Tag Archives: meaning

“Oh, buddy, it’s fantastic”: This week in notes

View southwest toward sunset from Hedge Road, 5 p.m. today, 29 Jan.

View southwest toward sunset from Hedge Road, 5 p.m. today, 29 Jan.


When I judge or criticize other people or things, my judging is analytical, abstract, comparing some particular thing to some generalized standard. It’s a part of my ego, my getting-around-in-the-world mind. I don’t judge when in meditative or sleepy mind.  23 Jan. 2017


“Molly, do NOT get diarrhea,” said a veterinary office worker to a white-muzzled old beagle wearing a pink-striped sweater. 23 Jan.


Seeing lights on in houses as I drove home this winter evening, I thought how cozy the homes looked, and how cozy my own house probably looks from outside. But I don’t don’t often feel that cozy when I’m in my house, and maybe that’s because when I’m home taking in TV or online news, stories about problems everywhere (or anywhere) outside my house pull my attention away from my calm, cozy home and life. 23 Jan.


Making meaning — and not just receiving others’ meanings — matters. There’s the essay, the try — we write essays to try to understand things, I told my students this week.

The big meaning, of course, is how one should best live. (It seems a little banal to state it this way, but “how to best live” could include practical ethics, useful metaphysics, everyday epistemology, etc.)

I find it easy to fall into writing about meaning. I’ve been tending toward sticking to facts — to basic observations — so as to let readers see meanings for themselves. 23 Jan.


A small mammal path at the edge of a parking lot southeast of Riverside-Perryville intersection in Rockford-Loves Park, Ill. Sat. 28 Jan.

A small mammal path at the edge of a parking lot southeast of Riverside-Perryville intersection in Rockford-Loves Park, Ill. Sat. 28 Jan.


All day long, we interpret others — we try to understand the actions and words of other people we see, meet, or interact with. These interpretations are theories we create and then employ to guide our interactions with these others. These theories can be judged as useful or not (rather than true or false), depending on how successfully I interact with others.

Truth is a judgment of a theory against an external reality, which we can never actually get to, since everything we know about external reality has to come in through our minds. But usefulness I can judge within my own experience. Whatever theories seem to me to work, I’ll call these “useful.” 24 Jan.


Meanings, theories, interpretations — these aren’t as real was what actually happened. 24 Jan.


All judgments are comparisons, and all comparisons are arbitrary (not necessary), so therefore, all judgments are arbitrary. Even when I call someone an asshole for how he drives, he’s probably not really and completely an asshole. 24 Jan.


My blog posts where I just report a quote without explaining it: my audience is older people who don’t need a full explanation of why a quote is funny or interesting, like a child would. Adults must already think interpretively more than kids do. 24 Jan.


A place at the corner of a gas station lot NE of Riverside-Perryville intersection, Rockford-Loves Park. Sat. 28 Jan., about noon.

A place I could be for a while. Probably nobody but the lawn crew every goes to this spot, at the northwest corner of a gas station lot, but one could. It’s not a place that we typically think of as a place, like we’d think of going to a house, or a restaurant, or a park, etc., but this, too, IS a place. Northeast of Riverside-Perryville intersection, Rockford-Loves Park. Sat. 28 Jan., about noon.


“If I’m talking and not thinking about what I’m saying, I’ll say everything wrong,” said student. 24 Jan.


A door in the backside of the building at the northeast corner of Riverside-Perryville. This is across a little parking lot from the gas station corner photo. 28 Jan.

A door in the back side of the building at the northeast corner of Riverside-Perryville. This is across a little parking lot from the gas station corner photo above. Though this side of the building isn’t much to look at, it’s just as real — as touchable, as there — as the lovely front side of building is. 28 Jan.


Everything can mean something. Everything can tell something, symbolize something (my obsessive mind, anyway, can interpret almost anything, which can be exhausting). Not general topics like “pencil” but THIS pencil: Who owned it? How’d it get here? We can play detective. Of course, with my practice at interpretation, as informed by my experiences and my sensibility, I’m probably better at making meaning than my sophomore students are — but I still want them to try making meaning through their essays built from a session spent observing in the school hallway. 25 Jan.


Creating meaning as a writer and as a reader — two different acts of meaning creation using the same words, the same text. 25 Jan.


“We get in trouble and then we look at our underwear and it’s matching,” said senior girl of herself and another senior girl, who had already said that when they wear the same underwear, they both get in trouble. I have no idea what prompted them to announce this in class. 25 Jan.


At 4 p.m. this day, so much gray: the roads are gray, the bridge over the river is gray, water’s gray, reflecting gray sky. The grassy ground is tan, but also muddy gray. 25 Jan.


