Five-Phrase Friday (22): Why Freedom?

What is liberty? What does it mean to be a patriot? At what costs do we sacrifice free speech, free enterprise, free assembly, the freedom to choose–anything? Here are a few thoughts.

Happy (Thoughtful) Independence Day. Keep the conversation going, and aequo animo.

Philosofishal

Five-plus phrases of things to celebrate about freedom of the press and free expression:

  1. revelation through openness: unfettered expression of facts, opinions and impressions, making possible the discovery of truths
  2. diverse, idea-rich culture and personal responsibility instead of sacred cows and “safe” spaces for absolutely everything: Such riches flow out of sources ranging from irreverent comics to wise, reasonable academicians and beyond.
  3. constraint and dissent against bureaucracy and corruption: government transparency, accountability, restraint of power; courageous whistle blowers; the repeal of bad and excess laws
  4. greater personal safety, freedom, and fairness–and less fear: no to a military-style police state, no to federal intimidation, no to economic imprisonment, no to political entitlement, no to terror, no to executive power grabbing, no to detention without charges or trial, no to knee-jerk litigation, no to more prohibition (yes, upholding the Constitution in general is essential to numbers 3 and 4)

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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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Who might you be otherwise?

“I was reflecting, in the first place,” replied Dantès, “upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained. What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?”

[The abbé replies] “Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect. Compression is needed to explode gunpowder. Captivity has brought my mental faculties to a focus; and you are well aware that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced—from electricity, lightning, from lightning, illumination.”

– from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Vol. 1, Ch. 17, “The Abbé’s Chamber”


True or false?

Elyse

Our dog Elyse passed away this week. I remember her now, based on revisiting the post Dog Blog: Don’t. Move.

I tried hard not to move, but she moved me more than I had thought possible after I survived movements that helped make my body attack itself. That is, after trying my best to teach high school English and journalism full time for two years and falling short while becoming ill, even after a break, caring for a dog proved much more difficult than I had anticipated.

And so much the better. She showed me I wasn’t all washed up. The challenges she continuously threw our way we met to the best of our abilities, and she became my new full-time occupation. I’d like to think I was good at the job.

In consequence, the bond we developed became close and deep, as we spent every day, most of the day, together while Daddy earned our daily bread. The greatest challenge, perhaps, was to keep trying, to renew my patience, forgive the challenges she could not help but pummel us with in her layered conditions of disease and neurosis. The serenity of the pack leader is the only surety for keeping the pack together, functioning, balanced.

Keep calm and lick. She would do that as long as I kept coming home, feeding her, maintaining her medications dosing schedule, going through our routines, showing affection, asserting my leadership, providing limitations and not just pity for the sweet, sickly little dog. She respected me to a degree, listened to me more than to Daddy, but she could be stubborn, too.

And there were certainly moments where she didn’t trust me. After all, it was primarily I who wielded the wipes, the ear cleaner, the comb, the towels, the dental hygiene products, and other instruments of regular torture. I would lose my temper, lose my patience, show my flawed humanity when she failed to stay put or stop prancing around in panic while I worked upstairs, or when she soiled the floor yet again.

With all the medication, and her neglected and abandoned past, I knew it wasn’t her fault, so I restrained myself. But she could still feel my negative vibes and would cower, hesitate, fail to come to me. I was hardly her North Star.

Still, she surrendered to my love, returning calm, and gentle hand. I became an expert of sorts in many aspects of canine care, not least of which was dog massage. Neither side had any choice, really. She was at our mercy. We coddled, spoiled, and humanized her with the best of them. We showered our only child with more affection than she thought strictly necessary, I’m sure. But love won out in both directions.

All things end, and now is her life ended. Dearest Elyse–our first family dog, adopted as a rescued American Brittany on June 29, 2012, laid to rest February 8, 2016–we will move on, eventually. As the snow finally seals winter in, and layers over your fresh grave, the temperature drops with my motivation.

Binding us so tightly to her with all that need for constant care–as much a source of stress as companionship, an amazingly tiny package experiencing and bringing such frequent struggle–Elyse has been my whole world for more than 3 and a half years. We certainly gave it our all. It’s time to re-invent myself yet again.

Irony comes calling again. Just when I’d get up the urge to write or read or improve my home or health, her own health would waver and pull me back from myself. Now that I’m “free” of her needs, I can scarcely think, choose, or move.

