How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”


old folks002

Famous has become everything

Celebrity worship has changed over the last decades. The notion of celebrity has been stretched and expanded to the point of meaninglessness. Once celebrities were people who had achieved something—a something that made them famous. Today, celebrities include the infamous, the notorious and even. or perhaps mostly, the common. Reality TV has turned just about everyone into a celebrity at some time or another. We can become one by behaving badly enough, by winning money in a contest of luck or losing enough weight. Or by talking about our drug addiction, sexual perversions and moral lapses to a bald psychiatrist on TV. People become famous, and famous is enough. Famous has become everything.

This blurring of the lines between celebrities and the rest of us has made many people famous for at least Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes.

Madame Tussaud was only one of the many people who made it happen. P.T. Barnum was another; Wild Bill Hickok and his Wild West show helped the process along. Technology was the most important influence through photographs, movies, television and, now, the social media. The effigies grow in number and so do the visitors, fans posing with their favorite famous people: arm-in-arm, kissing…. there’s a picture on-line of a woman acting out the part of Monica Lewinsky with a wax Bill Clinton.

In wax museums visitors try to figure out who’s alive and who’s dead.

The uncanniness of wax effigies is almost certainly about their lifelessness. The living blink, swallow and breathe. The effigies, on the other hand, are only about appearance. But it doesn’t even matter whether or not they represent someone living. The dead will do. The celebrity worshipper may be just as happy to get chummy with Einstein, Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe as with Britney Spears. The deification of Monroe and Elvis Presley is as ongoing as ever it was for George Washington. Whether celebrities are dead or alive isn’t that important to our need to associate ourselves with them.

They don’t even have to be real. Shrek is at Madame Tussaud’s.

Recent surveys reveal how young people feel about the subject of themselves and fame. American teenage girls responded that if they could press a button and become one of the following—smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or famous—they would choose the last. In another survey of “American students,” the choice was among “the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” “president of Harvard/Yale,” “a Navy Seal” “a U.S. senator”, and “an assistant to a celebrity.”  The celebrity post won hands-down.

Perhaps it’s true, as Thomas de Zengotita suggests in his book Mediated, that “In this society, if you’re not famous, there is a certain very real sense in which you don’t exist.?”


I’ve been trying to think of something to write about Christmas that hasn’t been written many times before. I come up with Santa Claus’ boot print, Christmas recitations at church,  uncomfortable family dinners, orange candies…. but I really don’t have any compelling stories to tell. What I love most is the wonderful music. As I write this I’m listening to wall-to-wall Bach on New York City’s WKCR. For some reason that’s not entirely clear, Christmas is a celebration of the human voice. Choirs and choruses reveal themselves.

I think I’ve understood for some years what Christmas is about. The intersection of the sacred and the secular, the revelation of— depending on the form your understanding of the world takes—the Divine, the Light, the Truth, the son of God, the essential nothingness at the heart of the universe…..  the conflation of love, the weak and the meek, the human, the Word, with whatever it is that’s at the heart of all that is and is not.

A little like this:

A confusion of black spruce
and smoking moonbeams.
Here’s the cottage lying low
and not a sign o flife.

Till the morning dew murmurs
and an old man opens
—with a shaky hand—his window
and lets out an owl.

– Tomas Transtromer (see the October 31, 2011 New Yorker in a review of Transtromer’s work  by Dan Chiasson)


Every once in a while someone will come along who says it all so that I almost understand it. I hope that happens for you, whoever you are, this Christmas.

Where will all the poets go in an age of virtual realities?

Yesterday a friend of mine who manages a desktop publishing business that’s turned mostly to proofreading got a letter from a 95-year-old woman. It was neatly typed (yes, on a typewriter!) and well written: she was clearly alert and intelligent. She’d created a book, a memoir about her life, and wanted to publish it, mostly for her family and friends. The small publishers she’d looked at in North Carolina where she lived wanted a digital copy and scanned photos. She was, she thought, too old to learn about all that. Could my friend help her?

Oh, I did feel for her.

There was a time, not too many generations ago, when the world we entered at birth was still recognizable at death. But not any more. The landscape of our lives is changing at such a rate that many older people who grew up before computers became everyday and altered realities a popular topic of conversation, can only throw up their hands in despair. Something I’m going to try not to do for at least another 20 years.

But what will the world look like by then? I remember when I was a student, many decades ago now, reading a book by Ortega y Gasset. I don’t remember much about it anymore, but I never forgot one of his predictions for the future: someday, he said, instead of taking  trains, airplanes, or space ships, we will travel as some form of energy. We will be transmitted at the speed of light to any place we want to go. “That,” I thought, “is for me!”

Well, it hasn’t happened yet but, as the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So, any year now.

