29 April 2011

Oh, frabjous day

Mitchell called this morning quite exhausted. He’d been up since 3:00 am watching the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Mitchell has a big screen TV, and so I am sure that he had an expansive and lovely view of the event. On the phone he seemed rather breathless at the spectacle, though his lack of breath may have resulted from his climb up the stair in home to find the cell phone to place the call. He did make some mention of Kate’s wedding gown, but I couldn’t quite make out if he admired its full train or its cost: he was certainly hoping that the wedding reception wasn’t serving spaghetti with tomato sauce for fear she would stain the bodice. I urged him to recall that wedding couples don’t usually eat at their own receptions, and I think this news relieved his concerns. As for me, I couldn’t get myself up that early to watch the event live, but I have been following the proceedings on YouTube. There, at least, I have a better choice of what I want to see. 
Over the past months and weeks, Mitchell and I have spent not an inconsiderable amount of time and energy thinking about the Royal Wedding. I mean, what with the involvement of the United States currently in three seemingly futile wars, what with the continuing and particularly vicious attacks on teachers and education (a field in which Mitchell and I have spent not an inconsiderable amount of time in our lives), along with the presence of a flailing economy, a series of horrific natural calamities causing untold death and destruction, amidst unconscionable stupidities questioning the birth history of our current President, and terrible hair on one of the prospective Presidential candidates (aside from his absurd political stances and remarkably senseless, even inane statements); what with the increasing polarization of the country into the haves and the have-nots, the refusal to hold accountable those who engendered this present financial crisis, the voluble demagoguery emanating from the radical Christian Right in the United States and the willing option for ignorance amongst too much of the population; what with the current attack on the working and middle classes by the Republican majorities, the increasing de facto segregation of our public schools and increasing gap in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged populations, it seems the sanest recourse to attend to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Here is an event that doesn’t address reality at all and which has finally and absolutely no effect on our daily lives whatsoever. 
So Mitchell asked me what I sent as a gift to the couple. I told him I had sent them 456 mezuzot to hang on every door of their new palatial residence. Mitchell says that he sent the newly married couple a $50.00 United States Savings Bond. As he rightly says, it only cost him $37.50, but in 20 years William and Kate will have $50.00!

