It’s been a little over a year since my mother died. Last year, I was mostly in shock and hadn’t really processed all that went on, but this year, I’m finding more opportunities to reflect on what I learned.
This spring, my daughter Miranda published her book, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something.
Now, we are being bombarded by Black Friday ads, or even worse, Black Friday Eve. It all made me think, here I am in my mid fifties. My mother is dead, and I’m pouring over my childhood memories in my heart. What do I remember?
I remember getting those knitted socks that she didn’t have time to finish. They were in a shoebox with the knitting needles still in them. They were a couple different shades of red which almost matched. She had run out of yarn, and bought some more in a color as close as she could get to the original.
I remember the days leading up to the holidays, helping my mother bake. I remember one year, getting a broken alarm clock and a set of screwdrivers. I often talk about that is one of the best gifts I ever received. I remember the construction paper silhouette of my face pasted to a larger piece of white paper cut in the shape of a heart which I scrawled my name on. I must have given that to here as a gift when I was six or seven, and nearly half a century later, I took it down from my mother’s linen closet and brought it to my house.
It was a different time back then. We didn’t have a lot of money, there was probably a lot less plastic crap on the market and we certainly didn’t go to any Black Friday Eve sales. Yet the commercialization of the holidays had already started long before my childhood and I’m sure I got my share of plastic crap that made me happy for a day and a half before it broke.
So as you sit down at the Thanksgiving Day table, think about how you want to be remembered. Do you want to make a brief impression with the latest gadget bought on sale on Thursday evening, or do you want to be remembered for what you made, an incomplete set of socks or some other lasting memory made by warm hands held during grace over the dinner table.
Don’t let fears of your own inadequacies at making stuff stop you. That’s the message of Miranda’s book. By making something, anything, you are making important memories.
Don’t Buy Crap, Just Make Memories.
We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, #NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Just straight through writing. You can save the editing for later.
The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote a mystery in Second Life, and made the goal of 50,000 words. Subsequent years, I've started off on story ideas that were not clearly thought out enough, were too close to home, or I just didn't have the time. I've tried various variations on NaNoWriMo and am preparing for this year's attempt.
I've been thinking of writing some sort of psychological political philosophical treatise pulling together thoughts on aesthetics, politics, the genome, the biome, great awakenings, transcendentalism, transhumanism, the apocalypse, the singularity, social constructs and social contracts, neural networks, group therapy, attachment therapy, filter bubbles and a bunch of other ideas.
The starting point I've settled on is a campaign for State Representative. I will draw from my experiences running for State Representative last year, as well as experiences with other political campaigns, but I need to remind everyone that what I'll be writing is fiction, trying to weave together a lot of different ideas. If you find that a character sounds a lot like you, attribute it to good writing and not being a commentary on you. If you have ideas you want to share, make them about ideas and not your thoughts about different people.
With that, here is the general idea: In a fictional district, based loosely on the area I am from, there is a long time incumbent State Rep. His twin brother is a mayor in one of the towns in the district. His father was a Congressman. No one wants to run against the incumbent, so a political philosopher decides to run, but a completely different kind of campaign. No lawn signs, door knocking, palm cards,, advertisements, or any of that sort of stuff. Just discussions. Discussions about anything and everything. Discussions aimed at bring people with different viewpoints together, modeled on Chicago dinners, and aimed at breaking filter bubbles.
One of the towns in the district is a suburb where many college professors live, so there are lots of chances to talk about the genome, the biome, social contracts and social constructs.
I have a lot more ideas built into this, but I'll save some of them for November. Now, here's my ask: what sort of things would you like to talk about at a filter breaking dinner discussion organized by a long shot candidate for state representative? What points would you like to see gotten across? What conflicts would you expect?
As you can see by my comments about transhumanism, singularity, and the apocalypse, this is wide open. Let me know your thoughts!
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
It struck me last night, how difficult this is, as we enter day eight of the U.S. Government hostage crisis. Social media and the traditional news media remain focus on the crisis and negativity abounds. There are the spin-offs of mentally ill people acting out and getting killed and of others immolating themselves.