Reminding myself: Just don’t look at stuff that is iconic, or resonant — certain houses, say, that seem to inspire thoughts of “my life would be better if only I lived there.” Stay in your own life, keep your attention on your own life, instead of mentally living elsewhere, in idea-realm (fantasy-realm, “solve all my problems” land). Just drive to your destination, just keep looking ahead, not off to the sides of road at houses. 25 Jan.


My students lack the experience (worldliness) of adults, but they’re also open-minded (not world-weary). 26 Jan.


People don’t go to an anthology or magazine of poems to get meaning, but just poems. So a meaningful piece — something you as writer really mean — you might publish not with others’ work but with your own, where readers can see your project, your point of view, your take on poetry, your world of poems, so that your poem is not competing with other poets’ in a poetry mag. Of course, poetry-mag poems are gonna be real poety-poems: ur-poems, practically meta-poems, where poets show off their poetry-writing skills to other poets. [A thought after reading a recent issue of Poetry mag, 26 Jan.]


Even when I don’t find a particular poem I love, I like how my mind seems to let loose and I have new ideas — unrelated to the poems, usually — but perhaps the poems loosen my mind to think anew. 26 Jan.


A kind of magic: the transformation of spoken words to a transcribed quote, isolated on page or screen (how the quotes I hear come to exist as words on my notepage). 26 Jan.


“She has more problems than I can count, and I failed Algebra 2, so it’s not that many,” said senior student of classmate. 26 Jan.


“When am I gonna use that in my outside life, except when I become president?” rhetorically asked my student, referring to the school’s required speech class. 26 Jan.


A cracked-open box of telephone wires, possibly, NE of Riverside-Perryville intersection, 28 Jan.

A cracked-open box of telephone wires, possibly. Northeast of Riverside-Perryville intersection, 28 Jan.


My cat was not moving his sleepy head this morning — only his eyes moved. And a horse and donkey I drive past every day spend a lot of time in their small shed. Animals spend much more time than people do sitting around, just being conscious, not doing. Maybe I need to do more of that to feel like I’ve really lived and been aware of it. When I’m getting things done, I’m less aware of being alive. Maybe animals living this way have a sense of really having been alive enough when so they don’t fear death when they die — not that animals can abstract like we can, but they’re so much more accepting than I seem to be. 27 Jan.


“Oh, buddy, it’s fantastic,” said student to me about Avanti restaurant‘s gondola sandwich. 27 Jan.


Not from my notes, but worth repeating: My brother Nace, who lives in Northern Minnesota and photographs sled dog races, northern lights, and moose, was recently interviewed on Duluth public radio about his pictures.


Wires up close.

Wires up close.

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.


What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.


All Satisfying Stories Have Morals: A Reader’s Critical Perspective

Simple stories for children, like the Brothers Grimm’s “Cinderella,” seem to have obvious themes that are also morals, instructions on how one should and should not behave. I have used these fairy tales as fictions that are easy for my high school students to analyze critically. We have looked at the stories and decided which characters are winners, those who end the story in better position than they started it, and which characters are losers who end up worse off.

This approach seemed too simple to use for more modern, psychologically complex stories. But as I’ve been thinking about how to best teach my students to analyze Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (see also here and here), it occurred to me the other day that most traditional stories also can be analyzed by making a distinction between the morally good characters — those who get rewarded — and the morally bad characters, who get punished.

By traditional stories, I mean those stories that have a consistent point of view and tone (so it’s clear to readers what’s “really” happening in the story and how we readers are supposed to feel about it) to convey a sequence of events that can be causally explained by reference to the characters’ given traits and chosen actions.

For example, “Of Mice and Men” is a traditional story. Not that we can predict the outcome from the beginning (though there are strong hints that things will not end well for George and Lennie — and without these mood-hints, the dramatic ending may seem unbelievably abrupt), but once we get to the resolution, we can trace back the causes. Everything that happens has a cause based in the characters’ natures and their actions. George shoots Lennie because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Lennie killed her because he thought she would get him in trouble, as he has gotten in trouble before. If he got in trouble, he wouldn’t be able to get the rabbits he hoped to tend. He wants rabbits because he seemed to have an obsession with soft things, which obsession also leads to his conflict with and killing of Curley’s wife.

Everything is explainable. There are no random acts in this story. (Stories that do have random acts are not the traditional type of stories I’m talking about.) If Lennie had gotten killed by a rattlesnake after killing Curley’s wife, that would not be directly caused by a character’s choice, and so this wouldn’t feel like a satisfying ending to readers.

