Roadrunner Musings

A Virtual Book Club - What are YOU reading?!

We Take What We Want

“Most of us take from books and articles that which we need, or want, leaving the rest, often including the author’s intentions, behind.”

From “Paul Goodman in Retrospect” by Joseph Epstein (1978)

We take what we want, that’s for sure. I’m guilty. Sometimes I don’t even know it until I’m quoting and explaining something from a book I read and the person I’m talking to tells me that it’s not what the author meant. We all have an agenda in our minds, our backgrounds, opinions, and personalities help us interpret what we see and read. If we know something about the author of the book, we have a better chance at interpreting what they meant, but usually we’re going into reading things one-sided.

Recently, I learned that George Orwell was a Socialist until his dying day and that Animal Farm was not condemning socialism at all (like I grew up believing) but remarking on how good socialism was hijacked by power hungry monsters.

I wonder how many things are misinterpreted or used to support one person’s argument when the whole text doesn’t support it. Scripture from various religions is often used that way. Statistics and research reports, as well.

I often worry that quotes I post from the books I read may be interpreted opposite of why I shared them in the first place. I can’t stand politics and sometimes I post things and think…is someone going to read this and use it to support some asinine law or tax?! Or what if they think I support something that I don’t? But that’s the thing about creating and putting your thoughts out into the world. Once it leaves your mind, it goes out into the world and starts a life of its own.

Translating Thoughts into Words

“For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning raised, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

ineffable: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words

I only recently discovered this word and now here it is again! Thoughts don’t need words. We use words to translate our thoughts to others. Some thoughts are simply too complex for words. God can be described that way.

Let’s say that I have an idea, a complicated plan to create a machine to do something that you can’t conceive of needing. And you, well, you’re not that educated. Your vocabulary is limited because you’re just a simple farmer. It’s not that your stupid or unintelligent. It’s just that I have more experience with machines and all the words that go with them. (You can see my lack of an extensive vocabulary already, right? I know. I’m working on it.)

I explained this to my son this morning. “You mean like when you ask me what I’m doing and I just look at you because I do not EVEN have the time to explain…because…well…(sheepish look, is mom going to kill me)…it’s beyond you?” He has an honest way of talking that gets him in trouble sometimes. But he’s right, that’s exactly what I mean. It’s not an insult, it just is what it is.

Anywho…back to the quote…

This book is awesome. It’s effectively describing what has happened on earth several times over the millennia that humans have been on it. We build up a world, a culture, destroy it, live in the dark, and then resurrect it. I’m devouring this book and I’m hoping someone around here reads it too so we can talk about it!

Points of View

“”Vulgar” is the word intellectuals use when they mean “vile,” by which they actually mean in disagreement with their own views.”

From Commentary by Joseph Epstein (2010)

Vulgar: lacking sophistication or good taste; unrefined

Vile: morally despicable or abhorrent

I had to look those words up. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I may read a lot, but I’m definitely not a scholar but I’ve been trying to do a better job of actually understanding the meaning of a word, sentence, or paragraph, instead of just going with the feeling I get from reading into it. In the past, I would have thought “vulgar” and “vile” meant basically the same thing, but maybe had a different intensity of feeling. Obviously, from the definition of the words, that isn’t true.

Something can be vulgar but not vile. Blowing your nose at the table may be considered bad taste or ill mannered, but not morally wrong.

I snickered at this line in the essay because I saw in my mind’s eye, a snooty English professor type from an old melodrama, looking down his nose at a young backwoods auto-didactic attempting to discuss his political views. “A man like THAT can’t possibly have anything intelligent to add to OUR learned conversation!”

The thing about views, though, is that everyone’s view is slightly different. Even people on the same mountain top have a slightly different view because they all have different backgrounds that they brought up with them, different baggage from their childhood’s, different intellects and personalities. Not one of those “views” is morally superior to another, none can be “vile” or “vulgar.”

My conclusion: behavior can be described as vile or vulgar, not points of view.

Doubt vs. Denial

“If you doubt it, why bother studying the Leibowitzian documents?”
“Because doubt is not denial. Doubt is a powerful tool, and it should be applied to history.”

From A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

There’s something I hear all the time lately. Any time anyone tries to question anything they hear, they are shouted down with the word, “Denier!”

Holocaust Denier. Global Warming Denier. Covid Denier. Racism Denier. The hits keep coming.

I personally don’t know anyone that denies the existence of any of these things, but there are probably some out there. I do know many people that doubt things as they are presented to us on media outlets, myself included.

The news media, tv, newspapers, and magazines alike, are not the scientists or researchers. Politicians are also not scientists, doctors, or researchers. They are told things and then they present them to us in a way that gets them elected or keeps them in office. It seems to be that every “problem” they find has only one answer, “Give us more money and power.” So, yes, I doubt what they present to me. Call me crazy.

