Monday, July 11, 2016

Innocence and experience

A great scenic sunet along the main branch of the Mississippi River on the Great River Trail, Wisconsin photo at

Beat Not the Poor Desk  is the title of one of the books I was introduced to when I took a graduate course on teaching composition. It has some really helpful writing ideas based on particular frames. One of them is "Once I was ___; now I am___." The idea is using concrete narrative to convey a more general point.

This is exactly what Mark Twain does in his piece, "Two Views of  the Mississippi." Picking up on the transition from innocence to experience that William Blake explores in his poetry, Twain encapsulates the gain that also entails loss:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and has come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! 
Twain offers further details and then suggests a parallel with the medical profession:
 Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beautyʹs cheek mean to a doctor but a ʺbreakʺ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown think with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesnʹt he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesnʹt he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?   

This happens to most of us in our trade. I tried to explain this to someone about seeing a piece of writing through the eyes that have assessed hundreds of thousands of essays (I'm  not exaggerating, I scored SAT essays for over a decade after having grades college students' writing for a decade before that). It's impossible not to notice flaws in the mechanics when your eyes -- like those of the doctor looking for signs of illness -- have been trained to spot them. That doesn't mean I always comment on them even when seeing "aisle" without the a, a usage error that makes me feel like I'm hearing fingernails on a blackboard.  It also doesn't mean I claim to never make a mistake myself, but that's not really the point. A musically trained person may hit a false note once in a while, though that hardly disqualifies that person from giving a professional assessment of another person's playing.

To return to the them of Blake and Twain, the fact of life is (without some form of memory loss)  you can't go back. You can't recapture the perspective of innocence once you've passed into experience. That doesn't mean that life is over, only that you've passed into a different stage that will color your perspective. And here's one advantage that experience has over innocence: you know what it was to look at the world through the eyes of innocence while the person who has no experience cannot know of any perspective beyond what s/he has had.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Have desk, will travel

When we picture mobile now, we picture something  small and light like this.


But a hundred years ago mobile meant something different than it did today. The concept of a mobile desk was just one that could be moved, not necessarily one you could easily carry with you.  It serves some of the same purpose as a tablet does, holding information one wants access to in an organizaed fashion with space for writing your own additions to all that data. 

photo of Lyndhurst interior  by Ariella Brown
This is the desk that Jay Gould used at Lyndhurst and when commuting from there to his office on his yacht.  Though the railroad did pass right by Gould's summer home, it was built by Vanderbilt, and he vowed never to use it.  But he didn't suffer too much, sailing in on a yacht took only 45 minutes, an enviable commute by today's standards. However, he didn't travel too light if he took the desk-- and like an attendant or two  pull it for him--along for the trip.

That formidable piece of furniture is a Wooton Desk, which is known for having many compartments as well as casters, which makes it mobile as in designed to be moved. As the Wikipedia article explains, "The Wooton desk was introduced at the end of the 19th century, at a time when office work was changing in a drastic fashion with an increase in paperwork that led to the introduction of filing cabinets, among other things."

 According to the tour guide at Lyndhurst where the desk still stands, this particular one has over 100 compartments, which likely includes some secret ones. Instead of password protection or biometric identification, you'd rely on physical keys and hidden levers for securing your confidential documents from prying eyes. One plus for the desk, it is still usable over a century later. It's very unlikely that will be the case for today's tablets and smartphones.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Restoring a garden and some history in Yonkers

Above and below and some of the views of the walled garden, one of the highlights of the Untermyer Garden in Yonkers.I also included a picture of the Temple of Love that overlooks a waterfall.  Most of the rest of the gardens have not been restored to the glory they held back in the day when  60 gardeners tended its 150 acres with plants supplied by 60 greenhouses.  What is restored is worth seeing, and there's no charge  entry.

You can learn more about the gardens and the man behind them, Samuel Untermyer, at As the pamphlet in the garden and the site says, "Samuel Untermyer was born in Virginia in 1858, and moved to New York City after the Civil War. He was a partner in the law firm of Guggenheimer, Untermyer & Marshall, and was the first lawyer in America to earn a one million dollar fee on a single case."