26 April 2011


I have been thinking about the expression “The devil is in the details.”  I am not exactly certain what had raised this issue in my consciousness right now (an interesting metaphor, I believe, regarding the appearance of ideas to the mind), but I have been for sometime concerned with the ubiquitous presence of details. Sometimes I think my life is consumed with these details and that there is no grander picture beyond them; at other times, I complain that not enough focus is given to the details and besides, that grand picture I proposed last week, lacked any substantive reality. Sometimes the details seem not at all important: which toothpaste, indeed, any toothpaste, I use probably makes little difference to my dental health. But sometimes the larger picture remains foregrounded: my general dental health remains a central concern regardless of the brand of toothpaste I choose. 
I don’t know exactly what this pronouncement—the devil is in the details—actually means, but I do have a few thoughts on the matter that once raised I now want to hold aloft, or carry along for a bit.  It is said (though I am not sure by whom) that the saying that connects the devil to the details derives from an earlier statement claiming that “God is in the details.” I am not sure which statement is more accurate, but in both cases the details remain the sticking point. In both cases, it is to the details that one must look for meaning, and in either case, then, the details are the whole. In fact, I do not honestly care with whom the details are associated;, the Devil or the Lord; what I do care about is the details. 
I would suspect that whoever said ‘the devil is in the details’ most probably found that the details too often made some hoped-for concord in life impossible to achieve. The details defied the very idea of untroubled unity; those pesky details too often revealed the cracks and rents of which that unity was actually comprised, and rendered that unity evilly illusory and deceptive. Needless to say, (but now I’m going to say it anyway) this person would attribute all such difficulty and discord to the work of the Devil: the whole must be heavenly, but the devil is in the details, and they just ruin the identity of the whole. The devil made him do it, and there is no way to avoid this devil. The ideal of the perfect relationship often cracks apart at the discovery of the first detail of actual living, no matter of what that detail might turn out to consist. “Oh, just get over it” we say to gloss over the presence of the Devil, but there are many hurdles over which we must daily leap. The course of a single day never does run smooth. I, for one, am very weary at the end of the day, ‘weary,’ that is, as opposed to ‘tired,’ the former partaking of some psychological enervation and the latter of some actual physical fatigue. Similarly, any valuable, compleat philosophical worldview splinters from a first contact with real beings operating in the actual world of human behaviors. The exception—that damned detail—proves the rule, but that universal rule is always so much more orderly and comfortable. I think to those who believe that the Devil is in the details, daily life must be truly a horror or a fantasy. 
But if it is God that inhabits the details then God must be that which comprises the whole, for there can be no detail that is not part of some whole: in terms of architecture (it is to the German architect, Ludwig Miles Van der Rohe, to whom is attributed the statement connecting God with the details) the beauty of a structure would be found in the untold number of small items (the details) of which the whole consists. That is, the beauty of the whole is comprised of small parts, and in those small parts the wonder of creation can be found. Diamond Jim makes his usual entrance with every hair in place! God is the whole but God cannot exist except in the details. Spinoza says, “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinitethat is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.” God is in the details. 
In either caseGod or the Devilthe central fact of life resides in the details. I have long been concerned with those details. Sometimes I do not wonder if she loves me but whether she placed the cap back on the toothpaste. I am not pleased when I hear that the overall idea in a piece of my writing is certainly of great interest, but that my execution of the whole work requires some specific revisions. It is not my general health with which I am concerned, but the proper functioning of each and every organ, vein, artery and nerve. Barry Bonds may have hit more home runs than Babe Ruth or Roger Maris, but the specific details of accomplishing that feat call the whole into question. The Devil is certainly in the details here. 
Of course, if God is in the details then only when I observe the details do I see the whole. Spinoza again: Whatsoever is, in in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” All buildings are alike until I see the frieze on that one; all churches are essentially the same—same basic rooms set up in the same basic manner—but each individual place of worship partakes of the personal that can only be found in the details. God was in this place and I should have known it. 
The issue certainly resides in the details. Perhaps there must be some balance drawn between observing the whole and attending to the details. But what would that balance be, and by what process might that balancing occur, I wonder? The problem seems to be like those psychological drawings: do you see the old hag or the young woman? You can’t see both at the same time, and so finally, what determines the precise object of vision? The tester asks, “What do you see?” but what exactly determines what is actually seen at any single moment since both wholes are observable at any moment but not both together? Under what conditions do I see the beautiful woman and when the old hag? When do I see the frieze before I observe the building? Can I ever do so, except perhaps in a museum when there is no building and only the frieze? Usually, we see that for which we look—Rorschach tests want to know what whole we see in the parts. From this some psychological analysis is attempted. A man sits before a psychologist who places a card before the analysand. “Well, tell me what you see?” Without hesitation the man says, “I see a man and a woman having sex in an alley and he has a very big penis.” The psychologist places a second card on the table before the man. “Ok, tell me what you see now,” and again, without hesitation the man answers, “That’s a picture of a woman getting undressed for her lover whom she expects to arrive any moment and make ravishing love to her. She has very large, succulent breasts” “Hmnn,” the psychologist says, “very interesting,” and he places on the table a third card. “Wow, I see three beautiful women with very large breasts having sex with one man and a dog. And in the corner a old man is watching.” The psychologist looks up at the analysand. “You certainly have sex on your mind, don’t you?” And the analysand looks at the psychologist and with not a little pique, says, “Me? You’re the one showing me all those dirty pictures.” What did the psychologist see in the cards? 
If the devil is in the details, then to focus on them portends conflict. But if God is in the details, then when I see them it is the whole I see. And there is no conflict?

