Reading My Way Through History
“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others,”
Let me introduce this episode’s exciting format. In an effort to remain logical and linear, the general plan is to fabricate a semblance of sense, assuming making sense is either logical or linear in what currently passes for American culture.
What follows is a haphazard compendium of cerebral mumblings uttered by a hodgepodge of some seriously most interesting voices. (According to Wikipedia, a compendium concerns “some delimited field of human interest or endeavor.”) Thus, it might be wise to continue reading with one eye closed. For, as the Unknown Poet once said: “Human erudition comes spring-loaded with enough manure to revegetate the Sahara!”
In essence, I’ve scoured the compost heap of my studious reading materials in an effort to piece together an anti-essay of sorts. Why anti-essay? Because it wasn’t there!
Think about it: how many pithy aphorisms slipped through your synapses while you were so engrossed in the act of reading that you allowed the river of words to wash over the proverbial dam without grasping the nuances?
Seriously. As magical as reading is, our brains tend to lock onto the rushing flow of syllables, often to the point of not seeing tiny gems glittering in our retinas. But, as Fate would have it, I don’t read like that.
Over the years I’ve developed my own unique style of perusing, which turns out to be the proximate cause of many of my life’s quirky problems. Call it dyslexia, or ADD, or lazy – who cares?
I can ramble through a fat tome on Tang Dynasty kung-ans and walk away remembering nothing but whether the footnotes were funny. The kicker resides in the little notebook I keep beside my chair, ever ready to receive the plethora of juicy quotes that leap out at my fragmented attention span. In Taoist parlance, I become wu-liúyì.
So be it. The groundwork is hereby done. No point in beating a dead horse. Let’s get on with the show and see what’s lurking in the shadows of those pages I’ve been flipping through during the past year or so. (The condensed version).
“By late infancy our bodies support one of the most complex microbial ecosystems on the planet.”
Jennifer Ackerman (Scientific American, June 2012)
I seriously appreciate this piece of information. Being a big fan of gut bacteria, it’s fun to discover that the rest of me is also teaming with pesky microbes. Which brings up an important question: What do those little bastards do all day? Or night, as the case may be.
Most folks probably don’t spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about microbes, besides acknowledging that without them we’d all be dead in short order. Nor could we get ourselves cheerfully drunk on the way down!
Thanks to Louis Pasteur’s keen eye, we now know that yeast is the mystical ingredient behind the elixir I’m imbibing as we speak (Founder’s Pale Ale). A multitude of funky yeasts, tossed into an anaerobic habitat, gobble glucose as their main entree and give us alcohol in exchange. It’s a nifty alchemical trick involving such intriguing characters as glycolysis, pyruvic acid, and my favorite, ethanol.
To make things more interesting, we only need to ponder where that ethanol comes from. “Humankind has benefited from fermentation products, but from the yeast’s point of view, alcohol and carbon dioxide are just waste products,” Louisa Alba-Lois, Ph.D., et al. (Nature.com).
Voila! We give yeast sugar, it shits out beer. If that isn’t bubbly, what is? Pass the peanuts….
I met a guy in a bar in 1984.
He said, “When I’m good and drunk
I drive so fast I outrun my headlights.
This preposterous utterance
has stuck with me for 28 years –
but I never saw the guy again.
Let’s jump keys, so to speak. Not a mere modulation, but a bold and dangerous leap into the next dimension. And what better way to accomplish the task than by turning to Gore Vidal?
“At the height of a bald man’s fame, an eagle is bound to drop a turtle on his head.” (Creation) Calling all cynics!
Being something of a dog philosopher myself, I find solace in the idea that an eagle is flying around looking for famous bald men to smash back into reality. If we can use that word in our hyper-politically-correct society without disastrous consequences. Of course, since we’re talking about Monsieur Vidal, it’s probably acceptable to say just about anything.
Have you heard that “By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women”? At least that’s what the New York Times claims to have found inside Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. Perhaps, in a nod to America’s flamboyant (The Smile!) Vice President, the Times may be full of “malarkey.”
But if such a thing is true, we’re talking about a serious dude! I wonder what sort of protein it takes to hook up with a thousand primates by one’s mid-twenties? Tofu, anyone?
