Thursday, August 18, 2016

Useless

The main thing in life, I guess, is to have a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, so to speak.  You need to successfully achieve that absurd state of being, the one where you are able to live meaningfully in an essentially meaningless universe.

It probably doesn’t really matter what you do, just so long as you do something that seems like it matters.  And presumably, the best way to do that is to have it matter to someone else, so they can convince you that it actually does.

There are lots of ways to do this. 

You can aim high and work at a non-profit whose mission is to save the world.  You can find satisfaction in the middle with a decent job that pays well enough for you to have fun with family and friends.  You can probably even achieve the desired state by bottoming out as a drug addict just so long as you’re addicted enough to care sufficiently about the drugs you’re addicted to.

I myself have had some success in lowering my standards sufficiently so that whatever little bit I do convinces me that it’s enough.  The problem with this is that it’s hard to maintain the illusion for very long, especially since the bar inevitably falls lower and lower.  As soon as it’s sufficient for maintaining my self-esteem that I, say, do some yoga, clean the house, and read a book on a given day, I find that subsequently, it’s enough to just read a book.  And then, soon, it’s a magazine.  And then, the newspaper.  And before you know it, I try to be satisfied simply surfing cat videos on the web—and even for me, that’s not enough, which requires restarting the process all over again.

They say that the key to happiness in life is to commit to something larger than yourself; I tried devoting myself to LeBron James; sorry to say it didn’t work.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Painful

I am 59 years old and have had a daily Ashtanga yoga practice for more than 18 years. 

During this time, I have experienced all sorts of aches and pains and have tried to work through them, using those physical sensations as a means to examine my experience and response to it. 

I’ve also had to modify my practice due to various injuries, including sprained wrists, bruised ribs, skinned knees, and jammed fingers.  My “higher self” seeks to accept each injury as a “gift” that provides me the opportunity to become more aware of my body; of course, I struggle to balance this aspiration with the frustration that follows from not being able to do things that I can do when I’m healthy.

For the past several months, I’ve been dealing with a couple of nagging pains that are bedeviling me and forcing a re-evaluation of what the yoga practice is; I’m not ready to give it up, but I am wondering what my practice will look like in a year or ten if things don’t change.

The first is a chronic pain in my left (bad) knee coming into and out of the lotus (heel to navel) position.  Oddly enough, once I’m settled in the pose, it feels fine, but the transition, as I straighten my leg, has been hurting for months.  I’m starting to believe, therefore, that it’s in my head, not my knee.  I have to stop expecting to feel pain for it to go away.

The other is the result of a sprain I incurred while playing softball.  My right ankle remains swollen after almost two months and causes me misery when flexed in various binding poses like marichyasana B or D; it has also rendered janu shirshasana B, where you sit on you heel, impossible.  The slowness of my recovery is what’s bothering me most; I can live with the pain it’s temporary.

If this is my life now, though, that hurts.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ad Hominem

When I do philosophy with 5th and 6th graders (or, for that matter, college students), I like introducing them to informal fallacies, especially the ad hominem fallacy, which is the infamous rhetorical error of attacking the person rather than their argument. 

I illustrate the ad hominem fallacy with the following example:

Suppose I were to present the following argument:
“Since yesterday was Monday and tomorrow is Wednesday, therefore, we can conclude that today is Tuesday.”
An ad hominem response to that argument would be:
“Oh yeah?  Well, you suck!”

Once students have grasped the concept of the ad hominem, we can then point out in class when someone commits one. If someone calls someone else “stupid” for believing, for instance, that cats are superior pets to dogs, we can share one of those lovely “learning moments” and explore a more effective way to respond to the argument in favor of cats.  It doesn’t take 11 and 12 year-olds long to get into the habit of identifying the ad hominem fallacy and only slightly longer to develop argumentative strategies that avoid it.

By contrast, more than a year into the current U.S. Presidential campaign, pretty much all the candidates and most, if not all, of the political pundits routinely, if not exclusively, employ the ad hominem in reference to the candidate they don’t support.

Trump, for instance, calls Hillary a “liar,” “crooked,” and “the devil.”  She refers to him as “racist,” “incompetent,” and “flamboyant;” (and, while these may be true, they still take aim at him rather than his arguments (whatever they may be.)

It’s even more obvious when you consider both candidates’ supporters.  I would defy most Trump voters to articulate the justification for even one of Hillary’s policies (even articulating one of her policies would be a stretch); and the main reason Hillary voters reject Trump is because of his character, not the reasons for his positions (assuming he has any).

Conclusion: both sides suck!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Consumption

At this point in my life, there’s not much I really need: a few carafes of coffee in the morning; the undying affection of millions around the world; an investment portfolio that guarantees me financial security for another three decades or so; but other than that, I’ve got it made.

And yet, oddly, I still find myself coveting things I don’t have: a pair of pants made from recycled water bottles; a bicycle that converts from a solo to a tandem and features a hidden electric motor for climbing steep hills; a bottle of bourbon so rare and expensive that even Saudi Arabian sheiks only hoard it for themselves.  None of these, and others, are things that I need, by any stretch of the imagination; however, with even the smallest bit of reach in my own mind, I find myself dreaming of acquiring them.

