Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Drama of Self: The Tipping Point

dilemma

PHOTO CREDIT: MS WORD CLIP ART

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I’m curious: Do you see yourself as a character — in particular, the protagonist — in a screenplay? Ever reflect on the plotline, its beginning and all scenes since then, trying to figure out the other characters’ parts and the probable denouement? Or am I the only one so deeply solipsistic as to be constantly gazing on the internal screen? No, that can’t be the case, else the word “solipsistic” would never have been coined; they don’t make up adjectives applicable to only one person. Still, I find it difficult to imagine other people’s dramas, whether they be adventurous epics, tragedies or comedies, except as they tangentially affect my drama.

Many of us bloggers, I believe, use our blogs as candid diaries — electronic volumes open to the cosmic universe instead of little books hidden away in secret drawers. We can use them as depositories of our thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings), pretending that they are locked up in our computers, at first only peripherally aware that they are actually scattered across the planet and beyond. But then another part of us wonders how invisible and generally non-responsive readers perceive our outpourings. Mostly, all we can glimpse are their national flags. We are, then, self-analyzing split personalities.

So, desiring to be more honest than I have been during most of my life, I intend to relate the story of how I believe my solipsism became the major theme of an imaginary biopic; if one cannot repress a congenital tendency, then perhaps he at least can relieve the pressure by allowing it full expression, like steam from a teapot.

Going back to childhood meditations and actions, though I truly believe the habit really began that long ago, is beyond my capacity; the images are too fractured and vague. A clearer scene is more available in my nineteenth year, while I was in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyu Islands. That was when I began to read very serious books for the first time; when, under the influence of the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I developed a longing to resolve all paradoxes; when I began to question my beliefs and especially every action’s motive. As a psychiatrist two years later put it, “You look at both sides of the coin and the edge too.”

An anecdote that quite well illustrates my message here concerns a book discussion group that one of the chaplains on the base initiated. As I recall, there were about a dozen of us airmen and civilians sitting in a circle at the first meeting, when the chaplain reviewed some nonfiction book and invited the rest of us to offer our comments. Then the chaplain explained that his performance was essentially a pattern he wanted us to follow when reviewing our own reading choices in future meetings. I, the eager fool, volunteered to present a review at the next meeting, a week later.

I had already been reading two books alternately: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, a critique of capital punishment; and some book whose title I cannot recall, a collection of historical narratives about various heinous crimes committed in England. While reading them I became aware of the dichotomy in my reactions to the books’ subjects: when reading Koestler my feelings reacted against capital punishment; when reading the other book my revulsion could be so strong in some cases that I believed no type of punishment could be harsh enough for the perpetrators: they were all hanged. That experience got me to musing over how much I was susceptible to weirdly and quickly varying attitudes, how my values could shift radically in just a short time, from the setting of one book down and the opening of another. Was my value system really that fragile and unstable? I wondered if this phenomenon was true of others, so I decided to try an experiment.

I do not recall the details of my mode of presentation, only that I alternated between summarizing various parts of each book and interpolating quotes here and there. I didn’t realize how long it was. I guess the chaplain felt the room was getting stuffy, for while I was reading he got up, went to a window and raised it. Shortly afterwards, one man, only a few years older than I was, interrupted me by asking, “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this? It sounds like a bunch of morbidity to me.” Another fellow murmured something about people who “should have gone to college”. I don’t remember how I responded or even that I did; I felt deflated and defeated; my lack of response was way too predictive of future encounters; I probably just said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The whole episode might have turned out better if I had begun the presentation with an explanation that I was conducting a psychological experiment; but, on the other hand, to have done so would probably have compromised the validity of the result.

When no succeeding review was announced, I went to the chaplain and asked him what was up. He replied that he had discontinued the book review sessions because too few people were participating.

During all my life since then I have from time to time pondered how we can act decisively in murky situations and dilemmas when our ideas and feelings react against each other. Just what is the “tipping point”, as it has come to be nominated?

Finis

For more commentary on this topic, see my Dec. 15, 2013, post “To Be Or…Catastrophe!”

Meaningfulness

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Peter: Jesus, you are my Ground of Being!
Paul: Lord, you are my Ultimate Concern!
Jesus: Whaaattt?

