Everything Isn’t Always OK

connection-to-the-world

I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

Inhibiting Impulse

“At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.”

NY Times.com: Benedict Cary, Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out

Must it be, therefore, that the more energy that we apply to inhibition leads us to better interaction with other human creatures? Certainly a possibility, considering that Zen monks are all about seemingly complete inhibition, though most likely they are ridiculously blissful somewhere on the inside. One of those paradoxes, you know, where transcendence is achieved only through the utmost discipline. But we all know, of course, that good things never come easy. Because the good things that do come easy grow sour quickly. The good things that last take us extreme effort to attain. Extended days of training so hard that you think  you’re gonna puke, and maybe you do.

In some emotionally or mentally jettisoned manner, we releast, we vent, we cope, we belabor our colleagues, our friends, our family, the postman: whatever upturned ear that comes our way that we know we can spooge into. It 9 times out of 10 becomes the gossip train, which is not ultimately a beneficial or positive thing in any way, but we gotta do what we gotta do until we finally find that space for self-reflection and breathing, whereupon we can silence the negative self-talk and move our mannerisms into quiet brilliance.

And the thing is, too, that this training and discipline must come regularly, and consistently. Or else we begin to lose it after just a few days. And exponentially onward from there, until we get ourselves back up onto the wagon of what we know we must do if we are to win. “Win,” not because we will have defeated all of our greatest enemies, but because we will have overcome our own depression, fear, and shame. (Which is essentially a statement re-stating itself).

Anyway. I have observed, based on qualitative assessments of my own life experience, that I interact much more positively with my peers when I restrain myself from being anyone other than myself. Therefore, no attempts to placate that desperation to be immediately categorized and labelled into a one-dimensional caricature of myself. I am me. I am quiet, I am slow to process, I am kinesthetic, and I want to be better than you. But I am sunshine, moonshine, dark lunar eclipse of the soul, moodily pleasant to you in your classroom. I am somewhat inhibited, intrapersonally restrained, running free at the end of some tether that only the gods would be crazy enough to contemplate. And I must be careful, because my soul’s musculature grows flabby as I allow myself to reside in a comfortability of current placement. I must be better than myself, everyday, and don’t let myself forget it.

Clarify Butter

 Sitting

There’s a certain fear that resides in clarity. It is easier, perhaps, to allow things to slide by in undefined, habitual complacency. It takes hard work and effort, concentration and integrity of thought and character, applied skill and artful intelligence, to root down to the sources of a comprehensive and connective vision. To examine beyond the defined object encapsulated by the word “tree”, for example, to see it for what it is: everything, itself, an infinite god descendant in form, ascending towards the sky, forging networks across subterranean subconscient intuition.

There is a part of us that wishes to avoid confrontation, a groundless hope that atrocity will end simply through inattention and withdrawal. Until that moment when the terror of our darkest indifference makes itself heard, seen, and known forcefully and immediately enough to shatter our somnolent mediocrity. All things hidden, all things suppressed, all things buried become manifest in a thousand different tragedies until you unearth them with shuddering laughter, you expel them with suffering love, you exorcise them with whatever conscious, unforced form of acceptance and embrace that can make them yours. Words, music, dance, images, rituals. There is no escape from the invasive and totalitarian ardor of the universe. It must be channeled, it must be ridden, it must be sown.

The forms that the unknown will take already lie at the end and the beginning of our awareness—we just have to live our lives according to our inherent shape, allow our trajectories to occur, willfully, selfless, and hungry. The road to mastery mirrors the diminution of self-importance. The seeking path to god mimics the descent of science’s studies to the smallest of particles. Outward down, inward up, all roads lead to home. Clearly, the concern here lies with clarifying the weakest link within ourselves.

Middle of the Night Math Blather

Ah, insomnia. Sometimes sleep is just not an activity that my mind wishes to engage itself in. I thought I was done with journaling after returning from Colombia, yet find myself unable to step back into my somewhat standard methods of disassociative discursive writing. Partly this is due to existing currently in a state of limbo, as well my current dedication to studying for an inane test, the GRE, which apparently was crafted to “weed out” people who shouldn’t be applying to grad school, i.e. people who have better things to do with their free time then study irrelevant things for an unimportant test. I have not intended to neglect writing on this blog, in fact I kind of need it to stay sane and balanced, I just have not had the personal mental space necessary to turn within and get it out. Hence the insomnia.

I am well aware that the details of my personal life holds little of meaning nor interest for the outside world, and I generally cringe from bothering to sit to transcribe my mundane existence onto a blog, except when I am traveling and my mundane existence is somewhat more interesting—but I have little recourse at the moment. This is therapy, in a sense, a salve to my sleepless and seeking self. An attempt to write myself into a stability and stillness necessary for movement onward to hopefully a time when I can write something much more meaningful and applicable to the general populace.

Anyway, I need a topic to write about in relation to myself, so I’m going to write about math, because it’s been on my mind as of late. First, a brief personal history: I have never been “good” at math. I used to explicate this deficiency as a result of the way my brain worked: I was “fuzzy brained”. I didn’t think logically. I was a writer, a draw-er, a right-brainer. But I have since realized that these were simply excuses to cover over my laziness and lack of will to learn something that I believed was useless. I have always been stubborn, and when it came to math (and science), I simply didn’t want to learn it. In my old age, I now realize that I was and am perfectly capable of applying myself to math. The problem is, with math you are supposed to keep building on the foundation of what you have learned, so that one year you learn decimals, and then the next fractions, and then the next ratios, that kind of thing. You are suppose to retain information and then develop your understanding with this foundation intact.

