15 July 2018

Road Trip: Hawaii 5-0

Years ago, I added to my website that the workshop might "come to you" if "you are someplace I'd like to visit."  It took a decade for it to work, but this year a grad student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa finally took the bait.

Thus in early May we were off to Oahu to teach for three days, and then popped over to Mauii and The Big Island to suck in the heat, make vitamin-D, and enjoy sandy beaches and volcanoes under the rarest of all commodities in central PA--a sunny blue sky.

So naturally it rained the whole time I wasn't teaching.

Nonetheless, we took in what we could, exploring the grassy hills off the western shore of the island of Oahu shortly after our arrival.
The afternoon of our first day also included hiking along the craggy beaches of the northwestern corner of the island.
The next three days were spent on campus blathering away, but in the evenings we slipped out to check out things like the Koko Crater Botanical Garden (situated inside an old volcanic crater).
And the Spitting Cave just below these sandstone cliffs, which are accessed by a muddy trail squeezed between multi-million dollar private estates.
On the sunniest day of class, EZ took a stroll on Waikiki Beach.  The picture was enough for me.
But after the last day of class we spent more time along the southwestern coastal route, pausing at Hanauma Bay
and the Nu'uanu Pali state wayside en route back through the interior.
On our fifth day, we took in the Byodo-in Buddhist Temple near the Japanese cemetery on the eastern side of the island.  In 1920, 43% of Hawaiians self-identified as Japanese; by 2000, it was down to 16%, although many more have Japanese heritage.
After hiking through the botanical garden of the mossy Waimea Valley on the northern shore,
we were treated with Wimea Falls (and a great many bathers).
Swinging further west to the northwestern shore, we hiked past volcanic formations in clear blue waters toward (but not reaching...) Kaena Point.
Inspired by a scene from Hawaii 5-0, EZ celebrated his 50th state at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl crater, overlooking Honolulu.
In addition to tidy rows of white headstones, the memorial has a series of murals explaining various Pacific campaigns (from WWII through Vietnam) through exquisite tile mosaics.
That evening we flew off to Mauii, where we spent day 6 driving the Road to Hana.  The bucketing rain made for overflowing waterfalls, but must have dampened the spirits of the dozens of convertible Mustang drivers who found themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic along the route.
Although the white and red sand beaches we aimed for turned out to be on inaccessible private land, the tiny Waianapanapa black sand beach was open to all.
The next day we finally took in the attraction that had motivated the entire trip, which I had found so fantastic in 2001 that I was able to convince EZ to check off his last state after all:  Haleakala Crater National Park.  Sadly, he'll have to take my word on the amazing 10,000-foot-high V-shaped moonscape valley dotted with lava flows and 14 cinder cones, because we could see, quite literally, nothing.  Rain and fog reduced visibility to about 10 feet.  Same thing for the Ioa Valley.
So then it was off to the big island of Hawai'i, where the eighth day was spent taking in the Saddle Road that squeezes between eastern Mauna Kea and western Mauna Loa (neither of which we could see through the clouds).
The rain well fed Umauma Falls on the northwest coast,
but totally obscured nearby Akaka Falls (which we think must have been where the whitish cloud extends downwards in the center of this image--or not).