My doubt prompts me to do a little research and critical thinking of my own. No, I don’t conduct experiments, but I do go looking for a few articles to read and think about. Some things, though, I don’t bother with. I only have so much time and energy, so I must ration it.

Once again, I’m fascinated by a character from a novel written in 1959. Sixty years later, I’m thinking, “Yes! Dammit!”

What’s Your “News” Source?

“I guess I had this naïve notion that we had a very intelligent audience that didn’t need to be told how to think, how to vote, what to do,” Kolatch told the Times.

From New Leader Days: Can You Have a Political Magazine without Politics? By Joseph Epstein 2006

Where is THAT news source? I’d love to watch/read a source like that, one that gives information, “reports” on what’s happening and doesn’t project its feelings on it.

Why have things changed so much? Why does every news source assume passive consumption of other people’s thoughts on events is what their audience wants?

My husband likes to say, “If you think something should be run in a different/better way, then go open a business of your own.” In my case, my first response is, “I’m not a journalist or a businessperson. I just know what I want to read!” My second thought is, “I know that even if I was capable of creating, marketing, and running my own actual news outlet, it wouldn’t sell. There just isn’t a big enough market to sell to.”

The truth of the matter is that the largest audience isn’t “intelligent” and that isn’t a new thing. Most people in the world are simply trying to get through their day, pay the bills and take care of their families. They don’t have the time to read, study, and debate all that’s going on in the world. They just want to be able to trust that the guy on the news, or writing the article, is going to give them useful information and maybe a little entertainment as well.

I don’t know what the answer is. I just know that something is terribly different these days. I sit here wondering what happened, where are we headed? Very few of my friends and family members read anything other than some popular fiction. Most everyone I know gets their news from articles shared by friends on social media.

I’ve been trying some new things lately. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal but ended up cancelling after a few months because I got tired of reading the same “news” every day. I wish they had a weekend only version! I live in a small town, so getting my local paper is out of the question…it’s just so badly written. I think I’ll look into the Register and Times again, but they are usually so biased one way or the other.

Magazines are a hopeful source and there are a lot to choose from. The only downside is that it feels slightly wasteful to have them pile up…maybe I can share them?

How about you? Where do you get your news? Is it important to you?

Unachievable Goal – Understanding the World

Unachievable goal? Maybe. But it is still the reason I read, write, question, and explore the world around me.

“I am a man committed to understanding the world and how it operates, all the while knowing that I haven’t much chance in succeeding in this endeavor. What I do know is that the world is too rich, too various, too multifaceted and many-layered for a fellow incapable of an hour’s sustained thought to hope to comprehend it.”

From “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery” by Joseph Epstein

Lately, though, I’ve felt more overwhelmed than usual. There’s just so much coming in from so many directions that I have no time to process and reflect. I find myself needing to take several steps back, limit my exposure to the world, and refocus. What is currently most important for me to focus my energy on? What/who needs my immediate attention? I’ll tell you right off the bat what’s not…any present moment’s crisis outside my home.

Yes, I know…pandemic…forest fires…election…my high school friend’s cat…my ex-co-worker’s girlfriend…my distant cousin’s dinner plans… I’m sure they are all important to someone, but I just can’t right now. I need to start smaller. I need to focus here at home.

Myself. My family. My home. That’s what comes first during “SHTF” times, most times actually. Like Mark Manson writes about, there are only so many fucks to give, only so much energy each person has to deal with what life throws at them.

I’m limiting my input to books and a small group of friends and family. Social media, other than posting my reading quotes daily, is gone. My output focus will reflect those inputs alone for the foreseeable future.

“It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward;…”

F.L. Lucas “The Value of Style” quoted in Joseph Epstein’s “Heavy Sentences”

And that quote is why I write here instead of simply in a notebook at my desk. It helps me keep my mind right, which helps me run my life in more peace, and in the long run, helps my family and closest friends run theirs. While I’m at the work, I might as well share my discoveries here. You never know whose hands it will land in.

Wary of Newcomers

“Encounters between strangers in the desert, while rare, were occasions of mutual suspicion, and marked by initial preparations on both sides for an incident that might prove either cordial or warlike.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I giggled a bit when I read this and shared (read “bothered”) it with my sons. Set in the American Southwest 800 years after nuclear disaster, meetups in the desert haven’t changed much.

I exaggerate, of course, but people who voluntarily move out to the desert are generally looking for solitude. These days, because technology has made it more accessible, the desert is becoming more and more populated. To find real solitude, one must move farther out again.

Those who were among the first to set up small communities in the rural deserts are gone. Their succeeding generations that decided to stay and the next wave of peace seekers, are not wary of the newcomers and approach them carefully.

Why are you here? And can I tolerate your presence on the outskirts of my hermitage?

The stress is on the side of the newcomer as well. Will this stranger be one of those anti-social, “get of my property,” shotgun toting weirdos we hear of in old stories? Or will he be a friendly recluse, ready and willing to greet a stranger and talk about the weather for awhile over a cold beer on the porch?

