What each must seek in his life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else.
A giant tortoise which helped shape Darwin’s ideas about evolution and was thought to have been extinct for 150 years may be living a secret life in the Galapagos Islands. More . . .
“Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars . . . ”
SARASOTA, Fla. — Johnny the sea turtle has traveled more than many people do. But the journey that took him from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe and back isn’t over yet.
The 68-pound, rare Kemp’s ridley turtle was released into the Gulf on Tuesday morning near Sarasota. About 300 people stood on the beach to bid Johnny farewell as he swam off into the surf off Lido Key.
. . .” Lean toward risk. It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did. . . ”
I have not found many articles that precisely fit the the theme of this blog, but these do. Brooks reports of how experienced people regard life decisions, perseverance, rumination, “strategic self-delusion,” “relentless self-expansion,” rebellion, self-obsession, and having to make crucial decisions when we are twenty-somethings. It is all here. I cannot recommend any reading more enthusiastically than this series. Go to the link below. Good reading for young, middle-aged and senior Americans. The following link goes to both earlier and later responses.
Steadfast and cautious,
In a year’s time current high school seniors will have been striding through autumn leaves for two months at the college of their dreams, whether first, second, third or fourth choice. I think of them wistfully, nostalgically in thoughts of my own college days. But for now the question for the next batch of frosh is where to go. It’s crunch time for high school seniors.
Though my college years are ancient history, I marvel frequently at the differences then and now. For me there simply was no question where I would go to college; oh, for awhile I idly wondered what it would be like to follow a girl friend to Bethany College. But I was destined to be an Ohio Stater like my entire family before me and that was really fine with me. And I would pledge a fraternity, too. I was destined be a Buckeye and a Beta, kicking leaves while crossing The Oval to the chimes of Orton Hall. Ohio State was just too enticing for a kid from a village of five hundred.
Out of curiosity and for the purposes of blogging, I have been researching a little. One writer makes a lot of sense to me. He says the greatest waste of money is spending exorbitant tuition and housing money just to get a silly degree. By that he means a major in women’s studies, sociology or medieval German. (To show you how relative this judgment is, I have never regarded my two majors of international studies and English as silly. My father had other opinions.) Some folks, the writer says, are coughing up $200,000 for this sound, quality start on a glowing career from inflated base camp — Boston. If the individual has a million-dollar trust fund, here is a good choice. The more sensible and just as effective decision would be grabbing the street car across town to the local, public institution. For such a degree the writer maintains, any old place will work. Go cheap, get a taste of college and then get serious.
Other than the expectation that I would uphold and advance the family’s upper, middle class station in America, my parents did not hover over me. Oh, I knew they worried about my interest in liberal arts because they knew that I had always had “nice things and trips” and would want at least those amenities to continue. They worried about my opposition to “materialism” or whatever I thought it was and my desire to “do something for others.” Our family had never produced a minister, social worker, professor, diplomat or career public school teacher. We have been industrialists, engineers, business people and lawyers. Nothing made my parents happier than the day I left for U. S. Naval Officer Candidate School. It was my choice and my decision. It seemed the perfect solution for me at the time. They were thinking long range and I was thinking adventure. To them I was set. I was seeing the Pacific for the first time. In my high school yearbook it was prophesiedthat I would be a history professor at Ohio State. I must have said that to someone.
Because I was “second generation college” the assumption was that I knew the purpose of a university and higher education. I loved learning, even more than football (and that was to be an individual at Ohio State). I loved university life so much I wanted it to go on forever in an endless sequence of majoring in everything. That’s not the purpose of a university. I didn’t think international studies was silly at the time. I was interested in globe trotting. Naval life was the first trot.
Frankly, I don’t know how I could have been more earnest than I was at the time. I roomed with two geniuses and that was a good influence, but I was intimidated by their minds: both Phi Beta Kappas and Wilson candidates. I knew I wasn’t that “smart.” So, I did what made sense at the time.
