Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Mahatma Gandhi

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
-- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Nan Fairbrother

Most of anyone’s life is a preoccupation with urgent inessentials. If we divide our affairs into what matters for a day or a season or the rest of our lives, it is the long-term fundamentals we give least time to, and put off till tomorrow’s tomorrow. We are more concerned with the pressing than the important, and the essentials are easily crowded out by the mere day-to-day business of living.
-- Nan Fairbrother

Monday, August 28, 2017

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Winston Churchill

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
-- Winston Churchill

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Anias Nin

We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.
-- Anias Nin

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Steve Jobs

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
-- Steve Jobs

Friday, August 18, 2017

Places to Visit -- Navajo Antelope Canyon

I've been to many of the parks in this area, but not to Navajo Antelope Canyon. Thanks to my friend Kim Greene for posting about it. Next time in northern Arizona...


Quote of the Day -- Paulo Coelho

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.
-- Paulo Coelho

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Place for Everything

"A place for everything and everything in its place." 

When our kids were growing up and our house was crammed full of the many artifacts of their lives, I dreamed of a decluttered nirvana. A place for everything... When I retired, I was sure that I would clean out all the closets and other collector's havens in our house and approach my nirvana. But my Myers Briggs results should have tipped me off that I'm very conflicted about a decluttered nirvana and its relative importance to me.

I've taken the Myers Briggs assessment several different times in my life and my results are quite consistent. I'm unequivocally thinking rather than feeling when it comes to making decisions. And I rely on intuition (which I think of as "big picture") much more than lots of details. But I'm typically right on the line (or "conflicted") when it comes to judging versus perceiving, which perhaps explains why I can't even describe very well what this dichotomy even is. According to the MB web site, 
This fourth preference pair describes how you like to live your outer life--what are the behaviors others tend to see? Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)? This preference may also be thought of as your orientation to the outer world.
Simplistically for me, my conflict between J and P is that I think I should be highly organized and work my to do list, but somehow other things always get in the way. I tend to wing it but not necessarily admit (to myself or to others) that I'm in flight. So when it comes to being organized, I'm destined to live my life as a work in progress. But it also means that I'm always on the lookout for organizational tips or the now-popular term "life hacks." Which leads me to the raison d'ĂȘtre for this blog. I've struggled with creating something that is, more or less, a personal journal. Especially given that many entries aren't my thoughts but the wonderful quotations by others. 

I recently read a tip that you should create some kind of "file" to collect ideas, quotations, etc. that appeal to you. For me, this blog has become that personal organizational tool. Aside from providing an opportunity to capture my ideas, it's also a very satisfying method for recording my collection of quotations and other tidbits. It's visually satisfying and much easier to scroll back through than a physical journal would be. I read someplace that the majority of blogs are, in fact, personal journals with zero or minimal attempt to promote them to a broader audience. Thinking about this place as a tool for imposing outer order definitely elevates my inner peace quotient.

One of my "places for everything..."

Quote of the Day -- Robert Rosenstone

History is not a collection of details. It is an argument about what the details mean. The moment you start connecting facts into a meaningful story, you are indulging in certain forms of fiction.
-- Robert Rosenstone


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Jodi Picoult

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.
-- Jodi Picoult

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Travis Bradberry

We have to be very careful in choosing our pursuits, because our habits make us.
-- Travis Bradberry

Monday, August 14, 2017

Quote of the Day -- William Hazlitt

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
-- William Hazlitt

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Elizabeth Gilbert

I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind. The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.
-- Elizabeth Gilbert

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Quote of the Day -- William Blake

To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.
-- William Blake

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Exceptionalism

Most of us are pretty ordinary people, destined to live ordinary lives. We strive to do well, to provide for our families, to improve our minds, nourish our bodies and our spirits. But basically, we are ordinary. And that should be OK. If we can look back at a life well-lived, we should be proud. And yet...

In The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about a culture shift from self-effacement -- "Nobody's better than me, but I'm no better than anyone else" -- to a culture of self-promotion -- "Recognize my accomplishments, I'm pretty special." He cites Gallup surveys in 1950 and 2005 that asked high school seniors if they considered themselves important. In 1950, 12% said yes. In 2005, 80% said yes. This seems like self-esteem run amok. We can't all be important and exceptional. Some of us (actually most of us) just need to be regular folk doing our best. In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain notes a similar shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality.

As individuals, we yearn to be important, exceptional, even famous. We want more "likes" and more "followers." We want to see our name and face in lights. And as a country, many of us tout American exceptionalism, forgetting that exceptional means different, not necessarily better. According to Wikipedia, Alexis de Tocqueville was probably the first to couple American and exceptionalism in print. It was only partially a compliment:

"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people."

 

Those words by a somewhat snobbish European were penned in 1835. In the intervening years, America has emerged from isolationism at important moments and really stepped up to make a difference in the course of history. And despite a still strong bent of anti-intellectualism, we have produced many brilliant minds and ground-breaking ideas. But so have other nations around the world. And that's what so few Americans seem to understand. We are exceptional -- meaning different -- in many ways, but exceptional does not equate to better. 

No one can be the best at everything, and we certainly aren't. We need to teach our children to be realistic about their strengths and weaknesses and to strive to live a good life, not necessarily a famous life. And we need to teach ourselves as a nation to recognize that we are not the best at everything, any more than our children are. A good parent helps their children be both proud and realistic. A good citizen should do the same.

Quote of the Day -- G.K. Chesterton

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk around the whole world till we come back to the same place.
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bird by Bird

Several months ago, I wrote a post describing some people who seem to have more interesting lives, even though they are pretty ordinary, just like I am. I remarked that these people are often more observant, more present. They pay attention to detail and relish life's little absurdities.

Now, I'm reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It's a funny, delightful pallet cleanser after plowing through Auster's 4 3 2 1, at least partly because Auster takes himself so very seriously and Lamott doesn't.  And yet, in her brevity and her self-deprecating humor, Lamott reveals so many of life's truths. But I digress.

In the introduction to Bird by Bird, Lamott identifies the skilled writer's ability to capture in words what others see -- to give it shape and substance and meaning:
I started writing a lot in high school: journals, impassioned antiwar pieces, parodies of the writers I loved. And I began to notice something important. The other kids wanted me to tell them stories of what had happened, even -- or especially -- when they had been there.
I'm sure my father was the person on whom his friends relied to tell their stories... He could take major events or small episodes from daily life and shade or exaggerate things in such a way as to capture their shape and substance, capture what life felt like in the society in which he and his friends lived and worked and bred. People looked to him to put into words what was going on.
A worthy and difficult goal -- to see the world with clarity and describe it in a way that resonates with others.

I especially love Lamott's ability to be simultaneously reverent and irreverent:
.. that kind of attention is the prize. To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass -- seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.
Bird by Bird is a book about the craft of writing, but it is so much more. It is about the pain and challenge and beauty of being conscious and of looking at the world honestly. It is breathlessly honest and also so damned funny, filled with so many priceless lines, said almost in passing, like this one "I wasn't writing the book with my thumb stuck out, trying to hitchhike into history..." How does she come up with these quips?  Anne Lammot is my hero!

Quote of the Day -- John Barrymore

A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.
-- John Barrymore

Monday, August 7, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Victor Hugo

When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.
-- Victor Hugo

Sunday, August 6, 2017

4 3 2 1 -- Coming of Age in the Sixties

One of the indulgences of my "college of my own making" in retirement is that I create my own syllabus and I don't finish books that I don't like. I did feel compelled, however, to slog my way all the way to the end of Paul Auster's massive tome 4 3 2 1.

The premise of the book is ingenious, interweaving the divergent stories of four different Archie Fergusons -- four possible lives of the same boy.  All born in 1947 (like Auster). Similar but different life experiences that gradually diverge more and more as they reach their early twenties. 

But I barely remember the names of characters when I'm reading a single version of a story. Keeping track of the roles of various friends and relatives in the different versions of Ferguson was just too much for me. Maybe I should have started taking notes and drawing diagrams right from the start, but then it's a text book, not a novel. So if Auster did a good job of demonstrating the impact that various life experiences had on his protagonist, some of that was lost on me because I couldn't keep them straight.

I'm a bit younger than Auster and Ferguson, but not so much younger that his life experiences are uncharted territory. The reactions of an adolescent and young adult to the unjust war and the racism of the late 60's rings true to me, even though I'm enough younger that I didn't experience it in the same way. Sharing generational experiences was probably my motivation for soldiering on through all 866 pages. I must say that the last couple pages were profoundly disappointing. He just couldn't figure out how to bring his story to a good closing.

If you are of a completely different generation than Paul Auster and I are, I'm not sure that you'll experience sufficient insight to justify the investment of your time.

Quote of the Day --- Nehru

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.
-- Jawaharlal Nehru

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Quote of the Day -- Michael Kinsley

A gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.
-- Michael Kinsley

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Reading the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway almost simultaneously with Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations was a study in contrasts. Huntington is analytical, detached and almost clinical in his discussion of the conflicts that occur along the fault lines when two civilizations meet. The brutal civil war in Yugoslavia that provides the canvas for the stark portraits in the Cellist of Sarajevo is one of those fault line conflicts.

Galloway, with his spare but effective prose, provides painful glimpses into the lives of four very different people, all struggling to retain some semblance of humanity in the face of utterly inhuman conditions. There is nothing detached or clinical about his approach. Through the eyes of his characters, we come to understand the soul-crushing struggles of survival in a war zone in a way that no news story and heart-rending photos ever can. It's hard to imagine walking many miles, ever-fearful of sniper bullets, every few days to lug jugs of water for your family's needs. But with Galloway's stark descriptions, we can begin to imagine it. It's hard to imagine an economy reduced to bartering while a lucky, unscrupulous few acquire riches. But through the eyes of Galloway's characters, we can imagine it. Probably the least difficult thing to imagine is the choice to kill or be killed.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores courage, fear, despair, and glimmers of hope in a world gone mad. It lays bare the senselessness of the conflicts wrought by our tribalism. It's uncomfortable, even painful, to read and well worth every cringe and gasp.

Quote of the Day -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Living Close Together or Not So Much

I can create a decent metaphor, if pressed, but I have little skill when it comes to creating visual images to illustrate a point. But I can appreciate the effectiveness of other people's visual efforts and I love this:

It comes from an article exploring the density of population throughout the world with a variety of interesting visual images. Take a few minutes to scroll through and digest the images in the article. Fascinating!

The vast majority of people on the planet will live out their lives in close proximity to their birthplace, with their perception of "normal" population density shaped largely by their own neighborhood. But some of us have the good fortune to travel the world, or at least to travel beyond our neighborhood. We can develop a preference for wide-open spaces or a tightly packed urban jungle based on actual experience of both.  

I spent most of my youth in a "close in" suburb of Chicago, where the yards were fairly small, we could see our neighbors, and we had a real neighborhood. And I've spent the majority of my adult life in a "first ring" suburb of Minneapolis -- again, relatively small lots where we can see our neighbors but have plenty of breathing room. For me, a first-ring suburb provides optimal density and access. We're just a few minutes away from everything that a prosperous downtown has to offer -- theater, music, sports, fine dining. Those same few minutes in a different direction take us to the famous Minneapolis lakes for a brisk or leisurely morning walk. Yes, I'd like to be within easy walking distance from shopping like our kids who live in NYC and Seattle. But I do enjoy the quieter, greener suburban life.

When it comes to travel, I'm all about equal opportunity -- density in many flavors. I love visiting bustling big cities in all parts of the world, from the relatively orderly Paris or London to noisy and crowded Beijing or Buenos Aires. But I also relish the beauty, isolation and quiet of the Norwegian fjords or the blue icebergs of Antarctica. I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to live in an area whose density is comfortable for me while at the same time experiencing many different densities during travel adventures.

Quote of the Day -- Nelson Mandela

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
-- Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Clash of Civilizations

I'm a sucker for sweeping generalities when they are well argued and elegantly articulated.  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond remains one of my all-time favorite books. I just finished reading The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order by Samuel P Huntington. It joins GGS on my list of really important books.

Clash of Civilizations was written in 1996. It's interesting to read a history of events that have happened mostly in my lifetime and see how predictive it has been of the most recent 20 years.

One of Huntington's central premises is that clashes among groups of people are inevitable. Despite the fact that we in the West foolishly dreamed of a universal culture after the fall of the Soviet Union, it isn't in human nature for everyone to agree on common principals and just get along.  We define ourselves, and our tribe, by how we are different from others.

Huntington argues that the Cold War was an anomaly in the history of civilizations because it was a clash of politics and ideals rather than of fundamental cultural and religious differences. But now that the Cold War has ended, the world is reverting to a norm where peoples disagree over the fundamental things that they believe -- culture, values, and religion.

The world today, he argues, has seven major civilizations:

  • Sinic (Chinese)
  • Japanese
  • Hindu (primarily India)
  • Islamic (vast but lacking a primary core state)
  • Orthodox (Russian)
  • Western (that's us and Europe)
  • Latin American
And when push comes to shove, people will align with others who share their civilizational and cultural identity.

He identifies the key beliefs, values, and institutions that characterize "the West," and admonishes that we in the West wrongly assume that these are shared and universally correct values:
  • Classical legacy coming from the Greeks and Romans
  • Catholicism and Protestantism
  • Separation of spiritual and temporal authority
  • Social pluralism
  • Representative bodies
  • Individualism
"What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest."

