1.31--We are the world/We are here.

You sibilant sussurus
Surfacing speciously,
Suggesting simple solutions
To all my problems,
Which mostly look
Like big black Sharpie strokes
Slashing ineffectually
At the waves of a saltwater ocean:
I float between the crests
A million miles from everything
And right inside where you are--
Come back.
To make a moment
Requires two motions meeting,
And I can't do this on my own.
Let's not wake up--
Reality doesn't taste like this
(Rain on my lips,
If it were spring and not winter)
And I think that maybe thinking
Cuts the soul out of the movement.
(Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?
--I'm not sure. I'm not here.)


Disciplined Thinking

I have been going to a number of Meetups lately. If you're the sort of person who wants to meet people and do things and don't mind if those two objectives coincide, then Meetup is a quite nice means of doing so. You sign up, enter your zip code, choose a bunch of interests, and voila, the site offers you an array of local groups of people, meeting up and doing all sorts of different things. There's even an erotic open mic night in Philadelphia, alongside the more ordinary ethical humanists, social 20 and 30 somethings, knitting groups, and German emigres.

As an erstwhile student of philosophy now dabbling in being a boring adult or something like that, I have been taking advantage of some of the more intellectual possibilities offered on the site. There's the Thinking Society, which tackles all sorts of different topics (recent subjects include capitalism, Joseph Campbell, and biological bases for religiosity) from all sorts of different backgrounds and approaches. The group sizes for that one tend to be a bit larger, so I don't speak very often, but I like the opportunity to think about topics that are a little further afield for me. Then there's the philosophy society, which is obviously a little closer to home since we mainly talk about traditional subjects of philosophy. I've been attempting to come up with discussion topics that I could potentially facilitate. Maybe I'll test some of them out here at a later time. Anyway.

It has been pleasant to have the motivation to read more challenging, thought-provoking pieces (although I don't think I've been too bad at this since I graduated... I have already published my 2015 reading list, so you can form your own opinion) and the opportunity to then discuss them with people who are generally quite opinionated, intelligent, and well-spoken. I am also at times delighted and at times chagrined to hear people expressing a variety of different viewpoints, and not just the sleekly self-congratulatory ultraliberalism of the academy that I left behind. Even if I'm inclined to support that liberalism, I'd rather be part of a society that actually practices freedom of speech than one that pays it lip service before silencing absolutely everyone who gives off even the barest whiff of privilege. Sorry. That's a subject for another day.

I have also come to appreciate something that I strove for in college and still don't think I, or indeed many other people if I may be so frank, do very well. That is, I think that as a general rule, we are quite bad at taking the time and paying the attention necessary to grasp someone else's meaning and to address it directly. This is actually part of why I don't like the group sizes for the thinking society--there is a point at which there are simply too many people for the discussion to effectively address the contributions of all of the members, and frequently the discussion proceeds not so much in a regular, linear manner, but rather in sort of sporadic fits and awkward leaps, somewhat moderated by the discussion facilitator but inevitably doomed to a certain degree of incoherency. Which is how you get to the end of a discussion of what capitalism is without arriving at anything close to a definition.

But my actual point here is that it takes a great deal of discipline to read or listen carefully, faithfully reconstruct an argument, and stay on point, especially when there are so many lovely tangents to chase and personal grievances to air (see also: this blog post). Sometimes those are fruitful and enlightening, but frequently they seem to either be self-aggrandizing or flatly off-topic, or both.

I don't think this makes me any less appreciative of what is occurring at these meet ups. Rather, in the midst of my gratitude for even the existence of such fora, I am all the more grateful for those people who are capable of cutting through the red herrings and cockamamie to ask, "How is this relevant?" and "What about x's argument are you disagreeing with here?" And likewise, I am grateful for the ones who clearly and deliberately address their speaking opportunities to that which is actually relevant, whether from the reading, the major question, or a preceding comment. Because this is honestly one of the most difficult things to do, especially when there is a lot that could be said and a lot of heat that goes into the opinions surrounding the subject.

Ultimately, I suppose it boils down to being a good listener/reader, and that is obviously the sort of skill that will benefit you in many different aspects of life.

Conclusion #2: If you're the sort of person who feels uncomfortable speaking spontaneously in group settings and you're just overwhelmed by these people who seem to be producing speech with very little difficulty, never fear: half of what they're saying is off-topic or accidentally structured as an informal logical fallacy; they're just less concerned about checking what they're about to say for its substance.

Conclusion #3 (...and yet, nowhere near Tolkien status yet): I sound like an arrogant twit, so I should probably stop talking before I alienate everyone who is reading this, although the ones that I know of are reasonably good conversationalists who *might* extend the professional courtesy of a charitable reading, so hopefully we're still on safe ground.