Cite des Sciences et de l'industrie, Parc de la Villette, Paris. Photo by Feuillu (Pierre Metivier). Flickr. Creative Commons.

It’s become commonplace to talk about “the social media” and to refer to the internet as a new reality, a different and remarkable place to meet and greet. Many of us have fancied ourselves Serena Williams or Roger Federer playing tennis on Wii. A recent “Nova” showed soldiers recovering from post traumatic stress from “virtual reality therapy.” We also watched soldiers training in interactive battle situations created by computers. The most frightening part of the show was a look at soldiers in Las Vegas piloting drones in Pakistan and Iraq. Blowing up the enemy long distance.

Another segment showed children who, after swimming with whales in virtual reality, believed they had done so in real life. Not far removed from the young woman who claimed “I’m closer to everyone on-line than in real life.” Said the narrator, “Distinctions between real and virtual space are disappearing.”

I had mixed feelings about most of this—the question of what is real has always been at the heart of the human experience. Plato and the shadows on the wall of the cave—even thousands of years ago, we knew it was a mystery. Alarm bells started going off though when I was assured by one futurist that words were going to be usurped by the experiences given to us by virtual reality. We’d be able to exchange experiences and not have to rely on the clumsiness of  language to do it for us. There will be no need for symbolism, and certainly not for metaphor. What you see, hear, touch and smell can be made available to me.

It reminded me of Clarke and fellows like him who were writing science fiction back when not everyone was doing it. There was something cold about it, I thought. Something flat and one-dimensional. Same thing here. Our reality is so complicated and so much of it is made by words, paint, musical instruments (even acoustical ones), bodies-in-motion, complex media with even more complex information. Something’s wrong here. I hope I can figure it out before I’m 95 and decide to leave it up to the young ones.

Is David Brooks a fledgling Buddhist?

Despite his politics (he sports the labels conservative and Republican), I’ve always liked New York Times columnist David Brooks. I admit it’s partly because he can be very engaging, but also because he’s one of the few people in the national media who says things of substance. I learn from him.


In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Brooks continues his ongoing exploration of American culture and who we are with an essay that’s part of his latest book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (to be published in March). I haven’t read either of his earlier books, but I imagine I’d enjoy them if for no other reason than that he’s funny. In this magazine article, he opens with a wonderful description of the Composure Class—college-educated, professional and well-to-do. “Wealth settled down upon them gradually, like a gentle snow.”


But this is a superficial view of people who suspect they may be “shallower than they need to be.” Brooks is interested in another perspective:
…. We are living in the middle of a revoluton in consciousness. Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind ….
The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotions over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

Despite the fact that there are all sorts of people, especially artists, who have never subscribed to the view he holds out as normative, Brooks’ description of a member of the Composure Class from the perspective of his inner life, is instructive and limned with some delightful results of studies and experiments. Brooks sums up the debate about what makes us happy by juxtaposing the book, “On the Road,” with the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thirty years of research makes it clear that the movie is right. Happiness is not so much the life of freedom and adventure as of roots and connections.


At the conclusion of the article, Harold attends a lecture at an ideas festival in Aspen, where the speaker throws out some incredible statistics about the human brain:

we have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making 1081 first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe; the ability to distinguish between a “P” and a “B” sound involves as many as 11 sites across the brain; even something as simple as seeing a color in a painting involves a mind-bogglingly complex set of mental constructions. Our perceptions, the scientist said, are fantasies we construct that correlate with reality.

Harold finds the whole thing dispiriting until a member of the audience asks Brooks’ fictional neuroscientist how his studies have changed the way he lives. He relates that he had previously thought of himself as an agent who made choices and established alliances with colleagues and friends.

Now though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

…. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people….

Brooks began the research that led to this book with a query about why there are so many high school dropouts when it’s clear that success requires a diploma, and much of the book investigates the inner reality of classes other than the Composure Class. His initial concern was not one that haunts most conservatives and Republicans. And his conclusion seems even less Republican to me. Maybe not Democrat. How about a fledgling Buddhism?

Another effort to talk about our “reality”—crazed culture

In my last post I worried that I got off point and started talking in meaningless riddles. You may remember (and if you don’t, it’s near the conclusion of the post):“We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.”

In one of life’s coincidences, I picked up an April 12 New Yorker last night and read a short story by Ben Loory entitled “The TV” about a man who one day, for no particular reason, stays home from work and watches television. The program he watches doesn’t end until the end of the day when its leading character closes up his workplace and starts for home. It’s then, as he shampoos his hair in the shower, that he realizes that the show was about him. Not metaphorically about him, but actually about him. “But how could it have taken me so long to recognize my own self? he wonders. And how did they manage to find an actor who looks so exactly like me?”

