Electra

Back story first. The popular king goes off to war leaving his wife and three kids behind. Halfway there he finds out the gods need a virgin sacrifice from him. Not just any virgin, his eldest daughter. He tricks his wife and kid into joining him and then has the daughter hauled away for slaughter. The grieving wife is sent home and the now mighty army goes off to fight. It takes ten years, but they win. The triumphant king heads home with a new mistress, a war prize. The wife in the meantime has taken a lover. When the king comes home he is killed by the new couple. The son is exiled and the youngest girl is married off and disinherited. The wife and the new husband live sumptuously and are hated by the people they rule.

The king is Agamemnon and the wife is Clytemnestra. Their kids are Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra. The murderous husband is Aegisthus. The myth is Greek and follows events after the Trojan War.

In Euripides’ Electra we meet this unlucky youngest child in front of her hovel where she lives a peasant’s life. She is old enough to be a bride but too young to remember her father or her brother. She is consumed with hatred for her mother and step-father and thinks of almost nothing else but wreaking vengeance upon them. Her peasant husband lives apart from her yet treats her kindly. He had been ordered by Aegisthus to marry Electra so that her children would be too low-born to be considered heirs and threats to the throne. Their marriage is chaste though as the peasant is unwilling to have sex with a king’s daughter as he feels unworthy of her. He had been a loyal subject of Agamemnon and reveres his memory. They keep this fact secret, especially from Clytemnestra.

The only other thought that enters Electra’s mind is that of her brother Orestes. The uncertainty of his fate gnaws at her, and she feels powerless to seek revenge without the help of someone stronger and more cunning than her. Alas, Orestes arrives, at first hiding his identity, but recognized later by an old servant of the king’s. The siblings are re-united and they plot together, aided and abetted by the servant as well as Orestes’ companion Pylades. Killing the step-father turns out to be easy for Orestes and when the word gets to Electra she is emboldened to finish their grisly task.

The tortured daughter, denied all these years her birthright as a princess, her youth and beauty wasted in a sexless union, lures her mother to her with a fake report of a newborn. Clytemnestra, despite the estrangement, hurries unsuspecting to see her grandchild. At the moment of crisis, Orestes has his doubts, but the determined Electra urges him to finish the job. They kill their mother, but the joy they had hoped to feel leads to despair. Clytemnestra was not the monster they’d imagined and was as imprisoned in her rage as they were. She had never forgiven Agamemnon for sacrificing their first-born, Iphigenia.

In typically Greek fashion, the gods arrive at the end to sort things out. Castor and Pollux show up and cast some of the blame on Apollo for messing up things early on. They admonish the children for the crime of matricide, but they recognize the justice for Clytemnestra’s treachery in killing Agamemnon and abandoning her remaining children. Electra and Orestes are given their penance, but live on.

The deus ex machina aside it seems to me this would make a pretty damn good noir melodrama. Blood ties are the toughest and open up the oldest and ugliest wounds. And murder for good old-fashioned reasons like greed, lust, and revenge is always preferred. Statecraft, politics, and palace intrigue can’t compare to family dynamics for supplying motives! A 21st century version won’t have kings as today’s royalty will be CEOs, but there will still be plenty of peasants. They’ll be people like you and me. The gods won’t show up and put things right at the end, but the lawyers might work out a settlement.

 

I don’t read Greek so I’ve been experiencing the wonder of these plays in translation. That’s a funny thing, translating a work from one language to another. So often there are no word-for-word equivalents and liberties have to be taken, especially with ancient tongues. The Greek originals are in verse, but the meter and rhyme can’t always be captured. As much of the translator’s voice comes through along with the author’s. Here’s a passage, the first from Elizabeth Seydel Morgan (verse) and the second from E.P. Coleridge (prose):

Electra, Agamemnon’s child,/ I have come to your farmhouse/ to tell the message from Mycenae/ brought down today from one/ who drinks milk on the vineless mountain . . .

O Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, to thy rustic cot I come, for a messenger hath arrived, a highlander from Mycenae, one who lives on milk . . .

I wind up having to read at least two versions of these old things. The modern versions tend to be more accessible, and the older ones filled with more colorful language. Think of the King James Bible, and all that baroque phrasing, compared to contemporary translations in American English. I think that the interpreter of the play might color the characterizations a little if they had feelings about them. If you think Electra is a whiny brat instead of a heroic survivor that would affect the final product, don’t you think?