Yesterday, I read a blog post, Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?. It referred to an article in the Atlantic Wire Now We Have Proof Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person , which in turn refers to an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
The abstract for the Science article says,
Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.
Years ago, I spent a bit of time studying artificial neural networks, and this still shapes a bit of my thinking. The inputs we receive help shape the way our brains work. The old saying about computers applies, "Garbage in, Garbage out".
So what if we spent more of our time contemplating things of beauty, a masterful painting or a well turned phrase? What if we spent more time trying to comprehend fascinating complicated characters and multifaceted ambiguous plot lines instead of two dimensional characters facing simple, predictable outcomes?
What if we stopped and listened and looked at beauty, for half an hour, for fifteen minutes, or even just a few minutes a day?
I have returned to the article I started reading sometime ago, “The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren, (2008). I still have Blithedale Romance on my smartphone, and read sections of it from time to time, but it is slow going right now, so I added Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
I've thought more about Walden and Innisfree. How deliberately do we construct our lives? How much deliberation do we put into our lives? How do we balance deliberation and spontaneity? Can we live our lives as if they are an artistic creation we are working on?
Can we curate our social media feeds to assist us in this creation, spending more time on posts with a higher artistic value?
I was planning on review more of my Facebook feed, but that should wait for another day.
Our daughter Rebekah, who is in second grade, takes three after-school classes every week. On Monday there is violin; on Wednesday, Hebrew; and on Thursday, ballet. One of these classes connects her to a religious tradition going back three thousand years. Two of them are pretty well pointless.
Thus starts Mark Oppenheimer's article, Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument. The article is so full of faulty arguments, it seems not worth responding to. What's the point? The author completely misses the point. Yet I feel compelled to respond.
The first part of my response is borrowed from Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. If you haven't watched the video, find an hour and a half that you can sit down and watch it.
Perhaps the most important point that Pausch makes is about head-fakes:
the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.
Besides talking about perseverance, he talks a lot about the importance of learning fundamentals.
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work. And the other Jim Graham story I have is there was one practice where he just rode me all practice. You’re doing this wrong, you’re doing this wrong, go back and do it again, you owe me, you’re doing push-ups after practice. And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he? I said, yeah. He said, that’s a good thing. He said, when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up. And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. Is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.
Another great video is Benjamin Zander's Ted Talk about The transformative power of classical music. It is a shorter video that stands pretty well on its own.
When i was a kid, I took music lessons. They were important to me, but I wasn't supported at home in them, and never practiced as much as I should have. I still regret that. So, I strongly encouraged my kids to play music. It has stuck with them and I'd encourage you to listen to some of the music my middle daughter has written and performed.
She also wrote about book about the creative process, Don't Make Art, Just Make Something. Making something is what allows you to practice the fundamentals and learn the indirect lessons that Randy Pausch talks about.
Yet there is more, there is the existential question of what's the point. Recently, I've been making jam. As a kid, my mother made jam. It preserved the fruits of summer. It fed the family. Yet it was also a creative endeavor. Creativity. It brings meaning to life. My jam making is a tribute to my mother. It is about creativity. It is about being connected to my past, to something bigger than simply myself.
A friend from high school is a widowed artist in the Berkshires. The other day, she posted on Facebook.
There is a freshness to the morning as dove blue light slips through the spaces in the venetian blinds. The big black cat, Kit, has come in for his breakfast, and the smaller black and white cat, Lily, has sniffed Kit as her good morning ritual, taken a few bites of her food, and now disappeared to a private nap place. Kit has gone back outside to check his territories. He will later rest on the back porch until I get home from teaching all day. Their life is simple, and mine is, too.
That's the point. The simple life of a cat, of an artist. It is part of the indirect lessons. It reminded me of a great Zen story:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Last Sunday, Kim took Fiona to her guitar lesson at the same school that Rebekah is studying violin at. I will take Fiona to her next lesson, and I will enjoy the strawberry, the simple life of cats and friends. I will enjoy feeling the connectedness between me, Fiona, Miranda, my mother, and everyone who struggles to create, through music, movement, and whatever other ways the spirit moves. I know that there will be times when encouraging Fiona's creativity will be a challenge, yet that too will be a simple strawberry.
