April 17, 2013

Wearing Sunscreen In This Water - From the Mundane to the Profound

While we're on the topic,  I also really like a good hard-hitting "how to live life" kind of speech.  Commencement addresses, when done right, can sometimes be a good source for this sort of inspiration and perspective.  (Even though the only thing I remember about my own college graduation was how blazing hot it was.  But I digress.)

At any rate, I've happened across two such speeches that I like very much over the past few days.

The first, well,  wasn't actually a commencement address.  But, as urban legend would have it, it was a commencement speech delivered by one Kurt Vonnegut.  Not true, as it turns out.  The "Wear Sunscreen Speech" was a 1997 column from the Chicago Tribune written by one Mary Schmich.  I remember reading it years ago.  Worth re-reading.  Not fall-off-your-chair awesome, but nicely done.

What I particularly love about it is the way it juxtaposes the mundane ("floss") with the profound ("Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind.  The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.").  Because that is what life is, a cross between the mundane and the profound.

Oh, and here's a couple neat things that Kurt Vonnegut actually did say:

  • "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind.
  • "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"
Yup.  He's good, that Kurt Vonnegut.  Kilgore Trout would be proud.

The second, entitled "This is Water," is a 2005 commencement address delivered by the incomparable David Foster Wallace.  I had never come across this before.  Love it.  This piece should simply be required reading.

Interestingly, it also touches on the connection between the mundane and profound.  Perhaps we're on to something here?!

Some snippets to entice you:

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?" . . . .  

If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning. . . .

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too. . . .

[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

'This is water.'

'This is water.'"

April 12, 2013

Quotes Quotidien

Tidy aphorisms.  Humor.  Concise thoughts on love, on life and how to live it.  By authors, scientists, poets, musicians, learned Jedi, luminaries of one kind or another, family members, and friends.

Over the past few years, I have become an obsessive collector of quotes.  And lately even more so.

I've always loved quotes - underlining and bracketing as I read, jotting them down here and there.  But lately, the urge to catalog, to bring them all together in an ordered list (AKA "The List"), has grown.  I'm not sure why.

Perhaps because, these little phrases, the things that stick in your head and in your gut and speak to you, they say something about who you are, or who you yearn to be.  Or maybe I just like the words, strung together so nicely.

Of course, there are other opinions on the matter.  Some feel that quotations are trifles, mimicry, unoriginal, repeating the thinking of others.  (As Dorothy Sayers liked to say, "I always have a quotation for everything; it saves original thinking.").  To that, I say - screw you Dorothy Sayers, crotchety 19th century British crime-writer.  I didn't even know who you were until I looked up "quotes on quotations" and found that quote of yours.  No no.  That's not it at all.  Nothing against Ms. Sayers.  

No matter.  I'm just with Ralph Waldo Emerson on this one: "By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote."

For me, there is something undeniably satisfying about a well thought-out, well-composed wisp of truth.  And that's what a great quote is.  A perfectly formed simple little nugget, the boiled-down essence of something universal.  The New York Times recently ran an article, We Are What We Quote, describing "the steading compactness and solidity of the ideal quote - the one that stands there bare and isolated and unencumbered, tiny enough to be grasped all at once, yet unfathomably wide an deep." Yup.  That's it.

So now I keep The List of Quotes, some of which I reproduce below.  The members of my hall of quotes are diverse.  They include my Mom (who gave me the advice I try to follow every day of my life to "Be.  See.  Do."), my son Jacob (exasperatingly and quite seriously explaining the American culture of sports to my daughter, "That's the *point* of Sunday, Lauren!  To watch football!"), and fictional characters like Yoda ("Try not.  Do or do not.  There is no try."), Optimus Prime ("Fate rarely calls upon us at a moment of our choosing."), and Gandalf the Grey ("Some believe that it is only GREAT POWER that can hold great evil in check.  But that is not what I have found.  I have found that it is small every day deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.").  And then, of course, there are other check-out-the-big-brain-on-Brad types like Einstein, Twain, David Foster Wallace, and Murakami.

If I try to break them up along thematic lines, it seems I favor quotes on adventure ("throw off the bowlines"!), living life fully, and just plain going for it.  But without taking ourselves too seriously:
  • “To live will be an awfully big adventure.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
  • “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain
  • "When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life." - John Lennon
  • “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry.” ― Jack Kerouac
  • “It is better to be small, colorful, sexy, careless, and peaceful...” ― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

  • "Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity." - Gilda Radner
  • “The most sophisticated people I know - inside they are all children. ” ― Jim Henson

  • “Our lives are not as limited as we think they are; the world is a wonderfully weird place; consensual reality is significantly flawed; no institution can be trusted, but love does work; all things are possible; and we all could be happy and fulfilled if we only had the guts to be truly free and the wisdom to shrink our egos and quit taking ourselves so damn seriously.” ― Tom Robbins
I'm also, it seems, a fan of various and sundry motivational "life advice":
  • "Action is the foundational key to all success.” ― Pablo Picasso
  • "When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." ― Henry Ford
  • “Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.” ―  Haruki Murakami
  • “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” ― Barbara Kingsolver
  • "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. " ―  Einstein
  • "Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is." - Bob Feller

  • "Greatness is a lot of small things done well. Stacked on top of each other." ―  Ray Lewis.
  • “How far you go in life depends on you being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.” ― George Washington Carver
  • “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” ― David Foster Wallace, This is Water

And then there is the funny stuff by comedians and non-comedians alike.  (And this doesn't even include Chris Rock, Robin Williams, or anything from the Daily Show!)  Where would we be without humor?!  As Thomas Mann wrote: "Laughter is the sunbeam of the soul.":
  • "Narrator: Inside Kyle's mouth, the muscles contract to force a smile, even though in his brain, Kyle is thinking, "dude, f**k you." - South Park  
  • "Nothing interferes with my concentration.  You could put an orgy in my office and I wouldn't look up.  Well, maybe once." - Isaac Asimov
  • "If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there are men on base." - Dave Barry
  • "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for I do not know" -W.H. Auden
And finally, I'm a huge sucker for quotes on the overarching impossible-to-understand forces that we all try to understand anyway:
  • “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.” ― David Mitchell
  • "Love is not consolation. It is light." ―  Nietzsche
  • "A person learns how to love himself through the simple acts of loving and being loved by someone else.” ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
  • "We are transformed not by being loved, but by loving." ―  St. Paul
  • “Longing on a large scale makes history.”― Don DeLillo
  • “Maybe the only thing I can definitely say about it is this: That’s life. Maybe the only thing we can do is accept it, without really knowing what’s going on.” ― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
  • "The good, the beautiful, the true are to be found in everyone, but very few people know that. People think that the true, the beautiful, and the good exist somewhere else, in someone else. They don't know that they are true, beautiful, and good at their core. Our whole life, we are looking for someone else to replace what we feel is missing" ― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power
  • “What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get in the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that's not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things.” ― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  • “There is no perfection only life” ― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being