The next day he watches again and confirms that the man is indeed him; even the credits say so. As time passes, he stays close to the television, watching the man who’s him work, go to lunch, and come home again. Soon the man who is himself evolves into someone who does all sorts of things the watcher never did—or did he since he and the man on the screen are one and the same?

His on-screen activity expands and grows more furious until one day he realizes he has a mind and that his mind is like a fist which he must focus on and keep closed at all costs. Of course, he finally does open it, only to discover he’s holding the end of an electrical cord. Feeling powerful, he takes the TV down to the basement trash, but on the way back up discovers himself doing the same thing, and then sees himself again bringing it back up the stairs and worse, the same man watching the TV in his living room  in the same familiar way. By now, the screen no longer holds his many selves: they’re too numerous; they’re everywhere and living all sorts of lives. All he can do is struggle to keep track of himself.

The story, of course, is more detailed and more nuanced, and the conclusion is full of irony. But it seems to me, it’s very like what I was trying to describe.  Of course, we’re all interested in each other’s lives. That’s part of what drives the arts—we want to know and understand other lives in relation to our own. But something else is happening when fiction is being eclipsed by reality TV and memoirs and magazines devoted to the details of everyone’s lives. When the privacy of other individuals, and even our own, is no longer respected.

Reality TV. my life is based on a true story. photo by Frames-of-Mind. Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Tolstoy answered the question “what is art?” declaring that “it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.” In other words, empathy.

What I’m trying to talk about isn’t empathy, and it certainly isn’t art. But empathy and art (as in Mr. Loory’s story), may help us understand it.

The peril of watching television in the morning

I don’t usually watch television in the morning, but it was Saturday and it was on, and one of the morning hosts was doing a special on the increasing theat to privacy in our culture, especially because of the Internet, as well as all the cameras perched in stores, on city streets and highways.  The consensus was that it’s too late to do much about it, either as a society or as an individual. The invited expert suggested we each had two choices: live with it or seek out a unabomber’s shack in the mountains somewhere.

But this invasion of privacy—which is presumably not of our own choosing—is only part of a much wider phenomenon, where the private has become increasingly public. Reality TV is the most obvious example, but the Internet and the newsstands are full of the stories of “real people.” The details of the lives of celebrities are the most sought after, but as a nation we avidly watch people “just like us” in small claims court, getting counseling and therapy from Dr. Phil, financial help from Suzie, swapping wives and getting makeovers.

According to Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History, nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.”

It may be that fiction has been threatened since 1966 when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay Pornoviolence: The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.

Much of our interest in the details of other people’s lives lies in our love of the sensational, and in what is, in essence, gossip. Most of us—even those of us who don’t want to admit it—like gossip. And even though it’s been characterized as mean-spirited, it just as often isn’t. It’s about hearing a good story, and even more, a story about someone we know, or feel we know. The key is that the story has to be entertaining, and it has to be about someone “real” that we feel kin to.

Gossip can’t be about fictional characters.

I still haven’t answered the question: Why are so many of us so thirsty for the details of the lives of others? And again: Why are so many of us eager to share our own? Is this a good thing?

I’m groping here, but I might be getting closer. Could it be that as we lose our privacy and our private lives, fiction seems less relevant? Could it be that we’re all in the media? We’re so immersed in the drama of it all. As people are sometimes said to say at the scene of a murder, “It’s so real. It’s just like the movies.” We can no longer contemplate our lives. We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.

Then again, maybe I just shouldn’t watch television in the morning.

Dali’s timepiece in a world of strange places

Well, I’m finally back on the Internet. Somewhat intermittently, but here. I’m still handicapped. My wonderful scanner broke en route. My poor packing techniques, no doubt. Anyway, that will cut down significantly on the pictures I can include in these posts.

The intermittent quality of my Internet experience probably has to do with Hughesnet’s poor saucer. The thing is lost in a fog today, as am I. A cold low-hanging mist veils the woods around the house. Where I lived in California, being shrouded in fog was not uncommon, but I was surrounded by other houses and other people who were similarly cut off from the world. Here, today, my chief company consists of red squirrels and chickadees.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. What shall we call the world around us when it’s unfamiliar? “Surreal”signifies a weirdness that’s made up of unlikely combinations of elements. Limp watches in a barren landscape. A red PT Cruiser in the snow (okay, not yet, but soon!). Not altogether unlike my present situation, but the weirdness lies more in my not being used to my surroundings. I’m the odd element instead of the limp watch or the dirty red Cruiser.

