Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Solution (a poem by Laura Casal)

He says,

Here's the problem:
A train is traveling 100 miles an hour towards a wall.
There is a fly between the train and the wall.
The fly gets to the wall before the train.
How fast was the fly going?

She says,

Doesn't matter.
The fly dies.

He says,

You didn't solve the problem.

She says,

The problem is the fly died,
not the speed.

He says,

I don't agree.

She says,

That's the problem.

(From Laura Casal's collection Noble Madness)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quotes from a calendar: philosophy musings in 2017

I've been tearing pages from day-to-day calendars for many years.  I've had comic strips (Garfield, Peanuts, Dilbert, Pearls Before Swine), Star Trek, Dave Barry, The Simpsons, poetry, history, and last year, philosophy staring at me.  Sometimes it's rewarding every single day.  Sometimes it's a chore.  Last year was sometimes a chore.  Philosophy is a tricky subject.  Some people will accept any pearl of wisdom to be insightful.  Sometimes it really only applies to some people.  It took until February for me to find something worth noting, but eventually the results ended up feeling worthwhile often enough.  Anyway, here're the pearls I thought worthwhile:

  • "Leap and the net will appear." (Zen saying, 2/16)
  • "So many things become beautiful when you really look." (Lauren Oliver, 2/24)
  • "The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence." (Jiddu Krishnamurti, 3/10) I didn't always agree.  I feel the exact opposite is true.  But the ability to intelligently evaluate something is so rare, this might as well be true.
  • "In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia." (Milan Kundera, 3/14)
  • "There is no such thing as not worshipping.  Everybody worships  The only choice we get is what to worship.  If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  It's the truth.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.  On one level, we all know this stuff already.  It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story.  The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness." (David Foster Wallace, 3/15)
  • "I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal." (Groucho Marx, 3/16)
  • "Of course the sunrise doesn't care if we watch it or not.  it will keep on being beautiful even if no one bothers to look." (Gene Amole, 3/17) This right here is the probably the essential truth of reality, but it's the one humans will always have a problem with, being obsessed with the idea of observation for the sake of observation as we are.
  • "Zen pretty much comes down to three things - everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention." (Jane Hirshfield, 3/23)
  • "When you touch one thing with deep awareness, you touch everything." (Thich Nhat Hanh, 3/24) If you look at the three quotes I've made comments to, including this one, so far, you may understand why life is so complicated.
  • "If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more." (Mary Oliver, 3/26) Sometimes the pleasure was discovering new insights from names I really only knew as names.  Mary Oliver was one of them.  I knew that she was somewhat anonymously one of the "name" poets of the contemporary age, but I knew nothing at all about her poetry.  The story of poetry in the contemporary age.  Anyway, her quote pretty much sums up my thoughts on this string of thoughts I've added comments to.
  • "If in the deepest place within you, you want and desire Truth above all else, even though you go astray in a thousand different ways, you will find yourself somehow, again and again, being brought back to what is True. And if you do not want and desire Truth above all else, well, you already know what that leads to." (Adyashanti, 3/30) This is another personal core philosophy.  I believe the majority of people ignore the search for truth in favor of what is easy, and while some people labor again and again on truth, those people settle for easy again and again.
  • "A human being is part of the whole called by us 'Universe;' a part unlimited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to enhance all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." (Albert Einstein, 4/6) When you really think about it, Einstein seemed to be a philosopher first, and scientist only incidentally.
  • "Doubt everything.  Find your own light." (The Buddha, 4/8)
  • "I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove." (Vincent van Gogh, 4/9)
  • "In oneself lies the whole world, and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand,  Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself." (Jiddu Krishnamurti, 4/10)
  • "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple." (Jack Kerouac, 4/20)
  • "We have advantages.  We have a cushion to fall back on.  This is abundance.  A luxury of place and time.  Something rare and wonderful.  It's almost historically unprecedented.  We must do extraordinary things.  We have to.  It would be absurd not to." (Dave Eggers, 4/28)
  • "[The average human being] looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking." (Leonardo da Vinci, 5/9)
  • "It hurts to love.  It's like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin." (Susan Sontag, 5/23)
  • "How often do we tell our own life story?  How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?  And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.  Told to others, but -mainly- to ourselves." (Julian Barnes, 5/31)
  • "Even though a man may be incapable of making himself worthy of the creator of the cosmos, yet he ought to try to make himself worthy of the cosmos.  He ought to transform himself from being a man into the nature of the cosmos and become, if one may say so, a little cosmos." (Philo, 6/2)
  • "Looking for serenity you have come to the monastery.  Looking for serenity I am leaving the monastery." (Soen Nakagawa, 6/4)
  • "He who controls his mind and has cut off desire and anger realizes the Self." (The Bhagavad Gita, 6/6) I'm not sure the self exists without what makes it the self, whatever that may be. 
  • "Don't despair if your heart has been through a lot of trauma.  Sometimes, that's how beautiful hearts are remade: they are shattered first." (Yasmin Mogahed, 6/9)
  • "Finding your passion isn't just about careers and money.  It's about finding your authentic self.  The one you've buried beneath other people's needs." (Kristin Hannah, 6/11)
