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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

A ball, a glove, and a measure of virtue

26 Jul

how_to_catch_a_fly_ball

“When you were a kid, could you catch a fly ball?”

 

A simple, direct question, but one with consequences.

 

I asked him to repeat it as a way to buy time for my response.

 

“When you were young, could you catch a fly ball?”

 

You’ll notice the question doesn’t probe into the deep levels of athleticism. It was not, “What was your batting average?” or, “Could you execute the double play?” Rather, it concerned a basic, essential skill that spoke to a young person’s place in the small world of his neighborhood.

 

Back when cars had grills, if a kid could catch a fly ball, he could be relied on. Catching a fly ball was evidence of a competency that earned respect and trust. The person who could catch a fly ball had the tools needed for living the young life. This was a steady person; someone confident, reasonably brave, thoughtful, and probably fair. A lad who could catch a fly ball usually had the ability to see clearly and act decisively.

 

You wanted this person by your side, like Kirk wanted Spock, like Ishmael wanted Queequeg, like the band wanted its brothers.

 

No 12-year-old ever said it like that. It wasn’t outwardly understood. But it hung over everything and was very real.

 

“Well, I caught some and I missed some,” I answered.

 

“So, basically, you could catch a fly ball?”

 

Actually, my baseball career was more of a continuum. I started lousy and got better. At its end, I satisfied myself. It was during the early days that I had doubts.

 

“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Did you ever play against someone who tried out for the majors?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well I did,” and I told this story.

 

I was about 12. We were all small and he was big. His name was Sonny. He was a legend and we worshiped him. Sonny lived a couple neighborhoods over but one summer he started dating a girl on our street. This was the summer he tried out for the Phillies at hallowed Connie Mack Stadium. It was an event he had described to us in great detail. Since Sonny was around because of his girlfriend, he’d occasionally play with us.

 

One day on the sandlot I was in the outfield. Sonny came up to bat. On the first pitch he ripped a long, hard drive to center, where I was. I was deep, but when the bat cracked I went deeper. I tried to get under the ball but couldn’t. Finally, I dove, desperately. Somehow, the ball landed in my glove. A small miracle.

 

That was the final out and I went in. Sonny was coming out and he said to me in mock seriousness, “Hey kid! You robbed me of a homer.” I stuttered and apologized. “Sorry Sonny. I didn’t even know I had it.”

 

Then he smiled and said, “I’m just kidding. You did good out there. Keep playing like that.” He touched me on the head and ran to short.

 

“Cool story,” my inquisitor said. “It’s settled. We’ll say you could catch a fly ball.”

 

Then he pointed to the cover of a DVD he was about to loan me. It was the kid’s movie “Sandlot.”

 

“You’re him,” he said, showing me which character probably was most like me.

 

That’s what started this. A movie. Outwardly, it was not about competency, trust and virtue. Inwardly, it was, and I guess I passed the test – a test for 12-year-olds.

 

In adulthood, there is no gauge equivalent to a caught fly ball. The ancient Greeks spent much time discussing and analyzing noble qualities and the nature of virtue, defining it as excellence and goodness. But they were unsure if it could be taught or if it had to be naturally acquired. They saw it primarily as wisdom, from which all good things come. The Greeks knew a virtuous person when they saw one, yet failed to pass down a yardstick appropriate to our times.

 

Still, we can try to judge. I once worked with a man whose every action spoke of goodness. This was partly because he was selfless. We worked together in a country that didn’t hire janitors. With no allowance for rank, the regular staff was responsible for cleaning the office. Of course, no one did. The one exception was this senior gentleman, who by the simple act of dusting and mopping set himself apart from everyone else in the office.

 

This was a man of virtue.

 

The world really is not made for the virtuous. Before I met him, this virtuous man had served 10 years in solitary confinement for the crime of being an intellectual. In theory, identifying the virtuous so that they can lead and guide is wise; in practice, it is pointless. At least a time once did exist when small boys could look out over a diamond drawn in dust and know for sure who they could trust.

