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Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

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Etc.

Quotes of the moment

An ongoing series

“Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.” – Josh Ritter, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” – Paul Batalden

“From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. We don’t really die.” – The Dig

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” – Justice Robert Jackson

“There’s an eternity behind us and there’s an eternity ahead. This little speck right here at the center, that’s our lives.” – The Good Lord Bird (TV show)

“Help people to trust the compass, not the map.” – Susan David

Categories
Books Review Science

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

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Religion Science

Laboratories of theology

Here’s two quotes I re-encountered while going through my reading notes.

From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.

From Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane:

My sense is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.

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Etc.

Quotes of the moment

Thought it’d be fun to start another occasional series, akin to media of the moment and recent views, that will spotlight quotes I’ve gathered in my readings and viewings that struck me for some reason. (See also my quotes tag for posts with longer quotes.)

“You gotta be brave before you can be good.” – Hearts Beat Loud

“It is not enough to have learned, for living is sharing and I must offer what I have for whatever it is worth.” – Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” – E.O. Wilson

“A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.” – Claire Cameron, The Last Neaderthal

“Above all the Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping.” – Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

“The time to make your mind up about people is never.” – High Society

“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.” – Miyamoto Musashi

“Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” – Carl Jung

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” – Fred Rogers

“These are old forces. The magma and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings, and the way we survive this world because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without.” – A. Kendra Greene, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

“Time is a language, and it’s the best way to explain how I feel.” – Dawes, “The Way You Laugh”, Nothing is Wrong

“There is an instant drama to an encounter, but remember that beyond the single moment is the long and ornate process of living.” – Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues

Categories
Film Life

Final lines on second chances

(Spoilers for the films Soul and Driveways, two of my favorites of 2020.)

At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:

You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.

This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:

JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?

JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.

I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.

Which also hearkens back to the advice Viktor Frankl gives in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.

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Film Life

The wit and wisdom of Grumpy Old Men

Grumpy Old Men has become one of the few movies I return to every Christmastime, along with The Family Stone and It’s A Wonderful Life. Though (or maybe because), like those other movies, it’s only partially about Christmas.

It’s schmaltzy to a fault, but also an hilarious showcase for the legendary comedic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, forged over decades of working together.

Matthau was open about taking the role only for mercenary purposes. His co-star Kevin Pollak talked about chatting with Matthau on the set before their first scene together:

I said, “So, Walter, script’s pretty good, huh?” And he said, “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie $2 million.”

You’d never know it though. Matthau and Lemmon fully commit to their acerbic, chops-busting banter, which is the core strength of the movie.

The movie also stumbles upon a few bits of wisdom that have stuck with me, most of which comes not from the titular men but from the people around them. Like Ariel, the free-spirited neighbor turned love interest played by Ann-Margret. Here’s what she said to acknowledge the death of a mutual friend:

“We can be thankful that we had the privilege of knowing him while he was still here.”

She also drops this doozy during an argument with Lemmon’s John Gustafson, whom she accuses of being too stuck in his ways:

“The only things in life that you regret are the risks you don’t take.”

Finally, Burgess Meredith—absolutely slaying in a supporting role as Gustafson’s horny, incorrigible father—lends this uncharacteristically reflective bit:

The first ninety years go by fast. Then one day you wake up and realize you’re not 81 anymore. You begin to count the minutes rather than the days. And you realize that pretty soon you’ll be gone. And that all you have is the experiences. That’s all there is. Everything! The experiences!

The experience of watching the movie’s combination of sincerity, silliness, and un-Christmaslike shenanigans (along with its wondrously snowy northern Minnesota setting) is what keeps me coming back every year.

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Books Nature

Meditations on Hunting

Can’t remember how I came upon it, but I recently read Meditations on Hunting by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, published in 1972 and apparently considered a classic in hunting literature. It isn’t really about hunting itself, but the philosophies that undergird it and the meaning it can provide.

I found great wisdom in these quotes, and not only as someone who has hunted a fair amount of duck and a little bit of deer in my life. Hunting is at once an ancient activity that fulfilled basic needs and an altogether modern one that demands one’s full attention and respect for the nature beyond ourselves.

Ortega y Gasset incisively captures this dichotomy and everything in between. Here are some quotes from the book that stood out to me.

On diversion:

“‘Diversion’ usually indicates only comfortable situations, to the extent that, used carelessly, it connotes ways of life completely free of hardship, free of risk, not requiring great physical effort nor a great deal of concentration. But the occupation of hunting, as carried on by a good hunter, involves precisely all of those things.”

On life’s occupations:

“The life that we are given has its minutes numbered, and in addition it is given to us empty. Whether we like it or not we have to fill it on our own; that is, we have to occupy it one way or another. Thus the essence of each life lies in its occupations.”

“The fact is that for almost all men the major part of life consists of obligatory occupations, chores which they would never do out of choice. Since this fate is so ancient and so constant, it would seem that man should have learned to adapt himself to it and consequently to find it charming. But he does not seem to have done so.”

“All this indicates that man, painfully submerged in his work or obligatory occupations, projects beyond them, imagines another kind of life consisting of very different occupations, in the execution of which he would not feel as if he were losing time, but, on the contrary, gaining it, filling it satisfactorily and as it should be filled. Opposite a life which annihilates itself and fails—a life of work—he erects the plan of a life successful in itself—a life of delight and happiness.”