And I want to suggest that satisfying endings are those that grow out of human causes — human decisions. Characters had to be free to choose their actions, so that they deserve their consequences. This is what makes stories satisfying — consequences are direct result of human choices. We readers can ask what choices the characters made, or could have made, and this can help reveal the behaviors that earn consequences. The metaphysical implication here is that we are in control of our lives, our fates.

But, of course, in real life, it does not seem that we are not in control of all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen to us. Perhaps we read traditional stories so as to, for a time, enjoy the feeling that events can make sense. Traditional stories are appealing because random things do not happen, and because fairness and justice are served, unlike in real life, where sometimes bad deeds go unpunished, innocent people get killed by drunk drivers, and people disappear without a trace. Hell, in real life, we don’t always even know what the right decision is.

And so these traditional stories can be satisfying. Sometimes, though, these stories may seem artificial, false — altogether too tidy, not life-like. And so there are other stories — stories told from multiple points of view, stories that end ambiguously, stories where random things happen, stories where the good guys lose. Though these stories may better resemble what really seems to happen in life, these stories tend to not be satisfying. I often get frustrated by the predictability of traditional stories, but I also wonder what is the point of reading a nontraditional story that is just as messy as real life.

A story that isn’t traditional won’t have a clear meaning, because it’s more like life and life doesn’t have clear meanings — because meaning doesn’t reside in physical things, but only in consciousnesses.

(Perhaps I cannot be satisfied by reading fiction. My friends who enjoy fiction more than I do tell me they appreciate the journey of the reading experience — they enjoy being absorbed into the story, spending time with the author’s voice, perhaps, or seeing how the narrator makes variations on the usual storytelling conventions to avoid being too predictable. Maybe I just read too much for theme to enjoy these other aspects of fiction. But if an author’s gonna ask me to read a couple hundred pages and pretend that these characters are real people, it better be worth my time. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about giving readers a plot by which he can make his ideas more palatable, but sometimes I wonder why Vonnegut doesn’t just give us his ideas without the machinery of characters and plot.)

So it had never occurred to me until recently how must stories that we enjoy reading serve an ancient, eye-for-an-eye sort of morality. I should be careful not to overextend my analysis to all traditional stories, but I suspect this would be a critical perspective that might work. I hadn’t thought that so many stories could be analyzed from a punishment/reward perspective, but maybe traditional stories are that simple, and are satisfying for — but are also limited by — that simplicity.

Afterthoughts: Here are some related ideas I want to convey, but didn’t want to clutter up the above discussion.

* Traditional stories have human characters, or characters with human-like consciousness. They tend not to have, say, animals-qua-animals, or trees, or shoes, as main characters. I suspect that this is because satisfying stories really require choices to be made. Narratives where a character is just acted upon might not seem so satisfying. Morality only involves human choices; nature is amoral, beyond moral, because animals and trees can’t make moral choices. They live not by choice but by their natures, their instincts.

* I mentioned above an “eye-for-an-eye” morality, which implies an Old Testament idea; this prompts the question what a New Testament, “turn the other cheek” story would be like. Would that be dull, because the point is to avoid conflict?

* Characters: There’s a weird dual nature to fictional characters. They are just ideas, of course, but in that way, they are not so different from those real people we know but who aren’t currently in our presence. Characters must be real-seeming enough for us to care about them, particularly in a drama that doesn’t want to be laughed at — and yet, some of my students may have reacted to George shooting Lennie with (perhaps nervous) laughter. We readers of fiction books and viewers of fiction movies can’t feel too strongly about characters, or we’d feel too strongly to watch people get killed in action or horror movies. At some level, we know characters are merely ideas and not real, but we need to see them as real if we are to take the work seriously. There’s a duality here to our understanding of characters.

* So much of fiction requires conflict, and so it sets mutually hostile characters into revealing situations. This can feel artificial at times. It’s not unlike what reality shows like “Big Brother” do — “let’s put a bunch of terrible people into an enclosed space and watch them do terrible things to each other,” as the producers might say.

* The meanings that stories often present — what choices and behaviors are good and should be rewarded, and which are bad and should be punished — these can sometimes seem arbitrary. The meanings I find even in my own experiences may change over time.

* It’s easy for us to see some traits — mutual respect, kindness, fairness, for example — as generally good, and other traits — greed, selfishness, disregard — as bad. But beyond these, I wonder how many qualities seen as good are simply cultural or situational. For example, I wonder if the resource waste and pollution that I take for granted in my life — or, I feel a little bad about it but I figure that it’s too hard for me to live without fossil fuels, say — will come later to be seen as terribly bad qualities.

* Steinbeck makes Curley’s wife seem like a bad character. The other characters complain about her, and when she talks, she says terrible things (like threatening Crooks with lynching). But somehow this makes her seem like she was partly to blame for her own murder, and I’m not comfortable with “blame the victim” mentality. One wonders how she would tell this story from her point of view. She certainly wouldn’t have lived to see Lennie killed.

