A blog about nothing.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

BUMPER STICKER CULTURE



April has been Bertrand Russell month for me. The last four weeks I have been on an insatiable Bertrand binge. I'm not sure who turned me onto the 20th century Brit. It wasn't a friend, and not because nobody I know reads, but because I know nobody. I must have come across a reference to the author in some other book I had been reading.

This audo-didact and voracious polymath - Wikipedia has him listed as philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate - has a way with the English language which is unparalleled. Damn can the man write. His sentences are long and sometimes ornate, but you get the gist, because his prose is so crystal clear. It's as if he gives you direct access to his mind. You get to become another person. And not just anyone. Russell may have been a born genius, but as the author of dozens of books, he sure put in a lot of practice. He also found time to marry four times and sire almost as many children. Not impossible for a guy who was nearly a centenarian. Add that to his credentials, almost.

Russell wrote lengthy works on mathematics and philosophy, and shorter treatise-type books on, well, anything that caught his fancy. Including marriage and politics and today's topic du jour, happiness. His Conquest on Happiness, which appeared in 1930, may have birthed the self-help genre. While it is true that many of his writings were so erudite and abstruse as to appeal only to the expert, it was in addressing the layperson that Russell made his living. Thus the book on happiness. Which leads me to believe that if his sentences could be parsed by the average Joe or Jane of his day, people were much more literate back then than we are in today's Twitter age. I consider myself reasonably well-read - indeed reading is my hobby of choice and I don't tweet - but some of his longer passages really tax the concentration, they are so information-dense! Call me obtuse. Seriously, talk about brain porn. I am convinced that if you took a high school sophomore and gave him three short works of Russell's to peruse, he'd instantly improve his SAT and ACT scores by a couple hundred points. Okay, that's my plug for today.

Speaking of today, I just downloaded his Proposed Roads to Freedom. Debating whether to purchase the book didn't take long, because it's free on Kindle. But as is my wont, I did read some of the customer reviews. And I was struck by one which read: "I believe there is nothing by B. Russel (Brussell, if you like) that isn't amazing. Everything by him is quotable."

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that when I read this I jumped for joy at this endorsement of my new favorite author. And you are partly true. While I do agree that "Brussell" is amazing, I lament the fact that he is probably quoted much more often than he is read. And not just by his fans. Google the author and up come dozens of his sayings. They seem to encapsulate his philosophy, but can you really capture in 10 words the essence of what it takes an author 10,000 to set forth? I don't think so, at least not in the case of Mr. Russell, who was painstakingly pithy. If he felt that writing a series of short maxims would better convey his message, he probably would have done so. Instead, his autobiography runs 750 pages. Nowadays such a hefty tome is less likely to be read cover to cover as to be used as a projectile weapon, because bricks aren't cheap in my neighborhood. And so I jump for joy on one leg, which is still called hopping.

I bring up quotables because I sometimes like to while away a few minutes by visiting friends' Instagram accounts. These girls, and there are three - two of whom I've been romantically involved with, and I might have had a hat trick, but though I tried my darnedest for at least a kiss from the third she never did write me back - and anyway all three girls like to litter the 'net with pretty pictures of themselves, on which they superimpose power phrases. Things like "be impeccable with your word" and other stuff from books I've read. I'm not saying I know the authors of all the quotes in question, for I have not read every book and the source is almost never cited. But these aphorisms are without exception of the "quote of the day" flavor generally featured on desk calendars and bumper stickers. Not anymore, because phones double as daily planners and because bumper stickers are now considered gauche. Most people lease their automobiles rather than own them and therefore do not wish to deface property which they'll have to return in a year and be fined for the scratches. Because those stickers are impossible to cleanly remove, and I've tried. The bumper sticker that I remember most vividly (because I used to own it) went "Practice random acts of kindness." A twist on the "random acts of violence" quote, making the sticker, in a sense, a quote of a quote, or doubly derivative. Excuse me, I was in my twenties.

But quotes are like fast food. Like a burger and fries, which deliver a huge burst of empty calories for cheap, pat sayings deliver ponderous mouthfuls of their own, which took the author lots of time to think up. However, the experience of reading the quote, although seemingly quick and efficient, really doesn't benefit your life at all. You are not privy to the thought process that generated the quote. You read it out of context. And you forget about it by the time you reach the period (if there is one) and are onto the rest of your less than impeccable day. Because really absorbing the message can only come from sitting with the author for an hour or a day or a week or however long it takes to get through the work, depending on your schedule. You must really spend time with him, enter his world, marry his mind, and only then can you be sure that the full meaning of the words will sink in. So Instagram quotes are like fast food. Cheap and easy and non-nutritious. At least they don't make you fat, so there is that.

Reciting a quote is not the same as independent thought. It's just mindless transcription, which gratifies your ego because people think you're witty or charming or intelligent and "like" you - at least until the next pseudo-friend pilfers an adage that one ups the one you stole.

Ironically (or not) these girls that reliably spray their digital pages with famous quotes are some of the most unreliable girls I have ever met. One of them, the one that I knew carnally, whom we'll call Megan because that's her name, recently sent me an email asking that I write her a diet plan. Megan wants a six-pack (abs, not beer) and says she's unable to kick her carb addiction. She swears that when we hung out last summer and I made her lunch and dinner every day for a week while we were having sex - though not at the same time because blood can't be two places at once and I like to stand at attention when called - when I cooked for her it was the first time that she can remember not craving sugar. And the last, because since we parted ways (also last summer) her sweet tooth has had free rein. 

