Tuesday, December 24, 2013

II: Barbarism at the Starbucks

Yuma. On the group's bicycle rides we frequently stop in at a Starbucks for a rest. I look forward to it.

I don't mean the coffee. How do you explain why these places are so popular? Is it just "affinity marketing?" They offer a pseudo-sophisticated and PC image to people who need it, and who feel good about being surrounded by strangers who presumably think the same way. Hence the shade-grown, bird-friendly, fair-trade coffee; the New York Times available inside (does anybody still read that?); and the smooth jazz (elevator jazz actually) drowning out the conversation.

Except that there isn't much conversation. Everybody is trying to look sophisticated and important by burying their nose in the Latest-and-Greatest electronic gadget. Look over by the couch -- a man is trying to look alpha-professional while staring at his little screen -- the latest sports scores, probably. He is thinking, "I wonder if that hot babe (a minivan-driving matron, actually) at the next table has noticed that my iRectangle17 has the roundest corners of any gadget on the market." My goodness, what if we had time machines, and we could transport the customers of coffee houses of London or Paris in the 1700s to one of today's Starbucks? How disappointed they would be!

Maybe not. They weren't all Boswells and Johnsons back then, you know. There were plenty of people who were conversational oafs, as is obvious from reading Swift's essay. (Which the reader has already done, of course.)
My spin on Swift's essay is that we should first eliminate the most common mistakes in conversation, because it is do-able, and makes for quick and noticeable improvement.  No matter how worthy a positive agenda might be, it would blur out into a long-term project. (Thus, let that be Step Two.)

I'll bet the reader recognizes every one of the mistakes that Swift cataloged. Perhaps because it was less obtrusive in his day, he overlooked a mistake that I frequently notice: fracturing into couples. 

The typical table has room for 4 customers. Most foursomes are lucky if they can pass the conversational volleyball around for more than 2 minutes before the conversation splits into two couples. And that's even true if the table has 4 men sitting at it! I grimace every time this happens.

Do we at least agree that this cupply-dupply fracturing is anti-social and uncivilized? Unless we agree on that, it would be a waste of time to try to explain the phenomenon.

In watching "costume" movies (about past eras) you see social behavior that seems highly formal and rigid to our own times. For instance, there were certain expectations about visiting and receiving people -- 15 minutes was typical. No doubt it was to occur only at certain times of the day, on certain days, and might involve tea or some other refreshment? At dinner parties, you could not sit next to your own wife. There were many topics that were not allowed in "mixed" company. 

Yes, such rules are a bit arbritrary -- but not entirely so. There was some common sense and practicality behind them too. I think that rules make social interaction easier and more beneficial, at least potentially. The cupply-dupply conversational barbarism of modern times is just one more manifestation of the social anarchy brought on by modern trends. 

There are more ways to improve conversation, and the reader is probably better than me at thinking them up. What really counts is that we stop believing the anarchistic mantra of the 1960s that you can just 'like, do your own thing, man.'

Monday, December 23, 2013

Barbarism at Starbucks, part I

Perhaps the reader is relieved that there aren't Google ads in this blog. Actually, as a reader, I really don't mind stationary ads in parallel with the reading material. But product-placement ads infuriate me. So this blog doesn't offer those, either. Perhaps the reader thought that this was too good to be true.

Well, it was. Today marks the beginning of a new policy on this blog. Not ads. But there will be homework assigned. Mandatory reading. I expect to double my hit-count because of this new policy. The only thing still to be decided is how to quiz the readers at the end of the post so I can see if they've been cheating.

Very well then, today's assignment is a short essay by Jonathan Swift on conversation.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Off-line Victory over Waste on the Hard Drive

Very well then, we are all agreed that in pursuing a winter lifestyle that enlarges our overall lifestyle we must move towards complementarities rather than outright reversals. For instance, the internet is a pretty big part of most people's lifestyle these days. But surely most people suspect that much of their online time is wasted on predictable repetition of absolute trivia. It's tempting to fantasize smashing the computer with a hammer and chucking the whole thing into a dumpster, and then dropping the expensive monthly charge of the cellphone carrier.

But wait. Where is the perpendicular move? It must make a youngster's eyes roll when an old timer tells them that that they used computers for several decades without being online. (Although they were hooked to a mainframe computer, usually.) In fact it even makes me wonder sometimes what I ever found to do with an offline computer at home.

