Going Amish

Amish rockers

It seems that life is tougher now. Certainly more complex. On drives through the beautiful countryside around our home here in western Kentucky I often joke about “Going Amish.” We could write our families and tell them that we wanted to simplify our lives and make beautiful furniture. I could wear that cool looking broad-brimmed black hat and skip shaving. Stefanie could sport the bonnet and her elegantly tailored frock. We’d still drive around in our little screaming yellow Ford Focus of course. Wave to people as we drove by. Give the larger Amish community a bad name when people see an Amish couple cruise by in a yellow hatchback. Endure taunts of “Hypocrites!” and “Why don’t you get a therapist like the rest of us!!”

But is life really all that tough? I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s sense of deprivation since these are tough economic times. But it is relative. And a quick look back at the history of mere survival would suggest that it has been worse. Maybe tougher in some ways like finding something good to watch on TV. It certainly is tougher to remain thoughtful and sensible with our brains infested with all manner of perceived threats to the continuity of the world as we know it. And with major problems looming, it would seem like the right time to sit down and think of ways to make a change. But then any plan of change we come up with begins to seem more scary than where we are right now. So we react. We pull back. We get riled up and demand simple solutions. We demand that our leaders reflect our “core values” as if that alone would somehow make it all clear, in black and white. We forget the preponderance of gray which requires a political process that wends its way through complex issues towards imperfect solutions.

We know change is coming. When it comes to change our brains get into a little scrap where our intellect says “go” and our emotions say “no.” No surprise then that we tend to shut it down and get cozy with the devil that we know. And what works better when faced with daunting change than a good old political platitude, or the balm of soothing escapist entertainment. But what happens to old fashioned thinking and to reasoned discussion then? Where are those spaces between our “events” where we can just sit and reflect?  And what ever happened to all those chunks of silence when there was, for whatever weird reason, no entertainment?

Priorities change. Today its not so important to know things like which philosopher best represents a particular school of philosophy. Even a fan of philosophy like me has trouble bringing those details to mind. On the other hand, I have more luck recalling the featured menu item at some fast food restaurant. So why does “Hand-Breaded Chicken Fingers” spring with clarity to mind when I think of “Hardee’s” and “Existential someone-or-other” emerge through the fog when I think “Heidegger.”

I remember now. One’s easy and one is hard. One involves issues of life and death, being and non-being, and painstakingly scrutinized methods of thinking and speaking. And the other is just plain delicious! Its a no-brainer! (what did I say?). It wasn’t always like this, was it? Am I just imagining a time not so long ago when discussions lasted long into the night about personal interpretations of reality? Seems like silly pseudo-intellectual bloviating now maybe but at least our brains and passions were fully engaged. Like Greece during the first millennium when there were basically two armed camps fighting in the streets because they disagreed about whether Christ was “of one substance” with God, or merely “of like substance.” That all changed of course when we discovered that Life is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, smothered in secret sauce.

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Book it

Who knew. I love books. I read approximately a book a week and count myself deprived if I come up short on access to a book, even for a day. Much of the credit goes to the McCracken Public Library in Paducah, a place that doles out a burbling stream of titles for me to peruse and bring home for free. Well, sort of. Because truth be told they are also on the receiving end of frequent late fees owing to the fact that I never seem to be able to toe the line on the three-week limit. But I’m pleased to pay up since this library service, free of charge to those less time challenged, seems altogether too good to be true. What a world… anyone can walk into this lovely air-conditioned space, sign up for a card, and gain the right to take any book in the building home to read. No charge.

The library is my shrine. Because of the books that are there and because of the abject liberty of their access. But also because its a community place where the congregation gathers around ideas. We can’t do without this resource. It offers sustenance for the culturally deprived brain. For free. Its a place where we borrow and return. It has internet. It has a quiet room. It has air conditioning.

