beyond the rich and famous. Everyone was supposed to remember that each of us is turning on the wheel. One day, we’re at the top of our game. But from time to time, we find ourselves laid low in health, wealth and reputation.
If the lesson ended there, it would be pretty depressing. Every victory seems an exercise in futility, because soon enough we will be back at the bottom. But as the Catholic theologian Robert Barron writes, the early church answered this existential puzzle by placing Jesus at the center of the wheel. Worldly things occupy the wheel’s rim. These objects of attachment spin ceaselessly and mercilessly. Fixed at the center was the focal point of faith, the lodestar for transcending health, wealth, power, pleasure and fame — for moving beyond mortal abundance. The least practical thing in life was thus the most important and enduring.
But even if you are not religious, there is an important lesson for us embedded in this ancient theology. Namely, woe be unto those who live and die by the slings and arrows of worldly attachment. To prioritize these things is to cling to the rim, a sure recipe for existential vertigo. Instead, make sure you know what is the transcendental truth at the center of your wheel, and make that your focus.
So here is my central claim: The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices above. Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel. It might just turn out to be a happy holiday after all.
I never finished my story about Swami Gnanmunidas. Before I left him that day in Delhi, we had a light lunch of soup and naan. I told him I would be writing about our conversation; many Americans would be hearing his name. He contemplated this for a moment and, modeling nonattachment, responded simply.
“Dude, do you like the soup? It’s spicy.”
Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing opinion writer who is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 14, 2014, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Abundance Without Attachment. 

142. ‘One for the Books,’ by Joe Queenan A Review

‘One for the Books,’ by Joe Queenan
Published: January 25, 2014
By Joe Queenan’s reckoning, in his 62 years of life he has read at least 6,128 books. Should he continue to read at his current clip (100 to 200 books annually), he calculates that given natural life expectancy, he has only some 2,138 books to go. The clock is ticking, he warns, for him and for us all. If that makes you want to abandon this review immediately and grab the nearest Dostoyevsky, no hard feelings.

Joe Queenan
By Joe Queenan
244 pp. Viking. $24.95.
Queenan, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, is a famously dyspeptic humorist and self-proclaimed “sneering churl.” But in “One for the Books,” a gathering of essays, parts of which appeared in these pages, he is mostly in celebratory mode, writing of his love of literature. It is a stalker-ish love, in which he reads every­where (at wakes, during Jerry Garcia guitar solos) and anything (Pamela Anderson’s “Star: A Novel,” Geraldo Rivera’s memoir), and in spare moments fetishistically rearranges his personal collection of 1,374 tomes by height, thickness and author’s nationality.
While hardly monogamous — he always has at least 15 books going at once — Queenan is a wholehearted lover, surprisingly vulnerable to the slightest volume, as ready to give himself to a novella about a cross-dressing Mexico City hairdresser as to “Northanger Abbey.” He will slog to the end of even a turgid, minor work by a beloved author, so as not to seem ungrateful.
Fortunately, given Queenan’s particular skill set, he finds plenty in the book world to sneer at, too. On the cheapskates who frequent secondhand bookshops: “People should consider it an honor to pay full price for a book by Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood.” On reviews containing the adjective “luminous”: “I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle.” On the futility of book clubs: “Good books do not invite unanimity. They invite discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.”
He refuses to read novels in which the protagonist attends private school (so long, Harry Potter), or books written by fans of the Yankees, a group that turns out to include Salman Rushdie. And he reserves particular scorn for readers of e-books, who, he argues, “have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives.” A person housebound with an infant might disagree. A person lying in the dark next to the aforementioned, now finally, blessedly sleeping infant might consider the conjuring of “Wolf Hall” on a beautifully backlighted iPad a wonder passing all ­wonders.
And what of book reviewers? Queenan, a formidable reviewer himself, complains that we are “too darned nice.” Let me note, then, that “One for the Books” is a shaggy specimen, and could have done without the mock Amazon reviews from previous centuries or the litany of fake Lincoln titles and Kinks autobiographies or the mock book-discussion questions.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to be charmed by Queenan’s enthusiasms. He bemoans never finding someone willing to talk about the Japanese writer Juni­chiro Tanizaki (I am!), and admits to never finishing — and ­never wanting to finish — “Ulysses,” an old nemesis of mine that I once attempted to destroy by wedging it under a jack to change a flat tire. (It haunts me still, with its oil-stained pages.)
When Queenan was young, books were an escape hatch from life in a Philadelphia housing project “with substandard parents,” including a father who “used books the same way he used alcohol: to pretend that he was not here.” Now they are a way to rage against the dying of the light. “As long as we have these epic, improbable reading projects arrayed before us, we cannot breathe our last,” he writes. “Tell the Angel of Death to come back later; I haven’t quite finished ‘Villette.’ ”

