Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Thursday, August 24, 2017

My First Experience at Appreciating Metaphysics

"The great uncertainty I found in metaphysical reasonings disgusted me, and I quitted that kind of reading and study for others more satisfactory."
Good old Ben Franklin.  Thus he dismissed metaphysics from his life, and went on to accomplish real things. I reached the same conclusion years ago. So it is ironic that, relatively late in life, I've actually enjoyed a book about metaphysics.

Hardly a day goes by when there isn't news about Islamist terrorism. I am actually sick of the whole topic. Consider how much of your short life can be wasted on following the news on this subject, and yet, you end up understanding nothing! But being buried under trivial and repetitive news makes a person suspicious that something fundamentally important has been overlooked.

This put me in the mood to go back to the early days of Islamic thought. Where and when was the fork in the road for Islamic thinkers? Why did they take a different fork than Christian ones?

After reading Robert Reilly's "Closing of the Muslim Mind," I still wonder "why" Islam took the opposite turn from Christianity. But at least the When, How, and Where are more clear. He also did a good job in explaining how general orientations in patterns of thought have consequences in the daily news of the modern world.

Monday, May 22, 2017

How Real World Experience Affects Political Theories

Although I am not one of them, there are people who enjoy reading political science or 'theory of government' books. It would be interesting to see what a person of that type would go through if exiled from their reading lamp to the right place in the real world.

Let them take a campground hosting job for awhile. Quite aware that my suzerainty is much better than the average gig, or rather, that its clientele is much above average, I am still affected by the experience. It gives me a chance to see how people behave when they act as they really want to act.
  1. Many people immediately turn to generating noise, destruction, or filth. 
  2. Unmindfulness of the consequences of their own behavior on their neighbors, who have an equal right to enjoy their public land.
  3. Using a construction site generator to power a microwave oven to make a cup of tea or coffee. Are they really unable to understand that they can heat a pan of water on the propane stove in 3 minutes?
  4. Do they need high power appliances in their RV, including a 54" diagonal television set?
  5. The redneckization and ghetto-ization of American popular culture. You see that every time a codpiece pickup truck comes into camp, with thumpah-thumpah "music" pounding the ground around it. More than anything else it is the music that makes me feel completely unpatriotic toward what used to be "my" country.
  6. And speaking of codpieces, why does almost every one of these suburbanites and city slickers have a four-wheel-drive machine, while I -- a guy who could actually benefit from one -- do not have one?
  7. Why am I the only mountain biker who uses the flatter trails -- which are actually appropriate for a self-powered, wheeled machine? Put differently, why don't people hike on rough rocky trails, and pedal on smoother flatter trails?
  8. How citified and feminized our culture has become. The more someone thinks they are a 'nature lover,' the bigger of a fraud they probably are.
The good news is these annoyances are quite minimal in my suzerainty, for which I am grateful. For instance, after a busy Mother's Day weekend, there wasn't a scrap of litter left at our campsites. Wonderful!

Experience with real people in the real world persuades one to see the great deity of democracy as having 'feet of clay.' How could we be brainwashed with the notion that it represents some kind of perfect theory? Readers are encouraged to talk me out of spiraling down into a preference for mildly repressive authoritarian regimes.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Apotheosis of the American Dream

What a pleasure it has been to learn how to use my Android smartphone! Granted, everybody else on planet Earth went through this seven years ago. I even took a couple photos, just so I would know how. But I think I'll continue to carry a regular digital camera, with its 18X optical zoom.

Perhaps I should reconsider that. After all, the smartphone is always with you. For instance, yesterday I missed a potentially great photograph. Long-suffering readers know that that means a photograph that tells a story, or is a visual metaphor of an important part of the human condition. They also know what it doesn't mean: a purdy picher.

I had just finished the appointment with an attorney who made my last will and testament, then went to knock off other errands before the migration north begins. I got rid of an annoying aluminum extension ladder that I have carried in my van, after replacing it with a collapsible telescoping ladder.

As I rolled into the landfill to dispose of the ladder, it struck me how strange it was to be there on the same day that I signed my first will.  There was a message here. But composing an essay takes time. It would have been nice to take a photo of the dump, and think of a good caption or essay later. 

There is something thought-provoking about visiting a landfill -- as there is at a graduation ceremony, wedding, or funeral -- even for people who don't do a lot of deep thinking. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Nature Lovers and Long Dead Philosophers

If there ever were a time to invoke the old adage that 'practical men are just the slaves of some long-dead philosopher,' the time is now, after I've just read one of the most important (and juicy) books in years. The book is "Rousseau and Romanticism," by Irving Babbitt.

Only a chapter or two is about Rousseau's effect on how his followers perceived nature. But it is the chance in front of my face, especially during summer camping holidays. It seemed that my neighbors belonged to three tribes of "nature lovers."

Tribe #1. A couple women were car camping close to me. I complimented them on the sunniness of the campsite they chose. The car was a Subaru. (eyes rolling.) One of them had flown down from Oregon for the holiday.

Unfortunately many of the nearby spruce trees were dead, a la Colorado. I probably shouldn't have pointed that out. She ignored my un-compliment of the forest, and said that the trees were "beautiful." Really? Do you think she meant that, or was it just something that she was supposed to say? I have a hard time calling pine/spruce/fir forests beautiful even if they are healthy, and they ain't.

