The Gift of a Good Book

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There’s always fascinating information from The School of Life in Brain Pickings. Here are the simple and grand reasons why reading is so valuable:

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

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“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

1.  IT SAVES YOU TIME

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

2.  IT MAKES YOU NICER

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

3.  IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

4.  IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/09/school-of-life-literature-reading/

Here’s the You Tube video that accompanied this article in Brain Pickings:

http://youtu.be/4RCFLobfqcw?list=PLwxNMb28XmpdJpJzF2YRBnfmOva0HE0ZI

I Love Homework

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I’m in the second semester at the University of Chicago’s Writers Studio. We have a great teacher—Kevin Davis. During our first night he had classmates interviewing each other for 10 minutes about a memorable holiday moment, and then he asked us to write a scene about it. He’s big on research so he wanted us to add a little to flesh out the scene.

I’m not sure I did Sarah’s Christmas any justice. She certainly did  mine. But it was nice to break out the old interviewing and research skills again and fascinating to use them as a tool to create a scene. Scenes are a great way to move a story along. Breaking down essays this way is enlightening in more ways than I can say. I look forward to using this and those lessons awaiting me in my future work.

In the meantime, here’s Sarah’s memorable holiday moment, edited after great input from the class:

On December 26 Sarah stirred up some magical memories in her Minnesota home, allowing the joy of the season to spread over the Ashley family for another full day. Sarah Ashley, a 27-year-old content writer and actress now living in Chicago, hasn’t missed a Christmas at her childhood home in Minnetonka, eight miles west of Minneapolis. She doesn’t make the trek solely because it’s the big birthday bash for over 2 billion Christians around the globe, but because it’s her sister’s.

This holiday marked Claire’s 25th, and to celebrate her quarter-of-a-century, friends and family gathered on the 26th for a dinner party. The Ashley’s eight-foot Christmas tree and holiday decorations sparkled in the family room as Claire’s 10 girlfriends, a handful of 21-year-old brother Graham’s buddies and some family friends filled the house with chatter and laughter.

“It even snowed that night, like a pretty little veil on Christmas,” Sarah said, her blues eyes twinkling, too, as she recounted the evening.

The Ashley’s had the party end nailed. The dinner part wasn’t as firm.

“My mom doesn’t know how to prep for lots of people. I knew if I didn’t step in, it wouldn’t happen,” Sarah laughed, lovingly.

On the menu: homemade pasta and sauce with shrimp.

She commandeered the kitchen, appointing some to pasta boiling, others to sauce prep and the remainder to shrimp handling. Long-time friends, dressed for a party, bustled about following Sarah’s orders as she directed the meal. Garlic, tomato and basil joined the party, too, their scents floating through the house along with the pine. So engrossed in her efforts, at one point Sarah turned around to see all her line cooks quietly awaiting their next assignments. She laughed out loud, breaking the silence. Now confident there was no way it would come together simultaneously, the chatting, laughing and cooking resumed.

“Everyone was having such a good time, trying to cook fast, enjoying the evening. It felt like a scene out of a Nora Ephron movie,” Sarah said, her hands gesturing about as if she were replaying it in her head.

The partiers loved the meal, and Graham and his friends relished in the gaggle of 25-year-old women as much as pasta and shrimp. At the end of the night, the birthday girl and her friends prepared to hit the streets of Minnetonka. Sarah, who enjoyed sitting back and taking it all in because she had no friends to distract her, sipped her wine, content in playing her part in such a holiday spectacular.

We are still that child we vaguely recall

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This might be long but IT IS WORTH IT.  From Brainpickings. Do consider donating a mere $3/month if you can for this fascinating material (I’ve added the bolded material):

The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change

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Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”

Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence. Modern psychologists have gone a step further to assert that the self is a socially constructed illusion. Whatever the case, one thing is certain and easily verifiable via personal hindsight — our present selves are unrecognizably different from our past selvesand woefully flawed at making our future selves happy.

In a remarkable passage from Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (public library), her biography of the great 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philosopher, writer, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers the perplexity of personal identity:

Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically? 

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas.

Illustration by Salvador Dalí from his rare 1969 ‘Alice in Wonderland’ series. Click image for more.

To probe those dilemmas, Goldstein pulls into question the biographical and biological criteria we use to confirm that our childhood selves are indeed ourchildhood selves — roughly the same criteria we apply in identifying that the world’s oldest organisms are indeed continuously living individuals. Goldstein writes:

The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her … as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?

She then turns to the quintessential threat to such bodily continuity, the source of our greatest existential anxiety and most profound longing:

Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists.