Is balance, after all, sheer impossibility? I threw myself into full-time teaching, hardly sleeping, barely keeping up with grading and lesson planning, making myself ill from the chronic strain and stress, not having been used to work in such a way at such a pace in such a place. Basically, not having been challenged enough before that point. Then, after nursing the wounds from dismissal, and intending to get a healthy, active dog that would help me become healthier, I found myself thrown into another nearly impossible project–taking care of an ailing dog.

I was partly manipulated into it by the rescue organization (they unmistakably lied about her age and misrepresented the severity of her health problems), largely smitten by the sweet little creature herself, partly pressured by my spouse’s falling as much in love as I had in a few short days, and partly led by my determination to get right whatever I undertook.

Am I finally to learn how not to go overboard? Or, at least how to do so gainfully? Am I discounting the gotten gains? Can I find balance at last?

Or, is it disingenuous to ask for this? Do I really just want fame and money, and only persist in denying my vanity and greed in the vain hope that I’m a better person than I seem to be? Either way, it will come down to balance, if no other kind but that between seeking ultimate “success” and seeking a balance between career and personal life. I take everything so personally, so seriously, do I even know the difference between work and life? Did I ever? Is there such a stark distinction at all?

Cesar Millan, best known as The Dog Whisperer, has said we don’t get the dog we want; we get the dog we need. I’m still trying to figure out how that was the case with Elyse and me. What am I supposed to have learned? What am I to take a way from all this? What about her did I need? And was the need fulfilled?

I don’t know. I think it may take a while to figure out. Everything with me does, but right now, grief clouds the issue. I’ll let you know if light dawns.

Of course, I’m assuming the verity of a pat aphorism that may be bull, even though the man may indeed know dogs better than anyone. As I established in my Five-Phrase Friday post last week, what’s true for some may not be true for all.

What I know to be true is this: I loved that dog. It was not all in vain. We do learn from experience. We have great, rich memories of our time with her.

What a sweet, gentle, affectionate, adorable, quirky, beautiful little girl. She only ever barked in her sleep and, in her immune-compromised isolation, energetically loved meeting any new canine friends.

I’ll miss . . .

  • the sound of her long toe nails tapping as she trotted along the floor
  • the jingling shake of her collar tags
  • the oh-so-cozy softness of her fur coat and leg feathers
  • her clumsy goofiness
  • her insistent invasion of personal space
  • those Dumbo-like ears of submission
  • an eagerness to walk, sniff and mark
  • her unabashed excitement and joy to see us come home
  • her playful groan of a signal to go outside
  • the thrashing of animal toys
  • an obsessed tooth-and-claw attack of her Kong toy full of treat bits
  • a thrasher hairstyle with head hanging, fast asleep, off her bed’s edge
  • running in her sleep
  • the frustrating way she’d wipe her face on your legs to get rid of the oozing eye goop
  • her strength and resilience amidst 3 heart conditions, chronic coughing, painful arthritis episodes, blocked tear ducts, bad teeth, chronic shivering and shuddering, occasional choking on food, low blood sugar, isolated mystery ailments including seizures, limping, lost appetite, and reverse sneezing that would clear up inexplicably, bleeding toenails from quicks so close to the tip, being stepped on repeatedly, swallowing a frothy toad, freezing her paws in harsh winter, and stepping on a bee
  • her huntress alertness, bird stalking, squirrel obsession
  • the way she’d open her front paws and legs while lying down so we’d rub her fluffy chest
  • her yawns of sleepiness and confusion
  • the drollness of her growing directional deafness–2 feet behind her, called her, and she perked and ran towards the sound in the opposite direction
  • her long, slender, elegant pointer legs
  • those eyes, that nose, that tongue, and that nubbin!
  • her love of peas and apple sauce and traces of flavored yogurt and peanut butter and
  • . . . oh, so much more

I’ll miss being so constantly needed. I’ll miss my irreplaceable fur-baby and friend.

Rest in peace, pain free and joyful, baby girl.

A world of possibilities opens up before me now, and it’s ready for my forward movement. At some point, you get sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time—and do something productive. All hope is not lost.