Sacred Solitude in the forest primeval. Breathtakingly beautiful, ain't it? Can't you just see Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Thoreau fluttering their eyelashes on solitary walks in this useless wasteland?
They went on a hike on the nearby Continental Divide Trail. It intersected with the dirt roads I was mountain biking on. The trail was overgrown, muddy, and presumably buggy.

It only takes a codeword or two to place somebody. The hiker-woman referred to tree-less areas at high altitude as "meadows." She was probably thinking the same thing about me, as I called them "pastures."

Hiking deserves high praise as a cool weather sport, but it surprises me to see its popularity in summer.

Although Rousseau and his spin-off praised "communing with nature" by taking long, solitary walks, it is a credit to the common sense of many modern hikers that they hike in clubs. It proves that they haven't been completely taken in by Rousseau's junk science: of Man living in solitude in harmony with nature... 

Only a philosopher could come up with an idea that devoid of common sense. And yet many people have gotten suckered into his mistake. Many RVers have.

Tribe #2: ATVers, generator people, gun enthusiasts. A large group of this animal species was camped  near to me. They were even more convivial and sociable than Tribe #1. It was easy to admire them for that, and not feel sore about them coming into my campsite and driving me out.

Sharing food and campfires was a big part of their fun. Unlike Tribe #1, they were non-ideological, non-food-faddish omnivores, who ate the food groups that most human animals have always eaten. Therefore they were able to eat the same food as each other, and enjoy each other's company.

Approaching sunset one evening, the forest seemed to erupt with engine noise. It actually startled me. As it turns out, they were getting excited anticipating the fireworks that night.

But I visualized excitement in another milieu, but having the same structure: primitive tribalists going through the ritual of slowly torturing prisoners from a nearby tribe. As they moved towards evening, the psychotropic drugs, food, campfire, and wild dancing  caused the excitement to rise to a new level. The grand climax finally came when the sun fell, and they dragged the prisoners forward to be impaled, or maybe, thown alive into the fire.

Despite the image of Tribe #1 being "green", I think Tribe #2 is "living in harmony with nature" better than Tribe #1.

Tribe #3: I saw a fellow with a horse and mule over by himself, or with his family, actually. I snapped my dog on her leash, and invited myself over to his camp. He walked out with his mule and started talking. That mule ate grass noisily and continuously the entire time. As it turns out, he was an agriculture teacher in a high school, back in Arkansas. He talked about his ride up to the high pastures that we could see from his campsite.

I asked him to teach me something about mules. That was easy, because I know so little. He explained that they had a simple stomach, unlike a cow. I still don't understand how the bio-chemical engineering in a simple stomach can turn grass into animal tissue.

I was sighing with relaxed pleasure as he kept talking. I didn't feel estranged from Tribe #3, as with the other two tribes. A historian might put this fellow (and me!) in the classicist and humanist camp.

The examples I gave today are just illustrations, applications if you will, of the great issues of classicism versus romanticism, as discussed in Babbitt's book. I like to apply the ideas of a book, rather than regurgitate them.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Value of Poetry

In rhapsodizing about the RV dump in Quartzsite recently, I finally decided that it affected me so strongly because the metaphor of a shadowy netherworld symbolized the importance of how much truth is omitted or hidden, in the normal day-to-day world. I doubt that the internet has changed this fact of human existence all that much.

Reading Addison & Steele again, I found this quote from Dryden:
Errors, like Straws, upon the Surface flow;
He who would search for Pearls must dive below.
Shame on the readers of the post for not disinterring this for me.

This is an example of the real value of poetry. It lies not in prettiness or entertainment, but in poets' skill as metaphor-smithies.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Other World Under the Glistening Winter Desert

Just about everybody has had a powerful, subjective experience -- say, an automobile accident or illness -- and then been crushed by the indifference of their listeners. Usually the listener starts squirming away in just a few seconds, even if they know you quite well.

And yet I persist in using odd, and rather subjective, experiences as the starting points of personal essays. It still seems like a good idea, as long as I move briskly away from the anecdote to seek out the more General.

The oddest such experience of recent days was getting a glimpse into the world underneath a Quartzsite RV dump. The winter sun is low in the desert. It almost glistens off the desert pavement. The air is chilly. The desert seems so clean: no bugs or creepie-crawlies. Perhaps that is what made the experience memorable: first, surprise; and thirdly, the contrast with the world above ground. And 'secondly'? Ahh yes...

It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. You think you see something, but you aren't sure. During that time, the Imagination runs riot. This is the origin of a human's appreciation of so many things: religion, poetry, metaphysics, hope during revolutions, fears about the future consequences of important decisions we are making at the time.

Recall your Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: 

"In reality a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." 

"A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."

“Whatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain and danger, whatever is terrible, is a source of the sublime; that is, it produces the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling."
The idea of a shadowy netherworld is quite universal. It manifests itself in so many ways:

1. Children playing, and sometimes doing nasty little things because they 'fly under the radar screen' of the adult world.

2. The great appeal of gangster movies, gunslinger cowboys, or pirates.

3. The shadowy truth that lurks under the trivial chirpiness of normal, socially acceptable conversation. Important things lie hidden, like the proverbial iceberg.