And that’s where kids are in their twenties — doing what makes sense at the time. I do not think any helicopter parent can change this. So what I might say to any twenty-something or high school senior is this: “You don’t know how self-defining experience is yet. You do know what pleases you more than something else. You don’t know how experience will change your perspectives. The plodding old tortoise does. The necessary in your life will change with living, especially if you are living to make life meaningful. Most likely you don’t know what meaningful is and no one can tell you; if someone could tell you, it wouldn’t be your discovery. Only your discoveries will stick. Meaningfulness shifts and changes. Pragmatism in many ways is a gift from the gods, but it can be learned.
About the materialism thing. Be careful what you jettison. I mean, regardless of how creative or altruistic, you may be, you will still have car payments, rent and/or mortgage payments, grocery bills and on and on. The material amounts to a lot in survival. Most of what we must do is either physical and material. Now, if your minimal acceptable standards require a Volkswagen Passat, a decent wine with dinner, a vacation every now and then, athletic and or concert tickets, then to that degree YOU ARE A MATERIALIST. You are going to be busy. You cannot shake it off. Deal with that to which you have grown accustomed — likely the incontrovertible gift of your parents. No one, except Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the starving artist escapes materialism — especially in America. Having good things is part of American culture — with which the smart citizen never trifles. It’s the law.
Steadfast and cautious,
Yesterday on a blog, I found a father’s concerns about his daughter wanting to become an English professor. Memories of career dreams poured over me and my own idealization of the English profession. I once fancied myself Mr. Chips.
Immediately I pondered several questions. Does the young woman want to teach English as an end? Does she have a passion for writing and see the profession as the perfect solution, even a hide, for one who loves to read, write and expostulate on literature, its meaning, value, significance, et cetera? Is she open to other teaching opportunities: community college, trade/tech schools, secondary schools, overseas and especially teaching in the boondocks? Would she drop back and get the lowly secondary teaching certificate for high school — IF she could even find a slot there; or even in a prep school? Is English professing a means or an end?
More cynically I wondered if she might, all sexism aside, be attracted to a particular professor. (I could wonder the same about a male student under the influence of professorial charisma.) Good professors are actors and romancers.
The points are that the cushy university, tenured position, if it ever existed, has become incredibly difficult for the best of candidates. Professors are under much administrative pressure to publish and also to carry significant committee and university duties. Funding shrinks, especially in the Humanities. Universities still need indentured teaching assistants to teach English composition — so that the senior professors can pursue their career dreams and play the effete aesthete. Universities cannot or will not afford Master’s scale to teach these courses. Teaching the frosh is anathema to many Ph.D’s.
As far as a livelihood that will support a writer is concerned, they are whatever a person can find to survive and/or starve in pursuit of discovery. One could join a military service, for example, and manage to find time to write. I think of Fred MacMurray playing the novelist on the USS Caine (fictional) and Alex Haley in the Coast Guard (real). The passionate would-be novelist/poet can do as Hemingway and go into journalism (not an easy slog by any means). Melville went to sea as a seaman. He was a better writer for it. Nothing has changed in the artist’s world. One could go into PR, but that demands a huge compromise. I found being a public information officer rather pleasant, but low-paying. PR people are usually among the first eligible for cutting. Working at Starbuck’s will work for some.
My heart says, “You go, Girl! Live your dream. Stake your will, talents and skills against all odds. Do it now while you’re young and have lots of time and resilience to recuperate and re-invent yourself, two, three, four times over. I want to say that; really I do. Regretting a road not taken gnaws at the soul.
In youth we always think we will be the exception to the naysayers. That possibility exists, of course it does. So, go out, be a hammer rather than a nail. You surely would, if you only could as Simon and Garfunkel sang; but write yourself a note, young lady, a note that says, “I shall never become bitter if what I choose in full knowledge of the world doesn’t work out.” Laminate the note and tuck it into your purse. That’s a tough one, too. It’s T. S. Eliot’s “shadow that falls between the motion and the act” (The Hollow Men).
Finally, the universe of arts and letters far transcends and dwarfs the individual artist, professor, college, and university. In the chance that a youth will choose the mundane pragmatic over the romantic challenging, I say to that person, remember that the academic approach to literature, even teaching literature, is only one approach. Writers do not write for professors, scholars and critics. They write out of desire, passion and native wit. They direct their own study. Art was invented by more creators without degrees than with them. When there are no longer bookstores either on the corner or on the Internet, when there are no longer libraries, when there are no more writers and readers groups and publishers, then I will despair. Besides, academe can stultify a lot of passion and creativity — not always. The artists are the first heroes in this epic. You can even find them in your cellar hide.