  • "Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean; sometimes you have to know what things don't mean." (Bob Dylan, 6/14)
  • "Let go, or be dragged." (Zen proverb, 6/26)
  • "Serenity is when you get above all this, when it doesn't matter what they think, say or want, but when you do as you are, and see God and the Devil as one." (Henry Miller, 6/27)
  • "Awake.  Be the witness of your thoughts.  You are what observes, not what you observe." (The Buddha, 6/29)
  • "True words always seem paradoxical, but no other form of teaching can take their place." (Lao-Tzu, 7/1)
  • "It's never the changes we want that change everything." (Junot Diaz, 7/6)
  • "It is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life." (Kate Chopin, 7/10)
  • "Someday, somewhere - anywhere, unfailingly, you'll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life." (Pablo Neruda, 7/13)
  • "Be like an alone peak high in the sky.  Why should you hanker to belong?  You are not a thing!  Things belong!" (Osho, 7/20)
  • "Simply allow your thoughts and experiences to come and go, without ever grasping at them." (Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, 8/5) It's amazing to me that we're asked to police our own thoughts, that if we're wrong one moment, we're wrong for all time. Sometimes being wrong is necessary, as a kind of release.
  • "They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it.  But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind." (Khaled Hosseini, 8/8)
  • "Only when we know little things do we know anything; doubt grows with knowledge." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 8/10)
  • "Consider the sunlight.  You may say that it is near, yet if you pursue it from world to world you will never catch it.  You may say that it is far, yet it is right before your eyes.  Chase it and it always eludes you; run from it and it is always there.  From this example you can understand how it is with the true nature of all things." (Hyang-Po, 8/14)
  • "I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only.  I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary." (Margaret Atwood, 8/24)
  • "Sometimes kindness takes the form of stepping aside, letting go of our need to be right, and just being happy for someone." (Sharon Salzberg, 8/29)
  • "The Truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind-" (Emily Dickinson, 9/2)
  • "When Munindra Ji, a Vipassana meditation teacher, was asked why he practiced, his response was, 'So I will see the tiny purple flowers by the side of the road as I walk to town each day.'  With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day.  We become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with one another and to all of creation.  We find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath.  We are happy for no reason." (Tara Brach, 9/5) The greatest happiness, it seems to me, isn't in a particular moment or for a particular reason, but contentment with incidental observation.
  • "Spiritual truth is not something elaborate and esoteric, it is in fact profound common sense.  When you realize the nature of mind, layers of confusion peel away.  You don't actually 'become' a Buddha, you simply cease, slowly to be deluded.  And being a Buddha is not being some omnipotent spiritual superman, but becoming at last a true human being." (Sogyal Rinpoche, 9/12)
  • "Some things aren't visible until you're truly ready to see them." (RZA, 9/29)
  • "As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it.  As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw." (Shunryu Suzuki, 10/6) Essentially, everything is a version of itself, not really the thing it is, by the mere act of observation.
  • "Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through.  Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it.  This is a kind of death." (Anais Nin, 10/12)
  • "It is precisely because impermanent, conditioned phenomena are unsatisfying that we are motivated to awaken.  Seeing these characteristics clearly becomes the cause of and condition for liberation." (Joseph Goldstein, 10/16)
  • "The unsaid, for me, exerts great power." (Louise Gluck, 10/17)
  • "Between the banks of pain and pleasure the river of life flows.  It is only when the mind refuses to flow with life, and gets stuck at the banks, that it becomes a problem.  By flowing with life I mean acceptance - letting come what comes and go what goes.  Desire not, fear not, observe the actual, for you are not what happens, you are to whom it happens.  Ultimately even the observer you are not.  You are the ultimate potentiality of which the all-embracing consciousness is the manifestation and expression." (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 10/23)
  • "I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion - and where it isn't, that's where my work lies." (Ram Dass, 10/24)
  • "Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.  Always work with it, not against it." (Eckhart Tolle, 10/28)
  • "On a journey, ill- and my dreams, on withered fields, are wandering still." (Basho, 11/2)
  • "Suddenly you're ripped into being alive.  And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but by God you're alive and it's spectacular." (Joseph Campbell, 11/17)
  • "I still haven't figured out how to separate the path of creativity from the spiritual path.  Sometimes I think they are one and the same." (11/30)
  • "We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.  And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is.  You have nothing.  You possess nothing.  You own nothing.  You are free.  All you have is what you are, and what you give." (Ursula K. Le Guin, 12/4)
  • "Everything falls under the law of change, like a dream, a phantom, a bubble, a shadow, like dew or a flash of lightning; you should contemplate this." (The Diamond Sutra, 12/11)
  • "The whole path of mindfulness is this: Whatever you are doing, be aware of it." (Dipa Ma, 12/15)
  • "To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul.  To do this you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in silence you hear the truth and know the solutions." (Deepak Chopra, 12/18) Except maybe the solutions part.  Nobody ever knows the solutions.  Life is guesswork.
  • "I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance.  People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction.  Yet true happiness comes from a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed." (The Dalai Lama, 12/19)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Favorite books read in 2017