4. 'The rest of the story' about that used car, after listening to the 'positive thinking' of the salesman.

5. The rest of the story about so many things. The politician yammers endlessly, but what is the real angle? What are they really trying to pull off? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes?

6. You've just had a great piece of luck, or a great success. What ironic disaster is setting up in the background...right then... to nail you a year later?

I've gradually learned to appreciate classic visual representations of ideas. Creating these opportunities is what a real photographer should do. I got a chance to enjoy a classic image of the Underworld for the first time: the famous scene from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon." The camera was under the water, looking up at a beautiful girl swimming. The commentary track mentioned that the girl was a body double (stand-in) for Julie Adams.

Julie Adams, from
Why they would need a body-double or an anything-double for Julie Adams, I cannot fathom. Perhaps she wasn't a good swimmer.

The camera showed the Creature swimming up to the girl on top, while imitating her swimming stroke, and getting closer...and closer. Remember that they were wearing three-dimensional glasses in the movie theaters at that time.

The last classic image of the Underworld, I can not show you, and wouldn't even if I could. Much of the action of Carol Reed's "The Third Man", a film noir classic, takes place chasing through the underground sewers of Vienna. At the end of the movie, one of the characters is shot in those sewers just before he could escape. His fingers reach up through the sewer grate, wiggling, weakening, like dying worms.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Yukkie Reality Under the World of Appearances

The other day I went to "Poop Central" in Quartzsite, that famous modern equivalent of Cloaca Maxima of ancient Rome.  I expected to pay 80% as much to dump a 5 gallon porta-pottie as you would pay to dump a 75 gallon tank in a Class A motorhome. That's how things work in this country. Much to my relief (bad pun), the cost was entirely reasonable.

I brought a flexible sheet of plastic along, to make a funnel out of, in order to dump the porta-pottie into the 4" hole without spillage. It was strange the way they brushed me off, just as a busy auto mechanic dismisses the emotional anecdotes of a female motorist who is describing her car problems. The worker at Poop Central pulled up a manhole cover, and told me to just hurl it in.

What? Hurl it in? What was going on down there, anyway? After a couple seconds my eyes adjusted to the shadowy netherworld under the superficial world of appearances, and I saw a milk crate a couple feet below. Why would a milk crate be there?

Have you ever had somebody responsible for an RV dump explain to you what ridiculous things people hurl down a 4" hole? It clogs things up. It is one of the reasons that it gets harder to find an RV dump every year. Soon free ones will be a things of the past. What an elegant solution it was to catch those solid objects with a milk crate, lift it up now and then, and throw the solid trash in a dumpster.

I found this experience a bit amusing. It is one more example of how little we understand of the world as it really works. Nobody lives on farms anymore, but food magically appears at the grocery store. Few people have seen a tree made into a 2 X 4, or toured an automobile assembly plant. How many people appreciate all the steps needed to convert the black gook called petroleum into gasoline?

Today we walk into the customer lobby of the Economy-in-General, fill out some annoying paperwork, whip out a credit card, and watch television to kill time, while somebody else deals with ugly, yukkie, physical reality.

Perhaps a better connection with the realities of the world is one of the benefits of travel. Imagine a Manhattanite who has gotten interested in growing herbs and flowers in a couple pots on her roof patio; then she drives through wheat fields in Saskatchewan for the first time, and sees a bulldozer-like tractor pulling a harrow a hundred feet wide. Or a land-locked midwesterner squatting on a dock -- as I did once -- and being awakened in the middle of the night by the horn of a tugboat, who guided oil freighters into a giant refinery.

In the case of Quartzsite, its claim to fame, its world-class status, is poop-on-wheels! How fitting that I had this experience here.

Ahh dear. If only it was easier to have thought-provoking experiences when traveling. If only there was more freedom and trust between visitors and locals, between professionals and amateurs. And fewer regulations and restrictions. We could better learn how the world works, and what other people have to do for a living. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Doing Serious Things In an Un-Serious Way

Wasn't there a best-selling book of the 'self help' type, several years ago, with a title like "Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" I never read it. Perhaps it referred to the fact that most people agree with many of the general principles and proverbs that are supposed to guide you in living your life. But the trouble is in the applications...

...or rather, putting the moral platitudes into practice. I don't think the main problem is intellectual; rather, it is the inability of a cliché to engage our imaginations and to motivate us to alter our behavior. That is why I was excited about the consequences of failing at reading Dostoevsky for the umpteenth time: for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way.

This is not a new idea of course. Essentially it is equivalent to Walt Disney's "whistle while you work" song in one of his animated classics. But what a difference it is to breathe life into an old principle, and to make it yours.

Usually it is 'suffering' or dire necessity that brings a platitude to life for me. I can't think of a better topic to write about on a personal blog. But what if the personal experience that brought the platitude to life for me is uninteresting and useless to the reader?

One possible solution is to move the general principle to a more universal context, such as a classic movie or book. Many readers have probably seen or heard about the award-winning movie "Amadeus", made back in the 1980s. Personally, I never appreciated Mozart's music until I saw this wonderful movie, despite being a classical music and opera fan for many years before the movie.