We had better luck at the roaring, but muddy, Rainbow Falls
and could just still catch the Pe'epe'e Falls.
As if the rain was not enough, our arrival coincided with the start of the latest Kilauea eruption.  So our tour on the ninth day of the southeastern coastline,
to explore older (circa 1983) lava flows, involved road closures and detours.
What was a minor inconvenience for us, however, was a major pain for local residents being herded out of the area by the National Guard.  And since then, the 2140 degree-Fahrenheit lava has destroyed 700+ homes and boiled away one of the only two freshwater lakes on the island.
From a highway that has since been partially covered with fresh lava flows, at the time we could only imagine what was to come while peering at plumes of smoke and steam rising from Leilani Estates.
Which in retrospect makes having snuck into the nearby, closed, Lava Trees State Park to capture a couple old lava tree-casts seem a little imprudent...
At the time, however, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park will still partially open, so we enjoyed yellow fumes rising from the perpetually stinky sulphur banks.
We were able to drive down part of the Chain of Craters Road, catching variously aged and sized craters while hiking in the rain.
Although Kilhuea crater has been the site of gaseous emissions for decades, the plume that rose into the rain clouds may have been a teeny bit bigger than usual.  Five days later that steam exploded and distributed some refrigerator-sized rocks.
But from there we moved further west into the clean prevailing winds, where we stopped on the south coast for Punalu'u black sand beach.
Climbing north along the western coast, we toured the sacred royal grounds of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park,
and historically captured JP shortly before the thunderstorm began.
On our tenth and last day, we visited Lapakahi State Historical Park in high heat and humidity (marking the first and only use of sunblock)
and hiked out to the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Park to see the ca. 1200 mysterious forms carved sometime between the 13th and 17th centuries.

15 June 2018

brain rules

It's true:  I've had Bellingham, WA on the brain.  Because it was at a Good Will there that I came across a copy of the 2008 book by John Medina entitled brain rules.  

Medina, a molecular biologist, outlined 12 "rules" that modern research has revealed about how to get the most out of our brains.  Some are a bit pedantic (#11, there are gender differences during development) and some we really ought to know by now (#1, aerobic exercise promotes cognition and wards off dementia and depression; #7, sleep aids memory, motor skills, and reasoning; #10, we are first and foremost visual learners).  But a few are worth thinking about.

Such as the fact that we learn best in safe environments far from social anxiety (#2), under only moderate stress situations (#8), and when using multiple senses (#9).  This last one has interesting implications for the Digital Generation.  Us old fogies tend to despair when we see youthful heads bowed over an electronic screen as if in homage to the Internet God, but research shows that we learn best when exposed to simultaneous multi-sensory input (e.g., interactive animation with audio narration).  The best teacher out there, it turns out, is Minecraft.

Which makes me wonder if society should be debating what is being taught.  Fortunately, learning can be revised (#6).  Our brains like to make a coherent story out of the information they receive (which is one reason to never trust an 'eye witness'), so if you re-expose someone to material, preferably at regular intervals and in a bit more depth each time, the desired coherent story becomes fixed in long-term memory.  We can use this to learn new things, or to revise our memories of past experiences:  tell that tall fish tale enough and it replaces your original memory.

The Digital Generation is not entirely off the hook, though, as it is also now known that we do NOT multi-task (#4):  our brains process one task at a time in a linear series, so every time we are interrupted in our work we literally have to rethink to get back to where we started.  Young people don't really notice, because their brains are so fast this happens very quickly, but all the mental effort put toward keeping track of multiple linear series of thoughts interferes with committing those thoughts to memory (i.e., learning).  Not only does it take 50% longer to commit something to memory when there are frequent interruptions (i.e., 1.5 hrs instead of 1), but you make 50% more mistakes (e.g., get a 70 rather than an 80 on a test the next day).

Somewhat to the horror of all modern pedagogues, the best way to accurately and reliably commit something to long-term memory is in fact...repetition (#5).  But not the old rote memorization of yesteryear.  To make it stick, you have to lure your attention and reinforce what you learn by repeating and re-exposing yourself to greater detail at fixed intervals under replicated conditions.  Perhaps the most surprising factor to aid learning is a sense of wonder (#12):  what works best is to let your own natural curiosity unfold.

So if you really want to learn something, cut the stress, get a good nights sleep, and pay attention while repeatedly exposing yourself to meaningful narrated animations that visually present one idea at a time while you are physically active and in a safe environment.

In other words, we'd learn a lot more if we never left Pre-School.

30 April 2018

Amnesie in litteris

In our latest frenzy of book purging, it has been shocking how few of the tomes we have re-read were actually worth re-reading.  To be fair, our sampling is highly biased as we're mostly reevaluating things we haven't read in a very long time, and our tastes/patience (as well as the standard for keeping a book) have changed over time.

