Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Strength of a Butterfly's Wing

A middle-aged woman in 2012 can’t wear a necklace without feeling choked.  Why? Because on May 25, 1919 at 3:55 pm, her grandmother decided to come in from playing in the yard.  She was hot and thirsty and tore into the kitchen for water from the sink pump.  She ran down the hall and skipped into the bedroom she shared with her twin great aunts, one of whom was hanging by the neck at an odd angle from the bed post, having fashioned a noose from a strap and rolled her morbidly obese frame off the bed, suffocating herself in the process.  The little girl spends the rest of her life unable to wear turtlenecks, and her granddaughter has an aversion to necklaces in 2012.

Very small decisions we make every second of our lives can have profound and lasting influences over the paths of our lives and the lives of those around us.  Did my decision last night to stay home rather than drive to Boone save mine and my daughter’s life by keeping us out of the car wreck we would have had on the way?  Probably not, but there is no way to know.  My young friend’s decision to wear her seat belt last Saturday morning before her serious car accident definitely saved her life and kept intact the life her family lives.  Can you save a local store by choosing to shop there once a week, thus saving the owner from bankruptcy and the depression that kind of failure often engenders?  The Butterfly Effect is in full force at all times, even if we don’t know it. 

I’ve only read 50 pages of 11/22/63, and already these are the kinds of questions it has inspired to keep me awake at night.  I am loving this book so far, and I’m a hard reader to impress.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Makes Life Worth Living?

Can a person be too broken by his life to be saved?   In The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood,the convicts who come out of the novel’s version of prison, Painball, are no longer human.  They have moved into the realm of cunning, intelligent animal predators and must be treated as such.   But there are other ways this concept applies too.  It is possible to be so emotionally broken that you can’t be fixed.   At worst, people retreat into insanity; at best, into a hermit-like existence devoid of the society of others.  They become as emotionally afraid of others as the novel’s characters are physically afraid of the Painballers.   They retreat from a reality they see as uninhabitable.  But what if reality really did become uninhabitable?
The last two novels I’ve read have had plots and themes about the dissolution of our society.  In The Hunger Games, the country has become a totalitarian state with no protections for the individual in a society governed by group think and propaganda.  In The Year of the Flood, the “waterless flood” has washed away any semblance of society.  When society breaks down, and there is not only no safety net but no safety at all, emotional and physical pain become the most prevalent experience for humanity.  One of the main characters in The Year of the Flood observes that sadness may be a kind of hunger. It makes sense to think that when you are sad, it is because you hunger for something you don't have.   Sadness and hunger become the rule rather than the exception in a dystopic society.  I suppose when you get to the point of living all the time in survival mode, you don’t have time to ask yourself questions about the purpose of your life or about the direction of your species.  You learn to live in the moment and to continue to live only so others later may be able to live more easily than you.  But I can’t imagine wanting to stay alive in a world like that.  Good thing the propagation of the species doesn’t depend on me.  If society collapsed, I’d be one of the first ones tagging out, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This I Believe?

“The Human reason is a pin dancing on the head of an angel, so small is it in comparison to the Divine vastness that encircles us.”   Adam One in The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Most of my life I have felt at a loss to explain my feelings about religious faith. Oddly enough, I seem to lack the words.   I don’t like the terminology applied to any of the existing categories.  I am not a religious person, nor am I devoid of spirituality.  I do not consider myself a “believer” in the world’s use of the word, nor am I precisely agnostic and certainly not atheistic.   Atheism is as strong a form of belief as any dogmatic religious belief.  It is as faith-based to assert the absence of anything as it is to assert its presence.   Atheism seems to me to be as shallow as blind religious faith.   I want a new term to describe those of us who are comfortable admitting  the empowerment of spirituality and the probability of something bigger than humanity  (be it god or science, why does that matter, those are just human words),  and equally comfortable admitting the errancy of blind faith.  Faith and belief are not the same thing.  Faith requires an irrational leap, a suspension of what you know.  Belief, on the other hand, is the result of much contemplation.  I think humanity has little capacity to grasp infinite truths, but our inability to understand them doesn't mean they don't exist.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Universe is Unmoved

"If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder--which, repeated, becomes order:  the Order.  My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope."  Jorge Luis Borges in The Library of Babel

This morning I decided to heed at least part of yesterday's message and pull out my volume of Borges short stories.  I read "The Library of Babel," which is a symbolic representation of the universe and a lesson in how perspective colors everything.  Everything has only the value you assign it.  A word that might be harmful or dangerous or offensive to you, for instance, would mean nothing to someone who didn't share your perspective and language.  In the space of seven pages, he makes the above point, along with touching on humanity's inability to comprehend anything very far beyond the bounds of our existence, leading us often to worship what we don't understand.  He ends the story reassuring us that the universe is infinite and unaffected by humanity.  And this idea makes me think of one of my favorite lines from A R Ammons in his poem "Gravelly Run."

for it is not so much to know the self 
as to know it as it is known 
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Synchronicity is Scary!