Apparently this happened to many people. To some, listening to Mozart is something you do only when it is homework. Imagine a BBC or NPR program on Mozart: a professor of Musicology or History of the Movies would talk at the camera. A bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses, lecturing the camera. How exciting! He would bore you with a thousand-and-one historical facts about Mozart and his times, or the technicalities of music, etc. He would condescendingly tell you what the consensus of the experts is, about Mozart. The word 'genius' would be used 15 times. And you would change the channel.

But in the play and the movie, Mozart is presented less as a historical personage than as an object of envy to his rival, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. (His old man/young Salieri performance is the best I have ever seen in the movies.) 

Before a musical performance there was food, drink, and talk. During this, Salieri tried to guess which young fellow actually was Mozart. The answer astonished Salieri. Salieri then acted out the music that Mozart conducted. I think that this performance (and the writing behind it) converted me to Mozart, once and for all.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is delighted with humor and wit, and visual scenes. The historical buildings in Prague were gorgeous and authentic. Or consider the late 18th century costumes: for male chauvinist pigs there was ample decolletage in the women's dresses, sometimes to the point of making the woman look like toothpaste squirting out the top of the dress. For fools like me, there is a scene between Mozart and dogs! Even the kiddies looked cute in their little 18th century costumes, and I am not prone to calling children cute.

The music was well chosen. Even better, it was made visual: Mozart's operas were featured so the viewer could see something. Just think how easy it would have been to let the camera rest on an orchestra of musicians sawing away on their instruments. Could anything have been more boring?

Thus, every trick of trade was used to delight the movie viewer with Mozart's music. He wasn't homework anymore! That is a significant and serious addition to a person's life, and yet it was accomplished in a delightful way.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pascal's Winter Cabin

Winter is not just a season of climate, but is also a phase in a person's mind. In 18th and 19th century novels, the rural gentry conventionally retired to London in winter. Can you blame them? It wasn't just the darkness and weather, it was the muddy roads. People living in "normal" places in the modern world forget how frustrating muddy roads can be.

Every now and then I run into an Alaskan in the Arizona desert in the winter. They usually curse the darkness in the North more than the cold. Easy to believe.

I suppose there is a correlation between northern latitudes and alcoholism. Some of that might be the lack of grapes, and the northern grains lending themselves to hard alcohol. But surely some of it is due to the darkness and isolation.

There is something about sinking into the reality of winter-camping that brings a piquancy to a famous quote from Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, probably the only work of his still read today:
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Well, maybe Pascal would have been good at making it through winter in Alaska. 

But there is a bitter-sweetness to the rest of the chapter, as he advertises for an internal life. He was so ill. He was walking away from his brilliant accomplishments in mathematics and physics during the "breakout" century, when European Christian civilization led the world out of superstition and scientific ignorance. The long term consequences were so great it was as if homo sapiens had become a new species.

And yet this brilliant fellow was shifting his emphasis from explaining the real world in order to move towards morbid religious sensibility. If he had lived longer and continued down this track, what would he have accomplished? Sit indoors and wallow in a pool of emotion? Wouldn't he have wasted his life in self-absorption and introspection, as so many monks and holy men had done before him? What was new or brilliant about that?

I am not really sure I agree with Pascal's quote. I don't want to lose the healthy and external orientation to life in the winter. I don't want to become a monk or a 'holy man of the desert.'
But any winter camper or resident in an isolated cabin has an internal emphasis forced on them by the darkness and the social isolation. How far should we go in that direction? There is no one correct answer, of course. I do not seek one. But I would be pleased to identify the symptoms better, so I can switch back to an external orientation when I have gone too far.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Benefits of Enjoying a Not-So-Great Movie

Last episode I went boldly into the present by buying my first Blu-Ray disc. Disappointed as I was by the technology itself, I at least had the pleasure of seeing a pretty good movie, "Rio Bravo" (1959), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Dean Martin, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson.

As usual John Wayne did not interest me. The Dmitri Tiomkin score was a disappointment. But Dean Martin's acting was surprisingly good! Then of course, there was the wonderful Walter Brennan. I think he is my role model as a cranky tough old goat. Give me a couple more years.

Male sexist pigs will be able to tolerate Angie Dickinson, then in her twenties. Next to Brennan, she was my favorite character. Here is a photo as she appeared in character, at the end of the movie:

It was so refreshing to see a beautiful female character who doesn't take herself so seriously. She was no fool; she knew the effect she had on men. But she had a nonchalant sense of humor about it. Normally, everybody around such a woman seems obsessed with her, which causes me to dislike them and her. Here that didn't happen. She acted a bit like a girl who grew up with four brothers, and who knew how to talk back to them, and smack 'em around if they needed it. 

As I watched and enjoyed this movie, I realized I was no longer bothered by stories that didn't interest me, or by dialogue that was flat. It's as if I were decomposing the movie into its component parts, and shrugging off the components that were losers, while consciously dwelling on the good components. (Extra credit points to any reader who can supply the pertinent parable from Ben Franklin's Autobiography-- something about a good leg and a shriveled leg.)

This is an idea that everybody thinks about from time to time. For some people, decomposition is an entrenched habit. They derive great benefits from it. Do they even think about what they are doing, or do they just do it automatically, because of their temperament? Or maybe they are unconsciously imitating somebody else. 