* We know the main conflict is resolved when the story ends — this is partly how we know that “Of Mice and Men” is the story of Lennie’s demise. George keeps living after, but Lennie does not. This is the end of their relationship. In a way, the resolution is George choosing to shoot Lennie, and yet, this is the resolution to a much earlier problem — why George brought Lennie to this ranch in the first place. Readers want to see how the set-up, how the main conflict, turns out. A story that sets up a situation but does not resolve it is not going to be satisfying.

* Sometimes a story doesn’t end. For example, the TV version of “Game of Thrones,” which story kills off important characters, and so then I feel like this must not have been Ned’s story, or Rob’s story — I must not have understood whose story this really is, who the main chars are. When a story goes on and on, it’s tediously unsatisfying — again, it starts to seem like real life, and yet real history has at least the ending of the present moment.  If one reads English history from a thousand years ago, there’s a lot of it, yet you know that it stops at the present moment. With “Game of Thrones,” it’s not clear that it will ever end. The books that would end the story haven’t even been written yet, and once a story goes on for so long, it seems it would be difficult to have an ending that is meaningful enough to justify the duration of the story. (See also “Lost.”)

* Steinbeck says he based Lennie on a person who killed someone, but did not get killed and instead went to an asylum. So I wonder why Steinbeck decided to have a story where it seems OK for the George character to make the decision to take Lennie’s life instead? Why did Steinbeck change the story in this way — because it provides a better sense of “divide justice” than if Lennie just gets locked up?

* Though a published narrative is fixed and unchanging, I think it is a valid critical technique to ask what options the characters had each time they made a decision. Even if George and Lennie didn’t have good options, they had options. They had to, if they are to be held responsible for their actions. And in a way, “Of Mice and Men” seems like the story is told, seemingly from George’s point of view (the narration is third person, but George is the only character we see from the beginning of the story to the end), as if it were George’s justification for his decision to shoot Lennie (though the story offers George a self-defense claim when Carlson suggests that George took the gun from Lennie, and George, knowing this is false, agrees). This entire story, then, can be seen as an argument for when a person might be justified in taking another person’s life out of love for that person. I’m still not sure this argument works, however. The story seems to draw a parallel between George shooting Lennie and Carlson shooting Candy’s dog — but of course, Lennie is a person, not a dog.

* We readers find happy endings satisfying when the characters have earned them by some means (even if that means is just by suffering, as Cinderella seems to). But an unearned happy ending isn’t satisfying. If someone struggling with poverty suddenly wins the lottery, that would be a “deus ex machina” and would feel like the author is too heavy-handedly forcing things. That’s not satisfying. A traditional story could be satisfying if it would have an unpredictable thing — lottery winnings, earthquake — happen at the beginning of the story, and then it could show how the characters react to these things.

* Another example of how we like to find control in our lives is when we hear that someone got a diagnosis of cancer, and we think of reasons that person did something to cause that disease.  We might say or think, “well, he WAS a smoker” — as if we’re looking for ways to protect ourselves — ” I won’t get lung cancer bec. I’m not a smoker,” when that’s not always true, of course. This is a terrible, petty thing to think, but we sometimes want to understand the world and feel we’re in control — it’s disturbing to our human consciousnesses to realize how much we do not control (our genes, our environments, other people who might hurt us, etc.).

* Simplistic stories sometimes make the bad characters simply, evilly bad — bad without an understandably human motivation. I prefer to think of most bad characters as not just evil but merely self-interested — more mafioso than demon. Cinderella’s stepmom doesn’t mistreat her out of pure meanness, but because she wants to advance her own daughters’ fortunes over Cinderella’s. I once had a student who said, somewhat plaintively, “But my stepmom is nice,” and I said, yes, in real life, lots of stepmoms are nice. But as characters whose interests may be suspect anyway, stepmoms can play that role of antagonist (as opposed to, say, making a mother herself opposed to her children, as was the mother in early versions of “Hansel and Gretel.” That’s just too monstrous to consider). My wife pointed out that conflicts over resources remain a significant fact for a lot of people in the world — it’s the stability of our American political/industrial/military power that allows so many of us in this country to take so many of our basic needs for granted. (As I mentioned above, this “taking for granted” may turn out to be a bad trait on our part.)