Echoing Meghan O’Rourke’s poetic assertion that “the people we most love [become] ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Goldstein writes:

A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day? Can she remember that summer’s day while I cannot?

Alan Watts had an answer, but Goldstein is more interested in the question itself as a gateway to our deepest humanity:

Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?

Complement with pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper on the “I” of the beholder, Anaïs Nin’s bold defense of the fluid self, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the mind-bending psychology of how we know who we are, and psychologist Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s delusions limit your future self’s happiness.

How do you manage your writing time?

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Outside of ensuring my family and friends are happy and healthy, I have only two big goals over the next two years. The first is to move, and that’s simply a matter of timing. The place is ready to be shown. We already did the “big” downsizing when our girls had the audacity to leave us so this next one is much easier.

My second goal is to finish the two-year Writing Certificate program at the University of Chicago. Tonight is class #2. I’ve done my homework, and I’m excited to get to know my colleagues and teacher better as well as learn to become a better writer.

Still there is also so much info on the web to read from credible sources like “What turns editors on?” “What gets you thrown off the slush pile?” “10 ways to impress an agent,” “How to manage your time!” Then there are the magazines—Poets & Writers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Sun not to mention all the great literary publications from Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Fifth Wednesday JournalAnd the on-line journals and blogs—way too many to list. But so many great ones to read.

I’ve worked hard to keep up a writing routine. In the morning I go to my desk. It’s somewhat away from the hub of the house so it’s relatively quiet. But people know how to find me! At least once a week I go to my girlfriend’s. She lives on top of offices. We work in the offices, and truly get very few distractions so we do get a lot of work done.

But we never end a long and intense day without feeling like there’s so much more we need to do, learn, research, double-check. Writing is hard, time-consuming, and we know it’s unlikely to make us wealthy. But writers have to write.

Any suggestions? I guarantee I’ll find time to read those.

Even a friend’s published work is an unbelievable experience

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The other day my girlfriend Emily Thornton Calvo picked me up from a doctor’s appointment. My husband was leaving town so he could only drop me off. Both daughters were working. For some odd reason, Emily actually had an hour break in her otherwise insanely busy schedule. And this, mind you, is post treatment for both cancer and leukemia. Look no further than Emily for an example on how to live life past the fullest, making over-doing it look like a vacation scenario.

As we headed home, she reached into the backseat and handed IT to me. Her New Book! Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd is a compilation of her insightful, eloquent poetry honed over decades of life-transforming experiences and more recent watercolor artwork, both of which present a sample of beautiful in the otherwise crazy world we inhabit. If you’re a Poetry Slam supporter, you must know her work through her Sunday evening readings at the Green Mill Lounge. Her artwork is already so spot-on, she’s had several successful art shows, too.

She’d been talking about putting the two together into a book for a while. Recently she revisited visual art through watercolors, and I am proud to have one of her masterpieces on my wall. Emily’s no rookie, having already published two other books with a co-author, so she’s well awareLCOA of the time and challenge of taking the traditional route to publish her latest creation.

Therefore, in 2014 when Emily applied for an individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and the Illinois Arts Council, it’s really not that much of a leap to believe she won the grant. As a result, Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd became her latest masterpiece within one year, self-published through the generous support of this Arts’ program.

I held the book. I propped it up between the shift and dashboard to stare at it. Then I held it again, until we reached my front door. To know Emily is already a gift. To understand and access her vision of life in various stages is such a huge and special expression of the world  that only her words within the pages of this book begin to articulate it.

I can only hope to one day have a book of my own, capturing so many universal truths, to share with others. This creates a standard tough to achieve, but still worth the effort. To journey through all the physical, emotional, wonderful and agonizing experiences my friend has conquered, and to capture them with such presence of mind, is a rare talent. As is Emily.

The book will be available in print and electronically on Amazon and on her website, emilycalvo.com, later in October. It’s a holiday present no-brainer just as it’s a must-have for anyone searching for some sanity in this otherwise crazy world we call home.

I’m so happy and proud of you, Emily. And so honored to call you my friend. Congratulations!

Fairy Tales Coming True, It Can Happen To You

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Once upon a time a little girl with long brown hair lived in a castle with her mom, dad, sister, dog and other pets, like fish, lizards and hamsters. She had her own bedroom painted pale pink, her favorite color at the time. Eventually she even had a full wall mural of a sandy beach with water and palm trees, and a blue suede chaise lounged in front of it.

Her sister, 8-years her senior, had a room right next door, painted in her then favorite colors of navy blue and yellow. She had a long closet where her friends signed their names, leaving permanent messages in pen and marker.

