Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Walker, there is no road

We end the year with this bit of absurdity. Read it carefully and remember… there is no road:

Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.

By Antonio Machado, “Proverbs and Songs #29"
Translated by Willis Barnstone

Enjoy the holidays!

A cold hard (absurd) winter

We just finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Before and After the Lightning about a winter spent on the Rosebud Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Ortiz teaches at the Reservation from November through mid-April – a season the Lakota call the time before the last lightning and after the first, bookends to the long winter.

It makes for good reading in a warm comfortable room by the fire on cold winter nights with snow on the ground outside. We also found some good absurd ideas in this book of prose and poems.

Nature figures as a major character in the book. There is the ever present cold of winter, of bare poplar trees, blue icy sky… and the wind, always the wind:

“The snowy wind is fierce, insistent, unrelenting, picking up dry snow off the hills, turning the hills into churning clouds and the sky, blending everything into on cold surging, exhaling, and forceful breath.”

And the vastness of the prairie…

“The prairie and more prairie of snow stretch for miles beyond miles, so vast it’s no use to estimate it. You just have to let it be, just like how you are at this present time in your life. You have it let I have its own tine and presence.”

Ortiz urges acceptance throughout… acceptance of time, space, pain, memory… a commitment to awareness of the natural world and our place in it… “The snowbanks have no idea of our coming nor of our leaving. It doesn’t matter.”

He writes about the passing of moons, suns, seasons… “Although it may snow again, it will not become ever the final one. It only changes as we change. It only becomes one more winter within the cycle of all time.”

The smallness of man becomes clear against the timeless forces of nature, against its power and indifference… reminders, of a kind, of the absurdity of our existence. Our own egos don’t help us see this absurd reality, as we seek cover under all kinds of guises… Ortiz recognizes this, too: “Our urgent selves have too much concern for burning ego that keeps us in mind within this world. It opens up from within the blindness.”

We enjoyed, too, how Ortiz stays planted in the world of experience. In the fashion of the absurd man, experience is all. There is a wonderful and simple little poem about horses in the woods by a creek, eating alfalfa. Ortiz remembers being there. He writes near the end, “But for that, nothing is there.” He reminds us throughout the book the role direct experience and memory has on the world as we see it.

There is quite a lot to chew on in this meaty little book. But the absurd thread is hard to miss – the commitment to staying in the present, rooted in the world of experience, the appreciation for the powerful cycles of nature and the smallness of man, the realization that ego is blinding and acceptance of the world as it is (or appears to be) not as we wish to make it.

Good stuff…

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A sense of otherness

Interesting piece in the Economist on foreigners and the “thrill of being an outsider.” The premise begins this way:

“The desire of so many people, given the chance, to live in countries other than their own makes nonsense of a long-established consensus in politics and philosophy that the human animal is best off at home… The error of philosophy has been to assume that man, because he is a social animal, should belong to some particular society.”

We have talked before about how the absurd makes a mockery of so many of the identities to which people cling so dearly. Cultural attachments of any kind are things the absurd man holds to lightly, if at all.

It may be that this feeling – that cultural, religious and political attachments can be self-imposed chains –is more common than we suppose. The desire of so many to live in foreign lands is some evidence of this desire to slip these chains and escape.

As the Economist relates:

“Foreignness was a means of escape—physical, psychological and moral. In another country you could flee easy categorization by your education, your work, your class, your family, your accent, your politics. You could reinvent yourself, if only in your own mind. You were not caught up in the mundanities of the place you inhabited, any more than you wanted to be. You did not vote for the government, its problems were not your problems. You were irresponsible. Irresponsibility might seem to moralists an unsatisfactory condition for an adult, but in practice it can be a huge relief.”

The absurd man, though, would not need a new place. Absurdity is an attitude, a state of mind. It is all in how you look at things. You can continue to live right where you live and pursue your usual routines … but with the added perspective of the absurd – that none of it matters and to find contentment in that fact, as Sisyphus does in Camus’ reckoning of the ancient myth.

The absurd man believes that nothing matters – based on his experience and his questioning mind. He comes to see his existence as meaningless and the universe as indifferent.

But the absurd twist – and what makes the absurd man different than his many fellow travelers – is his embracing of this idea and his desire to live all the more passionately because of it. (Indeed, the absurd man seeks to maintain his “lucidity” as Camus put it; he wants to maintain the absurd and not hide from it by creating screens between him and his reality as he sees it).

This is something one can do anywhere and anytime.

The Economist writes that “foreignness is intrinsically stimulating. Like a good game of bridge, the condition of being foreign engages the mind constantly without ever tiring it.”

We’d argue that the absurd is very much like that. It definitely confers upon the absurd man a sense of otherness. He is apart. The absurd man is like the snow leopard; rarely encountered and incredibly stealthy amidst his surroundings. (Your neighbor may well be absurd, but it would be hard to tell.)

The absurd perspective is also always engaging and stimulating as it helps you look at everything in a completely different way than those around you. Every day becomes a new and interesting part of a journey that has no purpose, that seeks none and that has no measure of success or failure. It is a journey of liberation and contentedness in a world where people find such things are very rare…

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Don't sweat those holiday plans

We – Inigo and Rick – were enjoying hearty stouts and wood-grilled bratwursts the other day at a comfortable alehouse nearby we dub Absurd HQ. (We call it that simply because we meet there so often and talk about the absurd. Now, just walking in the door makes us feel very absurd.)

Part of the conversation this time centered on anti-absurd behavior around the holiday season, mostly from our wives.

It is ironic that Christmas is a holiday that evokes cheerful goodwill and merriment, because it sure seems to cause a lot of stress among so many. Gifts have to be bought. Decorations have to be laid out. Intricate plans emerge. There are parties to go and cards to mail and preparations of all sorts.

Well… this weekend we got a history-making snowstorm on the Atlantic seaboard. We peer out of our window and see the glowing Christmas lights on our neighbors’ houses. White snow blankets all. Even the street has yet to see a plow. It is extremely beautiful. We gaze out of our window in wonder at nature’s fine handiwork.

But our wife was not so pleased when word broke that this storm was on its way. “Our plans are ruined!” she declared. The party we were to host we cancelled. The Nutcracker play we were supposed to go to on Saturday was also canceled. The city shut down.

“So what?” we said. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll play in the snow. The kids will be delighted.” She came around to our way of thinking. Really, there was nothing to do but accept it. It’s not as if we could change the weather. And it quickly becomes obvious it’s not worth stewing over.

So, we played for hours with the kids in the snow. We had a great dinner with goodies we had bought for the party. It all worked out just fine.

We think this illustrates some points of the absurd in microcosm. In life, too, things happen that “ruin” our plans. Things happen that we must accept because we cannot change them. And none of it is not worth getting upset over. You just have to keep pushing that rock and learn to accept.

The absurd man accepts. That is an important part of his worldview. As Camus put it, “what [the absurd man] demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows, to accommodate himself to what it is.”

That seems like such simple wisdom to us. And yet so many people seem so willing to carry so many self-imposed burdens. The absurd has helped us in this regard. For the absurd man doesn’t worry because he knows nothing matters in the end. He will die at some point in time unknown to him; but he will certainly die. He does not take the leap of faith that there is some world that awaits him beyond death’s door. The absurd man embraces the seeming pointless and random character of existence and aims to live his life with passion in the here and now.

The absurd doesn’t have all of the answers, but it does seem to make the questions superfluous. It certainly puts those plans in perspective...

Enjoy the snow!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dude’s Next Act

“I used to be somebody…now I’m somebody else.”
- Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in the “Crazy Heart”

We’ve written about our affection for the Dude. Jeff Bridges, as it turns out, is pretty dude-like himself.

His latest movie is called “Crazy Heart.” It’s about a down and out country singer. The movie got a glowing review today in the Wall Street Journal and we’re putting it on our “must see” list.

Albert Camus used the example of the actor to illustrate features of the absurd life. “The actor’s realm is that of the fleeting,” Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. He plays many roles, slipping easily into different lives. He deals in the illusion of self and identity. A skilled actor is, in a way, a skilled illusionist.

