Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Birthday Sentences

On and around my 69th birthday recently, I had three birthday thoughts.

 The first was on the day, when I hiked up Trinidad Head. Unless you know the Head (in Trinidad Bay, far northern California), the thought may not mean anything, so I've included some photos from a subsequent walk, on a sunnier day. On my birthday there was considerable fog blowing in from the sea. Still, I wish I'd taken my camera that day.

 The thought was simple: my birthday present was that I hiked Trinidad Head--the experience itself (I even got quite close to a young rabbit on the trail) and the fact that at 69, I could still hike up Trinidad Head. That's the best gift.


It's not a climb in any mountain-climbing sense, it doesn't require equipment or training--it's not that kind of accomplishment. It's an ordinary climb--rigorous enough especially at the start, and a workout as the trail winds up. I've been hiking it for about 19 years, though not often enough. And I still can.

 It overlooks the Pacific on one side, and Trinidad Bay on the other. It's quiet and beautiful, and for now, it's available to me.

 That was first thought. The second thought, which came the next day or so, was more complicated. It had to do with success and failure.

 "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake," Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter. Maybe, but for an American man the basic criteria for success are pretty clear.

You're a success if in your life you make a sufficient living to raise a family, or if you produce work that receives honors and earns you a recognized place among peers as well as some more general community, or preferably both. You can be a success in your life, or a success in your work, or both. You are failure if you accomplish neither.

 I have accomplished neither. The failure is not absolute, I did accomplish something in each area. But not enough really to count me a success by these criteria.

Yet looking back, I have some satisfactions. So the second thought was: if I failed, at least I failed big. That is, the failure (however complete) was not spectacular, but my aspirations were big.

 I was remembering an acquaintance I'd once worked with who I last saw a long time ago in southern California. He showed me a script he'd written for a sitcom then on TV. I never saw him again. Though it appears he had some achievements in the movies and TV, it wasn't as a writer. There are other similar cases I know.

 I made compromises in my working life. But at least I did not try to write scripts for sad sitcoms or pathetic or loathsome movies, and failed. I failed trying to write the most ambitious works, the best works I could dream up, in whatever form. What I failed at was big.


The third thought is perhaps a corollary. If I were to describe, as simply as possible, what I did all my life, I might say, "I made sentences." (Nobody has asked me that question, nor any like it for quite awhile, but at least I have the answer ready.) I also made music, and dreamed up images, wrote dialogue and so on. But basically, in the range of work I did for love, a larger duty and for hire, I made sentences.

 John Banville began his review of books on Emerson this way:"Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence." Of course in addition to sentences, I made paragraphs and pages and so on. I thought about and worked at all these forms, but they are basically built with sentences. So I'll make my stand with the sentence.

 And if it is indeed humankind's greatest invention, it matters less what those sentences were about than the fact that I worked at making them the best sentences I could. While trying to lead an honorable life. It was not a bad way to use a life. So I think I'll keep doing it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Music

"You don't have to sell a hundred million records, you don't need thousands of platinum disks, you don't need to sing to millions and millions of people for music to nourish your soul.  You can sing and play to the cat, it will still mend your life.  My mantra is five simple words: Music is its own reward."

Sting

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memory Day (Spring to Summer Flower Edition)

Every Memorial Day weekend, my grandfather would change the winter glass storm doors for screen doors, bring the window screens up from the cellar, and remove the dark cover from the glider on the front porch. It was the signal for summer.

 Hereabouts there's something blooming at all times of year, but the spring flowers are into their summer. We've got varieties of roses (yellow in front, red in back), Iris (though they tend to bloom earlier in the spring) and California poppies. We've even got purple sage (that's it above, along with the two flowers I'm about to mention.)

 But two kinds are dominant, and in our walks in the neighborhood, I don't see them as profuse (or even as present) as around our house. Nasturtiums (proper name Tropaeolum) are orange or orange and yellow striped flowers, with roundish green leaves. The stems are attached to vines which grow at an incredible rate that accelerated in April. They threaten to cover the back porch, and I confess to enjoy being surrounded by them in my usual chair.