20 April 2011

Grete Waitz

I am  saddened and troubled today by the news of Grete Waitz’s death at the age of fifty-seven from complications of cancer. Waitz had been a geography teacher in Norway who also ran long distances. Someone told her she might run a marathon, and in 1978 she elected to enter the New York Marathon. She won the race in record time though the TV announcer had to admit as she crossed the finish line that he really hadn’t the foggiest idea who she was, in fact. That first year she set a world’s record for the distance: 2 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds, a mark she subsequently broke in future years. Ms. Waitz went on to win the New York Marathon nine times, and her last marathon was in 1992 when she ran alongside Fred Lebow whose brain cancer was in remission but who would succumb two years later. They finished arm in arm in 5:32:35. It was a most gracious and loving act of Grete Waitz to run the race this slowly and at less than half her normal pace. 
New York is a difficult place to earn a reputation, and it is rare that a figure survives throughout a considerable career unsullied. But Waitz remained untainted by scandal and epitomized all that was wonderful about human capacity, achievement, and character. She ran the marathon, by God26.2 miles! And these days, what with the disgraces routinely attached to players in baseball, football, bicycle racing et al., and what with the reprehensible behaviors exhibited by our sports (and political) figures, we have sore need of honest and modest heroes. Alas, we have today one less exemplar of the human will to excel, one less model to set the standard by which we might live in this world.  Selfishly, I am so sorry at our loss at her death. 
But there is yet another aspect of her death that troubles me this morning. For I would have thought that one whose physical achievements, depending as they did on such remarkable training and discipline, whose successes gave such visible evidence of the potential of the human capacity for extraordinary physical strength and spiritual will, whose life represented the quintessence of human excellence and tenacity, should have been able to live forever. Alas, she, even she, succumbed to cancer at the age of fifty-seven years; with all of her training and physical endurance, could not vanquish this dread malady. 
In Grete Waitz’s death, I feel that I have lost a great deal.

17 April 2011

Sunday Morning Rant

I’ve been reading a little about the origins of the financial crisis of 2008-09. I say a little because so much of the conceptual framework eludes me: I took macro-and micro-economics in college, but that was not a few years ago, and besides the times have changed. As have the concepts and the products.
I remember when we bought the house and we went to the local bank to acquire a mortgage. The process was fairly intimate: we filled out the forms with help from the bank personnel, they took care of the business endsin Wisconsin there is no need for the involvement of lawyers—and when the time came for signing the papers we all sat around and conversed on a first name basis. The bank had lent us the money for our home. We repaid the bank every month.
But at some time the rules changed. I recall making some query to my personnel banker and discovering that my mortgage had been sold! I guess I didn’t pay too much attention to the details because nothing about my monthly payment had changed. But it turned out that this sale of mortgages was part of the impending financial crisis in ways I only partly understand. I still can’t comprehend the business end of selling mortgages to make money. And as for hedge funds and derivatives . . . well, I’m not going there.
I know from reading the articles that I can hardly make any sense at all of the ‘products’ and ‘methods’ Wall Street and the banking community has employed to maximize their profits even at the expense of the people whom they were supposed to be working. I know that some of the ‘products’ and ‘methods’ are comprehensible only to those who invented them, and that investigators actually require the Wall Street crooks to explain the means by which they robbed the poor to pay the rich. And to even make some of the wealthy not so rich. The financial crisis from all that I have read was caused in large part by greed and deception, and I can honestly say that I was not part of that crime. 
And then there were the two wars started by George Bush, wars now almost ten years old. I cannot even begin to measure the monies we have spent in Afghanistan and Iraq and now in Libya.
And now the Republicans (“Curse you, Red Baron!”) are blaming the unions and the teachers (at least) for the financial state the country now suffers. Entitlement programs, education, medical care, social security, retirement pensions, the arts and sciences are all subject to dramatic budget cuts because the deficit has become too large, they say. I was not part of that crime. Wall Street bankers continue to make record salaries, oil companies remain profitable as gasoline prices rise, and the politicians (Republican and Democrat) demand that the working and middle class population suffer in the repair of the economy while the culpable continue in their immoral practices. Tax breaks and bonuses (!) for the rich continue to proliferate as salaries and benefits for those who honestly work in lives of mostly quiet desperation continue to decline.
I wonder how they can look at themselves in the mirror? I open the papers and I am nauseated by the demagoguery of the politicians and pundits who would rather blame the victims than offer them aid, and who cannot punish the guilty for fear of retribution from their power.
The willing blindness is criminal, and they should be made to suffer for their behaviors.  I want to see somebody complicit in all of this go to prison. I want to see the rich and famous pay our way out of this situation. I’m tired of buying their ease. And I want to hear someone in government call out these dissemblers for what they are: cruel and self-serving demogogues. Some one has to stand up and say, “Jane, you ignorant slut . . .”
Where is my President?

