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Difficult, Important Questions

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OK, the thing is, realistically, barring illness or accident, I have 30 years of fairly sensible, satisfactory consciousness left to me. If I'm lucky, I have 40 years. And if I'm really lucky, like my awesome redheaded great-aunt Stella, I have 50 years of consciousness left to me. Fifty years in which I can (like Aunt Stella did, even when she was 90 years old) drive myself to my hair appointments or the grocery store. Fifty years before I start weeping and begging god to let me die because the pain from the horrible terminal illness I've got is worse than the thought of eternal unconsciousness or even never-ending suffering in hell. (Stella, the star, the beautiful, upright, generous devout Mormon I will admire till I die myself, succumbed to a ghastly, grisly struggle with esophageal cancer the day after Easter 1994, at which point she was 93, almost as old as the twentieth century, having greeted the world a few months after it did. Before she died, she was weeping in agony of spirit and body, wondering, "Why won't God let me die? Am I not good enough for him to let me into heaven?")

So, what the fuck am I doing with the consciousness I've got left? Whether it's 30 years or 50 years, what am I doing with it? How am I going to spend it? I like you all quite a lot, really I do; but I just got a new Frank Sinatra cd (it's playing as I type) and what is a better use of my time, really: writing blog entries about eight people will read, or listening to Frank, thoroughly, carefully, devotedly?

My Space and Everyone Else's

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Yeah, I'm back--back in Pennsylvania, back in the blogosphere. I've been away for a long time but I had stuff to do--some of it important, some of it pleasant, some of it not.

I've found it hard to start blogging again, not because I haven't missed it--I have, and some of you have been nice enough to tell me you've missed me too--but you know how it goes when you get out of the habit: you lose the rhythm and it seems marvelous and incomprehensible that people can come up with something to say almost every day, and that moreover, I was one of them! But I'm going to try to pick it up again.

As a way of easing myself back in, here's something I first drafted months ago in a conversation with a friend about public/private space.

I guess my relation to place is probably different from many people's, because I grew up someplace rural, and aside from those eight years in Iowa, I have spent most of my time in the west, where space is just dealt with differently, in part because it looks and feels different: the dry air means the sky is wider and feels further away, even when buildings press close.

I need wide open vistas, I need them, in ways other people need a lot of social interaction. I can feel a touch claustrophobic in places that might make others feel they're lost in some endless barren terrain. I'm not saying I can't function in some urban setting, but my skin starts to crawl and my head feels crowded if I don't get a dose of a horizon bereft of buildings from time to time (John Ruskin wrote, "It does not need much to humiliate a mountain; a hut will sometimes do it" though I think the very expensive homes in Sedona do a decent job of humiliating that landscape too) and I prefer to commune with said horizon on my own. Nothing ruins a nice view like someone else's head. I am not so rugged and woodsy that I have to go hiking in someplace remote and inaccessible--I like well established trails just fine--but the idea of barbequing in a crowded picnic area or swimming on a crowded beach holds little appeal for me.

An Obvious Compound Word

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Today one of my students gave me a poem built in part on questioning something I apparently said about heartbreak.

When I first got home from my mission I was suffering from what I would eventually come to call religious despair. On my mission I was suicidally depressed, though I lacked the initiative and the energy to do anything about my grief. I could not eat or sleep. I wept uncontrollably for nine weeks, so bereft that I could not stop my tears even in public.

And then I finished my mission, went home, and went back to work on my undergraduate degree. I was young and pretty and from a middle-class family. I liked wearing bright blue mascara and clean clothes. I still attended church. My suffering did not involve addiction or physical violence.

And so no one believed me when I talked about my unhappiness. God forbid I try to write a poem about the despair I had experienced! I remember a middle-aged gay male bartender responding with undisguised loathing to a poem I submitted in class attempting to describe the young, chaste, female trauma I'd endured. How dare I, he proclaimed! How dare I believe I knew anything of heartbreak!

And now that I am middle-aged, a young man is saying basically the same thing, because.... I can pay my own mortgage? Because there's still no addiction and physical violence in my life?