 Nasturtium flowers are edible with a kind of peppery taste, and contain high amounts of vitamin C. We use them in salads from time to time.


The other kind is the Calla Lily. Before I came here, all I knew about calla lilies was what Katherine Hepburn said in Stage Door--it became one of the standard lines for Hepburn imitators. I first noticed them growing in the narrow strip between the north side of the house and the fence with the neighbor house. There's only one small door on that side of the house, from the garage, and access from the front through a small garden gate. This area has always been dense with bushes and, close to the house, with ferns. Back in the far western corner is where I first noticed a few calla lilies.

 They stayed pretty much on that side until recent years, then migrated to the front (also accompanying ferns) and now we have them in the back bordering the porch and near the small fruit trees (fernless however), as well as in the front under the picture window. They are strange and strangely beautiful white flowers on long stalks that can get quite tall. (The books say three feet, but several in the front this year were at least four feet.) I'm fascinated by their large leaves with their curves and folds. We seem to have the most callas in the vicinity. I don't know why. They are quite hardy and bloom for a lot of the year.

 Nasturtiums came from South America, calla lilies from Africa (though some species have been in northern parts of the US for a long time.) So I don't know where you draw the line on native plants. They probably do compete successfully with other flowers, though there are varieties scattered in our yards that I can't name that seem more like California flowers-- very complex, with bands and spots of colors, bell-like parts and other complexities, all so different. Even the wild iris are remarkable in their stripes and patterns, the subtle blend of colors.

 By contrast, I remember the flowers of my western Pennsylvania childhood as simpler: violets, daisies, profusions of dandelions considered weeds, the purple flowers I never knew the name of because they too were "weeds," flower beds of gladiolas and roses.

I was musing on this topic while out on the porch in April, on one of the rare occasions that I took my laptop out there (it doesn't do well in bright light.) What I was thinking of when I was out there watching and listening to what goes on around the flowers and trees was the profusion I recall--accurately or not I don't know, but I think pretty accurately.

 Here I watched a single wasp, and three bumble bees who are working the same territory but seemed to stay together at a respectful distance from the larger pollinator. I heard crickets, a fairly uncommon sound. The sight of a butterfly is rare, and the sight of more than one of any appreciable size is rarer still. In my childhood backyard and the adjoining field there were lots of bumble bees to watch and be wary of, and wasps and hornets were regular residents around the outside of the house. Lots of butterflies, large and patterned, all summer. Our neighborhood lore included the difference between Monarchs and butterflies that looked just like them. My favorites were the patterned butterflies in shades of blue.  (On the other hand, there were an awful lot of houseflies.)

 We've made things as bird friendly as possible here. I have a makeshift birdbath on an old picnic table and have watched birds splashing in it, though its been dry lately. I needed to find a smaller dish I can refill every day without drought guilt.

 But the birds who visit us mostly chirp--songs are rare. There were a lot more songbirds in the east, particularly where I lived in Pittsburgh. There were also cardinals and goldfinches we don't have here at all. (On the other hand, I can watch hawks circling above the community forest almost any day.) In spring however we do get species of bird visitors we may never see the rest of the summer, or rarely. And in April on the HSU campus I saw a pair of stellar jays--large jays, blue feathers--and heard what sounded like a macaw, or some bird call I remembered only from movies set in jungles or swamps. That was weird.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Failure and Imagination with Jo Rowling



 This is Jo Rowling's 2008 Commencement Address at Harvard.  Her subjects are failure and the imagination.  (Here is a link to the transcript, although the responses of the audience is important.)  The central graph:

"So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

But not everyone has that certainty, or that big idea.  But there are other more general lessons:

"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned."

As for imagination, she wasn't only talking about dreaming up Hogwarts:

"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

She talked about her experiences working for Amnesty International in her early 20s--a moving and real account that never gets mentioned in her bios.  And how it informed her as a person and a writer.  For everyone, denying imagination is dangerous: "I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

Empathy and compassion change our relationship to the world, and may change at least little parts of the world. "One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing."