Critic Pauline Kael once said Bridges "may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived." Perhaps his absurdist views help him in this regard. And playing the roles he’s played probably also helps him see the absurd.

Bridges talked about his role in a recent interview here. In the interview, Bridges talks about the line we quote up top.

He says: “I love that line in the first song: "I used to be somebody, now I'm somebody else." I think when Bad wrote that song he was probably thinking, I used to be famous and now I'm on the bottom of the heap. But you can flip that around: I used to be an alcoholic and now I'm looking up. You don't have to be who you think you are.”

We think that’s right. You don’t have to be who you think you are. In fact, who you think you are is a powerful illusion. You are only a bundle of nerves and tissues and bones. A strange loop. If so, then (with some effort and time, we realize) you can, to a large extent, change yourself. You can “play” different roles.

We – Rick and Inigo – often play this kind of game with each other. We’ll say how we are “playing the role of someone going to a meeting.” We find it a helpful way to remember the absurd. (And it also makes for interesting meetings. Amazing what one sees when one consciously plays a role with the absurd in mind.)

Or the absurd can help you just accept the way the things are. That’s a key part of the absurd, too. Simple acceptance.

We liked this exchange in the interview, which again channels some absurdity.

WSJ: In what ways do you channel The Dude in your life?

Bridges: I think on a good day I'm feeling pretty comfortable in my skin, digging myself just the way I am. That's probably Dude-ish. I do my best to not work.

WSJ: Has that laid-back approach come with age?

Bridges: Unlike a lot of actors, my father [veteran TV actor Lloyd Bridges] really loved all aspects of showbiz and encouraged his kids to go into it. Like most kids, I didn't want to do what my parents wanted me to. I had 10 movies under my belt before I decided this is what I want to do. I always had a capricious way of taking my roles—this attitude of, "I don't know if I really want to do this." That's still my attitude. I do it for my own enjoyment.

There is some hard won wisdom, we think. The absurd man also aims for that acceptance. The absurd man also needs no purpose nor does he layer his work with meaning. To do what one wants to do for the sake of enjoyment is reason enough.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Longevity secrets of the very old

Oscar Niemeyer is Brazil’s most famous architect. He designed Rio’s Sambadrome – a famous parade ground where samba schools compete during Carnival. He designed the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum, also in Rio. It’s a bold saucer-shaped structure surrounded by a giant reflecting pool at its base. Niemeyer has designed some of Brazil’s most famous buildings.

Niemeyer just turned 102 years old. But he’s not reflecting much on that birthday, it seems, choosing instead to continue his life’s love working on various projects. "Turning 102 is crap, and there is nothing to commemorate," he told AFP.

What follows are some thoughts on those who have lived a very long life. We find absurdity peppers their thoughts. We begin with Niemeyer. We don’t know if Niemeyer is an absurd man or not, but he voices some absurdist opinions. First, there is his view on his birthday. Niemeyer seems well-potted in the present moment. No thoughts of legacy here. He seems to enjoy life in the present. As the AFP notes:

“Even in old age, Niemeyer continues to flaunt his love of life. He still enjoys his cigars -- "an old habit that I cultivate with much gusto." Four years ago, at age 98 and a widower, he married his 60-year-old secretary.”

As a friend of ours put it: “I hope when I'm that age, I'll still be smooth enough to pull 60-year-old babes...”

And lastly, Niemeyer shares what we think may be is his secret to a long life: "I don't fear death," he told the Rio newspaper O Dia this week. The absurd man also does not fear death, knowing it is as natural as the sun rising and setting, or the rhythm of the seasons.

The very old always fascinate. In our day job, we make our living in financial markets. There are quite a few old practitioners who plied their trades well into their 90s. Phil Carret, a legendary investing figure who lived to 101, was asked his secret to a long life. “Never worry,” was his reply.

Another famous investor, John Templeton, died last year at the age of 95. Phil Fischer died at 96. Then there is Irving Kahn, the oldest active investor on Wall Street today. He’s 103 years old. Roy Neuberger is another, though retired, he’s 106.

This has led to much speculation as to why these investors have lived so long. One common speculation is that all of these men were long-term investors. They were patient. They were independent. They were cool customers who didn’t panic. They all showed a great deal of equanimity during their lives.

As one Business Times correspondent put it: “[These] investors are said to sleep better at night. And conceivably, they are not so highly strung. Their stress level would be lower than those who chase after the market and whose mood swings along with it.”

Well, we can’t say for sure whether any of these men were really absurd. But we can say the absurd makes us feel equanimity with the world as it is. We can say the absurd reduces stress. After all, if nothing matters, there is nothing to worry about. Absurdity makes us mellow out.

And perhaps the absurd, too, will also bring better odds of a long contented life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In Search Of Serenity

We recently discussed an experience in which we were in an extremely peaceful and calm setting in one moment (outside at a community pool in the early evening, watching three or four people swim laps), then in a chaotic environment the next (driving our bickering children home). As we noted, even though we knew during the car ride that we should not feel differently than we did at the pool, the fact was that we did. And this has practical implications for the difficulties of implementing the absurd in everyday life.

Indeed, while we sometimes speak in absolutes on this blog (e.g., that all experiences are equivalent), we also recognize that such an outlook seems in conflict with the reality of human existence. For example, while we know that it does not "matter" whether we spend our time having sex or sitting on a rock, we (and we assume most others) would prefer the sex. The fact that this is based entirely on biological forces is more or less irrelevant--to deny the desire is, it could be argued, to deny our underlying human nature.

Further (and more to the point), no matter how strongly we believe in the absurd, we have thus far been unable to completely distance ourselves from our non-absurd self, which appears to lurk just behind us (with seemingly inexhaustible patience), ready and waiting for us to let down our guard. We long ago lost track of the number of times we "caught" ourselves being non-absurd and promised to "do better" in the future. Now we simply laugh such "transgressions" off--while we would like to think we will someday banish such slips, we are no longer so sure...

Indeed, we were struck to come across the following passage in Pico Iyer's recent book The Open Road:

"He (the Dalai Lama) told me that sometimes he felt that he could never do enough, and that nothing he did could ever really affect things....He told me that it was 'up to us poor humans to make the effort,' one step at a time, and again, as if invoking the final words of the Buddha, he spoke of 'constant effort, tireless effort, purusing clear goals with sincere effort.'

Then as we were walking out of the room, he went back and turned off the light. It's such a small thing, he said, it hardly makes a difference at all. And yet nothing is lost in the doing of it, and maybe a little good can come of it, if more and more people remember this small gesture in more and more rooms.

Six thousand days or so after that morning...I thought about that simple gesture of turning off the light. Every one of those six thousand days, it seemed to me, I had had some revelation, encountered some wisdom, scribbled down sentences I'd read or come up with myself about the meaning of the universe, the way to lead a better life, the essence of the soul, the unreality of the soul. I had had more lightning flashes and moments of illumination than I could count in the next six thousand years. And yet now, on this bright autumn morning, I could remember not a one of them, except the simple, practical task of turning off the light. Not enlightenment, not universal charity, not the Golden Rule or the wisdom of the ages: just something I could do several times a day." (Emphasis added.)

We have quoted Iyer several times in this blog, and hold him in very high regard in our unofficial "Pantheon of the Absurd." So to hear that he--after more than 20 years of absurdity--continues to struggle with the same issues as do we...well, it was something of a shock. However, as with the absurd itself, after a time we came to see this as rather a good thing. Put simply, while Iyer's experience may indicate we will always be subject to periodic bouts of anti-absurdity, it also suggests we should suffer such lapses with equanimity, rather than seeking to banish them. Better, in short, to accept some modicum of human nature than to strive (as it were) for some ever-higher plateau of absurdity (oh, the irony!).

Indeed, the whole thing puts us in mind of something a fellow golfer once said to us, along the lines of "Why should you expect to hit shots like pro golfers when you only play once a week?" In other words, while it may well be possible for those who devote their lives to meditation to feel calm and peaceful no matter the situation, it is almost surely unrealistic to believe such an existence is possible for those who choose to devote less time and effort to such a goal.

But maybe that's not such a bad thing after all...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Madoff unhappy? Maybe not...