This past Friday, my friend Chris and I met in my humble lodging for our regular bi-weekly, two-hour conversation and coffee-sipping. Over the past two months, we have been viewing DVD lectures by the late philosophy professor Robert Solomon, a specialist on Friedrich Nietzsche (N.). Solomon’s wife, Professor Kathleen Higgins, also a Nietzsche scholar, participates in the series. The lectures are about N. — his life, personality, and philosophy — of course; but interspersed among all of them are some comments on previous philosophers who had positively influenced Nietzsche, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (S.), and those who had negatively affected him, such as Socrates. This essay is partly my own take on S.’s and N.’s views concerning the meaning of life. The later part is my own view of purpose and meaningfulness — what the philosophers call teleology.

I have read very little of S. the pessimist, for I don’t need to read anything that will make me more depressed than I already am. Besides, everyone who is literate in Western philosophy, even in the most minor degree, has read or heard that S. considered life as essentially “suffering and death”, and that, given the choice of whether to live or die, the better option would be to die, but that an even better option would be not to have been born.

What I did not know, however, and one of the bits of interesting notions in Schopenhauer’s weltanschauung, is that S. eschewed Immanuel Kant’s view that one could justify life and find meaning through rationalism, and progress through rationalism to the Christian faith, according to Prof. Solomon. A more visceral response, particularly through an aesthetic appreciation of music, was more effective, S. believed. The benefit of music S. attributed to its abstractness as contrasted with the representational character of pre-20th century visual arts. Listening to, and contemplating, music, he held, would lift the suffering human out of his or her pointless individuality into a consciousness of a larger Reality, or “life as a whole”. But, as I mentioned in one of my early poems, that lift can last only as long as the music lasts.

I have read a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works but, unfortunately, not the one which is most pertinent on this topic, The Birth of Tragedy. So, I will have to rely again on Prof. Solomon’s — and Prof. Higgins’ — interpretations. They say that, while N. agreed with most of what S. had to say about life being almost totally a matter of suffering and death, he differed with S. on finding it pointless. Where S. postulated that humans proceed from desire or hunger to satisfaction and back to desire/hunger, always longing for complete satisfaction or contentment (picture a “couch potato”) and never finding it, N. believed that absolute and permanent contentment is not really any human’s desire at all. Rather, N. theorized, meaning is to be found in the passions, i.e. dedication to a person, to a project, or to an art can give meaning to life. Here, again, arises the question of how long that passion can last.

One of the best though tardiest lessons I ever learned was that regular settings and reviews of goals are very important. I recall reading, while a senior at the university, an article that related how frequently college seniors commit suicide. Of course, several reasons can cause young people to kill themselves; the later teens and early twenties are emotionally tumultuous years; but what struck me about this article was that it was specifically about college seniors who were soon to graduate. Either the article stated or I inferred (can’t recall which) that the most likely cause for many of those deaths was that the students had not set any goals beyond college; campus life was all that had mattered to them, and they could not see anything meaningful beyond it.

It is indeed an interesting contrast between S. and N. that while the first sought respite, the latter sought strife (not strife against other people but a continual struggle within the self to make one’s self better). N.’s view is very much in keeping with that of the ancient Athenians. Consider the following passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which a Corinthian ambassador, while urging the Spartans to aid them in their conflict with Athens, criticizes them for their lackadaisical attitude:

“The Athenians are revolutionary, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your way is to attempt less than your power justifies, to mistrust even what your judgment sanctions, and to think that there will be no end to your dangers….So they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than inaction and rest. In a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[1]

As for myself, I believe that the most contented people are also the most active people. To that extent I certainly agree with N. But I also believe that there is a Reality — a spiritual Reality that surrounds us and yet is much too much beyond our capacity to understand. Each of us must search and discover it on his/her own without over-reaching.

A recent NOVA episode on PBS hosted by astrophysicist Brian Greene reveals how the latest frontier of cosmology has forced scientists into theories they are sometime embarrassed to present. One of them is that our universe is actually two dimensional with an edge to it that is comparable to a holograph. Also, they say that space is nowhere empty, not outer space nor molecular space, but that in every part of it “things” are constantly moving, from particles to planets; and that space is not like a vapor but more like a piece of pliable material that can bend and be stretched. Even more nonintuitive: There is no past, present or future; there is only NOW.

