Saturday, October 25, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Cruises

The possibility of an Ebola outbreak on a ship is, among other things, nature's way of reminding us that it can perfect anything which we design. In this case, the reprisal is that even the most dreadful place to which people voluntarily locate can be rendered more insufferable. Bah on me, some say, for disdaining this popular vacationing practice. Let me count the ways of their error.

The most obvious source of discontentment with the cruise is what it lacks. What ought a literate individual think of a place with no library and where the only repository of knowledge is the instruction to log onto the wifi and locate the lifeboat? What of a place where you can't get live music that doesn't feature an electric guitar or a has-been third-rate pop singer? Live shows abound, some say, to which I reply that while I've always wanted to see Agamemnon performed on the Lido deck, it's surprisingly hard to find on these boats a show devoid of feathers, tassels, and dancing animals. Pindar writes in Pythian 10 that the happy Hyperboreans of legend live indeed without work and battle, (πόνων δὲ καὶ μαχᾶν ἄτερ) but also that their ways never lacked the Muse, (Μοῖσα δ᾽ οὐκ ἀποδαμεῖ τρόποις ἐπὶ σφετέροισι.) It is no vacation without them. Yet even if the Muses don't travel the high seas in search of vessels, surely I may be lured aboard by the sumptuous amenities of our floating paradises?

The food, it's always the food people talk about, as if the mainland lacks sufficient quantity and variety. This might be understandable since the sea air does seem to whet the appetite, but why does it have to be a buffet, the non plus ultra of engorgement? You can do little more to render food unappetizing than to present it in large quantities, so what kind of man salivates at the sight of trays of chicken legs, hundreds of cupcakes, and pounds of scrambled eggs? I pass over the hideous sight of people, queued up for their hourly feeding, ladling gobs of food onto their plates. If there is a grosser display of herd mentality than the sight of people flocking to the faintest whiff of food and grazing upon it simply because it's available, then I prefer ignorance. To those who champion the thought of fine dining at sea, it surely does not need to be noted that nothing is fresh on a boat which doesn't catch anything.

To this floating asylum, which is to me but a few roasting heretics short of a stop on Dante's infernal tour, we can add the criticism that the sheer scale of the vessel deprives you of the joy of sailing and the sea. It is in fact only on the perimeter of the decks that you might even notice you're on a boat. Is one's decadence such that he needs all the things which enjoys–and we won't criticize him again for his tastelessness–to be added to a boat so that he might occasionally choose just to take sight of the water? This is my chief criticism: the cruise has managed to render further indolent even the act of vacationing. It's not convenient enough to be relieved from the stress of work and pleasant enough to enjoy some special treat, but the cruise promises to spoon feed us from a floating smorgasbord.

Is it such a terrible crime, though, to gather one's favorites in one place? Surely I would enjoy a seaside, if not seafaring, symposium of classical music and languages. Perhaps my criticism of cruises, then, is one of economics: they are perfectly catered to the most vulgar tastes.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On Entertainment

Amidst my morning routine yesterday I happened in a spare moment between tooth brushing and showering to spy the humble hamper tucked in its corner. Within, interspersed with the inane accouterments–socks, undershirts, and so forth–I saw neatly layered each day's dress shirt: Monday's blue pinstripe, Tuesday's red checks, the crisp white one from Wednesday that fits just so well. Like a core sample of ancient Arctic ice the hamper told the story of my week. So under the steamy cascade I thought what a curious record the hamper was. It's not quite so flattering as to say how many students I taught, but far so more than revealing how many times I tied my shoe or swore at errant drivers. The question remains: how do we measure our time?

Alas the reckoning is going to comprise much time spent on tasks which do not flatter our species. Namely, we must concede that we spend an abysmal quantity of time sleeping. If slumber truly is the half-brother of death, then the dormitive part of our existence has robbed us of a great deal. Adding to the reckoning the other corporal indignities of feeding and cleaning ourselves reveals no further cause for celebration, either. I don't suspect we would boast of the time we spend showering and eating.

It is not just the care of our bodies, though, which troubles us, but too we are absorbed by preparations for that care. We must work, for as Hesiod wrote, κρύψαντες γὰρ ἔχουσι θεοὶ βίον ἀνθρώποισιν, the gods hide from men the means of life. Either we acquire or trade to acquire the essentials, yet in either case this is mere sustenance. Keeping oneself healthy is certainly necessary, but it is not the making of a fulfilling life. Yet what does one acquire beyond essentials save what we call luxury? How commendable or significant is it to spend on what is by definition excess?

We can now see in these differences that the spending of our time is split into three groups: that which we do out of necessity, what we do for the sake of something else, and what we do for its own sake. It is this last category which interests me insofar as it is a small one for which little time remains. What should we do with what time we are at the liberty to use at our pleasure? One phenomena seems to take pride of place in the modern west: entertainment.