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke
Many of my favorite writers spent time in little cubicles, their eyes roaming the horizon for puffs of smoke. The way things are going, that thankless job will most likely be replaced by high flying drones soon. But back in the day, being a fire lookout was a fine and honorable profession. In my book (as yet unwritten), it still is.
“By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself,”
Phillip Connors (Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout).
How about that for spot on? Or perhaps I’m just indulging my tendency towards indolence. Highly possible.
Connors, who has logged more hours in a fire lookout tower than most of us have (collectively) spent pondering our navels, appears to know a thing or two about the calculus of self. Following in the footsteps of some of America’s most esteemed lookouts (Abbey, Peacock, Snyder, Kerouac, McLean), he and his trusty canine companion stand guard high atop a peak in the bosom of America’s first designated Wilderness: the Gila in southern New Mexico.
It’s the kind of job most of us either dream about, or are too cowardly to attempt. Then again, there’s something about prolonged periods (more than 5 minutes) of solitude that bugs most Americans. A symptom of a deeper malady, perhaps?
At any rate, Connors groks the deeply rooted freedom found within what Dave Foreman calls The Big Outside. He knows the value of being unplugged from the noise and pulsations of urban life. He lives inside his skin. A tall order.
“And who’s to say that the motes of dust don’t feel joy, if only for a moment, as they climb up into sky and ride the transport winds?”
Amen, Monsieur Connors.
And, of course, it is obligatory to toss in a jewel by the Master Lookout himself, the Sage of the Sierras: “Civilization is part of nature – our egos play in the fields of the unconscious – history takes place in the Holocene – human culture is rooted in the primitive and the paleolithic – our body is a vertebrate mammal being – and our souls are out in the wilderness. Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild).
Lost in the cosmos
If you haven’t read The Moviegoer, get busy! Of course, you could make a quantum leap and start with Love in the Ruins, or Lancelot, or Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. It’s your call. But do yourself a favor and read Walker Percy now before the asteroid hits.
A pseudo-Zen, Catholic, Deep South, philosophical wizardly wordsmith, Percy had this to say about his faith: “I believe in God and the whole business, but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellow man hardly at all.” (Love in the Ruins).
Now we’re talking!
Or, how about this little zinger? “Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.”
Mr. Percy was born and raised in the Deep South. That he became one of the nation’s most honest writers is a testament to his perseverance in the face of seriously obnoxious humidity. Unfortunately, honesty is a dwindling human trait, writer or no writer.
“…the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.” (Lost in the Cosmos)
There’s always room for a quote from Anonymous (who has certainly managed to get around for the last few hundred years!) – “It is better to be wanted by the police than not to be wanted at all.” If that isn’t a chunk of existential mojo, nothing is.
Then there’s the Photon Guru himself, Albert Einstein: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Where’s Heisenberg when you need him?
And let’s not shortchange the fellow who figured out the Meaning of Life (42): “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools,” Douglass Adams.
Kurt Vonnegut! “And what is literature …. but an insider’s newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called thought.” (Bluebeard)
“Perhaps the time has come to cease calling it the ‘environmentalist’ view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view.” E.O.Wilson, America’s most rational biologist.
I could go on for hours. So why not? It’s digital … 0101010101….
“…. fear is an irrational emotion that floats from an object like a helium ballon that you touch with your fingertips.”
James Lee Burke (Tin Roof Blowdown)
Yes, he can keep that kind of eloquence going for 400 pages.
“I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”
It’s hard to imagine a tougher, more existentially grizzled, hard scrabbled, work booted American writer than Bowden. I heard him speak in Albuquerque awhile back; the man left no doubt in anybody’s mind that he is not to be trifled with, or ignored. His prose cuts hard, as it should.
And when in doubt, turn to John D. McDonald: “…. when you suddenly look around you and see that – life itself is the basic magic, the real miracle, then we might have a chance. You are trying to impose your sense of order and fitness on the randomness of people and the illogic of fate.” (The Last One Left)
If it wasn’t for McDonald, we wouldn’t have Travis McGee. And if we didn’t have Travis McGee, we’d be screwed!
