Sunday, July 30, 2006

On Sadness

I don't think I cried once between the ages of 16 and 25, even at the death of a family member or the breakup of a significant relationship, even when I wanted to. In my late 20s, though, I've become a bit of a softie. I've wept openly at funerals and major breakups. I can tear up just hearing some sad news unrelated to my life, and even during the sad bits in an average movie.

The thing is, I'm glad for this newfound ability to experience sadness. People say that sadness is the flipside of happiness -- that you can't have one without the other. I'm sure that's true, but sometimes the sadness itself is beautiful. When you're sad, it means that something or someone has touched you in a way that matters.

Here's an excerpt from a book on depression I recommend very much -- Feeling Good, by David Burns. The author is describing an incident he experienced as a medical student, working with a patient who was terminally ill. The patient's son asked him,

"Doctor, what is his condition? What can we expect?"

I felt a sudden surge of grief. I had felt close to this gentle, courteous man because he reminded me of my own grandfather, and I realized that tears were running down my cheeks. I had to make a decision either to stand there and let the family see my tears as I spoke with them or to leave and try to hide my feelings. I chose to stay and said with considerable emotion, "He is a beautiful man. He can still hear you, although he is nearly in a coma, and it is time to be close to him and say good-bye to him tonight." I then left the room and wept. The family members also cried and sat on the bed, while they talked to him and said good-bye. Within the next hour his coma deepened until he lost consciousness and died.

Although his death was profoundly sad for the family and for me, there was a tenderness and a beauty to the experience that I will never forget. The sense of loss and the weeping reminded me -- "You can love. You can care." This made the grief an elevating experience that was entirely devoid of pain or suffering for me. Since then, I have had a number of experiences that brought me to tears in this same way. For me the grief represents an elevation, an experience of the highest magnitude.

Because I was a medical student, I was concerned that my behavior might be seen as inappropriate by the staff. The chairman of the department later took me aside and informed me that the patient's family had asked him to extend their appreciation to me for being available to them and for helping make the occasion of his passing intimate and beautiful. He told me that he too had always felt strongly toward this particular individual, and showed me a painting of a horse the elderly man had done which was hanging on his wall.

The episode involved a letting go, a feeling of closure, and a sense of good-bye. This was in no way frightening or terrible; but in fact, it was peaceful and warm, and added a sense of richness to my experience of life.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bo Diddley - Now That's Passion

The crowd, the music, Mr. Diddley. As Michael von Blowhard writes:

[F]ull of throb, sweat, humor, and power. Man, did Bo Diddley ever have a lot of confidence and force! Watching him in action reminds me of looking at some of Picasso's more exultant bulls.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Book Review: Infinite Jest

Perhaps my favorite book is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. It's huge and unwieldy and often incoherent. It has 1088 pages, including 96 pages of small-type footnotes. There's no climax to speak of. (Despite ignorant reviewers, this is intentional and essential.) You'll need an unabridged dictionary for a word on nearly every page.

You'll either love or hate the language. Here's a test: if you are not turned off by the title of my favorite DFW essay, "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie and Human Completeness" (collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) you might like Infinite Jest.

It's not a beautiful book; there are no lyric descriptions of love and beauty. It's about addiction and depression and the futility and inadequacy of intelligence and success. It takes place primarily in a tennis academy and a rehab clinic. It's also, in part, a retelling of Hamlet.

I can't explain exactly why I loved this book, but it goes beyond my (immense) enjoyment of his writing style. I think it's just a book that manages to not only get at the sadness and futility that so often accompanies the (post-) modern age, but to get through to people like me -- the intelligent, the skeptical, and the jaded. DFW plays all the pomo games -- the self-reference, the allusions, the ironic detachment -- but he does it to get through to a generation that uses that stuff to build walls around ourselves to avoid feeling anything real.

Here's DFW in an interview:

[Interviewer:] Not much of the press about "Infinite Jest" addresses the role that Alcoholics Anonymous plays in the story. How does that connect with your overall theme?

[DFW:] The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it's the same thing.

Some of my friends got into AA. I didn't start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it's also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don't. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.

[Interviewer:] The characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system is teaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly simplistic clichés.

[DFW:] It's hard for the ones with some education, which, to be mercenary, is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general literary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion at the beginning. "One Day at a Time," right? I'm thinking 1977, Norman Lear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed sampler this is written on. But apparently part of addiction is that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you want to die. And it's so awful that the only way to deal with it is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as banal and reductive as "One Day at a Time" enabled these people to walk through hell, which from what I could see the first six months of detox is. That struck me.