On happiness:

“All men, in fact, feel called on to be happy, but in each individual that general call becomes concrete in the more or less singular profile in which happiness appears to him. Happiness is a life dedicated to occupations for which that individual feels a singular vocation. Immersed in them, he misses nothing; the whole present fills him completely, free from desire and nostalgia. Laborious activities are performed, not out of any esteem for them, but rather for the result that follows them, but we give ourselves to vocational occupations for the pleasure of them, without concern for the subsequent profit. For that reason we want them never to end. We would like to eternalize, to perennialize them. And, really, once absorbed in a pleasurable occupation, we catch a starry glimpse of eternity.”

On hunting’s code of ethics:

“Hunting, like all human occupations, has its different levels, and how little of the real work of hunting is suggested in words like diversion, relaxation, entertainment! … It involves a complete code of ethics of the most distinguished design; the hunter who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps his commandments in the greatest solitude, with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the roaming cloud, the stern oak, the trembling juniper, and the passing animal. In this way hunting resembles the monastic rule or military order.”

On looking at past problems with today’s solutions:

“Every time man looks at a past life from his perspective of the present, he sees, alongside the problems that weighed upon it, the solutions which, for better or for worse, these problems received. And so it naturally seems that every past life was easier, less full of anguish, then the present life; it is a charade whose solution we possess beforehand.”

On the pleasure of ‘being Paleolithic’:

“This is the reason men hunt. When you are fed up with the troublesome present, with being ‘very twentieth century,’ you take your gun, whistle for your dog, go out to the mountain, and, without further ado, give yourself the pleasure during a few hours or a few days of being ‘Paleolithic.'”

“When we leave the city and go up on the mountains it is astounding how naturally and rapidly we free ourselves from the worries, temper, and ways of the real person we were, and the savage man springs anew in us. Our life seems to lose weight and the fresh and fragrant atmosphere of an adolescence circulates through it.”

On returning to nature:

“Man is a fugitive from Nature. He escaped from it and began to make history, which is trying to realize the imaginary, the improbable, perhaps the impossible. History is always made against the grain of Nature. The human being tries to rest from the enormous discomfort and all-embracing disquiet of history by “returning” transitorily, artificially, to Nature in the sport of hunting.”

On the physical senses of hunting (quoting Eduardo de Figueroa, 8th Count of Yebes):

“There is one of the hunter’s senses which must work indefatigably at all times. That is the sense of sight. Look, look, and look again; at all times, in all directions, and in all circumstances. Look as you go along; look while you are resting; look while you are eating or lighting a cigar; up, down, back over the ground you have just covered, at the hill crests, at the ledges and dells, with binoculars and the naked eye, and always be aware that if you know how to look, the beast that you have not found in eight hours of backbreaking work can appear within a hundred meters, when just at sunset, worn out and cursing your interest, you are taking off your shoes and caring for your aching feet in the door of a shelter or a tent. It’s good advice.”

On the need for attention and alertness:

“The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style—an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.”

On seeing the “least foreseeable” solutions:

“The only man who truly thinks is the one who, when faced with a problem, instead of looking only straight ahead, toward what habit, tradition, the commonplace, and mental inertia would make one assume, keeps himself alert, ready to accept the fact that the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”

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Life

We are who we deeply are

Listening to the latest episode of the On Being podcast, with evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, and I heard the host Krista Tippett say something while quoting Fuentes that gave me pause. From the transcript:

And even filling out the picture — this is from your Gifford Lectures — “meaning, imagination, and hope are essential to the human story, as are bones, genes, and ecologies.” And that’s kind of what we’ve looked at when we’ve told this human story of who we are, who we deeply are.

When I first heard that last part, I thought Tippett said “we are who we deeply are.” When I jumped back to listen to it again, I realized that wasn’t what she meant exactly. But I think that mondegreen is an intriguing idea to ponder. We are who we deeply are.

Which then begs the question: who am I—who are you—deeply?

Categories
Family Life

Hope to love you long

In his post on the emotional intelligence of long experience, Alan Jacobs spotlights a letter from the great 18th century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson to his younger friend, who at one point thought he had said something to offend Johnson:

You are not to imagine that my friendship is light enough to be blown away by the first cross blast, or that my regard or kindness hangs by so slender a hair, as to be broken off by the unfelt weight of a petty offence. I love you, and hope to love you long. You have hitherto done nothing to diminish my goodwill, and though you had done much more than you have supposed imputed to you my goodwill would not have been diminished.

I write thus largely on this suspicion which you have suffered to enter your mind, because in youth we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity, but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them. …

When therefore it shall happen, as happen it will, that you or I have disappointed the expectation of the other, you are not to suppose that you have lost me or that I intended to lose you; nothing will remain but to repair the fault, and to go on as if it never had been committed.

This is great advice for life generally, but also during election season specifically. I saw stories of people breaking off relationships with their family members and friends based on their politics—which is, in my humble opinion, a completely asinine thing to do.

Ideologies ebb and flow. Elections come and go. Relationships that matter should endure beyond all of that. If that means making certain discussion topics off limits, all the better. To act otherwise means the terrorists win. (I’m only half joking.)