But remember my sighs over the great charnel houses in the cloud, or for that matter, on our own hard drives? I mean the photographs and music that moulder in a heap that is so astronomically big, in part because the heap is so big, and because the "online" mindset habituates us into ignoring anything that isn't "breaking news" or "trending" on the stupid internet.

Lately I've taken to going through my own photographs and music on the hard drive. It has been enjoyable. If nothing else it is a great thing to do the last hour of the day, when the eyes are too tired to read, and when you need something else to do as you valiantly fight the Early Bedtime Syndrome. There is a sweet nostalgia when remembering where and when you took that photo. With the music, you can't help but appreciate how much wealth you have learned to overlook.

Of course reading a book (rather than some silly and predictable website) is another "offline" activity that we should probably emphasize more in winter. Last episode I mentioned Patrick O' Brian's "Master and Commander" novels. I had to grin at the incessant reminders of how concerned the sailors were, with wind and tide; they are even more so than roadies, aka, road bicyclists.

But think of this as a new pleasure that comes from seeing a commonality in two activities that seemed to have no connection: reading and bicycling.

In disinterring the photographs on the hard drive, there are many such opportunities; it's just that I was being too much of a blockhead to notice them. Photographs taken in different places and different years can appear like two manifestations of a general principle.

Maybe finding these commonalities is the point, and the pleasure, of photography, rather than just how purdy (or Dairy Queenish) the stupid thing is. And if we took photographs with relationships in mind, we could build entire webs out of the connections. So too could we build our music collections into better and better playlists.

As another example of perpendicular addition to your winter lifestyle, consider today's post by Charles Hugh Smith on buying non-mainstream books.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Winter Should Be 90 Degrees Out of Phase

I misspoke in my advertisements for doing something, in the winter, that is the "opposite" of the usual activities during the rest of the year. That became clear when I renewed my library card in Yuma. (And what a luxury it is for a traveler to have a library card!)

For instance, I read non-fiction most of the time. What am I to do? Start reading fiction? Old novels are full of nothing but love-intrigues. New novels are full of the same rot, but with bedroom scenes added. What a waste of time fiction is!

We all have reasons for our preferences. To reverse them suddenly is nihilistic. Who wants to become a different person? It makes more sense to use winter as an opportunity to become a larger person, not a different person.  This can best be achieved by adding complementarities, rather than negations.

Think of a vector, a line segment with an arrow on the end, representing velocity, position, force, etc. I see no reason to build a winter lifestyle that is graphically represented by an anti-parallel vector. Instead, let it be a vector perpendicular to the regular vector.

Or think of your 9-10 month lifestyle as a sine wave. Winter shouldn't be another sine wave that is 180 degrees out of phase with the 9-10 month sine wave. Rather, winter should be graphically represented by a sine wave that is 90 degrees out of phase. (That is, it should be a cosine.) This is another example of orthogonality or complementarity, rather than negation.

For the example above, a reader of history and essays could shift to biographies and historical novels. Indeed, in the Yuma library I bumbled onto Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" novels. They are actually real novels rather than historical novels, but they are so tied to the sea and the navy during the Napoleonic era that they seem like historical novels.

Camping in the desert is really not the "opposite" of camping in the mountains. Nor is road cycling the opposite of mountain biking. Nor is hiking the opposite of walking. The only true opposite of physically-active RV dispersed-camping on high altitude land in the summer would be suburban couch-potato living, centered on television, shopping, and domestic trivia.

This fussing about 90 degrees being the right phase shift might seem like quibbling. But I don't think so, because it takes the handicap of self-abnegation out of the picture. We'll see if it keeps helping all winter long.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Forgot a Classic Quote about Evil Reinventing Itself

Normally it is pretty easy to insert a quote from a classic book when I write a post. But last time, I dropped the ball. It finished as:
Of course Gandhi-on-Wheels gets his compensation by visualizing Mobility as a consumer good and status symbol, and then by falling in love with the insatiability of mobility.  So it really is just a re-incarnation of the very thing he thinks he is rebelling against.
I forgot to pull in a quote from Edmund Burke, in his classic "Reflections on the Revolution in France": 
Seldom have two ages had the same pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive...The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life from its change of appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigor of a juvenile activity.
By the way, somebody recently asked me, What is a classic book or movie? My answer was similar to what a Supreme Court justice said about pornography: 'He couldn't exactly define it, legally, but he could recognize it when he saw it.'

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Some Wise Men Versus the False Prophets of the RV Blogosphere

On one of the tabs at the top of the screen I take issue with the False Prophets of the RV blogosphere. (Must I take the time to point out that many bloggers, including myself, have flirted with asceticism; and it is the Idea, not somebody in particular, that I'm planning on having some tongue-in-cheek fun with.)