Regardless, translations are what I have to settle for. I’ve read six different Odysseys. I like Robert Fitzgerald’s the best, if that means anything. It could be that it’s just a nice paperback with a pleasing typeface. Plus my edition has line drawings that are pretty cool as well as a thoughtful, in-depth, and illuminating postscript by the translator. Stuff written more than two thousand years ago in a very different culture thousands of miles away is still interesting! Times change, but people don’t.

 

 

 

Missed it by that much

My goal was to post at the very least once a week. I note that I last posted on the 18th of April. As today is the 26th, I missed my self-imposed deadline by one day. I must have rested on the seventh day. A venerable custom, to be sure. The biggest thing is having something to say. Those of you who know me know that’s not normally a problem. The problem is “say.” Saying is easy, writing is hard. The maelstrom of bullshit that I call my active mental processes is not lacking for material, just lacking in structure and clarity. Imposing order on chaos feels a bit like work, and I hate to work. Being retired, I don’t have to!

So is writing work? It feels like work, but only because it’s hard. It’s not work unless you are a professional and get paid to write. I’m not just a hack, I’m an amateur hack! No one has ever paid me a nickel to write anything, so I’ll leave off equating writing with work. Novelists and journalists and copywriters have to work. I don’t. That ought to be liberating. I ought to be able to spew whatever I want on the digital page. Or the printed page for that matter, digital is just more convenient, less messy, and a lot cheaper. But I can’t. I can’t always herd the proverbial cats in my mind and get something worth typing out of it. Truman Capote was right—it’s often not writing, merely typing.

That’s the rub there, my notion of “worth.” What’s worth it? Given the spectacular number of blogs out there in cyberspace it seems almost anything is worth blogging about. Add in all the posters and commenters on Facebook and that’s a lot of writing about any and all things. Wondering whether or not something is worth posting about on my blog is folly. The digital world is proof that anyone can write about anything. And at any time and from almost any place.

So what’s my problem? Fear. Fear of doing something lousy. Fear of looking stupid. The usual fears. I used to be afraid to ski off-piste. I’m not anymore. Mostly I conquered my fear which was between the ears and not between the poles. Sure, my technique is better, and so is my equipment, but getting better was mostly mental. And there was a feedback thing going on: because I took the risk and skied off the groomed runs and into the trees and untracked mountainsides I learned how to do it better. The freedom found with a little dose of courage opened up the technical improvement.

The risks with creative acts, like writing, are different. With skiing if I fall down and look bad, that hurts nothing but my pride. Maybe I hold up the group, that’s not a fun feeling but it’s small stuff. I could hurt myself in an accident, maybe even seriously, but it’s a mostly controllable risk as I can stay away from dangerous places. But when I write I delve into myself. It’s personal. I start learning about myself. I’ve been writing about baseball, specifically the San Francisco Giants, for ten years now, and that’s hundreds of blog posts, I’d guess around fifteen hundred or so. I’ve learned a lot about baseball, but even more about myself, and the experience has been transformative. I don’t think about things the same way, my view of the game and my relationship to it is very different than what it was. What started out as fan fun morphed into something else and it changed me along the way. I’m better at it, too. The posts sound better and come out more readily because I found my “voice” as part of the process.

When I started teaching I used to put on my mask and costume and go to work as my alter ego “Mr. O’Connor.” Over time I embraced that person more fully and the gap between real-life Mark and his on-the-clock version narrowed. Eventually the schism was healed and I could be both Mark and Mr. O’Connor. The teaching part of a teaching job is creative and requires you to reach inside yourself in order to connect with the student and be their guide and helper. (The job part of a teaching job is just as crappy and mind-numbing as any other job.) That creativity helped me grow as a person.

I’ve fiddled around with writing half of my life. I’ve never pursued it with the zeal and passion that professionals exhibit because writing is hard. And I already spent a bunch of time in this life working hard. Maybe I just need to remember that all the writing things I’ve done that I feel good about were, in the end, fun. Sure, they caused me sweat and anguish, but overall they were good times. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it has to feel like work. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

That’s a long-winded way to say sorry to my fan club for not keeping up with the regular posts. I realize my fan club could all meet comfortably in a VW bug, but I’d be happy with a fan club that could fit in bathtub. Even one reader makes it worth it! I’m getting back on the train and will have new stuff at a minimum of once a week, I promise. Twice if I want twice as much fun!