Nonetheless, I was so delighted to come across this short story by Patrick Süskind that--after letting Google Translate do the heavy lifting--I've decided to share it with you.  Maybe you are still too young to appreciate it, but for me it is painfully/hysterically apropros.  Süskind's character is an author, who has been posed a question:   

What was the question again?  Oh, yeah:  Which book most influenced me, really imprinted upon me, shook me, 'got me on track' or even 'threw me off course'?  That sounds a bit like a shock or a traumatic experience, the kind that, at most, plagues you with anxiety dreams but doesn't really rise to the waking consciousness, let alone affect your writing or your public persona...hmm, it occurs to me that an Austrian psychologist, whose name I've momentarily forgotten, in a very readable essay whose title I cannot remember with certainty, but that was published in a little volume under the collective heading I and you or It and We or I Myself or something like that (and I can't say if it was recently reprinted by Rowohlt, Fischer, dtv or Suhrkamp, ​​but the cover was green-white or pale-blue-yellowish, if not gray-blue-greenish)... 

Well, maybe the question wasn't really about neurologically traumatic reading experiences, but rather a life-shattering artistic experience, like in the famous poem "Beautiful Apollo" (no, that's not it, it was called something else...the title was somehow archaic, "Youthful Torso" or "Ancient beautiful Apollo" or something like that...whatever), like in this famous poem by...umm...I can't think of his name right now, but he was really a very famous poet—with cow eyes and a mustache, and he got that fat French sculptor (what was his name?) an apartment in the Rue de Varenne, but Apartment hardly says it, it was a palazzo with a park you couldn't cross in ten minutes! (one casually wonders, how did they pay for it all)—at any rate, as it is expressed in this magnificent poem, which I can no longer quote in its entirety, but whose last line is indelibly engraved in my memory:  "You must change your life."

So, about which books could I say that their lessons changed my life?  To shed light on this problem, I (only a few days ago) walked up to my bookshelf and glanced down the row of spines.  As always on such occasions—when too many specimens are gathered together in one spot and the eye loses itself in the masses—at first I got dizzy, and in order to stop the dizziness, I reached into the mass at random, picked out a single book, slunk away as if it were my quarry, opened it up, leafed through, and got sucked in.  I soon realized that I'd grabbed a good one, a really good one.  This was a text of polished prose and the clearest of thought, peppered with interesting, unprecedented tidbits and full of the most wonderful surprises.  Unfortunately, as I write this, the title of the book no longer comes to mind, nor the name of the author, nor the content—but as one will soon see, that is all quite irrelevant or, perhaps to the contrary, even contributes to the elucidation.  It was, as I said, an excellent book that I held in my hands, something to be gained from every sentence, and I stumbled to my chair while reading, let myself down while reading, forgot while reading why I was reading in the first place, and felt nothing but a concentrated desire for the delicious and complete novelty that I discovered there page by page.  Occasional underlines in the text or exclamation marks scrawled with pencil in the margin—traces of a previous reader that I usually do not appreciate—didn't even bother me in this case, because the narrative was so exciting, the prose bubbled so cheerfully, that I no longer noticed the pencil marks, and if I did then only in agreement, because it turns out that my reading predecessor—I have not the slightest idea who it might have been—turns out to have made his underlining and exclamations in exactly the places that excited me the most.

And so, inspired by the superior quality of the text and the spiritual companionship with my unknown predecessor, I continued reading, delving deeper and deeper into the fictitious world, following with ever greater amazement the beautiful paths the author led me down... Until I came to the culmination of the story, which elicited from me a loud "Ah ha!  How well thought!  How well said!" And I closed my eyes for a moment to contemplate what I have read, which, as it were, had beaten a pathway into the confusion of my consciousness, opened up for me completely new perspectives, infused me with new insights and associations, and, indeed, given full measure to "You must change your life!".   

