Friday, May 28, 2010

Camus in China

We’ve had a long absence from the blog. Well, we’ve been traveling in China for work and frankly barely had time to do much of anything. We zipped hither and yon from morning to night, crashing at the hotel in the wee hours of the morn only to arise hours later with a serious baijou-induced hangover and begin again.

(Those Chinese don’t do business without some serious baijou drinking – sort of like the Russians and their vodka. The stuff is worse than drinking tequila straight…)

We did think about the absurd quite a bit. It was hard not to. China is a strange and wonderful place with all kinds of experiences you’ll not likely find at home. It’s like a shot of… well, something… and we had a half of mind to just wander off in the hinterlands and never return.

Except that we don’t speak Mandarin… And that we were stopped by police officers more than once wondering what we were doing – we were in places where they don’t see foreigners much – which means we probably wouldn’t get far before we’d be spending the night in some Chinese jail.

Not that it would matter or that any of this matters, which is the point of this meaningless blog…

Always when we travel our mind sometimes wanders on the various ways in which we might die and never see our front door again. Most people find that depressing, we suppose, but we are fairly comfortable with the idea that one day we’ll die. It’s a matter of how.

Besides, as a passenger on China’s back roads, we saw lots of ways we could die and narrowly avoided a few, we think. We thought for sure that truck was going hit us and how we avoided it we can only chalk up to the improbable skills of our shurfu. (We think that means driver, but we’re not sure and too lazy to look it up.)

We sometimes take notes when we travel, carrying a little black notepad with us to jot down absurd thoughts and other ideas as they occur. We jotted down an interesting conversation we had with a fellow who makes chewing gum and buttons – don’t ask us how the two are related. He was fairly introspective about life in chaotic China… and somewhat absurd.

We met him at a local restaurant in a little town (by China’s standards), the kind of place where you pick what you want for dinner out of water tanks (for the fish and eels and whatever else). Then you sit down, smoke cigarettes, drink horrible alcohol and wait for them to bring your food, which come surprisingly fast. We’ve never had such fresh seafood…

Anyway, our man begins, after lighting what must be his 40th cigarette…

“It seems to me that life is a matter of routine… No matter where you are, you get settled into a routine. You do the same @#$# over and over again and you don’t think about it. I’ve always hated that.

“I left my village at an early age in search of adventure. I started my own business. But even still, I get stuck in the same routines… The same @#$#@$ every day… and I realize that you can’t escape it.

“Maybe somewhere someone has figured out a way to keep from falling into routines and falling into prisons of fixed ideas… I don’t know. Sometimes I think happiness is simply a matter of accepting whatever comes your way and not giving a @$#@ about it one way or the other.”

Well, we heard this little monologue and thought it a good time to offer up the absurd. He seemed mostly there. So we began to tell him our story, about how we stumbled around wondering what life was all about, and how we came to find absurdity in bits and pieces and how Camus put all those pieces together for us…

Since life has no meaning or purpose, we went on, we are really free – it’s as if life is a game that you can’t win or lose, that you only endure and accept… Then we stopped. Our host had a quizzical look on his face. Perhaps we had given him too much at once and his head was going to explode or, more likely, perhaps we rambled nonsensically.

”This Camus,” he said, taking another drag from his cigarette and then putting it at his temple in deep thought, “is he Chinese? I think I know this man…”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Terry Francona - Absurd Man?!?

"He's day-to-day. Just like the rest of us."--Terry Francona, Boston Red Sox Manager, on injured catcher Victor Martinez.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trapped in the "I"

We came across an interesting piece in the Washington Post the other day, in which the author (Kathleen Parker) described the efforts of NPR religion reporter Barbara Hagerty to find "proof of God." According to Parker:

"In her book, "Fingerprints of God," Hagerty tries to answer a question that has plagued her for years: Is there more than this? She couldn't accept mainstream science's answer that we are 'a collection of molecules with no greater purpose than to eke out a few decades.' Instead, she sought out spiritual virtuosos (people who practice prayer, religiously), as well as neurologists, geneticists, physicists and medical researchers who are using the newest tools of science to discern the circumstantial evidence of God.

Her research led to some startling conclusions that have caused no small amount of Sturm und Drang among those who believe theirs is the one true way. She found that whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.