It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

On Connection

Still and all, why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone. --Vonnegut
[T]here is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. --David Foster Wallace

Vonnegut and DFW (one of my favorites, btw) are writing about writing, but it's true about relationships as well. To feel like another human being gets me and thinks like me and cares about many of the same things I do -- it's so rare, and it's exhilarating when it happens.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On Religion

            Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).

In a Romantic sense, I love religion. Stripped of its Classical side, which is about laws and dogma and predictions taken literally, religion can be beautiful and inspiring. I'm drawn to and inspired by Romantic figures of all kinds, and many of them -- artists and poets, mystics and caregivers -- are quite religious. Many, too, are not.

Even as an atheist, I'm moved by beautiful cathedrals and good religious art. Some of my best times in high school were spent sitting with large groups of friends and classmates, singing zemirot (Jewish songs.) I once visited the kotel (Western Wall) at two in the morning on a Friday night and was very moved. Many religious rituals, stripped of the Orthodox (and Classical) obsession with doing it "right" rather than meaningfully, were beautiful as well. Although I was not yet an atheist, the feelings I had then were not dependent on my belief in God.

Like theists, I have moments which could be considered "spiritual," although I interpret the term metaphorically. For a long time when I was moving away from Orthodoxy, my Friday night "service" consisted of running in the woods. I remember in the Fall, when the leaves were turning, the sun was setting, and I was in fantastic condition, just running -- flying almost -- along this beautiful path near my campus, living in the meditative rythm of my breathing and footfalls, and finding peace. When I finished my run, I'd shower and join my Orthodox friends for Shabbat dinner.

An Introduction

You may know me from my other blog as a hyper-logical debater, grounded in skepticism, and concerned first and foremost with the question, "What is true?" In my professional life, as a software engineer, I by necessity focus mostly on questions of logic as well. While good software code has an elegance and beauty in itself, my employers understandably care more about its logical correctness.

I've created this second blog in order to remind myself of my other, more Romantic side. I want to focus on things which are beautiful and inspirational or ugly and hateful instead of dicing things into smaller and smaller pieces in an effort to gain a complete understanding which is impossible to achieve.

I don't mean to denigrate logic. It's essential to many of the technological and moral advances we as a species have made over the last few millennia and it's indispensable as an aid to understanding this universe. It's an extraordinary tool and it needn't take away from our Romantic sides.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel-winning physicist, once wrote:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars -- mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is 'mere'. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination -- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern -- of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

As an atheist and a materialist, I continue to believe that ultimately, given infinite time and infinite intelligence, everything could in theory be broken down into the smallest pieces and understood perfectly, at least until the Uncertainty Principle kicks in. In practice, however, our time is not only finite but quite short, and our intelligence, while capable of great feats, is not equipped for the big task.

Like many computer scientists, I have a passion for the game Go. Go is famous (among computer scientists) for its complexity, particularly as compared to chess. While the strongest computer chess players now rival the best humans, no Go program can beat even a decent human amateur. The reason for this disparity is that in chess, there are only 64 squares with a couple of dozen possibilities for each move. In Go, there are 361 intersections with almost hundreds of possibilities for most moves.

Given infinite time and infinite memory, one could quite easily solve the game of Go -- it is completely deterministic, like chess and tic-tac-toe. There are no dice, no shuffled decks, and no random number generators involved. What makes Go so fascinating though is how intuitive we must be in order to play it well. Since most humans couldn't examine every possible move for even a single turn, let alone a few dozen turns in advance, we must rely on intuition and general rules of thumb.

Go is a beautiful metaphor for life in that regard. Perhaps, two centuries from now, a team of neuroscientists, linguists, psychologists, and physicists might, after decades of study, be able to completely understand the precise intended meaning of a single sentence uttered by a man to a woman. It would then take another few decades to completely understand what she heard as compared to what he intended. And even then, the scientists' description of what precisely happened would be so complex and span so many scientific disciplines that no single human being could completely understand it.

Consquently, it makes much more sense to turn to Shakespeare in order to understand dialogue or to Woolf for glimpsing what goes on in another's mind.

I'd like to use this blog to focus on the parts of life for which logic is insufficient. I'd like to look at beauty in a way that's less simplistic -- less reductive -- than some attempted explanation from evolutionary neuropsychology. I'd like to write about inspiration and love and hate and greed and lust and ambition -- all the passions which drive us and make life so damn interesting.