13 April 2011

Going Through All These Things Twice

An old friend, both in age and longevity, sent me the link to Maureen Dowd’s critique of Bob Dylan in the April 9th edition of the New York Times. Others have responded, but I want to weigh in on this one. I’ve been thinking about Dylan for almost fifty years.

The essence of Dowd’s critique is that Dylan’s recent series of concerts in China were evidence of his ‘selling out’ because he did not sing “The Times They Are a’ Changin,” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dowd claims that to have included these songs in his playlist would have aligned Dylan with the democratic forces in China who the government has actively repressed. She writes, “He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.” I don’t understand what she was talking about finally.

Dowd’s criticism reminds me of the crowds who booed Dylan back in 1965 when he sang—first at the Newport Folk Festival— accompanied by electric guitars. At the Albert Hall some fool even called out to him during his performance “Judas,” to which Dylan responded, “You’re a liar!” I love that response. It was so honest. (Actually I prefer his next response to this hostility even better: he turned to The Band, at that time his back-up group, and said to them, “Play it fucking loud!” and they broke into what many think as the greatest rock n’ roll song ever written: “Like a Rolling Stone.” If nothing else, that composition changed forever the way music was written, listened to, and played. And I would guess that there were many in that hostile audience that bought the single that made it so popular. Then, everyone wanted him to be just like them so that they could be assured of who they were; then, Dylan refused the coronation: don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters! And now in 2011 Maureen Down has resurrected the old but discredited charge against Bob Dylan.

Then, in 1965, his detractors accused Dylan of abandoning the purism of folk music with his use of electric instruments and of walking away from the political struggle of which folk music spoke and for which Dylan had been declared (without his assent) spokesperson. People define Dylan’s career as pre- and post-electrification as if the volume defined its theme and as if the music’s physical source altered somehow its honesty. Dylan has never defined himself as a protest singer; he never even identified himself as a folk singer. “Everyone knows I’m not a folksinger,” he says early in his career when he was only 24 years old. He turns seventy this year. Every one seems to enjoy forgetting that even as he was writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” Dylan was also writing “The Girl from the North Country” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” You will recall that in the latter song Dylan writes longingly of a time when “As easy it was to tell black from white,/It was all that easy to tell wrong from right.” He knew at the beginning that the world was too complex to speak in absolutes, and that this belief in a Manichean world was an idealist and precious position that he could not continue to hold and survive in the world. In this acknowledgement of complexity and doubt rests the power of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Having depicted the obvious crime and injustice perpetrated in this case (fictionalized as it had to have been) appealing to the self-satisfied moralists who saw in the case yet another instance of rabid Southern racism, Dylan sang, “All you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears, Bury the rag deep in your face/For now’s the time for your tears.” Dylan knew that it took more than words and sympathy to change the order of things; he knew that all those who came to hear his protest songs allowed him to do all of the work so that they could peripherally participate in the struggle. Dylan knew that this self-righteousness demanded shame. Dylan refused to relieve anyone of his/her responsibility. Dowd understood little of this. Even while he was singing “It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Dylan was also saying, “But it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes, Its for myself and my friends my stories are sung.” He did not intend to proselytize but to explore in public some troubling ideas. And even as he sang that “The Times Are a’ Changin,” he admitted in “Restless Farewell,” “You’re right from your side. I’m right from mine. We’re just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.” Dylan knew early that the political and the personal could not be separated, and he had no intention to ignore either one in his work. From the beginning Dylan disavowed any role as leader or moral exemplar. In the Playboy interview in 1965 Nat Hentoff asks Dylan, “Would you advise young people to skip college, then?” And Bob Dylan responds, “I wouldn’t advise anybody to do anything.” It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung. I don’t know that it gets any clearer than that.

I don’t think Maureen Dowd has looked at this interview or she would have there heard Dylan say, “Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer.” Dylan was never easily definable except by his own self-invention, and he continued over the years to reinvent himself. Sometimes I could go with him, at other times he didn’t speak to me. But I’m glad I stuck with him because that he was always present made me secure.