I see what’s going on here, of course: I feel some basic lack of completeness in my psyche, and I’m trying to fill it with material goods.  The usual strategies of oversleeping, alcohol abuse, and 24-hour cable sports don’t do the trick, so I look elsewhere—notably all around the internet—to find them.

Were I a better person, I’d surely find what I’m seeking by gazing within; as it is, however, when I introspect deeply, I keep running across that high-tech vacuum cleaner that runs perfectly silently and works equally well on rugs and wood floors, as well.  If only I had that, perfect harmony and lasting bliss would be mine.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors got by with nothing more than a pointed stick and a piece of flint; we’re hard-wired, apparently, to be satisfied with much less than we have.  Philosophers like Spinoza remind us that it’s much easier to change our desires than change the world; we should want what we have rather than wanting what we don’t.

Sure thing; and I’d want what I have, if only I had more.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Notianalism

Britons vote to “take their country back” by exiting the European Union; Donald Trump and his supporters promise to “make American great again;” even the Scots, who hardly seem the sort to get their kilts in a twist, tried recently to secede from Great Britain.

Frankly, I don’t get it; what’s the big deal with having your own country?  It’s hard enough as it is just to keep one’s own lawn mowed.

I always thought that by the 21st century, nationalism would be dead and we’d all be “citizens of the world.”  Historical boundaries and allegiances would be cast off and humanity would unite under a single flag.  No doubt the failure of the space aliens to attack and provide earthlings with a common enemy is part of the reason that hasn’t happened, but still…

Americans are taught that the USA is the greatest country on earth; Dutch children are told that Holland is number one; even countries like Canada where the name of the people who live there, Canadians, is based on the name of the country, are brainwashed to love their homeland above all others.  This all seems about as silly as being trained up to root for your hometown sports team above the rest; sillier, even since there’s no way America is ever going to win the Superbowl.

Civic pride is a fine thing, surely; we should all feel good about where we come from and the qualities we share with our neighbors, but ultimately, we’re all homo sapiens; let’s take back our species and secede from the phylum Cordata if anything.

Nationalism has been the cause of countless armed conflicts, untold numbers of international incidents, and some of the ugliest outfits ever designed for Olympic competition.  It’s time for the human race to set aside tribal loyalties and pledge fidelity to the entire family of man—not just national brother and sisters.

That way, we’ll actually be ready when the space aliens invade.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ideas

I want to invent the machine that turns my ideas into reality.  The problem is that  I need the machine in order to do that.

Ideas are much easier than execution.  If just merely conceiving of something could bring it into being, I’d have a stack of best-sellers under my belt to go along with several successful companies and a coffee shop that looked like a science lab where caffeine was dispensed in scientifically-measured doses.

“Genius,” said Thomas Edison, “is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration;” if only the numbers were reversed, I could be a genius.

If you’ve got an active mind, it’s hard to carry out your ideas.  It’s not that I get bored exactly; it’s more that once I’ve thought of something, the really interesting part is over.  “I always wanted to be a writer, but I couldn’t stand the paperwork,” is how Lily Tomlin put it.

To paraphrase Stephen King: just because something is hard is a terrible reason not to do it.  He’s surely right, but then again, terrible reasons are, in practice, just as compelling as good reasons.  Just because a reason is lousy doesn’t mean it doesn’t motivate; just look at all the things we’ve done in the name of pride, or fear, or boredom.

If I had three wishes, I’d naturally wish for more wishes.  Duh. 

But after that, I’d wish that by writing down an idea for a book would bring it into being.  Like this: here’s a book about how a gang of teenagers saves the world from invaders from another dimension by taking psychedelic drugs secretly given to them by their physician fathers during the 1970s that ultimately derails the lives of each of the young people and breaks the hearts of the parents who had no other choice if the human race was to survive.

The story runs to 600 pages and intertwines the lives of dozens; it practically writes itself.  Unfortunately, only practically.

Sports

I wish I didn’t care about sports.

It’s annoying, not to mention embarrassing, petty, and incredibly stupid to be made happy or sad by whether your preferred team of highly-paid grown men in pajamas prevails in a child’s game on television.

But there you have it.

When the Mariners—or the Pirates, Steelers, Penguins, even sometimes the Dodgers—win, I experience a little shot of dopamine that cheers me up more or less depending on the nature of the contest and how it played out.  When those same teams lose, especially after enjoying a lead, it’s like a little poke in the ribs or tweak in the nose; I really don’t like it.

It bothers me that my reaction is quite inconsistent with the importance of the event; I’ve been known to feel worse about seeing the Mariners losing in the bottom of the ninth than reading news reports of another mass shooting or stock market crash.  And then I feel worse that I feel bad, and so on, and so on.

I assume it’s possible to wean myself from this predicament; all I’d have to do is simply stop investing so much psychic energy in whether “my” teams wins or not.  It shouldn’t be any harder than stopping biting my nails or giving up milk in my coffee.

And yet.

Here I sit, watching the Mariners blow another lead and damn if I’m not having a worse day than I was when they were winning.  This surely makes no more sense than being displeased that Romeo and Juliet didn’t live happily ever after: for one thing, I can’t do anything about it and even if I could, so what?  It’s not like my health, wealth, or general well-being is affected by the outcome.

Nevertheless, after well more than a half-century of this, I’m apparently stuck.  I see only one way to not feel bad after this game: the M’s had better just come back and win.