But for some people like me, decomposition is not a really strong habit. On top of that, it is inherently difficult to decompose people, jobs and other important situations into good and bad components, and shrug off the bad if there isn't anything to do about it right away.  These big and important problems can seem like one gigantic monolithic block that impedes our way.  We get angry at the mighty Monolith, and charge into it, as if we can conquer it just by butting heads with it. Instead, we should have learned to sneak around it, or erode it with water and chemicals, or find a crack in the Monolith and tap at this crack until it easily breaks.

In contrast, it is pretty easy to decompose a movie. Sometimes an intellectual or philosophical idea, no matter how obvious it is or how much we agree with it, just doesn't alter our behavior. We benefit from a visual representation of the idea. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nibbling Away at Moral 'Perfection'

I have an ON again/OFF again involvement with achieving moral perfection. Mostly off. Even though I am getting started 40 years later than Benjamin Franklin, it still 'counts'.

And it isn't as silly as it sounds. What should a person work on as they get older? Sleeping 8 hours per night, without waking once? Growing lush dark hair on their head? Running a 4 minute mile? Living the dissolute life of an international playboy? Good luck with all that.

The fact is that wisdom about the conduct of life, self-control over our own behavior, and having a broader perspective on the human condition are just about the only things that we can improve at, with age. And that is good news! These are the things we should have been emphasizing our whole lives, instead of running around, taking care of frantic busywork.

So how does one proceed on this noble quest? There is something to be said for a 'bottom up' approach, quite the opposite of the approach of long-winded philosophers. It is too likely to be fruitless to read shelves of books, contrasting and comparing different sects of philosophers.

Of course we must not drown in microscopic "practical" details. The concrete example that we work on should always be looked on as a possible member of a category, and an illustration of a general idea.

Let's come down from the clouds and get our hands dirty with real life. All of my life I have noticed outdoorsmen volunteering information about how frustrated they get with themselves because it takes so long to get organized in the morning. And they always forget something! It is funny to hear people complain of the same frustrations, despite all the differences between them.

In fact, people are tempted to just give up on this issue, and shrug it off as inevitable. But actually it is quite explainable. The problem is caused by slovenly habits after the outing. They come back indoors, feeling relaxed and happy. It seems so easy and 'natural' to dump their equipment, hither and thither, on whatever horizontal surface is convenient and empty.  Entropy in motion.

Why not store all the junk necessary for Sport X in one and only one box, labelled 'X'?

This combines with overcoming another moral vice: the Early Bedtime Syndrome. I am always complaining about it. But it really isn't intractable: too much reading or movie watching in the evening is bad -- more physical activity, even with the most mundane chores, is good. So rather than rounding up my stuff in the morning to get ready for a mountain bike ride, just do it in the evening. In the morning, there should be virtually nothing to do.

Lately I have been working on this vice, and the results have been gratifying. Yes, this is a humble sort of accomplishment, but on the other hand, it has been dragging on, maddeningly, for years and years; and finally killing it off makes me feel that other longstanding and idiotic vices are curable. Young Ben would be proud of me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The "Awakening" When Coming Back to a City

I have written before of how thought-provoking it can be to come into a city after a lengthy spell in the backcountry. The greatest difficulty in doing a good job at this is to belittle it right from the beginning: "Oh this is just some kind of thought experiment. It isn't practical. I don't want to waste time by acting like a kook, in his own little mental playground..."

Recently I experienced a special version of this. I was visiting a small metropolis that was big enough for a tumescent growth of big box retail stores on the edge of town. The Republican party's debate was in the news. As tempting as it might be to throw mud-pies at each specific runt in the debate, it is more important to ask something more fundamental: if Democracy were so great, and if Americans were so suited for it, how could a country as large as the USA and with all its achievements and deep pool of talent, produce such a pitiful list of candidates?

Something is fundamentally wrong with our 'system.' You only think of things like that when you come in from the backcountry. But here is the hard part: try to hold onto this fresh and independent thinking as long as you can. Keep looking at the situation like you are seeing it for the first time. 

What would Washington, Jefferson, or Madison think if they were stuffed into a time machine, and watched a modern debate of presidential wannabees? In what ways have Americans changed from what we started as?

Try as you might, in a couple days you start to backslide into 'normal' thinking.

Have you ever watched the movie, "Awakenings", made in the 1990s, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams? It takes place in a long term mental hospital which had a lot of people whose central nervous systems were damaged by a childhood disease. They were apparently doomed to live out their lives in a catatonic state.

But a researcher-turned-clinical practitioner came to the hospital and began experimenting with large doses of a new drug. And it worked, spectacularly! But then the patients starting slipping back into their catatonic non-existence. It was a real heart-breaker to see that happen.

It feels somewhat the same to see it happening to myself on the second or third day back in civilization. In regressing to normality, real human life decays into a template that makes little sense. But, as a consolation, you can appreciate this relapse as something Thomas Hardy would have called "a negative beauty of tragic tones."

But if Hardy is too dark for your taste, then focus on the upswing of this kind of "Awakening", and hope that it becomes more frequent or more intense.