* And what IS good? Lots of modern fictional shows have anti-heroes — “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos” — why do people watch those? (I choose not to. For entertainment, I usually watch comedy, shows that imply the world isn’t so bad.  I don’t want to spend my time and attention on grim stuff when I see so much of that in the news and in my students’ lives.) Do we come to have some respect for these anti-heroes, even if we disagree with their goals? Do we respect their code of conduct — efficiency, effectiveness, loyalty — even if their goals are selling drugs. But I’ve heard some drug gangs’ operations are similar to those of legitimate businesses, and some businesses do morally questionable things as a matter of normal actions.  We don’t really know whether we’re good — until we get judged in Heaven? Is that all we really wanna know, if we’re good or not? We know we’ve done bad things but we want redemption? — are these the reasons we find traditional stories satisfying — we can compare ourselves against these bad characters to feel OK about ourselves?


* Stories that are not traditional — those stories with multiple narrators, or random events, or ambiguous endings — do not contain meaning about theme and character so much as they present meanings about story structure itself. Update 16 Feb.: In the 10 Feb. 2014 New Yorker magazine (paywalled, but here), James Woods describes as “the full, familiar postmodern quiz-kit” these “metafictional questions” in a fiction work: “truth-telling, the veracity of representation, the coherence of the self, language’s relation to silence, and what we mean by innocently talking about fictional ‘characters’ as if they were real people.” These, Woods seems to say, are the markers of stories that aren’t really about characters and events but are about the philosophy and practice of storytelling itself.

Thought of the Day

Rock River, Byron, IL

Rock River, Byron, IL

From my private and bountiful Humble Genius Library of My Writings,  a selected bit of wisdom:

27 June 2006

Why, for what purpose, for whom, is an essay, or any writing, written?


The finding of moments in creative nonfiction–you seldom have these in real time. My moments of realizing meaning happen most often while I’m writing, rather than at the real-time moment, during the living.


I don’t want to publish things about my parents, defining them, while they and I still live, you know? I don’t want to confirm — fix, cement — meaning. It always seems fakey to talk about moments and meanings [with the people with whom one has these meanings].


Crafting a text — text isn’t life. I knew that, but I’m wondering, why write my life at all? Why not be a poet? Why not do writing that doesn’t require me to “use up” my life? Roger Angell said when you write your life stories, they aren’t your memories anymore. [This attribution was probably from one of his New Yorker essays written not long before this 2006 date.]

Nonfic: A talk before dying: final conversations

candle-darkHere’s an article in The New York Times about saying goodbye to people who are dying.  Sometimes we are aware that the conversation we’re having now might be our last, but of course, people die unexpectedly — the last talk I had with my dad before his death in a car crash was not the last I thought I’d have with him. Afterwords, I thought about that last conversation and wondered if it were significant in any way except in its retroactive finality. I was soon to be married and I asked my dad if he had any advice about being married. I was conscious of this question feeling sorta forced, sorta self-aware-attempting-to-be-profound-in-a-regular-life-moment. (There’s gotta be an agglutinized German word for this.) Dad had nothing brilliant to say at the moment, nor did he try, nor did I expect him to, in a way. He was not a self-reflective person, and his only marriage, to my mom, revealed that relationships were not his area of expertise. (He reportedly once said that he just wasn’t a good candidate for marriage.)

Digression: There are a lot of skills, it has occurred to me, that one has to be competent with in order to be a successful modern adult. These abilities include: 1) the skills to do a job well enough, and the “soft skills” not to get fired from this job; 2) a capacity to maintain relationships with one’s spouse, family, friends, children, etc., each of which relationships have unique demands; 3) a facility in managing one’s money and one’s household; 4) a reasonable judgment about issues medical, psychological, mechanical, and legal, such that one knows when to seek expert help; 5) a sense of one’s identity and a philosophical sense of asking the important questions and prioritizing one’s values and attempting to understand what will make the living of life itself enjoyable and rewarding; 6) an ability to ask and answer the question, “Is it me or is it them?” in the many social situations in which one daily finds oneself (to give one of many possible examples: when I smell something foul, is it because I have trapped dog crap between my shoe treads, or is this smell somebody else’s fault — and if it is their fault, how does one mention this? And how can you be sure that one’s own olfactory sense is acting objectively? And if you figure it’s someone else’s funk, how does one tell that to the other?). This list of competencies  could go on, of course, but I think of this when I meet adults who seem to lack these skills. It can be hard to be an adult. I’m just lucky that I find myself so terrifically competent at being an adult and humble enough not to brag about it.

