Monthly Archives: July 2011

My Gorilla

This summer I’ve spent a lot of time with an imaginary gorilla.

Our companionship started when, frustrated with my weight and diet, I wondered what gorillas ate. I figured gorillas would know what was proper food for us primates, so I googled, “What can gorillas teach us about weight loss?” Sure enough, the first item on the list answered exactly that question… in light of obesity epidemics in developing nations.

My gorilla, it turns out, eats about 50 pounds of food a day, 97% of it plant life from as many as 200 species. The little protein he gets comes from termites, grubs, and other insects. The fat in his diet is nearly non-existent. He rarely drinks water because the water in his food appears to be enough. He may reach 200 to 400 pounds, but his percentage body fat is lower than that of elite human athletes.

When you contrast him with modern humans, some differences are especially telling. All of his foods are unprocessed, and almost two-thirds of our calories come from processed foods. His are fiber and nutrient-dense, and ours grow more calorie-dense year by year. Compared to his 97% plant diet, 12% of our calories come from fruit and vegetables. He has to work for his food by foraging. Almost a third of us eat at least one meal a day cooked by someone else away from home. He doesn’t know anything about oil or flour. Since the 1950s, the average American’s consumption of oil and refined grain has increased by 67%.

From the first moment I met my gorilla, he stood beside me at every snack and meal.

I’d say, “Would you eat this?”

“If it were available, hell yes!” then he adds, “But we don’t have cheetos. Those celery stalks, carrots, green peppers, and grape tomatoes look like treats to me. What’s wrong with those?”

“Nothing,” I’d say, “They’re just boring.”

“According to whom?” he’d ask.

Sugar and spice and everything nice fills my diet, and, though I am a vegetarian who only occasionally eats fish, I actually don’t like vegetables much. My gorilla does not understand me and is always shaking his head at my strange ways. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t judge—if I left a case of Pepsi cans in the bush and taught him how to pull the tab, he’d drink them dry—but I confuse him. From his perspective, I’m strange and new and, sometimes, completely senseless. I find myself trying to preserve his innocence. I want him to think me a worthy primate.

I’ve been eating much better lately and appreciating the bounty I experience every day. My gorilla is adapting too—he gets bored with a cheeto-free diet—but, so far, I’ve been able to control his exposure to the modern American diet.

That’s a good thing, and I hope to continue being his role model… or maybe it’s the other way around.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Worry

Ending and Mending

Children in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World receive hypnopaedic messages as they nap. The architects of the utopia hope to worm slogans into future citizens’ subconscious so socially advantageous behaviors become inexorable truths. All of these slogans are interesting, but one seems especially prophetic, “Ending is better than mending.”

Huxley had good reason to offer this warning in 1932 when he published this novel. The 1920s saw dramatic refinement of modern marketing—lifestyle advertising, easy credit, consumer comfort goods, and built-in obsolescence. The period’s idealistic materialism led, in some measure, to the crash of 1929. Without economic protection, the capitalistic fantasy couldn’t continue. Instead of mending our delusions however, we pursued them anew.

“Ending is better than mending” is a given now.  In any contest between the new and the used or the novel and the passé, the latest nearly always wins. Corporations learned long ago that repurchasing is more lucrative than repair, and some current products can’t be fixed. Even if a consumer wanted to restore them, many don’t have access panels or screws to re-screw. Few are built for future enhancements or adaptability. And even if the consumer could find a suitable repair-person, mending can be prohibitively costly, troublesome, and time-consuming. Why bother? Who abides delay when access to new products, advertised everywhere and constantly, is unlimited?

Engineers and designers would be better qualified to discuss the environmental advantages of mending over ending, but the broader philosophical assumptions of preferring change to development seem patently self-destructive. Every job site on the web offers statistics about how many times the average person will switch careers. Those statistics are descriptive, but they are also prescriptive, contributing to employees’ expectations for sticking with and growing into careers. The new reality of switching jobs also encourages flailing industries to turn to lay-offs first as the clearest, cleanest, and quickest way of cutting costs. Employers who favor reducing personnel save themselves the trouble of enhancing workers’ skills. It’s much easier to find someone who can do the job now than to make a current employee into that person.