Ligaya Mishan writes the Hungry City column for the Dining section of The Times.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

141. Prologue to In Praise of Darkness - Jorge Luis Borges

"Without thinking about it at the beginning. I have dedicated my now long life to literature; to teaching: to idle hours; to the tranquil ventures of conversation; to philology, of which I know nothing; to my mysterious habit called Buenos Aires, and to those perplexities which not without some pomposity are called metaphysics. At the same time, I should say that my life has not been lacking in the friendship of a certain few, the only kind of friendship of value. I do not think I have a single enemy or, if I have had one, that person never made himself known to me. The truth is but for those we love, no one can hurt us. Now, at three score and ten, I publish my fifth books of poems. ……….
    Poetry is no less mysterious than the other elements making up our earth. One or two good lines can hardly make us vain, because they are gifts of Chance of the Spirit; errors come from us only. I hope the reader will discover something worthy of his memory in these pages; in this world beauty is of all of us.

140. From: Joyce Cary, A Biography by Malcolm Foster

In one of the vest-pocket notebooks Joyce always carried with him, usually reserved for entries about his novels and short stories and in which the germs for many of them had first been jotted down, Joyce had written that spring before Trudy’s death,

"What is strange is that I got no pleasure in walking through the parks and looking at the new leaves on the trees, at the buttercups which are just opening in crowds among the brick green grass. I used to think that looking at nature would always give me consolation in misery, but it did not do so today. The only thing that gave me comfort was simply a feeling for other people in misfortune and their need of love. I was made to feel, I suppose, for the first time, the absolute need  of love to make life possible, and the continuous everlasting presence of love in the world. And so the fearful bitterness of this danger to T. and all our memories together, was mixed with the sense of something that can survive any loss, the power of love."

Saturday, January 04, 2014

139. Nora Ephron versis Stieg Larsson

There was a tap at the door at five in the morning. She woke up. Shit. Now what? She’d fallen asleep with her Palm Tungsten T3 in her hand. It would take only a moment to smash it against the wall and shove the battery up the nose of whoever was out there annoying her. She went to the door.
“I know you’re home,” he said.
Kalle fucking Blomkvist.
She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe.
Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc.
“Please,” he said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.”
He was cradling an iBook in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head.
“I can’t really go on without an umlaut,” he said. “We’re in Sweden.”
But where in Sweden were they? There was no way to know, especially if you’d never been to Sweden. A few chapters ago, for example, an unscrupulous agent from Swedish Intelligence had tailed Blomkvist by taking Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm, and then driving down Hornsgatan and across Bellmansgatan via Brännkyrkagatan, with a final left onto Tavastgatan. Who cared, but there it was, in black-and-white, taking up space. And now Blomkvist was standing in her doorway. Someone might still be following him—but who? There was no real way to be sure even when you found out, because people’s names were so confusingly similar—Gullberg, Sandberg, and Holmberg; Nieminen and Niedermann; and, worst of all, Jonasson, Mårtensson, Torkelsson, Fredriksson, Svensson, Johansson, Svantesson, Fransson, and Paulsson.
“I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?”
It was a compelling argument.
She opened the door.
He handed her the computer and went to make coffee on her Jura Impressa X7.
She tried to get the umlaut to work. No luck. She pinged Plague and explained the problem. Plague was fat, but he would know what to do, and he would tell her, in Courier typeface.
Plague wrote.

