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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Arlington

I drove down to Northern Virginia earlier this month to see old friends Richard and Tim. There was a time when we saw each other much more frequently, but distance and family and the circumstances of life separated us. Once we were collaborators in that grand dot-com enterprise called Recipe du Jour that reached many thousands of readers six days a week, but that was then. We are not those people anymore.

We could see the changes in each other – older, not so quick on our feet, though not necessarily any slower of mind. We were there to inter Tim’s mother, Jane, at Arlington National Cemetery, in a piece of ground next to her late husband, Colonel Lee. Tim had brought a vase of her ashes from the lake in North Carolina where he lives. It was a sunny day, on the edge of chill.

A large extended family and we friends walked through the white stones that stretched far off into the distance. A military chaplain of the appropriate faith interwove the facts of Mrs. Lee’s life that must have been provided to him, with thoughts on the military calling and the rewards of heaven. I have been to far colder funerals than this.

It was all handled with military precision as seems appropriate being repeated many times a day amid so many men and women in uniform. The capitol dome was visible in the distance. Tim wore a T-shirt under a new sports coat. I’m not sure he has owned a shirt with a collar since 1995.

Until this visit I had nurtured the unspoken hope that we might renew our collaboration in some new form. But I think that spark has died. We may continue on our individual projects, but we are in another stage of life, one where we look back more than we look ahead. If that sounds too depressing or despondent, it’s only the way all stories end. Hopefully, there were a few good stories –like Richard’s Vietnam vignettes or Tim’s humorous recollections of the many times he maimed himself.

I will remember the way our readers seemed like a large extended family, keeping in touch with cards and emails, birthday wishes, generous comments and contributions. That was why we continued for so many years, and we thanked Richard for the many hours he put in making a place for us to share our stories with the 20,000 strong Recipe du Jour family.

We have been best friends since high school. That’s a long time. Longer than we’ve known our wives, or in Tim’s case, ex-wives. On my drive down from central Pennsylvania to Leesburg, Va., I conjured up memories of some of the best times, moments that I would like to relive for a little while. Like the trip with Tim to New Orleans when we popped the new Stevie Nicks CD in the stereo and watched the gas flares burn off on the oil rigs in the dark. Or driving in Richard’s family station wagon out to Virginia Beach and turning on the radio to hear Richard Harris singing his monumental version of MacArthur Park, everything still unknown and possible.

Did we live up to the promise we saw in each other as teenagers, proud of our brains and creativity and difference from the crowd of high school yahoos? Maybe not. But there are a hundred days and hours I would happily relive again with these guys. Proud to be one of their kind.

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We visited Boston this past week to see my older daughter who is working over the summer between her first and second year of graduate school there. Our younger daughter stayed with her sister, and my wife and I got a hotel room in Brookline, a nice neighborhood within walking distance of the universities and nearby to shops and cafes.

The hotel was in a 19th century brownstone with fewer than a dozen rooms, all high ceilings and big windows looking out onto the street. Below I could see joggers in the rain and young people waiting for the train that stopped up the block.

Everywhere, everyone was young, like in that movie Logan’s Run where everyone dies when they turn 30. I thought constantly of that poem by Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

On Saturday morning we walked through some of the neighborhoods near Brookline, taking stairstep walks down to the streets below. Everywhere the young women carried their yoga mats rolled up and hanging by their hips, coming or going from a class. The young men, sleek and tattooed, filled with attitude and energy, stroked their smart phones on the trains, chatted in line with their dates waiting for a café table.

There are more than 50 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston. It seemed like we walked past at least a dozen – Boston College and Boston University, Northeastern, Berklee School of Music, schools of technology, the arts, medical schools, small liberal arts schools and campuses that spread for dozens of blocks – my daughter’s college, Simmons, known for its library science and archiving master of science degree, and next door to a beautiful small museum built in the early 1900s for a woman, Isabelle Gardner, who collected art from around the world and brought elegance and culture to Boston’s North End. As we wandered through the rooms of art, looking down on the interior garden, the rains came heavy beyond the windows and we watched pedestrians struggle with their umbrellas in the wind.

We walked for miles through the city, through the public gardens and the Boston Commons, along the Freedom Trail, past Paul Revere’s statue and the Old North Church where the lanterns were hung at the Revolution’s dawn. We took trains everywhere we didn’t walk, clanking and grinding on the turns, old but efficient, like me, maybe.