I do not mean to imply that all of this new scientific theory-developing is an argument for a higher being: most of the scientists, I think, would deny that absolutely. All I am saying is that, as S. and N. should have, we should refrain from placing absolute designs on “the real world/universe” until a good deal more evidence is in, probably beyond my own remaining lifespan.

In the meantime, we can each discover our own Higher Power (I read that there must be 7.4 billion of them about now), purposes and life-meanings. Let’s just don’t try to impose them on others.

Bob Litton, March 1967, reading An American Tragedy in Wesley-PCF office

Bob Litton at Southern Methodist University in 1967.

[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book I, ¶70.

Finis

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment, even if it just to say “Like” or “Don’t Like”. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Bob’s Apology to the Children of the World

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

O little children, how I regret the need to write this letter to you. If we big people had done our duty for many years now, this apology would not have been necessary. You might not be able to read or comprehend by yourselves what I shall say here, so you perhaps should wait until you are a little older and have learned more and bigger words. (I will try to rein in my tendency to use complicated words, but that is very hard to do.) Or your parents might sit down with you and reduce the content to your level of understanding. I doubt that they will, because it could be too embarrassing for them.

I don’t have any children of my own, but there was a time when I deeply wanted a baby. However, I was already past the age when being a good daddy was practicable; and, anyway, I didn’t have a wife. A mommy is just as important in a child’s development as a daddy, usually more so. But my being childless is not really important: I am still just as responsible for our troubles as any parent.

But, let’s get on with the basic message I want to share with you.

The world is in a sad situation right now, both in an environmental way and in a social way. Perhaps the primary cause of that sad situation… (Let me introduce a new word to you here: dire. I would rather use that word than “sad” because, although it contains much the same meaning, it also means more. You see, a situation can be “sad” and yet limited; it might affect only one person or just a few people, and it might be just a temporary mood. “Dire”, however, adds more meaning — the element of threat. If something is a threat then it is neither tied to a mood nor likely to be temporary; it could mean the end of all life, even all things.)

One current threat is Climate Change. The Earth’s temperature is increasing; at least that is what about 300 of the world’s scientists have told us. And many things that we can see, if we look at them, appear to back up the scientists’ claims: the Arctic ice is melting, threatening the habitat of the polar bears and the Eskimos; the coral reefs, on which many sea creatures depend for food, is receding; the schedules and flight patterns of migratory birds are changing; and, perhaps the simplest test of all, the recording on temperature gauges is inching upward year by year. And those are just a few of the observable changes.

Now, a sizable minority of the world’s population refuses to acknowledge these changes or to attribute them to Man’s use of energy sources that come out of the earth, such as coal and oil. And other people, who might recognize Man’s guilt in all this mess, don’t have the political will to do anything about the problem. What hinders them is that to take the urgent actions needed to try and reverse, or at least moderate, disaster would require eliminating some industries, such as coal-mining and oil/gas-drilling, which have employed many people — perhaps your daddy or mommy — for a long time. You can understand, can’t you, why your parents, if they work in one of those industries, would fight to keep their jobs? They want to be able to feed and clothe you just as they have always done. And when the cost of a solution closely affects a person’s family his or her range of vision becomes severely narrowed.

Another threatening element in our world’s scene is tribalism. If you are Americans, you probably think that only the Native Americans (formerly known as “the Indians”) live in tribes. Actually, though, we are all members of tribes in that our facial features, skin colors, cultural attitudes, political arrangements, and even spiritual beliefs are shared by varying fractions of the world’s population. Throughout the centuries, tribes have often been in conflict with one another; this is very noticeably the current case in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But it is also an issue in Europe and the United States, where mass migrations of peoples who are fleeing oppression and poverty in their homelands continue. Especially when a bunch of them move to any one country, they tend to congregate in the same area so that they can share themselves with others of their own culture and language; thus, we have neighborhoods that become known as “China Town” or “Little Mexico”. Large influxes of peoples bringing with them their traditions, religions and other cultural habits appear threatening to native peoples, who want to protect their own cultural norms from alterations. Now, some of the native people — particularly the farmers — often welcome the foreigners because those refugees are willing to do work that some natives do not want to do. That causes quarrels between the farmers and their urban neighbors.