We seem just as devoted to change in politics. We prefer the latest candidate, the firebrand who promises to alter everything. For those in power, a new policy—any policy—barely begins before backlash follows. The opposition’s chief role becomes obstructionist, expressing no clear purpose other than ending any attempt at mending currently underway. Sometimes the opposition seeks a return to what existed before, but, more often, they have novel agendas of their own to push. Some of these solutions might work, but the public hasn’t the patience to wait and see. They want decade-old troubles to end immediately.

In medicine we prefer drugs—new and improved and lucrative drugs—to patient education, prevention, or long-term treatments. Mental health, for example, becomes more and more pharmaceutical as insurance companies, doctors, and drug corporations recognize how messy and expensive any “talking cure” is. Mood enhancers—much like Huxley’s soma—promise to end what might take much longer to mend. Patients want relief from symptoms instead of addressing and mending underlying issues.

Our economy suffers especially. Pundits pin its health to continually increasing production, purchases, and employment. Yet our faith in growth may be the problem and not the solution. Belief in unlimited new products and new markets seems short-sighted. We might fix the economy by acknowledging our addiction to a materialism and turning more toward repair and renewal as a vision of economic health, but we haven’t the patience for complicated remedies. We could be happier doing more with less—or, more accurately, valuing what we have more—but we don’t seem to be willing to ask what, besides a new car, house, or iProduct, might make us happier.

Maybe Huxley is wrong, and our affection for novelty is intrinsic enough not to need training. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to love starting over. However, if that is true, ending certainly doesn’t need reinforcement, for what will happen when we kill the impulse to mend altogether? What will be next then?

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Will and I

Some years ago, on the first day of a Shakespeare course, when I asked students to explain why they wanted to take the class, one person answered, “Because even a six year-old knows about Shakespeare.” As my daughter was six at the time, I decided to put my student’s theory to the test.

That night, I asked her, “Do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“Isn’t he that guy who wears pumpkin pants?” she said.

The question to my class wasn’t rhetorical or strategic. I’m curious why people still study Shakespeare. Though a few students have no justification beyond their parents’ wishes, most answer as the student above did: Shakespeare has added immeasurably to our culture, and there must be something to an author who has persisted lo these 400 years. He is Famous (capital “F”) and Important (capital “I”). Yet, while cultural literacy is a valid answer, it’s also safe. I secretly admire levelers like my daughter who refuse to take Shakespeare too seriously. I love asking, “Why Shakespeare?”

Shakespeare worshipers are called “bardolators.” I’m not sure I’d consider myself a bardolator now, and I certainly didn’t start out as one. My first attraction to Shakespeare was competitive—everyone told me how hard he is, and, seeing myself as a literary giant killer, I wanted to fell every author others couldn’t handle. I was cultivating a list of difficult books I’d finished. I never expected to find anything new in Shakespeare. At first, I didn’t, just more lyricism and subtlety. I liked reading his lines aloud—even a giant killer recognizes music—but I clung to skepticism. I bristled when anyone said, “He’s kind of a big deal.”

As my capacity to understand Shakespeare grew, so did my respect. Scholars have so many and so different thoughts about his plays and, after you’ve studied Shakespeare for a while you begin to see that, while nothing is new, everything is there. You begin to feel as philosophy majors must about Socrates. He got to just about every major question about humanity, and he got there first. Even at that stage in my appreciation, however, questions nagged me—what did I really admire, Shakespeare, or my ability to interpret his lines?

Truth is, a good deal of Shakespeare’s difficulty comes from imprecision. A line like “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” (LLL, I.1: 77) sounds illuminating but couldn’t be more shadowy. Like most good poetry, the sound of of Shakespeare’s lines ring as much as their sense, and it’s easy to mistake lyricism for wisdom or artistic virtuosity. When you watch or listen to Shakespeare, the current of musical language can carry you away and squelch questions like “What the hell does that mean?”

Samuel Johnson dares to suggest Shakespeare didn’t understand either. The Bard, Johnson says, sometimes finds himself, “Entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while; and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”

In other words, Shakespeare was lazy, all-too-willing to settle for ambiguity that leaves explanation and interpretation to others.

My biggest breakthrough came from recognizing these “others” as actors. My best answer to “Why Shakespeare?” may be that his work makes literary criticism practical. To perform his lines, you must understand them… even if that means devising something more likely than true. You can talk about accurate interpretations of Shakespearian characters, and lines limit possibilities somewhat, but half the fun is renovating roles, finding what you need in them. Their expansive humanity makes re-evaluating the characters possible. In an even larger sense, producing Shakespeare means rendering it contemporary and relevant. If the plays weren’t so slippery, reinventing them might be impossible.

