No presents please.

no-gift-imageMy grandparents reached a stage in their later years when they often said at Christmas or on birthdays: “Don’t buy us anything.” They didn’t offer more. They didn’t suggest substitutes nor did they feel the need to explain. Being on the giving end of that mandate was unpleasant. Giving them gifts made us feel good. Their not wanting gifts was discouraging, to say the least. What we didn’t comprehend was that we were gift enough…our accomplishments and our companionship. I finally get it. They derived pleasure, as I am beginning to, from our just (to borrow a phrase from Jerzy Kosinski) “Being There.”  Being There is the gift I want from those close to me and Being Here in the moment is the gift I give to myself.

The journey to this place was pretzel like–it was a journey that truly is only recognizable in retrospect, that is “through the rear view mirror.” It is a state of mind that you can achieve, but cannot map. You can only hope to land at this spot, but planning the journey in a way that guarantees you will, well that’s something else. Not much different from the measure of the parameters of obscenity, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter,  I can only offer that while I can’t explain how one gets to this place “I know it when I see it.”

That’s about as lofty as things will get here today. For, having arrived at this state of mind that does not require my fighting traffic, pushing my way through crowds in stores at any hour of the day or night, no matter the enticement or otherwise being in “go” mode, the following is a list of things and holiday messages that I’m finding particularly irksome–and in some instances, downright problematic this week:

Hollywood Messaging:
1) Being committed to work and high caliber performance (male or female) must necessarily involve short changing family–and if you don’t have a family, your work is a likely culprit. 2) Life in New England or other backwoods country locale (=good) is preferred  to life in New York or other urban area (= bad). 3) Hard working type A’s probably don’t believe in Santa Claus and are, no surprise, often found on the naughty list. Additional faulty personal traits that tag along  include lacking true Christmas spirit and understanding what, in Charlie Brown’s words, “Christmas is all about.” This list could actually benefit from an entire blog, but you get the gist.

Commercial Enterprises Changing Roman Calendar:
Friday, Saturday, Sunday–the names of the week date back hundreds of years. Sure, there’s a favorite I have of “Over the hump Wednesday”–but that’s a prepositional phrase–falling far short of the current trend towards adding  adjectival descriptives to the days of the week that in effect become  name changers.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is no longer,  as in “Do you have to work on the day after Thanksgiving?”  but is now:  Black Friday. What was for some a welcome day off from work, generating one of the only fourdayweekends in American working life, has been transformed into a day when everyone bears a piece of the responsibility for turning the economy around, signalling recovery and the harbinger of hope for the year ahead. Opt out of being part of that message at your peril for being labeled downright unpatriotic.

If you thought that skipping Friday was a simple way of avoiding falling into that commercial trap, special thanks to American Express for naming Saturday “Small Business Saturday.”  Just when you patted yourself on the back for staying away from the big box stores on Black Friday, your guilt can only now be assuaged by visiting the mom and pop stores and “shopping small.” You don’t want to be seen as a Scrooge, do you?  Lastly, lest you believe you have outsmarted every effort to draw you into the shopping melee, on Cyber Monday when you return to work your inbox and every website you visit will bombard you with promises of the bestprices, steepestdiscounts, todayonly lastchances to shop for those special people on your list.

In what world that you or I may have ever conceived would spending the weekend listening to music, reading and writing be viewed as excessively sedentary downright unpatriotic pursuits? In what world could reading about the comet that managed to escape capture by the sun or contemplating from my window the lone swan who swimming  back and forth without his/her now missing spouse not hold  a candle  to running around saving the economy through endless shopping?  In what world could reminding your fingers and brain that you once played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude and can again, ever be mentioned in the same breath as an admonition that includes the words”staying home and sitting around?”

Something is amiss.

For a long time now I have enjoyed these lines by notsofamous poet, Hugh Prather from his book “Notes To Myself”:

“Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight. But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud.”

And by that, I don’t mean let’s head out to the mall and check out the sales.

Innovation tempered by Empiricism: Life atop the elephant teetering on the back of a tortoise

elephant on tortoise“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

That particular quote didn’t grab my attention in college philosophy studies, but sneaked up on me  in the dialogue of an about-to-have-his-contract-cancelled Santa in a syrupy Hallmark made for TV Christmas movie.  Confronted by his side kick elf-pal, filled with doubt about their ability to pass the test that will seal the fate of  Santa’s role in Christmas, “Santa” in the persona of a prep school janitor utters the words: “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

All the  merry ho ho ho deck the halls spirit in the world didn’t delude me into believing that some Hollywood writer, who likely never celebrated Christmas,  was responsible for the genius of that thought. A quick google proved me correct: Sir Francis Bacon, Statesman and Philosopher (1561-1626).

Which leads us here:  There is a substantial body of really astute observations about life that precede your and my arrival on the planet. Why then, apart from finding them in Wikipedia and brainy quotes (and Hallmark Christmas movies), are we determined to ignore the import of age-old thought, paying no attention, or rather making no room for, ancient wisdom in our time?  If these observations have managed to weather  the last several hundred years—something tells me they have earned the honor of being elevated into present day conversation, all the time and at every level.  Don’t want to engage in arms talks? Take some advice from Francis Bacon: Fail trying.  Think peace in the Middle East is impossible to achieve? Try Ben Franklin:  “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (Sometimes beauty lies in the simplicity of it all.)