The most cheerful attitude is to switch metaphors, and see this type of experience as one that permanently transforms an individual. Consider its similitude to Arnold Toynbee's "Withdrawal and Return", in one of his chapters of "A Study of History." (Extra credit to any reader who finds the chapter.)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Tree Island in a Sagebrush Sea

It doesn't seem like such a great idea to camp on a bare ridge of sagebrush during the monsoon season. Lightning can be pretty scary. It seems better to have some trees nearby. But I don't want to go into a thick and gloomy forest.

That is the value of a tree island near the higher end of the sagebrush, and just below the lower tree-line. It is pleasantly surprising how attached you can become to a tree island. By luck there was a two-track road ascending the ridge-line behind my dispersed camp in this photo. It looks like such easy pedaling in the photo, but I had to push the mountain bike in a couple places:

There is an entrapment pond on the far side of the tree island. But it is so close that it provides an entertainment show for me. I saw my first weasel. Disgusting little creature: a snake on wheels. 

Something strange happened when camped near this tree island. The wildlife became individuals, with quirks that identified them as the same individuals, day after day. A raptor developed noisy arguments everyday with my dog; and in doing so, it ceased being anonymous; nor was it merely some abstract being that expressed the quality of "raptor-ness." It became something more solid and real. Contrast this with the usual eyelash-fluttering over wildlife  as a symbol of something, perhaps of pseudo-religious holiness or perfection.

The middle of the tree island is quite dense, but here and there you can see through it. I could actually cut a nice clean walking path through the tree island, using nothing more than hand tools. It is a little bit astonishing that a forest could be so finite that little ol' me could affect it.

This experience was the very opposite of the romantic approach to Nature. Here I wasn't swooning over Vastness, freakishness, Infinity, the Perfect, the Pristine, Solitude, Mystery, or any other abstraction loaded with religious imagery and causing palpitations of the heart. 

How sane and solid this makes the human mind. Perhaps I am under the influence of the evil Baron d'Holbach, one of the leading atheists of the Enlightenment, a couple decades before the French Revolution. In quote after quote, he castigated the meaningless word-play of theologians and metaphysicians.  He thought a finite creature like a human being, should concern himself with finite issues, described by meaningful language. Only then would he be able to improve real life.
"In a word, whoever uses common sense upon religious opinions, and will bestow on this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to most subjects, will easily perceive that Religion is a mere castle in the air. Theology is ignorance of natural causes; a tissue of fallacies and contradictions. In every country, it presents romances void of probability, the hero of which is composed of impossible qualities... 
But men, prepossessed with the opinion that this phantom [God] is a reality of the greatest interest, instead of concluding wisely from its incomprehensibility, that they are not bound to regard it, infer on the contrary, that they must contemplate it, without ceasing, and never lose sight of it."
A distant laccolith through the end of my little tree island.
Yes, I know. The term, atheist, sounds unsociable and disrespectful of other people's feelings. But I am not really interested in a religious debate or in offending people on their religion.

Rather, I see it as beneficial to apply the atheistic mindset to how I visualize nature, in order to avoid excessive romanticizing. Let me balance my perspective by looking at nature clear-eyed and realistically, as the Baron was trying to do with other things. 

And isn't that why we read books: to assimilate and to apply the general principles in the book to our own situations?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Snowbird Searches for the Right Myth

My bio-rhythms have been so screwed up with the 90 degree heat in Yuma -- in February! Soon I was in Patagonia AZ at over 4000 feet of elevation. It felt so good to sleep in a chilly bed again; to get out of bed in the morning and walk while trying to keep my toes from touching the 40 F floor; to put on a jacket and walk downtown Patagonia. Ahh, cool air and warm sun.

Over the winter in Yuma, things that seemed like luxuries at the beginning began to bore me. Even my dog got bored: we walked in a beautiful desert at sunrise and sunset, but there was no game there. Just rubble. Eventually a snowbird can't or won't apply the mental discipline needed to ignore the overcrowding.   

The tipping point came when my attitude changed about my road cycling club, the main reason why I was there in the first place. The high speed riding by 70-year-olds seemed so admirable at the beginning of winter. By the end, my loyalty to living at the point-of-diminishing-returns reasserted itself.

Does all this sound like complaining? It isn't. What it really means is that my winter has succeeded; it has served its purpose. Earlier in my career I would have been frustrated with these end-of-winter feelings; after all, it sounds bad to use words like 'bored' or 'sick of.' But words like positive, negative, good, and bad really don't apply so well to a natural cycle.

What did I think? That retirement was 365 days per year of wrinkle-free perfection? Where do we get such crazy notions? Probably from our Christian tradition of going to heaven for eternal bliss, even though it really must be sheer boredom up there. When Western Civilization started outgrowing Christianity intellectually in the 1700s, all the mighty intellectuals did was replace the idea of a far-away heaven with a more immediate, material, and utilitarian paradise.

We all like the Spring themes of rejuvenation and renewal. Again, it fits in with the Christian theme of resurrection -- or is it the other way around?

The myth of a dead "vegetation" god, who goes into the ground for awhile, and is reborn during the planting season occurs across the spectrum of ancient myths. We who are of northern European background think of the deadness of winter, but the theme works well whatever the cause of the agriculturally-dormant season. For instance, in ancient Egypt the floods came in late summer, and the planting started in October. 