I didn't remind Megan that during our weekend of summer love, when we stopped cooking and cuddling long enough to visit the market, I bought carrots and she came away with a king-sized bar of chocolate which she devoured before we were halfway home. I didn't remind my erstwhile companion of this because I didn't wish to dispel the notion that my diet plan is the cure for sugarholicism, if that's even a word, and also because I was really hoping to see her again. So I invited her to my house where over a home-cooked meal we'd discuss these abs of hers and by the end of the meal she'd come away with a tried-and-true plan for bringing her washboard-to-be into swift existence. And maybe I'd be rewarded with a kiss. I didn't mention the part about a kiss. Maybe I should have. Because Megan never got back to me. 

WTF! If you don't want to hang out, just say so. I can take it. I'm a big boy. I'll send you a list of foods to consume in a heartbeat if you think face-to-face outdated and just want the Cliff Note version. But not to give me the courtesy of a yay or nay after I took the time to reply to your request (and in under an hour after receiving it, I might add) is the height of inconsideration, irresponsibility and unreliability. I use three pseudo-synonyms where one would do so you can tell how strongly I feel about the matter. It's bad manners. And this girl has a PhD! I think they should teach etiquette in grad school, because someone needs a refresher course in basic civility even more than she needs dietary council. Come to think of it, every girl I've fraternized with since Megan has behaved exactly the same way. They are noncommittal and incommunicado. Take that to your SAT. Now I know LA girls can be flaky, but this is ridiculous. I have never seen so many instances of dropping the ball. 

Speaking of balls, I used to be a team player. Back in school I was on varsity baseball and soccer. And if my teammates had been as selfish as these girls are, we'd never have won league. We'd never have even fielded a team. Here's a quote: "Showing up is 80 percent of life." If Woody Allen's (or whoever's) words were the rule, these bitches would flunk out of school. 

Which is why I've banished them from my heart, and gone so far as to give up team sports, including sex. I play with myself these days. I run, and I ride, I swim, I lift, and when the urge seizes me, I (use your imagination). Me myself and I is a lot more company than Megan and Kelly and Samantha and Patty, all of whom have proven to be less than friendly to me. They can have their quotes. One day they'll find that even with their heavy sayings and their instant friends, without some old fashioned face-to-face, without someone to count on who knows them and cares, the world can be a really lonely place. Those digital lips just don't do it for me.

Book knowledge, while important, cannot replace life experience. That's probably a quote too, because it's true. But pasting truisms to a webpage is not the same as reading the material in which these "life lessons" are found. Parroting pat maxims is really just a socially-acceptable form of plagiarism. Bumper stickers be damned. To think, you must...think! And get back to me. But as Russell himself put it, "Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." 

Now if I can just find my own way of saying the very same thing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

ON MATTERS OF COSMIC INSIGNIFICANCE


I have the nettling tendency to read myself into every book I pick up. This has never more been the case than with Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness, an exquisite book in scintillating prose on the titular subject. 

For me and Big Daddy Bertrand it was love at first sight. I had only to read the first paragraph of his In Praise of Idleness (1932) and I was smitten. He writes: "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries" is "to do nothing." 

Okay perhaps doing nothing is a bit of an exaggeration. Russell proposes a four-hour work day for all who wish to work, work being defined as a constructive endeavor that you are skilled enough to perform. Or "to make something well," as I like to say. I'll leave it for you to decide how much or little of what passes for work in the modern world can be rightly placed in this category. Many of the jobs that exist today had not yet come into being a century ago. Then as now there are many who work 8 or 10 or more hours a day, and others who wallow in boredom and malaise without a job. By sharing the wealth, as it were, between the have (work) and have nots, everybody can be a constructive and contributing member of society and still have enough time for recreation and leisure, or for reading these posts. Who's with us?

In his book on happiness, Russell advises against success for success's own sake - success here being defined conventionally as making a lot of money. He is of the correct opinion that being well-off is only "one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it." Meaning wealth is not all that valuable, in which case I who am not successful by the standard definition may not be missing much. He laments the fact that far too many working individuals have no hobbies, that for instance the successful entrepreneur will scarce pick up a book if the book does not make him more money or at least feature pictures of naked ladies (addition mine).

I have never earned much money, but I am rich in hobbies. Take conversation, for example. Talking is a cherished pastime of mine. I can do it for hours, and plumb the depths of another's personality. And I am not without precedent. Indeed the art of conversation, as Russell notes, which possibly arose with the philosophers of ancient Greece, was perfected in 18th century France. Sadly this art, which is sometimes also called dialectic, has died off in the texting age. I don't own a smart phone, and so I have nobody to do it with.

Russell assiduously advises against boredom, since "at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it," and also against excitement, which is boredom's antidote. Boredom explains the current mania for obstacle races, and bungee jumping, a thrill you'd recognize if you were alive in the 80s. I am never bored, or have great stamina when it comes to enduring idleness, for I am always in the mood for a good nap. And my somnolence makes me feel expansive even when I don't dream, for "a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men."

