Saturday, December 22, 2012

Letter to Daughter Who is on a Reflective Retreat

Dear Emily,

You are now well into the second half of your college career, and we are all so proud of you. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to be with you from the very beginning and to watch you turn into the woman you are today. You have changed considerably from the little girl you once were.

When you were only four or five years old, you were extremely outgoing and upbeat. We have videos of you exuberantly acting out make-believe stories and hamming it up for the camera. You were always willing to try something new, and you very rarely complained.

Much of that little girl remains today. As one might expect, your temperament is more reserved that it was back then, but you are still very upbeat and determined. As your father I am particularly pleased that you are a "doer." The active part of the young Emily continues today, but in a more mature form. College has afforded you many opportunities, and you have jumped at a great number of them. Life is, in a very real sense, a series of choices and chances that we either take or let pass. You are the kind of person who gets involved and lets very little pass you by. While at Holy Cross, you have been involved in choir, the newspaper, internships, service projects, residential life, and retreats like the one you are on today. You are taking advantage of so much that life has to offer.

Which brings me to another change. The little girl you once were could not have been the thoughtful, contemplative, and spiritually grounded person that you are today. This is something that takes maturity. It takes time to acquire the perspective to see the world as a whole and yourself in the world, and only then is a more mature form of introspection and appreciation possible. It has been wonderful to watch you develop and nurture this side of your personality and life, too.

As I think of you now, I am struck by the balance you are beginning to achieve in your life. I believe the most valuable and meaningful life is a mix of action and thought, creation and contemplation. Each of these impulses has intrinsic value, but a life that does not include both in good measure cannot be as fulfilling and productive as one that is tipped exclusively in one direction or the other. It is clear to me that you share this view and give both these halves of your personality the attention they deserve.

I am so proud to be your father and so fortunate to be able to watch your life unfold. Enjoy your retreat.



Sunday, December 02, 2012

Class question

In a discussion of the "pursuit of happiness" in class last week, I asked for a show of hands of the students who would make the following highly hypothetical choice:
Imagine that you could save 100 30-year-old people from a deadly disease. Without your intervention, they die at age 30, and with your intervention they live a normal lifespan. However, in return for this miraculous outcome, you must live with a dull, low-level headache for the rest of your life. 
Only three hands went up. Out of about fifteen students in attendance. And they didn't look very cheerful about it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dinner Party Checkmate

Premise 1: One guest is a vegetarian but not a vegan.
Premise 2: Another guest is a carnivore but lactose intolerant.
Premise 3: You would rather not cook separate meals for each guest.
Conclusion: The default meal must be vegan. (Checkmate)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Great Under-appreciated Invention #3: The Hand Crank Pencil Sharpener

I would guess that over the years I have installed between eight and ten hand crank pencil sharpeners in the various houses and apartments where I have lived and in offices where I have worked. For home use, I prefer to place the sharpener on the back of a wooden closet door, set at a height low enough for children to reach. The picture above is of the sharpener in my office. I recently bumped into the device—it was mounted in a bad spot—and knocked it to the floor, so yesterday I reinstalled it in a safer location. This Boston sharpener has served me well, and when I retire some ten years from now, I expect to leave it for the office’s next occupant. 

According to Wikipedia, the pencil was invented around 1500 by an Italian couple named Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti, and, also according to Wikipedia, the first patent for a pencil sharpener was issued in France in 1828. There are many designs of sharpeners. The tiny bladed handheld sharpeners used by school children and artists are messy and often break off the pencil’s point, and electrical desk models are noisy, prone to breaking, and require either a steady stream of batteries or a wall plug. Given that the standard wall-mounted hand crank models are so reliable, I cannot imagine why someone would ever purchase an electric model. With its zero carbon footprint, the manual wall-mounted pencil sharpener is both a sentimental and sensible choice. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Memorable Quotes from The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

He knew who on the plane was in love, who would say they were in love because it was what you were supposed to say, and who would say they were not in love. (p. 13)

A lobotomy involved some kind of rod or probe inserted through the eyesocket, the term was always “frontal” lobotomy; but was there any other kind? (p. 14)

The screen door had no screen but was still a screen door, which fact she thought upon. (p. 55)

The mother’s relational skills were indifferent and did not include truthful or consistent speech. (p. 55)

One paradox of professional writing is that books written solely for money and/or acclaim will almost never be good enough to garner either. (pp. 81-82)

If sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. (p. 84)

I don’t think my father loved his job with the city, but on the other hand, I’m not sure he ever asked himself major questions like ‘Do I like my job? Is this really what I want to spend my life doing? Is it as fulfilling as some of the dreams I had for myself when I was a young man serving in Korea and reading British poetry in my bunk in the barracks at night?’ He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense. That may actually have been the lifetime sum-total of his thinking on the matter. He essentially said ‘Whatever’ to his lot in life, but obviously in a very different way from the way in which the directionless mastoids of my generation said ‘Whatever.’ (pp. 191-192)

For those who’ve never experienced a sunrise in the rural Midwest, it’s roughly as soft and romantic as someone’s abruptly hitting the lights in a dark room. This is because the land is so flat that there is nothing to impede or gradualize the sun’s appearance. It’s just all of a sudden there. The temperature immediately goes up ten degrees; the mosquitoes vanish to wherever exactly it is that mosquitoes go to regroup. (p. 262)