“Our mind is like a television set with thousands of channels, and the channel we switch on is the channel we are at that moment,”
Thich Nhat Hanh.
Suffice it to say, it doesn’t take a spy satellite to see the profundity of Master Hanh’s insight. Of course, he’s speaking to us from the broadcasting tower of Buddhism, urging us to see into the nature of our nature. Which is, in fact, nature.
Let’s switch that cosmic channel!
Hillbilly music fragment:
I’m driftin’ round in a circle
alone in the universe.
I came in with a holler,
I’ll be leavin’ in a hearse.
“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”
Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern)
This just in: “New research suggests that when, and how much, light beams through your eyes may play a quiet and unrecognized role in determining your dress or pants size.”
I got that one from Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers (New York Times). As an experiment, I’ve decided to quit wearing dark glasses for two weeks and see if my belt needs tightening. Stay tuned…..
We are now required to quote the Lonesome Dove himself, Larry McMurtry: “There’s one big problem with old…….. it ain’t reversible.”
Nobody’s going to argue with that. Especially me, now that I’ve officially reached the 4th quarter in the game of life. And a word to my young friends out there on the fruited plains: Don’t blink, or you’ll freaking miss it!
Everybody knew I’d eventually get around to the voice of the Desert Rat Brigade, Edward Abbey. Few people could match wits with Cactus Ed, especially when he turned his gaze towards the vibrations of eternal wisdom: “I sat on a rock in New Mexico once, trying to have a vision. The only vision I had was of baked chicken.”
Abbey defied the gravity of human logic. His mind shined like a hall of mirrors, filled with contradictions that, to this day, cause many of his readers to drool on their tired ideologies. Want to see reality? Take a hike. Literally. Outside. Preferably far from the maddening American crowd. Which is now 300 million and counting.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” (Desert Solitaire)
The fat sizzles
Meanwhile, according to a recent Vital Choice newsletter: “….the average American downs more than 65 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) per year.” (Citing the USDA).
Is that possible? The fact that Americans have no idea how to feed themselves has been known for decades. The Land of the Free isn’t the obesity capitol of the galaxy for nothing! But 65 pounds of high fructose corn syrup a year?
The same article goes on to state that, “Fructose also promotes cancer growth……, including altered cellular metabolism, increased generation of free radicals, DNA damage, and inflammation.”
Who needs Obamacare? At the rate we’re going, many of us won’t be around long enough to enjoy it. The monkeys are loose; close the asylum gates!
It’s hard to fathom how a country of educated, media saturated, socially networked cyber-jockeys could allow themselves to become the world’s most glaring example of how not to live. It’s as if we swallowed the blue pill and now wander the virtual matrix in blissful ignorance of the most basic functions of human biology.
The scant research I’ve managed to accomplish has convinced me of one simple algorithm: Shooting yourself in the foot hurts. Repeatedly shooting yourself in the foot is the definition of crazy.
A nation of collective crazies is in for a rude awakening. Perhaps sooner than later.
Let’s switch the channel again and have some fun. And to do that, we look to one of my favorite socio-cultural gurus: Thelonious Monk. Arguably our most singular jazz composer, surviving decades of pop culture’s fickle taste buds, Monk was also more than capable of making perfect sense – “You know what’s the loudest sound in the world, man? The loudest sound in the world is silence.” (Straight No Chaser)
But Monk didn’t limit his philosophical musings to the realm of sound waves. In fact, the man was downright mystical: “One is one, two is two, nothing is something.”
What a zinger! Reminds me of “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” On second thought, Monk doesn’t remind me of anything. And that’s the way it should be.
There’s plenty more where this came from. An infinity of primate nerve noise is currently rebounding throughout the cosmos and ready for download. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. As the wise man said: “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.” On the other hand, many a wise man has been known to be wrong.
But in the interest of being kind to my readers, I’ll wrap this party up with a final nod to the genius of Homo erectus asphaltus’ incessant utterances. So, let’s return to our old friend, Mr. Anonymous (not to be confused with the cyber punks behind the recent rash of goofy data hacking):
“It will all be OK in the end … so if it’s not OK, you’re not at the end.”
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