God bless youth!
Steadfast and cautious,
P.S: For an interesting story of twenty somethings, literary types all, making their way in New York City, see this NYT article on Literary Cubs.
I cannot win this argument. Nevertheless and being an English major, my soul is troubled, my conscience pricked. Since the Sixties and probably even the beat generation of the Fifties, the English major has come in for some easy scapegoating. Remember the image of the beat “poet” donned in beret taking a hit of pot, then standing up extending his drooping arms in mime, saying, “I am a tree.” That was and is the stereotyped English major. Actually Krauthammer would probably extend this image to psychology, history and philosophy majors, i.e. the liberal arts contingent. I wonder if he would include political science and economics majors who as everyone knows are highly productive contributors to the GDP. Alas, the old, Seventies images of Allen Ginsberg and Paul Simon, as pied pipers and troubadours wither. That millions of successful English majors wind up in education, communications, public relations and the law lies beside Krauthammer’s point.
Krauthammer pricked my conscience because in my time I have been a bit disaffected, not from capitalism, the pursuit of success and the American Way, but rather the way many conservatives would bully our culture. The United States without a doubt has been the most materialistically productive nation in history and in the world. Because of this we had the might to save that world from the Nazis. We’ve been trying to top our glory ever since.
And, of course, it makes sense that the absolute business of America would be business. Business dominates and towers hundreds of stories above all while it supports everything else — no question here. I am grateful for it, but not everyone is totally motivated by financial profit. Ayn Rand is not everyone’s hero. Must we forget that the economy has sectors which include government, education and not-for-profit enterprise — all of which provide jobs? Traditionally these three sectors have ameliorated bad times in the profit sector. They involve millions of productive people doing necessary work out of passion and commitment. The arts and humanities are legitimate endeavors. People pursuing them do not expect to be rich. Right now a malaise lies over all.
I am as put off as anyone by the recent interviewee at Occupy Kansas City, when he said, “I’m looking for a job, somewhat.” His counterpart shows up at Tea Party demonstrations as well. This is a disaffection of sorts, but it is not mine. Mine admittedly, comes from what my father would have blamed on “too many books.” Truthfully I cannot say that my disaffection came from reading Marx and a bunch of French writers, Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and Henry Miller only gave me different views of life and the human condition. My reading has been far more an effort to understand the madness than to vilify America. And yes, at times the books have set me adrift from moorings.
My disaffection has other sources. True, my reading of William Dean Howells’ “The Rise of Silas Lapham” affected me profoundly as did “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Fountainhead.” And I have read Hayek and Barry Goldwater. I listened to William F. Buckley on a regular basis. Pat Buchanan seems fair-minded to me these days. Above all, I like Pat’s sense of humor — a healthier view of the absurd than the bleakness held by too many “liberals.” For years my stepmother railed against FDR and lionized John D. Rockefeller and GM. I am still unconvinced that a corporation is a “person” except in the law. I have never found large institutions affectionate.
So I majored in English to immerse myself in all that seemed to matter. At that time it was the life of the mind — still very important to me. I am older and hopefully wiser now. I take more time to ride my bike, tend to home maintenance and watch the passing scene. The world belongs to others now, but the beast still slouches toward “Bethlehem” as it always has. The falcon again is out of touch with the falconer. The center has lost its grip and the next best step out of this mess is an end to stereotyping in all its guises. “Somewhat interest in a job,” Occupy Wall Street and the “disaffected” English majors are an old, old story just come around again in new clothes.
Your thoughtful comments are genuinely and fervently requested.
Steadfast and cautious,
Can flip flopping possibly be the sign of a sound mind at work in the body politic? As the quadrennial silly season grows more and more inane, Tim Harford in Adapt seems to say yes, absolutely; but I’m sure he would exclude excessive, spineless, wishy-washiness. Assuming the President made a mistake, what would happen if President Obama said, “Okay, I’ve learned something. I should have done jobs before I did health reform. My tack in these past four years was ill-chosen and now I’m going to change, come about and do what I should have done in the first place. I am declaring a national economic emergency. We are going to find short-term work designed to create long-term job growth.”