 

Zeus

No one worships Zeus anymore. There was a time when he was the biggest bad-ass of them all, but now he’s just a character in a mythology book. How does that happen? How does a god go extinct? I mean, he’s a GOD. Dinosaurs and dodos go extinct, they are flesh-and-blood. But Zeus? He was immortal. Note the oxymoron: “was” immortal. If you are immortal you can’t be a “was.” But Zeus is a big-time “was.” Historically we know it was the emergence of monotheism in the person of Yahweh/Jehovah aka The God of Abraham that did in the Greek deities. Jesus Christ and the early Greek-speaking Xians held the nail, and Constantine the Great wielded the hammer that finally finished them off. And they are dead, dead as a doornail.

So where did Zeus and Athena and the like go? I suppose contemporary religion-istas would tell me they never existed in the first place, that there is only The One True God. But for the many thousands, perhaps millions, who were devotees of the Olympian pantheon, Zeus was very real, as were Hera and Artemis and the rest. I’m going to suppose that once a certain critical mass of adherents is reached, a belief, no matter how ridiculous, becomes a truth. It takes form and becomes real. Once the number of worshipers drops below that critical number, the gods disappear. A consequence of that supposition is that the gods should re-appear if the people choose to follow them again!

In our time, our gods, other than those in the primary religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.), are the fruits of capitalism. Automobiles, smart phones, and affordable hot tubs are our new deities. We worship a concealed carry permit, a single-family dwelling, and fifteen minutes of fame. A piece of the pie is the raison d’être of our existence here in the hustling, bustling US of A. It’s no wonder the old gods are suffering! They can’t compete with ATVs, streaming porn, or Amazon Prime.

But what if people decided to worship Zeus again–would he be real? I have to think so. And what’s the critical mass needed? Would half a million be enough? In fact, if half a million people fervently believe something, doesn’t that make it true? At least it’s true for them, that gang of 500,000 folks. I suppose if you had 500 fanatics that might work, too, as enthusiasm might be more important than roster size. Remember the Moonies? The so-called Unification Church and Sun Myung Moon? How many of them are around? There has to be at least a million, and you have to figure they have pretty strong beliefs to go along with all that stuff, particularly since most regular folks think Moonies are nuts. Remember the Rajneeshees? The so-called Bhagwan and his followers? There were hardly any of them, a few thousand if I remember, but they caused quite a stir up in Oregon and we got a real-live bio-terror attack out of them. They poisoned dozens of locals with Salmonella! You have to be a true believer to pull off that shit, that’s like these ISIS assholes, willing to do whatever to whomever to advance the cause.

That guy, the former Bhagwan, re-named himself “Osho” and went back to India and preached his thing and re-habbed his tarnished image and died surrounded by worshipful followers. Go figure! You can be a dickhead and yet people will still see you as their god. After all Zeus was no prize, exhibiting the worst of human traits, regularly inflicting violence on his subjects over petty grievances and jealousies. But I’m not interested so much in the quality of these god-like figures, just what it takes for them to be real. I know that both those guys, Moon and Osho, were real men but they became like gods because enough people believed them to be special.

And that’s what’s got me thinking. How many believers does it take? And, if that many people truly believe, does that make it true? I hate to say it, but I think so. Scary, this thought. The implications are indeed terrifying. Think about the Holocaust. There are persistent un-believers out there who truly do not think millions of Jews and others were slaughtered by the Nazis. There are Americans among this bunch, sad to say, people who don’t believe the stories brought home by their own fellow citizens, soldiers who served in Europe in WWII and liberated the death camps. In some countries denial of the Holocaust is a crime. On a sillier note, there are people who believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked.

