In the presence of the final mystery

black and white, Color, Portrait, travel

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“Culture, in the deeper issues, is no smooth, placid, academic thing. It is no carefully arranged system of rules and theories. It is the passionate and imaginative instinct for things that are distinguished, heroic and rare. It is the subtilizing and deepening of the human spirit in the presence of the final mystery.” John Cowper Powys

July, July

black and white, Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Month Summary, Photography, Portrait, Scotland, travel

The Books of July:

  • Home Game.  I love Michael Lewis’ books, and this one was cheap on Kindle.  It is a bunch of essays he wrote on fatherhood – and man, it sounds terrible.  I read it just before Alice’s brothers visited with their wives and small children, and in looking at the children, and then the parents, it was…terrifying.  First, these little creatures just dominate everything in your life, and are helpless, and cry at 5 a.m. and force you to just deal with them.  Then, intelligent, intellectual adults suddenly find it perfectly acceptable to make gibberish noises to communicate with small animals who don’t really understand what you’re saying anyway, and to be happy about it?  Back to the book: it’s hilarious.  
  • The Road.  Continuing the fatherhood theme.  The copy I have challenges people to put it down, and that was about what I experienced; I think it took me under 24 hours to get through.  A masterpiece, although I’m not sure I could read another of his books anytime soon.  
  • Sex At Dawn.  This was recommended by my friend Sunny, who is one of the smartest, wisest people I’ve ever met.  I made it through solely based on his glowing recommendation.  I thought it was absolutely horrible.  Summary: people like sex, and other than the fact that it is so common in human society, we don’t have any evidence that monogamy is natural.  There, I saved you seven hours.  
  • Total RecallI spent the majority of my reading time this month on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, which was surprisingly engaging, well-written, and occasionally honest.  It was fascinating to hear about his business ventures, his career, and the directions he has taken through life, but based on the omissions – a few of which, like the child he fathered with his housekeeper, he has to end up admitting later in the book, a few chapters after he promises California’s voters that he isn’t a philandering pig – one has to face the fact that autobiographies are inherently fictitious, because we only hear what the writer wants us to hear, and we all have very selective memories, and attribute things like success not to luck or chance but to our own skills, abilities, and virtues.  I enjoyed it, but it was a good reminder that everybody lies.  Including superheroes.  
  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things.  Another book someone recommended highly; I’d been looking forward to reading it.  It doesn’t apply to me much just yet, but it was good to read it and think about what I may end up needing to deal with in the future, if I’m lucky skillful, able, and virtuous.  

And that brings me to an even fifty books read this year.  I’m still trying to focus on quality, and utility; I don’t think I’ll hit 100 for the year, but I’m comfortable as long as I get quality thoughts into my brain.

Again, Alice’s brothers and their families visited this month.  It was amazing to realize that we’ve moved from a one-bedroom place barely big enough for the two of us to a four-bed place that can comfortably house eight people and two dogs (and maybe even more, if we got the sofa bed out).  It was also a good test of our hosting; August is going to pick up, what with the festival.

Then Carl and Gene visited.  They were recording in Abbey Road Studios again, and came up before heading back to America.  On their last night in town, we climbed Calton Hill and met a family from Illinois, visiting for a day.  They were talking about where they’d been and what they’d seen, and we traded some stories.  I’m always a bit hesitant to engage other Americans, for some reason – it’s as if I can feel special so long as I’m here, surrounded by Scots, but when I hear an American accent, or see a logo of a real American university (as opposed to the fake ones that pop up in European fashion shops), that illusion of specialness, of uniqueness, is shattered, and so my mouth clamps shut and I scurry away.  Sometimes, if people seem to be lost, I’ll reach out – actually, that happens almost daily – but much of the time I find myself trying to avoid fraternising with my compatriots and sticking to the people of this adopted land.

The Illinois family was a bit of a middle ground.  Gene thought the daughter was cute, so Carl talked to the father and I tried to talk to the mother.  They were normal Americans – careers in business development for an insurance company, and a housewife, two children, a suburb of Chicago, community events, annual vacations.  When they asked us what we did, I felt just like Jake Barnes when he and Bill were on the train in The Sun Also Rises, talking to the family who was visiting France, the two parents and a little boy who loved swimming.  I don’t have a life they could really identify with.  It was a bit embarrassing to say I lived around the corner with my English wife; I wanted to come up with a story that felt less indulgent, like I was a race car driver on a European tour, or an American Football quarterback on an off-season trip to my homeland, or a lawyer from Cleveland just taking a week to see Scotland.  But I was half a flask of Lagavulin in, and I could only come up with the truth.

On the last Friday of the month, Alice surprised me by bringing me to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes speak at Usher Hall. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently a bit of a legend here in Britain – known, at least in this country, as the greatest living explorer. He spoke for almost two hours on his adventures on seven continents and two poles; it was incredible to see him, see his fingers that he cut off himself because of frostbite, and hear his stories.