There are also, naturally, more practical problems that come with mass migrations: how to house, feed, clothe, educate and medicate the foreigners. The governments in Europe, the United States and some African countries are wrestling with those problems right now. A subtle and dangerous aspect of this social turmoil is the element of racism and religious bigotry involved. Ethnic jealousy and political partisanship also are part of this poisonous mixture. Such a seemingly small matter as whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear her religion-prescribed head scarf in some places has engendered debates in parliaments and the media.

Religion itself is a major element in the world’s general conflict. In the Middle East, one branch of Islam attacks another branch over the question of who was the rightful successor of Mahomet as leader of their religion. In China, the government is again trying to extinguish Christianity. And here in the U.S., one political party is working hard to infuse the Christian religion more deeply into our political system; they want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the U. S.. In all our conflicts, a primary element is the “us versus them” mentality, and that is especially true of the religious divisions.

Then there is the question of how you children are going to earn a living when you grow up. Robotics and mechanization are already reducing the number of humans who are needed for many types of jobs. In Japan, I read recently, they are already using robots to work the reservation counters at airports. A batch of sociological studies all indicate that many more positions will be taken over by robots over the next 25 years, including those of lawyers, doctors, and news reporters. So, what will you do? How will you spend all your “free time”? How will your food and shelter be paid for? Don’t expect the owners of factories and other businesses or the political officials to care: they want to eliminate the need for human employees because doing so will save them money. Why should they spend that savings on your needs?

Now, I should give credit to those grown-ups who are trying to solve some of the problems I have too briefly described above. There are many individuals, companies and even governments who are altering their practices regarding gaseous emissions from factories and vehicles, which are a major cause of the Climate Change problem. There are also some statesmen who are trying to tamper down the social strife caused by religious and cultural differences.

And there are your parents, who had enough faith in humanity to bring you into the world. I feel some mental and emotional conflict within myself at this point because, on the one hand, I wonder at their wanting to bring children into a world full of direful and daunting difficulties; while, on the other hand, I admire them for their faith and for providing us with you. The solutions will require people — intelligent, energetic and loving people — to discover and put them into practice.

Thus I leave you, Children of the World, with my most heart-felt apology for the messes we have left for you to clean up, and with my earnest hope and encouragement for your success.

Bless you,

Bob Litton

Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.

Finis

 

 

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
When a person reaches the 76th year he can develop the notion that, because he has lived through — even studied — much history, he has accumulated a dense patina of knowledge in his brain; yet he also feels afflicted by the suspicion that he does not know how to apply it. I recall in my youth enduring various puzzling illnesses and mechanical problems which, after healing or correcting by learning the causes and applying the proper treatments or techniques, I have said to myself, “There now, in the future when I come across this situation again, I will know what to do!” The only problem with that assumption is that the illness or mechanical failure  seems never to repeat itself. There is always a new puzzle to ponder. Because of a few such episodes in my recent past, the idea of composing this essay flowered in my brain.

Past:

Einstein said that time and space are the same. I take that remark to mean that if I get up from this chair and walk over to my bookcase, about fifteen feet away, I will be walking into the future; and that if I turn around and walk back to my chair, I will be walking into the past, because I am going the same distance, over the same area, over the same period of time, only in reverse — just like the “rewind” device on my VCR. But I don’t feel that to be the case, for I have aged infinitesimally during both transits. (I wonder, to render this example valid, would it be necessary for me to retrace my steps backward rather than doing an about-face and proceeding forward again but in the opposite direction?)

I’m a very time-sensitive person, and the only place I feel that I am delving into the past is in the memory sections of the brain (the pre-frontal lobe [short-term] and the hippocampus [long-term]). Of course there are extant, exterior entities, such as an old photo or a “golden oldie” sound recording, even a scent, that can stir and augment memories.

A strange aspect of some memories is that they have made me imagine that the events which they relate still exist. Those particularly vivid memories, though very transient, are so palpable as to make their events’ extinction seem improbable. When I had such a memory unfold in my mind one day recently, I wondered where I would have to search to recover the event itself; but I quickly shook off that notion after realizing that every event has preceding and subsequent events, and I could not bring back that singular, desirable scene without also summoning its past and future. That enterprise would require a time machine.