Not many students embrace the difficulty of Shakespeare as I did—I think I’ll cry if I hear one more freshman say the plays need to be translated into English—but most students enjoy acting out lines and putting his plays on their legs. Students are surprised to discover the difficulty of Shakespeare also makes it fun to play.

In two weeks, I’m off to New York City to study Shakespeare and, to prepare, I’m rereading the three plays we’ll cover. As always, I wince—some moments are so dated or corny or implausible or bombastic or ornate—but behind it all is something that, even after 400 years, waits to be revealed. Any mystery that survives so long, that stretches just out of our reach and still invites investigation must be good, must be worth studying.

Shakespeare is no god—he wore pumpkin pants, after all—but maybe his murkiness, his flawed effort to sing exactly what being human means is better than divinity. For me, his humanity is the best reason to keep him around.

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The Fwhump Bird

In its native setting, the fwhump bird begins by soaring around an imaginary vortex in broad and lovely arcs. Offering only a flap or two of its wings, it communicates deceiving calm. Only a concerned observer would recognize its loops as purposeful. It looks playful, romping in the open heavens with no aim other than the joy of exertion.

Yet every circuit cuts off a few feet of air. Turning back to examine its wake, the bird reassures itself nothing has changed—nothing wrong—but the simple act of retrospection draws the circle tighter. The Fwhump bird feels increased resistance. Wind meets its curl, and its curve almost seems too tight to hold.

And the bird begins to enjoy these severe maneuvers, suddenly proud of the whistling circles marking its disciplined, superior habits. “Others,” the bird says to itself, “would not be able to maintain so keen an edge.” Pride possesses it. The bird dives into circuits shorter by fine distinctions, smaller and smaller revolutions. Soon its flight path describes a language entirely the bird’s own. It feeds itself with effort and speed, ignorant someone else might see it as dangerously self-absorbed and bent on some odd confession of its uniqueness.

The fwhump bird stops looking back, stops looking ahead. The labor of its relentless flapping implies a point at the center of this circle, a destination that must be worthy, but only the bird’s determination makes it seem so. Otherwise, that end point looks like pure air.

About then, the inevitable dawns in the bird’s mind, what’s coming. Anyone might expect the bird to pull out and return to play, but it’s past that. So much effort piled on effort—how could it stop? With the abandon of throwing itself into a fire, the bird turns one time more, tighter.

Up in the sky, it becomes a spinning top, a blur of feathers.

Then, with a resounding “Fwhump,” it flies up its own ass…and disappears.

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Causation and Hope

For me, the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn. —Alfonsa, in All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

As none of us know what’s next or what might have been, we discuss fate academically. We want to make sense of events and, after the fact, align moments that contribute to our successes or calamities. We can’t say for sure we’re right, but we’d like to be. Some of us place faith in a guiding intelligence, certain of God even in the absence of reason.

Though, intellectually, I see my inner order-maker at work, I’m not immune to explanation. Last weekend I landed in the hospital for a night, kept for observation when my blood pressure dropped suddenly. The doctors looked for causes, and I joined them, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong, how I could have avoided that hospital bed. A collection of very scientific precedents probably did lead to my fate—the doctors told me so—but something led to those precedents and precedents led to those precedents… and so on.

We just can’t know. Lawrence Thompson‘s collection of Robert Frost’s letters reports that “The Road Not Taken” was a response to Frost’s friend Edward Thomas who, on their walks together, always sighed over what might have been. Frost disapproved of Thomas’ laments, but most people read the poem as affirmation. “Think carefully,” they interpret the poem as saying, “because the path you take today makes all the difference.”

Frost might ask, “Who knows, really?” One decision can’t matter much, and it’s hard to live thinking each act is consequential. Time moves quickly. My doctors, rightly, would tell me no moment deserves blame. They might encourage me instead to focus on the cumulative effect of my decisions, the patterns and habits they communicate.

Confucius is right, we are what we do daily… yet every decision creates those patterns and habits too. Each road must be taken in turn.

Other animals have a huge advantage over us here—instinct keeps their wheels on the rails—and, if we are more adaptable and less lost off the rails, we sometimes do ourselves terrible damage with assumptions about what’s acceptable, desirable, and beneficial. Nature isn’t perfect—predators overhunt, plants exhaust the soil—but they don’t choose. Nature isn’t deliberately delusional, as we sometimes seem to be.