In short, not only was it surprising to be greeted in person with such enthusiastic words, but it was doubly surprising when the person reciting these words displayed the same kind of disengagement as, say, the checkout clerk who utters the words ‘Have a nice day’ while her expression indicates that it’s really a matter of total indifference to her whether you drop dead in the parking lot outside in ten seconds from now. (p. 287)

As every American knows, it is totally possible for contempt and anxiety to coexist in the human heart. The idea that people feel just one basic emotion at a time is a further contrivance of menoirs. (p. 301)

Telling the truth is, of course, a great deal trickier than most regular people understand. (p. 302)

He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices. Tell him to pucker his butt and think beach when he starts to get antsy, and that would be just the word to use, antsy, like his mother. Let him find out in time’s fullness what a joke the word was, that it didn’t come anyplace close. He’d already dusted the desk with his cuff, moved his infant son’s photo in its rattly frame where the front glass slid a bit if you shook it. He’d already tried switching the green rubber over and doing the adding machine with his left hand, pretending he’d had a stroke and was bravely soldiering on. The rubber made the pinkie’s tip all damp and pale beneath it. Unable to sit still at home, unable to look at anything for more than a second or two. The beach now had solid cement instead of sand and the water was gray and barely moved, just quivered a little, like Jell-O that’s almost set. Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.  (pp. 379-380)

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
    The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unbearable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.
    It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.  (p. 438)

Meredith Rand says: ‘You have to say little things occasionally, like it’s a real conversation, to show you’re at least interested. Otherwise the person just feels like they’re yammering and the other person could be thinking about God only knows what.’ (p. 472)

‘If you are pretty,’ Meredith Rand says, ‘it can be hard to respect guys.’ (p. 482)

It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss at every atom. (p. 546)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Animal Death Words in Science & Religion

Just realized that the most common euphemism used to describe killing a research animal when it is no longer needed is the same word used to describe the ritual killing of animals in ancient religions: sacrifice.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Endearing Things Women Do 2

In an effort to apply—but not over apply—perfume, some women will spray a cloud of vapor into the air in front of them, wait a moment for the droplets to dissipate slightly, and then walk into the cloud.

Endearing Things Women Do 1

If a woman's hair is of a certain length—in the vicinity of her chin, for example—and she wants to place a telephone to her ear, she will often tilt their head to one side so that her hair flips away and the phone can be slipped underneath and placed directly against her head.

Somewhere I have a picture of a former girlfriend performing this gesture while making a dinner reservation from our hotel room.

Although I have never discussed it with any of its users, I suspect this time-honored maneuver (I have seen it in movies of the 40s and 50s) is taken as much out of vanity as practicality. The goal is to hear better while preserving the condition of a quaffed head of hair. The result is a cocked-head movement reminiscent of a wolf turning to listen to a distant sound. The woman's eyes dull as she strains to hear the faraway person, and she continues to list a bit to one side until the conversation ends, at which point the woman pulls the phone straight downward, avoiding any contact with hair, and, finally, returns her head to an upright position.

I take a small measure of delight whenever I see this.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Reasons of Love

There are very few books I can say truly changed the way I look at life and the world, happily and forever. Harry G. Frankfurt's thin volume The Reasons of Love (Princeton, 2004) is one.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A 61-year-old Looks Back on Joyce Maynard

I have always admired the title of Joyce Maynard’s famous essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life,” but before today, I had never actually read it. Maynard is three years younger than I am, and her article, written during her freshman year at Yale, was the New York Times Magazine cover story on April 23, 1972. As legend has it, the piece drew the attention of the reclusive J. D. Salinger. The two exchanged many letters, and when summer came, Maynard left college (never to return again), moved into Salinger’s Cornish, New Hampshire home, and began a ten-month-long relationship with the 53-year-old author of The Catcher In The Rye.

It is easy to see what appealed to Salinger about the essay. Maynard is very bright and a remarkably observant writer—especially for someone who was only a college freshman. The piece is far more embedded in a particular cultural period in the United States (the late 1960s and early 1970s) than Catcher, but the offbeat sensibility of the author is not unlike that of Holden Caulfield. Maynard writes entertainingly about pot smoking (she didn’t), the Unitarian church, Leave It To Beaver (I was also a fan), her senior year of high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and the antiwar presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. Maynard had already written several pieces for Seventeen magazine, but “An 18-year-old Looks Back On Life” made her a celebrity. She went on to have children and write many books, including a memoir of her relationship with Salinger, but this article, written in youth, will probably always be her most famous publication.

Friday, February 10, 2012

One of the Rhythms of My Life

1. Take cold cup of coffee or tea in hand.
2. Open microwave door.
3. Remove cup I forgot to retrieve X hours before.
4. Insert cup.
5. Turn on microwave.
6. Plan to return when the cup is hot.
7. Repeat.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Catholicism & Dentistry

For me, visiting the dental hygienest is a very Catholic experience. I lie under a drape and confess to the venial sins of inadequate brushing and almost no flossing, and I feel great pangs of guilt. After putting me through some minor uncomfortableness, my uniformed confessor gently chastises me and sends me home to perform the dental equivalent of a dozen Hail Marys.

I leave the office feeling much better.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Some Recent Tweets

Observations about my gym: Very few men who go there wear scarves. 

Making pizza in the shape of Iowa for dinner. Could be the beginning of a Primary-Caucus Pizza Challenge. 

hoping college-aged daughter is not too old to go to Muppet movie with me. 

A good day of teaching is a good day.