The site offers a lot more in-depth information, including an article by Greogory Kupsky  that gives further insight into the response of German-American Jews to Hitler's increasing power and how Untemeyer clashed with others in pushing for a boycott of Germany.

 This is the better side of the ampitheater. As you can see form the picture below it, the other side is in much need of repair.

See more photos of the garden that I posted on Pinterest.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Living on 24 hours a day

Though the contexts may vary from those cloaked in spiritualism with suggestions of meals with a Buddah to those that guide you to a state of mindfulness, the essence of self-help books seems to be very much the same. 
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you discovered it?
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of conduct to principles.

That's what struck me when I read the really short book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett with a copyright date of 1910.  The author consciously references other book titles that say "How to live on X amount a day" to emphasize the point that time is money and even more precious and more evenly distributed than currency. I took a copy out from the library, but you can read the entire text online for free from the Gutenberg project here.
The book's central theme is maximizing one's time to achieve happiness, though not the happiness one pictures in a extroverted sense (see The happiness is rather the result of achieving harmony between one's principles and one's actions. This point is revealed in chapter 8: 
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us, upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our conduct.

The book is a 20th Century product, so it's no longer deferring to the Church for guidance on how to live. Rather it is exhorting one live according to principles and reason. In contrast to Disney's advice to follow your heart, you are advised to use your head. But in doing so you also gain an appreciation for science, art, music, literature (if those things interest you) or even your own daily life. What would be packaged today as "mindfulness," he calls reflecting on genuinely important things. 

Chapter 5 is entitled "Tennis and the Immortal Soul." The conjunction here is not intended to suggest a deep connection as one finds in  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the contrary, the suggestion is that tennis and other leisure pursuits are what people regard as important while they neglect the type of "cultivation of mind" that the author believes is essential to feed the soul. That becomes clear from the end of the chapter:
 But I do suggest that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends, bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening, pottering, and prize competitions. You will still have the terrific wealth of forty-five hours between 2 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Monday. If you persevere you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive. And you will fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at 11.15 p.m., "Time to be thinking about going to bed." The man who begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door is bored; that is to say, he is not living.But remember, at the start, those ninety nocturnal minutes thrice a week must be the most important minutes in the ten thousand and eighty. They must be sacred, quite as sacred as a dramatic rehearsal or a tennis match. Instead of saying, "Sorry I can't see you, old chap, but I have to run off to the tennis club," you must say, "...but I have to work." This, I admit, is intensely difficult to say. Tennis is so much more urgent than the immortal soul. 

I find it fascinating that the core of such advice is so consistent for over a century, despite the massive changes the world has seen over two World Wars and the rapid advance of technology. That is not to mitigate the differences in contexts. They are quite striking. Clearly, the people the book addresses are not feeling the same stress people do today when they rise early to commute to work and return from it. Work begins for them at 10 AM and ends at 6 PM. The commute is assumed to take at most half an hour, though there also is an assumption of a sixth half day of work ending at 2 PM.

For people living in England in 2010, leisure time is not frittered away in front of a screen (not even a movie screen, never mind a smartphone, computer, or television). Even a radio is out of the picture, as music is only to be found in live events. Still they manage to fritter away time but just by doing this and that until thinking of going to bed for a good 45 minutes before doing so. In that way, one lets time slip through one's fingers instead of getting one's real 24 hours' worth. In fact, the author doesn't expect one to use all 24 hours but just to make better use of the time spent outside work by exercising one's mind for 90 minute sessions and actively reflecting at other times when is apt to adopt a "semi-comatose" state.

Another difference most of today's self-help books and this one is that very little attention is paid to exercise of the body. Bennet does mention that 10 minutes a day of that can make a difference. However, he is not arguing that one needs to put in the time for the physical regimen but for exercising the mind and getting it into shape. Likely people walked a lot more just to get around as we're talking about a time before cars were owned by the average person.