In this little book, which is offered for a low price of $3.00 - and by neither little or low do I mean to slight his prose, which is monumental - I also found solace in being such an incorrigible home body. "Kant is said never to have been more than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house." I have seen as much of the world as the father of evolutionary theory, and written just as many books. And so I stand with some of the greats, albeit each of us is alone.

I sometimes enjoy a decent cigar and an occasional or daily glass of liquor. I used to say I could never be a saint on account of these vicious sense pleasures, but not according to Russell, for whom a virtuous person is one who "permits the enjoyment of all good things whenever there is no evil consequence to outweigh the enjoyment," and I can think of nothing evil about a little tobacco and tequila.

Russell's secret of happiness lies in varied interests and friendly rather than hostile relations with people. I have varied interests. Besides the above named, I like to exercise and to cook and to garden and to clean and to read and write and to think, and also to try not to think. But only in moderation, because too much meditation, if practiced improperly, can make a person self-absorbed, or lead to too much sleep. And with sleep as in all else, moderation is key. 

The secret to self-realization is, rather, to bring the subconscious mind into the realm of consciousness, and to thereby rid oneself of the passions and prejudices inculcated upon us in the early youth that we otherwise wouldn't remember. And such a daily practice of reasoning and reflection can be done in mere minutes, a time-saver for those unwilling to chant "Om."

Of course, my hobbies are in the main solitary pursuits that only involve inanimate objects. And I wonder why I have no friends. At least in my leisure I try not to become a slave to routine, which my man Bertrand says is never a good thing.

He says: "To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level." I of course, believe that I am among these select individuals. "A man of easy good nature, who inherits an ample fortune and enjoys good health together with simple tastes, may slip through life comfortably and wonder what all the fuss is about."

I feel that I am such a man. And as such will continue my carefree life of reason and reading and reflection, of spending solitary hours in nature, for this life of contemplation suits me, and with Kant and Darwin and Christ and Buddha I stand in good stead. I am arguably superior to Socrates, another of my idols, for he wrote nothing, and I have written reams that no one has read. I instantly felt okay about my failures, that I could never make a living doing what I enjoyed doing (putting words on paper), but stood to earn a fortune doing what I despised (prescribing medication). It's all just meant to be, and life is good. Or was, until I read on.

Well, I should have put the book down then and there. But no, I was determined to reach the final digital page, and diligence can sometimes be an awful thing. For in the very next passage I learned about another type of man. This type, a pathetic and deplorable figure, "who has suffered such fundamental defeat that he has given up hope of serious achievement may learn the resignation of despair, and, if he does, he will abandon all serious activity. He may camouflage his despair by religious phrases, or by the doctrine that contemplation is the true end of man, but whatever disguise he may adopt to conceal his inward defeat, he will remain essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy."

Oh, no, is that me? Am I a man of "easy good nature" or am I "essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy"? Whatever I may be, the answer to this question is not to be found by analyzing myself any further. Because that would mean becoming self-absorbed. And you don't need to interview the patients sitting in a psychiatrist's waiting room to know that self-absorption is not the road to glee. 

While it is natural to apply what you read to yourself to some degree, to be supremely content, as Russell argues, turn your attention outward, express benevolent and zesty interest in people and things and pastimes rather than remaining locked up in your own head, mired in fears and doubts and persecution complexes. I mean in the grand scheme, what cosmic significance does any single event really possess? Everything by itself is rather insignificant, really.

So rather than regard your proverbial features in the metaphorical mirror, adopt another hobby, which will come once you stop contemplating your nose. Don't rush it, let it just arise. Russell mentions everything from reading Chinese to collecting stamps and playing chess. He can be excused for not including running barefoot as he lived before this fad, or maybe we should ask the caveman. In other words, do something to get out of your own head.

"Nothing diminishes not only happiness but efficiency as a personality divided against itself." Therefore, thinking I'm either of the two types above may be a sign that I should stop thinking about myself altogether, because who needs the confusion. So enough about me, now what do you think of me? I cannot determine whether a true friend would view me as a sage or a sloth, or both or neither. Let's you and I find out. Maybe we can make magic together.

We can make something, for as Russell says, "we have reached a stage in evolution which is not the final stage. We must pass through it quickly, lest we get lost in the forest of doubt and fear. The right road out of the despair of civilization is to enlarge the heart and transcend the self." Whether sage or sloth, the secret is in transcendence. But not in a job, oh no. At least not in construction, because bright orange is never very flattering.

And so I await the day in which "everything uninteresting is done by machines, and human beings are reserved for the work involving variety and initiative." When such a day comes, I fear that in the bin labeled "uninteresting" will also be lumped these posts. But I'm done thinking about all that. 

To close with one more quote, "Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness." So let's take a walk somewhere we can go beyond thought, and maybe go a bit crazy together. Or at least have a heart to heart talk. In our world, we can rediscover the lost art of communication and discuss matters of cosmic insignificance. The road to glee may lead to you and me. Just, you know, leave your phone at home. Until then, this is me talking to myself.