This is turn can inform the imagination in its action in the world. "We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

In this brief speech she does not overtly make the connection between her two topics, failure and the imagination.  Failure can drive you inward, and depression drags you down into uselessness.  There are other products of failure that are likewise overrated.  But empathy is the classic benefit of failure, if it results in something like humility.  She did mention humility as a possible product of failure: "Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes."

Perhaps my failures didn't impact my life enough, or perhaps what it revealed was an insufficiently focused and disciplined person.  Anyway I don't think I've dealt with failure all that well.  I still deal with the effects of it on myself every day. But in terms of acting from it, perhaps I have not felt urgently enough, or really faced, that so much of my life has been wasted.  Of course there may still be time for remedy, and if there isn't, soon enough none of it will matter.    

Obviously Jo Rowling has made a huge difference in a huge number of lives through her Harry Potter books.  I expect my writing has made some difference to some people, perhaps fewer than I hope but more than I know. And I suppose that I personally have made some positive difference, more than negative.  I may have to be content with that.  And with imagining better.

Update: It turns out that JK has adapted this speech into a book, with proceeds going to her charity for children, Lumos.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Updike

John Updike was a particularly important author to me in my last year or so of high school and first few years of college.  I identified to some extent--another small town Pennsylvania boy (the subject of these early stories as well as a biographical fact), and he was writing for outlets I aspired to: the New Yorker magazine, and Knopf book publisher.

Though our enthusiasms may fade, it's interesting to note their lasting effects.  Since I've been thinking and writing about those years, I've revisited some of the early Updike short stories I first read, and I noted particularly a couple of his comments in his Paris Review interview.  aI'm sure I came upon the first of them for the first time in this interview, and it became formative.  The second is more in the nature of consolation, a retroactive justification for a different personal history than I was looking for.

"When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.  I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.  The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

"No, I always wanted to draw or write for a living...I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles if I had to...The distinction between a thing well done and a thing done ill obtains everywhere..."

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Critical Need

From an essay by  Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times Book Review (emphases added):

"Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind.

"... What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability.

As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

 Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.

 It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness..."
Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything.

 "Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof..."

" Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect. We have much to gain and much to lose."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Age of Change

Change is neither good nor bad in itself.  Sometimes change is another word for waste.  These days it is often thoughtless, though it has its own momentum.

Humans are built for change.  Dealing with change--sizing up and seizing opportunities, foreseeing and responding to danger--is what our species does best. When the environment changes, we adapt.  It's why we're still around.

This ability is so much a part of our natures that we seek change.  As a species we spread out all over the world, sometimes compelled by circumstances but apparently very often because we like to wander.  We change our environment voluntarily. We are intensely curious, both mentally and emotionally.  We imagine a better place, a better future.

That and a superficial evaluation of technological change has tended to privilege change itself.  You can't fight "progress."  That may be true to some extent, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Change that is danger to some is opportunity to others, and it is in their interest to augment the natural excitement that change inspires. Capitalism needs and fears change.  Large-scale change for the past couple of centuries has largely occurred when corporations could engineer it for profit.

As you get older, you have more experience with the vagaries of change.  So older people are perhaps more skeptical of change that sweeps society with the frenzy of fashion, the pressure of conformity and the opportunities to make a move, make money, make a name, move up in the world.  Maybe it takes older people to see the potential pitfalls, the costs of waste, the possible and probable consequences. And to have the security to say, no thanks.

On a larger scale these are attributes that are among those that make elders pretty good futurists.  It may seem ironic but evaluating change, keeping eyes open to consequences, is oriented towards the future.

This is not an argument for stasis.  Change involves risk, but benefits as well as drawbacks are possible, and no one can foresee everything.  Even in daily life, novelty perks us up, change can refresh, and it gives us another place to stand, another perspective, to appreciate and evaluate our world, both old and new.

Change is energizing, and can be intoxicating.  But it is not always better.  We need skeptics as well as risk-takers.  Slow absorbers and synthesizers as well as enthusiasts and early adopters.  People willing to resist the stampede.

Vision does not always mean a vision of changes to come.  Vision is also about evaluating consequences and interactions.  We need look no further than the spreading dead zones and huge floating islands of plastic garbage in our oceans, or to the climate we have irrevocably deformed, to realize this.