Worlds Within Words

My sisters and I are always naming things. I think it started with one of Katrina's first cars, which went by the glorious moniker of "The Weedwhacker." This was quite early in my life, but I believe it was possibly a reference to the amount of time it spent knocking over weeds when it was parked at the side of the road (it's totally possible that my childish logic invented this explanation and I never had the motivation to question it).*

Subsequent cars had to be named, of course, as did computers, appliances, and Christmas trees. So too were some locations (my current apartment is The Cat Cave) and obviously pets.

It's a bit of a weird compulsion, really, but it also makes a lot of sense. John Locke's work on the philosophy of language is fairly brief, as far as I know, but what he begins from the problem of general terms for particular things. To summarize, every thing that exists in the world has a unique existence. It is the only one of itself, even if it does happen to manifest qualities of a particular type of thing. However, we don't need unique names for all of these unique things, and indeed, we don't want them, because that would result in a hopeless proliferation of words and the utter confusion of having to always be learning new terms.

Instead (and here I depart a bit from Locke), we give names to those particular things that we either need to refer to specifically--such as a horse or a person--or that exist for us in a particular way. 

I deliberately worded that last bit somewhat awkwardly because I wanted to highlight something that I've referred to obliquely before. I think that there are two kinds of existence, one subjective, the other objective. I exist, this is an objective fact--Cartesian doubts withheld for the present moment. But I also exist for certain people (including myself!) in a very particular way. In a sense, I have multiple selves, one for every conception of me that has been formed by anyone who has ever met me. Arguably, my self-conception has the greatest authority, but I can be mistaken, as when I feel the encroaching doubts of imposter syndrome or if I had body image-related issues.

I think that we use particular names for things when our subjective conception of their existence is strong enough that we begin to endow them with strong and distinctive characteristics. And so often the names we choose are meant to be expressive of those characteristics--see again, the Weedwhacker and the Cat Cave.

I especially love these storytelling names. Sometimes they're buried under hundreds of years of lazy pronunciation, as with so many English places (something Tolkien plays off of in Farmer Giles of Ham, if I recall correctly). Sometimes they're in other languages, especially Native American ones here in the US. And sometimes we've simply lost the rich diversity of terms, such as "Maplehurst," where "hirst" is a German word for a hill. Suddenly the name expresses the place in a way that it didn't before I held the etymological key. 

And perhaps I should add too, that it is not simply that we name what we love. Sometimes, I think, we also name what we do not know, because we desire I make it familiar to us. A name is a shibboleth, opening a door to the possibility of connection, relationship, and belonging. 

So yes, it's a little strange that I name Christmas trees, especially because I am keenly aware of the brevity of their life (death, really) coinciding with mine, but at the same time, why not? They will indeed share my life and impart something of beauty to it, for however short a time. That is something to honor, and I will honor it with a name, a story, and a slightly self-mocking laugh.

*Since the publication of this post, Katrina has informed me that the name came from the car's lack of muffler and the accompanying horrible weed whacker-like sound it made. I think my version was much more childishly poetic, but beauty defers to truth in this instance.


Limping With Both Legs

"The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence." {R. P. Feynman, "Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle"}

Feynman's supplement to the report on the Challenger disaster was featured on Longform.org today, and while I found some of the more technical bits to be dry reading (and others of those technical bits to be extremely interesting), one of the things that most stood out to me were Feynman's comments on the intentional self-blindness and optimism about known potential defects in the shuttle's components.

In the rush and enthusiasm of the early years of space exploration, it must have been so easy to allow safety concerns--the non-urgent ones, anyway--to fall to the wayside. Another article I came across noted that initially NASA tried everything to obscure the fact that the crew were probably alive for the entire two and a half-minute descent to the ocean below (and have, in subsequent years, done little to alter the prevailing impression of instant death), which brings up the issue not only of official secrecy but also of NASA's failure to provide for the case of a survivable catastrophe. Even if they were alive after the explosion, they had no parachutes, no life jackets, just the absolute certainty of death to keep them company for the longest final 150 seconds of their lives.

Certainly, hindsight supplies better insight into possible contingencies than even the best futurist can hope for. But Feynman's point here seems to be that there was not only a lack of foresight--there was also a lack of hindsight. The past was there to be learned from, complete with the evidence of the strains of various forces on the components of the shuttle and the rocket that failed. That those components had not thus far failed is not relevant, he argues. They ought to have been given more attention and more testing before the somber and sacred burden of human lives were entrusted to them, regardless of whether they had survived the trip before.

I'm not really equipped to criticize NASA's actions in any substantive way, since my entire knowledge of the issue arises solely from the two articles I read today. In a more general way though, I wonder if it's not just a problem for NASA engineers and management. There are so many ways to avoid confronting personal weaknesses, even when we are keenly aware of them. There is so much else to be done, after all. So much life to be lived, so much future to be shaped and pushed toward.