Our pre-snowbird lives prepared us to see winter as a drab dark dormancy, and to look forward to spring for warm sunshine, blooming wildflowers, and cute witto bunnie-wunnies being born. But this myth does not really serve the needs of the snowbird, who experiences an active and delightful winter. In order to get the most from my snowbird lifestyle I need to abandon this winter dormancy/spring rejuvenation paradigm, and embrace a new model for life. If you want to personify this, just for fun, let's say I need to find a new myth, a new "vegetation deity."

Was there ever an ancient civilization with 12 months per year of agriculture, as in Yuma? The crops would have changed, but agriculture would not have gone into dormancy in the off-season. What kind of myths did they create?

Such an ancient civilization would be the soul-mate of the modern snowbird, who lacks a dormant season, but merely changes his "crop" with the seasons. A snowbird needs to let their imagination run in the direction of that myth -- if there were one.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Keeps Bloggers Tied Down?

Surely most internet readers have learned from experience to temper their expectations about websites that are new to them. How many times have you gotten excited about a newly-found website, only to learn that your first half-dozen visits have shown everything that you are ever going to see there? Then, when the sting of disappointment sets in, you just want to grab the blogger by the throat and scream, "Come on! You can do it. Take a step upward." But they seldom do. [*]

What is stopping them? Are they just dummies? Or completely static? Maybe they are afraid of something.

Lately I have been fixating on a simile from Arnold Toynbee's abridged "A Study of History," Vol 1, Chapter IV. Maybe it will mean something to readers:
Primitive societies...may be likened to people lying torpid upon a ledge on a mountain-side, with a precipice below and a precipice above; civilizations may be likened to companions of these sleepers who have just risen to their feet and have started to climb up the face of the cliff above...

...and since the next ledge is out of sight, we do not know how high or how arduous the next pitch may be. We only know that it is impossible to halt and rest before next ledge, wherever that may lie, is reached. Thus, even if we could estimate each present climber's strength and skill and nerve, we could not judge whether any of them have any prospect of gaining the ledge above, which is the goal of their present endeavours. We can, however, be sure that some of them will never attain it. And we can observe that, for every single one now strenuously climbing, twice that number have fallen back on the ledge, defeated.

The problem with most websites is not that they are 'falling back on the ledge.' It is that they aren't climbing the cliff at all.

This non-growth is probably easy to explain for blogs that work for eyeball-income: they think they have already found their maximum audience and income, so why take chances? Any genuine opinion on any non-trivial subject is bound to offend somebody, so the blogger keeps everything light, sugary, and non-controversial. And in return, the readers give the blogger credit for being a "positive" person. (Mindlessness, triviality, and arrested growth are positive traits, apparently.)

Thus commercial bloggers are really no different than a television sitcom or soap opera trying to gain audience market share. What more is there to say about them?

Let's look at the second category, where a bit of hope is reasonable. Consider non-commercial, amateur bloggers. Why should it matter to them if some reader stops reading their blog because a new topic was tried or an opinion was offered that offended the reader? The blogger is not being paid. He can say what he wishes, and if the readers don't like it, well, then don't let the door knob...

More times than not, the blogger succumbs to the trap of measuring success and boosting his self-esteem by having lots of "readers." (And yes, even I am susceptible to this disease.) The blogger might actually think he is climbing Toynbee's ledge, in the simile above. But for him, 'climbing' means winning a few more votes from the demos, the rabble. The blogger might as well be back in 8th grade, trying to be popular with all the little blockheads in his class, so he can get elected class president. The blogger tries to ignore the unpleasant truth that most of his mighty readers are just moochers looking for a little free entertainment.

King Numbers. Quantity rather than Quality. It's an old problem that goes back to the beginning of democracy. Nobody has ever found a solution to it yet.

What a difference there is between an abstract shibboleth such as "Democracy" and the effects it has on some concrete part of life, not just blogs, but also food, movies, music, sports, or just about anything. The general democratic mindset of pleasing as many blockheads as possible is anti-growth, anti-quality, and anti-life. It is the democratic mindset that will keep the internet in the gutter.

It does motivate me to attempt reading Plato's "Republic" again. I've had trouble with it before. Maybe it was the translator.

[*] Recently I saw a blog take a step upward. My jaw was actually dropping as I read along.  The change wasn't announced with a new format or layout. There was not any statement by the blogger that it was even happening. But it thrilled me to see it happening. I was proud of myself for identifying it. Maybe that is what caused me to wonder why more bloggers don't "step up." The blog was Mish Shedlock's "Global Economic Analysis."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dealing with Disappointment on the Trail

Can eyeballs 'smack' in anticipation, like lips? I think they can. At least that's what mine were doing the other day on a mountain bike ride on the Unc, as one commenter calls the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. I have a special fondness for wild roses, especially when I notice them for the first time, usually in mid-June. I am fond of the seasonal ritual.

But the first sighting of this June disappointed me. The roses were waning and withering. Too late.

Oh certainly, this is just a minor disappointment along the trail, but it seems valuable as a simple and quintessential representative of an entire class of disappointments.  It is important to decide what attitude we should have about these disappointments.

It caused me to recall something said by a bicycle tourer. It was one of those statements that sticks with you because it stands out from commonplace chatter.