He had an incredible wit, as well, although it was marred at times by a sharp, blatant bigotry against…well, virtually everyone that wasn’t white, male and English. He’s a big UKIP supporter and Brexit fan, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but his jokes at the expense of others – particularly the Norwegians, the French, and women – cast an uncomfortable pall over the evening for much of the audience. It was a shame, really, as so much of his talk was otherwise fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.

The next day, we flew to Bristol, then drove deep into Somerset. We passed through farmland, and visited an incredible cider farm, and had tea and chocolate cake and played with pottery and felt.  Fiennes’ talk, and his chauvinism, were still on my mind as we flew, and then we broke through the clouds towards the airport.  As much as I thought that his bigotry was unnecessary, I thought: wow, his pride in country is absolutely justified. This is really a beautiful, extraordinary island; loving it could be no vice.

And while it seems to be struggling a bit with the modern world, like many countries, I suspect that it is actually doing better than most, because it has such a deep connection to its own history.  At one point, we were looking over the fields below the Mendip hills, and I thought: five hundred years ago, and even a hundred years ago, the highlight of the year would have been the annual trip across the valley to a market town, to sell produce and cattle and horses, to drink potent foreign brews, and to flirt with people you’d never seen before and perhaps find a match, for the night or for life.  And the local power brokers, with direction from the King or Queen, would have had the burden of deciding lives: judgment of crimes, divvying up proceeds from sales, collecting taxes, allocating land.  And even if telephone wires are strung across the fields, and we’re on the verge of getting driverless cars to zip us around, the landscape here is still ordered by those ancient traditions; land is still bordered by walls and shrubs older than any generation alive today, cows still bred from elderly lines, and trees that were planted as windbreaks for hovels now protect newly built mansions of Londoners who only come down for the weekend to enjoy the country life.

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The absolute highlight of the trip was visiting a cider farm. There were two barrels of sweet cider and two barrels of dry; the sweet barrels tasted different from each other.  When we asked the owner, Roger Wilkins, he said that they didn’t use any artificial yeast – they just let the cider ferment with the yeast on the skins, so no two barrels would ever be the same.  It was extraordinary to think that cider had been made in this way for a thousand years, and we were participating in that tradition.

We ended up spending the last day in Wells.  It was stunning, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Edinburgh.  We have been here a year this month.  Last year, were were fresh off of our six-month tour around the world.  I was just starting CodeClan, learning Ruby.  We were renting a tiny flat and didn’t know anyone in the city; we were trying to learn the geography, trying to get used to cooking in our new place, waiting for a shipment of our basic living necessities to arrive by Seven Seas.  I didn’t even know where North was, or how to buy a train ticket, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life.

I’m still not sure, really.  But a year on, we have so much to be grateful for.

Question

Color, Life Philosophy, Month Summary, Photography, Portrait, travel
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Monk, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

  • How can I be excellent at this?
  • What details do I really need to pay attention to, or improve?
  • What else can I do to improve this?

I was reading Tony Robbins this morning, then went in an Hermes shop at lunch; the two, combined, made me think of these questions on the walk back.  I don’t live my life actively searching for excellence; if it happens, great, but I don’t ask myself how I can improve nearly enough, much less excel.  That is frustrating to me – I feel as if I’ve wasted time.  “What do I need to do to excel beyond my wildest imaginations of my capabilities?” isn’t the question; it’s simply searching for excellence, not tomorrow, not even today, but right now, in this moment.

Trembling

black and white, Life Philosophy, Photography, Portrait

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“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

-Thomas Jefferson

June: a bit of darkness but far more light

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Month Summary, Photography, Portrait, Scotland

And then it was July.  I can hardly remember June; life has been fast, and hectic, and stressful, but the days are long and the skies are blue.

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New Town, Edinburgh

The books this month:

  • How to Make Sourdough.  This book reminded me of my friend Caesar.  He was a golf pro in London, and people always came to the course shop and bought drivers for, like, £400.  He would try to dissuade them by telling them that they could hit the ball better by spending £50 on a golf lesson to correct their swing; the driver might make a tiny difference, but it was their technique that was defective, and if they corrected their technique, they could pick up a £5 driver at a charity shop and still hit better than if they had a £500 driver and a crappy swing.  How it relates: I am now making the best bread I’ve ever made.  I’m using the same ingredients, but the results are better than I have ever seen.  The lesson: technique matters.
  • Notes from a Friend. Not nearly as long as his other books, but a nice reminder of his life lessons.
  • Exactly what to sayThis was a good book for short takeaways; I’ve already used it in several situations where persuasion seemed to hinge on a single phrase.
  • The Running RevolutionI am running an off-road half marathon in a few weeks, then another in Copenhagen in September, and then a marathon in October, and I wanted to get my technique tight.  Man, the first week, my calves were TIGHT.  But it seems to be paying off – I’ve never run so fast, so comfortably, for so long.  Fingers crossed and knock on wood that I don’t injure myself.
  • The Undoing Project.  A beautiful, complicated story about a beautiful, complicated friendship.  The end made me shiver.  I tried reading Thinking Fast and Slow after this, but I just couldn’t get into it; I’ll try again, but for now, I can recommend this as one of the five best books I’ve read all year.
  • Friday Night Lights.  I felt odd picking this up, as I didn’t care much for Texas, nor do I like American football, especially after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece on how it’s probably worse than dog fighting.  Then something clicked; the glorious descriptions of Texan autumn nights, the stretches of prairie and oil fields and moths dancing in the floodlights, the passion of people that don’t have much else to be passionate about – it’s all here, and it made me really think about America in a different way, because America really is a magical country; it enjoys a mystique around the world that I’ve always found hard to see because I’ve always been so close to it, it’s the core of my experience of government and citizenship, and suddenly I found myself feeling both intensely patriotic but also a far, far distance from what it is to be American, because I don’t know what it’s like to live in America right now, and feel as if I don’t know what America is anymore.  In the middle of reading it, I hosted a brunch for three families, all of whom had small children, and when the kids were playing on the ground and running around my living room, I was suddenly gripped by this sense that we’re all on a continuum – that there are untold generations who have gone before us and felt the same as us, and we’re at this truly unique period in time because it’s NOW, and through children, we stretch into the future, but we’re not the end; we’re just a point on a line stretching backwards and forwards and our moment in time is completely unexceptional.  What was so passionately important for the kids in this book – high school football games in a small city in Texas in the late 1980s – is remarkable simply because with distance, it is entirely unremarkable, yet their experience is our experience, is everyone’s experience.  So I closed this book feeling more American and more insignificant than I’ve ever felt before, which was great.
  • King of the World.  Friday Night Lights made me see history books in a completely different way.  Before, it was difficult to read them and identify with the people in them; I just found it difficult to imagine the situations that were described simply because most history books present facts with little attention to the humanizing details.  Either Remnick is an exceptional writer or my imagination is improving (or both); this was a truly great book about a truly impressive athlete.
  • The Great Gatsby.  I read this every June/July, when the weather is hot and it’s easier to imagine a summer outside of New York City.  Everyone knows the last line – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  But every time I read it, there are a dozen lines, a hundred, that make me think it’s just a long, glorious poem, and when I get to this section I pause and, if I’m alone, read it out loud; otherwise I mutter it under my breath, as I did on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, fighting back the tears:

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

At the Amish grocer, Winter, 2013

  • How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.  Work has been a bit stressful recently; reading this every morning before meditating has improved my life dramatically.  I’m calmer, happier, and feel far better about everything in my life.  Just buy it.

And that brings me to 45 books for the year.  Not bad.

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And now, Edinburgh is gearing up for party season; our first guest of summer came to stay.  I met Jon in 1997, when he was about to graduate from college and I was just starting.  We served on Student Senate together, knew dozens of people in common, and then I stayed in sporadic contact with him for twenty years or so.  At the same time, he has always been a special person, and a wonderful one, and it was so exciting to be able to welcome him to Scotland.  His visit became two very late evenings of incredible conversation; he studied philosophy, loves David Hume, taught piano for years to pay his way in Los Angeles, and is just breaking out as a big time screenwriter on huge projects.  But more than that, he possesses that magic glow of someone who is comfortable with being uncomfortable, and is confident in himself despite being perhaps too aware of faults he perceives in himself.  I hope that makes sense – I mean it as an exceptional compliment.  He is one of the most wonderful people I have ever known, and it was incredible to be able to spend time with him again.  His legacy: he doesn’t drink.  He said he likes alcohol, but he just doesn’t drink it; no terrible experiences, no history of alcoholism.  It was a choice – informed by, variously, health books, friends, and Ben Franklin.

So I decided to also not drink much anymore, too.  I want to reclaim my evenings, my weekends, my life – not that I feel I had lost them, but I simply wasn’t as effective when drinking as I could have been.  Talking with Jon about deep issues – news, philosophy, ideas, our lives – made me realize that alcohol just dulls me, for the most part, and I can be more interesting and more interested without it.  So thank you, Jon, for sharing your beauty and friendship with us.

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Finally, I’ve decided to avoid being in photographs for a year.  I want to experience things, not take selfies of myself experiencing them.  It is a bit awkward – try telling your inlaws that you don’t want to be in their photos – but it has also focused me more in my attention, my mindfulness.

So come to think of it, June 2018 was a pretty good month after all.

Practice

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, Portrait, travel
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Fisherman, Cochin, India

“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance…Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.” from Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer