Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Birch Bay Vacation

I asked Elliot if he'd rather go on a trip to Washington D.C. to see the White House or the southwest to see the Grand Canyon and the Anasazi ruins, he said he'd rather go to a small town. Some place like Birch Bay, where you can play games with your family and go to water park and hang out at the beach....

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

H.A. Rey

From the Writers' Almanac with Garrison Keillor, September 16, 2008.

It's the birthday of the childrens' author and illustrator H.A. Rey born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany, in 1898. When Hans was a boy in Hamburg, he lived near a zoo, and he loved visiting the animals there he would imitate their noises and paint them. And in Hamburg he met a young girl named Margret Elisabeth Waldstein, but then she left to go study art. Hans served in the army, he went to school for a while, and he supported himself by designing posters for the circus. But the economy in Germany was bad, so he went to Rio de Janeiro to help his brother-in-law sell bathtubs. Hans changed his name from Reyersbach to Rey because it was hard for Brazilians to pronounce. In Brazil, he met up with Margret, who was all grown up, and they fell in love and got married.

Hans and Margret Rey returned to Europe in 1935, but they were Jewish and they couldn't go back to Nazi Germany, so they settled in Paris. Hans drew some cartoons of a giraffe for a newspaper, and a French publisher liked them and he asked Hans to do some more work like that. So the Reys started writing a book called Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys (1942), one of its characters was a monkey named Curious George, and the Reys thought he was the best character and that he should have a book of his own.

They were happy to be living in Paris, happy to be working on more children's books and translations of nursery rhymes, but in June of 1940, they discovered that Hitler was about to take control of Paris and that they were in huge danger. As fast as he could, Hans constructed two bicycles from spare parts he found, and on the morning of June 14, the Reys biked out of the city with some food, warm coats, and five manuscripts. One of those manuscripts was Curious George. The Nazis took control of Paris that afternoon, but the Reys were safely out of the city. They biked for four days until they reached the Spanish border, and then they sold their bikes for enough money to buy train tickets to Lisbon.

Over the next few months, they made it from Lisbon to Brazil, and then eventually to New York City. Curious George was published in 1941, and the Reys wrote and illustrated six more stories about him stories like Curious George Rides a Bike (1952) and Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966).

Monday, September 15, 2008

In Memory of David Foster Wallace

Excerpts from his commencement speech to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005...

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Lemonhead

Elliot and I sat down to write a story, but soon enough he informed me, "Mom, we're not writing a whole story right now, we're writing a summary of the story for the back of the book."

Once there was a boy named Leonard who really liked lemonade. He made a club for all the kids who liked lemonade. The all liked it so much that they got sucked into a world of lemonade. They made a new friend whose head was shaped like a lemon. His name was Lemonhead. But the world of lemons is about to collapse. Everyone in the real world stopped drinking lemonade. It's up to the lemon club to save the world of lemons.