We live in a different time now as someone told me. Yes, I noticed. Snippet time frame. Get it now and keep it short. Tweet or die. Attention deficit disorder as the new social norm. I’ve got to be honest with you.. I’ll take the long form any day. A place where a few choice sentences string together enjoyably enough to make entertaining paragraphs, culminating in well rounded chapters that actually go somewhere. Even quite possibly adding up to a book that actually means something.

And oh, a book! Excuse me Kindle and pardon my Ipad (I’ll certainly be getting around to owning you later…) but to hold a book in your hands and turn the pages. Ah… here is tactile sensuality. The cover art. The weight. Subtle pleasures. As in… gauging the portent of a new book from the way it feels. The inside cover giving you the teaser. The typeface do-or-die; right size, right feel, balanced against potential reward on the content. The first read on the opening paragraph. How does it “read”?

Then there’s the assessment of a book after its finished. I’ve had the experience with certain books of valuing their content so dearly that just holding them after finishing the last page provided me with a sensation that must be similar to what a medieval mystic would feel holding an icon of the faith. I’ve held books that hummed.

But now (as mentioned earlier) we live at a time where books are being called out. The paperless future beckons and the Kindle calls. As printed matter diminishes and electronic type ascends we will soon be at the point (are we there yet?) where the printed artifact becomes truly precious. Then we will revisit the days before mass produced editions. Strangely, this future may be much like days before the Gutenberg press, when hand-copied books were rare and incredibly valuable. In the not too distant future we may have a book in our hands that will be really worth something. If the book is any good, that is.

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Latitude

We attended a Sedar meal with our friends the Terras. Interestingly, when they married years ago they just came up with the name Terra and went with that instead of taking his last name… or hers for that matter. He’s an interesting guy, does ceramic art, some of his work is faces on the wall – some with clever phrases impressed into the clay with old pieces of letterpress type. She has the veritable light of life in her eye and has a way to just make things better. They own property on Lopez Island in the San Juans but moved here recently to dig our scene man.

Anywhichway, apparently, unbeknownst to me, he had thought about becoming a Rabbi at one time. So obviously he puts on one heck of a Sedar. I’ve only been to one other Sedar in my life entire and I can’t even remember the circumstance of that one. This one had all the basic ingredients, salt, bitter herbs, and of course the ritual dowsing of glasses of wine. He edited out most of the “chosen people” stuff (wasn’t Yahweh also the “chosen god” ?) and emphasized the personal responsibility sections. We all recited a promise together: when we return next year to the table we will have accomplished something that makes the world just a little better. That was very cool because although we often know this is the general idea of life on this planet, we usually don’t make it a public pledge. The evening moved on to an excellent full-course meal which featured middle eastern style chicken with prunes and olives (kinda tagine-like) and incredible marinated roasted eggs. We ended up the evening singing Old Testament stories in the form of lyrics to silly tunes like “The Adams Family”.

Around this Jewish table were people I assumed to be Christian (though unprofessed), an agnostic who shook his head “no” and another (me) who doesn’t really care for that label and tends to nod his head “yes”, and at least one professed atheist. The atheist happened to be ethnically Jewish, might just be why she was invited, who was was perfectly willing to join in on the more humanistic concerns while vocally gainsaying all the “God Stuff”. I don’t think we’ll ever agree and I understand why some people settle for atheism but to me its the “God Stuff” that makes this life interesting.

So that’s the basic extent of my spiritual experience lately. Other than daily life of course. I’m reading about the Scottish Enlightenment right now (think Hume, Locke, Adam Smith) and there’s a point in that history, after a young university student is hanged for daring to speak publicly about his issues with official church doctrine, that a movement begins to loosen the laws (meaning: “church law” which was one and the same with civil law at the time) to allow a more lenient approach to the personal spiritual path. They called themselves the “Latitudinarians” because they promoted more latitude in dealing with these renegade types.

So I’m a proponent of Latitudinarianism. Amazing what you find out about yourself by reading history. And I was thinking that I thought of it first.

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The Smell of Fresh Donuts

There are two types of people in this world, those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t. Well I think there are two types, except I also think that sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other.