It’s easy to dismiss these people as simply mean, deranged, or stupid. But their beliefs are real to them, and our reality is the sum of what we believe in. Our current president believes certain things to be true, like three million Californians voted illegally, and it matters not to his followers whether there is evidence for that claim. They believe it too, so it’s real. “Fake” news isn’t fake at all. It’s just an expression of one’s beliefs. Over a billion people believe Jesus of Nazareth is a divine being who rose from the dead. It matters not to them if science supports or disputes that, their faith is sufficient. The Irish Christian Brothers who taught me in high school rendered unto science what was science and rendered unto the Lord what was the Lord’s. They didn’t see a conflict, their faith was even stronger than their love of scholarship.

I’m not sure how I dug myself into this solipsistic rat-hole. If anything can be true, then everything is true, and nothing is false. In science, repeatability is the real nut. Recreate the initial conditions and you should get the same results I got. If it’s not repeatable it’s not science. But belief trumps science, and if the belief is fervent enough it’s as real as a repeatable result. Perhaps I’m just too good at being open-minded, too facile at seeing other points-of-view, too tolerant of differences that I can’t help but see them all as equally absurd. I’ve un-moored from my philosophical anchors and now I’m just splashing about, looking for the life ring. Some of the realities out there are a scary; others inconsequential. But they’re out there. And they’ve got that critical mass, either in number of adherents or sufficient passion or both.

By Jove, we have to come back to Zeus! He’s out there waiting to be revived. He’s just as real as you or me, in fact he’s more real. Add up all the folks we know, have known, or will know, and it won’t come close to all the Zeus-ians who ever lived. So don’t be surprised if you get a thunderbolt tossed your way one of these days.

Hard-boiled

In many ways, we are living in a Film Noir world, where the ordinary person, in order to survive, has to be hard-boiled and occasionally hide in the shadows to avoid the predations of the powerful.

Christa Fuller*

The so-called film noir period in American cinema is my favorite, and much of the reason has to do with “the predations of the powerful.” The protagonists of these movies are always at the mercy of some villainy like vengeful mobsters or crooked cops. All of us can imagine an entity more powerful than ourselves that could make our lives hell. Surely the government, with its panoply of law enforcement agencies and it vast prison system, can run amok and trample on the rights and property of its citizens. Certainly our gigantic global corporate empires with their trans-national make-ups and enormous war chests can wreak havoc on the ordinary folks that have to work for them, buy their goods, or merely inhabit the same space. We can all picture these powers and know we’d have little chance in a fight of any kind.

We know, too, of actual real-life examples in today’s world and throughout history of the powerful abusing their power and stomping on regular people. So yeah, I think we’d have to say we all need to be a little hard-boiled in our outlook. The world is filled with assholes, and assholes have a tendency to run their shit downhill, which means it falls, of course, upon the non-assholes.

What does it mean to be hard-boiled? The typical noir anti-hero lacks idealism. He sees the world plainly, without sentiment. He is cynical and matter-of-fact. He has heroic qualities though, his toughness, his sense of honor, and his rigid ethical code. He’s not a moralist, but he acts on what he thinks is right, regardless of the consequences. Ultimately he’s a realist, he knows that the world is what it is and he isn’t going to change it. He is motivated instead by a desire to make a tiny corner of the world a bit better than it was yesterday, even if it is for someone other than himself.

How does one live a life, doing one’s best to be a non-asshole, and yet maintaining sufficient hard-boiledness to survive? For one, you have to be tough. I don’t mean you have to start learning mixed martial arts, although that’s a perfectly fine hobby, I mean emotional resilience. Bad shit is going to happen to good people every goddamn day and you won’t be able to do shit about most of it. It’s one of those lessons you have to learn on the cusp of adulthood, in fact, it may be that it’s the distinguishing characteristic of adulthood, this ability to see horrible things and keep going.

It is suggested in the quote above that hiding in the shadows may be an effective strategy. No doubt. Don’t bring attention to yourself, unless of course attention is what you seek. Keep those vices under wraps, share them with fellow travelers, but don’t advertise. That’s why you get brown paper bags with your forties and skin mags. It’s hard to hide in today’s electronic shadows, there aren’t any, unless you are some kind of super-user and can encrypt yourself and your transactions. The rest of us are open books. Maybe the mountains of data will be so big one day we can all hide in plain sight. We’ll see!