Connection Through Words

“The personal essayist writes, I think, for himself and people – even though he has never met them – he assumes are potentially his friends.”

The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery by Joseph Epstein

That’s exactly why I write the things I do, in the hope that someone out there will connect with me through my experiences. I don’t even need to know you and we have moved humanity forward by sharing the things we love, the books we’ve read, and the events that have changed us.

Watch Your Words

He yells at the pencil, curses it with a stream of outrage. He glares at it with actual hate.

He sits tensely on the chair, his eyes wide, his lips trembling. He shakes with frenzied wrath; it sprays his insides with acid.

He quivers as he yells. And he wonders, deep in the self-isolated recesses of his mind whether he is killing himself with anger, whether he is destroying his system with fury.

The man is mollified. The systematic juices leave off bubbling, the fires sink, the coals are scattered.

But the anger is still there, apart. Energy is never lost; a primal law.

From “Mad House” A short story by Richard Matheson

If you had walked in while I was reading the last few pages of this short story, you’d have seen me holding the book away from my face and wincing as if I didn’t want to look directly at it. I knew what was going to happen from the outset. I’d seen a similar story on The Twilight Zone. “Why don’t you get out of here, Finchley!” And yet, my skin crawled and my heart raced as I finished it. I sighed a deep breath of relief as I put the bookmark back and closed the book.

I could see myself as this character. And I could see the author himself, using the frustration of writing combined with a quick temper to create a horror story, a “what if” kind of thing.

Lately, I’ve read a lot about watching my words, especially words I use to myself. Our thoughts create words that create our feelings. I’ve been learning new ways to help myself out of depression episodes and create more happiness and contentment in my life. And then this story comes up. I swear the universe does it on purpose to mess with my head.

When I grumble and complain, even to myself, my heart matches my feelings to my thinking, and I create a feedback loop of negativity for myself. What if those thoughts put power into inanimate objects and they fought back? Scared the crap out of me so much, I found myself being a little nicer to my stupid Chromebook when it started acting up again!

Get A Hold of Yourself, Man!

 I paused on these lines and thought, “That happens to me all the time,” underlining it so I could find it again later.

It’s the reason I post quotes like this on Instagram these days, a text has jogged a thought. I used to underline it and maybe make a note in the margin and leave it at that. Sometimes, if the passage struck me in a significant way, I’d write about it on my blog. Usually though, the thought came and went, and I rarely went back to it. I’ve always been jealous of people that can pull quotes from memory while they write or speak years after they read the book.

This quote got even more interesting when, at the end of my reading hour, I flipped back through the pages to create something for my daily post. I had highlighted several passages, but my eye went to this one again. Copying it down into the graphic, I was pulled in another direction.

“The condition, known as hysterical blindness, may be partial or complete, including one, several, or all objects.”

Have you ever been “blind with rage” or so upset you can’t see straight? That’s a form of hysterical blindness, anxiety so strong that your vision clouds and you feel blind. What causes that kind of anxiety? Huge transitions, deep grief, loss…global pandemics.

When we are living in a constant state of anxiety, we can’t think straight. Our minds, flooded with adrenaline, are blind to even obvious solutions to our problems, and we make terrible decisions.

I’ve been given a pretty healthy ration of shit lately for turning off the news channels, unfollowing/unfriending people that consistently share negative and nasty news articles on social media, and generally staying out of the loop when it comes to politics. How can I possibly make informed decisions if I don’t have all the “facts”? I’m hiding my head in the sand!

Stand by for imminent cliché…

We live in the information age, where we can be bombarded and inundated with “news” from all over the world 24/7 and I don’t think it’s healthy for any human being to live under that kind of stress.

I look around at my friends and family online and I see them under constant stress about things completely outside their control causing anxiety to the point of hysteria. I saw in it building up in myself, becoming blind to my immediate surroundings, so I put a stop to it. It hasn’t stopped me from completely freaking out from time to time. These are stressful times and, honestly, I’m tired of pretending they aren’t.

By opting out of the 24/7 news cycle, I’ve been able to focus on what is in my immediate realm of responsibility, my family, my home, and my neighborhood. My anxiety has lessened tremendously, and I’ve been able to think more clearly and make better decisions that benefit my life and those around me.

Reading the paper, watching TV news, or popping over to social media for a moment, reminds me of those old movies where someone is screaming hysterically and someone grabs them by the shoulders, slaps them hard across the face and says, “Get a hold of yourself!” We’ve all whipped each other into such a frenzy, we can’t possibly make logical decisions.

What else can I do but take a big step back, protect myself, and wait for the storm to clear? Humans have survived on this planet for a long time without knowing what everyone is doing, everywhere, at every moment. I don’t need anyone to make a law, start a movement, or create a boycott to make a decision that keeps my mind and body healthy and neither do you.

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