You remember Bernie Madoff, con man extraordinaire? The 71-year-old Madoff made off with billions by snookering investors in what was the greatest Ponzi scheme not run by a government.

Well, Madoff is now serving time in Butner Federal Correctional Complex in little old Butner, North Carolina. No more Manhattan penthouse. No more country clubs. No more living the big rich life among the moneyed elites.

He must be miserable right? As Harlene Horowitz, one of those who lost a bundle in Madoff’s scam, put it: “For someone who lived so high, he can’t be happy in his surroundings.”

We disagree. He can be happy. He might not be, but it is possible…

In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a piece on Madoff’s prison life. He told his lawyers that the food was good and he liked the people he had met in prison. He takes daily walks. He chats with fellow inmates such as crime boss Carmine Persico and spy Jonathan Pollard. Madoff even seems to have admirers in prison. As one inmate said, “To every con artist, he is the godfather, the don.”

Nancy Fineman interviewed Madoff in prison. She had this to say: “To me, it was all like he was on stage. He was well-spoken and you could tell he thought about what he was going to say. He’s just used to being in command and telling his story.”

It is an interesting choice of words. We often refer on this blog to the idea of how we are all playing roles. We are like actors on a stage. And, in fact, Camus used the actor as an example of an absurd man in his book the Myth of Sisyphus.

Madoff may or may not be happy in his current surroundings. We can’t say whether he is or isn’t. But the question does bring up an interesting absurd angle. We think Horowitz makes a poor assumption in saying Madoff “can’t be happy.” On the contrary, we think, if he was an absurd man, he could very well be happy in prison.

This is an important point in Camus’ view of the absurd. It’s why Sisyphus, despite his ceaseless meaningless struggle, can be happy. It’s why in Camus’ novel The Stranger, a condemned man finds happiness. “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world,” says the narrator of The Stranger. “I was happy again.”

An absurd man can be happy or content anywhere. That is part of the power of the absurd point of view. (It is easier said than done, we know, as we’ve written, too, about the challenges of being absurd in a world filled with anti-absurd people.)

This point of view may well disturb those who would like to see Madoff suffer. But really, his happiness is in his control. Like Sisyphus, we all have our rocks we push. It's up to us how we think about our rock.

If Madoff embraced absurdity, he could find that he, too, can be happy again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Roman Polanski--Absurd Man!

We read a fascinating account of the Roman Polanski legal issue last night in the New Yorker. In short, the case is far more complex--and much more interesting!--than one would assume from media reports. But while the entire article is worth reading, the most pertinent pieces to us were the following quotes--the first from Jeff Berg, Polanski's longtime agent, and the second from Peter Gethers, who edited Polanski's autobiography and wrote two screenplays with him.

(For context--Polanski's pregnant mother was gassed at Auschwitz when he was three years old, while he and his father survived. His first wife, Sharon Tate, was famously murdered along with three friends by the Manson "family." Basically he has had more than his share of hardship.)

Berg--"He has a world view which has been informed by terrible events, unspeakable events, that have never soured him as a person. There is no bitterness, no anger, though there is memory."

Gethers--"Roman is not defeated by anything. He doesn't regret the things that happen to him, because he understands that things just happen. He is neither in denial not apologetic about his life. He wouldn't use the word, but it's a very existential approach to life." (Emphasis added.)

The article goes on to say that "Polanski's early life seems to have instilled in him a voraciousness for experience--intellectual, physical, sexual," and to describe his exploits in Gstaad (Switzerland), which he discovered to be (in his words) "the finishing school capital of the world, [with] hundreds of fresh-faced, nubile young girls of all nationalities."

We found this story particularly interesting in light of the discussion we have recently been having regarding Tiger Woods, who has in many ways led a very similar life to Polanski (e.g., seeking extreme experiences, including the company of multiple young women), but seems to be the antithesis of absurd. So what makes them different?

The answer, it seems to us, is that Polanski is living for today, not tomorrow...and certainly not yesterday. "Things just happen." What a wonderful way to describe the absurd. Things happen, and then we move on to something new. Polanski, in contrast to Woods, seems remarkably unconcerned with his reputation, or leaving a legacy, or being "the best" at something. He appears content to live his life to the fullest, seeking experiences not for some ultimate purpose or personal validation, but simply for the experiences themselves.

So, in the spirit of the holidays, we raise a glass to you, Roman Polanski--absurd man!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Go ahead, soil your legacy!

Last night we watched the 40-year-old quarterback Brett Favre on Sunday Night Football. Though his Vikings lost to the Phoenix Cardinals, Favre is still having a great season, the best in his long career.

Favre became the butt of numerous jokes in recent years for his on and off retirements. To recap: He played for many years with the Green Bay Packers. He retired, but then came back to sign with the Jets. He played a season with them, then retired again. But then came out of retirement again to play for the Vikings.

Whenever a great athlete is in the last stages of his career, there are a bunch of people who call for his retirement. It’s always some variation of the basic argument that they do not want to see the player soil his legacy by ending his career as a mere shadow of his former self. This was certainly the case with Favre.

With Favre, there was the added drama of playing for different teams. There was also a chorus of people who found Favre in a uniform other than the green and gold of the Green Bay Packers as some kind of tragedy.

These attitudes are all illustrative of un-absurdity. If Favre enjoys playing and can get in someone’s lineup, then he should play – and not care a whit about such nonsense as his “legacy”.

The absurd man believes that life ends in death… and that it is final. There is no doorway to another world beyond it. Therefore, the idea of a legacy strikes the absurd man as… well… ridiculous. Certainly, it’s not worth fretting over.

And yet, this attitude that one’s reputation after death is important pervades society. Terry Teachout wrote a column about this in the Wall Street Journal titled “When Artists Dry Up.”

He wrote about a number of artists who achieved some kind of excellence and then quit or didn’t produce anything after reaching those heights. He mentions Jean Sibelius, for instance, a great Finnish composer. Teachout writes:

“I doff my hat to Sibelius, who knew that it’s better to quit while you’re ahead than to sully your posthumous reputation by continuing to ‘create’ after you no longer have anything new to say.”

Gee, what a sad and pathetic outlook on life… We say to hell with one’s posthumous reputation. If Sibelius wanted to compose but didn’t out of fear that his performance might sully his posthumous reputation, then we say Sibelius was a misguided and anti-absurd fellow. The absurd man’s advice would’ve been to compose to his heart’s content and damn what other people think.

We are of a mind much more like the great Samuel Johnson, the 18th century critic, wit and sometime absurd man, as we’ve noted.

Johnson said: “I am not obliged to do anymore. No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life for himself.”

Pressed by the pesky Boswell as to why he didn’t enjoy writing more rather than less, Dr. Johnson said: “Sir, you MAY wonder.” (Teachout quotes this exchange at the top of his column, but misses the point entirely.)

We doff our hat to those who live their life as they wish (as long as they do not infringe upon our equal right to do likewise) and give no worry to their posthumous reputation!

So go ahead, soil your legacy!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

“Put on a brave front and brazen it through”

“It turns out her whole life was just a lie,” a friend was telling use the other day. “She said she was a former Miss USA… and she wasn’t. She said she was a former Redskin cheerleader… and she wasn’t.”

The “she” he was referring to was Michaele Salahi, who probably needs no introduction by now. “Yet,” our friend continued, “She managed to get into a cheerleader reunion party. Fooled everyone. Afterwards, people were wondering how she knew all the cheers.”

The madcap and twisted story of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the “gate-crashers” at Obama’s state dinner, has an absurd angle. It shows us how shallow and tenuous identity really is. It shows how easy some find it to slip into – and out of – any number of roles.

The Salahis seemed to have fooled lots of people because they simply looked the part. They played their desired roles to perfection. I think Robin Givhan, of the Washington Post nailed it here – as it relates to the gate-crashing episode – in her column “Why they got in”:

“Few of the stories that have been written and produced about Michaele and Tareq Salahi have failed to mention Michaele's platinum blond locks and her reed-thin figure. She is, indeed, a striking woman who maintains a shade of blond that typically isn't seen on anyone over the age of 2. She also has the kind of lean body that, while not voluptuous or curvy in a va-va-voom way, is reminiscent of a model's. She has chiseled cheekbones and an enormous smile. And while one could debate whether she is attractive -- to each their own, after all -- she conforms to the cultural standards of what a wealthy, privileged, important person is assumed to look like…” (Italics added.)