The world is divided into three camps on the issue of  'How much crap does a person need to own?' But most people close their minds to the topic. When they hear any criticism of Insatiable Consumption, as promoted in TV commercials, they probably take it as criticism aimed at them

But that makes no sense; they, as individuals, did not invent the consumer culture that we have. They, as individuals, were merely swept along in the rising trends, brought on by advertising and tax policies. So there's nothing personal in merely going along with the prevailing consumer culture.

But there could be something that dignifies the Individual when they rebel against this consumer culture. The question is what form that rebellion takes.

A rebel gets off on the wrong foot by thinking purely in terms of negation, downsizing, and pseudo-holiness. You aren't going to prove anything by trying to out-gandhi Gandhi. Nor is Margaret Bourke-White (looking like Candace Bergen in the movie version) going to come and take iconic photographs of you at your spinning wheel, for Life magazine. The copyright on this type of moral posturing has already been taken out. And yet the RV blogosphere is full of such poseurs.

The Buddha finally came to the conclusion that the 'middle way' was best. Aristotle preached the Golden Mean in his Nicomachean Ethics. St. Benedict replaced the ostentatious asceticism of the Desert Monks with his moderate and balanced Rule. Such men were wise, but vague, because they lived before the principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility was widespread. Thus we have an enormous potential advantage over the Wise Men of old, if only we would cash in on that potential. 

Charles Hugh Smith writes about this topic from time to time, and he did so again today. It fired me up.
To those with no shoes at all (a common enough occurrence in the 1930s Great Depression), the utility of one pair of shoes is extremely high: the utility (i.e. the benefits) resulting from owning that one pair of shoes is enormous.
The retailer attempting to persuade this consumer to buy a 25th pair of shoes must overcome the diminishing utility (i.e. marginal utility) of yet another pair of shoes. This is accomplished by offering a "deal you can't pass up" or appealing to the always pressing need to jettison last year's style in favor of this year's "new thing."
Here's the critical point of this dynamic: to the consumer who already owns so much stuff that he has to rent a storage facility to store all the surplus goods, the utility of any additional purchase is low. In practical terms, the utility has declined to the thrill of the initial purchase and the initial wearing/use of the new item. Beyond that, it's just another pair of shoes in the closet.
The $3,000 I could spend on a replacement bike for the perfectly serviceable bicycle I bought used 15 years ago for $150 is of marginal utility; the better-quality parts and lighter frame, etc.--all the benefits that would flow from spending $3,000 for a "better, more modern" bike are extremely marginal to me, even though I put well over 1,000 miles a year on my bike. All those improvements are too modest to matter.
Here is the real benefit of the RV Lifestyle: you have a chance to rebel against the Consumer Culture, but in a way that is constructive and rational, rather than ostentatious and sophomoric. Nobody is less helpful than those "documentary makers" who want to film people living in their vans, without toilets or showers, and brag them up as the new Gandhis. These frauds are just taking advantage of people's desire for '15 minutes of fame.'

Of course Gandhi-on-Wheels gets his compensation by visualizing Mobility as a consumer good and a status symbol, and then falling in love with the insatiability of mobility.  So it really is just a re-incarnation of the very thing he thinks he is rebelling against.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

How Can a Traveler Best "Lie Fallow" in Winter?

You've heard me advertise that a traveler should take a couple months off in the winter, and live differently that the rest of the year. Even if you don't agree, I ask you to pretend that you do, so that we can play ball and see where it goes.

We need a metaphor, lest we drown in petty details and verbosity. Consider the remarkable statement that the Wikipedia article on "Crop Rotation" starts off with:
Middle Eastern farmers practiced crop rotation in 6000 BC without understanding the chemistry, alternately planting legumes and cereals.
Then the three crop rotation became the tradition, by adding a fallow field as one of the three "crops." Wikipedia was vague on how a fallow field was actually helpful.  Did it just sit there, doing nothing?

Fallow fields were replaced later by growing turnips and clover (a legume) in a four crop rotation. Thus the amount of food increased. (See the Wikipedia article on the "British Agricultural Revolution.") Today alfalfa is a popular legume for that part of the rotation.

A traveler in winter doesn't just want to lie fallow. He wants to do something active and positive: a new toy he can pound the crap out of! He can't just multiply his normal activities of spring/summer/autumn by negative one, in winter. For instance, if you hike in the mountains for 9-10 months of the year, must you give it up in the winter? (There are a few high mountains in the Southwest, but who wants cold and snow in the winter? Isn't that what you came here to get away from?)