This week Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was in the news. The Harrisburg’s Patriot and Union newspaper issued an apology for an editorial written in 1863 that said of  President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

The fact that the author ended the blast with a preposition should have been a big clue that what preceded was hogwash. Alas, last week, some 150 years later, the paper issued an apology, saying:

Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives

Relevant to our discussion here is the fact that seldom discussed about Abraham Lincoln’s now famous address is that it recognized something about human nature which was true then and now, when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Though he erred in thinking  his words would be soon forgotten, Lincoln recognized that the nature of the human condition was its preoccupation with all things present. He was wrong about how history would treat that particular speech, but his insight into human nature was spot-on.

Fast forward. (An expression that itself promises to have a very short shelf-life). The buzz-word-of-the-day is:  “innovation.” Pick a topic, technology, industry and philanthropy—everyone wants to see and hear how what you do, what you’ve made, how your proposals and projects are innovative, new and cutting edge. Everyone is reaching out for that latest newest idea—for the next “tried and succeeded” story…which takes us back to the unlikely source of the quote which started this piece:

“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

Bacon recognized the value of innovation—and the honorable distinction between  having tried and lost, versus not having tried at all.  So it might be said without too much of a stretch, that the challenge to innovate is Baconian inspired.  But Bacon was an empiricist and if asked, I bet he’d have agreed with the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.  If  “trying”  were to succeed to any degree, it needed to be informed by the successes, failures, trials, errors, bravery, sacrifices and wisdom of the past.  Make no doubt about it, I am on that innovation bandwagon and am securely buckled in my seat. But like Bacon and others, I don’t flatter myself with the thought that anything I do, innovative or not, cannot be improved by respect for and deference to those who tried, failed and succeeded before me.

If life on earth be Hume’s elephant upon which we sit, teetering on the back of one or more tortoises, then I will want to be mindful of all the tortoises upon whom the success of this elephant’s journey depends.

On the Inertia of Being Overwhelmed

A poet I hold dear (ee cummings) wrote: “I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”

Why does it takes so little to confound, confuse and perplex most people?

How on earth can a bosses’ unkind word, an acquaintance’s slight, a looming deadline, an overly large agenda, an unconsciously tight timetable, a lousy husband, disappointing child, any younameit–generate the sort of angst that results in debilitating anxiety? It’s a forest and trees situation. People are lost in the forest.  They have lost sight of (or never had) a mapped out journey.  Finding themselves confronted by a sea of trees, with no discernible way out they are thus overwhelmed.  Some of you may say that this perspective is a Polly Anna perspective (for those born after 1950, look her up).  First, yes, it can be viewed through that lens. But be sure of this, the theory espoused here has had  a host of opportunities in my own world to be put through the rigors of serious testing. It is Pollyannic  because I take  the view  that the earth shattering things in life generally do not appear in the guise of miscreant relatives, spouses, bosses,  neighbors or events but in the contemplation of  things that threaten it (life) or threaten to alter it considerably.

While some may say this is a doomsday approach, in fact it is quite the opposite. If, for example, you believe that an asteroid might crush the planet and reduce those who survive to life as it may have been thousands of years ago (doomsday for sure)–and therefore measure all crises by that stick, you are apt not to get seriously overwhelmed by life’s every day distresses. Perhaps the preoccupation with things that seem big is part of humankind’s way of coping and passing time. As Virgil said: “Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore”, translated: “But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.”

For those for whom the process of deciphering between what matters and what will pass I offer this: The fix for nearly every man-made obstacle or crisis is: time. If time will heal the wound, if time will present and ultimately demonstrate one’s ability to emerge from a crisis or problem then, in fact, the crisis at hand is not only not overwhelming it can be said to be a “mere”— as in, merely a momentary setback, merely a condition (and likely temporary in the large scheme of things). If the passage of time, in your lifetime, will not fix the problem. If it will not present ways to overcome the obstacle. If there are no options or work-arounds, the odds are the problem is indeed an overwhelming one, of the sort that demands your full attention and justifies worry (but likely will still not benefit from inaction.)

Echoing this theme is poet  Robert Frost in his poem: The Road Not Taken. Note this advisory: he did not mean to say when he “took the one less traveled by”–that the unconventional way of life is the preferred, not to be regretted option.  Read carefully, he opted for a road that seemed “equally worn” but that the odds were, he wouldn’t be getting back there, to try the other avenue anytime soon.  Whichever road he chose was the one would therefore a make a difference in the end. His “road not taken” was a Rubicon of sorts, a cross-roads, a life altering choice. The unspoken word in Frost’s poem was the fact that he had choices. We all have choices. What I am suggesting is that life be viewed in terms of having to choose between being mired in a state of overwhelmed and anything else. There is almost always a choice, only the inertia of being overwhelmed prevents people from exercising it.

A lawyer doesn’t get half so many chances as one would want to quote poets, but there are two narratives offered by a poet that I have found compelling. The poet (ee cummings)  offers, if not a solution, insight into overcoming the IOBO (Inertia of being overwhelmed) in the form of two  introductions to two different poetry compilations. The title of the first publication is:  Is 5. The quote from the forward:

Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must
content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth (to be found,
in abbreviated costume, upon the title page of the present volume).” 

If you missed the title…return to the sentence above which provides you with the title of the collection. Ok, too tired?   Is 5…as in 2 x 2 = 5. When you read this remember your elementary school grammar lessons: verbs are action words. Overcoming the inertia of being overwhelmed requires: action.

The second insight comes from Cummings’ introduction to his Collected Poems and reads:

“-it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than
the squarerootofminusone[1]. You and I are human beings:mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born
mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultra voluptuous
superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism.
Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably
call it dying- you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely
welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear
the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life, for eternal us, is now; and now is much too busy being a little more
than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself:  “[N]ow is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.”

There you have it.

[1] Forgot your calculus? Square root of minus one = i