The Salahis follow a long line of such role players. Michaele is like another Frank Abagnale, whose life inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale conned lots of people into believing he was, at different times, an airline pilot, a doctor, attorney and parish prosecutor.

The truth is, though, we’re all playing roles.… We (Rick and Inigo) often joke about how we are going to play the role of “devoted employee” or “concerned parent.” If self is an illusion, then we really are whatever role we can pull off, like actors trying out and living different characters.

This line of thought also reminds us of the fictional exploits of Harry Flashman. The Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser is a first-person account of a 19th century (unwilling) adventurer, Harry Flashman, who gets himself unwittingly in all kinds of unlikely situations and often finds himself in the middle of historical battles – such as the battle of Little Bighorn or the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Sepoy Mutiny.

In the series, Flashman plays many parts … Danish prince, Texas slave-dealer, Arab sheikh, Cheyenne Dog Soldier, Yankee Navy Lieutenant, Afghan horse trader, Sepoy soldier, and many others… All of which leads Flashman to a very absurd conclusion:

“The truth is we all live under false pretences much of the time; you just have to put on a bold face and brazen it through.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

“Love of Life”

We are one the road again. As we write these words, we are on a train rattling its way down the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. We packed along some reading material, including Albert Camus’ Lyrical Essays, which we have been making our way through of late.

Camus was quite a traveler in his day and these essays include a number of travel pieces…. In Prague… or traveling through Italy… or in some town along the Mediterranean littoral like Oran or Tipasa… or in the mountains at Djemila (pictured above)... Camus writes beautifully of these places, the words like little crème-filled chocolates you pick off the page. (Hence, the apt title “lyrical essays.”)

In reading one essay titled “Love of Life” we came across this bit of delicious absurdity:

“Without cafes and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evening enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger.

For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat – hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone.)

I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: ‘What would I do without the office?’ or again: ‘My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.’ Travel robs us of such refuge.”

There is a lot of good stuff in just this little excerpt. We loved the phrase “imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home” – which gets to the whole idea of identity and how weak it really is… how distance can make that person we thought we were seem strange, even unreal.

Then there is the idea of our “inner structure” which we often hide behind. We toil away at little daily labors that we think are so important. But when we can no longer hide in the monotony of the daily living, it seems more plain that we are – each of us – alone.

Camus found that when we travel we are “stripped of our props” and “deprived of our masks.” Put out of our routine, we are made more aware of the present, more observant of little details. We engage our five senses more readily. We have often written how travel makes us feel more absurd for the reasons that Camus points out.

Now, we know that travel itself is not a requirement of absurdity. You can be absurd anywhere – in a cubicle in Manhattan or in a jail cell in LA. You can be absurd without ever leaving your own self-made bubble of existence – no matter its physical dimensions. There are many ways to see the absurd and to feel it, as we write about here on this blog. We only highlight the travel experience as one of those ways.

The many ways and byways of the absurd experience fascinate us to no end, and we aim to share and explore as many of them as we can find.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why Tiger Woods Is Not Happy

We, like everyone else, have been inundated with news about Tiger Woods' "transgressions" in recent days. But one area curiously unexplored is the question of why Woods, with a life envied by the vast majority of people, is apparently unhappy. And not just now that his affairs have been found out--no, one must assume that the reason he embarked on the affairs in the first place (and kept them hidden from his wife) was also unhappiness of some sort.

Let us be clear. We are in no way passing judgment on Tiger or his activities. Quite frankly, we couldn't care less about his (or anyone else's) sexual practices, and don't view this as making him less "likable," or somehow a lesser person than he was before. To us such discussions are wholly irrelevant, like ripples on the ocean.

What we do think is interesting (as we have discussed in the past) is that few people seem to realize the paradoxical message in all of this. Namely, while some huge proportion of individuals think it would be wonderful to be Tiger Woods, Tiger himself is not happy.

Of course, most people don't think of it like that. They think something along the lines of: "I would appreciate everything he has--I wouldn't throw it all away for some cocktail waitress." (Or perhaps: "I just wouldn't have gotten married!") And it is easy to say such things when one is not, in fact, Tiger Woods. But given that Tiger himself seems not to be happy, perhaps we should ask why that is, and what it says about the human condition.

Our thesis is this: Tiger is not happy because he (like most people) has invested his potential happiness in things, events, and relationships. The fact that his goals may differ from yours (winning the Masters versus getting promoted) is irrelevant. The point is that when you "outsource" your happiness to externalities you cede control over it, destined to be continually disappointed when things do not turn out as planned.

The uplifting corollary to this, however, is that any of us can be happy at any time, regardless of wealth, status, power, relationships, etc. Tiger Woods could be happy, too, but not so long as he continues to chase the brass ring of achievement. Whatever happiness he does find will be (by definition) temporary and fleeting, as he accomplishes one extreme goal and moves on to the next, always finding himself curiously unfulfilled by what seemed, at the time, to be the answer he was seeking.

Indeed, we are reminded of the experience of David Duval, who quit golf shortly after winning the 2001 British Open, and a few years later had this to say about why winning proved a tremendous letdown":

"I think I figured it would mean personal validation as opposed to professional validation. You know, look at me: I'm OK. I'm a good guy, not just a good golfer. So in that respect, it was not the end-all, be-all that I made it out to be in my head."

We are all, of course, seeking this "personal validation," but the secret is that the answer is not to win golf tournaments, or be a titan of industry, or even to be a good husband and father. Only when we cease looking elsewhere to satisfy our eternal yearning for meaning, when we discover that the key to our happiness lies, shiny and unused, in our own hand, only then will we discover the blissful and liberating experience of embracing the abyss.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The mixed blessing of technology

We came across an interesting column the other day titled "If Odysseus Had GPS." Basically, the author (Daniel Akst) argued that while the astounding advances in communications technology have rendered the literary "tradition of the lost loved one" obsolete (think Robinson Crusoe), this has been an unalloyed good for humanity as a whole. He concludes thus:

"Think back to the aftermath of World War II, when millions of displaced persons in Europe struggled to find lost loved ones. Some searched for decades. Under similar circumstances today, the displaced would probably consult a searchable database on the World Wide Web, or perhaps set up a Google alert to notify them when a relative's name cropped up. Literature's loss, it seems, is humanity's gain. Not a bad trade, I think."

Reading the piece reminded us of a comment (from someone named Michael Gardiner) we once saw posted to a Pico Iyer column on the NY Times "Happy Days" blog:

"I ran away to sea with my wife at 30 in a sail boat, had kids in the Pacific Islands, and worked, in the Middle East mostly. Twenty-five years later we returned home and social pressures had receded - parents had died, siblings were distant and old friends had gone their way. We built a house, set up our kids, and enjoyed our own culture again for a few years - the food, wine, concerts, movies, books, new friends - but now stuff is starting to accumulate. It’s time to have a garage sale, rent out the house and go to sea - we kept the sail boat."

Now, the absurd viewpoint is that all experience is equivalent--none better or worse than another--so one could legitimately question the relevance of this discussion. (Which life is "better"? Neither! It is one's perspective that matters.) But a couple of things. First, not only are the two viewpoints diametrically opposed, there is a fundamental difference in what they are saying.

To wit: Akst argues specific friends and family are not only important, but perhaps necessary for one to be happy, while Gardiner argues such relationships are in fact an obstacle to a happy (or content) life. This is similar to the difference between "positive" and "negative" rights, with the former constituting things to which one is entitled (e.g. welfare) and the latter the "right" to be left alone (e.g., not be required to pay for someone else's food). In short, Akst is putting all his figurative eggs in one highly uncertain and unpredictable basket, while Gardiner is in essence saying "Just take away the basket and I'll be fine."

Further, while one could still make the argument (as above) that the two are equivalent, we have consistently tried to stress practical methods for living the absurd life in this blog. For example, consider a recent experience of ours, during which we found ourself outside at a community pool in the early evening, watching three or four people swim lazy laps. It was an incredibly calm and peaceful setting, and we felt very absurd, so much so that we began to postulate a blog post about the wonders of this feeling...and the difficulties of feeling this way in other settings.