When Maureen Dowd criticizes Dylan she speaks, perhaps, from some place that demands a singular uncompromising standard that Dylan should exemplify. It is an unfair demand.
The concerts in China of which Ms. Dowd is so critical must be more carefully scanned. When I go to the website, Boblinks, and look at the play lists for both concerts, I find the following:

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Tangled Up In Blue
Honest With Me
Simple Twist Of Fate
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Love Sick
Rollin' And Tumblin'
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit On The Water
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
(1st encore)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
(2nd encore)
Forever Young

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up in Blue
Honest With Me (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on lap steel)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Blind Willie McTell
The Levee's Gonna Break
Desolation Row
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit On The Water
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
Forever Young

These are very typical sets from a Bob Dylan concert. I know. I have been attending such events for more than forty-five years. Both shows began with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking:”

     Stripes on your shoulders

     Stripes on your back and on your hands

     Stripes on your shoulders

     Stripes on your back and on your hands

     Swords piercing your side

     Blood and water flowing through the land

Slow Train Coming may have been a religiously-theme album, but this song from that album contains outrage at events in Tiananmen Square (and a great many places more): it is clear that from the outset at these concerts in China Dylan spoke politics, but as always, Dylan’s politics could not be separated from the personal. “Tangled Up in Blue” is evidence of this complex intertwining of the two. Dowd’s critique derives from her simplistic awareness concerning a considerable body of Dylan’s work. I wonder why Dowd sees no political agenda in Dylan’s early song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” sung as the second offering in Beijing. Also offered in Beijing, less than a month after the disaster at the nuclear power plants in Japan, Dylan sang “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall,” composed in 1963 when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed all too real. And the next night in Shanghai he included “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” another reference to distasters for which humans must take responsibility. Wasn’t Dowd listening? At the concert in Shanghai Dylan sang “Desolation Row” and then closed the show with “Ballad of a Thin Man” accusing: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” As in every concert I have ever attended on the Never Ending Tour, Dylan wove the overtly political with the overtly personal creating a complex tapestry that spoke immediately to our lives in the contemporary world.

I think it is not of Dylan that Dowd spoke in her article; rather, it was of herself she spoke. I think Dowd demanded that Dylan be who she insisted he be despite his continual refusal to enact her desires. I think she spoke from her own personal disappointments and feelings of inadequacies. She could not hear what he actually had to say because she was listening for something that she wanted to hear. She could not hear Bob Dylan over the cries of her own troubled conscience.

12 April 2011

On Being Exhausted

There was a time when Sunday morning meant a long run—anywhere from eight to twenty miles.  Regardless of the time of year Sunday was devoted to this test of will and endurance. For many years I shared the time with my dear friend Gary. On those Sunday mornings we explored the community choosing a somewhat different route each week. There were steep hills to climb and any number of neighborhoods to explore. A life long resident of the town, Gary narrated the history of the farms and sites we passed as we ran. In the winters we shivered and dressed in layers; in the summer we wore our supplies of water, and on special runs even planted extra water bottles at strategic places along our route. There was rarely a moment of exhaustion, though we certainly experienced fatigue. At the end of a run—an hour or three after we had begun—we parted company and entered the rest of the day.
We were tired. Our muscles had made a great effort and they felt a bit rubbery, not necessarily an unpleasant feeling, and I think we probably climbed the stairs holding more tightly onto the banister that facilitated our rise. And the day went continued—sometimes we each and separately would cut the grass of our lawns, he at his home and I at mine, or complete some other household chores. On too many Sundays (to my mind and much to my chagrin) Gary would then go out to work!! I would read and write (which is the work that I do, I suppose), and allow the day to flow slowly and smoothly before me. But at sometime in the afternoon, I think we both would take a nap. We were rightfully tired.
I recall other moments of experiencing great fatigue. Sometimes when I have been studying a particularly difficult text, struggling through the syntax, the vocabularies and the concepts, my head would begin to ache and my eyes would grow heavy. I would move from desk to chair where I could close my eyes and rest for even a few minutes, refresh my mind (even in sleep) only to begin again (willingly) the effort to comprehend. Gramsci says somewhere that one must train to become an intellectual as one trains to become a great athlete: as the long distance runner increases his distance daily, so the intellectual should learn to sit for sixteen hours a day reading and thinking. I have never been that ambitious (ambition should be made of sterner stuff!), but I have enjoyed some significant growth and not a little success from my efforts. I have read a considerable quantity of books and have had some interesting thoughts. I have at times been justly tired.
But lately I find myself oft-times exhausted by the flood of information that continues to assault me over the course of any single day. I read the newspapers (I glance at the news), but am forever directed to further articles readily available on the same or similar topic. I listen to a report on the radio and am told that if I desire more information on the particular story I can go to the station website; I can download podcasts to hear more or join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook, or I can continue on to discover the visual accompaniment to the oral report. Extended versions of articles from journals are posted on the various websites, and there I will also find additional links leading to further information on this and related topics. There is no end to what I can do and where I can go to obtain further knowledge on any topic. There is no end to knowledge. I know. I know. I have, of course, always known this, but all of these announcements only emphasize what I do not and yet should know. My inadequacies are forever posted before me.
I am exhausted by the amount of information that has been not only made available to me, but to which I have been urged to attend: I could spend my entire life following stories and pursuing leads. Hypertexts mean that there is no end to the direction I can next take; I am exhausted by the possibilities even moreso than by the journey itself. Two roads diverging in a wood are manageable, but ninety-six (hundred-thousand) paths deplete my energies. And having refused so many offers I am then condemned to suffer the guilt of not pursuing each story as it spreads like the web of a spider. Each element of a story explodes like cancer cells (yes, I’m changing the metaphor) and like them, threatens to consume over my life. The whole process exhausts me. I know that there exists the phrase “Too Much Information (TMI)”, and mostly I choose not to pursue too much. But I find myself exhausted merely by the constant directives after every report to go to yet another source for more information or audio or visual content. I grow weary when at the end of every article I am informed that a more complete report or extended version of the article is available at another source. I wonder what crucial knowledge I am missing, despite my present effort. What am I missing? Whatever I know it is not sufficient.
There is no end to this effort, no break in the activity, no time for a respite. I am often exhausted by this media assault. But I am not content in this exhaustion.