 

So how do you catch a fly ball? If you’d like to learn, follow these three steps:

  1. Gaze at the ball.
  2. Run.
  3. Adjust your speed so your gaze stays constant.

 

That advice comes from mathematics philosopher Gregory Wheeler. For a more instructive lesson from someone who is not a philosopher or a mathematician, watch this video. It could set you on the path to righteousness.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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Even the absurd and irrational have meaning

11 Aug

Firesign-Theatre-Dont-Crush-That-Dwarf-Hand-Me-The-Pliers-Cover

I drove by a Laundromat where I once washed my clothes and recalled an incident of vandalism in which I participated. It was more whimsical than wanton and did not affect the washing and drying of clothes. In a way, it benefitted the store’s patrons.

At the time I was living with two roommates in a yellow ranch house on a hill. We held two major parties a year. In the summer there was a pig roast with fresh corn and clams, and in the winter an inclusively themed Solstice Party.

The house was on a major road, with a town at both ends. We frequented a shopping center in one of the towns. It had a supermarket, a good pizza place and the Laundromat. Inside the laundry was a 3-foot square sign that we considered offensive. It read:

 

Absolutely no pizza pies to be eaten in this Laundromat.

 

In an attempt to express the seriousness of the message, the type was in red and “absolutely” was italicized. Some signs say “please.” This one did not.

Laundry signThe night before one of the solstice parties there was drinking at the little yellow house. I wasn’t much of a drinker but my compatriots made up for my shortcoming. While imbibing, we were trying to come up with a way to make the house more interesting. This was a time when one of our favorite things was listening to a comedy album entitled, “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.” There was nothing on the record about either dwarves or pliers, and the nonsense and non sequitur of the title appealed to us. We saw it perhaps as a reflection of the times.

A eureka moment occurred around 2 a.m. One roommate grabbed a claw hammer and directed us into his vehicle. We drove to the Laundromat.  With claw hammer in hand, the idea man jumped onto the washers and violently tore down the anti-pizza edict. We drove back to the yellow house and nailed it to the front door.

This was our non sequitur.

In addition to setting the mood for our party, the sign removal was viewed as an act of liberation. People now could freely eat pizza during their mindless waits.

Pizza-Wallpaper-pizza-6333801-1024-768The party went well. In those days the little yellow house drew big crowds. Reaction and comments to the sign were favorable and convinced us we had done the right thing.

After the party we left the sign on the door. It said so much about us.

When the landlord came for a visit, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the sign. He also expressed great confusion. We tried explaining its purpose and meaning but it was like Picasso trying to explain his work to Michelangelo. The landlord was as offended by the sign on his door as we were by the sign in the Laundromat. He ordered it taken down.

Where that sign is today I cannot say. But I hope it is somewhere.

Looking upon wanton vandalism with older eyes, I cannot fathom why someone would destroy something of worth for no apparent reason. Still, I try to remember the laundry sign and the bafflement of the landlord and compare his bafflement to my own. As a result, the past and the present have become a lesson in life, crime, politics, culture and international relations.

The lesson is this: No matter how irrational something appears, deep in the heart of someone or some group, there is always a reason for it.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

A Buddhist would have no trouble with this

17 Jan

Chinese labor camps

It could be argued that all experiences are good ones.

Philosophically, we could say that if God is good and great then all our burdens are worthwhile and purposeful. We can even learn to like what we hated.

Last week in a bar I told a story of one of the worse nights of my life. I told the story with verve, delight and nostalgia. I got laughs. I was glad to tell it; glad it happened; glad to learn from it. For the first time I realized I was glad to have this piece of film on my reel.

It is too personal to tell here, so I won’t. Its importance is not in the sharing but in reminding me that the misery of each moment carries within it a miraculous value.

It was more than the bar story that forced this revelation. There was also a news story about China. The report said China might dismantle its system of labor camps.