She went to the bathroom and got a Q-tip and gently cleaned the area around the Alt key. It popped into place. Then she pressed “U.” An umlaut danced before her eyes.
Finally, she spoke.
“It’s fixed,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said.
She thought about smiling, but she’d smiled three hundred pages earlier, and once was enough. ♦

Monday, December 09, 2013

138. Exploration - H.M. Tomlinson

Exploration H.M. Tomlinson From Out of Soundings , Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 13, p190-208. From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 13, p117-126. THE longing began in me through reading Ballantyne's Hudson's Bay. The pull of the Magnetic North was felt; I turned to Boothia Felix. I should not like to say how long ago that was; it was when I began to have occasion, in a house of commerce, to consult the Weekly Shipping List. That entrancing guide contained such entries as this: "York Factory, Hudson's Bay. Lady Head, bk, 457 tons. A. 1. Capt. Anderson. Sailing June 1. South West India Dock." I was very young then, and so supposed a man went travelling to see what was round the corner; because, as a sage master mariner, later in life, once sadly explained to me in his cabin: When we are young we think all the good things are far away. I did not know, so early, that a man sets out to find himself, and that on such a journey, in a country all unknown, he may get lost. When young Herman Melville shipped in a whaler, he little guessed his voyage would never end, not while men fancy they discern a Great Bear in the night sky from which their brave harpoons ever return to earth. Ballantyne unsettled me, and Butler's Great Lone Land and Wild North Land made matters worse; it was the dream that was real. Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River were desolate; and how noble were their names! But the Hudson's Bay Company, at whose door in Lime Street, London, I knocked, generously spared my proffered service. It amused me once to hear Joseph Conrad confess—it was to my ear alone, and I had made no confession to him—that his earliest effort to find employment as a ship's officer was with the H.B.C.; and he, too, failed, for the H.B.C. is Scottish, and most careful and particular. There was not a book on the exploration of North America and the Arctic, in the Guildhall Library of the City of London, for which I did not save or steal time to read. It came to nothing. But the very name, Canadian Barren Grounds, still works a faint reminiscent enchantment; yet resolutely but regretfully I resist the Northern Lights. The ease with which a man may get into the outer blue, which is uncharted, and is not at all kenspeckled, I learned a little later from A Week on the Concord. Once you have started you may find yourself anywhere. The transit may be instant. There is no oracle to warn you where you may be at night. You may be so different that the world itself will be changed. Then what will you do?—for do something you must. When your fellows continue as usual to call your burning bush a briar patch, which is what it is, and will remain for most of us, how is that sign to be doused? There is no return. There must be categories for books, yet I do not think Books of Travel is precisely the place in the index for the Arabia Deserta , or Thoreau's Week on the Concord, or even for Bates's Naturalist on the River Amazons. The right good book is always a book of travel; it is about a life's journey. It does not matter whether the point of view is got from Egdon Heath, Capri, or Kanchenjunga. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was to me less Arabia in wartime than Lawrence; the war and its intrigues, the Arabs, the Turks and the Germans and the desert, were incidental; they chanced to evoke Lawrence, agents of destiny of consequence to us, for they were the cause of a war of thoughts compared with which the desert campaign was only ugly and common tribal bickering. Revolts of Arabs and others against what enrages them may burn up a little rubbish, and perhaps make more, but a revolt from our traditions and accepted verities by bleakly intrepid thoughts may lead us the deuce of an eternal dance. Is Moby Dick a yarn of a whaling cruise? Is Gulliver's Travels merely a fantastic diversion? We shall continue to call the Arabia Deserta a book of travel, for it is that, though so is the Pilgrim's Progress. Nevertheless, it is plain that Doughty, that gaunt and stubborn survival from a pre-Shakespearian England, so much an Englishman that he was a foreigner to the Oxford and London of his day, looms in his book with more startling distinction than the basaltic crags of the Arabian desert. No wonder his spirit held in check the sun-struck fanatics about him, though they wanted to cut his throat. We, too, were in nature as much opposed to him, when we began to read him, but he has subdued us. The stark bergs of his desert are not more enduring than the traveller. But for him, would that burnt region of sand and rock with its dangerous and rhapsodical nomads exist for us? While reading Doughty, you begin to sense something of the origin of the Semitic scriptures; we know that Doughty himself, had he been one in the Exile, brooding on lost Jerusalem, would have bowed to the stripes, but have prophesied apart for all those that must hereafter patiently endure by the waters of Babylon. First and last a poet may write only of himself. The world exists because he sees it. That can be all he knows of it. What then, is he? For the validity of the world depends