It's a rather ignoble word for an ignoble status, merely being held by something. Entertainment maintains our attention in some minimally agreeable way. It satiates, but does not satisfy. We used to have more precise words than entertainment, words which have the slightly negative wring they ought to. Take pastime. It's not offensive, but there is the ring of decadence to it which puts us off: who truly has so much time that he can simply pass on some of it? We all have a little to waste, I think, but not much. The point of the slight is that we ought not overindulge, lest too much time pass us by wasted on slight matters. Another useful term is diversion, best exemplified by the musical form of the divertimento, a light and pleasant piece. Diversions take you away from the cares of the world for a little while. They are but little respites and in this light there is a Stoic dimension to them: we only rest as much as we need to so that we might be more fully devoted to serious matters. Finally, we once used frivolous to concede that something was trifling but could be spared some time for the brief pleasure it would bring.

In place of these precise words we have fun, by which we usually mean anything which catches the fancy of an individual. The subjectivity implies legitimacy. Don't bother Jon, he's having fun on his unicycle. Who am I to judge John's fun? Too we must assent to the wisdom of recreation, by which people do not mean refreshment in the Stoic sense we mentioned above, but rather anything which one likes, preferably that which is fun.

Etherized under the surgeons of progress and commerce waits an old word, amusement. Not the frivolities of "amusement" parks, not bendy mirrors and clowns, but the powers of the Muses are our a-musement, our leave taking of the ordinary for the delight of art with the daughters of Zeus and Memory. We may run afoul of Pope's pun that poets are bemused, but better poked by a pun than stuck in the torpor of entertainment.

Our free time is not meant for trifles, refreshment, or consumption, but inspiration. In the creation of song and dance and poetry we can find the elevation, the elation of ourselves more satisfying than the satiation of earthly appetite. Our holidays are not for vacations to the Caribbean, but to Parnassus.

Moderation demands I make an enervating caveat, which is that there exists some time for entertainment. A slight amount for slight things, and perhaps ulterior purposes, on occasion. Likewise, one cannot dwell too long on great matters without a loss of perspective. We must strike a balance between the quotidian and the eternal, as I don't imagine anyone would want the record of his life to show only dissipating trifles or ponderous severity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Face

One of the fascinating parts about life in the metropolis of New York City is how seldom people look you in the eye. Everyone walks about with face glued to phone or pointed at the ground. If you walk about with head held up, as I do out of equal parts propriety, pride, curiosity, and contrarianism, the moment you lock eyes with someone will be a moment of revelation. Some people immediately look away, a few smile, and some ignore or pretend to ignore you. There's always that sense, though, that when you see someone's face that you've truly seen them, that is, some essential aspect of them.

For example, if two people walk down a hallway, the only two present, each can ignore the other in full and obvious knowledge of that other's presence. Yet should they meet face-to-face, some acknowledgement is required. Similarly, a celebrity whom everyone knows by a thousand movies will shield his face from a candid shot and a defendant in a trial about which everyone has read will hide his face coming out of the courthouse. This is of course illogical, for everyone can put the preexisting image of face together with other knowledge, and yet we hide ourselves. What does the face reveal which we hide out of shame?

Something about the human visage is rife with meaning and truth. It can store in the mind of the viewer seemingly every memory of that person. One glance and all thoughts rush forth, hence both the affection and aversion which a face can elicit. I can languor over one image in my mind forever and yet be so soured by the sight of someone that I avoid seeing even the tiniest little picture of that individual. This dual capacity to trigger both good and bad always reminds me of a line from Cicero's De Officiis, Book I, in which he reflects on the sad sight of a lesser owner dwelling in a house once owned by a great man:
O domus antiqua, heu quam dispari dominare domino!
What a sadness it is, how pitiful, to look at a face and think of how good a person used to be. It is not only discomfiting, but odiosus as Cicero says, to look upon someone, or oneself, and hold in your mind some thought of their or one's own failing. How much more does the deed, whether a mere misdemeanor or dastardly offense, seem to have wounded none more than the doer himself. The wrong seems to cling to and mortify the face as Socrates said it did the soul.

A fable tells the story of a lion who, chasing another, stumbled upon a well. Gazing in he saw his reflection, dove in, and died.
Saepe furiosi plus sibi quam aliis nocent.
How vulnerable, too, the face. How easily can a smile vanish, or wide-eyed joy turn to fear. Philosophers have often wondered just what makes something beautiful and I wonder whether fragility plays perhaps a small part in our estimation of the beautiful. Delicate objects seem to welcome us as they trust our presence not to hurt them, and for that trust we are rewarded with some deeper insight. The affinity is such that we hope authentic the suspected origin of our word delicate in Latin's delicere, to entice, and delico, to reveal. In contrast, who is not put off by a poker face or a concrete facade?

It is beauty alone which seems to reveal to us a nature which otherwise prefers to hide. How fortunate then that it is something we can see in each other.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Tourism

Giving voice to unrestrained scorn is one of the chief pleasures of life. No need to moderate or burnish one's arguments and no caveats, no exceptions are required. It's with no mild excitement then that I can express my extreme disdain for what is today called tourism.