I have no idea what a modern Chinese labor camp is like, but I’m familiar with the tradition of locking up political prisoners and trying to “re-educate” them. I’ve known many people who were victimized by this system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Some were driven to suicide or to the brink of it.

During this period, all schools were shut and an entire generation of young people was sent to the countryside to labor on farms. Some were considered “red,” or part of the revolution. Others were labeled “black,” or counter-revolutionary. For them it was harsher. They were watched closely and always under suspicion.

While all worked together, the “blacks” were more like prisoners and the “reds” more like guards.

From a first-hand witness I heard a story of a young woman – a “black” – who was laboring in mud. To keep the dampness out of her cloth shoes she put in newspapers. When everyone returned to their rundown barracks, a “red” youth noticed the newspaper inside this woman’s shoe contained a picture of Mao Zedong.

For that show of disrespect she was beaten.

But like myself in the bar story, this was a time of youth. The times contained moments of ultimate value.  Lasting friendships (even between blacks and reds) were forged. These “sent-down” youth, in some respects were very free. They grew up and learned about themselves and others. There is joy in that.

Which is why many Chinese from that generation – those living both in China and in the United States – visit these former labor camps while on vacation. It’s a for-real trend, and they visit with fondness and to share old times with comrades. They take smiling photos of themselves standing near the squalor they thought would be a permanent part of their lives. (Modernization hasn’t changed everything.)

What they went through is far, far, far from my so-called worse night. Yet they have reacted as I did. Their moments carried something and will occupy a peaceful part of their memories.

I don’t claim to truly understand this, and the exceptions must be legion. Even so, there clearly is something to this idea that all experience is good. And so my new goal is not to wait 30 years for warm nostalgia but to live fully and happily in the present.

To accomplish that in even a small measure would be exquisite.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

God and Man on a Visit To Russia

8 Sep

I like to think of Jesus as a man so I can marvel at his God-like brilliance and ability to see and express truth.

If you think of him as God, then his acts and works would not necessarily be worthy of attention. Pavarotti, after all, received no praise for humming a pop tune, nor Einstein for giving correct change to the paperboy.

A god can easily transform water to wine; it is much more difficult for a man.

For me, one of Jesus’ greatest moments was when he was approached by spies trying to trick him into sedition. They coyly ask if it was acceptable to pay tribute to Caesar. Jesus, quick on his feet, asked them to produce a coin, which carried Caesar’s image.

Then came the unforgettable, genius response: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In my last post I mentioned a rabbi named Joseph Krauskopf and his visit to Tolstoy in 1894. Today I’d like to discuss Krauskopf and his response when Tolstoy asked him about Jesus.

The intelligence and poetry of the answer brought to mind the “render” response.

In Russia at that time, Jews knew little of Jesus and those familiar with him cared not much for him. But Krauskopf struck Tolstoy as a different breed. The American rabbi from Philadelphia was an early member of the reformed movement and, among other things, advocated moving the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday as a way to bring Christians and Jews together.  He believed that all religions – including his own — contained good and bad, and that the good should be practiced and the bad eradicated.

Some Jews, I’m sure, refused to consider Krauskopf a Jew.

“What is your belief respecting Jesus?” Tolstoy asked.

Krauskopf told the writer, “I regard the Rabbi of Nazareth as one of the greatest of Israel’s teachers and leaders and reformers, not as a divine being who lived and taught humanly but as a human being who lived and taught divinely.

Can we safely say that he who lives divinely is divine?

Sometimes we allow words and their interpretation to muddle or even destroy something that in its raw form and on its own is simply and clearly exceptional.

I would love to hear from others, Christians and Jews, on Krauskopf’s statement about Jesus.

Secrets of the Universe Revealed – Or Not?

29 Aug

A pause in the conversation led the old man to look up at the cloud formation and think about his future, which is death.

“I wonder if you learn everything,” he said. “How it all came to be; its meaning and purpose. It can’t be like that Big Bang crap. How could it all have gotten down into an infinitesimal speck, and how did it explode, instead of being sucked into itself like a black hole? And if there was nothing outside of it, how did it have a place to go?”

