Archive | December, 2014

On Christmas letters and the many lives we live

26 Dec

Christmas Letter

The age-old question asked again: What is a life?

  • Is it working and dying?
  • Is it working, loving and dying?
  • Is it creating?
  • Is it destroying?
  • Is it accumulating great wealth, then giving that wealth away?
  • Is it joy?
  • Is it sorrow?
  • Is it discovery?
  • Is it about spiritualism and seeking?
  • Is it daily, incremental, almost immeasurable contributions to society that in the aggregate serve an unknown purpose and take civilization toward its unknown destination?

If you read Christmas letters, it almost seems as if life is an uneventful routine interrupted by vacations. In these letters, trips to Cancun and Jackson Hole are the highlights. Without them existence seems to be a neutral purgatory.

The Christmas letters I receive are well written, well intended and appreciated. Their authors give more time to holiday correspondence than I do. I look forward to them and recognize that they are general updates, not soul-revealing confessionals or philosophic tracts.

Then why do I see these vacant holes? What I’m probably seeing in the lives of others are my own disappointments.

There are studies showing that as people approach the end of their careers, they have this regret: I worked too hard and didn’t spend enough time enjoying life.

My regret is the opposite: I enjoyed life too much and didn’t work hard enough.

SontagOn the couch, enjoying life and not working, I recently saw a documentary on the late Susan Sontag, a writer of considerable note who was one of those strong, powerful voices of the 60s and 70s. She would use her intellect to arouse and shock; to awaken people from their slumber and begin a dialogue.

In the Nancy Kates documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag,” we see a person who from a young age was obsessed with knowing everything, filtering it with her perspective, then sharing it.

She wrote fiction, took photos and made movies, but was best known for her essays – her true voice. Ms. Sontag had many serious lovers and nearly all these relationships involved not just romance but art and creativity. In every way, at every turn, Susan Sontag was about learning and expressing herself.

That’s a life, but a hard one lesser beings to live.

We all can’t be like Susan Sontag, but to bring purpose and meaning to live – if not to our Christmas letters — we can find one thing that we enjoy and do it over and over again until it approaches perfection.

That’s a life, one that turns routine into bliss.

Jiro OnoA master’s of this approach is an 89-year-old man named Jiro Ono. He owns a tiny, 10-seat restaurant at an underground subway stop in Tokyo. By almost all accounts, he is the greatest sushi chef in the world. His remarkable life and work are explained in the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed by David Gelb.

The film starts slow and then builds. At first, it let’s you think that making sushi amounts to little more than grabbing fish and rice and melding them together with four or five motions of the hands. Deeper into the film, you see the intense, complex process that leads up to this final step. And it becomes clear that Jiro, as he approaches retirement, views each day as a gift that affords him yet another chance to better himself. When he says his apprentices must work 10 years before learning anything, you believe him.

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top,” he says. “But no one knows where the top is.”

As I viewed the marvelous film, I considered it one big metaphor on finding life’s calling regardless of class or stature.

There is a third approach to life and purpose that I’d like to discuss, and in a direct contradiction to my earlier statements on Christmas letters, it was in a Christmas letter that I found it.

The letter writer was a research scientist who had been a friend since high school. At the time, I was living abroad and out of touch with everyone. The letter updated me on a jarring ordeal through which my friend went. It led me to tears. I don’t have the letter in hand and cannot duplicate the emotional impact that was carried by the straight-ahead prose. So I will just state the basic facts.

My friend detailed the journey of her young daughter, who after becoming violently ill was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She covered the many surgeries, the ups and downs, the fear and scares and the small hopes. And then at the end, she expressed the incredible joy and elation of her ultimate Christmas present – that all traces of the tumor had finally been removed and that her daughter would grow up to live a normal life.

Could it be that the most meaningful life is one where you battle against the things set on destroying you?

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  KOREAN WAR/AID & COMFORTI once heard a former soldier discuss how sharp his senses became when he was placed in a combat zone. He said he was aware of everything around him, from a breeze shifting the leaves of a tree to the sun easing through a cloud. These heightened sensations were necessary to stay alive, but they also acted as an addictive drug and brought on a great high. He said that only while facing death could he fully experience life. When he returned home, safe and unthreatened, the sensations faded. He felt as if he had lost some godly power and slipped into depression.

The true life then may be one of basic survival.

When I posed my question about life at the outset, I didn’t intend to answer it, or even come close. Rather, I wanted to review a few possibilities. If you found something you can use, all the better. Writing this helped me sort a few things out on an intellectual level. On a practical level, I’m not so sure.

But as a result, I guess I have written a Christmas letter. And I didn’t even have to go to Cancun.

Merry Christmas to all. The best of the New Year, and the best of life.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I am an Etruscan!