He said that he only remembered the little disasters and misadventures that occurred on his tours. The perfect weather, the pretty scenery, and the days of smooth clock-like progress never stood out in his memory. Expressed more brutally, they were meaningless and forgotten. 

Here's another example of the right attitude from a cycle tourer on the Great Divide Route on :
But I went that way an hour ago. It didn't look right, it didn't feel right, it didn't match up with the next set of directions on my AC map. I am now three hours lost, it's 90 degrees, and I'm not riding the bike, I'm pushing. And there ain't no shade.
 You gotta love a guy like that!

So the wild roses were a dud. Now what? What is this disappointment good for? What would you have me do?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Do You Feel Useless When a Friend is Sick?

The short answer is 'probably.' If we look at it in a typical modern utilitarian way, that pretty much ends the discussion.

But is this just one more case when a "failure" really isn't a failure if you adjust your expectations realistically? Perhaps once again the true enemy of the Good is not the Bad, but rather, the Ideal.

I returned to Ouray CO hoping to have a small beneficial effect on an outdoorsy RV friend. We did have a good visit. But medical complications got in the way of doing what I really wanted to do: go on recovery walks with him, and make the point that he didn't have to be athletic superman and indestructible super-Mark to be fun to be with; and to help him focus on the improvement rather than what he normally was capable of doing.

Seen objectively, he has a lot to be pleased with in his life. A zillion hours in the Colorado Rockies, hiking with a wife who loves it as much as he does. Then there is the little matter of two seriously nice houses in a ridiculously beautiful town. But would mentioning that be the least consoling? I doubt it, and it wouldn't be anybody's fault.

Visiting Ouray CO, but failing to be a positive jinx.

But perhaps it's hopeless to be an effective in-the-flesh sympathy card and we should just leave the job to Hallmark. There is actually something disgusting in the "superiority" of the would-be consoler, based on nothing more than having better luck -- for the moment -- than the consolee. Tomorrow the situation could reverse.

There are probably methods that would make a would-be consoler more effective. I suppose I should -- the typical euphemism for "probably won't" -- learn these methods. Something is holding me back. Maybe I don't want to think of a human being as a psychological mechanism. I want them to be an individual human being with free-will, and not a slave to some kind of deterministic manipulation.

Let us put the issue of utilitarian consolation aside and ask if there are other reasons for visiting a sick friend or relative. Once upon a time people would have thought it "fitting." But what does that really mean? Or they might have thought that visiting them "honored" them for the importance they had in our lives. Honor? Sounds a bit archaic doesn't it? What would a social scientist find if they put "honor" in their test tubes?

Well, I don't know much about this. But I am motivated to re-read Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." It's not because my friend is going to die, of course. He is a tough old goat, and I suspect I'll be struggling to keep up with him pedaling up Flying Monkey Mesa next autumn or maybe the one after that. (A classic movie, loosely based on "Ivan", is "Ikiru" by the legendary Japanese film-maker, Kurosawa.)

Rather, Death and Illness are certainly related philosophically and sentimentally.  I can't seem to think about anything without invoking a classic book or movie. And novelists and scriptwriters usually make a subject of Death rather than Disease, perhaps just for intensifying the dramatic effect.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Chance to Work Productively

Around the New Year I argued that 'I am not getting older, I am getting better,' need not be an empty cliche. There really are things we naturally get better at, with age. So why not pound the crap out of these things, and put aside the things we must lose on?

Such qualities include:
1. Self-mastery and self-restraint.
2. Patience.
3. Perspicuity.
4. Setting more realistic (i.e., lower) expectations on new projects or people.
5. Understanding the consequences of our actions.
6. Thinking more independently.
7. Better juggling of trade-offs when making decisions.

This project of converting a cargo trailer into a travel trailer has offered me an impressive and perverse example of how difficult it is to achieve #1 on the list.

If you were to step back from the thousand-and-one machinations of the day, and ask yourself why you can't work faster, you wouldn't have any trouble coming up with a list. But it was fun to identify the top problem on the list. 

For me it is the laying-down-of-tools when I am temporarily done with them. I discard them in the sloppiest and most reckless manner. Then, five minutes later, I am cursing the "lost tool," losing confidence and momentum, and becoming frustrated for no good reason.

I once heard a discussion between a friend of mine, who was an experienced home-improvement-junkie, and his father. The father scolded him for not keeping a more organized workspace. My friend thought it was a waste of time. I must say that I agree with the father. It seems like a waste of time, but five minutes of re-organizing tools and materials can refresh you more than a nap in the afternoon or a hot shower at the end of a hard day of work.

So why won't I do it!?

Looking aft, out the rear ramp. The first part of the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall solar screens at the stern. I am no fan of windows. When weather is good, I say pop this little sucker wide open and and enjoy it!

Any canine who is serious about enjoying the Good Life, needs to be a popular hostess at doggie patio parties. When propped up to be horizontal, the ramp will be the official doggie patio. This screen was inexpensive so I am giving it the benefit of the doubt. Eventually I'll replace it with a hinged screen-door. But I'm finally wearing down and getting eager to get back on the road.

The effect of solar screen in the screen-door. The afternoon sun is passing through the solar screen of a partially open door. Notice how bright the small vertical rectangle is compared to the larger square of gentle sunlight to its right! Supposedly there is an eight or nine times reduction in sunlight.