“The Möbius strip, also called the twisted cylinder...is a one-sided nonorientable surface obtained by cutting a closed band into a single strip, giving one of the two ends thus produced a half twist, and then reattaching the two ends.” http://mathworld.wolfram.com/MoebiusStrip.html (I cannot believe I am citing something called mathworld, but there you have it.)

Until eleven o’clock this morning, I had never heard of a Möbius Strip. I am an English major, after all. I stumbled upon the term in a book blog, of all places, in an entry about the Borges short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I remember attempting unsuccessfully to read this story a few years ago. I will now be re-visiting it, as I do not like to be defeated. The blog entry I am referring to is here:  http://somanybooksblog.com/2012/02/13/who-needs-drugs-when-theres-borges/.

After my return from lunch, perusing another, completely separate book blog, I came across a review of the book, This Möbius Strip of Ifs by Mathias B Friese. I must say I find it most bizarre to have lived almost 45 years without hearing of a thing and then to run across it twice within three hours on completely separate blogs on the same day, especially given the infinite-seeming nature of the Möbius Strip itself.

What does this mean? Is the Matrix speaking to me? Will I be moving closer to nirvana (not the band, oh culturally-challenged ones) soon? Or is the message more quotidian in nature? Should I re-decorate my bathroom with Möbius Strip-themed wall paper? Should I read the book and short story reviewed? Or maybe I should just get back to work, but how boring is that, when infinity beckons?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Three Day Week-ends! Now!

It's Sunday night, and once again, I've spent the week-end running around too much to read enough for my liking.  I'm thinking a new law may need to be enacted to provide a three, if not four, day week-end to accomodate both my reading and my life.

The few times I've been able to sit down with my current read, I've been swept up in a world that only Margaret Atwood could imagine.  I love the way her mind works.  So often in her work, small details emerge that make me feel like I'm in on some obscure, clever, inside joke, where she interprets the outcomes of current events in ways most people would never predict.  I've only had time to delve a small way into Year of the Flood, but it promises to be as engaging and entertaining to me as I found Oryx and Crake to be ten years or so ago. 

I did spend this morning catching up on book blogs I try to follow, but there are two problems with reading book blogs.  One:  you are not actually reading your book, and two:  you proceed to want to read almost every book you read reviewed.  For a person with a TBR pile numbering the hundreds, this becomes a frustrating exercise in futility.    So here we go headed into another busy work week, where falling asleep by nine is the norm, and time to read becomes as realistic as the three day weekend.  Happy reading to all you independently wealthy and/or retired and/or smarter than me people who have just said screw it to the capitalistic society that holds the rest of us hostage. Here's hoping for more hours in the day or more holidays in the year.

Saturday Snapshot

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Wounded, Expanded Self-Esteem

"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all." Thomas Szasz

After finishing Crime and Punishment, I tried to read the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I had taken a break during the reading of Crime and Punishment to read the first book, which I enjoyed. But I wasn’t able to get beyond page ten of the second book, and that made me wonder if the problem was along the lines of “Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions” (Oliver Wendell Holmes), or if the second book’s plot is really going to be as predictable and banal as it seems. If you’ve read the second and/or third books, and you want to advise me, feel free. For now, I’ve moved on to Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood ( to satisfy my hunger for dystopia) and Trinity by Leon Uris (on my brother’s recommendation), but I’m feeling propelled toward the Brothers K or Tolstoy's  War and Peace, I’m not sure which.

It’s not that I think Dostoevsky is a great writer. He’s not. His prose is stilted, and his characters are annoying. His mastery lies in the ideas he introduces and the way he introduces them. In the space of roughly 550 pages, he threw so many new, mind-expanding ideas at me that I still haven’t caught up. Not necessarily even ideas I agree with, but what does that matter? You cannot become a fully developed human being if you aren’t willing to “suffer an injury to [your] self-esteem.”

My experience with trying to read Catching Fire after Crime and Punishment makes me wonder if reading great literature ruins you for lesser, entertaining literature. It’s kind of like skiing the greens after skiing the blacks or riding a beginner MTB trail after you get used to an advanced one. Can you go back and still enjoy yourself? I don’t know. Stay tuned to find out.

How to Save a Life, One Day at a Time

photo by Amy Brandon   "Little things heal our hurts. Sounds, scents, the spoken word, and music that may mean nothing to someon...