I was going to say don’t be an asshole, but it’s probably easier to be a non-asshole. That is, most people get contrary whenever someone says not to do something. It’s better to think in positive terms, even if it is a negative action, like avoiding assholiness. Most of the world is non-assholes, and I don’t really have a proper term, perhaps citizen works, but I need something. Describing something as a not-something isn’t helpful. With citizen I don’t mean salute the flag and pay your taxes, though those are perfectly fine things, I mean more like a neighbor. Pull your weeds and fence in your dog and wave back when the guy next door waves to you. Be tolerant of people and their foibles. Look both ways before you cross, signal your turns, and put the shopping cart in the return bin. That sort of thing.

To be a neighbor or a citizen, that is, a non-asshole, requires fortitude. It’s easy to get angry. Lots of things piss us off every day. Any of a thousand little pricks could turn us into raging beasts. But if you are a wee bit hard-boiled, you can accept much of it, and it can roll off you like rain on a duck’s back. If your eyes are open and you see the world as it is, you can see what’s coming in time to duck. One of the problems with both philosophy and psychology is that they deal with idealized people. Generalities about humankind are fine, but they don’t help much with actual individual humans. The world is peopled by persons, not notions. If you make a person the subject of your thoughts, and not people, you’ll understand better. You’ll be more empathic, and thus more humble, and more willing to forgive.

I like to see solutions and not problems. I like to argue in order to understand something better and not necessarily to make a point. I like to be wrong because it gets me closer to being right. I try to be nice, and to act like a gentleman. All of this requires me to be positive, which is hard, because deep down I’m grumpy and cynical. And I know I can be a dick, just like everyone else, but I also know we all need a bit of that dick-ness around to face the oft-times cruel world we inhabit.

*from Film Noir in Today’s World, p. 225, NoirCon 2014 program (ed. Lou Boxer)

On being wrong

. . . if you cling to what you once knew, you’ll be left behind. Keep learning.

That’s from Joe Sheehan in a piece (“When Statheads Age“) on a baseball-geek site I frequent called FanGraphs. But that matters not. A similar sentiment can be found in many places. One of those is the heart of an old teacher. All my professional life I exhorted students to pursue the path of lifelong learning. We work our muscles to stay fit, why not our brains? But I have to say I didn’t really know what I meant by learning. Oh, I could have recited the usual list like learn to play the guitar, or learn to play golf, or learn a new language, or some manual art, or whatnot. But it’s not what I wanted. I wanted them to do what I thought real learning was, which was being wrong. I found it hard to say that in the context of high school in which quite a bit of energy is expended on being right. So I just encouraged them to stay curious and open-minded, the usual platitudes, not such bad advice. I like to think I mostly gave out not-too-bad-advice over the course of my career!

But real learning is when you run down the maze and smack the wall head first. Back, left, or right—going forward is clearly wrong. That’s good stuff to know. One does not have to be bloodied or bruised to be wrong. We don’t have to burn our hands to know something is hot, that’s one of the benefits of age. It’s hard to be wrong, the bruises to the ego are as lasting as those to the skin. That’s the key for me, that we really learn best when we get rid of the ego. I think the entire notion of ego, in the Freudian sense, is hopelessly out-of-date. Much of that man’s work has undue influence on how we think about ourselves, he was certainly a bright and creative fellow but let’s get rid of these old-fashioned mechanistic schemes of the mind, they don’t help. Newtonian mechanics gave the world a lot of things, but is applicable only in a narrow subset of all the interactions science has shown us are possible. The universe requires an update of those notions, turning on their heads such fundamental things as mass, energy, time, and space. Shouldn’t we expect our ideas about how the brain and mind work to require similar updating?

I’m not mystical enough to go with the spiritual view of ego-death, the state of full awareness and transcendence. I’m more of a day-to-day, down-to-earth guy. It’s more that I think of the mind as an ecology, a system of interactions rather than a set of structures. And one of those interactions is to cling, that is in the sense of hold fast or adhere to. The verb to clench is of the same lineage as cling. Our ego is our cling-mechanism. It’s not surprising we have such a thing, it’s a sea of uncertainty out there and a good instinct in such a situation is to grab on to whatever flotsam is closest. But we aren’t machines, we are organisms, we are in a state of flux, inhaling and excreting and moving and metabolizing and repairing and consuming. The fists we use to clench with in our minds are not fixed steel clasps, they aren’t cinched or bolted. They are free to move on their own, to come and go as they please. Those hooks in our head we use to hang things are alive, they can evolve and adapt and become un-hooks just as easily.