Before you summon the guys in white coats, consider a few sentences from an article in last January’s Harper’s magazine. Titled “WHAT CAME BEFORE THE BIG BANG?”, the essay was written by MIT physicist and novelist (what a combination) Alan Lightman. Actually, in the sentences I will quote here, Lightman is referring not to his own cosmological theory but to one being investigated by another MIT scientist, Alan Guth, and California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. Their hypothesis, known as the “Two-Headed time theory”, according to Lightman, proposes that the order of our universe, then much smaller than an atom, “was at a maximum at the Big Bang; disorder increased both before and after…. (T)he forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. Thus the future points away from the Big Bang in two directions. A person living in the contracting phase of the universe sees the Big Bang in her past, just as we do. When she dies, the universe is larger than when she was born, just as it will be for us. ‘When I come to understand that the reason I can remember the past but not the future is ultimately related to conditions at the Big Bang, that was a startling epiphany,’ said Carroll.

Lightman compares the expansion and contraction phases of the universe to that children’s toy, the “Slinky”, which, as he points out, “reaches maximum compression on impact, and then bounces back to larger dimensions. Because of the unavoidable fluctuations required by quantum physics, the contracting universe would not be an exact mirror image of the expanding universe; a physicist named Alan Guth probably did not exist in the contracting phase of our universe.” Still, there is always that wiggle room left by “probably”.

Lightman describes a few other theories of the “origin” of the universe, none of which allow for the notion of time and therefore do not consider “before” and “after” and therefore are outside the province of my essay here. However, I do want to bring in one more analogy that Lightman uses to characterize the expanding/contracting phases of the universe: a movie of a glass dropped on a tile floor, shattering, then recombining and flying back up to the table top from which it fell. If I think of the glass shards as events in my life, and of the possibility that they are scattered now out there in the vastness of space/time, and that they might someday in the far-off future recombine to become those events again, then my dream, as I related above, of summoning memories is not so absurd as you readers might have judged earlier. Heh?

Present:

We are frequently advised by gurus of various varieties to “live in the moment” in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that formula? Only it doesn’t work for me. Why?

Well, I think it’s partly a function of Fate: I don’t have any choice but to live in the moment, yet the present seldom smiles on me, definitely not for more than a few hours. The present, in fact, seems like the target on a dart board where missiles are continually bombarding. I keep looking for that day when I can proceed from arising to retiring without some, at the least, irksome or, at the most, catastrophic encounter. I can’t recall the last time I gamboled through such a day, although I feel certain there have been some, quite likely many such. They were just too long ago. (And here, I see, I can’t even write about the present without bringing in the past and the future: depending on one’s definition of “the present”, it seems impossible to separate it from those periods. Is the present this day, this experience, or really just this “moment”? )

Another problem with the “live in the moment” prescription, not just for me but for every adult, I believe, is that even in our most positive moments we have to consider future events: college, career, possibly marriage, elections, and retirement funding. A host of other, smaller concerns requiring decisions are scattered through our lives. As one old humorist expressed it, “Why does any man examine the teeth of a horse he is thinking of buying and yet forgo checking out his prospective bride’s teeth?”

Laying all that aside, just how do I confront the present? That is too big a question. I mean, in this time I cannot ignore the fact that many of the problems I have to face also stand before almost everybody else: crazy politicians rattling their sabers, oncoming weird weather disasters and famines, fanatical gun toters, out-of-control medical and housing prices, etc. I can’t limit all those problems to myself. The conundrum, then, for me is: How can I separate out what affects only me from what affects everybody else? I cannot totally and sensibly demarcate those boundaries. Yes, there are a few somewhat private health issues which I have, but even they, as types, also afflict at least some small portions of the population; how I weary of hearing a “comforting” friend utter, “Oh, that’s just part of getting old!” or “Yeah, that stuff has been going around lately!” Why cannot my current problem be mine…individual…alone?

Future:   

My, how the calendar has shrunk! It used to be the case that when someone reminded me that some event took place last year, I could imagine an expanse of time with body to it. Now “last year” seems like what we once-upon-a-time called “last month”. I’m not sure whether this change is due to aging in me or to a more encompassing phenomenon which Alvin Toffler described as the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” in his book Future Shock back in 1970. If the latter, then it is really weird how external events can cause one’s notion of a calendar period to shrink. There is now a whole “scientific” field of people — called “futurists” — who gather data from a large array of sources to predict what the future holds. Simple crystal balls and astronomical charts are passé.