Although I feel a little like Zaphod Beeblebrox when he failed to find the ultimate question–“Good stuff. I’ll just go find something else for my whole life to be about.”–I’m still hopeful that the best is yet to come, yet to be made and discovered. I’ve been blessed repeatedly, given many chances to start over, and now, aided by my circumstances, I have yet another gift of choice.

I will do my best to embrace this new freedom, in keeping with my values, in honor of my loved ones–the living and the dead. I’ll take responsibility for my life and health, not only to do but to be.

Life goes on, and the search continues.

Five-Phrase Friday (25): Oxymorons and Myth

This week, I ponder the link between word and idea, between language and meaning, as I consider a handful of oxymorons and possibly mythical concepts:

formative years – as if all years we experience do not form, or re-form, some aspect of our perspectives, traits, philosophies, beliefs, attitudes, dreams and pursuits

virtual reality – This phrase may be either redundant or self-contradictory. Either real experience is an illusion (making “virtual” an extraneous modifier), or there is no such thing as virtual life, and it’s all just life (there is only the real). Or, perhaps there is only  subjective reality, and appearance and reality are the same thing, which leads us to . . .

absolute truth – What is true in one person’s view may not be true in another’s. We skew by seeing. We muddle by speaking. And perhaps, the only truths are the known, the seen, and the spoken, and nothing exists outside of our interaction with it. Does the tree that falls in the forest where no one is there to hear it make a sound? What is sound but what we can hear?

the embodied (or disembodied) soul – Neuroscientists, philosophers, and others have observed in greater and greater numbers that there is no such thing as the soul, that the mind cannot exist without the body, and, thus, the only life is the one we’re living, and there is no before or after.

unconditional love – Love is nothing but conditional. We love because we are attracted, because this child belongs to us, because we belong to these parents, these siblings, and if we did not belong, what cause would we have to love? It is only by belonging to each other, and being with each other in our thoughts and experiences–i.e., only conditionally–that we love. Our innate attachments are the first conditions, and our psyche ever after seeks self-preservation, safety, attention, comfort, stability, expression, and purpose. We may choose to love unconditionally as an act of faithfulness, but we want what we want, always the best conditions for our own survival and fulfillment, and that inner voice cannot be denied continuously or forever without psychic fracture. There may be unconditional constancy but no unconditional love. Whether the conditions are conscious or unconscious, they’re always there.

Relativity, subjectivity, conditionality, hypocrisy, irony, influence, the absolute. Creation, transformation, reality, truth, soul, love. What do you think of these concepts? How do you see them operating in your life?

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.


In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.

A Soul Assumed: Reading Socrates’ “Phaedo”

My classic literature book club is reading Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo of Socrates this month. Our focus has been on classic novels written in English by deceased authors of works published prior to the mid-twentieth century. Last year, the only similar work to Plato’s was the classical drama of Oedipus Rex.

While this month’s work is also a story, Plato tells it in the form of what has become known as the Socratic dialogue (just “dialogue” in his time), a debate between Socrates and others. This form pervades “Crito” and “Phaedo,” whereas “Apology” is more of an extended trial testimony by Socrates in his own defense.

With a BA in philosophy, I find amusement in the reading as well as in the fact that, until this month, I was under the impression Plato was Socrates’ master, but it was the other way around. My schooling was less in the history of philosophy than in the ideas themselves, if that’s any excuse.

I did select the Socratic dialogue approach for my senior-year paper on conformity, using Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as my source text. It’s interesting to return and read a philosophical work that’s new to me, though the ideas within are less so.

A large part of philosophy is about challenging assumptions. Perhaps ironically, my senior college paper challenged the conventional wisdom, or assumption, that a college education is something everyone should pursue. Since college, I have discovered various better reasons than I used in the paper to support the negative response to that basic question, but I digress.

Philosophy is also about developing the skill of rhetoric to argue a position you do not necessarily agree with. Considering the counterarguments to your philosophical thesis on a topic, and coming up with responses to those counters, is key to a strong, persuasive presentation of that thesis.

If I were to worship a god of philosophy, it would be Socrates, his greatest lesson in my view being, simply put, “I know that I do not know.” I discovered the quote outside the context of its origin in this rendering of Socrates’ story by Plato. Far too few people heed the call to humility embodied by that statement. The results are, for instance, little things called wars, sometimes religious in nature. Most people are just so frightened by uncertainty and mystery that they cannot cope without religion.