Death would be sweet if it meant getting all the answers. Without a body you couldn’t do much, but if you knew everything you’d feel pretty good about yourself. It would be like learning how the magician did the trick, only a trillion times better.

My intention was not to depress the old man, but I told him my theory of the moment.

“I doubt we get to know,” I said. “Our opinion of ourselves is exaggerated. Considering all that exists, I’d say we lack importance. I’m sensing we are the equivalent of a low-level employee who gets no time or attention from the boss.”

Top management, to whom the secrets might be disclosed, probably occupies another planet or dimension, is not prone to war and genocide and generally makes things easier for the CEO rather than more difficult.

While the Bible tells how Jesus came to save us, there also are passages like this one in Isaiah:

All the nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.

In a wonderfully written New York Times column (The Man in the Moon) Lydia Netzer says:

When humanity was in its infancy, we thought the universe revolved around us. Then, with Copernicus, we aged into heliocentrism, became aware we were one of a family of planets inside the walls of our house, the solar system. Nearby stars gather like a town, rotating through the galaxy, our country. Clusters are like continents. We realized in stages that we were very insignificant. And then, almost like grown-ups, we pulled our boots on and began to try to leave a significant mark anyway.

Sitting in a car seat next to the old man, I couldn’t accept that in a few years he would know it all. It’s too grand a gift. In the military, personnel are told things on a “need to know” basis. As humans, do we really need to know?

Once we have performed on Earth, it’s likely we will be whisked away like a bad vaudeville act. There’s plenty more in the wings.

But all is not lost.

“In a way, we are immortal,” I said. “Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, every atom that is you remains as part of the creation. After you die, your atoms eventually scatter. They say we could easily have been part of someone like Socrates or Newton. Can you image that? On the other end, you may help create the next Newton. But you won’t be conscious of it.”

“If what you say is true, I’ll make the next Newton but never know an ounce of what he will know,” he said.

“Look, this is only what I’m thinking today,” I said. “Tomorrow, when the clouds are different and I read a different Bible passage and cut and paste from a different New York Times column, I’ll have another opinion for you.”

“So maybe I will get to know everything.”

“Maybe you will.”

And then he went off to play cards with some ladies who had outlived their husbands and only worry about getting from one place to another without it causing too much pain.

— Lanny Morgnanesi

At the beach on a sunny day, what would the old tell the young?

17 Jul

If you look deep, faces reveal stories. One day on the beach, with faces all around, thoughts leaped from them.

In the posturing young males there was a cocky yet fragile confidence; a faith in one’s self, one’s strength and one’s energy, but also a poorly hidden fear of the unknown. There was a willingness to stay in place and time, and the troublesome idea that knowledge may be more important than charisma.

In the young females there was desire and hesitancy; a need for some unformed quality not found in the males; a necessity to move forward in place and time; a deep yet unacknowledged realization of superiority kept in the shadows by overly cautious optimism.

In the old there was either satisfaction and peace or pain and disgust. The first group had goals, some modest, that were met. The second harbored resentment; unhappy with fate and exhausted of second chances.

Seeing young and old together made me wonder what the old might tell the young.

Here is the advice I would give:

 

  • Realize you are much smarter than you think but that you know almost nothing.
  • Accept that good work requires lots of bad work.
  • Learn a second language; it will get you a second soul.
  • Play an instrument . . . well.
  • Read the great stories and myths of your culture. Let them guide you.
  • Place honor before money.
  • Know that truth is relative, fluid and deceptive.
  • Never deny a person his or her dignity.
  • Don’t wait.
  • Happiness is attainable but difficult to recognize.

 

As the words surface, the young, for a short time, will be both blind and deaf and wonderfully preoccupied. Then they will politely move on, overwhelmed by their own brand of discovery and their own style of learning, a more important kind, the kind even the old hold in high, if unspoken, regard; the juice of life that lodges forever in the mind.

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