Chapter 7 is entitled "Controlling the Mind," and like many modern books on meditation, the goal is to achieve concentration and focus, though Bennet skips the thinking about nothing step and jumps right into focusing on your end goal:
"What? I am to cultivate my mind in the street, on the platform, in the train, and in the crowded street again?" Precisely. Nothing simpler! No tools required! Not even a book. Nevertheless, the affair is not easy. When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what, to begin with). You will not have gone ten yards before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is larking round the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back about forty times. Do not despair. Continue. Keep it up. You will succeed. You cannot by any chance fail if you persevere.
When you achieve a certain mindset, you can appreciate that "nothing in life is humdrum" as stated by the title of Chapter 10. In that chapter Bennet demonstrates how an appreciation of cause and effect can make one more philosophical and less shocked when things don't go one's way with the example of accepting one's stolen watch as the result of knowable causes. But it's not just a matter of learning to appreciate human nature but all of nature:"The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an understanding heart." That is something that can even be appreciated by someone who does not care for art, music, or literature. But for those who do care for the latter, Bennet devotes an entire chapter.

"Serious Reading" is the title of Chapter 11. By using that term, Bennet's intention is to exclude novels because they do not require the mental exertion that should be applied to the 90 minute program. Good novels are all too easy to read, he says, and bad ones just aren't worth reading at all. It's remarkable that what was considered merely popular literature then are are now seriously studied in college courses. Wouldn't any reader today be proud for working her way through something like Anna Karenina if she were not required to read it for a class? Bennet has loftier reading goals, as he indicated by his own choice of reading, including the works of Marcus Aurelius (he doesn't leave home without him in book form), Epictetus, Pascal, La Bruyere, and Emerson. No women featured here, though he does reserve special praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and recommends that everyone read Aurora Leigh.

Aside from praising poetry over prose, Bennet offers two concrete suggestions for the one who embarks on improving reading:

The first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure to be derived from being a specialist.
The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

Related post:

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tech overload in the bathroom

I just got a promotional email for "bathroom upgrades" from Bed Bath and Beyond that makes me
wonder if we've really gone completely mad in embedding sensors in everything. In truth, I enjoy shopping in the store. It's fun to see various kitchen gadgets and doodads for decor. Most of the stuff no one really needs, though it can be put to some use, but I do question some of these things.

These items each have their own promotional videos to try to really convince you that your life will only be complete with an illuminated toilet bowl, automatic soap dispenser, smart mirror, or connected scale.

The first item is called Illumibowl, that a night light for your toilet -- not your bathroom, mind you, but just the toilet that gives you a choice of nine different colors. Hurrah! I must say, it really makes it so much more fun to go to the bathroom at night if your toilet bowl is illuminated in UFO-eerie green or spooky blood-red. And what bit of utility are you supposed to gain from this $19.99 gadget? Well, "no more blinding lights, wandering in the dark or late night misses or messes." I am assured that my "bathroom will never be the same." But maybe I do want it to be the same. And maybe I don't think it's so very hard to flip on a light when I want it. And maybe, just maybe, if I really have a problem with full light, I could just put one of those traditional night lights in. But then I wouldn't have that UFO glow effect.

The second item is simplehuman® Rechargeable Bath Sensor Pump in Brushed Nickel. For a mere $49.99, you can eliminate the hassle of washing your hands. Well, actually, it won't wash your hands for you, but it will eliminate the need to go through the trouble of actually pumping the soap out, dispensing it in a remarkable .2 seconds! Yes, that will save you a whole 2 seconds, giving you more time to scrub up!

This is the kind of thing that has some utility built into public restrooms as people are concerned about touching what others have touched, but it seems just a bit OCD to me to have to keep one in your own home.

I was most disappointed in the third item, the simplehuman® 5X Sensor Vanity Mirror. For the price of $199, I thought it should at least talk to you like the mirror in Snow White. But no, all it really does is light up as your face approaches because it's just too darn hard to hit a switch for an illuminated mirror.