Periodically in touch with my own degree of conformity, I consider myself to be agnostic on the questions of a supreme being, the soul, and the afterlife. This means I do not know whether there is one of any of these things or not. Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t.

You could say there is a sort of arrogance, if not cowardice, in this position that adds to “I don’t know” the assertion “and neither do you.” I profess ignorance about those things for which there is no scientific proof, and I claim your ignorance, too. I dare to put myself on equal human footing with everyone from the Pope to the plumber. We share mortality, capacity for reason, and the rest of the human condition–challenging self-concepts, emotions, relationships, moral dilemmas, imperfections, and so on. If such a claim is arrogant or cowardly, so be it. I make no apology.

I have no traditional religious faith, though my childhood Catholic priest might disagree on the technical grounds of my baptism as an infant. My consciously chosen faith is in reason, philosophy, humanism, and the complexities of this life. I value these. I love these. The word “philosophy” itself means “love of wisdom.”

Socrates apparently experienced no uncertainty as to the existence of the soul, which is a major source of my amusement in reading the third dialogue of this text: “Phaedo.” At this point in history, with as high of esteem as we hold Socrates in, his assumption seems like a rookie mistake, something rather quaint.Platos_ApologyCritoPhaedo_of_Socrates_cover

He argues for the immortality of the soul, which is the puzzle to be solved in “Phaedo,” and his foundational assumption is the soul’s existence. That is the common ground from which the discussion grows, a ground based on cultural context as much as, if not more than, on reason.

Accused of corrupting Athenian youths with teachings in conflict with the Greek gods’ wisdom, Socrates’ self-defense in “Apology” consists partially of proving his loyalty and consistency with those gods. Fundamentally, then, no part of the subsequent dialogues could do anything but take gods’, the soul’s, and the afterlife’s existence for granted. Otherwise, there would have been no point in attempting to defend himself at all.

However, on the face of it, it seems as though Socrates genuinely believed in these things.

You may be asking, “Why wouldn’t he?” Well, philosophers are a type who do not tend to take the existence of the soul, or anything else, for granted. Some historical minds thought there was a soul; others did not. Still others focused on different questions, not addressing this particular one at all.

The purpose of the discipline of philosophy is to use reason and critical thinking to examine the existence and nature of all sorts of things, in order to come to some degree of new insight or to establish or confirm a truth. Over the centuries of human thought, as of various sciences and other intellectual disciplines, thinkers have chipped away at the outer layers toward the core of wisdom.

Being an early philosopher, Socrates worked under the disadvantage of having few precedents to draw from. Now, we can examine Socrates in light of the Rationalists, the Empiricists, ontologists, epistemologists, ethicists, political philosophers, analytic philosophers, and many more theorists. Our hindsight, so to speak, is much richer and sharper, though most of us will never approach Socrates’ sheer genius of mind.

I may not assume the existence of a soul and, therefore, I may find the question of its immortality less relevant than Socrates did as he considered his moral obligation as a citizen condemned to death. But every argument is based on some kind of assumption. We have to start somewhere. And Socrates certainly proved his skill at argumentation within the realm of his own assumptions.

He says the body is an impediment to wisdom, establishing the superiority of the soul over the body. He says the true philosopher shuns material things and “ornaments” of the body. He says the philosopher’s aim and advantage over other men is to transcend the body. By contrast, the soul, which for Socrates is synonymous with the mind, uses reason rather than the physical senses to gain knowledge.

Therefore, death is the philosopher’s greatest wish, for it is in death alone that the soul may find absolute supremacy over the body, and only in death may true, unadulterated wisdom be attained.

He explains that, granting this premise as true, one of two things follows: Either wisdom is attainable only in death, or it is not at all attainable.

Separately, seeming to choose faith in wisdom’s attainability, Socrates takes the bulk of the dialogue to argue for the immortal nature of the soul, a portion I admit I have yet to read.

One might call “Phaedo” simply Socrates’ elaborate peace making with his imminent death, but the questions are no less worthy of exploration, whether one faces death by poisoning or the presumption of plenty of life ahead. Besides, the sentimental would-be Socrates worshippers among us feel some solace in the notion that Socrates, not just his teachings, lives on.

Perhaps the completion of my reading will convince me of his viewpoint. We’ll see. . . .