on the kind of man he is. Whether it is Europe shaken by the French Revolution, or the deserts of Asia, or Walden Pond, the seer is the consummation and reality. His broomstick, if he travel astride of that, may range over deeps as dark as the gulfs in the Milky Way; and yet another kind of traveller may convert the region which holds the culture of the Chinese into a mere album of photographic snapshots and interlined facetiousness. Seeing is of faith, for faith is not blind. There can be no faith without light. What we do not see may condemn us. What traveller would dare to interpret the world which he thinks he sees to-day? There is harder travelling now than kept Marco Polo so long from his home. There is no simple problem of a Grand Khan now. There is no Tartary. Cathay is a republic, complete with civil strife, western ideas, and the machinery of industry. Communists interrupt the railway service of Java. Messer Marco Polo in all his wanderings saw nothing stranger than that, nor more difficult to read. Instead of Venice and Canton we have London and New York. A man flew to Baghdad and back the other week in contemptuously few hours; and Persia weaves prayer-mats, not to point to Mecca, but to help the sentiment of English suburban villas. One may buy Burmese gems by the pint by taking a penny bus from Charing Cross; there is no need to voyage to Cairo, Calicut, and Pekin, to see the Orient. It is mostly in the Cutler Street warehouse, by Houndsditch. The Underground Railway serves the Orient. But we are not satisfied. A vague desperation is suggested in our tours round the world. Something is missing from our civilization. Perhaps we think that the farther we go the more likely we are to recover whatever it is we have lost. It is possible that the Communist risings in the Garden of the East come of the same disquiet which sends rich westerners circling the globe. Why should the Hindus and Javanese revolt? Their lives are more secure now than they were under their old emperors and rajahs. And why should rich men shut up their ancestral country seats, and go to the South Seas for the simplicity which began to die there as soon as Watt learned the way to harness steam? The affliction appears to be world wide. It is felt in Benares, Pekin, and Park Lane. The lions of Africa are being displaced by sisal fibre, just as speedways and coal-mines are destroying Kentish orchards. We read that an imaginative traveller, instead of gratitude for his seclusion in a tropical forest, considered that the trees were growing to waste; they ought to be turned into natural resources. He was a modern traveller. He did not call the forest Green Mansions, nor see Rima there. He saw a potential reservoir of wood-pulp. That may be our trouble. The faith may be dying which sees beauty in the world, and without knowing it that may be why we are desperate to escape from our toils. We are no longer able to wonder, even at our own ingenuity. We are not as little children, so the kingdom is lost. It is useless to voyage to Papeete to look for the kingdom. The Venetian noble, Nicolo de Conti, early in the fifteenth century, when his ship was in the Red Sea, was surprised to see elephants equipped for war; but he would have been still more surprised had he heard at night voices that were speaking in Venice; as I heard one night, off Cape Bon, the movements of dancers in a London hotel—through the sough of the dark, far at sea, I could hear London shuffling its feet; and that thought, if sufficiently examined afterwards when one was by the bulwarks alone, was enough to give pause to the heedlessness of idle feet. The very empyrean was listening. It might not be safe to entertain even idle thoughts, for heaven only knows what registering mystery may hear those as readily as the shuffling of dancers. A poet once cryptically reminded us that we cannot pluck a flower without troubling a star. No doubt it will be difficult to persuade us that Aldebaran cares the least for our dandelions; yet when the gift of reason inclines us to observe only a larger circulation of cheap newspapers in fir woods, or alcohol in a tropical forest, one begins to fear that the sweet influences of Pleiades are then loosened to a slight degree. Perhaps when we trample the bloom off the earth, and replace it with smoke, clinker heaps, and hovels, the bands of Orion remain as fast as ever; yet the dread that the deliberate darkening of our own star may affect the Galaxy, though that dread does not arise from any logic that we know, may not be without reason. That dread, and we are beginning to feel it, is no less remarkable than wireless telephony. It is a thought new to the world of men, though the squalor with which we continue to disfigure our place in our efforts to make it fruitful is as ancient as man's activities. Pero Tafur, who began travelling and adventuring about 1425, reports for his day a Europe which in most respects is inexplicable to us. There was no New Learning then. When Tafur entered France, Joan of Arc had been dead only seven years. The English had been driven out of Paris, but were still in Rouen. The Mediterranean was still the centre of gravity of European commerce; not then had Portuguese navigators made the discoveries which would shift that commerce to the Atlantic seaboard; though, curiously enough, Tafur shows that one mart of Flanders was then richer than Venice, and the shipping of Sluys enormous in its tonnage. America was unknown. The Turks were encamped about Constantinople, where the Eastern Empire was about to fall. The