When I last spent any time in Boston, I was 22 years old, on a road trip for a long weekend, and I knew nothing, not like these sophisticated youth with their bright minds and cosmopolitan sheen. I had never set foot in a fitness club or ordered a meal in an Indian restaurant. I thought of tattoos as something sailors got on a drunk on shore leave. You got a hair cut from some barber who could do a crewcut or a trim, and sneered if your hair was longer than his. But even then I liked the city, the first all-science fiction bookstore I had ever seen, the first Irish pub, the same trains, and the feeling that something life-changing could happen around any corner.

I had my youth in another city, San Francisco, though it was long ago. And my life was changed around some corners, on the N-Judah streetcar, out on the foggy streets near the Pacific Ocean, and on Russian Hill on golden afternoons, following the stairsteps down San Francisco hillsides to North Beach, looking out toward the bay. Oh, was I caught in that sensual music…

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I had not read about her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning. The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories, Ursula K. Le Guin, used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.

Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology. That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a mop closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains. Omelas, the students are always intrigued to discover when they turn the letters of its name around, is not a foreign fantasy realm, but our own hometown.

It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained. They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.

Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level. I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War Two and included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.

Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, Shakespeare and James Joyce. They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where we lay in our silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.

Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.

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A book landed in our post office box last month, a birthday present that my wife chose for me for reasons that remain obscure, though I have my suspicions.

She is well aware that my general outlook on life tends toward the gloomy. I love the melancholy of autumn and the slant light of October. Contemplating the vastness of the universe, in which the stars are like grains of sand and we are like nits in a flea’s ear, gives me a sense of mordant delight. I tend to distrust the perpetually cheerful, the optimists and true believers of all sorts. So, a book on the science of happiness could be considered a hint. And since I opened it, I have, uncharacteristically, been thinking about what it means to be happy, and what it might be like to pursue happiness.

The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sometimes called the father of positive psychology. The field of positive psychology is quite new, originating in the late 1990s, but it builds on insights from the early Greeks, including the Epicureans, Zen Buddhism and modern psychology, such as the well-known hierarchy of needs created by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. Instead of focusing on curing mental illness, positive psychology tries to understand what constitutes mental health and well-being.

Flow is a very practical book. It is based on surveys the author and his coworkers took from thousands of individuals in which they were asked to write down their emotional states at various random times throughout the day whenever a beeper they carried went off. Those surveyed included athletes and dancers, musicians and surgeons, practitioners of yoga and martial arts, mountain climbers, as well as visual and literary artists. From the surveys they discovered common themes that tend to indicate a path to a heightened sense of life satisfaction.

They found that people who were deeply engaged with a task that required concentrated effort, but that was within their abilities to perform, reported a profound sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, sitting in front of the television or computer screen added little or negative long-term satisfaction, though it might seem pleasurable in the moment.

One commonly reported effect of intense concentration was a kind of time distortion. For athletes and martial artists, time might seem to slow down. For a painter at her easel, hours might pass without notice. I’ve experienced the same lapse of time when concentrating on an enjoyable piece of writing. The minutes slip by while the shadows lengthen. I step out of the stream of time, floating above ordinary existence in a bubble, cut off from self-consciousness or physical sensation. It is just the opposite of being so caught up in the petty irritations of day-to-day existence that minor troubles loom like insurmountable boulders and the mind spins in circles. The boulders are less than pebbles; the mind is calm.

The author calls it flow, because when a person is in that state his skills are matched to the task and the movements of the mind and the body are in harmony. We are not fighting ourselves; the dancer and the dance are one. I’ve been thinking about what it means to pursue happiness in this forest of gloom, and I see that there was a path, only I had forgotten to take it.

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We drove through a storm that was like a precursor of our future under climate change on our way to deliver our older daughter to her new apartment in Boston. Somewhere on a highway in Connecticut, the skies opened up and lightning split the clouds. Torrents of rain followed us into Massachusetts.

The next morning we discovered that a tornado had touched down a few miles from where we had spent the night. Strange weather, but we can expect more of it in years to come the climate experts tell us. The weathercaster called for intermittent showers and temperatures in the high 80s on Labor Day, when we, along with a hundred thousand students and their parents, would converge on Boston for the city-wide move-in day.

