Birth of a Francophile

An older piece that used to be another blog that is, alas, no more. I found it again today, made some edits, and decided to post it, being an old favorite of mine. Enjoy:

I sat around reading warning labels as a kid. Maybe some kids played basketball or kickball. Nope. Not me. That’s where I first learned French.

The words were musical. Though they burbled from my lips in coagulated lumps of mangled forms, I sensed the potential for improvement. For lush vowels and fluid links. Of course I had no idea what they meant, either.  Attention! I said to my dad. Regardez! Gonflable! The last one means airbags, in case you’re wondering.

I started taking French in middle school. My teacher was a lean woman with a face like Edith Piaf and frenetic red hair that never changed, as is suspended in perpetual clothes-folding static. A lyricist of French grammar, she sang songs about the imperfect tense to the tune of jingle bells, and if we misbehaved, she swore in Greek under her breath.

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Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

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Relevance of philosophy

Hey all, I have a longer post I wrote today, but I want to edit it and post it tomorrow or later in the week. It’s about the relevance of philosophy, so I figured that this engaging video would be a nice primer.

The video is a roundtable discussion and lecture about the relevance of philosophy. It takes place at The New School in New York, with some leading thinkers in the field of philosophy and otherwise. Some of the conversation is quite interesting and well-worth the watch if you, too, wonder what the point of philosophy is.

Have a nice Sunday.

What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

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Introverts and the holidays

First of all, happy New Year. Perhaps 2013 was a down-and-out scrape to get through or an idyllic gallop on the pig’s back. Whatever the case, it’s ended and a new window aglow with resolutions awaits. But since New Years resolution posts have already flooded the internet, I wanted to write about another timely topic: being an introvert during the holidays.

I don’t handle holidays well. The noise, social obligations, tedious traditions, ostentatious meals, and blitzkrieg shoppers exhaust and overwhelm me. Each year as Christmas crawls around, my stomach knots up with dread. And the past few years I’ve reached saturation points, where at the end of a long string of busy days, I crash like stretched out spring ripping back into place. I cannot put on the act any longer.

With the holiday season on the wane, I can say that I survived this year. It took an effort, but in the end, this was the best holiday season I’ve had in a while. Perhaps some of you weren’t so lucky. In that case, here are a few ideas that helped me.

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Wallace and Education

I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com

With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.

But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.

As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.

This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.

Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”

Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.

This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.

Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.

Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”

Some brief thoughts on “bad faith”

A quick post for today. I’ve been working on a longer one, but I wanted to do some edits, and I have to run some errands this morning. Expect it later in the week. I hope the holidays have been good to everyone and that the new year is shaping up as it nears.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Existentialism, researching for a paper I hope to write examining the existential elements in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, especially as they connect to Jean-Paul Sartre’s unique brand of it.

One particular tension that has always struck me, which Sartre stresses, is the limited nature of “facticity” and the perceived limitless horizon of the “transcendent.” Facticity captures the “in-itself” nature of something, and is connected with objects. So a particular table could be wooden in itself, three feet tall, made by Stickley Furniture, etc. These are largely fixed properties and therefore limiting.

Transcendence covers the “for-itself” nature of the subjective: the comprehensive range of possibilities, hopes, plans, dreams, and perceptions individual people have. These do change. Constantly. They push and prod us into action, then shift as the action shapes us.

Sartre always stressed the tension between these two ideas as “bad faith.” Sometimes people try to be objects, limiting their transcendence. Sartre gives the example of the waiter who wants to be known only as a waiter, but he has a whole life beyond this. Other times we try to escape our facticity–like our past actions. These are fixed qualities that affect who we are and how others see us. I am a white male.

To me, this tension is a really interesting thing to puzzle over. How am I limited? How am I limiting myself?

Cheers.

Bits ‘n’ pieces: the odds and ends of the world

For a while now I’ve been wanting to write an essay about end tables, coat Archaeologistpockets, bag bottoms, and storage cabinets. We often forget these clutter-gathering crevices of our individual lives, until we fish through an old coat and pull out receipts, candy bar wrappers, and a dollar or two tangled with some coins. These seemingly random articles, disused and long-forgotten, once played a role. We bought something, earning that receipt. We ate that candy bar and couldn’t find a trash can. We pocketed that loose change.

Such odds and ends reveal our former lives, providing a time stamp for our days and habits, whether they are the books and jewelry on our end tables, the unused casserole dishes in our cabinets, or the grit and at the bottom of our bags. Our past selves leave traces. And just as archaeologists dig through the rubbish of past cities, we can dig through our own lives.

But unlike archaeologists, we don’t normally care about these random bits of rubbish. We crave the big picture–the narrative that collects the pieces, not the pieces themselves. Perhaps a few things transcend this bias, like a stone from our childhood house, a ticket stub from a memorable movie, or that framed first dollar a business might display. We infuse these random pieces of existence with meaning and display them, like a museum of our lives.

But in themselves, they are mere physical objects. That dollar passed trough hundreds of indifferent hands before it fell behind that frame. Its “it-narrative” probably included stints buried in coat pockets or lost in the wrappers and rubbish on the bottom of a bag. Maybe it fell behind a bed. Maybe it went from a lemonade stand to a store clerk to a strip club. That dollar connects us to hundreds of other lives–including our past selves–but its average everydayness camouflages it.

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Alan Watts on a Sunday

I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.

Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.

A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.

I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.

Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

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