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.