The vast center of the book illuminates the history and fundamental characteristics of the other major civilizations. Huntington then examines the major and minor conflicts that continually arise along the "fault lines" where different civilizations come in contact. "Fault line wars are intermittent," he says. "Fault line conflicts are interminable."

The most sobering and prescient part of the book is the final section, where Huntington reprises the classic phases of civilization identified by other notable historians and describes a civilization in decline.  I'll quote at length because it is both important and frightening:
Civilizations decline when they stop the "application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases." (Carroll Quigley) This happens because social groups, controlling the surplus, have a vested interest in using it for "non-productive but ego-satisfying purposes... which distribute the surpluses to consumption but do not provide more effective methods of production." People live off their capital and the civilization moves from the stage of the universal state to the stage of decay. 
It's pretty hard to avoid equating that description with the huge wealth gap that is growing in Western countries, particularly the U.S., and with multinational companies hoarding huge amounts of cash instead of reinvesting.

Huntington continues, quoting Quigley at length:
This is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy. The society grows weaker and weaker. Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of society began to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale. New religious movements begin to sweep over the society. There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes. 
Huntington wrote this tremendous opus before globalization and the information age had really taken hold. And he died before he could reprise his arguments in light of recent events. So much of what he predicted has come true, but I hope that his advice for saving the West is no longer completely valid. Coming from the perspective of someone who believes so strongly in the power of civilization, Huntington argues that the West won't survive if it insists on embracing multiculturalism and pluralism rather than reverting to its fundamental Christian roots.

Basically, I guess that means I love the book and hate the ending.

Quote of the Day -- Mary Catherine Bateson

We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A College of My Own Making

Various moments in life give rise to self-examination -- why am I here, what do I want to be "when I grow up?"  Moments like heading off to college, reaching a career decision-point, having a baby, facing a mid-life crisis. Retirement is one of those moments. What constitutes a "good" retirement, in general and for me in particular? When I was preparing to retire, I did quite a bit of reading. Some of it was very helpful; some seemed a little silly. A recurring theme for a good retirement, just as it is for life before retirement, is balance. It's just that the balancing act becomes a bit different.

We all know people, either in our immediate circle or through association, whose retirement is cut unfairly short by incapacitating illness or even death. So one side of the equation we retirees need to balance is "life is short." Hence, my efforts (along with my spouse and traveling companion) to see as much of the world as possible. 

On the other hand, we also know that life expectancy is considerably longer for our generation than it was for our parents or grandparents, so we need to be prepared that we might be retired for as many years as we worked. While that doesn't necessarily mean that a retiree's second act has to be another career or paid work, it does mean preparing for the possibility of many years after paid work ends, or, as Mary Catherine Bateson calls it, "Composing a Further Life."

Today marks the 7th anniversary of my retired life, and I'm still discovering what I want to do and how to feel like I'm using my time well. Lately, I've been reading a lot more and my taste continues to be eclectic. And I've been thinking about what that means and whether so much reading is an "acceptable" investment of my time.

Early in my career at IBM, many of us had the opportunity to work with a career counselor. We took some kind of vocational aptitude and interest test. I have no idea what test it was, but a comment by the counselor has stayed with me. "You have a really strong affinity for learning," he told me with considerable surprise in his voice. Apparently that was something he saw more frequently in college professors than in IBM systems engineers. And I've often said to young acquaintances headed off to college, "Enjoy these years. Never again will it be your job just to read and learn things."


Another telling self-revelation question is "who do you envy and why?" I don't strongly envy anyone at this point because I consider myself incredibly lucky to be living the life that I'm living. But if pressed, I would have to say Kerri Miller. She's my favorite public radio personality in the Twin Cities. She's a knowledgeable, insightful interviewer on a wide range of topics. She also reads widely and has a tremendous "book club" following both on and off the air. Listening to her makes me think "I'd love to have a job where someone pays me to read."


Aha! Basically, with a pension and retirement savings to support me, I do have a job where "someone" is paying me to read. Of course, voracious reading requires a balancing act of its own. What's the right mix of fiction versus non-fiction? How many guilty pleasure books do I allow myself as palate cleansers? I'm still working through creating my syllabus, a college of my own making, but suffice it to say that I agree with a fellow retiree who said "I have so many books on my 'to read' list that I'll need to live forever to finish all of them." My Goodreads list keeps growing. I don't think I'm in any danger that my "read" count will ever exceed my "to read" count.


Quote of the Day -- Rumi

Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.

Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
-- Rumi

Thanks to my wonderful yoga teacher Crystal Hanson for sharing today's inspirational quote.