Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”


Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.

Among those in the business of telling you how to change your life, it is universally contended that the best method is to choose the most important change you can make, make it, and then move on to the next one. Continue reading “One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.”

The Value of a Horrible Warning

“If you can’t be a good example, at least you can be a horrible warning.”

It has been many years since I was first amused and instructed by this little saying, and since then I have found it more applicable than one would think. Continue reading “The Value of a Horrible Warning”

Judging a Book by its Title

Yesterday I was introduced to The Book Den of Santa Barbara, which is the best bookstore I’ve ever been in. It had the perfect blend of interesting new books and beautiful used books, and if I ever have a house with a library, I would happily fill it up there.

While browsing, I began to ponder whether the phrase “judging a book by its cover” isn’t a little too narrow.

When I was no older than thirteen, I would pester my mom to take me to the book store so I could buy books you wouldn’t expect to even be on the radar of a tween: collections of Jane Austen’s lesser and unfinished novels; Tales of a Wayside Inn; Moby Dick; Camilla. (Austen references Camilla in Northanger Abbey so clearly I must read it, and I did, all 913 pages. It still tickles me that, a decade later, a literary roommate saw it on my bookshelf and was hugely impressed. “My professor always said that if we were really serious about literature we would read Camilla,” she explained.)

“Literature,” then, was always something of a hallowed concept for me. At our local Borders, amidst the sections devoted to history and biography, mystery and young adult, there was a whole section called “literature”. Naively assuming an author must meet some elevated standard to be included there with the classics, I was wildly impressed.

And then I was disappointed. At some point, after picking up countless of these novels and having reactions ranging all the way down to disgust, it dawned on me that this was the catch-all section. This was the section for books that didn’t fit into any of the accepted genres. This was the section for writers with literary aspirations – most of which they could never hope to meet.

A snobbish reaction? Yes, most likely. But I was upset by the failure to distinguish between great and bad and only so-so. Confronted with an entire bookstore, how was I supposed to know what was worth the time to read? The result was that for many years, when confronted with modern books with “literary” titles, I instinctively shrank away in horror.

But as I looked at the rows of titles yesterday I finally realized what a useless distinction that is. Many of the classic titles – Portrait of a Lady, Tender is the Night, The Age of Innocence, War and Peace, The Eternal Husband – sound much like the modern titles. The difference, at least for me, is that the classic titles are irrelevant; they have no independent meaning. I know that they are classic, so the titles are just the way of distinguishing one classic from another in my mental index.

And yes, that is definitely snobbish.

For years I have proudly declared that I always judge books by their covers (and, apparently, their titles), and that it works. That is, when I do pick up a book, I nearly always like it. But there is no way of knowing how often the reverse is true. How many of the books I don’t pick up would I like?

Confronted by an entire bookstore (and, now, internet!) of books to read, I may continue with this method. After all, there is limited time and everything has to be prioritized somehow, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I will make an effort not to assume the worst about a novel just because it is modern and has an interesting title. That is simply small-minded.

A Scale Without Gravity

In a recent conversation I cheerfully announced that as some people feel more strongly about the subject under discussion than I do and others feel less strongly about it, I just assume that I’m at the happy medium.

This is a very comfortable notion: that as long as some people are more rabidly nationalist/political and a few people are more indifferent, I must be at the exact ideal level of patriotism. Or because at least a few people think I am too lax about enforcing a standard and a few other people think I am too strict, I must be the one who’s right – the one everyone should imitate. It works for nearly every situation.

The logical fallacy of this assumption should be obvious. Even allowing that different approaches can be more effective in different situations, this model guarantees that in any given situation most people are going to be further from the ideal than others. And it’s not inconceivable that the person who is “more” or “less” (who probably also has people who are “more” or “less” than they are) is the one who’s right. While it is comforting in such a case to think that there are people who are more wrong than I am, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m wrong.

Memory is All We Have (part 1)

Roughly a decade ago I stood in a shop in the little tourist village of Portmeirion, Wales, debating which book to take home as a souvenir. The choice was between two books by the same author I had never heard of, selected almost at random for their titles and covers, and took a surprising amount of time.

Considering that the one I chose, the one about the old diary rather than the one about the forest, has been one of my favorite books ever since, and is unequalled by anything I’ve ever read for its pacing and structure, I’ve often thought about that decision, and the chance that led me to this one that I love so much.

But it wasn’t until I was re-reading it yet again this week that I wondered why I’ve never hunted down the other one. I know the author is published in America; I looked into it when I realized I would eventually need to buy a replacement copy.

The answer is simple and a little strange. I’ve tended to assume, all these other years, that I could never love the other one as much as this one, and this book is so magical to me that I fear it would be spoiled by reading another in the same style.

At first I thought this was completely opposite my usual practice, considering that I have tracked down and read almost every available work by other authors I’ve particularly enjoyed – Jane Austen, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers, Alexander McCall Smith. But it’s not, really. I’ve never re-read Portrait of a Lady, my favorite of Henry James’ works, because I feared it wouldn’t speak to me the same way the second time around. The first time I saw Whale Rider it was spectacular, the second time it was special, and the third time it was merely a very good movie. After being equally blown away by Almost Famous I never took the chance of the same thing happening.

All we have is our memories. We don’t like to think that; we’re always being told to “live in the moment.” But if you don’t believe me, try having a conversation when you’re so tired, so distracted or simply so in-over-your-head that you can barely remember what was discussed five minutes before or how one subject segued into another. “The moment” becomes rather surreal when you can’t rely on memory and it is memory that gives importance to each moment.