I stopped retaining my mathematical learning in the 3rd grade, when I decided that I didn’t think math had any purpose in my life. This obviously made things difficult in school, as I never really learned how to do much except the most basic of arithmetic. The only way I got through was by utilizing the fact that even when you don’t understand how to do something, there are always examples for each type of problem. So you can look at all the answers to the odd numbered questions in the back of the book, which are essentially identical to the even numbered questions, except with different values. It takes little effort, as it’s basically monkey-see-monkey-do rather than an innate understanding of concepts. That’s how I got through math, up to pre-calc. And then, other than the SAT, I thought that I was done forever with math. This was a more or less accurate assessment, except that I had to ostensibly tutor high schoolers in the subject when I was working as an instructional assistant. However, the math was easy, and my students were all special ed and needed extra reiteration (don’t think for a second that I’m saying they’re stupid; they just don’t generally grasp bullshit standardized subjects very quickly because their brains don’t function in a “normal” manner), which meant that I got pretty good at explaining how to do things just by doing examples over and over again. But other than that, I’ve always been able to do what little math I’ve had to do in my life with the assistance of the handy invention of the calculator.

That is, until I started recently studying for the GRE. I breezed through the reviews of the antonyms, the word comparisons, and the reading comprehension sections. There are a lot of weird words that I’ve never really learned that I’ve got to memorize, such as pulchtritude, or splenetic, but on the whole I find the exercises fairly straightforward, if annoying and snobbily academic. Then I got to the math section. And suddenly I went from swimming in the sea to fumbling in the rocky rapids. My self-confidence dropped to my knees. And I was reminded, harshly, of the fact that I had stopped applying myself to math in the 3rd grade.

So now in my belated adult existence I am attempting to teach myself math all over again. It’s akin to learning a new language for me, and it takes double the effort because I still have an ingrained bias against math in my mind. I keep telling myself that I am fundamentally incapable of learning it, even though I know this is untrue. And I know this is untrue because while I was reviewing the verbal sections of the GRE, I came to a sudden realization of something: analyzing literature and utilizing words effectively is actually much closer to the process underlying mathematics and science then one would think.

I have had this realization before. In college, I had some roommates that were studying engineering, computer science, and pre-med, and inevitably the issue arose in conversation regarding the nature of the different majors, the fuzzies vs. the logical reasoners, the English vs the hard sciences. I was always frustrated that people seem to think that when you are writing an essay about literature, that it is all completely subjective bullshit. Sometimes it is—but then it isn’t good writing. The fact is, all good writing is based quite firmly on what is given and established, just as a scientist proceeds with his hypothesis based on established research. When analyzing a piece of literature, the essayist must thoroughly examine it, and accumulate the evidence that will contribute to his thesis. He then takes all this evidence and ties it all up into a convincing argument, bolstered by flourishes of flow and nifty word placement. It’s like what a lawyer does when he researches past cases and nuances of applicable law in order to write up his case. It’s an effort that is completely logical, and defensible through evidence and a coherence of presentation.

Such literary efforts can always be made through differing points of view—but these points of view must be defensible by what has already been established, or else they hold no water. You can argue, for example, the far-fetched notion that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is really a covert parable of a spiritual science of the seven chakras—but you’d better be able to provide concrete evidence from the movie that corresponds directly to metaphysical literature on chakras. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. In other words, you can posit any kind of thesis that you want, but you have to be able to defend your position, and convince others that your position is superior. If your thesis is confirmed by the wider community of critical scrutiny, then it becomes part of the established canon of literary criticism. Just as the process that occurs when a scientific hypothesis is confirmed as valid and takes its place as established theory until another theory comes along that is more inclusive.

Anyway, so the gist of what I’m saying is that the process of thought that is applied in either the conceptual effort of math or writing is essentially the same. It just takes some rote memorization and a concerted effort on the part of the thinker. So I’m like a little kid again, going back to school. We’ll see if my experiment in applying myself as fully as I can to mathematics will work or not. So far, the outlook is dim, as I still remain just as stubborn in my old age as I was when I was a young whippersnapper. But I’ll give it a go.

Wish me luck and let’s both hope that I am able to not only get some much needed sleep, but that I also eventually start writing some good non-mundane and non-mathematical posts real soon.

Fed Up with Food Research

Anyone else other there get fed up with the constant research detailing specific vitamins and other nutrients that can be found in different fruit or vegetables? Oh, look there’s Vitamin K in leafy greens! There’s lycopene in tomatoes! And so on, ad nauseum. Then they start putting little exclamatory snippets on products like cereal saying “heart healthy omega-3s!” or on ketchup like “contains lycopene!” as if these little magic scientific phrases are supposed to make you leap into the air with joy at the utter healthiness backed up by research that you are consuming.

Who cares what specific nutrients are contained within fruits and vegetables, and which ones benefit your colon, and which ones benefit your eyesight, and which ones enhance your spleen? Isn’t it sufficient to say that it is rather obvious that a healthy balanced diet consists of natural things, as in food that grows in real soil? Isn’t it obvious that animals that eat healthy food and lead a healthy life provide better meat?

Why do we need research to back up commonsense? Sometimes I wonder about all the money that is going into this “research.” Couldn’t they be studying something more useful . . .  like how to save humanity from itself?