Was it lily livered of Senator Kerry to say “I voted yes before I voted no.” Or was it the other way around? What if Mitt Romney said, “I lied. I am proud of my Massachusetts health initiative and I take responsibility for it — especially since it is full of Republican ideas. It’s not perfect. It needs tweaking and perhaps even some major repair, but I’m sticking with the plan as a national model. Oh, and by the way, trial and error, tinkering here and tinkering there, is as American as Old Glory. Trial and error lies at the heart of American ingenuity. Oh, and one thing more. While I have been knocking my own brainchild just to appeal to primary voters, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to do it anymore. You, the American People deserve better of me.”
Americans’ collective partials and dentures would fall from their mouths. Next, another round of nit-picking would ensue — but maybe not. Maybe the public would hail a new reign of candor and realism. The problem, says Harford, isn’t electing the wrong leaders. The problem is our simplistic notions of what a leader can do. Expertise and experts come under heavy scrutiny in Adapt — including research that supports the limits of specialized insight. Honesty about the complexity of modern problems has gone begging in the public debate and policy making. The pathology under study here applies to the private sector and individuals as well.
A recurring illustration throughout the book is the Russian engineer Palchinsky. He was assigned to analyze two massive projects in Stalin’s first five-year plan, the monstrous Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. He had the temerity to inform Stalin that his big project would be a disaster. There had been no hydrological studies. He warned that the river would be too slow to generate hydro-electricity and flooding would cause severe damage to farms and farmers. Because of drought the plants would require backup coal fired operations. He was proven dead right after the megalo-maniacal dictator plunged ahead because he wanted an epic scale project. Much smaller scale plants would have served far better. Palchinsky wanted wanted a step-by-step approach. Stalin ordered the relocation of ten thousand farmers.
The steel mills at Magnitogorsk were supposed to outproduce the entire steel output of the UK. Again, Palchinsky recommended more analysis, more caution and a step-by-step approach. Over three thousand died during construction and the iron ore ran out in 1970. Palchinsky was a brilliant thinker who had three principles which Stalin ignored: 1) Seek out new ideas and try new things. 2) When trying new things, do them so that failure is survivable. And finally (3), seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along. Some three thousand of Russia’s ten thousand engineer were sent to Siberia for similar professional behavior and Palchinsky suffered a secret death.. In short Harford is no hare counting on speed and grandiose imagination. Tortoise-like trial and error still prevails.
Harford works his thesis through Rumsfeld’s disasters and many other examples, finally discussing the adaptive organization and the adaptive individual. Harford concludes that honest mistakes made honestly are far better than chasing losses and denials. Harford seems to be saying that the allure of meteoric success, the brilliant idea flaming overnight into success is only one way. The other requires uncelebrated, painstaking, trial and error, starting, stopping, perhaps turning about, but never quitting. But it also requires a communal tolerance for the late blooming in life like the poetry of Robert Frost. In our slap-dash, everything-on-the-fly culture of celebrity, I think of France which required eleven centuries or so to become a democratic republic. Afghanistan, if we’re lucky, has just begun. No wonder we’ve failed after a mere ten years there. Harford’s vision of adaptive evolutionary success would be revolutionary in America. Such a revolution would do wonders for the self-esteem of millions of Americans slogging it out in the unsung mundane. This is a book to own.
Steadfast and cautious,
D. “Tortoise” Taylor
Just around noon a tortoise and a writer met along a creek bordering a meadow. The tortoise had felt the writer’s presence from the vibrations of heavy foot steps. The tortoise, hidden as well as possible near rocks and bushes, quickly pulled his tail and legs into his shell and his head, too; except that he left just enough of a gap to spy on the intruder. He noticed when the writer caught sight of him, slowed his pace and quickly acted as though he hadn’t seen the tortoise. Then the human sat on a rock, pretending to ignore the tortoise. He began unwrapping a sandwich and opened his water bottle. Tortoise watched, waited and determined the vibrations to be friendly. Slowly his head, limbs and tail emerged.
“What are you eating?” said the tortoise.
“Good, one of my forebears had a bad experience with flying geese, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” said the writer. ” The geese dropped him mid-air. Splat.”
“Not very sensitive on your part, but yes, he died. But you got the story wrong.”