Friday, April 21, 2017

TIME SQUARED


Listening to Lance Armstrong interview nutrition expert Rip Esselstyn on the former's podcast  is a nifty way to kill an hour. Mind, it's all the cruelty involved, as Mr. Esselstyn is a vegan. I should start one myself. A podcast I mean. The only difference between me and Mr. Tour de France is that he has a built-in audience of millions who love to watch him flounder through multi-million dollar lawsuits, whereas the number of potential listeners for whatever I might broadcast is at best equal to the number of readers of this post, and you are in a select group of one. Er, two, because I am a conscientious editor of my own material. And so I'll save the monthly hosting fee and the sound equipment and continue writing for nobody in particular. Though you're a somebody to me.

I was struck by a passage from heavyweight thinker Bertrand Russell, which has become my quote of the day: “The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in times of despair.”

I need a friend like me.

My life has the feel of a complex algebra problem I cannot solve. You remember them, back in Freshman math. You juggle constants and balance the equation as far as you can and after wearing down your eraser to a stub are finally and irremediably stumped. And so you look in the back of the book hoping for some guidance, but of course the answer key only features the evens, and this particular problem is odd. Like my life. I need a tutor. Preferably a pretty one with horn-rimmed glasses, hair in a bun, form-fitting blouse and high-heeled shoes who answers to the name Angel.


But seriously. I need help. My life is all right enough, but I am alone. And sometimes I crave some company, preferably a yin to my yang. But to enjoy this I'd have to leave my childhood home, where I am well-situated and comfortable. Because women like to create their own castle, and this one was made by Laraine. Now, I don't earn a living, because I don't have to. I am overqualified for most jobs and too busy with housekeeping duties to spare more than an hour or two away from home. Besides there's my dog, who suffers separation anxiety and tears up everything in the waste basket until I return. So I spend my days doing whatever I feel like, and lots of chores. 

Like Mr. Esselstyn, the prospect of a 9 to 5 I abhor. In the words of my new favorite political thinker, Hannah Arendt, "the society of jobholders demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, tranquilized functional type of behavior." 

This is not for me. While at times I am stricken by the feeling that I am wasting my life alone up here on the mountain doing nothing of practical value, life in the world as a wage slave seems a fate worse than death. And with me chained to a desk, who would use the pool?

So what? So I may be forced eventually to move on. Where to, I cannot say. Maybe Hawaii? The weather is nice, the beach is always nearby, the ladies are shapely and the traffic ain't that bad. Ah, you say, and then your life will really begin. I can find a nice place of my own, find my other half, start a new life, problem solved. But will it be a life I want to live? I just want the simple things: time in nature, time for reflection, time to read and write and exercise. Basically, time. Which is what I have now. But with somebody else, some of the time. 

And yet a curious thing happens when couples cohabit. Life gets really busy really quick. The kids come, and with them a whole new set of responsibilities. Things you used to enjoy doing get outsourced. You need to pick up your kids from school, help them with their homework, take them to practice, maybe even coach. So you get a housekeeper, who invariably steals, and hire a gardener, who overcharges you on manure. And don't forget to make enough money to afford all Johnny's extracurriculars, because summer camp isn't cheap. I understand why one historian wrote that many a philosopher dies with the birth of his first child. Because amidst all that frenetic action, who has time to smell the roses?



I often turn to the fathers of Western civilization, those ancient Greek philosophers, for advice in trying times. I steer clear of politics, I mean look at the shit-show that was the recent election. And I am not alone, for much of the political philosophy since Plato is concerned with finding theoretical foundations for an escape from politics altogether. So there would be more time to philosophize. Obviously! 

Indeed the ideal ruler is the philosopher king, if there is such a thing (and I think Obama came pretty close to fitting the bill). Plato's supreme criterion of fitness for ruling others is the capacity to rule one's self. The commander-in-chief runs the country, as the soul commands the body and reason rules the passions. The philosopher leaves the cave of human affairs and ventures out into the bright light of the sky in search of pure ideas, Plato's forms of truth and beauty and goodness. And Obama did give up smoking.

Plato went so far as to design a blueprint for the ideal society. His utopia involved group sex. That way fathers would not know which children were whose and so everyone would be impartially kind to all. None of the attempts at implementing this model have succeeded, of course - and many failures involve mass slaughter, like what happened in Waco - though not for any defect in design. Rather the fatal flaw is in the human relationships such societies cannot control. Jealousies and back-biting and petty deceptions, and before you know it, murder-suicide. Because not everyone is a philosopher king. So forgo the cult and govern yourself. 

It is hard to sit still and do nothing. The mind plays tricks. It tries to get you out and about with plans and schemes and hopes and dreams. It berates you for being lazy and good for nothing. And so you distract yourself with arts and crafts and other doings and are okay for a time, but how can you ever feel satisfied with neglecting your soul? 

My friend came over today. Jason is a man of action. Always evolving schemes, to make money, provide for his family, basically get out of his own head. This is a guy who would be at home amidst the phantasmagoria of sights and sounds found at such consumer bastions as the French Quarter, or maybe Times Square. Jason cannot fathom a life of staying at home. I opened the door to greet him in my robe. Don't I get bored? Is it hard to get out of bed without a zillion things demanding my attention? No, I say. And I enumerate the list of activities that occupy my day. I get up, walk the dog and exercise and garden and clean and cook and eat and read and before I know it it's time to go to sleep again, and I find I spent so much care trimming the roses I forgot to sniff them. Even for me, there isn't enough time in the day. Forget Times Square. I need time squared! Jason I suggested I sign up for an acting class. I know, the last thing this world needs is another thespian to be. But this is not a career choice.