Intersections of Responsibility

Read someone like Seth Godin regularly and you quickly become a convert to the idea that you should always bring your A-game to your work and your life and your “art”, that you should never give less than your full allowance of passion and energy, that you should never just show up and think you’ve done your duty.
Great. Agreed: that is ideal.
But what about those days when your A-game just isn’t going to happen? The flip-side of the above ideas is that if you aren’t having one of those “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out” days (to quote the Rands article from my last post), you shouldn’t bother showing up at all. And that’s obviously not practical. It’s also a slippery slope that gives you permission to say, “Well, I don’t feel like working today, so…”
The last few weeks my posts haven’t been finished on time. I caught myself saying, “But it’s not my fault! I couldn’t do it that day because there were internet problems/I ended up having dinner plans/I was really tired/etc!” Hold on a minute here. I’m not writing a daily blog, I’m writing a weekly one. Sure there might be very valid reasons why I could not post in the final 24 hours… but what about the rest of the week?!
I’m down to the wire again this week and, looking back, I have some extremely valid excuses. Leaving aside Monday, which I don’t even remember:
Sunday: unexpectedly spent the entire day with visiting family, then finished it with a crippling headache that lasted until bedtime.
Tuesday: I got proposed to (yes!) – obviously derailing the rest of the plans for the evening.
Wednesday: surprise dinner with the new in-laws-to-be.
Thursday: drinks with a friend, which I planned three weeks ago and forgot about because I’ve been so busy and so tired. And also two hours of overtime.
The thing is, very valid though all those excuses may be, I still had to make those choices. I set my priorities as family > sleep > blog (also dishes and tackling the pile of papers that is growing on my desk… apologies to my roommate).
Mom’s mantra is, “You can only do what you can do.” This is helpful to a perfectionist like me, especially one who happens to live in a world where everyone seems to think they can or should have it all. You can’t, and there’s no need to feel bad about that.
But that brings me back around full circle. Are there really truly times when the best you can do is less than your best, or times when some commitments have to slide? And how do you know when it’s one of those times and when you’re just being lazy and/or making excuses? I wish I knew.

Ethics, Sleep and Creativity

Lately, I admit, I’ve been fudging the posting timeframe a bit. So, to make some amends, a bonus post with links to some helpful articles I ran across this week.

First, an interview that takes the ethics of everyday decisions to a whole new level:

people have to understand that there’s no latitude, that there’s no such thing as a little bit wrong, like there’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant… if you look at things that way, even a bad attitude is an ethical issue, because it might mean your own work isn’t being done properly, and you’re probably infecting others so their performance suffers, too.

Then two posts that made me feel both better and worse about my productivity levels:

From the Wall Street Journal, why some people can sleep so little and get so much done.

For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time. Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

From Rands In Repose, a discussion of how creativity can be harnessed.

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

Finally, a long, beautiful, depressing and inspiring story about an experiment in which a world-famous violinist played for a crowd of commuters.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?

But I Don’t Want To!

The wail sounds often and wordlessly in my head. “But I don’t want to call the HMO/ get up in the cold pre-dawn to go for a walk/ write my blog/ etc!” Usually, the presented alternative is not even some other useful thing, but to take it easy, to relax, to take whatever “reward” or indulgence I tell myself I’ve earned.
I suppose this is normal or even nearly universal. The problem is giving in to it too often; the frustration comes from reflecting on how many people have overcome it. If they can, why can’t I? No reason at all, so the question becomes, why won’t I?
For the last few months I’ve been locked in an endlessly revolving struggle with this: seeing something that should be done, not doing it, arguing and insisting that it should be done while countering with all the reasons it is impossible to do just at the moment, finally becoming so exhausted that the thing (so I tell myself) legitimately can’t be done, and so granting a reprieve, which usually lasts far longer than it was supposed to, sparking the cycle again.
After a while, it becomes obvious how much energy would be saved if the thing were done in the beginning and all this were skipped. How much more would get done! How satisfying! But of course, the cycle exists because I won’t do that. And around we go again. “Just do it” must be the most deceptively simple advice in the world (if closely followed by “Just relax and be yourself!”).
There absolutely must be a way of sidestepping this.
What was it Einstein said? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”? Aha!
Fighting over failure never works. (Remember the Sylvan Learning commercials? Parents fighting with and punishing unhappy teenagers for bad grades before finally seeing the light and getting them help?) And now that you mention it, haven’t studies shown that better results come from saying, “I’d like you to do this, please,” instead of “You must not do that”?
If I “must not” procrastinate, then what would I like myself to do? What is this progress I would like to make?
I made a list. Just writing it out, I felt a surge of inspiration. Yes, if I could hold on to that, it would be much more effective than nagging and trying to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. I’m reminded of an excellent article I have quoted before about how to effect change:

Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways….So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease.

Calling a phone tree to do battle with a careless bureaucracy is enough to bring out the procrastinator in anyone. But thinking of it as taking care of an outstanding bill to remove one more source of stress, or taking steps to find out how to resolve a nagging health issue, makes it a bit more alluring.
(Of course, this also taps into the old wisdom about the power of specific goals and defined steps for getting there; “Relax and be yourself” may be useless as advice, but makes a decent goal, which “take three deep breaths and tell yourself a joke” might actually help you to reach.)
Next time I start to complain, “But I don’t want to!” I’ll find a way to turn it into, “Yes, but I do want to…” and I’ll let you know how it goes.