This is the letting go that I mean. To unclench, as it were. We don’t have to let it go in the sense of letting it get away. Whatever it is, it is still there, we just don’t grip it as tightly. We can put it down and pick out something else, like trying on a new pair of trousers, and don’t you think trousers is a more splendid word than pants? But I could be wrong, and that’s where I started. We have such an inverted value on the word wrong. Wrong is just a note by the universe that this path isn’t as open to possibilities as another path. It seems to me to be a powerful learning opportunity, this idea of being wrong, and having to unbind your mind and embrace the new.

We love our opinions and assumptions, they are lifeboats in the ocean. We nurture our biases, they are safe and comforting in crazy world. Learning is hard, it is filled with unfamiliar and discordant notes, but those are the ones we need to tune in to if we want to keep our minds fit and ready for what comes next. No one knows what comes next! Isn’t that wonderful?

 

 

 

Isaiah 64:6

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

Jehovah, the God of Moses and Abraham, was a hard-ass motherfucker. Like a mafia don, he expected absolute fidelity and his wrath was severe if the rules were broken. The Israelites were always screwing up and forgetting to toe the line and so Yahweh had to come down again and again and straighten things out. This bit from Isaiah is lovely, don’t you think? That image of the filthy rags—that is, stained with menstrual blood—is particularly good, in olden times women’s monthly emissions were as unclean as the guys writing this stuff down could imagine. I think shit is a lot worse, and microbiology backs me up, but the Hebrew story-tellers had a particular thing about periods. Maybe that’s why women will never be Catholic priests!

I also like the image of the leaf, fading in color and texture, being borne off by the wind. I love autumn, and the fall of the foliage from the trees and its scattering always makes me wistful, all that energy that went into the making now dissipating with the coming of winter. I came across this last week when I was killing time in a motel room the night before a ski adventure. I usually poke through the Gideon at one point or another in my stays, it has lots of organized quotes in the preface, this passage was one of them.

I took it to mean that we are all posers, that we put on a show of being good, but in the end we will all be shown to be as equally full of shit. Or, at the very least, we’ll all wind up the same in the cosmic sense, that is, fertilizer. But I think the more religious types see the moral differently. That no matter how good our works are, they pale when compared to God’s goodness, and if we think that good works will get us to Heaven, we are mistaken. Only God can do that, and only if we accept that any goodness we have originates with God, not within ourselves.

That’s a little harsh in my book. People are clearly capable of goodness. All you have to do is observe people being good to each other, that’s clear evidence that people can be good. Of course the opposite is true as well. We are capable of being rather wretched beasts, right? We see that, too. The fact that people actually do things is proof that they are capable of those things.

So, are we losers who need to accept our complete loser-ness in order NOT to be losers? Or, are we better than that, rather decent in fact most of the time, and will it hurt us to say so? Perhaps the sages of lore were worried that if we thought too highly of ourselves we’d get into worse trouble. Hubris has its price. Humility is a difficult art to practice, and it is especially tough in this can-do, boot-strapping, self-made all-American capitalist enterprise we live in, where self-worth and self-belief are the cornerstones of economic advancement.

If you are poor in the US of A, it’s because you lack virtue. You didn’t get up early enough, study hard enough, or work long enough hours. You weren’t thrifty enough, hungry enough, or tough enough. At least that’s the free market credo and it works for enough folks that we take it for granted. I’ve no issue with ambition and I’ve no problem with getting ahead—more power to you and may you find success. But the world is more complicated than that and the exigencies of life are often outside our control. Bad stuff happens even to good people, no one is exempt from the vagaries of existence.

I don’t really know what to make of Isaiah 64:6. I found it rather poetic, and it made me contemplative. I thought it was telling me to be humble, to see that what makes us human, both good and bad, is shared by all of us, and that our fates are all the same. I’ll leave it to the biblical scholars to parse out the deeper stuff, I don’t read the Gideon for spiritual strength or mystical insight. I like the language, and the history, and the characters and their stories, and the great panorama of human nuttiness, all the crazy stuff we believe and all the crazy things we’ll do in service of those beliefs.