14 Dec


In the year 800 BC, you could earn a king’s fortune by making something good, perhaps with new materials or a new technique, putting it on a ship, sailing it around the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, and either trading it or selling it.

Most of us don’t think of inter-cultural commerce when we think of 800 BC. It’s more likely we think of benighted barbarians. Of course, we’d be wrong.

In the 4.5 billion year history of the world, 800 BC is like yesterday. Much of what was done then is still being done today. (Look at the button on your shirt. It’s 5,000 years old.) What is sad is that we don’t know as much about that time as we should.

Etruscan_Map01_fullThere was an early civilization back then that excelled at trading, culture, technology and wealth accumulation. Comparatively little is know of them. They were the Etruscans, and I’m one of them.

If your ancestors are from the Tuscany region of Italy, where the Etruscans lived, you might call yourself Italian. But I’m finding that more and more people in this category are starting to classify themselves as Etruscans – the civilization that pre-dated Rome and for a time coexisted with Rome; the civilization from which Rome borrowed and then moved ahead, absorbing and eliminating its once great rival.

Much of what we do know of the Etruscans comes from the ancient writings of Greeks and Romans, who had nothing good to say about them — a sure sign of envy and jealousy. The Greeks and Romans criticized the extravagant Etruscan lifestyle, the culture’s public display of affection between men and women, and a then unprecedented equality between the two sexes.

That’s quite a culture.

At a recent party I spoke to an Etruscan friend of mine, Franca. She was born in Florence, in the Tuscany region. In a heavy Italian accent, she started talking about her ancestors and how everything that made Rome great was taken or learned from the Etruscans.

She scoffed at the Roman warriors who battled in chariots.

“Chariots were designed by the Etruscans for women,” she said.

Franca is a rare human being who by chance became my friend. She’s a marvelous storyteller. She knew Pavarotti before he became famous. He used to cook for her in his tiny New York apartment. But that’s another story.

Etruscan sculptureWhile I had been aware that Franca was a fan of the ancients – she has a ring made from a coin that predates Christ — I didn’t know until this party that her son, a college president in Switzerland, spends every summer digging at an Etruscan excavation site. He is an expert on these people. I’m unsure if he taught Franca or if Franca taught him.

The discoveries at Etruscan sites come mainly from the findings within elaborate burial tombs of the rich. The Etruscan elite had the habit of building tombs that were detailed copies of their aboveground homes. The tombs were filled with domestic items of all kinds as well as great art objects and jewelry.

This provides a window into the culture, but it is heavily curtained.

The problem with unlocking all the mysteries of the Etruscans is that their writing did not survive. They had their own language and their own script, but they wrote on linen, which was easily ravaged by time. Some Etruscan writing had been found on metal and stone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Then came the mummy.

There often are quirks, mistakes and random or unusual acts that end up having a profound effect on history. This mummy is one of them.

I learned of it not from Franca but from a Time-Life book called, “Etruscans: Italy’s Lovers of Life.” The story, with many twists, begins in the late 1840s when a Croatian noble named Mihael de Barc visited Alexandria, Egypt. It was there that he bought himself a genuine mummy.

de Barc took his treasure to a home he had in Vienna, and put it on display. For some unknown reason, he found it necessary to slowly, over time, unwrap the mummy. By his death in 1859, he had completely unwrapped it.

Stay with me, please. I’m getting to the Etruscan part.

An executor put the exposed corpse and the bandages – which contained indecipherable writing — in separate cases and shipped them to the National Museum in Zagreb. In 1891, someone figured out that the unraveled linen actually was an Etruscan book.

The only way to explain this is to assume that an exiled Etruscan had once settled in Egypt and a mummy-maker grabbed one of his books to use on a client.

As mummification preserved the body, it also preserved the linen.

This chain of events, so far-fetched it could never pass for fiction, has given the world the only surviving Etruscan book. And still we don’t know enough.

Whenever I read more about these ancient yet modern people, my fasciation grows. The Etruscans called themselves by a name not used by others. To them, they were the Rasna or Rasemma. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi (from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea). It was the Romans who called them Etrusci or Tusci (from which we get Tuscany).

They were great engineers, known for their roads and ambitious irrigation projects. Skeletal remains show they were exceptional dentists. (The design of the bridgework found in the mouths of tomb cadavers is still used today.) Their great wealth was the result of their talent at metalworking and the fact that they controlled vast deposits of copper, iron ore and tin, the largest in that area of the world. This was the stuff that went on their ships and gave them the foundation for one of the Western world’s greatest early civilization.

If only they had written on something more substantial than linen.

Anyway, I’m optimistic more information will be forthcoming. Franca’s son is sure to keep digging, so I may know more by the next party. But I doubt they will ever find another mummy that’s a book.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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