When one reaches an age as advanced as my own, he or she is confronted with the reality that their options have greatly shrunk. There is no point in our seeking another academic field or degree, although we might have fun and benefit from taking a “continuing education” course occasionally. And we might look at our overloaded bookshelves, count the books we haven’t read, and resolve for the nth time never again to enter that bookstore a few blocks away. I swear! I must have bought all those books just because they are so decorative! Oh me, oh my!

Nor are we to get married…not sensibly anyway. Oh, if we are very wealthy and are seduced by a beautiful, young “honey-pot” into being her “sugar-daddy”, we might find ourselves wandering down that church aisle or into that Las Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel. Or, if we are much less affluent, we might marry someone nearer our own age just because we each anticipate the other will at least nurse us through our final days. The latter case is a little less contaminated by folly or predatoriness but does retain some of the strategical about it: no hot romantic blood there certainly.

But there are other issues that affect not just me and my ilk but many, many other Americans. The news media daily reminds us that we have several potential, horrifying fates lying in wait for us — climate change disasters; the threat of religious and political radicalisms; dissolution of welfare programs, including Social Security; Alzheimer’s disease; and Donald Trump as president. And those are just the severest ones. Although we should not let them overwhelm us to the extent that we can prevent them from doing so, we still have to pay attention to them in order to prevent, or at least defend ourselves against, them. So, in that very deep sense we are attached to the future.

Finis

 

 

Beauty in Ordinary Things

trees3

One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.

Finis

To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDvDd-kW8Os

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMfzXpI98-0

 

Le Flâneur (trans.: “Man-About-Town”)

Le Boulevardier

LE FLÂNEUR sitting at his favorite roost in the Bread & Breakfast Cafe and Bakery, Alpine, Texas. In this scene he is in his usual pose, holding a book and gazing out a plate glass window at an idling Amtrak train, which rests on a track 100 yards away. There is a definite parallel between him and the train: They sit to be seen. (Photo By Linsey Dugan)

©2013 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Some of you might recognize this post which was initially published back in September of 2013, so I feel obliged to explain why I am publishing it again.

As you can see from the photo, I—as a type—am the core subject. You might understandably deduce from that clue that here is a case of egoism running rampant, the self begging for more attention. Well, such is not the case. While it is true that I focus on myself, it is the type—the “flâneur”—which is the true subject; I am just playing that role.

The reason I want to publish it again is that I feel this essay did not get the attention it deserves— only three “views” on the stats page in a year and a half. I discovered that fact last weekend, when the third viewer showed up on my stats page. I wondered why so few had bothered. And then it struck me that, since the title “Le Flâneur” is in French and is not a frequently used term, interest would possibly be diminished. So, what I decided to do was add an English translation to the title and republish.

Please give it a read, my friends, because I consider it one of the most humorous, entertaining and informative essays I have ever written—for this blog or anywhere else.
—BL

∗  ∗  ∗  ∗  ∗

One of my friends is always calling me names. They are not the good old-fashioned American names like “Son-of-a-Bitch” and…well, let’s leave it with that one. No, he calls me a “solipsist” and an “omphalopsychic”: the first word denotes someone who believes the only true and valuable knowledge is what we know of ourselves; the second word (which you won’t find in a modern dictionary) denotes a “navel-gazer” — someone who spends too much time in introspection. My friend intends neither term as flattery, but I accept them as such.

My friend also calls me a “boulevardier”, by which he does mean to flatter me. It is obviously a French term, and it denotes one, emblematically a male dandy, who “walks the boulevards”…or, in America, the central avenues and streets. A synonym for “boulevardier” is “flâneur”, which I prefer for the obvious reason that it doesn’t take as long to utter.

As for “solipsist” and “omphalopsychic”, I readily concede — as did Socrates and Michel de Montaigne — that the most trustworthy knowledge is what we know about ourselves, both in our outward behavior and, especially, in our inner selves. Everything in the external world is ephemeral and, even when it is directly in front of us, vague…ambiguous. Our inner selves, it is true, also change: our tastes, values, even memories. Nonetheless, they are more measurable and reliable than our social perceptions and our political conceptions. And, often, through introspection we arrive at surprisingly profound insights.