What a waste of a good word, though. The Greek τορν- stem revolves around woodworking and lathing, like Latin's tornare. With their extended definitions of fashioning and finely finishing off, you couldn't seek a better metaphor for cura pursonalis. Yet this has nothing to do with tourism, which involves no philosophy of betterment or understanding but borrows a baser meaning from its linguistic roots, namely that of going in circles.

Now by tourism I don't mean mere travel, for clearly there are many reasons which necessitate a change of locale, so many and obvious we need not discuss them. Nor by tourism do I even mean mere sight-seeing. Foolish as I think sight-seeing may be, there is much in the world worth seeing firsthand. True, people don't prepare themselves by study to appreciate these sights, but it's not inconceivable that the sight of a great work of art or a natural wonder might prompt appreciation and insight which mere study did not. Ever the generous optimist, I pass over these practices.

By tourism I mean the crass acquisitiveness with which some people idiotically prance around foreign lands–any place not their home–and locust-like desiccate the environment of its natural splendor. Tourism uses the native land and people for entertainment, for mere amusement. It seeks to suck and siphon the experience of the denizen and citizen without contributing to the society of which it is visitor. Tourism merely tosses off those coveted, crisp dollars to the shopkeepers and guides so the tourist can play native for a while in a counterfeit experience calculated to sell a lifestyle as a commodity. This is to say nothing of the endless kitsch stamped to bottle and sell every virtue of the land.

As if this vulgar imbecility were not offensive enough, consider the degree to which the tourist is untutored and unprepared for his travel. He is ignorant of customs, geography, transportation, and far too often, of his host's language. Preparations not withstanding, the tourist invariably mocks its hosts, either by mimicry, presuming he's mastered his host's manners, or by the effrontery of refusing the customs of the land.

The heinous combination of ignorance, arrogance, and abuse we find in the tourist is the antithesis being a guest. This much preferable title descends  from Latin's hostis, meaning both foreigner and enemy, and the Indo European ghosti-, meaning strange. How kind is it of a guest to concede his status as stranger and walk with some humility among his hosts. How gentlemanly is he to regard his presence as a favor from his hosts. What a humane concern, his desire to contribute, thank, and reciprocate. If the contrasts sounds harsh or extreme consider this:

While a guest stays at your house he helps wash dishes, listens to grandpa tell stories, follows your manners without being obsequious, thanks you, and departs with gratitude. The tourist pays you a fee and demands tours and that you speak his language, and before he departs photographs all of your most valuable possessions. The guest walks as a gentleman, in gratitude, and the tourist with head held high as a conqueror. He peers over the visited lands and peoples, mere trophies bagged by peregrinate, pecunious huntsmen.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I'm Back, This Time With Metaphor

In a post from last month I dared to offer some advice to the youth and led that counsel with this same picture to the right, which I neglected to explain. The lack of explanation is ironic and perhaps telling insofar as I've failed at least once at following all of those choice tips I offered since I wrote them. True, I enjoyed modest success, but my failure was such that the post became a chastening reminder both to strive and forgive. Notwithstanding or perhaps because of my failures, it seems a good time to explain this picture, which is as good as any representation of life that I can name.

Keep your boxes of chocolates, uncoiling threads, chess games, and even your trees: life is balancing spinning plates on sticks. Putting aside the obvious analogy of balancing responsibilities, there are a number of features which delight me about this representation.

First is the fact that you can only spin one plate at a time. This is consonant with my experience that I can either make tests or grade tests, scan articles or wash my car, shop for dinner or take a rest. One can balance multiple projects, but at any given moment only one gets your attention.

Second, each plate will only spin for so long. Nothing in life is ever done. Plates will still need filling and washing, quizzes will need grading, and essays will need to be written. Most of all, you've never done enough for your loved ones.

Next, you can't stop when you're in mid-spin. When you commit to something, you're committed, and if you let it fall you ought to be prepared to pick up the pieces. Worse, one falling plate tends to take others with it. If you're done with something, end your commitment with as much grace as you can manage.

Fourth, you can't see all the plates at once. You just have to trust that once something has been set up it'll go on for at least a little while. If you start to give everything a second guess, you're doomed. Still, look out from the corners of your eyes now and then.

Fifth, it's not at all impossible, but it's a separate skill to accept and work with help. The two parties need to delegate, commit, support, and leave each other space. They also need to trust each other. Also, sometimes competition is healthy, sometimes not.

Sixth, you can only manage so many plates. Even if you are an extraordinary talent, when you're spinning a lot of plates, you're not spending a lot of time on each one. True, they're all spinning, but that's not necessarily satisfying for you or the plate.

Finally, success is possible, and rewarding. Look at his face as he spins that last plate. He's about to enjoy one moment where he can just sit and take in all the spinning grandeur of his handiwork, right before he hurries back to that first wobbling plate.

Speaking of which...