Pope was an exile. The plague was in France, and that land was desolate with the wars of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. We cannot, with those reminders, picture such a Europe. But in some chance ways, and without conscious design, Tafur does that for us. It is the wayside incidents of his story which betray a Europe we know quite well. He had been astonished by the riches of Bruges, and he went to Sluys to see the ships. At Mass there a woman approached him in secret, and wondering, he went home with her. There she offered him one of her two young daughters. The family was starving. All that commercial activity of Flanders and its wealth of luxuries, and this family had nothing to eat! How far, since Tafur's day, have our many inventions taken us? Have we got any distance, in our flying machines? Even while a doubt about our progress begins to disturb us, old habits compel the consideration of the conversion of beauty into still more starvation and smoke. We are not sufficiently afraid of troubling the stars when darkening the splendour of our planet; yet a doubt grows that what we think and do may not be inconsequential beyond the orbit of the earth. In that space beyond, where we cannot go, it is possible that some emanation from our liveliness finds its way, and not fortuitously. We may make a mark without knowing it. It is irrelevant to the story, no doubt, that one night at sea we chanced to hear revellers at Charing Cross, yet it was a warning not easily quieted. We have now learned beyond question that our various noises are indeed registered where we had supposed there was nothing but the impersonal sough of the dark. There was a sometime Archdeacon of Westminster, Richard Hakluyt, who celebrated the earlier English seamen and travellers. His tablet in Bristol Cathedral reads: "His studious Imagination discovered new Paths for geographical Science and his patriotic Labours rescued from oblivion not a few of those who went down to the Sea in ships to be Harbingers of Empire, descrying new Lands, and finding larger Room for their Race." That tablet is but just to Hakluyt. Yet consider its implications. The Westminster Archdeacon, without meaning to do it, who desired instead to light an imperial desire in an adventurous people, did much to prompt the pall over the Black Country. His patriotic labours at length poured out as smoke from our factory chimneys; an odd outcome of a pure and selfless personal devotion. That dark sign of profit to an imperial people was the inevitable result of the valour and enterprise of Elizabethan seamen. Those harbingers of Empire and their celebrant, as now we see them, were moved in their age by an influence which stirred even its poets; they were compelled by a law of growth in a changing world, we may suppose, to which their community had to respond as though it had no more conscious control of its destiny than the annual flowers of the field. All these men together gave our country, gave the civilization we call Western, a mighty shove towards the place where now we find it. The glorious flower of the civilization which romantically they predestined for us unfolded vast and strange at the end of a factory chimney. Thus so different may be man's pure intent from its issue. Drake, returned from the shades, we will imagine, with Hakluyt, to view what substance we have given to the dreams they had of other lands and seas, would have to agree with the poet of their own day that there is a destiny which shapes our ends whatever ardent measures we take. Hakluyt, while contemplating, as a shade, our motor-ships, our problem of credit, our bickering over the size of the guns we shall use against each other, and the difficulties involved, as in India, in that larger Room for the Race and the air route to the East, might recall his visit, as a boy, a visit evidently so fruitful, to his cousin, a Gentleman of the Middle Temple. It was a trivial incident, that half-holiday visit, to have had its casual part in shaping the problem of the protection of British trade routes without giving America a cause for war. For his cousin but gave him a first lesson in geography. Young Richard found lying in that chamber of the Middle Temple "certaine bookes of Cosmographie, with an universall Mappe." There is no doubt the Westminster scholar was wakened by his cousin. The subject of geography was given, even on a holiday, quite a cheerful appearance; but the year of that lesson, we must remember, was little more than a decade after Sir Hugh Willoughby tried to reach Cathay and the Moluccas by the Siberian coast. From the map the Gentleman of the Middle Temple turned to the Bible, and directed the boy to read the 107th Psalm. Young Hakluyt did so, and his own contribution towards the industrial era and his country's imperial destiny was at once made certain. "Which wordes of the Prophet together with my cousins discourse (things of rare and high delight to my young nature) tooke in me so deepe an impression, that I constantly resolved, if ever I were preferred to the University . . . I would by God's assistance prosecute that knowledge and kinde of literature, the doores whereof (after a sort) were so happily opened before me." We are told that a civilization must grow to its height and then decline, like a flower of the field in its due season. Yet unlike the weed, a civilization passes through its predictable phases to its sere, though to no harvest: it only dies; its seed is potent for no future spring. The philosophers do not explain what lunar influence