  1. Silence by Shusaku Endo - Brilliant study of Catholic faith in seventeenth-century Japan.
  2. The Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads - The definitive look at the Iraq War.
  3.  The Sellout by Paul Beatty - Scathing look at the current state of race relations.
  4. The Annotated Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Leslie S. Klinger - An intricate look at the most literary superhero comic ever.
  5. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - Heartbreaking look at the impact of cancer on a boy and his other.
  6. An Age of Madness by David Maine - Generational angst.
  7. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - A true classic.
  8. Void Star by Zachary Mason - Visionary cautionary tale about the world of tomorrow.
  9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - Incredible parallel journeys of the offspring of two Ghanan sisters.
  10. Russian Olive to Red King by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen - Poetic graphic novel.
Special mention of Ernest Hemingway, whom I've read for the first time, in A Moveable Feast and The Old Man and the Sea.  With more to follow.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dropped from the Canon: Lost Literary Classics

I was at a garage sale the other week, and I happened to find Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and I figured that was certainly worth reading.  But it wasn't until I looked inside later that I discovered something truly intriguing: the publisher's list of titles at the back of the book.  This edition of Up from Slavery was put out in 1968.  Now, I've been reading stuff like Dover Thrift Editions and browsing lists like this for as long as I've been reading adult literature, so I've come to a certain understanding of what the classics are considered to be, those enduring books that are timeless and always worth reading, keeping alive in the public's imagination.