09 April 2011

Coffee, room for cream

I have often enough described the ritual of my morning coffee. How it is simply brewed by pouring hot water (208 degrees I am told is optimal, so as not to burn the grounds) into an unbleached #4 sized filter atop the stove. I listen for the sound of the liquid dropping into the Pyrex Mellita pot to ensure that the tiny hole has not been clogged by a previous user who carelessly permitted the grounds to run over the filter paper; I turn a low light under the coffee to ensure that the liquid remains hot. I fill my favorite mug—a gift from my daughter—with hot water to prepare it for the dark elixir, and wait calmly for the water to drip through the prepared grounds. When the dripping has all ceased, I empty the hot water from the mug, pour in the syrupy steaming liquid, add a dollop (love that word!) of ½ and ½ and carry the elixir out to my work space to begin the day. It is a wonderful ritual that eases me into the efforts of the day and thought.
And so traveling demands that I somehow enact the ritual in some different but similar manner. I must search out a reputable coffee house where the brew is fresh and strong; if the establishment is close enough to the hotel room then I can carry the cup back and sit in the quiet of the room and engage in some reading and writing. Should the coffee house be just a bit too far to make return convenient, then I sit in a corner with a copy of the New York Times (should it be available) or some local paper that contains a fair share of national news. I may be away but the world remains. I finish the coffee and the paper and the day has honestly begun.
These rituals are acts of homecoming in the process of leaving home. They are means by which I situate myself in a strange world where I am surrounded by none of the things familiar to me and by which I establish some bearing. Traveling I constrained by what I have packed in the suitcase; my comfort foods are unavailable and expensive, and I must continually search out my food that are always prepared by someone else. The calm I derive from preparation is unavailable when I travel, and I must find another avenue to peace. It is often companionship, but sometimes it a lovely glass of wine or a single-malt scotch. Of course, I tote a considerable amount of reading material to keep me company. 
In “Of Solitude” Montaigne writes, “We must reserve a back shop all our own, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” This most public man never advocates retreating from the world; he did, after all, publish these essays exploring every aspect of his personal and intellectual life. He was married, had children and engaged in a very public civic life. Montaigne never advocates that we live in seclusion from the world; indeed, he knows clearly the obligations that such social engagement entails. But in this back shop “our ordinary conversations must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place.”  In that back shop we must develop the strength to be alone. 
Too many have no opportunity to create such a back shop in physical space; it is indeed a luxury we appreciate not enough. I despair that it is not a social goal to ensure that everyone can share in the privileges now enjoyed by the few of which I include myself as one. But perhaps in our private rituals we can create such a locus for the uses of our inestimable solitude. I think we might begin to teach people how to create spaces for their private conversations and to teach them to engage in such efforts. 
Of course, even those of privilege have no capacity to be alone: the ubiquity of cell phones and iPods and iPads give evidence of our inability to endure solitude for very long, if at all. People walk out of crowded buildings and meetings and immediately call or text someone on their cell phones. In any crowd a large percentage may be found with their hands to their ears talking on cell phones. Many walk about with blue tooth devices in their ears talking, it would seem, to no one. There was a time when such activity might be looked upon with suspicionperhaps they still arebut now such behavior is mostly acceptable. There are fewer places to create back rooms. In the hands of so many rests the phone to which constant attention is paid, checking with some frequency for incoming messages and calls. And upon the arrival of some message, usually containing not a great deal of vital information, the receiver engages in immediate reply. And the cycle has begun. Few are now ever wholly present; they are always somewhere else. Few ever withdraw to a solitude available in their back rooms. It is too public a world. 
Thoreau complains, “Society is too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So is it in our contemporary society. And we are so afraid of solitude that we spend considerable effort to avoid it. We fear not only the other but also ourselves. We are terrified of cultivating solitude. “But a man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Too much time spent avoiding solitude suggests an absence of meaningful activity and thought.  We have boarded up our back rooms and placed a sign on the door Danger: enter at your own risk
And so my morning ritual is the creation of my back room when the physical space is unavailable. When I am at home, the coffee accompanies me and when I travel it creates the necessary space for my solitude.