“No, I know the story. The tortoise should have kept his mouth shut even though the humans jeered and mocked him. It wasn’t the geese’s fault. The tortoise couldn’t take the ridicule. Everyone knows that.”
“He was angry, just trying to save some pride. We have as much right to pride as any human. ”
“Why bother? There’s nothing wrong with a little humility. It just is. Humbling passes and besides, humility can be the start of new experience if you apply a little effort. You have to do something with humility. Humility comes before meaning.”
“That sandwich smells good.”
“You’re an herbivore.”
“You’re misinformed. Who are you anyway?”
“I’m a writer, an absurdist.”
“What does that mean?”
” An absurdist doesn’t believe life has any inherent meaning.”
“I mean that life has no essential meaning.”
“I don’t understand you. I can’t ask such a question, let alone answer it,” responded the tortoise. I just eat, poop, pee and procreate. I bask in sun and rain alike. Oh, I hold on to life for dear life, but I know there’s an end. I’ve seen tortoises die — sad vibes when life is over, like one day the light never comes. In the meantime I enjoy a warm flat rock in the sun. I fight for as much of these things as I can.”
“What do you do for meaning, Tortoise?”
“I can’t do for meaning, don’t you see. I do for doing. I’ve tried to tell you that. I like pleasant scenes, especially in the meadow, but that’s a risky trip to the meadow. I go anyway. I’m cautious in the meadow — and watchful. Good vibes give me pleasure. Simple stuff satisfies me, but you’d have trouble sharing my vibes. Vibes are tough to communicate to a human. We could rub each other’s neck, I suppose.”
“I have good vibes right now — about you I mean. Put your finger just below my head.”
“Well, okay.” The writer put his fingers on Tortoise’s neck. “Hmmm, hmmmmmmmmmm! Feels good. I can’t get any meaning from it.”
“Isn’t feeling good enough,” said Tortoise. What’s this “meaning?” You got pleasure, didn’t you? I like to be stroked by a human. That’s the best I can do for you, but I don’t want to go home with you and be your pet. I like being a wild tortoise. You’d know if I sensed you were bad, believe me. I don’t get bad vibes from you.”
“Get off it. Bad vibes make me uncomfortable, wary, defensive. Worse case, bad vibes would tell me if you were more interested in turning me into soup than enjoying my company. I can be a companion, not like a dog, but I can be your friend.”
“Just pulling into your shell wouldn’t stop me from killing you.”
“Sure, you’re the dominant dude in these parts. . . Yikes! There’s more humans headed this way from up the path. I’m not getting good vibes at all. Excuse me, my friend, while I sljp this mobile home into the brush here. Keep those folks busy, okay?” Whereupon the tortoise crawled back into the brush. The writer rose and walked toward the strangers.
He noticed that the men carried fish nets, clubs, fishing poles and tackle boxes. Their eyes scanned the water and creek bank. One of them waved at him. Quickly the writer emerged from the brush and faked fiddling with his fly and said,”Hi, men, caught me in the act of nature. What are ya fishin’ for.”
“Catfish here in the stream and snappin’ turtles if we can find ’em.”
“Not a fisherman myself.” He glanced carefully back at the bushes while he closed his zipper and noticed the dark, brownish rump of the tortoise mostly concealed in the bush and was amazed at how much like a rock he looked. He walked closer to the fishers knowing they’d love to club a large tortoise. Without being obvious he tried to obstruct their view of the tortoise posing as a rock behind him. After more pleasantries the fishers moved on. The writer walked the opposite direction up the path, long enough for the men to disappear; and then he returned to the tortoise. He was still tucked inside his shell. He spoke to the tortoise, but heard no reply, nor did he come out of his shell.
For some time, perhaps an hour, the writer waited, speaking occasionally to the inert lump before him. He sat on the tortoise and felt the same vibrations as when he’d stroked his neck, only more intensely. He thought long and deep about this accidental event in his life.
The writer struggled in his head for the meaning of what had happened. The vibrations from Tortoise, like a purring cat told him he was quite content. In the end the writer decided that the only meaning he could bring to this happening was the pleasure of fooling men with nets and clubs. Acting to help a threatened, humble creature can be a good adventure.
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