Yet, I found stuff I didn't recognize in this list.  Oh, one of them I'd just seen referenced in a newspaper Peanuts reprint, and it baffled me there, too.  (Although it's also worth noting that it was in Snoopy's vivid imagination where I first heard of The Scarlet Pimpernel.) 

Let's do a rundown:
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  This one, I think, happened because the Disney version has sort of taken over the public's imagination.  If it weren't for the movie Saving Mr. Banks, Disney might have done the same with Mary Poppins.  So this is an easy one to explain.
  • Erewhon by Samuel Butler.  Apparently a book that was first published in 1872, as a satire on Victorian culture.  Its legacy may have been extended by a time thanks to George Orwell.
  • Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson.  Originally published in 1904, it seems to have been replaced in the public's imagination by the works of Rudyard Kipling.  There was a movie adaptation in 1959 starring Audrey Hepburn, and the central character of the book, Rima, later entered DC comics lore.
  • Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge.   This is the one referenced in Peanuts.  It was published in 1865, and was responsible for popularizing both speed skating and the story of the little Dutch boy who plugged a dike with his finger.
  • Luck of Roaring Camp & Other Stories by Bret Harte.  The title story first appeared in 1868.  It was about the famous California gold rush.  Harte famously is a writer who was once wildly popular but has since all but vanished from the canon.  One wonders if his fate would've been Mark Twain's if Twain hadn't been such a successful shameless self-promoter (even if he was apparently a terrible businessman), much less Melville's if academics hadn't rediscovered Moby-Dick.  Worth considering.
We tend to think of classics as immutable, but they really aren't.  It's a fascinating subject, and these are clear examples of fortunes that obviously changed over time.  Usually you hear stories of the ones whose fortunes rose, like Melville.  It's humbling to think fortunes can sink, too.  When Harry Potter was at its hottest, you saw people trying to argue that the series was not destined to live forever regardless of its initial success, referencing other popular books that today are totally unknown (I wonder if they weren't thinking of series more akin to the many that have tried to cash in on J.K. Rowling's ideas in recent years, many of which have been modestly popular, just nowhere near the same level).  I still wonder if Harry hasn't already beaten that, but you never know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

From a book about the American Revolution written in 1999

In his book The American Revolution: First Person Accounts by Men Who Shaped Our Nation, published in 1999, T.J. Stiles makes the following observation, presented with no further commentary:

"Revolutions often begin with backward glances.  A conservative impulse most often moves the mass of mankind -- a fear of change, a dread that what little one has will soon be taken away.  Rarely have governments been overturned by a bold vision of the future; rather, popular radicalism often rises from the churning tide of events.  A ruler's initiative prompts a protest; a protest sparks repression; repression stirs resistance; and on and on in a cycle of polarization, anger, and revolt.  Never has this process been more clear than in the American Revolution."

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 24, 1917 in Lewiston, Maine

This was from earlier in the week, but I still wanted to make mention of the Sun Journal's Looking Back again, because it's pretty darn fascinating.  First, here's the listing:

100 years ago, 1917

No flag among the many hundred which float from Lewiston and Auburn homes today, represents a truer patriotism and more genuine spirit of sacrifice than do the Stars and Stripes which fly from the Lewiston Home for Aged Women. Out of the widow's mite which each of the inmates of the home had possessed, a precious bit was taken until these aged women had collected enough to purchase a flag. A miniature flag raising was held. Most noteworthy of all was a patriotic poem written by Miss Mary A. Richards. Miss Richards, who is an inmate of the Home, is 82 years old, but the patriotic fervor which must have moved her in the Civil War days, came to life in a thrilling little poem of 1917 patriotism.

Now, it bears repeating that the Great War, WWI, was going on at the time, and that the United States had just entered the fray, which has been reflected in a lot of these entries recently, including one I previously wrote about here when the declaration itself was made. 

The next obvious element is Mary Richards, 82, had a chance to reflect on two major wars, the Great War as well as the Civil War.  She was born in 1835, and so was 30 when the Civil War ended, plenty old to know exactly what was going on at the time.  (Maine had particular reason to feel pride during the Civil War, with its own hero in Joshua Chamberlain, depicted by Jeff Daniels in the film Gettysburg and its follow-up, Gods and Generals.)  This may be a genealogical profile for Mary.