But I would rather talk today about my “flâneur” reputation. It’s not easy being a flâneur in my town…or in any other small town in the U.S. of A., I would imagine. You see, a flâneur’s primary characteristic is that of a stroller…a saunterer…an investigator of the streets. At least, that’s the way the Parisians view their flâneurs. In our American small towns, such ambling gents (or ladies) are more often looked upon as loafers…or worse.

As I mentioned, flâneurs, in the classic sense, are also “investigators”. I mean, just look at the implications of strolling: the habit of the mind, unlike the legs, is not to amble leisurely in the skull; it is, rather, to gauge, to judge. Thus, the flâneur might be observed turning his head after a young lady passes, to see if her rear appearance is as lovely as her front appearance. Or his turning might simply be to discover if she has turned her head as well: if so, a positive sign. But, ordinary, bustling Americans look upon such behavior as soliciting at best or as stalking at worst. Those people are usually married.

Another difficulty facing the American flâneur is the typical design of our towns. While many of them were originally established with town squares, where several inviting shops and cafes could be visited during a leisurely stroll around the central park and courthouse, with its ancient cannon prominently displayed, that Norman Rockwell scene has largely disappeared. The guilty engines of this transformation are, of course, the automobile and the strip mall. We have implanted in our brains the notion that the sole purpose of going into a shop is to buy a predetermined object, preferably during a clearance sale. And we go to eating places to gobble down a pre-cooked meal, again as cheaply as possible. That’s why the supermarkets and the convenience stores have replaced the neighborhood mom-and-pop groceries. That’s why we see more fast food chain franchises than colorful ethnic restaurants. We want to drive in and drive out, not stroll to a romantic café.

Still, I manage to retain some of the attributes of the historical flâneur. I am a man in the crowd but not of the crowd. I maintain my ironical indifference as much as I can. I have my favorite roost in one of our local cafes, where I can gauge the dress, demeanor, and physiognomy of those entering the place, to determine if they are tourists or merely more of the conventional denizens who talk of nothing but motorcycles, football and guns; or, not to ignore the opposite gender, the latest buzz on their iPads, whose daughter is the latest to get pregnant, or how they plan to get their husband to buy a certain color of carpet for the bedroom. Then there is that corner table where the local politicians and their followers gather to castigate their opponents. I used to join the politicos and hangers-on at mid-morning until I finally came to the conclusion that they knew less about themselves than the ladies with their iPads and carpet colors. These clannish discussions usually concentrate at particular tables, as a matter of fact, but I don’t see anything extraordinary in that. It’s a subliminally developed habit that began in grade school, where the children early on developed their cliques and gathered at the same spots on the playground during after-lunch recess.

I have much more fun at a couple of the high-end restaurants: one pretends to an Italian atmosphere, the other to a “cowboy cuisine”. What a curious conflation: “cowboy cuisine”!!! At the latter, I usually settle for the soup of the day, as long as it is not too spicy.  Oh, but the waitresses there are mostly pretty and all jolly and all diligent. It is fun to watch and listen to them describe any day’s special delicacies in detail; how they do ripple the terms off their lips! And they are always ultra-kind to me because, I suppose, I am old, walk with a cane, and therefore am not dangerous. I’m just a funny old flirt in their eyes, which is fine with me.

The Italian place is much less trafficked; thus employing only a third of the waitresses one will find at the cowboy cuisine restaurant. There I go for a decent meal of tuna salad over romaine lettuce, or a small pizza.

There is also a nice Chinese restaurant way down the road at the edge of town, way too far for walking; but I drive there occasionally for beef or pork chop suey.

The bars I have already written about (See “Favorite Bars”, published January 31, 2013). I used to be a bar or pub hopper in Dallas and later even here, but the atmosphere of such places has changed radically, and not to my liking. The “music” is too loud and repetitious, the decor is hideously funky and cluttered with TV sets turned on to sports events, and the bar tenders (many of whom are working below their educational levels) are often possessed of sour attitudes.

But, best of all is to sit at my favorite roost in the café and watch passengers disembark off an Amtrak train a hundred yards across the highway and a large parking lot. The passengers stretch and yawn and gaze about to study what burg they are stalled in now and whether to risk venturing across the road to “catch a bite to eat”.

And here I sit, waiting for them.

Le Flaneur, by Paul Gavami, 1842

Finis

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