Of course to fit an extra hobby into my busy schedule, I'll have to run not 10 miles tomorrow but rather an easy 5, and then feel like a slacker. Ah, the mind! I tell myself that even Hannah had her Heidegger. They were both philosophers. Rip wrote a best-selling book. And Russell was married four times! Maybe there's someone or something out there for me - if I get out of my own head long enough to notice, and out of the house once in a while. I wonder if Beverly Hills Playhouse is accepting applications. Or maybe I'll take a short trip to Maui. Nah, too much effort. I'll just stick with you.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

DAIMONS ARE FOREVER


The English naturalist Charles Darwin is best known for his contribution to the science of evolution, most notably as it appears in his most excellent treatise On the Origin of Species, which made natural selection a household name. What many do not know is that it was actually a young British biologist working in obscurity who hashed out much of the theory of how one species can slowly transform into another before sending it to the famous scientist. Wallace wanted help getting his findings published. Darwin, who had been contemplating a similar theory of evolution for many years, feared he would be robbed of his day in the sun, and so he hastily jotted down his version of natural selection. The two papers were read on the same night before an audience of their peers, and Darwin got all the glory. 

Natural selection was not the first world-changing, paradigm-shifting idea which had been developed if not simultaneously at least by separate thinkers working independently of each other. The Greek philosophers endorsed a life of contemplation and viewed life as a dream. Many centuries later the French mathematician Descartes came on the scene and endorsed a similar view. Descartes had likely read Socrates. But long before the Greeks, the Hindus first developed the theory that consciousness is all that exists, and that consciousness is blissful - that our nature is joy and love is joy shared between individuals - and that, moreover, all life is merely an appearance in consciousness. In other words, life is a dream. Yes, this world is a dream world where everything we encounter has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts. Where the only thing you can be sure of is your own existence, because everywhere you go, there you are, and whatever you seek, you find yourself. The childhood rhyme got it right, it seems, and all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. 

I found Robert Fulghum's slim paperback on my mother's bookshelf recently and quickly read it cover to cover. It's a amazing how our parents influence us. From my father I derived my love of running - I used to follow him around Holmby Park, watching his calves from a distance of 10 or so feet as he made his way around the 1 kilometer perimeter. At his peak he ran 3 miles as many times a week. I extended this by running as many marathons in as many months, some of them barefoot. I adopted dad's vegetarian diet and took it to the next level by becoming a vegan. And his interest in Eastern spirituality, specifically the Vedas, I have made my own, in part by reading the books he collected when I was hardly old enough to speak, let alone read. As my mother liked to say, "Children are the evolution of their parents' souls. 

From my mother I got more than just catchy one-liners. I also gleaned an interest in astrology. And although the origin of this pseudoscience is mired in obscurity, I cannot tell you how many times people behave exactly according to their Sun signs, or maybe their Moon signs. After watching my mom cut her sons' and her husband's hair, and also hers as well, when I came of age I took the scissors and clippers to my scalp, and after much trial and error (read: many bald-spots) I learned to do a passable job. Yesterday I spent about an hour in several phases giving myself a top-notch trim. It's artistic, and also practical. I also tweaked my mom's culinary genius by making magic with vegetables. She preferred pasta, which I don't eat (it's white death, as Lance Armstrong calls it). And thusly mom's memory lives on through me.

Now the Greeks may or may not have been privy to the sacred scriptures of the East. They certainly were not like me with access to a bulky bookshelf that features a dozen copies of the Bhagavad Gita alone! The fathers of Western civilization lived on an isolated island long before the advent of print, but their fathers had migrated from other parts of the world, likely somewhere in Proto-Indo-Europe, home to a nomadic race that migrated in several waves from Asia in the 3rd millennium BC. And the Greeks also traded with the mainland, Mesopotamia I think it was called. So it is possible that a taste of metaphysics may have accompanied their exposure to new customs and traditions. 

In Greek religion the daimon accompanies each person throughout life, looking over his shoulder as if from behind or above and thus visible only to those he encounters, as consciousness. In the words of one philosopher, the Being is so secretive "that it never appears and still so tremendously powerful that it produces all appearance." How often we don't know ourselves, it's so true! Eudaimnoia is a lasting state of being which is not subject to change, and it means to live well, or be supremely happy. So combining the two concepts, the essence of life is happy awareness. Why does life exist? Why was anything created in the first place? Because Being was lonely. Obviously! Imagine if you had nobody but yourself to occupy your time, all the time. You'd be pulling out your hair, metaphorically, since in the beginning this appendage had not entered existence. Or you'd be like me, cutting it all off!

In utter loneliness, no true communication is possible (hence this blog), and you cannot even know yourself. It is through our interactions with others that we gain greater self-awareness. As George Clooney so convincingly put it in the movie Up in the Air, when you think of your best times, they almost always occur in the presence of another rather than alone. Of course, in the beginning there was One, and so the multitude of personages you find in your midst is merely an illusion. We interact with different aspects of ourselves. 

The Greeks used the dialogical thought process, made famous through the works of Plato, to prepare the soul and lead the mind to a beholding of truth which is ever beyond thought and speech, and, much to the dismay of writers like myself, incapable of being communicated through words.