There's this somewhat famous instance of game show history of a witness to Lincoln's assassination, but Mary is an example of ordinary folk (presumably) and how they reacted not just to one war but to another.  Today we still have WWII veterans and survivors, but they tend not to comment on later wars.  Mary happily joined the support for the Great War even after experiencing the Civil War, surely still the most heartbreaking of all wars Americans lived through.  I don't know what exactly that says, if Mary was somehow unique in that regard, but I just thought it was worth noting, her reaction and the history she witnessed. 

I was really hoping I could somehow come across the poem itself, but I'm not even sure I was able to find Mary herself.  If I did, her daughter relocated to Ohio, and then...whatever became of the family from then on only they know, and only they know if Mary's memory still exists for them, much less her poetry.  This is one case where I hope someone with information sees this blog and volunteers what they know, because I'd love to extend Mary's legacy a bit.  She seems to deserve it.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 4, 1917 in Lewiston, Maine

The Sun Journal's Looking Back feature strikes again with this interesting nugget:

100 years ago, 1917

The resolve appropriating $80,000 for the construction of a National Guard Armory in Lewiston received its several readings and was passed to be engrossed in the Maine Senate Thursday morning. An amendment provides that sum shall be taken from any fund immediately available -- preferably the million dollars subscribed for War purposes. It is provided, also, that the work of construction shall be supervised by a committee appointed by the Governor and composed, in addition to the adjutant general, of two citizens of Lewiston and two of Bangor. An exactly similar resolve providing for the construction in Bangor was also passed to be engrossed.

What's most interesting to me about this, aside from what I'll be saying further below, is that the "National Guard Armory" later became a community hall known generally as the Lewiston Armory, where I along with many other students graduated high school.  I couldn't find any definitive history online, readily, of the Armory, which is a little odd, so at least I got to read, randomly, about its origins in the newspaper.  There's a raft of tax preparers who provide free service there each year, and in that context was my most recent visit to the building.

Here's today's Looking Back:

100 years ago, 1917

(Page One Headline) WAR IS DECLARED BY U.S. -- House Passed War Resolution at 3 O'clock This Morning. Young Men of 19 to 25 Years of Age To Be Called First. Service in the National Guard and Naval Reserves is encouraged in a bulletin issued to the employees of the Lewiston, Augusta & Waterville street railways and applied companies. While the company cannot guarantee to make up the difference in pay to all men, exceptions will be made in cases requiring special treatment by reason of dependent families. The positions and ratings of men that enlist will not be lost and absence from work will not be considered a break in service.

Obviously, the war in question was the Great War, otherwise known as WWI, which just as obviously had begun without U.S. involvement, and more obviously still did not stop Americans from preparing for involvement before the official declaration; see the above article from two days earlier for evidence of that.  Since so much focus has been put on WWII in recent decades, WWI has begun to slip from history, except maybe the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (who otherwise got a band named after him, and makes spectacular appearances in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day) and the excuses Germans made for rallying behind a monster like Hitler.  Last year I read a book by Teddy Roosevelt in which he complains bitterly about Woodrow Wilson's failure to confront the realities of the situation.  Sure, he was preparing to run against Wilson and therefore any remarks might be dismissed as campaign rhetoric, but reading the book, I can't help but agree with Roosevelt.  Today we know Wilson mostly from his proposal for the League of Nations, which eventually became the still extant United Nations.  We think Wilson on the whole was a visionary.  Roosevelt thought he was an idiot. One of them's on Mount Rushmore.  (Just saying.)  It's equally telling that Americans have internalized Wilson's reluctant approach to war rather than Roosevelt's pragmatic one.  We likely have no idea how that happened.  It began, oh, a hundred years ago, maybe.  Or at least, this was one of those definitive turning points.
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