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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An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2

Last time, I showed you Outlander-related tourism destinations in Central Scotland, specifically the Edinburgh and Firth of Forth areas. In that post, I also laid out my plan for this series: (1) introduce the site options, (2) share my husband’s and my Outlander tourism goals and results, and (3) lend some advice and resources for planning your own Scottish Outlander tour. The process continues with (1) site options in Central Scotland.

For Part 2 of this series, we travel to Glasgow and environs, home of the Outlander Studios, and then we’ll dip southward to Ayrshire and then Dumfries and Galloway, birthplace of actor Sam Heughan, our beloved Jamie Fraser. Remember you can go on VisitScotland.com for regional maps to follow for context, including the one for Greater Glasgow & The Clyde Valley.

This collection mixes the easily accessible with the off limits and forbidding. Glasgow is a tourist city, Troon a resort town, the country estate of Drumlanrig Castle visitor friendly, and Dumbarton Castle an underrated attraction. By contrast, Hunterston House is closed to the public, Torbrex Farm is private property, Outlander studios are tightly secured, and the treasures of Finnich Glen are guarded by dangerous pathways.

Tourism can take many forms, however, including the virtual. Therefore, I do not exclude the beautiful and interesting just because they shy before visitors.

The Central Sites (Continued):
Show Filming and Book Story by Region or County

City of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Stirling, and North Lanarkshire

City of Glasgow      →      Outlander Settings

George Square, in the city centre of Glasgow, saw the filming of Frank’s surprise proposal to Claire → the Westminster Register office, a flash back to the future at the start of ep107, “The Wedding.”

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Claire and Frank in “Westminster.” Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, courtesy Outlander-Online.com

Glasgow Cathedral, on the east side of town, accompanied by its Necropolis, a vast cemetery on a hill. → Interiors served in the scenes at l’Hopital des Anges, the hospital where Claire volunteers her nursing skills in 1740s Paris, eps 203, 204, 206, 207. This beautiful church is a magnificent tourist attraction in its own right.

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Claire nurses at l’Hopital des Anges. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

Pollok Country Park, south of Glasgow’s city centre → The park doubled as the grounds of Castle Leoch and the area where Claire harvested mushrooms when she met Geillis Duncan, ep102, aptly titled “Castle Leoch.” Later, the show used it to stage the duel between Black Jack and Jamie in ep206, “Best Laid Schemes” (an homage to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” which I analyzed in another post). The setting for that was the Bois du Boulogne of Paris. Pollok Country Park was used in episodes 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 107, 109, and 206.

Pollok House and the Burrell Collection are popular tourist attractions on the grounds. There’s a playground, a lake, some sculpted gardens (also used in filming), a golf course, and pasture of Highland cows as well. Several bicyclists roamed the park on the rainy day we went there.

* * *

Stirling (SW)     →     Outlander Settings

Finnich Glen, a.k.a. the Devil’s Pulpit, near Drymen (pron. DRIM in) just south of the Trossachs National Park in southwest Stirlingshire → St. Ninian’s Spring, a.k.a. the Liar’s Spring, where Dougal takes Claire in ep106 after he stops Black Jack’s brutal interrogation of her. Visitors to the site note that it is difficult to access but worth the effort. For important safety notes about the area as well as directions, see this TravelChannel.com page. For precise location details and map coordinates, go to the Finnich Glen profile at Gazetteer for Scotland.

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Claire and Dougal, at “the Liar’s Spring,” discussing her fate, ep106. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com.

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Finnich Glen. Image 10 of 15 in the Outlander tourism gallery at TravelChannel.com.

Torbrex Farm, Stirlingshire. Domick Hill, Stunt Coordinator,
 says of it, “Being the Stunt Coordinator, my favorite location was a large tent in a very wet field, near Torbrex Farm, which is a few miles from the studio. The reason being that it’s where we filmed the majority of the Battle of Prestonpans—not very glamorous, but we had a lot of fun in that smoke filled, muddy marquee!”