If you don’t agree with me, you might want to read something by someone who thinks there is only one type of person in this world. Go read an article written by someone who thinks everyone in the world likes french fries. He would argue that those fries elicit a positive response from a set of receptors found in virtually every human subject. They are located in the brain’s “Fried Food” region. That region is mapped to the same spot in every human brain, with a neural connection the size of a T1 cable to both the salivary and the “Get in the car and go” regions.

I’m suddenly having a difficult time concentrating on the point I’m trying to make about there being two types of people. By stating the opposing view using the best possible argument I’m trying to remain true to the Socratic Method. But there’s a problem. My counter argument happens to involve something so distracting, so crisp and irresistible. So yummy!

By now it should be patently obvious that there are two types of people, those who stopped reading this to go to McDonald’s to get some french fries and those who didn’t. But why didn’t you? And why didn’t I stop writing? Well my reason is that I…must…continue…this blog. Those who left to go out for that universally scrumptious fast food did so because they became engaged with the image of “golden fries in that familiar red-box” that leapt off the page at the mere mention, and by now have followed it to its natural conclusion at the local franchise. The expectation of that predictably delicious experience in deep-fried comfort food was just too darn tempting to leave alone as unfulfilled temptation.

Okay, who’s left here? We few, we superior few. We are the ones who have not given in to gratifying the signals from our brain’s fried food region. So we must be looking for something else. And here I’d like to talk about a slightly different area of the brain: the area identified by leading scientists at a major university as “art receptors.” These areas turn on or off within seconds of encountering a new piece of art and result in either “Like it” or “Don’t like so much.” And though its possible to adjust this initial response through familiarity, or by providing background information on the artist’s intent, it remains exceedingly difficult to reverse that first impression. And I would argue that in the current era, this area of the brain has formed a major neural pathway to the fried food region.

This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?
This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?

So the art theory that makes the most sense to me is this: the art that I make should have something about it that is the equivalent of a fresh donut. Something irresistible. Not that the process should involve actually making donuts since that would entail developing a separate business plan. And not that the work should really be in any sense a meal of empty calories. This is about providing a certain initial attractive element, akin to the smell of fresh donuts.

And now the corollary to Dave’s Theory of Art: the smell of fresh donuts must be, in the end, false advertising. Once you’ve got people’s attention, once their noses are fully engaged with the idea that a good thing awaits, something else should be ready to emerge. That irresistible smell of fresh donuts must be the hook that grabs our curiosity. But that “something else” should be a real idea. That idea can start somewhere familiar and inviting… but it should also invite us to go off at some point, somewhere strange and surprising.

So there are certainly at least two types of people. But the real difference comes when you think about those types; there are those who think we are always only one of them, fixed and permanent. And there are those (like me) who think about what it might be like to be both of them.

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Glories in the Air

My little garden experiment came crashing down last week. I rigged up an arch over our back steps to support some Morning Glory vines. The vines took readily to it and grew across the arch, vigorous and abundant. I was so proud. The entire materials cost was something like ten bucks. By July we had to duck under them if we meant to exit the house in that particular direction. Then an early fall rain shower brought the whole contraption down. Apparently some flaw in my weight-to-structural-integrity-ratio sort of thing was going on there.

Anyway, I made an attempt to rescue it using a kind of rope as guy-wire approach but soon realized all was lost and tore up the vines and tossed them out back in a pile. The weird thing is that now for the last week they’ve continued to blossom every morning.

Its been a rainy week and that’s probably the real reason that those Morning Glory flowers keep popping open every day, transcendently blue as always and cheerful. But seriously, I ask myself, would other flowers do the same? The pile of zinnias I pulled up at the same time turned brown as expected with nary a trace of further florescence. I can only conclude that these Morning Glories are a phenomenon; miracle flowers with no roots in this earth. Here’s an afterglow of summer marking the sacred point when life moves out of the earth and into the air.

Morning Glories bloom on
Morning Glories bloom on
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