Back to the death-talk:  There is a question about whether the last conversation we have with a person who later dies should be considered any kind of special or privileged thing. My dad died suddenly, without us having a conversation we knew to be final, but I did have a final conversation (or so I suspected at the time) with my friend and former supervisor Charlie. I think I may have wanted a “special moment” there, but then I realized that was a B.S. way of thinking during the time I was with him. We were together in his hospital room long enough for me to get over thinking about the experience as I was having it, and we just talked. What the hell else could we do, really? We talked about his condition, then about books he was reading, ideas he had for writing projects, the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, etc. He said he would be less lucid as the day went on as he increasingly felt the effect of the morphine drip. The last thing I remember from that conversation was his other family members coming in and they started talking about getting Charlie a computer — practical stuff. But that conversation doesn’t really rank that highly in my memories of the most important moments in our friendship.

The meaning only seems to come after the experience. It seems like B.S. to try to live in the thought of what the current moment will mean in the larger story of one’s life. After the deaths of some of people whose deaths surprised me, or reminded me how suddenly life can end, I have felt the impulse to end each new conversation with some sense of closure, of not leaving things unsaid. This action is perhaps driven by fear, and when I realize the fear-motive, I try to let it go and accept transience and all that.

But, as the Times’ article quotes Roger Ebert as saying, “Words fail me.” Much as I love words, they cannot subsume or contain reality. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address makes this point — “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” — though, of course, the paradox is that Lincoln’s words were so beautiful that they helped keep alive the story of what the soldiers did there.

But lately words have seemed to me more valuable as components of an experience (building-blocks of a thought, of a conversation, of a writing-experience or of a reading-experience) than as containers of meaning (words are less like bowls that hold the jelly of meaning, and more like sieves that let meaning drain away — this metaphor also suggests another aspect of meaning: also like jelly, it can’t just sit around without becoming worthless. Meaning must be refreshed — like how jelly must be made anew each year?).

It may not matter precisely what we say as much as that we say what we say (and perhaps how we say it). Labeling and describing the world does not change the world (though, of course, language users — including even my dog, when he responds to my commands — can rearrange the world based on instructions and ideas delivered through words). Much as I love using words, and much as my daily experience would be quite different without words — words are the jelly through which I swim (and how would we mix metaphors without words?) — I guess I don’t believe words can be Truth. I don’t believe there can be any Meaning of Life that can be put into words (without sounding banal). I guess I don’t believe that words and ideas could somehow exist outside of human consciousnesses. We live whether we talk or not. Silence is (or can be) golden. I wouldn’t want to be silent all the time, but I sometimes do need to take breaks from words — reading, writing, speaking, and/or hearing them — and just go outside and walk and see trees and hug my dog and stuff.

And so I’ve once again gone on for over a thousand words in a blog post that started off small (but what doesn’t?). Some of the ideas and digressions above were things that had passed through my mind and struck me as as ideas that could be their own separate blog posts, but I’m amused today to see how these minor ideas got stitched together, like a quilt (maybe one of jelly?). This stitching was only partly intended — a lot of it just kinda came together. Perhaps the sum is more than the parts, and while the parts were ideas that came to me over years, today’s blog post is a unique stitching-together. This post is an expression that resulted from my reading and my writing this morning. I have sat here for a while now and I’ve been breathing and metabolizing and my liver has been responding to my body’s chemical signals — all of these things going on, (I presume, since I’m still alive at this moment to write this), while my conscious mind did this word-expressing.

My brother told me recently that some of these blog posts are difficult to read. That stung a little, as all criticism-from-family tends to, but then I thought, yeah, I’m just putting words into symbols here in a text document. This is a writing experience I have enjoyed having. Perhaps this text is not easy for a reader, and I don’t intend to be difficult, but I have chosen to post this text without extensive re-organizing and slimming-down. If my purpose were efficient communication, this post would look different. But I have nothing here that I particularly need to communicate. I felt a need to get certain ideas out, to set them into the world (as symbols), and I felt a need to, well, just write. This text isn’t intended merely to convey meaning (by carrying the meaning-jelly in the sieves as fast as I can? or by freezing the jelly?), but this text is intended only to exist, and if reading it conveys a sense of a mind, a distinct-but-relatable consciousness, that’s all I want, I guess.

More boring than silence: A runny-nose manifesto

Coming back from eating pizza at Subway tonight, I turned off my car radio. What we were hearing was “more boring than silence,” my wife said. It’s a good line. It prompted me to think about myself (as so many things do) and my writing and whether any particular post I’d write here would be more or, perhaps, less boring than silence, than not writing. I’ve been telling myself for the last couple hours that I wanted to write something today, but since I’ve also been battling a cold the last several days, I’m not sure I’m quite thinking clearly today. Maybe this is an experimental trial — some people have written while drunk, high, or, as Mark Leyner proposed, while having to go to the bathroom, so why not try to write while having a cold?