In the short run, we might be able to get somewhere on pure energy and drive. But it's like all the leaders in those books about integrity that I read in high school: you can only get so far before the pressure makes the tiny cracks bigger. Failure to respond to and correct your behaviors when it "doesn't really matter" may lead to enormous problems down the road. And even if they don't, even if you manage to walk a straight line, you'll only be able to manage it by limping with both legs. Which hardly sounds pleasant. Or feasible. But that's a question for another day.


In Brief

If everything you do seems to fail, keep doing things.

If you do succeed, but you don't really want what you succeed at, don't be afraid to move on--even if it's the first thing you accomplish. Use your success to energize future attempts.

If you know what you want, don't settle. Settling is for the birds, and even they migrate.

Don't be afraid to invest in the long term. Do question thoroughly whether it's something you really want to do. Experiment and get your hands dirty to test the idea--sometimes what works in thought doesn't work in reality and vice versa.


Consumption in a Ready World

The appearance of limitless abundance inspires us to consume as if it were true. Likewise, we are given to understand that we are consumers first and foremost, and our place in a cycle of natural processes is obscured--we are not of the same type as the animals or the trees, which have no economy, no abstractions, no non-essential, non-biologically-conditioned desires.

I walk into H&M, and all around me are racks and racks of clothes. They were not specially requested by customers, made to meet a definite demand. The store has no guarantee that it will sell all of them, and it operates on the assumption that at least some of its stock will ultimately end up in the sale area, tagged to go for $7 or $5, some low, odd number or another. There are many things that determine how much they will choose to supply of a given item. At best, however, they can only project. And perhaps, as a company, they will not only go off of projected demand. They may try to shape their customer base. I can't say that this is the case, for H&M or for any other clothier, but they might wish to attract only a certain type of customer, and so supply a large quantity of clothing in a few lower sizes with fewer pieces in the upper ranges. (I of course am in the throes of absolute confirmation bias on this subject and think it must be true.)

There is definitely much to be said for this model of clothing purchase. Everything can be cheaply made somewhere else; there are standard sizes, which allow for minimal adjustments to measurements; and if I need a dress for an event this evening, I can just pop into a store and find one ready to go.

Of course, this takes a short and shallow view of things. As much as I may find it convenient, it is also enormously wasteful. How much is thrown away because ultimately nobody really wants to be seen in public wearing lime green fur midriff-baring sweater tanks? Working in food service, it's painfully obvious, although a little harder to avoid: so much that would have been perfectly edible ends up in the trash because you can't account for all possible contingencies.

I think when we see this abundance of Stuff spread out before us, we can't help but think that it will never end. There is something magical to the way that clothing and food and gasoline and books all appear on shelves with slick packaging and price tags, utterly divorced from the sweat and labor that it took to get them there. Equally magical is the way that it all seems to stay fresh and up-to-date. But what happens to the would-be bestsellers that don't sell? I am not there to take all of them off of the shelves where they are replaced by their flashier, newer counterparts. I simply come in, peruse, and depart from a moment of consumption frozen in time.

This lightning fast movement occurs too quickly for us to see. We are blind--not only to the true costs of our habits of consumption, but also to our place in the natural processes of the world we live in. Understandably so, too, in light of the fact that we are surrounded by artifice. The laptop I am typing on is clearly the product of human intelligence brought to bear upon materials that could not be found in their present form in nature. The same for my chair, my desk, the lamp that spills its light across this corner of my room. These are my reality in ways that trees, birds, the rich and diverse life of good soil or the ecosystem of a river cannot even begin to compete with.

It is what I consume, not what I experience, that defines me, until my consumption IS my experience, and so the progression is completed. It used to be that we were concerned with the continuation of the species--a fact not securely assured in light of the grievous tolls of war, famine, and plague. Now, we're concerned with the continuation of the economy. Thus far, this trade of the real world for the abstract has been merely a recording in a ledger, taking note of the funds transfer. But if we continue to operate in this light, the toll on the real world will be much more devastating and painful than any economic depression ever could be. The abstract feeds off of the real. It cannot exist without it, and neither can we.


Writing Resolutely

I'm informally challenging myself to write more. Let's call it a belated New Year's resolution. Why? Well, for several reasons.

Reason #1: My friend Dan wants to write well and knows that he has a lot to say, but doesn't necessarily think that he has the right words or the right way of saying it. Some people, when they recognize areas of weakness, choose to make sweeping assertions about themselves as an excuse for that weakness. "Oh, I'm such a terrible writer," or how about "I am such a procrastinator, I can never get anything done on time," or there's the good old "I'm not very athletic. I could never be as fit as she is." If you hear someone make that kind of statement, odds are that they've given up on changing and are perfectly complacent about where they're at--even if they want you to think they're expressing regret. Hey, I've done it too.

