Saturday, March 17, 2018

Maxim-um effect

Francois de la Rochefoucauld, the French writer, aphorist and exemplar of the learned nobility (he was a duke, and bore the title of Prince de Marcillac until the age of 38), died on this day in 1680.

These are from his Maximes:

"Good advice is something a man gives when he is too old to set a bad example."

"He who lives without folly isn't so wise as he thinks."

"We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others."


"We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves."

Friday, March 16, 2018

What are the chances--even or astronomical?

Stephen Hawkings, the most lovable physicist since Albert Einstein, was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, and died this Wednesday, March 14—Einstein’s birthday. See the obit.

I’ve often enough struck by coincidences. I’ll be reading, and I’ll be struck by a word, say fatuity, and let it linger on my lips, savoring it, and a second after pronouncing aloud I’ll hear it on TV—a pundit scoffing at the fatuity of a particular politician.

Everyone has such experiences, with varying degrees of regularity. They happen to me all the time: a word or a phrase will lodge in my consciousness, for the mere moment required for it to recur, on a billboard, on the side of a building, in someone’s remark. Every time, I’m baffled. What are the chances?

Perhaps I’m a connoisseur of coincidence? If you read more than the average person, you take in that many more words and impressions, which means that you’re more susceptible to these echoes. But now I find myself actually anticipating the phenomena, the adumbration or repetition of a rare word or thought, splendid in itself but doubly so when cloned.

Besides the pleasure to be derived from these incidents, I also feel an occasional small shiver of terror. Just who is directing the effects? Einstein said that coincidences were God’s way of remaining anonymous.

But: Taking the word coincidence to mean the simultaneous occurrence of separate events, then there are an almost infinite number of coincidences happening every second, aren’t there? An individual’s consciousness is simply the mediator between these events, forging connections that would not have existed otherwise.

Maybe the wonder is that coincidences don’t assail us at every turn. I may flatter myself that I’m more finely attuned to them because of my bustling mental life, but isn’t it probably the case that the man preoccupied, so to speak, with fewer thoughts would be more susceptible to coincidence, to the happenstance of one event, out of the multitude of events impinging on his consciousness every hour, lining up exactly with one of the thought-events in his head?

If you were to think about your high-school English teacher, for example, were to maintain an image of her in your mind to the exclusion of all other images, and then happened to cross paths with her, it would constitute a coincidence, but not an extraordinary one. Even the instance of two repetitions of the word fatuity, out of the thousands—millions?—of fragmentary and fleeting thought-events occurring every day, coinciding and then registering on one’s consciousness, while exceedingly more rare, is no more fantastic. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Still dead, but no longer forgotten

The New York Times has unveiled a new feature, about women who were overlooked—not given obituaries in the Times—when they died. Look it over.

Of the twenty or so death notices in our everyday local paper, more than half of them give just a couple of lines to the actual deceased, and the rest to the survivors and the arrangements being made.

“Nobody puts your name in the paper until you die,” to quote Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but when that time comes, shouldn’t it be more than just a name? It’s you that’s had the life; as for the others, their time will come. You’ve been the hero of your own life, and it’s time for you to claim your just rewards.

So why do so many obituaries give such short shrift to the dearly departed?

For one thing, you need time and tranquility to adequately sum up a person’s life. Perspective is what is required, and grief can cloud the long view. And then, sometimes, when there’s so much to say, any words at all can seem threadbare.

Why put your friends and loved ones through that? Why not write your own obituary? (You could update it regularly, as things change and you linger longer.) After all, who better knows the details—and, what’s more, the meaning—of your life than you? Of course, you probably won’t manage to be objective, but what obituary-writer ever is? When you die, everybody says nice things about you, but a lot of good that does you now. Why not go ahead and write up all those things you hope people will say, and have the pleasure of reading them?

You can leave a unique legacy—your voice from beyond the grave. And since you’ll be speaking from there, so to speak, you can say what you’ve always wanted to say, without fear of comment or reprisal. (Your obit need not be all about you.)

Everyone’s life is a story. The dead should be honored, just for having lived. A proper obituary is an act of justice, and you can make sure justice is served.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

That's a wrap

The camera from outer space
George Eastman, the American inventor who developed a process that not only simplified the method of making photographic plates, but also allowed them to be mass produced with relative ease, died on this day in 1932.

Eastman introduced flexible film in 1884 and the first mass produced camera for amateurs, the Kodak box camera, in 1888.

Eastman made a fortune and donated vast sums to universities, dental clinics, and musical institutions. At the age of 77 and plagued by a painfully debilitating spinal disease, Eastman put his affairs in order, wrote a note, and committed suicide. His last words:

"My work is done, why wait?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Is he making a monkey out of us?

Remember this guy? Kevin Spacey played Darrow
American trial lawyer Clarence died on this day in 1938. He was most famous for his defense of schoolteacher John T. Scopes (for his teaching of evolution) in the so-called Monkey Trial of 1925, in Dayton, TN.

"I am an agnostic;" Darrow said. "I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of."

Today's Deathless Verse:

The atheist knows he's no pigeon;
But non-belief's another religion.