Rather than use direct negation, let's look for a third choice. It's easy to underestimate how different walking is from hiking, and how satisfying it is to walk with a purpose, such as buying groceries or hitting up a coffee shop or library. Why, you might get so fond of purposeful walking that your normal hiking in the mountains seems comparatively sterile and pointless. 

You will have to be pro-active and seek out such a place. Don't expect to just find it. Consider the efforts that a friend of mine goes to: he rents in RV parks by the month. He doesn't drag a "towed" along behind his motorhome, therefore he must put quite a bit of work into finding interesting walks that can be done right from his RV park. More times than not, he succeeds. It would work out better for the walker if he were downtown; but most RV parks are out on the edge of town, so you aren't likely to harvest six interesting places on your daily routine. (But I'm resisting putting in my standard advertisement for bicycling at this point.)

You could also walk (or "hike", if you insist) up arroyos in the Southwest. I've hardly ever been disappointed with a no-name arroyo. Exploring them involves a mindset completely different than your 9-10 month job of doing brand-name trails, bagging peaks and postcards. The arroyos will always take you back to where you started, so you can relax, and walk them without a destination. You never know what you are going to see around the next bend: a spring, a microclimate with plants that seem out of place, freakishly vertical walls, or interesting rocks. Sometimes you go around the bend and your friendly little arroyo becomes a scary slot canyon. And say, wouldn't the bank of the arroyo be a great place for a cougar to lie in wait for food that delivers itself!

It hardly needs mentioning that bringing a dog along on that arroyo walk is the ultimate in satisfaction -- for both of you.

Rupert, canine action hero, from Life's Little Adventures.

I've purposely avoided another advertisement for switching from solitary mountain biking to club road cycling.  Instead, we need to consider other types of "crop rotation": our habits with music, books, movies, food, and sleeping.  Later.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Are Blogs Part of the Solution or the Problem?

Call it a blessing or a curse as you wish, but it is certainly true that pontificating on the internet (even anonymously!) makes you feel obligated to practice what you preach. (How grim!)

For instance, I was extolling the general value of the Rockhound Principle recently. The perfect place to apply this principle is in the reading of books. Where else can you benefit more from infinite patience with "detritus?"  Instead of feeling disgusted, you can channel this into delight when you finally do find something precious. You can also work to ensure that the precious nuggets you find stay found, by actively assimilating them into your life.

Recall that I was reading "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco. All in all, I don't recommend it. Still, there were a few precious nuggets on the way through the book. The leading character was a monk trying to solve some murders in a monastery in the early 1300s. One body was found in a vat filled with the blood of recently slaughtered pigs. When his sidekick concluded that the dead monk had drowned in the vat, the main character said, 'But have you ever seen the face of a drowned man. This isn't it.'

Perhaps the visual image of that made an impression on me -- an impression that stuck. It was a happy coincidence that I walked into a coffee shop in the Zion area, just after reading this. Reading, by itself, can be so tedious and dry. But if it is combined with something in the arena of active experience, the two become dance partners. 

National parks tend to attract a certain cultural stereotype, and there were plenty of them in the coffee shop. Most people were from the Big City. They imagined themselves to be hip, cool, and sophisticated. They were lost in their own little gadget worlds in the coffee shop. They seemed so engrossed in what they were looking at. Like it was so important!

In fact it was probably routine weather reports, emails, and cute photos of somebody's cat. Surely this amazing look of concentration and self-importance was the 'face of a drowning man' -- drowning in absolute trivia.

I don't mean to beat up on gadgets as the culprits in a busy lifestyle of drowning in trivia: television perfected this 50 years ago. (Watch the movie, "Network", if you haven't.) Going further back than that, writers in the 1800s ridiculed the daily habit of newspaper reading.

By another piece of fortuitous rockhounding I stumbled across a quote [*] from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher/theologian of the first half of the 1800s:
On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary.
That is a thought that a fellow can take off to the mountains and contemplate for awhile.

Gnarly details in the foreground of daily life can sometimes lead to the nebular development of more general thoughts.

And where does that leave us, sinful bloggers that we are? Do we really take advantage of the fresh perspectives that travel can sometimes foster, or do we settle for conventionality, mere description, and phony pragmatism?  We need to see concrete experiences and visual stimulation as a first step, and then move on to "What does it mean?"  Timeless meaning.

[*] from Malcolm Muggeridge, "Third Testament."