OK, I don't know a thing about heartbreak. I know nothing of it. I relinquish any claim to so dignified a word. What I know--all I know--is grief's assault on the rest of the body. If you want to talk about suffering rooted in and expressed through phlegm and bile and blood and bowels, then hey, I have something to say about that.

Utility and Worth

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Here's a strange little reflection I found on page one of a journal I started about two years ago. I avoided writing in it because it wasn't the format I generally prefer for a journal: heavy lined 8.5 by 11 loose leaf notebook paper. But for reasons I explain below, I finally started using this journal as well. I'm currently on page 13.

I have had this little book since before I graduated from high school in 1981. What the hell have I saved it for all these years? Good god, it's now 2004 and this book is still empty, unused-- not quite wasted (because it still has potential) but almost, since it is a thing that has a purpose and that purpose is going unfulfilled. And if that purpose is never fulfilled, well, then the thing is wasted.

Everything has a purpose, but we don't get to decide what those purposes are, necessarily-- only the purposes of the things we make. The purpose of a cow is not to be eaten, but to be a cow. However, the purpose of beef is to be eaten, and it would be wrong to waste beef. Once the sacrifice has been made, once a thing has been killed, then it's wrong to let it go to waste.

I'm thinking about issues of utility and worth-- I don't want to exploit things, and I also don't want to waste resources--

and that's it.

FYI

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All I've ever really wanted, really and truly, is a lifetime of connection to transcendent beauty.

Really now, that's not too much to ask, is it?

There have been times when I've been willing to accept substitutes, like enlightenment and serenity, and I sought them diligently. But now I see what shoddy substitutes they are, and I seek them no more.

P.S. I'm not kidding.

Where or When I Was

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Early this morning I had what is for me a very rare experience: I awoke with absolutely no idea where or when I was. At first I thought, "Am I nine? Is this my parents' house?" And then I thought, "Am I in our summer cabin on the mountain? Is that why everything is so dark and simultaneously familiar and a little bit out of the ordinary?" But the ceiling was more than two feet from my face and I couldn't see any exposed two-by-fours (I got to sleep in the loft, which I loved, because it was solitary and strange and I had to climb a ladder to get to it) so I knew that wasn't the case. Next I had to figure out that I wasn't in a college dorm or a hostel in Europe. (The one period of my life I never thought to imagine I was revisiting was anything having to do with my mission or Asia.) I then asked myself, "Do I still live in Iowa?" And I actually worded it like that, with the still, which meant I was figuring out that if my consciousness had me still living in Iowa, it wasn't doing its job properly. Then I thought, "Am I on a boat? Because I was on a boat, pretty recently." And then it all came back, that I'd been traveling but was home now, waking up for the first time in a good while in my little house in the rust belt.

The thing is, I felt no distress or discomfort while I was figuring all this out. I was too asleep to discern immediately where I was, but I was awake enough to feel my mind working, and I was distanced enough from both sleep and wakefulness to stand back and simply watch my mind figure out this situation, and that was kind of fun. I felt fortunate as I cycled through various periods of my life and realized that there had been all these places in the world where I'd slept safely and awakened in the morning to go do interesting things. And I was especially comforted to discover that I was in my own bed in my own house and that I wouldn't have to get up in a few hours and get off a boat or on a plane, and that made it really easy to go back to sleep.

In an email message to me a couple of days ago, Spike noted that comments on various threads had revealed certain categorical errors. He said he'd try to find time to respond to the comments himself, and I said, "Look, you write such interesting, insightful stuff; I don't want it buried deep at the end of a thread, especially since I have the feeling these issues might come up again. If you're going to write an analysis of this, why not write something I can post as an entry? I'm really busy right now and could really use a guest blogger, if you wouldn't mind...." And it turns out, he didn't mind at all, and very graciously agreed to write a post for me.

So here it is: my very first guest post, courtesy of Spike.