Indeed, as if on cue our reverie was shattered during the chaotic 20 minutes spent driving our bickering children home. Thus, even though we knew during the car ride that we should not feel differently than we did at the pool, the fact was that we did. This, of course, is due to a variety of genetic and societal factors, but we cannot simply dismiss it as irrelevant. (There is, after all, a reason monks generally choose to meditate in monasteries rather than in the middle of Times Square.)

Similarly, then, we feel Gardiner's "recipe" for contentment to be far superior to Akst's. As we have argued in the past, when we rely on anything for contentment we are by definition ceding control over our happiness to that specific thing, or person, or "relationship." It is far different to "rely" on the absence of such things/people to smooth one's path to a content life.

That said, such a viewpoint is clearly in the minority nowadays. Isn't that what Facebook is all about?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The remains of a man

Albert Camus spent the last years of his life in Lourmarin, a small village of only 1,150 people. It was here Camus wrote the draft of The First Man. He wouldn’t live to see its publication, as he died in a car crash in January 1960. His remains are buried in Lourmarin.

And so, this small village of Lourmarin has come to depend on tourists, many who come to visit Camus’ tomb and the place he called home for the last years of his life.

Well, now it seems President Sarkozy of France wants to have the remains moved from the small simple grave of the village to the grand Pantheon in Paris, home to the remains of many of France’s other great intellectuals. This has created a min-furor in France and all kinds of angst and debate.

One of us visited this cemetery in Paris two years ago. Oddly, as we think about it, we have often found ourselves visiting famous cemeteries in our travels in recent years in places such as Charleston, SC and San Juan, Puerto Rico… Even while traveling in France in Normandy, we stopped by a very old cemetery in a medieval town.

Cemeteries make us feel very absurd. One can’t help but read the inscriptions of people who have been dead long ago and wonder… What worried them when they were living? What made them sad or angry? Did they feel too fat or too short? Did they wish they were smarter or stronger? We wonder about all the little daily things that happen in a life, all the little episodes that seem so important at the time, and yet…. Here these people lie.

All those concerns, all those worries, ambitions – fulfilled or otherwise – seem plainly meaningless now. We wonder how many people would live their life differently if they really embraced this reality. If the dead could come back and speak, what wisdom would they impart on the living?

We can only guess. Our guess is they would laugh at our worries. Our guess is they would tell us to live life and enjoy it while it lasts. Our guess is they would tell us to stop bickering over where a dead man’s remains lie.

Camus himself, we gather, would enjoy a laugh over the absurdity of it all. Then he might wander over to the Café de l’Ormeau’s wooden bar, have a cigarette, a glass of the local wine and bask in the warm sun.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Role of a Lifetime

We watched The Family Man again the other day. As we have noted, it is among our favorite films due to its wonderful (albeit almost certainly unintentional) template for living the absurd life. We return to it again here for two reasons. First, this issue is central to the concept we continue to explore in this blog--namely, how to live a content life in a decidedly non-absurd world, surrounded by non-absurd people. And second, as with most films, we pick up new things each time we watch it.

To recap the movie (from our prior post):

"Nicolas Cage plays a high-flying Wall Street exec (Jack Campbell), living what can only be described as the ultimate bachelor life--high-powered job in NYC, expensive car, beautiful women at his beck and call, etc. However, after a chance encounter with Don Cheadle (who plays something of a guardian angel), Campbell wakes up the next morning to find himself married (to his old girlfriend Tea Leoni) with two children, living in the NJ suburbs and working as a tire salesman. Basically, it is an alternate universe where Campbell made different decisions and thus his life turned out differently."

What we found interesting this time (and did not consider in our prior post) is that from Campbell's perspective, the people surrounding him in his "alternate life" do not really exist. Thus, he spends zero time worrying about what they are thinking, trying not to offend them, etc--to him, they are purely superficial characters in a very realistic play, perhaps akin to a lucid dream. In short, he is playing the role of someone who physically resembles "himself" in every way, but has a different background and thus different desires and emotions.

The point, of course, is that once one accepts the absurd, it is possible to play whatever role one chooses. Any of us is free, at any moment, to shed the personal experiences and history in which we invest so much meaning, and live each moment anew. Rich or poor, old or young, it makes no difference. It does not matter if one has children or not, lives alone or with family, is healthy or sick--none of it matters.

As Krishnamurti so eloquently put it:

“You cannot live without dying. You cannot live if you don't die psychologically every minute. This is not an intellectual paradox. To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be a dying to everything of yesterday, otherwise you live mechanically, and a mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is. ...To die is to have a mind that is completely empty of itself, empty of all its daily longings, pleasures and agonies. Death is a renewal, a mutation, in which thought does not function at all because thought is old. When there is death there is something totally new. Freedom from the known is death, and then you are living.”

Who is the "real" Jack Campbell? What about the "real" Nicolas Cage? (Or the "real" you?) Such questions are not only unanswerable, but the more one attempts to answer them, the closer one comes to realizing their fundamental meaninglessness. Whether one chooses to accept it or not, the "person" we each believe ourselves to be is nothing more than a role we are free to change at any moment. By mindlessly playing this role day after day, we subject ourselves to the tyranny of the past, unwittingly (and unnecessarily) enslaving ourselves in the shackles of identity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What we are thankful for

This is Thanksgiving week. Apropos of that, there was an op-ed about the Puritans in the Wall Street Journal last week by Amy Henry, titled “Idle Hands: Some Puritan Advice for the Unemployed.”

In thinking about anti-absurdity, it would be hard to find a more anti-absurd group than the Puritans. Henry sets out to defend the Puritans against the usual charges of overly-serious, fun-hating, work-loving, unhappy prudes. (And she misquotes C.S. Lewis. The following line is the work of H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism… the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”)

But in the end Henry only damns them further in our view.

Henry writes:

“More than just an annual turkey fest, the Puritans gave America a pedagogy of work and an attitude toward life that upsets the modern notion that a person's occupation equals his value. A man's worth, the Puritans might advise… lay in his service to God and to his fellow man, not in titles or financial portfolios. Rather than seeing life as a series of random events, the Puritan's belief in Providence imputed a profound sense of a loving God's purpose for him, a purpose that left very little room for despair.”

Well, we agree that no man should invest his sense of worth in a title or a financial portfolio. But we also see no difference between that and investing a sense of worth in a God or other people or anything else for that matter.

We think that man has no intrinsic worth or purpose; and that we might think more clearly and enjoy life more if we stopped thinking of humanity as some great exception in the scheme of things. Does a mountain have a purpose? Does a monkey? Does the pencil on my desk have “intrinsic worth”? Does anybody endure sleepless nights over it? Not the monkey.

And to write approvingly, in this day and age, that the “Puritan's belief in Providence imputed a profound sense of a loving God's purpose for him, a purpose that left very little room for despair” is to forfeit your intellect for flimflam. It is to toss your brain aside and fill your skull with sweet sounding syrupy goo.

Man does not need a sense of purpose to be happy, we argue on this blog. In fact, we go farther and say that a sense of purpose can easily lead one to unhappiness. Purpose implies an obligation that must be met, a goal. It also implies failure, it implies sacrifice, a burden… these are not happy thoughts to us.

As for idle hands… Well, idleness is a topic that we are fond of. (See our posts “In defense of idlers” and “Doing nothing”). Safe to say, we enjoy our idle moments.

On Thanksgiving Day, we will enjoy our roasted turkey ; we will savor the stuffing, the sweet potato, the cranberry sauce and the wine; and we will be merry in the companionship of our friends and family; we will be happy to be alive, to be there just then. We certainly will not wonder about our purpose or our sense of worth. Nothing matters in the end, so we’ll enjoy the moment… and we’ll be thankful for that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blinding identities

Thoughts after reading Out There Somewhere by Simon Ortiz…

Ortiz is an Acoma Pueblo poet. We kind of like his stuff, though we don’t understand half of it. There is still a certain cadence and rhythm to his writing that is appealing. And he tells some good stories.