Three-quarters of the way through All the Pretty Horses, John Grady, the main character, talks with Alfonsa, the grand-aunt of the girl he loves. At seventy-three, she’s in the mood to consider how she’s landed where she has. She remembers studying experimental method in school, learning the way scientists use control groups to gauge the effect of a single variable. But Alonsa tells Grady:

In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don’t believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change.

Alfonsa sees there’s no sorting out causes and effects. History records and explains instead of teaches. And her cynicism about humanity’s habits extends forward and backward—we have and will make mistakes—and knowing or God won’t save us. Yet, after her dour assessment, she still tries to protect her grand niece from Grady’s attentions. Knowing limitations doesn’t save Alfonsa from responsibility, and she acts, hoping to give her grand niece the future she could not have herself.

She tries. We try, knowing decisions—even the simplest—can create outsized effects. The time may come for second-guessing. We imagine the parent of a missing child and those subject to silly miscalculations bringing death and destruction. In their place, we’d do what every human does, ask why endlessly and inexorably, even if investigation will yield nothing but futile, fruitless, torturous effort.

Moment by moment, decisions shape fates bigger than understanding, yet we act. Instinct won’t protect us. Free will is the mark of our species, its defining characteristic, its bane and boon. Yet free will and fate won’t matter in the end. We are here. Afraid every act matters, sure everything does and with little reason to hope, we hope. We hope our acts will add up properly. We hope what seems right, is. We must.

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Filed under Anxiety, Cormac McCarthy, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Resolutions, Thoughts, Worry

Myself Included

As I prepare to write a blog post, I think, “What story do I have to tell this week?” Nearly always, I start with “Nothing” and move onto “I’ll think of something.”

But I’ve been listening to a lot of “This American Life” recently, and I can’t overlook what’s missing here. I’ve never suffered rape or abuse, never lived through a catastrophic or dramatic break-up or death, never been switched at birth, never had a brother who murdered my mother, never jumped out a second-story window in my sleep, or generally been so drunk, angry, or lost that time disappeared.

I am, in other words, boring.

Wikipedia lists “Narrative,” as one of the principal rhetorical modes (along with argumentation, exposition, and description) and traces the word to “gno,” the Indo-European root for knowing. Understanding means converting observations, occurrences, and experiences into stories. Even argumentation, exposition, and description seem superfluous. As long as we’re time-bound, every mode relies on sequence—you must decide what’s next.

Which should be some consolation. If telling is central, if chronological decisions matter more than the subject, perhaps telling is all that counts. The author who can create narrative from less dramatic or engaging material might show the greatest genius.

And maybe I don’t need to leave my living room, after all.

Some aesthetes place character ahead of plot. They say perspective really creates meaning. Seeing how someone else experiences life lets us reshape our understanding or escape ourselves altogether. “This American Life” includes the “This” because it implies something common, a life we share. Sure, few of us have lost our memory in India from taking anti-malaria medication or had a boss who terrorized us with car bombs, but the person who can speak about that life is what fascinates us—we have American experiences too. Our common humanity allows us to absorb the tale’s peculiarity. Every story is about its author.

The trouble is, these answers are self-serving. When you offer only fellow-feeling, when every reader already knows your best material, you place more weight on telling than most stories can bear. Being expert at the obvious and commonplace will only carry you so far.

According to Bob Baker of the Los Angeles Times, narrative is, “Any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.” The most direct way to compel that desire is to demonstrate what’s at stake, some unanswered question—about narrative perhaps—or difficult confession—“I am a sham” perhaps—or undesired intimacy—I’m not sure what you’re reading right now is at all worthwhile, perhaps.

But how far can a writer compel a reader without a distinctive story? Sometimes, before my recent acquaintances realize the person they’re talking to is a blogger, they pan blogs as tiny tempests of melodrama and banality. Though their criticism hurts, I see their point about a certain type of blog… a type that might include this one. You can only mine the mundane so long before the whole house falls into a vast sinkhole.

Many teachers in MFA programs find themselves prescribing real life experience as the cure to writers’ woes. As much as I’d like to wriggle out from under these pressing questions and believe the teller matters more than the tale, I worry. Can any art rest on artifice? Is the everyday enough?

To be his or her best, a writer must get out and live. Myself included.

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