governs its rhythmic rise and fall; they tell us largely but of powers which bring a civilization to its height, from which it shall lapse till only the barren sands show where its hearths used to be warm, and its priests to chant to its gods. It has its pioneers, its early explorers and prophets; then its period when the profit-makers are assured of a bounteous continuity through a special favour of Providence, for they know they are more worthy than the lesser breeds; and follow them its patriots and celebrators, who praise the familiar scene, now flushed in a serene autumn that is everlasting, as they hope and believe. Will not their assurance of their own worth hold in perpetuity the splendour of the after-glow? No. We see now there never was and cannot be an empire on which the sun shall never set. All civilizations and empires must make their predestined curves and fulfil their cycles. Yet theories, though they seem flawless, should not sink us into mournful brooding. No theory can be right which satisfactorily encloses all that is known. We do not know all. Little alien and unimportant items are left out of the reckoning, forlornly overlooked and unaccounted, yet presently to make the balance and fulfilment of a perfect formula as useless as a net when there are no fish. It is the way of a mystery that its bottom is no sooner viewed than it falls out. Old night is still below. It is true that the relative objective world may be almost anything a philosopher desires to name it, yet occasionally it does break into his subjectivity with an extrinsic brick, as it were, an interruption which causes him to surmise that something must have thrown it at him. We have been forced of late to develop theories explaining this age of machines, and to see omens of its impending doom. When our machines stop, so shall we. Civilized man, it appears, has passed out of the phase of imaginative exploration and experiment; he has created engines to do his work for him, but his soul has lost its daring, and he is now a subdued captive, chained to the wheels, a helpless slave in the mechanical establishment he created. But maybe the urgency of this mechanistic age will slow down. Some Doughty may explore its polished and efficient desert, and his word may begin to rust it; its impulse will falter and its wheels go not so fast. Though man now can fly to explore the skies, he may cease to want to—anyhow, for the reasons which now lift him from the earth. After all, it is certain that in time man will see that the relentless cranks and wheels, for which he never had more than a boyish and fevered love, are only the thoughts of his youth. He got those wheels because he wanted them. Does he want them now? Presently we may pause to consider this devotion of ours in a temple which is a factory, where the dynamo is the presiding god, the ritual exacting and numbing and engineers the priests. That would be natural enough. The theory of the rise and fall of a civilization may be able to stand all known tests as easily as a bright and perfect machine accurately revolving; but suppose we change our mind about it? The machine stops. The subservience of men to the despotism of the polished steel rods and the ordained revolutions of the wheels may weary. The boy may tire of his engine. Mankind is not of the automatic stuff to worship any god beyond the period of the god's most severe exactions. In the long run men and women cease to do what gives them no fun. Over goes Dagon when he demands more than his worshippers care to give. He will be lucky if he gets much attention after he has compelled that crisis. His late worshippers are sure to discover another world beyond his temple, for it exists; and then down falls the theory, all too neat, of a civilization's inevitable doom. It begins anew. There will be more adventuring and exploring, and in another direction. Life, we may find, has other probabilities and meanings. There may be fairer temples to gods more gracious. The End.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

137. Some quotes I like.

Richard Russell: "I'll tell you the truth -- I still haven't made any sense out of the whole mix. If I've come to any conclusion it is this -- 85% of mankind is clueless and living on a hand-to-mouth basis. 5% of mankind is smart and pretty much knows what they are doing. Ten percent are intelligent enough to follow the 5%. "

Kurt Vonnegut: "The most beautiful thing money could buy was a childhood a lifetime long. "

Honore de Balzac: Deeply in debt for most of his life. Honore de Balzac elatedly sent this announcement to his publisher and friends on the death of his miserly uncle who left him a sizable bequest.
    “Yesterday, at five in the morning, my uncle and I passed on to a better life.”

Eugene O’Neill: Traveling in Europe, Eugene O’Neill received a cable from Jean Harlow asking if he would write a play for her. “Reply collect in 20 words.” read the cable. O’Neill did:

Marge Piercy "Try to live as if you were an experiment conducted by the future"

Johnny Carson: "Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn't grow up can be vice president."

"Paul Harvey:  In times like these, it helps to remember that there have always been times like these."

Abraham Lincoln: ”No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar."

Thomas Jefferson:” I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

"An American is an Englishman set free" (who said?)

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
-Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)