So I leave you to your own devices. Hint: you must delve into yourself. Be like the ancients, who experimented with their own minds "no less radically and perhaps even more fearlessly than any scientist" who experiments with nature. Socrates himself was observed on more than one occasion to be so spellbound by his revelations that he'd fall into a state of perfect motionless that lasted for several hours. Do this. Be like the great historian Cato who said, "Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself." 

Of course, philosophy is a dying art (and also a science), so don't expect a pat on the back for your efforts. But introspection is by no means lonely, because as you read into yourself you see how similar are the thoughts and passions from one person to the next. And the sooner you realize truth, the less you fear and the more you forgive, and you once again gain that bliss which is the essence of your being and which has existed from time immemorial. Indeed, from before even time existed. You are more than immortal. Immortal merely means to exist for all time. But you existed before there was time. And so you are eternal, I like to say. It's like forever and then some.

I give myself this little pep talk whenever I encounter the metaphorical rocky road, emotionally speaking. I'll miss my mom, who was my friend and fan and staunch supporter through thick and thin. And just when I am in the throes of an almost sickening sadness, I'll pull myself out of it and become once again the daimon, who stands aloof, viewing everything, passive, pacific, impartial, and with perfect equanimity. The personality, with its hopes and fears, is like a pool that you as the witness (which is what the Hindus called this daimon) can jump into whenever you feel like a refreshing dip. But if the water is murky, or too choppy, or not the right temperature, you can always jump out and relax on the deck. Take this imagery and run with it wherever it may take you. Preferably into a meadow or somewhere with a breeze and some pretty flowers, because I'm done for the day. The hammock awaits. And maybe the pool too, if this breeze lets up.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

FORGIVENESS FEELS NICE



How to rise above karma? How to surmount fate? How to become the universal individual? How to live in a consequence-free environment that's not Romper Room? 

I used to think that the secret lay in being free of desire. After all, that is what the Eastern scriptures tell us, and I have at various times been a devout Buddhist and Hindu. And it's true. Desire leads to action which can involve the peace-lover in a whole host of problems. Popular proverbs advise us that "he who wants the ends must also want the means." But the means are often not for me, because consequences can be so unpredictable. 

In the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, the actor, or doer, "never quite knows what he is doing, always becomes guilty of consequences he never intended or even foresaw. No matter how disastrous and unexpected the consequences of his deed he can never undo it. The process he starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and its very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward glance of the historian who himself does not act.

"All this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom, which, by producing the web of human relationships, seems to entangle its producer to such an extent that he appears much more the victim and the sufferer than the author and doer of what he has done."

It is for this reason that not just Eastern spirituality but Western philosophy has accused so-called freedom of action of luring a person into necessity, and to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because "its results fall into a predetermined net of relationships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to forfeit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it."

So true! I remember when I enrolled in medical school. Sure I knew that many hours of study would result from this decision, but I never could have foreseen all the moves to different cities, all the insufferable physicians I'd have to deal with (never mind the patients), and all the paperwork. Had I known then what I know now... Famous last words. So I'll shut up.

It seems then that the only salvation from the relentless cycle of cause and effect lies in non-acting, in abstaining from the whole realm of human affairs to safeguard sovereignty and integrity as a person. And then you wind up a recluse like me.

But Arendt herself condemns such non-acting as escapist and even disastrous. The Stoics tried it, without much success, and my own personal experiment is still a work in progress. Never mind that the founders of most major religions have been loners, including Buddha himself who went into isolation to attain Nirvana, and Jesus Christ who spent 40 days alone in the desert. Maybe for the average individual it is better to "live with your hands in society and your head in heaven." That's striking a nice compromise. 

But there does exist a way to transcend your individual fate which doesn't involve doing without friends. And it is given in the words of a song by the Eagles. Now I am with usually with the Dude in matters of musical taste, but "Heart of the Matter" is some kind of magic. And it's not by the Eagles, per se. It's from the third solo album of their lead singer, Don Henley. Not to split hairs. But if you abide by the lyrics you may even win yourself a friend or two.



The heart of the matter is this: You can transcend your karma through forgiveness. Long before Henley, the Founder of Christianity, when he was not hanging with Satan, taught forgiveness. In the Gospel of Matthew Christ says, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." So that he could not be accused of preaching what he did not practice, dying on the cross Jesus asked God to forgive those who put him to death, for "they know not what they do."

How does forgiveness break the chains that bind? How does it release you from the endless cycle of action and reaction? In the words of Arendt: "In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action."

Forgiving, in other words, "is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus' teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which encloses both the doer and the sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process," which never ends.

This is why I told a friend who was going through a bitter divorce with a wife he left: "Give her what she asks for, even though you think her demands excessive. Or else be prepared to drown in the mire of endless legal battles, accusations, and general acrimony." Leaving aside whether he took my advice, how do I practice what I preach? Last week as I was riding my bike home a lady driving a Tesla SUV (and texting) pulled in front of me, cutting me off. The foolish woman could have made a pancake of me! I was a bit irate. A couple days back I encountered the same woman on the road, this time while I was running. Resisting my impulse to flick her the bird, I instead gave her a pleasant wave and a friendly smile. I'm not sure she recognized me as the rider she almost drove into.  But now we regularly exchange hellos. It seems I have made a friend of a would be enemy. Good vibes are contagious. And forgiveness feels nice.

