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It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date.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, for instance, 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? Continue reading “Intersections of Responsibility”

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? Continue reading “But I Don’t Want To!”