He is not an absurd man, though this does not prevent him from stumbling on absurdity now and then. All poets, it seems, take an oath to awareness of a kind… the shimmer of a lake, the veins in a leaf, the wrinkles in an old man’s face, the gleam in a new mother’s eyes… they notice all manner of things, even things of a seemingly trivial nature.

Nonetheless, reading Ortiz made us wonder. He is very much wrapped up in his Native American identity. He identifies very strongly with the culture of the Acoma Pueblo.

As we are Americans of European descent, we can only imagine what it must be like to grow up on an Indian reservation… what it must be like to be part of a people so trampled on in history. Ortiz has obviously endured many slights and insults. He has seen the darker side of life on the Res… the alcohol and the drugs, the poverty, the frustrations.

To some degree, then, we sympathize with Ortiz. He is not always bitter or angry. His message is more one of hope in a resistance, in a creative struggle, to maintain his people’s identity.

But we wonder if attaching oneself so powerfully to an identity also blinds one to the absurdity of it all. We think it must, whether we invest our sense of self into a political party or a religion or an ethnic group.

Can one be dethatched, or enjoy that sense of equanimity that the absurd man covets if one is so invested in these groups?

Neither of us – Rick or Inigo – cultivates particularly strong attachments in this way. We do not “live through our children” as so many parents do, stressing out over every little failure or celebrating every little triumph. We are not loyal to any political party, in fact we no longer vote. We do not visit church, or the temple or the synagogue.

I suppose it is possible one could be loyal to a group and yet remain an absurd man, knowing nothing matters. We had a friend who was a devout Catholic. He went to church every Sunday. He was otherwise so rational and scientific. Once we asked him how he squared his work in science with his faith. He replied “I just like the pageantry of religion.” That phrase has stuck with us. He just liked it for its own sake, but put no special meaning on it.

Perhaps, then, one can remain part of a group like this and yet remain aware of the greater absurdity of existence, its meaninglessness and ultimate end in death.

In any event, we wish Ortiz well on his journey. And we thank him for a couple of hours of pleasurable reading. But for us, we think it is unwise to lean so heavily on identification with a group (of any kind) to find peace and contentment. That peace and contentment is within each of us, as the old sages - and the absurd men - have long known.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The limits of what we can know

“Life is understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

We like the Dane, but we have a sense that perhaps we don’t (and can’t) really understand much of life backwards either.

It reminds us of the idea of the melting ice cube. If you see an ice cube on a table, you can predict what it might look like in a couple of hours. It would be reduced to a puddle of water. But if you came upon a puddle of water first, you could never be sure what created the puddle in the first place.

We would argue we know far less about everything than we think we do. Think about history. Even today, there is no consensus on the causes of WWI… or why the USSR fell when it did… or what caused the 1987 Crash… or the financial crisis of 2007-08…

Yes, there are many theories… but that’s the point. No one really knows why these things happened the moment they did.

Why did the 1987 crash happen on October 19th? Why that day and not any other? Why did the USSR unravel when only a few years before there were palpable fears in the US that we were falling behind the military might of the Soviets? Why did the stock market top in October 2007 and bottom in March 2009? Why those dates?

Again, no one really knows… but we think we do, and we give names to these ideas and theories…

But how good are those names?

Richard Feynman once told a story about a bird. He said there was a bird that in English we call a brown-throated thrush. In German, it’s called a halzenfugel. In Chinese, it’s called a chung ling.

But Feynman said that if you knew all the names, you still knew nothing about the bird. You knew only something about the people; what they called the bird.

In the same way, people’s ideas and theories for why things are as they are often are just that - words. They are names, not knowledge. True knowledge is very elusive.

What this has to do with the absurd is simply this: there are many names people give to things that they say create meaning, or that give life meaning. There are many religions of all kinds across the globe… political theories that aim to give meaning and purpose to life…social causes, traditions… and much more.

But these are just names. They tell us more about the people who believe them than they tell us about life itself. For it seems to us, as we can’t even answer basic questions of final causes in recorded history, even recent history, then we have no hope of penetrating the much greater mystery of the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

This, we think, is a kind of evidence of the absurd. As Camus wrote: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know the meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”

Importantly, this absurd existence, this meaningless state, is what the absurd man accepts. More than accepts, the absurd man embraces his place and discovers, as Camus wrote, life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” This, too, is part of the message of this blog…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The double-edged sword of abstraction

As we have discussed before, we enjoy sports quite a bit. Given that nothing is more meaningful than anything else, we would generally prefer to watch a sporting event than (for example) a political debate. In part this is because most people recognize the absurdity of sports (i.e., while many people may feel strongly about their team, few would put sports on their list of "important" things), but it is also because...well, we just enjoy it.

Now, at first blush this may seem at odds with the absurd, particularly since we have teams for which we "root" based purely on the area in which we spent our formative years. As Jerry Seinfeld so aptly put it, since the players on any given team are constantly changing, fans are essentially cheering for pieces of laundry. But far from being an impediment to enjoyment, we view this as an integral component of the "case" for sports, as it were. To wit, how can you not recognize the absurdity of the situation when you are suddenly rooting against the same person you cheered for yesterday...simply because he is wearing a different shirt?

What got us thinking about this was a sporting event we watched the other day (with Inigo, as it happens), in which "our" team (not Inigo's) not only lost, but lost in excruciating fashion (i.e., they looked sure to win, but lost at the last possible moment). Further, the "consequences" of the game will almost surely be significant, with our team likely to be placed in a less advantageous position should they make the playoffs. It was, in short, a bad loss.

Now, there were a couple of things about this we found interesting. To begin with, we found it difficult to place this event in proper context--despite our strong belief in the absurd, we nevertheless found ourselves reliving the loss in our head, wishing the game had ended differently, and thinking of various "bad" outcomes that could ultimately ensue for the team. This is, to be honest, a bit embarrassing--here we are preaching the virtues of living the absurd life, and we are obsessing over a football game?!?

On the other hand, this very reaction provided us with an invaluable "teachable" moment for ourselves. Put simply, we began to investigate why we found this upsetting, and to see if there were broader lessons to be learned. More specifically, we wanted to get to the "first principle," i.e., the underlying issue that caused us to lose perspective...even when we knew it was ridiculous!

As we see it, our reaction was an example of the double-edged sword of abstraction.

As Douglas Hofstadter explored in his terrific book "I Am a Strange Loop," humans (and all living beings, for that matter) by necessity live in a world of abstraction. In other words, it is far more useful to "see" a steak on one's plate (for example) than a seething mass of particles, despite the fact that both are accurate descriptions of the object in question. Further, there are many different levels of abstraction.

For example, at a basic level a sporting event is simply a group of people running around with a ball; it is only our "knowledge" (of the rules of the game, win-loss records of the teams, etc.) that gives this motion significance. Our "concern" over our team's ultimate prospects for the rest of the season, meanwhile, take the abstraction up another level. Indeed, at the top of the chain is the question: why will we feel good if they win the championship? We have no financial stake in the outcome; we do not know these people; and, as noted, our feelings for the "team" are independent of individuals (i.e., the team itself is yet another abstraction).

Indeed, the only tangible benefit to their winning seems to be our ability to share this joy with other fans...and lord it over those who root for different teams (!) This is circular logic in the extreme - said a different way, we hope our team will win so we can celebrate with others who have the same hope. What kind of madness be this?

Going in the other direction, the individuals who comprise the "team" are also abstractions (if you believe, as we do, that there is no self) - simply random collections of matter complex enough to become self-referential. Further, we were not physically at the game, but rather watched it on television at a bar.

Thus, one could logically argue either that the cause of our angst was a tough loss that really damaged our team's chances of winning the championship...or a collection of flickering lights on a screen. Both are correct; neither is a "better" explanation than the other.

And this is where abstraction becomes a double-edged sword. For while it is certainly true that the individual who "sees" the steak is more likely to survive and pass on his genes, this seems less likely to be true of those who follow sports teams.

Said a different way, while abstraction is crucial to our survival, it is also the source of most (perhaps all) of our worries and regrets.

Looking back, we also realized that by building up the game prior to its occurrence (talking to friends, etc) we had enhanced the abstraction in our own mind. In a very real sense, we believed that the game mattered--that we would be "better off" if our team won, and worse off if they lost. The sheer idiocy of this position was swamped by our genetic nature to see things as abstractions if we are not sufficiently careful.