Source: http://www.travelandleisure.com/culture-design/tv-movies/outlander-cast-and-crew-favorite-locations 

Dunmore Park  Falkirk, Stirlingshire →  The bombed-out hospital in ep101 where Claire, in flashback, treats the wounded on V-E Day, the end of World War II. Source: http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland

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Claire, Allied hospital, post surgery, V-E Day, May 1945. Image: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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UK cheers V-E Day, 1945. Image: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

West Dunbartonshire     →     Outlander Setting

Dumbarton Castle in West Dunbartonshire, overlooking the Clyde River just west-northwest of Glasgow, is a medieval stronghold and center of the ancient Strathclyde kingdom. “Sam [Heughan] was photographed there on set by Just Jared magazine, published on August 5th 2014.” Source: https://wizzley.com/starz-outlander-scottish-filming-locations/. West Dunbartonshire, a local council area of its own, also “borders onto Argyll and Bute, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, and Stirling.” Source: Wikipedia

The Dumbarton Castle address is Castle Road, Dumbarton, Dunbartonshire, G82 1JJ.

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Dumbarton Castle. Image by Historic Environment Scotland

See the rest of the gallery on the Historic Environment Scotland site of Dumbarton Castle. Learn more at VisitScotland.

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 North Lanarkshire          Outlander Settings

The Outlander studios are situated in the area of Cumbernauld (5th largest town in Scotland) & Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire, to the northeast of Glasgow. The sound studios reside in a warehouse complex where most of the indoor settings and scenes in Outlander are constructed and filmed. The official address of the studios is LBP Outlander Ltd. (Left Bank Pictures), 2 Wyndford Rd, Cumbernauld, Wardpark North, Glasgow G68 0BA, UK. It is the site of the former Isola-Werke factory. Security is tight, but you can drive by and stop briefly at the labeled gate.

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Signed gate at Outlander studios. Image by C. L. Tangenberg

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The Southern Sites: Show Filming by Region or County

North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway

North Ayrshire      →      Outlander Settings

The Hunterston House interiors  the Reverend Wakefield’s Inverness rectory in eps 101, 108, 201, and 213. This is where, in 1945, Frank Randall and Reverend Wakefield talk genealogy; Claire has her tea-leaves and palm read by Mrs. Graham; the Reverend Wakefield, Graham, and Randall convene along with wee Roger to search for the missing Claire; and where Frank and the Reverend discuss matters upon Claire’s return in 1948, including the shot of Frank running down the stairs after hearing her biggest news.

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Frank and Claire at the Reverend’s, 1948. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Frank and Reverend Wakefield, his study, 1948. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

It is, of course, also where we meet adult Roger Wakefield and Brianna Randall at the end of season 2. The site is closed to the public, but they have an ample gallery on their website. Exteriors were filmed elsewhere. Go to the Hunterston House website for more information. Their address is Castle Avenue, Hunterston, West Kilbride, KA23 9QG, Ayrshire.

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Roger, Reverend’s funeral, in his study, 1968, start of ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Roger Wakefield, Claire, Brianna, foyer, Reverend’s house, 1968, ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Roger and Claire talk living through loss, ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

South Ayrshire     →     Outlander Setting

Troon, coast of Kyle, South Ayrshire. Troon is a resort town on a headland at the north end of this council area and of Ayr Bay, about 35 miles southwest of Glasgow. Coastal shots where Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh depart for France, ep116. You can learn more at VisitScotland.com and Gazetteer for Scotland.

* * *

Dumfries and Galloway     →      Outlander Setting

Drumlanrig Castle, Thornhill, Upper Nithsdale, Dumfriesshire Season 2 filming location for the estate at Bellmont, England, the Duke of Sandringham’s last residence. Ep211, “Vengeance is Mine,” script written by Diana Gabaldon.

Contact address: Thornhill, Dumfries & Galloway, DG3 4AQ, Scotland

Come back for Part 3‘s review of Highland tourism sites for Outlander filming, book story, and Scotland fans.

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On Teaching Exploration: The Pigeon Paper

Learning, writing, birds, otters, details, and soul. A reblogged post.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

by Jan Priddy

z pigeons.jpg (c) 2016 photo by Dinty W.Moore

In my college writing class I assign “The Pigeon Paper.” This is a short expository essay written to address a one-word topic—write about “squash” or write about “salt”—a paper completed in ten days. The first year it was about pigeons—hence the name. We began the assignment by brainstorming what we knew individually about pigeons and considering different structures for an expository paper (comparison, chronology, description); overnight each of us researched and the next day we brought in research and each proposed three potential topics and approaches; then we had a few days to complete a draft for peer editing in class, and a final draft of the paper was handed in the following day.

Long before I began teaching, I had faith both in assignments and research. I believe writing creates learning, because it forces us to examine our knowledge in the…

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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?

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. . . .