Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Law of Fish and Humans -- Writer's Poke #367

Neon Tetras are tiny little fish, but they add a colorful element to a freshwater tank.

We had a 75 gallon bow-front tank with around forty fish. Neon Tetras are cheap, and so we decided to add a dozen. This group of new inductees liked to keep together; all twelve collectively were about the size of one of our Angelfish, of which we had six.

At the fish store, fish are color-coded to let buyers know which fish get along well with each other. A green sticker means that “fish play well with others,” and all of the fish in our tank were of the green-sticker variety. So it was a great surprise to wake up the following morning to discover that six of the newly-added Neons had vanished.

Where had they gone? Did they somehow escape the tank, making their way for the Savannah River – ala the gang of highly intelligent escape artists in Finding Nemo? We scratched our heads about it, but assumed that they must just be very good at hiding.

The next day, however, we turned on the tank light only to observe that all of the Neons were gone. Could the Angelfish have eaten the Neons? This was the only logical conclusion. The Neons had served as tasty treats for their somewhat ironically named tank-mates.

It reminds me of what Joseph Campbell writes about the condition of life: “killing is the precondition of all living whatsoever.” All living things must take the life of something else in order to continue living. Life snacks on death. For big fish, it’s smaller fish. For humans, it’s fish sticks. But humans are a little bit different in that they also snack on the living.

Think about this commonly-used human expression: “I made a killing.” When people say this, they aren’t speaking literally, of course. They are speaking about making a lot of money. But metaphorically or literally, the basic concept is the same. Earth is the fish tank for humanity, and it contains Angels and Neons, just to specify two types. And again, for the record, don’t let the name fool you. If an Angel needs to eat you to survive, it will. And if that Angel is human, assume that it will find a way to brag about it.

Are humans, in any meaningful sense, better than fish?

“You can make a killing but not a living.” – Robert Anderson

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Sin of Not Being Awake -- Writer's Poke #366

Yesterday my wife and I picked up our daughter before the preschool’s scheduled naptime. She was so happy to see us because she absolutely hates naps. We didn’t have any plans which required us to get her earlier than normal, but as my wife explains it, going to preschool is Tavi’s job, and everyone deserves an afternoon off now and then.

When we arrived home, Tavi was ready to take on her day; her mom and I were ready to take a nap. And we did. I used to be very anti-nap myself. I considered it a complete waste of an afternoon. How can I sleep when there’s so much that needs to be done? Recently, however, I’ve reconsidered my position on napping.

Joseph Campbell writes, “illumination cannot be communicated.” For years, my wife tried to convince me that sleeping away the afternoon actually increased her productivity. After all, she said, a successful nap allows a person to reboot. Waking up from a nap is like a second opportunity to seize the day. No matter. She couldn’t convince me. I had to make this realization for myself. I couldn’t understand until I was ready to understand.

Now I know, or at least I think I do, that being truly awake requires the willingness to sleep.

When are you most awake?

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake.” – William James

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dance Like a 4-Year Old -- Writer's Poke #365

The philosopher John Michael Montgomery once wrote, “Life’s a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Don’t worry about what you don’t know.”

I took my daughter to our first daddy-daughter dance this weekend; I think both of us were a little bit uncomfortable, because neither of us knows how to dance. Heading out to the dance floor is kind of like volunteering to be thrown into the deep end when you don’t know how to swim.

Perhaps the threat isn’t the same. That is, if you flop around on the dance floor, at least you aren’t going to drown. The best approach to dancing is probably just to go with the flow of the music. Yes, there are specific types of dances, such as the waltz, which have systematic, ordered steps. Even so, I assume the key even to those dances is to “feel” the music and let it run through your movements.

For a daddy-daughter type of dance, just ignoring everyone else made it a lot easier. We weren’t there for anyone else, anyway, but it was amazing to me to see Octavia close her eyes and move to the music. It was a natural process. It wasn’t something she had to think about. And she wanted to take up more and more of the dance floor. She didn’t want to stay still in one position. She let her feet explore the territory. She threw her head back; she swung her body from side to side. She let the music lead without fear.

Is this what it means to plan to be spontaneous? We planned to go to the dance, but we had no idea what we’d do once we got there. Typically, if it had just been me, I would have sat in a chair the entire night and observed. That’s not the mindset of a 4-year old, though. She immediately wanted to be out on the dance floor, whether she knew what she was doing or not. She had no interest in playing it safe.

How do you dance? Why?

“I would only believe in God if he knows how to Dance.” -- Nietzsche

Monday, February 13, 2012

Socially-transmitted Values -- Writer's Poke #364

Joseph Campbell’s insights are endlessly fascinating. He suggests that humans are different from animals; spiders, for example, innately knows how to spin a web from birth. Humans, on the other hand, have a pretty long learning curve. Just consider: how long did it take you to learn how to tie your shoes? Ride a bike?
Tying shoes and riding bikes aren’t normally considered to be cultural rituals, although at least in Western culture, it might be argued that both are milestones of sorts. More to Campbell’s point, however, is the idea that values are “socially transmitted,” and “myths are the mental supports of rites.”

What this means in the most basic sense is that we all learn what it means to be human. What it also indicates is that there is not one right way to be human. Just as different species of spiders might utilize different spider web patterns, humans utilize different myths. These myths may have different parts in common, but essentially we are defined by the myths our specific society chooses to follow.

Campbell suggests that a worldwide decline in the value of ritual occurred around 1914. This is the year often associated with the genesis of modern society. World War I taught European and American cultures that past rituals no longer worked. In the context of war, for example, the idea that two armies could face each other on the battlefield in the traditional way proved hopelessly out-dated. Charging the enemy no longer works when the enemy has machine guns.

Is it true that societies must “progress”? Campbell suggests this is the case; and while ritual may, on the surface, appear to be counter to the “progress” philosophy, he also seems to suggest that the power of ritual is its ability to free up our thinking. Rituals provide a necessary pattern that, somewhat ironically, produces organic spontaneity.

How do myths prepare us to be spontaneous? What do you think about the idea of preparing to be spontaneous?

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” – e.e. cummings