And practically automatically my hand reached for the pencil as I thought "you've got to underline that and write on the edge 'very good' with a thick exclamation mark behind it, and jot a few notes in the margin on the flood of thoughts this passage has just released, to aid your memory later on and to document your reverence for the author, who has enlightened you so greatly!"  But alas!  As I lowered the pencil to the margin to scribble my "Very good!" I found there is already a "Very good!" written there!  As well as a pretty good summary of what I wanted to note, and in a handwriting that is quite familiar.  Namely, my own, because my reading predecessor was none other than me.  I had read the book long ago.  I was gripped by misery; the old disease had me again:  amnesia in litteris, the complete loss of literary memory.

I was flooded with a wave of resignation over the futility of all striving for knowledge, all striving per se.   Why read, why read this book again, when I know that after a short time not even the shadow of a memory of it will remain?  Why do anything at all if all comes to naught?  Why live, if you die anyway?  So I close the beautiful little book, stand up and sneak back to the shelf like a total failure, like a beaten man, and sink it in the row with the other anonymous, forgotten volumes.  But the end of a row catches my eye.  What's that?  Oh yes:  three biographies about Alexander the Great.  I once read them all.  What do I know about Alexander the Great?  Nothing.  At the other end, there are several compilations about the Thirty Years' War, including five hundred pages by Veronica Wedgwood and a thousand pages on Wallenstein by Golo Mann.  I slogged through all of that as well.  What do I know about the Thirty Years War?  Nothing.  The row of shelves underneath is cram packed from front to back with books about Ludwig II of Bavaria and his rule.  I did not just read that material, I worked it through, for over a year, and then wrote three screenplays about it; I was practically a Ludwig II expert.  What do I still know about Ludwig II and his rule?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Well, I think, when it comes to Ludwig II, maybe total amnesia isn't so bad.  But what about the books over there, next to the desk, in the more splendid literature section?  What did I remember from the fifteen-volume set by Andersch?  Nothing.  What of the Bolls, the Walsers, the Koeppens?  Nothing.  Of the ten volumes of Handke?  Less than nothing.  What do I still know about Tristram Shandy, what of Rousseau's confessions, about Seume's walk?  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  But there!  Shakespeare's comedies!  Most read just last year.  Something must have stuck there, a vague idea, a title, a single title of a single comedy by Shakespeare!  Nothing.  But for heaven's sake, Goethe, at least Goethe; here, for example, the slim white volume: "The Elective Affinities," I've read that at least three times—and not the tiniest glimmer remains.  As if it were all just blown away.

Is there no book on this Earth that I remember?  The two red volumes there, the thick ones with the red fabric trimmings, I must know them, they seem as familiar as old furniture.  I've read these, I lived these volumes for weeks, not so long ago; what is it?  what's it called?  The Demons.  Yes, of course.   Interesting.   And the author?  Dostoyevsky.  Huh.  Yeah.  I think I vaguely remember:  The whole thing, I think, takes place in the 19th century, and in the second volume, someone shoots himself with a gun.  I wouldn't be able to say more.  I sink into my desk chair.  It's a shame, a scandal.  I've been able to read for thirty years, have read, if not a lot, still a goodly bit, and all that remains with me is the dubious memory that in the second volume of a thousand-page-long novel somebody shoots himself with a pistol.  Thirty years of reading for nothing!  Thousands of hours of my childhood, my teenage and youthful years spent reading, and nothing retained except a tremendous forgetfulness.  And not that this evil subsides, on the contrary, it worsens.  When I read a book today, I forget the beginning before I come to the end.  Sometimes my memory is not even enough to capture the lessons of a single page.  And so I move from paragraph to paragraph, from one sentence to the next, and soon I'll be so far that I can only consciously grasp individual words, which flow out of a perpetually unknown text, like shooting stars only shining in the moment they are read, only to immediately sink again into complete extinction in the dark torrent of the Lethe River [of Oblivion].  For some time now already, I haven't been able to open my mouth in a literary discussion without horribly disgracing myself by confusing Mörike with Hofmannsthal, Rilke with Hölderlin, Beckett with Joyce, etc.