Indeed, the spread of technology means many people live much of their lives in a state of near-constant abstraction. Communications are via email and telephone, while most "knowledge" is gained through reading (writing being an abstraction of others' thoughts). That this would give many people a false sense of superiority (for lack of a better term) is not surprising, and explains much of what passes for "wisdom" these days.

It is, for example, much easier to offer a "solution" to a broad social problem (e.g., the US government should run the health care system--think for a minute about how many abstractions are embedded in that one statement) than to ease your neighbor's suffering (or your own!).

Well, we've rambled enough for one day, but let us close with this thought - while we were initially upset that our team lost, the fact that they did gave us a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection, and (we believe) gave us yet another fresh perspective on the absurd. It puts us in mind of one of our favorite Homer Simpson quotes: " there anything they can't do?"

Until next time...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Can you create your own luck?

Can you create your own luck?

An older essay – from 2003 –from Richard Wiseman, at the UK Telegraph, explores the question: “Be lucky - it's an easy skill to learn.”

After highlighting some interesting research and studies, Wiseman concludes with some ways you can change your luck.

Along similar lines, this reminds us of an old book by Max Gunther called The Luck Factor. Gunther, summarizing his own thesis:

“Is is possible to change one’s luck by making practical changes within or around oneself?

Yes, it is possible, and that is what this book is about… For it turns out that there are perceptible difference between the consistently lucky and the unlucky. In general, and with exceptions, the luckiest men and women are those who have adopted certain approaches to life and have mastered certain kinds of internal psychological manipulation. I call this array of traits and attitudes the Luck Adjustment.”

So what do we make of all this from the absurd perspective?

From an absurd perspective, the seeming randomness of the universe bolsters the idea of the world’s inherent absurdity – its essential meaninglessness and indifference to the plight of humanity.

Also, what we call “good luck” and “bad luck” are really rather hollow concepts in the context of the absurd. An absurd man views such vicissitudes of fortune with great equanimity and less judgment about whether his circumstance is “good” or “bad.” Of course, this is not easy to do. And it doesn’t mean the absurd man can’t have preferences or opinions. It simply means that he appreciates with some detachment his place in the world.

The wiki definition for equanimity is worth reproducing here:

“Equanimity describes the unattached awareness of one's experience as a result of perceiving the impermanence of momentary reality. It is a peace of mind and abiding calmness that cannot be shaken by any grade of both fortunate circumstance and unfortunate one.”

That’s pretty good… and sums up how the absurd man views luck, with equanimity. This is not unique to absurdity, by the way, and this view is shared by other religions and philosophies.

Absurdity, then – recognizing that liberating insight that nothing really matters – is a kind of “luck adjustment.” An absurd man recognizes the greatest stroke of luck is that he exists at all!

Friday, November 13, 2009

On simplicity

A reader forwarded on the following comment, posted in response to a column about death on the NY Times Happy Days blog:

"I thought I was going to die in an earthquake and it was terrifying especially since I had my child with me and contemplated how to ease his death as I faced my own. But as I age and see the end rushing at me, I am training myself to accept it. Sort of. Maybe I am hoping that by the time it comes, I am more at peace with it than the younger me.

I don’t think of meaning and happiness. Life has no meaning and searching for it is silly. We should spend our time reducing suffering of others we share this planet with, both people and animals. If we can, we should make the world less harsh, and encourage exploration and science because we are a curious people. Happiness comes and goes and we know what makes us happy and if we can, we should do those things. There is no value in misery.

Death does not give me meaning. That makes no sense to me. This frantic search for meaning leaves me cold. The reframing of religion as spiritual, does likewise. There is no god, there is no meaning. And yet, I reach out to people all the time to try and help reduce their pain. I am compelled to do so. People tell me my life is meaningful. No, my acts have meaning for those I help, and while that is good, it does not mean I have a meaningful life. I am alive and that is what is important. And then I will be dead. And that will be that. Nothing is “allotted” to us. That assumes an “allotor” which isn’t the case. It’s hard to accept at first that this is all there is, and the only meaning is what you make, but once you do, it’s liberating. I’ve really enjoyed this journey. It’s been great to be here and I hope the end is peaceful and wanted when it comes, but don’t we all."

There is much to like in this brief piece, specifically the ease with which the writer conveys the fundamental simplicity of the absurd. Searching for meaning? Silly. But helping others? Good. Not because it has "meaning," but simply because it is the human thing to do.

At its core, the absurd (at least to us) is simply a method for living a peaceful, contented life. The fact that it is also a very consistent belief system is nice, but more of a side benefit. A few months back we read a piece in the Atlantic titled "What Makes Us Happy." It was about a group of people researchers tracked from college through the rest of their lives, with the goal of figuring out what made some people happier than others. The author seemed a bit nonplussed at the results, as if there were no consistent thread, but to us it was simple. As an individual described as "the study's exemplar" put it: "I have an overriding sense (or philosophy) that it’s all a big nothing—or ‘chasing after wind’ as it says in Ecclesiastes and therefore, at least up to the present, nothing has caused me too much grief.”

Live simply, be content with what you have, and be nice to others. And...have a nice weekend!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Snow Leopard

In 1973, author Peter Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller set out for Nepal, hiking hundreds of miles through mountain passes with a varying team of Sherpas and porters.

The MacGuffin (as the Hollywood folks like to say) or the thing that sets the story in motion is the pair’s quest to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep found at the upper altitudes of Nepal.

The duo also hopes to see an even rarer creature that inhabits those mountainsides and is often found near the blue sheep – the elusive snow leopard, said to be so stealthy, you could be mere yards from it and not see or hear it.

But the book of the journey, The Snow Leopard, also is something of a spiritual quest for the author. Matthiessen hopes to visit the revered Lama of Shey, who resides at Crystal Mountain.

So, with all these elements, we have our premise and the quest begins. There are all kinds of adventures and hardships along the way. The journey is perilous – Matthiessen, at times, is forced to cross narrow ridges on his hands and knees, facing drop-offs of hundreds of feet down sheer mountain cliffs, should he stumble. The adventurers must tackle with all the elements that have beset travelers in this part of the world since the beginning of time – high altitudes, extreme cold, tricky weather, a hardscrabble landscape and much more. Nepal is one of those places where you can get frostbit and sunburn on the same day.

But the quest really simply gets the story going. The real story is the personal journey of its author. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, is an introspective writer and makes all manner of wise philosophical observations along the way. This is where the absurd comes in. (Zen and the absurd, we’ve noticed, have various things in common, like brothers.)

There is the idea of acceptance, of taking the world as it is. He finds and admires this trait in his Sherpas. “So open, so without defense, therefore so free,” he writes “accepting like the variable airs the large and small events of every day.”

And in other passages, he makes these observations again and again. (“That happy go lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.”)

But he, too, finds acceptance... and in this acceptance, happiness. “I feel calm, and ready to accept whatever comes, and therefore happy.”

The struggles on the mountain slopes are interesting, too… The mountains test him in every way and he struggles with various emotions. On such a perilous trek, the travelers often seem to have death perched on their shoulders.

Faced with certain death if he makes a wrong move on the mountain slopes, Matthiessen finds peace in the absurd, in the idea that what happens doesn’t matter, that it’s not really important. He even quotes Camus at one point, in talking about his own leap into the absurd. This, he writes, “means not recklessness but acceptance, not passivity but nonattachment.”

There is also a focus on the here and now, which goes hand in hand with absurdity…

“Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is. And surely this is the paradise of children, that they are at rest in the present, like frogs or rabbits.”

Focusing on the here and now also opens up new possibilities and pleasures. As Matthiessen writes: “When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.”

Time also loses meaning on the long trek through the mountains, leading to more absurd conclusions:

“I have long since lost track of the day of the week, and the great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from a future century. It is not so much that we are going back in time as that time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning. I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space.”