An agnostic is a doubter. Agnostic, when used as an adjective, means doubting. Someone who is an agnostic on the subject of God may doubt any or all of the myriad definitions or descriptions of God that have been put forth since the human mind began to grapple with the puzzle of existence. An agnostic may doubt the claims made on behalf of a god or gods, such as “God created the world” or “God has a special interest in my day-to-day well-being.” He may doubt such statements out of mere spite or perverseness, but ideally he will base his doubt on evidence, or the lack of it. 

An agnostic is not quite an atheist. The atheist believes in the negation of what the believer believes. He repudiates the idea of God, so for him all claims presupposing the existence of God are untrue or nonsensical. It isn’t accurate to say that an atheist is a nonbeliever; you have to say that he believes in something which is the denial of what the believer believes, for without the idea of God there would be no atheists. You could also say that the atheist is just as credulous as the believer.

Thus, it follows that the agnostic may doubt both what the believer believes and what the atheist believes, with perfect consistency. Just as the claims of believers can be doubted for insufficient evidence, so can the counter-claims of atheists, on the same basis.

The atheist will object, and say that the burden of proof falls on the believer. Using the analogy of a criminal trial, he may liken the believer to a prosecuting attorney, who must marshal his evidence to prove his case against the defendant. This is fair enough, but it’s also accurate to say that in a court trial the task of the defending party is to disprove the purported evidence in order to prove innocence.

The weakness of the argument is plain: in a trial, the combatants deal with facts, but in an argument between believer and atheist, both sides traffic in conjecture. All arguments about God, on whatever side, are simply guesses. Belief, no matter how fervent, doesn’t constitute truth.

This being the case, the agnostic is as entitled to his doubt—that is to say, to his refusal to guess—as the believers on both sides are entitled to their beliefs.     

Monday, March 12, 2018

Scared to death

Come in and see our little operation

It’s been said that death is a foreign country, and we might expand the metaphor to say that in the realm of death, everything will be strange and everyone will be speaking an unknown language.

Some time ago, in an article in “Science Times,” a New York Times supplement, Dennis Overbye paid homage to a movie he never saw, “Invaders from Mars,” which came out in 1953. (The 1986 version wasn't nearly as good.) He never saw it because his parents wouldn’t let him, but he remembers how just the trailers terrified him.

“Invaders from Mars” was my favorite movie for a while when I was a kid, and is still one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. (It wasn’t a hide-your-eyes type of terror that it evoked, more like a mounting feeling of dread.) In the movie, a wide-eyed lad named Davy wakes up one night in a storm, looks out his bedroom window and sees a flying saucer flash across the sky and land nearby. The next day he goes looking for it, but it’s burrowed underground and can’t be seen. No one believes him when he tells his tale, but soon people begin to get sucked underground, and he realizes that almost everyone around him is changed – their bodies have been taken over by aliens.

The story is a precursor to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), but instead of using pods, the aliens here operate on their victims, altering their personalities while leaving telltale scars on the back of their necks. (I remember getting the cold chills when Davy sees the incision on his dad’s neck.)

What makes the movie so spooky – besides the fantastic, twist ending–is its representation of every kid’s nightmare, that the people all around him, even those he is closest to, not only can’t be trusted but are actively in league against him. In this regard the film could be said to be a meditation on death, or, to be more precise, on the afterlife–for, to paraphrase Sartre, what is hell but other people?

But if death is terrifying, it also has its fascinations. Who hasn’t wished, at one time or another, for a radical transformation of his or her life–maybe not death, after all, maybe not even an alien abduction–but something, exhilarating and Earth-shattering.

Overbye recalled standing on the neighborhood ball diamond at twilight, in the thrall of the movie he hadn’t seen, and scanning the horizon, to see if he would see something coming.

“Sometimes, I was scared I would,” he wrote. “Sometimes, I was scared I wouldn’t.”     

Sunday, March 11, 2018

His first son was a disappointment

Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, died on this day in 1971.  In January of 2011, Australian researchers published a study of 8,800 subjects that found that watching TV led to an earlier death.

There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household.” -- Philo T. Farnsworth, to his son.

Today’s deathless Verse:

TV or not TV,
  That is the question;
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
  To suffer the soaps and sitcoms
Of outrageous dumbness,
  Or to turn off the frothing sea of bubbles,
And by ignoring, burst them.
  To watch, to sleep

My next-door neighbor's book:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

We hope the boat's not Charon's

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, died on this day in 1948, in a fire in Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, NC, where she was a patient.

She suffered her first mental breakdown in 1930, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly afterwards.

Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940.

Scott and Zelda had been originally buried in the Rockville (Md.) Union Cemetery. In 1975, their son Scottie successfully campaigned for them to be buried with the other Fitzgeralds at Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetery.

Inscribed on their tombstone is the final sentence of The Great Gatsby:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Friday, March 9, 2018

And don't try again

Getting ready
Poet and writer Charles Bukowski died on this day in 1994.

"There will always be something to ruin our lives," Bukowski wrote, "it all depends on what or which finds us first. We are always ripe and ready to be taken."

Bukowski's funeral was performed by Buddhist monks. His tombstone reads, "Don't try."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The postman was bringing him the latest Sherlock Holmes

Abolitionist and preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), died on this day in 1887. His last words:

"Now comes the mystery."

Today’s Deathless Verse:

Is life an enigma,
  Which death will unravel,
Or merely a stigma
  At which we all cavil?
A puzzle, but trifling—
  Not nearly as stifling
As the quandary ahead;
  That is, being dead?