This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Information from its description page is shown here. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository. You can help. Salvador Dalí. (Spanish, 1904-1989). The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas. Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When we’re used to things, when they’re as familiar as old clothes, old wallpaper or mashed potatoes, when day after day they lie close to hand—we wear them, live in them, eat them—we almost don’t see them anymore they’re so much part of us. Travel brings us to another reality where the houses may seem as unlikely to us as Dali’s limp timepiece. Where, if we’re not careful we could, like Alice in Wonderland, begin to lose ourselves.

The same phenomenon occurs when we buy something new. For a few hours, or even a few days or weeks, it keeps its newness and everything around it shares in the wonderful shine that new things have. But all too soon, it’s worn and familiar.

But back to the more wrenching experience of a new environment, an experience that reveals how vulnerable we are. How much our identity is wrapped up in places and their trappings.

And, in the case of artists of every kind, if they’re involved in bringing together what has been disparate, if they’re creating new places and new worlds, how very, very vulnerable they are!

Seeing what’s really there

I’m not sure when this post will get up. In California, AT&T pulled the plug on my broadband too early. In Vermont, the painter painted us out of the office with the computer, and it will be  another two or three days before I can get to it. So it goes between the vicissitudes of travel and beautiful blue-gray floors but sticky. I had hoped that while I wasn’t writing I’d think about the blog and come up with something new and better, but no such luck. So, at least for the future, I’ll continue to fly by the seat of my pants—so to speak.


Before I left California, I had lunch with Asa, the potter, who described events of seeing in his life that suggested to him we rarely, almost never, see what’s really there. And, of course, that’s true. I mean, what we see is shaped by us—by our aesthetic sensibilities and intelligences and, above all, by our memories. I became especially aware of that as I watched my mother’s Alzheimers progress. As her memories went, so did her ability to see the world around her. I don’t mean that she started stumbling into chairs—nothing like that—but colors, for example, were either absent, or might as well have been.


So, I ask, what’s “really” there, besides whirling atoms with their component parts? I don’t know, and I’m sure the question must seem absurd, except perhaps to the physics professors among us. What is apparent to me, a non-physicist, is that the day-to-day real” is not something utterly other than us. It’s part of us. We help make it. In both our seeing and our doing.


What’s also apparent to me is that some things we see are “more us” than others. That the New England countryside, for instance, is much more the result of my seeing it than the New Mexico. Vermont has been “futzed-over.” The land is soaked through with the efforts of human beings. Most of New Mexico’s landscape is “exotic,” that is “foreign, not native, strange or different in a way that is striking or fascinating” (Webster). It’s “other” in the same way the vultures and cormorants of my last post are. There is less human memory connected with it, less that was, or is, shaped by our aesthetics or intelligence.


Unless, of course, we are Georgia O’Keefe finding the shape of  a woman in the hills of New Mexico or the interior of one of its exotic blooms.

Explaining music in a materialist age


The close relation that music has to the true nature of all things can explain the fact that, when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it. Moreover, to the man who gives himself up entirely to the impression of a symphony, it is as if he saw all the possible events of life and of the world passing by within himself. Yet if he reflects, he cannot assert any likeness between that piece of music and the things that passed through his mind. For music differs from all the other arts by the fact that it expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world….

Why do I find that paragraph so persuasive? It describes my experience of music — that it seems to me to make the world meaningful. I’m enlarged and enlivened by it. When I truly listen I’m in the presence of Truth with a capital T, Reality with a capital R. And yet I can’t say what its actual content was. Not really.

Music “expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world,” says Schopenhauer. What exactly does that mean? At the very least, he’s trying to say that music is about something terribly fundamental to our existence.

Years ago, when I studied philosophy, I remember that metaphysics was a serious pursuit. We were still looking for the nature of reality, and we weren’t at all certain that it was made up of matter rather than mind. Oh, I suppose even then, in the dark days of the 1950s and ’60s, materialism was winning out, had already won. Science was triumphant. But to me the outcome of the debate was still uncertain.

I’m bringing this up because last spring’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on the theme of “Arts & Letters” included the paragraph above from the 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and although I don’t remember much about Schopenhauer — he’s not the kind of thinker most of us keep close for reference today — I was reminded when I looked for him in Wikipedia, that he theorized that the world was essentially to be found in the human will. Reality was mind and not matter. The world of phenomena we experience isn’t made up of atoms; it’s a product of our will. Of our minds.

In our materialist age, scientists have never been more excited about the human mind than they are today. Listen to one of Charlie Rose’s Friday night conversations on the subject: prepare to be full of wonder. And yet, I haven’t heard anything as meaningful from them about music as what Schopenhauer said nearly two centuries ago. Nor do I think I will. Science is busy looking at the human brain, not the mind. The brain is the ultimate reality. Mind is, loosely speaking, only its reflection.

Descriptions of patterns of activity in the human brain will never explain music to me. At least not as well as this recondite nineteenth century philosopher does.