So, anyway, here is a link to a story I saw earlier about how slang lights up the brain — I don’t know so much about brain scans, but I know that it’s fun for me to play with words: make up new lyrics to songs, invert consonant sounds of adjoining words to make  spoonerisms, etc., so yeah, it seems these language things can be brain-engaging. Also, there’s this story about a theory of how the brain creates meaning from language, of which article I’ve not read the entirety, but I read enough to want to link to it and read it later. Maybe that’s something having a cold does for my brain — it seems to make it OK (less guilt-inducing) for me not to have to fully explain why I found an article relate-worthy.

But also, I tend to have this belief that the specific idea of a piece of writing doesn’t necessarily matter so much as that the text exists as a communique from one conscious mind. I tend to be interested in the raw text, as contrasted to the stylized, formalized, familiar text. While I feel hospitable to Kerouac’s idea of spontaneous prose being valuable, I don’t know that I’d assert the merit of the spontaneously written prose text over the structured, revised text. But I like the rawness, the sense that with a text that has not been overly edited, that is the author’s voice pouring, more-or-less uninhibitedly, onto paper (or screen). These texts can sometimes reveal more than the author even knows he/she means to say. But all meaning can be so … boring. (Note to self: easy on the generalizations).  I guess I mean to say that whatever we mean to say, we still say words.  Our meanings may be different tomorrow — tomorrow I may disagree with what I wrote today, but I still did say it today. I am alive now, at least.

Not that my mere being alive is in itself interesting to others who are also alive. But I guess that if I were to propose a manifesto (and it’s such lovely fun to do so), I’d say I’m interested in finding writing, in doing writing, that isn’t written with an outcome, a final shape, in mind. I’m interested in finding words — on signs, boring old words, and playing with them. I’m interested lately in writing down the things I hear — in turning everyday speech into words-on-paper, which somehow makes them seem more note-worthy, more significant, than speech. This preserves speech — and I’m not sure why that’s a good thing. But I guess I’m less interested in the writing project of a novel, of setting out to write a novel, or of setting out to write any particular thing that is defined before one even starts writing. Why not allow yourself as a writer to be smarter than you are?  Why try to control what you say?  Why try to structure it?  Haven’t we already seen the same stories over and over?

I guess what I’m saying is this: the frontier of new ideas is wide open. We — it is all too easy for our (or any) culture to live in a world it has defined, a mental world on top of/separate from the physical world. This mental world we have partly inherited from generations and cultures before us — for two small, simplified examples, Plato’s theory of Forms (ideas ) as existing separately from, independently of, physical/sense-able reality, and Aristotle’s urge to classify.

And so I’m saying that it’s all too easy for us — OK, for me — to think that what we think is real, matters. That our perceptions and theories are somehow … let’s give an example I use when I talk about philosophy and argument in my philosophy classes. I’ll ask kids if atoms are real, and someone says they are, giving the definition that they are the “smallest amount of indivisible matter.” But, of course, they aren’t — the science story continues beyond the atom, to say that they are divisible into electrons, protons, neutrons, and these last two are further divisible into quarks, and … so, no one really knows what is the smallest piece of matter. Sure, maybe there are vibrating “strings” below that, whatever that metaphorical explanation means. But, so, here’s the thing: nobody knows. There are explanations and theories that accord with known evidence, but these are basically stories, and when I taught science, I felt that all too often, I wasn’t teaching actual inquiry, but a story of science.

When my students and I talk philosophy, I say things like, “scientists would say that the university began at the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, when an infinitesimally small piece of matter and energy expanded to create the universe.” And this doesn’t seem really any more satisfactory of an explanation than giving the Biblical account of creation. But do we need either one? Do we really need to have an account of the origin of everything, which account would be necessarily speculatively fictional at some point?

In fact, why even do we make the distinction between real and not-real?  This is the distinction I present to my students and I lead them through a discussion of the definition of real, and how we’d decide what’s real and what’s not-real, and then we apply this definition to some particular, like numbers or ghosts or optical illusions. I want to show them how unsettled these biggest of questions truly are — which, by extension, (and I’m not sure how many kids do extend their thinking), shows how flimsy are most systems of belief (of any flavor of religion or philosophy or ideology), requiring as they do acceptance of some ultimately unprovable premises and definitions.

OK, this feels a tad sophomoric here, and of course I want to seem not that — I want to seem Worldly and Intelligent and so on … and of course, as soon as I start making generalized statements from a relativist position (“There is no truth,” he said, speaking relatively), arguments fall apart. But I guess I say this as background to justify/rationalize my feelings of disinterest in Perfectly Constructed Stories or Insightful Essays. I want to see people who are aware of the openness, the possibility, of being alive, of being conscious, right now, or, since right now is always moving on, passing away, people who are at least not bullsh!tting themselves into thinking that there are answers. That last part seems harsh, but I guess I sense that there’s urgency to this quest, this feels important, more important to me than writing some story or essay that peels off from this target and gets occupied in some little side-cave, when the main cave still is unexplored. I’m not sure the cave metaphor is a good one, either. Metaphors too are wonderful bullsh!t, the flocked wallpaper on the sentences of life (whatever that means — ha!).