When I seek a quote that hovers just beyond my tongue, I spend days looking it up because I can't place the author.  And because I lose myself reading unfamiliar texts by total strangers while haphazardly searching, until I finally forget what I was originally looking for.  How could I, in such a chaotic state of mind, allow myself to answer the question Which single book might have changed my life?  None?  All?  Any?  I don't know.  But maybe—so I think to comfort myself—maybe reading (like life) isn't that different from decision making and seemingly sudden lifestyle changes.  Perhaps reading is more of an impregnation, becoming thoroughly absorbed into the consciousness, but in such an imperceptible, osmotic way that we are unaware of the process.  The reader suffering from amnesia in litteris is in fact quite changed through reading, but doesn't notice it because, while reading, the critical parts of his brain—that might alert him to changes—are changing along with him.   And for someone who is a writer themselves, the illness might even be a blessing, almost a necessity, saving him from the paralyzing awe inspired by every great literary work, and providing him with a liberatingly uncomplicated relationship to plagiarism (without which nothing original can arise).  

I know this is a comfort born of necessity, an unworthy and lazy consolation, and I try to avoid it:  you must not surrender yourself to this terrible amnesia, I think, you must fight the flow of the Lethe River with all your might, you may no longer sink head over heels in a text but must stand over it with a clear, critical consciousness, must excerpt, memorize, do memory training, in a word you must—and here I quote from a famous poem, the author and title of which I don't quite recall, but  the last line is indelibly engraved in my memory as a constant moral imperative:  "You must," it goes, "you must ... you must"  Argh, how stupid!  Now I have forgotten the exact wording.  But that doesn't really matter, because the meaning is still at hand.  It was something like, "You must change your life!"

From: Patrick Süskind: Drei Geschichten; Copyright © 1976, 1985, 1986 Patrick Süskind; Copyright © 2005 Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich.  http://www.buecherlei.de/fab/autor/rs/suesk.htm  

15 February 2018

Just Do It!

I was seeking chaff in the bookshelves when I sat down to re-read Richard Wright's Native Son, and found the germ of our existence instead.

Probably subconsciously inspired by the NFL national anthem protests (Go Kaepernick Go!), when it came time to pick an old book from among the dusty shelves for reevaluation I was drawn to Wright's 1940 novel in which a young black man in Chicago inadvertently murders a white woman and is surprised to discover that this act of destroying life becomes his key to being truly alive.

At first something about this doesn't quite seem right, but the apparent contradiction arises only when your definition of being alive idolizes the mere existence of organic life.  To most of us today, and white pre-WWII Americans, life can be simplified to a heartbeat and consciousness because in our world they are sufficient to imply all the rest of what we take for granted daily.  Precisely because we have few constraints on how we choose to live our lives, we don't feel compelled to list all the other things we associate with being alive--love, security, freedom, opportunity, etc.

Poor Bigger Thomas, though, was a poor, uneducated southern black man living under Jim Crow who had none of these things, and no prospects for ever having them.  He did not feel alive, but craved it just as we all do.  So when he discovered that he had committed the most egregious crime possible (touching a white woman, oh and killing her), he realized that it put him on a different plane from everyone around him, black or white.  He had broken the unwritten rules of society, defied authority, and acted for the first time in his life.  He had done something!  As Write puts it, "It was an act of creation."

Simply put, life is power.  The power to define your own identity, the power to make decisions about your own life, and the power to act on those decisions.  Life under slavery and then Jim Crow denied generations of black Americans all of the freedoms our constitution guarantees, stealing from them the fundamental powers that make us feel alive.  In a world that constrained his every breath, Bigger's only chance to have that kind of power was to break all the rules.