Monday, April 17, 2017

COLLECTOR OF PERSPECTIVES


Here's a stat. In 1800 over 80 percent of the American labor force worked in agriculture. It used to be that you were born on a farm, never ventured off your property, married your cousin, had a dozen kids to help around the house, and died before you were 60. With so many children, you lived a busy if one-dimensional life. Not so any more. 

Nowadays you can jet-set around the world in the time it would have taken our farmer to pick a bale of hay. If inbreeding isn't your thing, just dial a bride 5,000 miles away. And if that doesn't work out, turn Soo Yin in for something with a bigger rear end. Russians have great mileage and handling ability, or so they say.

Seriously though, the percentage of American families in agricultural is down to 2, the average couple has about as many kids (2.4), and the average individual born this year will have as many jobs (12 to 15) in his lifetime as he would have had kids had he lived when Walt Whitman did. That's a lot of haves and hads. But the author of Leaves of Grass was an exception. He was not a farmer but a poet, and died unmarried and fatherless in his 70s, which even now is considered a ripe old age. Alone does not have to mean lonely. 

I too enjoy my own company. And I have had many jobs. Not as many as a 21st century digital boy, perhaps. But I have been bartender and waiter and caterer and teacher and doctor and office assistant and production assistant and manager. I have been a writer of articles and books and screenplays and so on. I have worked on Wall Street (for a day) and an Internet startup before that was the rage. I even worked in a women's boutique in Soho, don't ask me why. Oh, I needed the paycheck. Why else? While in New York I also met a rich old man who paid me $200 just to spend the afternoon talking to him. I guess he was lonely. While I was hard-up for cash.

Of course, I could never wear so many hats as a 19th century farmer living in New England with Emma always nagging me to milk the dang cows. Isn't that what the kids are for? No, I'd be wearing one hat, likely made of straw, and filthy.

I am not a fan of hats. They give you hat head and lead to hair-loss, although this is probably a myth. Nor am I a fan of compulsory employment, for I am not one to define myself by what I do or don't do. I think the world will be a better place once we install the much-anticipated universal basic income (UBI). It's a 500-year-old concept that policy makers are thoroughly re-examining, as TIME magazine reports. Thomas More wrote about it in his 1516 book Utopia, one of my favorite reads, and the UBI may be a way to combat technology-driven joblessness and as an antidote to poverty and the attendant crimes, like stealing. Imagine if every adult were paid a guaranteed sum every month, just for being alive. It's already being tried in Silicon Valley, where select families receive a grand or two to see what happens. And I thought, "I could live on that." Of course, the UBI has its share of detractors and will face an uphill battle en route to universal acceptance, may that day come. Watch the recent Intelligence Squared debate and judge for yourself.

I for one look forward to a time when we don't identify so strongly with our jobs, and not merely because we won't have any. I have played a ton of roles that didn't involve any money exchanging hands. My changing diet preferences alone have been diverse enough to feed a family of farmers, provided there are plant eaters among them. And these days nearly every family has at least one vegetarian. In high school I was Mr. Popularity, only to become a number in college, one of 40,000 at UCLA, where I got heavy and became a pimply, surly loner hankering for the days of yore. Can you be a has-been at not-yet nineteen?

I have run marathons and biked 100 miles just for fun, and in the same month; I have also been laid up for months in bed recovering from injuries sustained thereby. I have been a clean liver, shunning even caffeine, while at other times choosing to wake and bake and follow a bong load with a six-pack of beer, chasing it with cigarettes and maybe a little acid or ecstasy or whatever else was being handed around in the name of a good time.  Which can be exhausting.

I have earned straight As while taking twice the normal academic load and also failed a class as a part-time student. I have scored the winning goals as the star player on the soccer team and also road the bench as a reserve. I have hit home runs and struck out swinging, and not just literally. I have been reviled as a food server and revered as a physician. I learned that the best way to really learn something is to teach it. And also that those who can't do, teach. I have sported around in smart automobiles with fancy jewelry on my wrist and other times pedaled around on my father's hand-me-down bicycle with only enough money in my shorts to cover my next forty.

I have resided in a luxurious estate and other times crashed at friends' roach motels and spent my days shoeless and hanging out with the homeless. I sat cross-legged in an Indian ashram where with shaved head I chanted Om and read the Hindu epics. I have paid a prostitute for her favors ($200, to return the old-man's favor) and and during my sexual peak also practiced strict celibacy. I have lived in several states and more than one different country, where as a beach bum I stomped around in flip-flops speaking the native tongue and sipping the local rum; and yet while at home I've been called a shut-in. Because what else is there to see.

Where does this all leave me, other than exhausted and a bit dizzy? Such is life at the extremes. Now, like Voltaire's Candide, after all this adventure, I am quite content to remain at home and cultivate my garden. But being a collector of perspectives has given me something to write about, albeit for free. But I will one day be paid for my efforts, though not necessarily by you.



Friday, April 14, 2017

WHERE EVERYDAY IS LIKE SUNDAY


I want to go where everyday is like Sunday. Where leisure is a lifestyle. Where recreation is the way of life and being at ease is a marketable talent.

The only place that comes to mind when I think of paradise, is, well, paradise. The Garden of Eden, where Adam spent his days avoiding Eve and resting in trees. If you believe Mark Twain's account, which is just hilarious. On a bad day he was eating apples. But the first man was irritated most of the time. 