In the comments to From the Perspective of a Man and Carnival of Feminists XV, two criticisms of Holly's statements made the error of confusing physical properties with culture. Timothy was concerned that while the thread of the comments under "From the Perspective of a Man" emphasized the importance of not damning a whole category of people when insulting a particular individual, this concern ran against the grain of what he felt was Holly's critique of "straight white men." Holly's response has already made the point that criticizing the dominant perspective is not the same as criticizing a group of people. What interested me was the way Timothy collapses a cultural or ideological category (the dominant perspective of the straight white male) with a biological category (men).

In the discussion of the Carnival, a similar, but slightly more complicated error led Jay to question Holly’s use of a Chinese character in the design of her web page: he was concerned about the appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians. It seems to me that Jay’s concern also rests on a conflation of a cultural or ideological category with, here, a geographical one. This mistake is a bit less obvious than Timothy’s so I should explain why I think Jay makes it. Jay suggested that it was ironic that Holly included a link to Jenn’s piece Unbound Feet in the Carnival, when Jenn had also posted a little rant (Jay’s term) about Western appropriation of Asian culture, since it would appear from the top right of Holly’s page that she’s a white woman but she includes a Chinese character. (Holly and Jay have already had an exchange about this over the issues of etiquette and the reason Holly has the character on her blog so I won’t belabour these points.)

Now it may be a bit unfair for me to discuss Jenn's writing here – it's not her blog, I don't even know if she's reading this – so I will stress this qualification: I am not attributing any intent to Jenn, I'm only commenting as a reader. I have read both of the posts that matter here. The first thing to be noted about the "rant" is that it is a rant. It is not a thoughtfully crafted argument about the point she wants to make – unlike the elegant piece she wrote on "unbound feet," which is a careful and powerful argument. Now ranting is quite important and I would encourage more of it. But I suspect that the tone of the rant is part of the reason Jay felt he had license to question Holly's use of the Chinese character: the rant reads like a defence of the integrity of Asian culture against Western power. It would be possible – but I believe it would be very ungenerous – to suggest that this goes against the argument made in "unbound feet," which is a powerful claim for feminist resistance to female identities imposed by Asian American men on Asian American women.

Piraha, Dependent Clauses, and Counting to Ten

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Big fat disclaimer: I sent a link to this story to a colleague; she told me that the guy featured in the article, Daniel Everett, administered her comprehensive exams and is not British as he claims but "American, a member of the Summer Institute of Linguists (an evangelical group who brings Bible translation to remote places; they have done amazing linguistic research), and the former chairperson of the linguistics dept. at U.Pitt - who had to flee the country for embezzling funds from Pitt!" Also, "His story about the murder plot has been suspect for a long time." Which gave me pause about posting this, but it's still pretty interesting, and you can make up your own mind what you think about it all.

Read this amazing article from Spiegel International about a small group of Brazilian natives whose language--Piraha-- "departs from what were long thought to be essential features of all languages."

The language is incredibly spare. The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don't exist. Apparently colors aren't very important to the Pirahãs, either -- they don't describe any of them in their language. But of all the curiosities, the one that bugs linguists the most is that Pirahã is likely the only language in the world that doesn't use subordinate clauses. Instead of saying, "When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you," the Pirahãs say, "I finish eating, I speak with you."

Equally perplexing: In their everyday lives, the Pirahãs appear to have no need for numbers. During the time he spent with them, Everett never once heard words like "all," "every," and "more" from the Pirahãs. There is one word, "hói," which does come close to the numeral 1. But it can also mean "small" or describe a relatively small amount -- like two small fish as opposed to one big fish, for example. And they don't even appear to count without language, on their fingers for example, in order to determine how many pieces of meat they have to grill for the villagers, how many days of meat they have left from the anteaters they've hunted or how much they demand from Brazilian traders for their six baskets of Brazil nuts.

Not only do these people have no numbers, because they have never had to intellectualize counting or any form of math, they can't be taught to count to ten. It's not that they're stupid--the article makes the point that "Their thinking isn't any slower than the average college freshman," some of whom also have trouble with basic math and subordinate clauses. They just have no way of accommodating ideas for which they have no set of linguistic structures.