But Dan doesn't think like that. He says, "I don't think I write very well, but I want to get better, so I'm going to write every day for a certain amount of time." Or, "I haven't been very good at writing longform emails, but here is one, and I will send out another one by Friday." Dan challenges himself, and he also challenges me, which should make him very happy, because challenging other people is something he's good at and also conveniently finds personally fulfilling.

I don't think I am bad at writing, but I could be better. I am quite lazy and undisciplined, writing whenever I feel like it. I don't edit much nor do I question my organization, what I'm trying to communicate, and whether I'm doing it well. This is, after all, a personal blog read by a dear but small group, so what's a little sweatpants-y monologue between friends, eh?

What this really means is that I have a lot of room to improve, and I can do so, if I am willing to invest the time and effort.

Reason #2: Someone, I think Katrina, once told me that when you make a point of having good posture, your focus measurably improves and you work more efficiently. I don't think this is just a physical benefit of giving your organs more room to play and increasing your lung function. I think it is a mental side effect of mindfulness. By paying attention to one small detail--how you are carrying yourself--you increase your alertness to other ways that you might otherwise allow yourself to slip.

I am not a very disciplined person. I realized this during the first week of the new year, when our regular schedule started at work and I didn't have to be in until 10:30 most days. I would wake up late, go to work, come back, and barely have any time to do more than check Facebook or watch a tv episode before falling asleep. To be honest, my habits haven't gotten that much better. There's still a lot of Facebook and mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed. But once I identified a pattern that was negatively impacting my mental and emotional health, I decided to start going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I can't get much done after work, but I have several fresh hours of the morning that are all mine to accomplish as much as I please.

Having made the physical shift in my sleeping habits, I have yet to make the mental shift toward a more effective daily routine. There are a lot of things that I want to do--get an adult job, become a master calligrapher, bind books, learn Latin, to name but a few--but I don't make much headway in them, because I am not organizing my time well. As strange as it might sound, I'm hoping that this small goal of writing something daily for the next month will improve my discipline in other areas.

Reason #3: I devour enormous quantities of ideas. I'm always reading two or three (or four... or five...) different books, and I've recently started listening to podcasts, checking longform.org for interesting essays, and going to Meetups with various discussion groups in Philadelphia. With so much going in, it's not always easy to remember what I've encountered even five minutes after I've read/heard/discussed it.

Writing is a multi-faceted act, with various facets becoming more or less significant depending on the situation. It can be synthetic, drawing together different ideas and playing them off of each other until they provide a coherent conclusion. Or it can be narrative, telling a story, perhaps even moralistic, if that story is shaped to provide insight. It can have a preservative function, as with oral histories, memoirs, or even shopping lists. There are some things we want to save, and writing them down may not secure their permanence, but it at least prolongs their lives.*

These, of course, are but a few of the possibilities, although I think they are not a bad start to the list. Personally, I think that whatever I am feeding my mind will ultimately come out in whatever I am writing, even if it's not immediately obvious how, say, Martin Buber supplies the backdrop to a meditation on blackbirds (for the record, while I have read Martin Buber and written about blackbirds, I don't think the two are actually connected on this blog) and even if the input is not of the same type as the output (e.g. a story inspiring a story vs. a story about a personal mishap inspiring a general discussion on the value of misadventures)

Honestly, it might just lose me all of my subscribers when y'all go insane from Christy overload, whilst I get tetanus from repeated cat maulings because Bear thinks my typing fingers make great prey. But why not give it a go? All this proletarian has to lose is her audience. And her fingers.

*Note to self: Barthes//Camera Lucida


Urban Sidewalks

The last time I lived in a city, there was a bit more cobblestone. Not that I don't enjoy the aesthetic of Trenton Avenue's stone pavement. But it's an outlier in a world of metal, asphalt, and concrete. Hard materials, and durable ones. Made to survive the passage of a million feet. Made to bear up under the weight of so many lives and so many expectations.

What do we bring with us? And how do we shape these seemingly immovable surroundings? It seems arrogant to think that we could possible leave our imprint in a lasting way. I am not, after all, Edmund Bacon, whose life's work included the mid-century planning of Philadelphia. But cities are made of people too. 

To change the life of another person, however greatly, is still a shallow impression in light of its transience. It passes with the passing of the consciousness that holds it. And I wonder too--how hard must it be, to matter to someone enough to change them. We are not unlike the city's substance, when it comes to our psychological habits and emotional ways. We resist that which would alter us. We cling to the semblance of the unchanging as a life raft in a turbulent world, even if that which does not change is within us, is hurting us because it closes us to new experience.

It is snowing, and for the first time in four years, that is not a cause for concern. Something old; something new.