I’d better quit before my brain shuts down anymore. But I guess this description is as good as any I’ve done before in trying to explain (to myself, even) my sense of urgency, of importance, of my mission — which mission is …?? I don’t even know it’s a cave. I usually console myself with the idea that there is no place we’re trying to get to, so I’m already there, so I don’t need to push on. That, if there are no particular answers (and why would there be? I’d only recognize a meaning of life if it came in the form of words, in the form of an idea, or a feeling, or something — so that if the purpose of life is merely to procreate more life, that seems unsatisfying, somehow, to my intellectual consciousness — perhaps my consciousness, since it feels like it was born new to each moment, it finds itself alive in this moment, cannot be satisfied with any mere answers to the question of the meaning of life, or of any other enduring, basic questions) —

That, if there are no particular answers, then satisfaction is to be found in the process, in the act of expressing, in the act of thinking, in the acts of being engaged in thinking and writing — and maybe this is as good an explanation as any as to why I’m more interested in the act of the person talking, the writer writing, than in what are the messages of the talker or the writer. Lately I’ve noticed some of my students saying things to me that are true only for them — “it’s hot in here,” or “this song reminds me of when I was 8 and  …” — and I think, “OK, I don’t feel hot,” and “this song reminds me of something totally different,” but in some sense, it doesn’t matter what they say. That they say it, that they can express some perception or some association their consciousnesses made, is beautiful.  Parenthetically, I don’t always think these are beautiful — sometimes I have wondered why they are saying these things aloud. But as I wrote this tonight, I recognized the beauty of their speaking, and now I’m glad I did this writing and learned from it. And (here comes the titlular tie-in), this learning is why writing and speaking aren’t more boring than silence.

What we are to do with the insights/new ideas/epiphanies that come to us while writing, I don’t know either. Again, I don’t want to say that these things are valuable as independent ideas that should be printed in some Tome of Wisdom someplace — but perhaps having these insights, learning from ourselves, is how we shape our consciousnesses as these arrive in each new moment of consciousness.

Link: Paradoxical Nouns: Why is abbreviation such a long word?

A link contains the following about word sounds/lengths and their meanings:

pulchritude. A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.  (Entry written by David Foster Wallace)

Nonfiction: About Humans and Meaning

Humans and meaning: how once we became conscious, we also were self-conscious, and once you’re aware of things, with consciousness, you can also start asking things (does all asking imply absence?  Observation is presence, what’s here around you — but asking “why am I here?” implies or rests on a concept of you not being here, and you can only imagine not-being, you can’t experience it, of course). And once you ask, “why am I here,” it doesn’t take you long to say, there isn’t any reason — other people die and the world goes on without them. Dogs don’t ask why they’re here. They simply accept it, live within it, but once you can ask, you need to answer, and there is no answer. The only thing that can satisfy a consciousness is an immaterial (word) answer, or maybe an experience (I don’t want to discount intuition too much, but what consciousness’s development did is precisely separate us from our intuition — or did it create intuition, too?)  We need some answer, some meaning; we need to feel our lives are meaningful so we have a purpose.  Dying is, essentially, meaningless. It’s a physical act and physical acts, objects, everything in the physical realm has no inherent meaning. They just happen.

And yet, the craving for meaning opened up by the development of consciousness, of the spark of conscious awareness, that cannot be found in the physical realm. Stories, symbols, meaning — these things never die, but then they never live. Adhering to/accepting one meaning or another is arbitrary. There is no single meaning/interpretation that is necessary for any physical thing or act.  My life doesn’t mean any one thing. But somehow the quest/search for meaning seems inherent to consciousness.

Since there’s no necessary interpretation, all interpretations of or about the world are not necessary, are arbitrary, can be consciously chosen/accepted or rejected, and so, you are free to choose interpretations that seem good to you, choose theories  (in daily life but also in any realm) that seem to work, seem to produce results. One can choose positive interpretations (or stories) instead of negative.

— Mh, 7 November 2005

Nonfic: To mean or to not-mean

I want to use words to mean (to communicate, to convey an idea or a feeling) and also to not-mean (to use words for their sounds, to say a word over and over because it’s fun and/or my brain loops).  I must have thought that I had to choose meaning or not-meaning, but I now see I can step beyond that dicotomy.

— Mh, 26 October 2011