This mirror only has a single light setting to simulate natural light. Back when I was a kid there was one that even offered a choice of different lights, to duplicate four different conditions, daylight, office, evening, home. It was called the Clairol True to Light mirror, and it still has some fans who now may purchase the Jerdon Tri-Fold Two-Sided Lighted Makeup Mirror with 5x Magnification for $34.99 on Amazon.

Of course, your high-tech bathroom would not be complete without a Wi-Fi connected scale. This email included 2, one of which is supposed sync with the data in your Fitbit to help you track your progress. That eliminate the difficulty of either remembering a number of writing it down. Who can be bothered with that? You have to conserve all your energy and your time for your fitness regimen. That extra second can be used for another jumping jack!  Put tech on your side, and you will, no doubt, achieve your goals!

I'm not an absolute Luddite. I think technology can be very helpful in promoting health and enabling an unobtrusive form of monitoring. But that doesn't mean we need to adopt everything that cuts out really easy tasks like switching on a light or pumping out soap just because we have the tech that makes it possible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why the focus on Wisconsin for Climate Change?

map source
This is the question that bothered me when I first learned of the Wisconsin Glacier that is considered responsible for the natural formation of New York, including the the large boulders that remain in Central Park. On a NYC Park tour at Alley Pondour guide (whose last name is actually Park -- an aptronym if ever there was one) explained that there was a time when the entire area was covered by ice a mile thick.

I found it somewhat confusing that the ice over New York should be named for Wisconsin and discoverd the answer in the online Britannica : "Wisconsin Glacial Stage, most recent major division of Pleistocene time and deposits in North America (from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). It was named for rock deposits studied in the state of Wisconsin."

Mystery solved, at least as far as that goes. The entry does point out the correlation of the end of that period with the extinction of certain species, including the mammoth and sabre-toothed cats. But it's says it's not necessarily accurate to say that their demise was simply the result of overhunting because a lot of factors go into climate and even more into species survival.

There's more information about Wisconsin geology here That's the source of the map pictured above.

Obviously, the climate policy censors have not yet gotten around to that site yet, as it says, "Changes in climate have followed a regular pattern for the past 700,000 years. Each cycle lasted about 100,000 years and consisted of a long period of generally cooling climate during which glaciers grew, followed by shorter periods of conditions similar to or warmer than those of today."

Related post

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Seeing the whole picture

Perhaps you've seen some of these pictures in the past. Generally, at first glance you'll be sure of what you're seeing. But if you take a close second look, you may not be so sure.  Is it a duck or a rabbit? The answer is that it is drawn so that it could represent either, depending on your perspective.
Here's another one that is old enough to have been rendered into an 1888 German postcard. The old/young woman illusion is sometimes titled "My wife and my mother-in-law." 

I find if I look at these types of pictures for too long, I start to feel a bit dizzy, as my perspective keeps slanting to see it first one way and then the other. Perhaps that's what Calvin's cubism experience is meant to represent -- that feeling of dizziness -- one can experience when shifting perspectives.

Calving opts to drop the dizziness in favor of dogmatic certainty. In that way he reminds me of the figure of Dilke in the matter in which he is immortalized in John Keats' famous "Negative Capability" letter: "I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

In truth, most people go through life with a Dilke-like attitude that averse to being at all uncertain. There is great satisfaction in finding certainty due to the mental relief it brings. However, there are many things that are really not all fixed as either old or young, duck or rabbit. Forcing only one designation on them actually distorts the truth of the image by telling only half the story. But that is exactly what many people do in their adoption of dogmas: at a particular point in their lives, they chose the equivalent of "Team Duck," and will forever vehemently oppose "Team Rabbit" as evil incarnate for pushing a false agenda. Any reasoned approach to point out that the picture has elements of both will be ignored or refuted by repetition of the assertion, "This is a duck; everyone who has any sense agrees it's a duck. You have to be really stupid or possibly insane to claim it can be a rabbit."

That's my view of political affiliations and self-affixed labels; they lock people into only one way of seeing things. While insisting they have the answers that settles everything, they have not even begun to comprehend the questions.