I think that's the point.
Summer's almost over, and I'm crying, but I don't know why…
For years, the most common lyric that I would start my writing with was the beginning of The Circle Game; thinking back on my own childhood as I dreamed about the future for my own children. But of late, Cheryl Wheeler's song, "Summer's Almost Over" seems to be my starting place.
It is noon in Woodbridge. Kim and Fiona are at the barn. I was going to get up and go to church. Then, I'd do some minor chores around the house and maybe go for a swim. Summer's almost over, but there are still opportunities for a good swim.
Last night, my mouth was a little sore. I'm not sure what it was, but it was something like having a blister from eating burning pizza, exempt it was in the back left part of my mouth next to the molars instead of up front where the incisors would first meet the hot pizza.
There have been times when I get cankers and half my mouth would be in pain, and it had a little bit of a feeling like that as well.
I read a little bit more of The Blithedale Romance. It is providing me a broader perspective on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zenobia and perhaps Margaret Fuller, as well as the whole transcendentalist milieu.
Last night The Saylor Foundation tweeted a link to my previous blog post about Blithedale, to which I asked, what role they could play in convening techno-transcendentalists and helping them find a Virtual Eldorado.
Then, I gargled and went to bed.
This morning, I felt worse. The pain in my mouth has spread and all my muscles, especially those in my back were sore and stiff. Some of that might have been from the time I spent yesterday cleaning the large jugs I will be using to make hard cider. The pets did not want me to sleep, at least not at the expense of them missing their normal breakfast time. I did manage to sleep a little later than usual, and after I fed them, I headed back to bed. I set the alarm for nine, figuring I could get up, take a quick shower, and head off to church. When the nine o'clock alarm sounded, I managed to make my way to the shower, but as I stood there, waiting for the water to warm, I was overcome by fatigue. Yes, I could power myself to church, perhaps fall asleep during the sermon and have difficulty muster more than a surly smile to friends at coffee hour. Or, I could make it a real day of rest and head back to bed.
Three hours later, when I finally got back up, I started reading through social media. I've been thinking a lot about how we use social media these days. Are the statuses we read brief headlines we forget? Do they reflect something bigger going on in our lives? How doe they all fit together? Is there some sort of collective unconsciousness tying them together?
I've been seeking to sew together social media interactions.
Yesterday, Kim posted pictures from the barn; dogs, sheep and horses. Big Fluffy Dogs posted pictures of dogs needing rescuing. Gentle Carousel posted pictures of their miniature therapy horses helping others.
Meanwhile, my sister had a big roast yesterday out in Pennsylvania. My wife and daughter, who were caring for several pigs at the barn couldn't make it, and it was too far for me to drive solo.
Umm Junaid Moebius has been posting, this Childhood Cancer Awareness month about the loss of her son to Neuroblastoma. She is a devout Muslim, grieving, praying, and going back to school. Meanwhile, Kate Audette is walking 26.2 miles today in the 25th Annual Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk in memory of her son Kaiden who died of Medulloblastoma.
All of this in a week when we remembered Kim's mother's death after a battle with cancer fourteen years ago.
For several years, I've been reading a blog called Momspective. Today, Julie put up an incredibly powerful blog post, Let Me Tell You A Story About A Girl I Once Knew, And The Woman She’s Become. It is the story of a mom dealing with being bipolar, struggling to become sober, being raped, yet celebrating successes like two years of sobriety. It is a must read.
Also, Deirdre, a friend from high school was written about her grief at the loss of a close friend. She talks about Burroughs, Kerouac and the 'For Rent' sign at her late friends Victorian apartment.
My friend is gone, and in her honor I want every fool I know to get over it, and do better at the things she was good at: kindness, sensitivity, and empathy.
I think of Kim, Nur, Kate, Julie, and Deirdre, and perhaps, before I head back to bed to try and sleep off whatever is ailing me, it is best to use one final quote from William Golding's, Lord of the Flies to tie it all together:
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.