The streets of the city were clogged with double-parked moving vans as we circled the neighborhood near Boston College looking for a place to park our overloaded rental pickup truck. Lucking into a spot less than a block from the apartment building on busy Commonwealth Avenue, we waited while the real estate agent showed up with the keys to the apartment, which our daughter would be sharing with two other Simmons College graduate students on the second floor of an attractive prewar brownstone.

We unloaded the truck for the next ninety minutes, making a few dozen trips down the street and up the stairs, jostled by movers and joggers, past Boston cops standing around welcoming new students and warning them about the perils of underage drinking while generally standing in everyone’s way. I was on the verge of heatstroke, my t-shirt as soaked as if it had been pouring rain, when the second roommate arrived with her mother, and we did it again.

When it was finished, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s large, high-ceilinged bedroom with a fan blowing across my limp body while the women unpacked and chatted in the other rooms. I thought about college and what it was like to be young and doing everything for the first time, the excitement of it and the anxiety. I remembered how it felt in the long ago days when I was I was a young student in Norfolk, Va., going to classes and hanging out at Ward’s coffee shop across the street from Old Dominion University with my friend Tim or drinking the thin brew you could legally drink if you were 18 in Virginia in the dark era of the Vietnam War.

Those days I heard from my parents in Florida once a month or so in a letter or an expensive long distance call. The technology boom that would put computers and instant messages in everyone’s pocket was still decades away. But I heard its first ticking on a new machine perched on the counter in Ward’s coffee shop in the form of a video game called Pong – a black screen, a white ball bouncing between two thin white lines that moved with a knob on each side of the machine. Students -like Tim – lined up to play it. I scoffed and read the English poets.

And then the war was always with us, a storm on the far side of the world that pulled us toward it while we held on by our fingertips and a thin piece of cardboard in our wallet called the 2-S student deferment. The excitement and the anxiety of it is read on my daughters’ faces and in their texts, heard in their phone calls, and in the other rooms, where the women come and go. I lie among unpacked boxes while the fan blows me away.

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On Saturday morning a week ago, you could have found a dozen of us along the banks of Penns Creek in Spring Mills, tossing our empty lines into the glistening water, practicing fly casting. I was there with my younger daughter in the cool spring morning, learning about mayflies and water bugs from an entomologist from Penn State, and then about the art of fly fishing from a local fishing guide and ecology from a conservationist. It was a part of our church’s project to engage the community in ways that are not necessarily religious.

Except sometimes there is more holiness in the natural world than you find among pews and hymnals. Out on the banks of the stream I could feel the kind of passion I recalled from those revival meetings of my youth, the entomologist’s passion from 40 years of studying the book of nature, the guide’s reverence for the trout rising to the perfectly cast fly, and the passion of a man’s working with others to restored the watershed ecology, a process not unlike building a medieval cathedral that requires generations of selfless labor.
It seems a leap to compare a dozen people casting an empty line into the water to a religious experience, but the new eco-consciousness we see sprouting up all around us in communal urban gardens, local farmers markets, cycling to work, or sustainability movements of various kinds is a sign of the resacralization of nature, of putting the holy back into creation.

I have been reading a new book by historian and journalist Peter Watson called The Age of Atheists that crystalized these thoughts. This wide-ranging work is a compilation and explanation of the attempts to live without God in the decades since Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” and Darwin shook the foundations of faith with the theory of evolution. Although many people, maybe a majority of people, disagree with Nietzsche’s statement, there is, nevertheless, a crack in the wall of faith, and many different pebbles of belief are being used to fill in the empty spaces. Watson says there are over 100,000 known religions, including 21 major world religions and all of those New Age cults and old religions resurfacing. He goes on to include psychoanalysis and the isms of the last century — communism, fascism, and nationalism — even poetry and dance as ways to fill a void left by secularism. Science itself is a belief system, telling us our origin story in the Big Bang, and claiming the primacy of reason. We seem to have an innate need to believe in something.

It is hard to come up with ultimate meaning, but preserving the Earth for future generations has those qualities that are the definition of meaning: being part of something that is larger than our selves; sacrificing for a future goal that is worthy of our sacrifice; invoking a sense of wonder and mystery; providing a sense of wholeness that the mechanistic reductionism of technology and science has broken. And that is only the short list.

I am not one to chain myself to a redwood tree. My own love of nature comes and goes pretty much with the season and the weather, but even I see the day coming when ecology will be second nature, when we will hear, along with the poet, the sabbath ringing slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams. In fact, I think I heard that sound last Saturday on the banks of Penns Creek.

 

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