Apparently, we have a 'God spot' and 'God genes.' And though some are more generously endowed than others, spiritual experience is a human phenomenon, not a religious one. Different routes to the same destination.

Understandably, these are not glad tidings to some. Centuries of blood have been shed for the sake of religious certitude. But transcending the notion that only some prayers are the right ones might get us closer to the enlightenment we purportedly seek."

So far, so good. Indeed, this section could easily pass for content on this very blog, so closely does it hew to the notion that religion is simply an illusion created by humans to divert their gaze from the meaninglessness (and capriciousness) of reality.

However, the next sentence literally left us agog: "Hagerty is optimistic that science eventually will demonstrate that we are more than mere matter."

Honestly, we sat staring at the page, mouth hanging open, for more than a few seconds. Here was someone who devoted a significant portion of her life to searching for an answer to this question (including taking a leave of absence from her job to research and write a book about it!); yet, when all the evidence (not 75%, or 80%, or even 99.99%) pointed to one inescapable conclusion, she...dismissed it. Good. Freakin'. Lord.

Let's be clear. This is not some discussion of opinion, this was a woman who embarked on a planned and scientific expedition, theoretically in search of the "truth." But when all the evidence points to one (and only one) conclusion, she...decided to ignore it. As she put it: "I have concluded that science cannot prove God--but science is entirely consistent with God." Ah.

To be fair, we have not read the book (and have no plans to do so). However, it seems fairly clear that Hagerty (who was raised a Christian Scientist and now considers herself merely a Christian) was not, in fact, looking for truth, but rather to advance her own point of view. No harm there, of course, but we do find it fairly consistent with regard to people's reaction to the absurd.

The question is, why? The answer, as we see it, is that to deny the existence of God (ie, something beyond the physical) is to also deny the existence of the self. If there is no afterlife, no greater power, no "other," then the concept of the self simply fades away into ridiculousness.

This is actually a pretty simple concept to understand. In fact, we had an interesting window into it a few years back when our dog died. We "adopted" her when she was six weeks old, so she essentially lived with us for her entire life, and she was a wonderful dog--sweet and playful, if not particularly obedient...So where, we wondered, did this personality go when she died?

See, this is the thing. The illusion of the self is so powerful, so all-encompassing, so vital to people's ability to function, that most people simply cannot conceive of life without it. Thus, we invent ever more elaborate schemes to justify our belief in something for which there exists not one shred of empirical evidence. This, of course, is what religion has always been about--believing something for no good reason (i.e., "having faith") to make ourselves feel better.

This is why Hagerty's "project," to be frank, bothers us (yes, smart-ass, we realize we don't exist either...) - she was basically attempting to put a scientific sheen on religion, and when that failed (when she could not, in other words, come up with a single thing to which she could point and say "See!"), she simply redefined the terms of the game. Oldest trick in the book, actually (God works in mysterious ways...), but others should not fall for this transparent (and, ultimately, kind of sad) sleight of hand.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lawnmower Man

It was a blustery Saturday morning when we heard the whir of our neighbor’s lawnmower. It served as our own reminder that it was time for us to bring out that cherry red 5.5 HP machine and walk it all over our little green patch of earth.

It would seem a Sisyphean task. Mow. It grows back. Repeat endlessly until we are dead or can no longer push a mower.

It was Simon de Beauvoir who once wrote, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean become soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” Mowing the lawn seems to fit…

And yet…

We have learned to enjoy this chore. Not because we think it important to keep our grass looking respectable. And not because we want to stay in the good graces of our neighbors.

Instead, we have found some joy and enlightenment in the simple act of mowing the lawn. It is like that old Chinese saying, "Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water."

In even mundane tasks there are things to enjoy. In mowing the lawn, there is the simple pleasure of being outside, of walking. There is the time you have to think. There is the vibration of the mower in your hands. The pretty rows you make as you cross the lawn. The smell of fresh-cut grass.

Part of living in the moment means appreciation of every moment, even when you are doing something as mundane as a chore. We were thinking of this as we mowed over the weekend. And it occurred to us we have read something along these lines before.