The castle was remodeled with the top floor converted into a giant master bedroom suite, huge walk-in closet, a long bathroom with a shower and a whirlpool bathtub. The addition, like a loft, overlooked the downstairs living room. Looking up were double doors revealing a beautiful office with custom-made bookcases and a large cherry-wood desk sitting in the middle. On the opposite wall upstairs sliding glass windows brought the sun and the stars inside, the chirping language of spring’s first birds, splashing water and laughter from kids  playing in the pool.

For a brief time, the little princess with the pale pink room liked sleeping upstairs with her mom and back-scratcher. It was 13 stairs up to the master bedroom where double doors opened to the huge bedroom and a sitting area complete with a couch, television, plant stand and some more books, separated from the office only by the long bathroom.

During this bewitching period in the past, the moon sitting on the horizon, the young princess felt compelled to climb up the stairs, look at her mom and the empty spot next to her on the bed, then return to the double doors and yell down: “Dad, can I sleep up here with mom tonight?”

Both the mom and dad waited excitedly every evening, hoping to hear those few precious words.

Next the little girl would lie on her stomach, legs stretched over her mom’s, her back in perfect reach for scratching and massaging. She never wanted her mom to pause, nor did her mom want to, but soon she was asleep. I would straighten her out so she could rest comfortably through the night.

Those nights flew past with unfathomable speed, and soon enough the little princess didn’t need  mom rubbing her back to help her go “night-night.” Instead her bedroom became her sanctuary with closed door, long phone calls and something called MySpace introducing her into a larger world she would one day conquer with successes even her greatest admirers still can’t envision.

Mom still alternates between abandonment and accomplishment, recalling those times tucked under the duvet in the big bed with her little princess, sharing magic that happens when backs need to be scratched and Full House is running a new episode.

Last night, a successful, beautiful woman stopped by the family’s down-sized castle in a rare moment of free time. It was particularly special because for a couple of hours she lie next to her mom in the big bed, watching TV, chatting, occasionally texting and often just resting comfortably and quietly next to me as if we’d quietly traveled into once upon a time.

In each second I appreciated the differences, both minuscule and monumental, reveling in the miracle of a parallel past and present storyline magically merging into moments my memory routinely replay until this new episode unexpectedly ran. Every now and then if you pay attention life will give you a peek into something seemingly unbelievable—like fairy tales coming true.

Those Short Summer Breaks

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I have a princess visiting over this and next week. She’s everything one imagines of royalty: beautiful, poised, self-confident, someone you’re proud to say you know and be seen with. Of course, as is also true of royalty, she can be high maintenance. She prefers to be served her favorite food on her schedule. She counts on her wardrobe clean and at her disposal. She enjoys books read to her, arbitrary trips to her favorite stores, mani-pedis and at least one person with or near her at all times.

Those who know me have already guessed I’m talking about my six-year-old granddaughter, Princess Caitlin. There’s a three-week gap between camp and first grade. Her mom, the original princess and my oldest daughter, Jill, has taken off the third week. She’s excited to get her pix1354681652941daughter new supplies and wardrobe for the start of school, 12 years that neither of them realize zip by in such a distorted span of time it defies any normal understanding we have of days and years.

After all, it was only a few years ago we were preparing Caitlin’s mom and aunt for grammar school, then high school and finally college. And now they’re out in the world doing remarkable things without holding our hand or calling us for permission or even advice. So when Jill asked the family if anyone might be available to watch Caitlin during the two weeks between camp and her week off, I didn’t hesitate to ask for every one of those days.

Caitlin grows more independent by the minute. She prefers Justice, a clothing story, over toy stores, Buffalo Wild Wings over Chuck E. Cheese. She’ll ask for Nutella and crackers too close to dinner time. She has known every word of Olivia Helps with Christmas for at least three years, but she asks me to read it to her all the time. And if I step out of the room for more than a few minutes, a sing-song, “Grandma where are you? Are you coming back?” is routine.

Sure we’re spoiling her. But she’s a loving, caring, kind little person who somehow also knows this time together is special and doesn’t expect everyday life to be as accommodating. At the same time, her grandfather and I know all too well that being able to make this remarkable little girl content so easily is a finite ability. Happiness will be more complicated, her needs something only she can find a way to achieve.

Thankfully, Jill agreed to let us revel selfishly in the little time we have left to soak in all that is Caitlin, fighting over our own time to spend with her. Soon enough we’ll revisit paddy cake paddy cake and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with our new grandson while Caitlin follows her mom and aunt out into the bigger world where greatness awaits her, too.