The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

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Questioning Your Very Existence

Philosophers, from Aristotle and Plato, through to Kant, Descartes, and Leibniz, and down to the present day, have wrestled with crucial questions of being and existence.

Just imagine how profound the philosophical debates might have been if Aristotle, say, tried to use one of those automatic faucets in an airport restroom and found that, no matter how much hand waving and cursing he did, the photovoltaic cells would not register his presence and start the water flowing?

It gives rise to troubling existential issues. Can I be said to truly exist if the automatic faucet doesn’t acknowledge my being?

Willful Ignorance

Kish shared a fascinating article with me, a New York Times piece about a man who was upset by the election of Donald Trump and, ever since, has decided to retreat from getting information about what’s going on in the world.

stream_imgA former corporate executive, Erik Hagerman lives alone on a pig farm in Glouster, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state.  He’s consciously avoided getting any information about what has happened in America since November 8, 2016, and has taken steps with his friends and his life to enforce the ban.  No social media.  Constantly reminding his mother, family, and friends, and the baristas at the local coffee shop, to honor what he calls The Blockade.  And, as a result, he is blissfully unaware of everything that is happened for the past year and a half.

I say “blissfully,” because Mr. Hagerman reports that he’s “emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt.”

When I first read the article, I thought that Mr. Hagerman’s solution to the news of President Trump’s election sounded pretty juvenile and immature.  Really?  An adult who can’t cope with adverse news and decides to disengage from the world as a result, like the kid who gets mad at his friends and takes his football and goes home?  But after thinking about it, I wonder if Mr. Hagerman’s example isn’t worth emulating, even if only a little bit.  Why work yourself into a lather on a daily basis about faraway political races, investigations, congressional hearings, and other that are beyond your control?  Why expose yourself to social media memes that are just going to get under your skin?  It makes you think about what’s really important, doesn’t it?

Most of us don’t have the ability to move to a pig farm in rural Ohio, live a solitary life, and shield ourselves from reality.  Our jobs require us to have a least a rudimentary awareness of what is going on in the world, as we deal with customers and clients and colleagues.  But maybe some disengagement from the big, bad world, and a renewed focus on our families and things like reading the classics, taking long walks with our loved ones, or starting a new do-it-yourself project at home would be good for us all.

A total blockade won’t work, but total immersion isn’t a wise thing, either.  Trying to strike a balance makes sense.

Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.

Powerful Thoughts From Dr. King

Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  We remember him because he was a warrior for justice, equality, and peace, because he was an inspiration for millions, because he was a great thinker and stirring speaker, and because he stood up for his beliefs and was not afraid to buck the oppressors in power in order to achieve what he knew was right.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.If you are interested in getting a sense of the man, read the entirety of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written to fellow clergymen in April, 1963 in response to their statements that his actions were “unwise and untimely.”  More than 50 years later, it still resonates with immense power.  Here are a few points he made:

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

These all remain thoughts worth pondering today, more than 50 years later, as we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.

Old Year Out, New Year In

Well, 2017 is gone, and 2018 is here. It’s the time of year when you’re supposed to reflect on the year gone by and look ahead to the new year aborning.

As for 2017 — well, it was good and bad. We had a wonderful wedding that added a new Webner to the fold, and the year saw some successes and significant developments for the Webner clan. At the same time, 2017 was a year where we lost some close friends. And, if you broaden your horizon to include national and international developments, the story of 2017 becomes even more muddled. Years can be like that.

As for 2018, my hopes are simple — I just want our little circle to enjoy robust good health, know true happiness from time to time, feel a sense of significant personal accomplishment every once in a while, and revel in hearty laughter as much as possible. I’m personally going to try to maintain more of a sense of wonder about the world, and keep in mind the question I’d be asking if someone had transported me from 1969 to 2018:

Hey, where are the flying cars?