I Am Suddenly So Freakin' Homesick

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Woke up this morning well before 5 a.m., not particularly rested, all freaked out about mortality again.... I haven't written much about, because I lately haven't much inhabited, the spells of profound despair I'm sometimes subject to.... Sometimes I just worry. I bolt awake in the middle of the night, heart heavy and fast, tears already in my eyes, because the ice caps are melting and all the polar bears are going to die. Read a couple of days ago that all these new species, including the hippopotamus, have been added to the list of endangered species, and it pretty much bummed me out. "Entropy," I thought. "This is fuckin' entropy: everything reduced to the lowest common denominator, as boring and uniform as human beings can make it before they die out too."

And I also think about the fact that I'm 42 and probably about half way through my life. I sorta believe in reincarnation, and I wonder what I'll come back as.... I'm not announcing suicidal tendencies or anything--no need to worry about me--but there are times when I think, "Yeah, it wouldn't be so very bad to start all over again...."

And then I read something like this or this from Chris Clarke, which tears my heart in ways I can't fathom or describe. I realize that those of us who love the desert romanticize it terribly, and it's not because we don't know there are other places that are really beautiful. It's because, hell, I don't know.... In some ways the best thing I ever heard anyone say about the desert was T. E. Lawrence's response (at least, Peter O'Toole said it, in the movie version of T. E. Lawrence's life) when asked why he likes its so: "It's clean."

It's clean. You get dirty there, but the desert itself is somehow clean.

I spent most of my Christmas break in east Tucson at the home my parents recently purchased two doors down from my brother and his family, and one of the things I did while I was there was go for walks and look at the Catalinas, the strange mountain range to the North. The Catalinas are amazing: they're so weirdly bumpy and irregular, and they are perfectly situated to capture shadows created by the sun as it travels across the sky: the Catalinas change more than any other mountain range I've ever seen.

Like I said, there's something about all this I can't fathom or describe. The air seems clean (not that it really is these days) and clear and I just have this sense of... the sublime? Intimations of mortality? I'm just so aware of how the landscape I grew up in shaped my sense of... life as something bright and harsh. Of the world as something that doesn't much give a shit whether we manage to live in it or not, but is incredibly beautiful--and somehow knows that--whether we notice it or not. I've never not felt this sort of awe and despair and gratitude and certainty inspired by this deep visceral language-less knowledge the desert communicated to me the first time I look around and said, "Huh. So this is home."

I doubt this is making sense. Plenty of things I feel I can describe adequately. My love for my home and the reasons why the desert moves me--that I can't describe.

Just Freakin' Say No Already

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This is something I wrote back in August. I was unwilling to post it at the time because the person it was about was reading my blog. But he's gone, so at long last the post gets posted. It begins with a long quotation from Isak Dinesen's essay "On Mottoes in My Life":

The family of Finch Hatton, of England, have on their crest the device Je responderay, "I will answer.''...I liked it so much I asked Denys... if I might have it for my own. He generously made me a present of it and even had a seal cut for me, with the words carved on it. The device was meaningful and dear to me for many reasons, two in particular. The first...was its high evaluation of the idea of the answer in itself. For an answer is a rarer thing than is generally imagined. There are many highly intelligent people who have no answer at all in them...Secondly, I liked the Finch Hatton device for its ethical content. I will answer for what I say or do; I will answer to the impression I make. I will be responsible.

One thing that drives me crazy is people who can't say no, not in the Ado Annie from Oklahoma! way, but in the general sense of not being able to risk disappointing someone. This affliction affects every segment of the population, but Mormon women seem to have an especially bad case of it. I notice it every year when I go to fill up panels for Sunstone: I'll start gathering names of people I could invite to participate, then email or call them. There's always at least one Mormon woman who simply can't tell me no, though she desperately wants to. She clears her throat, she dodges the question (always invoking an obligation to her family--she's just so busy with the kids!), not wanting to give me a straight answer because she's afraid it will hurt my feelings.

What I want to know is this: why is being led on, strung along, forced to interpret vague clues of resistance, somehow kinder, nicer and more tactful than simply being told, "I'm really sorry, but I have neither the time nor the inclination for what you're proposing, so I'll have to decline your generous offer. I heartily wish you the best of luck in finding someone who's interested"?

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