That there is little mention of God in the whole book actually increases the Garden's appeal. Because God is so hard to fathom. Utterly impossible, really. Imagine being omniscient. I for one cannot. There is simply too much to think about. How about you take access to all the information throughout time in the entire universe, and give me back my earliest memories. Because it's as if I never even was.

My mother used to tell me that she could recall her early infancy in explicit detail. I scoffed in disbelief as she recounted lying in her crib as an infant and looking up at her relatives. She described the many faces staring down at her with love and affection as they regarded their newest arrival. Being the first-born of her cousins, she must really have been a cause for celebration. Pity she wasn't old enough to drink the champagne.

And although odd, clear memories of infancy are not that rare. In his best-selling Autobiography, the late Yogananda tells a tale familiar to spiritual adepts. He writes:

"The helpless humiliations of infancy are not banished from my mind. I was resentfully conscious of not being able to walk or express myself freely. Prayerful surges arose within me as I realized my bodily impotence. My strong emotional life took silent form as words in many languages. Among the inward confusion of tongues, my ear gradually accustomed itself to the circumambient Bengali syllables of my people. The beguiling scope of an infant's mind! adultly considered limited to toys and toes. 

"Psychological ferment and my unresponsive body brought me to many obstinate crying-spells. I recall the general family bewilderment at my distress. Happier memories, too, crowd in on me: my mother's caresses, and my first attempts at lisping phrase and toddling step. These early triumphs, usually forgotten quickly, are yet a natural basis of self-confidence. 

"My far-reaching memories are not unique. Many yogis are known to have retained their self-consciousness without interruption by the dramatic transition to and from 'life' and 'death'. If man be solely a body, its loss indeed places the final period to identity. But if prophets down the millenniums spake with truth, man is essentially a soul, incorporeal and immortal."

I am not like Yogananda nor like my mother. I am like most people, who can't remember existing before the age of three, which is about when I fell into the deep end of the swimming pool and would have drowned were it not for my mother's frantic ministrations. But for her bit of harpooning heroism, I'd now be somebody else. As in reborn. My mother believed in reincarnation. With Yogananda, who writes: "I find my earliest memories covering the anachronistic features of a previous incarnation. Clear recollections came to me of a distant life...amidst the Himalayan snows. These glimpses of the past, by some dimensionless link, also afforded me a glimpse of the future."

I have no memories of lifetimes past or future. I can hardly handle the present. But nowhere does Yogananda tell of life in his mother's womb. And I sure can't remember being an embryo, or a developing fetus. But the womb may be a really great place, rivaling Eden itself in splendor. And thanks to that gestation period, I do have a fully-developed brain, so bear with me as I venture a conjecture about life in the tummy.



First off, I was unconscious all or most of the time. For newborns sleep nearly 20 hours each day, and so it is safe to presume that in utero the infant to be does more of the same. So life in the womb is a lot like dreamland. Or I should say deep sleep. Because without as yet any real-life experience - that is, without any material in which dreams are fashioned - it is unlikely that the fetus has any mental pictures prior to parturition. Unless of course there are impressions carried over from prior lifetimes. But not having any of these myself, I cannot speak to that. What about all the kicks and starts and other acrobatics the fetus engages in, especially late in trimester three? Evidence of wakefulness, you say? We all move in our sleep, so there is no reason why babies about to be born shouldn't do the same. Now I see why I don't remember gestating. For the same reason I don't remember sleeping, only having slept, and waking up to pee. Because I was unconscious. Let's hear it for cerebration.

In the womb all our needs are taken care of. Nestled in a warm, wet and cozy environment, we derive oxygen and other nutrients directly from our mother's circulation. So we have no need to eat or to breathe, or for that matter to excrete, since we don't eat. A world without soiled diapers is a place like paradise. The gurgling of the digestive apparatus, and the accidental expulsion of air, are all the sound you know. Does playing Mozart increase a child's IQ? I don't know, can you hear anything under water? The fetus hardly lifts a finger, except to make a fist, which is the baby's go-to gesture, and also Stallone's, and for that matter Hitler's. I myself am more of a lover. The fetal position is not my favorite. It's basically the missionary position of sleep. I'm more of a "from behind" type of guy. But probably as a developing child I didn't mind. Because I didn't have a mind! A life without a care is what the yogi strives for, and yet we're all born this way. It's starting to feel like we're going in circles.

And yet, thoughtless as you are, your body is busy progressing through the animal kingdom. The fetus re-enacts the entire history of evolution. It becomes first a fish, with gill slits, then has a yolk sac like a bird, and from there a tail like a monkey, before it finally becomes the one staring back at you in the mirror. When you finally regard your own reflection. There's food for thought.

Ah, to be a fetus again! Every day is like Sunday, with nap-time around the clock. But not experiencing life is not really living. (An argument I used to give in high school for pro-choice - I still stand by it.) And so being born and having thoughts seem essential at least to formulating the desire to be back in the womb. But freedom - to move, to make love, to laugh - is precious. And food tastes so good. So I'll stick with my back yard. And my namesake learned to love his wife. When Eve died, he wrote as her epitaph: "Wheresoever she was, there was Eden."

I feel the same way about you.