04 April 2011

On Being in the World: or how I account my days.

At the end of the day what can I say about it? I want some accounting before I give up the day to sleep and to dreams. During the day I may be immersed in its moments, but at day’s end I want to reflect on the substance of those moments. I would answer for my days and be satisfied with the uses to which I have engaged my time, even as I make report of my appetite at the end of a meal. At the latter, I rise from the table fulleven sometimes a bit stuffedand somewhat satisfied. We stand up from our chairs, push them slightly backwards, stretch myself upwards as if to kiss the sky, pat my stomach contentedly, and smile. My company does alike. It has been alright.
So I think should it be with the day. At the end of it I should arise from the table, as it were, lay down to my bed content, satisfied, full up and alive from events of the day. It has been alright.
We do not live so short sighted as to require that every activity finish with the day’s end, though the day certainly brings every activity to its close. Many of our endeavors flow into the next day as naturally as the river flows from place to place: smoothly, for the most part, and unceasingly. And so, at day’s end we ought to be content to sit and watch the river flow and to reflect on its movements. I prefer any running river to a stagnant pool.
And then, I think, the events of the day flow effortlessly into our dreams, and carry us toward the morning’s waking and the next day’s doing.
I think it is good to sleep in anticipation of the dawn. I have long been enamored by Gordon Lightfoot’s song. He writes,
The minstrel of the dawn is he
Not too wise but oh so free
He'll talk of life out on the street
He'll play it sad and say it sweet
Look into his shining face
Of loneliness you'll always find a trace
Just like me and you
He's tryin' to get into things
More happy than blue
I would be my own minstrel and have a song to sing. Thoreau says, “That day dawns only to which we are awake,” and I would always be an awake greeter of the dawn, hopefully accompanied by my mug of freshly brewed coffee. Standing in the cold of winter with my hands wrapped about the mug for warmth, I look through the window and anticipate the day. And at the end of that day, with perhaps a metaphoric glass of cognac at my side, I would consider the day. If I have not changed the world, then I might wonder how it is that the world has changed me. And I could reflect how might tomorrow be improved by this alteration.  Montaigne says, “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.” Our days remain pedagogical. I must sleep from fatigue and arise renewed. My days must be filled with such repasts that I leave the table full and prepared to digest what I have consumed.
Montaigne writes that “the advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use . . . [the advantage of living] lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you have lived enough.”  When I reflect on my living, it is the uses to which I have engaged it that measures my life and about which I might offer accounting at the end of the day. Sometimes, I must be content with a small repast, at other times enjoy a moveable feast; but always I would reflect on how I dined of the table.