We don't have to break the rules to be alive, and yet we still often struggle to feel alive because we have forgotten what Bigger was only able to learn too late:  living is doing.  What makes us ALIVE is being able to make decisions, to control, to lead, to fight, to act, to DO.

Given our inherent freedoms, this actually shouldn't be that hard, but our society tends to make us feel like the only things worthy of doing are the stupendously big gestures:  grow rich, become President, go to the moon.  So when we realize that we are mere mortals and the scope of our doing isn't very grand, we feel like failures.  The resulting insecurity undermines our happiness in a vicious cycle in which we perpetually seek an externally recognized badge of success that is doomed to mortify rather than sustain because life is, actually, pointless.

No, I'm not a Nihilist:  the world is real (at least for us) and moral principals are very handy.  I mean pointless in terms of goal-less.  Life per se does not have targets for us; there is no objective, no purpose, no start, and no finish.  Just a beginning and an end, and our satisfaction does not depend on where we get or even how long we get to try, but on how we bumbled along; on whether or not we were able to act, to do, to feel alive.

And this is great news!  This is the cure for depression, apathy, sadness, and frustration!  Because even in our constrained mortal lives, we have the ability every day to make decisions, to control aspects of our life, sometimes to lead others and, when necessary, to fight against obstacles to our taking action.  In fact, we are often happiest when totally absorbed in the narrow minutia of a struggle.  Ironically, the challenges that threaten our very existence are often the key to living to the fullest.

So make a plan, and start implementing it.  One day at a time, not knowing where it goes or how long it will last, but knowing that you are alive just by doing it.  My God, Nike was right!  The secret to happiness really is

Just Do It!

30 January 2018

Irrational Faith

Trolling through our bookshelves, I recently discovered that I am a creature of faith. Which means I am totally irrational.

I did not see that coming.

As Bertold Brecht has the physicist say in his play Life of Galileo, "Without this faith, I wouldn't have the strength to get out of bed in the morning!".  Indeed, we need to believe in something, to trust completely in at least one foundational concept upon which we can build the entire structure of our lives.  The object of that faith, however, varies quite a bit from person to person.

For some, it is faith in a form of God.  For some, it is the strength of the State, or a tradition of Honor.  Others find security in the warm nest of their Family.  The recent rise in authoritarian politics reminds me that many have the most faith in Themselves.  

Brecht attributes faith in Reason to his Galileo:  "I believe in Man, and that means I believe in his Reason."  And that, too, is why I get out of bed each morning:  because no matter how stupid humans prove themselves to be (over and over again), I just can't let go of my faith that Reason will prevail.  After all, I've always been a fan of the Enlightenment, which was all about delivering us from the irrational, the Social Contract deified Reason, and even Adam Smith based the theory of economics on human rationality.  When Albert Camus says in The Rebel that "The future is the only transcendental value for men without God", he doesn't just mean the future per se, but our faith in how Man will behave in that future.

Technically, though, this means I'm insane, because even though nearly every time our society has the chance to do the right thing it chooses not to, I still expect that--any day now--it will choose the right things.  This desperate hope that, maybe this time, everything will come out OK can only be described as faith.  When Camus attributes to the Rebel the aspiration to "wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness", he embraces our fundamentally romantic nature.

But the problem with faith is that it is never right nor wrong, cannot be proved or disproved.  Faith is a theory that we proudly whip out whenever it jives with the facts before us, and quietly omit when something fails to support it.  Almost regardless of what it is, it is assaulted daily by the reality that life is way more complicated than can be explained by any single concept, so in order to stick with it no matter how often reality contradicts it, you need a lot of, well, faith in your faith.  And that means that faith in Reason is totally irrational.

There is a consolation prize, though:  it gives you purpose.  As Camus puts it, "[The Rebel's] only virtue will lie in never yielding to the impulse to allow himself to be engulfed in the shadows that surround him and in obstinately dragging the chains of evil, with which he is bound, toward the light of good." 

That's a pretty tall order, so it's a good thing I'm irrational enough to not care!