How we see the world is a product of our culture. What’s really out there depends on who and where you are. Anytime you can get a group of folks all together in one place experiencing the same shared reality you have to figure it’s a bit of a miracle. I’m a big fan of civilization and I hope it keeps chugging along and we keep muddling through. That’s a tall order what with seven billion of us here now and still growing. We’re all connected, like it or not, we are all passengers on the same spaceship and there aren’t any escape pods. I guess that means we’ll all have to figure out how to get along, eh?

 

Mind

Mind is the world the brain creates. Mind is the world we inhabit. Sure, if you prick me I will indeed bleed, but my world is a product of my mind which is a product of my brain. Following on, the brain is an organ and part of a larger system we call the body. This dualism of body and mind is fundamental to Western culture, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in integration, a body/mind synthesis much like the space/time synthesis that Einstein pulled off. Science fiction is always giving us disembodied brains and downloaded consciousnesses and whatnot, but they are strictly for fun. A mind can’t be separated from its brain. The purpose of the stomach and guts is to digest the food; the purpose of the brain is to produce the mind.

The brain is not a simple organ, it has lots of parts, it should really be thought of as a system, too. And we know our bodies are composed of borrowed parts, parasitic remnants, invasive colonies, evolutionary weirdness, and other good stuff, not to mention that we turn over our cells in many places with astonishing rapidity, it’s hard to fix bodies in time and space. They are dynamic entities, immersed in a sea of gases and depending on a constant input of energy to survive. And so much of what happens to us each day is autonomic—you breathe and digest and excrete and regulate your body temperature and on and on without thinking. Of course you can think about all those things, but they are all done for you whether you care or not. No one has a fucking clue about how that shit works, but all agree it’s way cool.

So here we are in the overfed and over-stimulated US of A and we talk about health. All the time. We run, we eat kale, we detoxify, we go to spas, we get a bike, we quit smoking,  you know the drill. But it’s all focused on the body part of body-mind. What about the mind part of body-mind? What sorts of workouts do we need for modern times?

I think we have to characterize modern times as distinct from previous eras in human history. I date modern times from the atom bomb and the nuclear age. Humans actually created a true doomsday weapon, it was no longer theoretical, it was real. It ended the war, and no conflict on that scale has happened since. The other characteristic of modern times is the global communications network. War, or the threat of war, invented or accelerated existing technologies so that things like supercomputers and satellite constellations are everyday phenomena. The pace of change has changed: it has gotten faster.

We know this. We see it expressed in politics where society changes faster than the legislatures can keep up with. They are still debating things from the 70s, fer chrissakes. People can see further than their elected representatives who by design represent blocs of voters and thus are constrained by group-think. Clearly, the modern mind has to be flexible and adaptable. Change is inevitable. It’s growth, that is our mental growth, that is optional. We have to choose it. We can feel dismay at the pace of change, that’s natural. But we have to avoid the nostalgia trap. It’s easy to think things were better back in the day, that people were better, too, but it really doesn’t hold up. It’s just a comforting bias, and it gets harder to shake as you get older. But if we recognize this bias, and know that it is perfectly normal, we can allow our minds to see again, with fresh eyes, not jaded by memory, which as we know is a most imperfect thing.

Certainly we can reminisce, look back fondly, remember the past and all that. I don’t mean to say that we should not. Just that we live NOW and that if we view everything through the lens of how it was, or how we think it was, we will miss the now, or at least see less of it. You want your heart to be strong, to beat smoothly, right? You want your organs to function as optimally as they can, right? How about the brain-organ? If you do all the other things your mother told you to do (eat your vegetables, don’t drink or smoke too much, watch the sweets and red meat, etc.) your brain-organ is probably OK. But your mind, the product of your brain, has to help itself. To look at things anew is the key to adaptability and flexibility. The mind benefits from fresh-seeing. The poet knows this, as does the mathematician. When they face knotty problems they try to look at them from a different place, and in a different way, in order to be creative and generate new possibilities.

The modern world is full of challenges and mental fitness is just as important to the body-mind as physical fitness. Looking at things in a new light is one of those mental fitness things. It has to be in the toolbox, so to speak. We do it all the time, but it might be worth it to be more aware of it, and to work that muscle and build it up. I think the times demand it.