It was D.H. Lawrence, we recall, who once laid out the pleasures of washing dishes. We looked it up. Here is what he wrote:

“The actual doing of things is in itself a joy. If I wash the dishes, I learn the quick, light touch of china and earthenware, the feel of it, the weight and roll and poise of it, the peculiar hotness, the quickness or slowness of its surface. I am at the middle of an infinite complexity of motions and adjustments and quick, apprehensive contacts. Nimble faculties hover and play along my nerves, the primal consciousness is alert in me…”

He was quick not to make too much of washing the dishes, not to become too self-conscious or imbue the act with a purpose beyond the obvious. As he adds later, “If I wash the dishes, I wash them to get them clean. Nothing else.”

We think it is interesting, too, how language corrupts thought. We think of mowing the lawn or washing the dishes as work. But why should we? If life is absurd, as we think it is – and there is no meaning or point to our existence – then we come to realize that the difference between work and play is in our heads.

Simply put, our point here is to say that we have found it freeing when we dim all things to their proper place of insignificance. We have found many of life’s burdens lift when we aim to appreciate every moment. We don’t say it is easy, but we say there is wisdom in the thought.

So, contra Beauvoir’s sentiment on Sisyphus, we are with Camus. It was the genius of Camus who turned Beauvoir’s common sentiment around. (And which serves as the inspiration behind this blog.) To Camus, recognizing the absurdity of life was its own joy. Of Sisyphus, Camus wrote:

“Sisyphus…concludes all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Let's celebrate!

“It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sickroom. By all means begin your folio; even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Aes Triplex

Our grandfather is an inspiration for a life well-lived. The world’s troubles seem to slip off him as a wet eel through greasy fingers. Of all our family members, he is the one we look up to as wise on matters of life. He always seems happy. Born and raised in New York City, he now lives on a sunny island in the Caribbean Sea.

He has a favorite saying. When we go to visit him, we often find he will say “Let’s celebrate!” and use that as the pre-text for whatever fun that follows, even if only a cold mug of beer. No occasion is too small to throw a little party.

When were little, we would spend weeks down here with him and my grandmother, playing on the beach or fishing or wandering around the old city. Those are fond memories.

We learned last week that our grandfather is now terminally ill with cancer. No one knows how long he has. We wondered what this news would do to our grandfather’s care-free spirit. Alas, we’ll have to wait a bit longer.

Here is the twist: He doesn’t know he is terminally ill. His wife, my grandmother, wishes to keep that from him. The doctors there abide by her wishes. The family, so far, though divided on the idea, also abides by our grandmother’s wishes. She thinks he will be depressed if he knew the truth. Right now, he thinks he is only sick and will get better.

Our guess is he will find out soon enough by his own reasoning. He is no dummy. And the stream of people coming to visit him and say their goodbyes is going to raise questions in his mind soon enough.

We suspect he will deal with it as he has dealt with death all his life. He knows death. He knows the scythe-bearer has an appointment with all of us. It never seemed to worry him. He enjoys every moment of the present with everything he can suck out of it.

His favorite writer was Robert Louis Stevenson – an enthusiasm he passed on to us as a young lad and to which we keep to this day. We remember turning the pages of our grandfather’s old Stevenson books when we were boys. Treasure Island, the Black Arrow, Kidnapped! These have magical sounds to us even now, evoking adventures and daring.

Stevenson, was also a man who knew some things about a life well-lived. In thumbing through some essays of his recently, we caught this passage, which expresses a sentiment our grandfather seemed to share:

“A good meal and a bottle of wine is an answer to most standard works upon the question [of life and death]. When a man's heart warms to his viands, he forgets a great deal of sophistry, and soars into a rosy zone of contemplation. Death may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue; we have something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock... For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death.”

Another favorite saying of our grandfather’s is, “Don’t worry about it!” We remember as kids, if we scraped our knee, he would say “Don’t worry about it! You have another one!” That was typical of his outlook. Whatever seemed like an ill wind carried also the sweet scents.

We’re not sure our grandfather is an absurd man. But if the absurd man is a blithe pilgrim on a road that is made by walking, then he is that. If there was a fly in the amber of his philosophy, we never saw it.

Our grandfather yielded easily to the soft influences of contentment. He was happy with what was. He accepted all differences with the easy humors of good fellowship. He never chided us for our decisions in life. He never sought to make us out to be anything. Never pushed us or criticized us. He was just there, the happy rock.

We live in the time that a match flickers, Stevenson observed. So let’s celebrate the time we have. Here’s to our grandfather: May we carry on as well as he!