He is quite alert to the screens we use to hide the absurdity of our existence. And that seeing this means being open to “the experience that individual existence, ego, the ‘reality’ of matter and phenomena are no more than fleeting and illusory arrangements of molecules. The weary self of masks and screens, defenses, preconceptions, and opinions that, propped up by ideas and words, imagines itself to be some sort of entity (in a society of like entities) may suddenly fall away, dissolve into formless flux where concepts such as “death” and “life,” “time” and “space,” “past” and “future” have no meaning.”

It’s a merry, meditative sort of book and a much-loved classic full of worthy wisdom. We thought we’d share these snippets with you, to give you a taste of the book.

And what of the quest? What of the snow leopard? We won’t give it away…

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

We saw this movie over the weekend. Can’t say it was a great movie. It was okay and had its moments. We saw it after one reviewer characterized it as “absurdist” and described the Jeff Bridges character as “the Dude in fatigues.” As we are big fans of the Big Lebowski, this clinched it.

Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News seems to get at the nub of the movie in his review:

“A few generations now have been trained by movies and literature to think of war in the modern era as absurd. We're living in a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert era. The reason, for instance, that I stopped watching TV's "24" after its second season is that absolutely everyone on the show began to seem mad as hatters but no one seemed to suspect it.

That makes "The Men Who Stare at Goats" a minor but solid success, in that our story is told onscreen — wildly — by a journalist who went to war when his wife started taking up with his one-armed editor. He's played by Ewan McGregor, whose constant mix of earnestness, befuddlement, desperation and self-pity will be instantly recognizable to other members of his species…

The Western idea that war isn't just hell but absurd, too, began with Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Schweik" in 1923, took solid hold in the '60s with "Dr. Strangelove" and "Catch-22," and has been something of a staple ever since Bush/Cheney made absurdism downright mainstream, if not mandatory.”

We like that last line…

But the premise of the movie involves a unit the army creates to harness the paranormal potential of its soldiers. We won’t get into all the details here. But suffice to say, we’re talking psychic powers here. The movie is based on a book by Jon Ronson. The movie begins with the intriguing line that “more of this is true than you would believe.”

As another reviewer put it: “regardless of how much is or is not true - this amusing jaunt of a movie comes off as an effective distant cousin of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22″ as it presents us with the manic absurdity of war through the absurd lengths to which armies will go to fight it…”

If the movie has an absurd conclusion, we suppose that is it. It makes us, mankind, look rather ridiculous. This is often a good thing, because in seeing humankind’s activities in this light, maybe we look at ourselves a little differently and take our efforts less seriously. Maybe we look at the world in a simpler way, through the tangle of screens – tradition, social norms, religion, politics and the like – that we put up between reality and us.

The absurd helps break down those screens because the absurd, through its recognition of death as the ultimate end and through its belief in the meaninglessness of existence, helps us see the futility of much of what men do. It helps to call a spade a spade, or a goat a goat.

We’ve been dipping into Camus’ Lyrical Essays of late. There are some great lines on this front at the end of the essay “Between Yes and No.” Camus writes:

“Yes, everything is simple. It is men who complicate things. Don’t let them tell us any stories. Don’t let them say about the man condemned to death: “He is going to pay his debt to society,” but: “They’re going to chop his head off.” It may seem like nothing. But is does make a difference. There are some people who prefer to look at their destiny straight in the eye.”

So it is with the absurd. And while Men Who Stare at Goats is not a great movie, it nudges us, in a light-hearted way, to reconsider what we think we know about war - in particular, the effort in Iraq and like efforts abroad - and wonder if it’s all worth it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Some kind of hell...

"Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?" --Psychiatrist (Dr. Rosen) referring to schizophrenic John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

Yes, just imagine. Imagine if you discovered your whole past had been a lie, an illusion, a fantasy. (Take your time...)

It's funny, this thing we call identity. It feels like the most concrete thing in the world--the concept of "who" we are, the things "we" have experienced, our "own" internal wants, desires, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. And yet, for all its soundness, we have this nagging sense something is amiss. After all, if "we" are not the same person we were 20 years ago (and who could feasibly make such a claim?), then when did the shift occur? Could we not also argue we are not the same as last year, last week, or this morning? Could it simply be that these shifts occur so gradually we do not notice them, or do we really believe the (rather fantastic) notion there is some ethereal "self" traveling alongside us? this hell? It is, we must admit, a bit cooler than we expected. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, if this be hell, make the most of it! For we must be blunt, the "hell" to which Dr. Rosen refers is the world we inhabit each day--the knowledge (or belief, if you prefer) that all we have ever done, felt, and experienced has been but the most vivid of illusions; that none of it truly "exists"; that the sense we have of a separate identity, of a self, of a fundamental "being" is nothing more than some evolutionary trick of the mind.

But far from being hell, we find this state of being the most liberating and exhilarating destination imaginable. Yes, our past is but a mirage! Our future as well! Even this present moment, the reality of which could be doubted only by delusionals and cranks...even this is but smoke and mirrors, a full-length movie in which each of us unwittingly plays the starring role.

Should we not celebrate this insight and shout it from the rooftops? This is not hell--it is heaven, contentedness, pure and eternal bliss. Unfortunately, while the entrance is forever unlocked, most spend their entire lives pounding ever more frantically on the door, desperate for someone, anyone, to show up and let them in. Or as David Foster Wallace once put it, we are "pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. Then, finally, the door opens...and it opens outward: we've been inside what we wanted all along."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Forget it!

Our post the other day got us thinking… Thomas Carlyle wrote “Happy the people whose annals are blank.” This is another way of saying “Happy are those who have no history” or, even better, since we all have a history of some sort, “Happy are those who can forget.”

Forgetfulness has its absurd applications. As Camus pointed out, there really is no past or future… there is only a succession of present moments. That is why the absurd man focuses on living in the moment, an idea basically shared by many Eastern and Native American philosophies.

To think that way, though, one must have no regrets. One must be able to forget. One must be able to forget the stupid slip of the tongue at the party last night, the embarrassing mistake at work the other day, the pain of past errors and indiscretions, of old arguments, slights, rivalries… One must be able to look past all that and start afresh every day.

By contrast, a man of long simmering resentments, feelings of failure and regret, who stews over past actions, laments over lost opportunities would be the opposite… a sort of anti-absurd man.

We sometimes have this thought experiment where we imagine ourselves as men of, say, 85 years old, reflecting on our life. What will we remember? What will we forget? We think that an 85 year old man, reflecting back, finds that much of what he thought important when younger very unimportant – hence only heightening the sense of an absurd existence.

In fact, we don’t need this thought experiment to see that this will be true. Sitting here now and looking back over our life, we can point to times when we were upset or when we really wanted something and didn’t get it, and the disappointment we felt then…

What a waste! As we can see now looking back, these things really didn’t matter. They didn’t matter even then; it’s the passage of the years that make this very obvious today. Our life took different paths, things happened otherwise… things could always have happened differently, but they happened the way they did. We accept it and we make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Nothing really matters… that is the liberating insight. That’s why Sisyphus is happy, even in his ceaseless pushing. That’s what Camus so forcefully argued. It’s what this blog is all about.

The absurd man does not let his past hold his present in chains. He forgets and the chains fall away as if made of spider silk…

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What is Happiness?

What is happiness? It’s a big question.

That syphilitic madman Nietzsche said “Happiness is a woman.” In certain circumstances, maybe he’s right!

That dour 19th century thinker Thomas Carlyle said, “Happy the people whose annals are blank.” Or put another way, the happiest people are those that have no history. Hmmm…

That grand old man of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had a more modest view of happiness. “To fill the hour – that is happiness,” he said.

Or maybe this is all wrong… happiness is not something you go after or define.

One of our favorites, Henry Miller said: “Happiness is desirable, but it is a by-product, the result of a way of life, not a goal which is forever beyond one’s grasp. Happiness is achieved en route… To make happiness the goal is to kill it in advance.”

We like it…

That difficult Dane and sometimes absurd man, Soren Kierkegaard, saw happiness as within us: “A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.”

We like that, too…

And our oft-quoted absurd hero, Albert Camus, asked “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

Ah, the absurd man and the absurd life he leads in this, the absurd universe…

But perhaps the best comes from Theophile Gautier, who wrote in 1845: “Happiness is white and pink.” So that’s what colors it is!