Monday, May 16, 2011

Assorted Links - Living deliberately

A few quick assorted links for today. All of the following mostly deal with the idea of spending the limited time we have available thoughtfully and deliberately.

1. Merlin Mann of 43 folders on "Cranking."
Mann's day job is to write about time management. He posts about it and is writing a book on “how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life." He wants us all to find the time and attention to do our best creative work. In the process though, he finds that he is not following his own suggestions. This post is in reaction to that realization.

2. Is a Well-Lived Life Worth Anything? (HBR)
Umair Haque laments the loss of "Eudaimonia" and says that we have replaced it with "Opulence" and materialistic pursuits. Some of the phrases he uses are worth thinking about: hedonic opulence vs. seeking eudaimonic prosperity. Let's hope that the Eudaimonic Revolution which he predicts does indeed happen, where everyone tries to "master the the art of living meaningfully well."

3. PenMachine's (Derek Miller) Last post.
Derek Miller's very last post. In this poignant read, he writes about everything he will miss, his family having to cope without him, and reminds us that we live in a "wondrous place."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Geoff Dyer - Otherwise Known As The Human Condition

It takes a bit of getting used to, the idea that spending 365 days a year doing exactly as you please might be a viable proposition. – Geoff Dyer

I spent the better part of last week reading Geoff Dyer's latest book, "Otherwise Known as the Human Condition." The book, which is a collection of his reviews and essays on a wide range of subjects (essays about photos, book reviews and synopses about authors, about World War I, pieces about jazz and its music-makers and a number of "personal" articles that are category-defying), is an exhilarating read.

To label Dyer a polymath is inadequate. He writes with confidence and intimate knowledge on a very wide range of topics, sharing his candid opinions without holding back.

I learned about Geoff Dyer from a review by Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler. I am not reading much fiction these days (my attempt at "culling") and so I didn't read his "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi."

However, when I came across his Human Condition book, I picked it up. I have found that reading an author's "journalism in book form" is actually a very good way to get introduced to authors I have not read before. These types of books give us the option to read just a few articles to see if they resonate. If we like them, we can go on to read more of the author's books.

In this collection there were a number of articles that were often too literary for my taste. I was happy to abandon them and move on to the next article. I must add that this book is not for everyone. But I also discovered authors I should read –Rebecca West (her Black lamb and Grey Falcon) and Ryszard Kapuzcinski's (his real life adventures) and it was illuminating to read about what Dyer thinks of writers I admire—Cheever and James Salter.

I don’t think I have consciously thought about the difference between ambition and aspiration, not quite in the way Geoff makes them distinct, while also giving us a hint of what it takes to make it as a writer or an artist.

It is possible to have aspirations without having ambition – and vice versa. […] I had aspirations but was not ambitious. I liked the idea of writing because that was a way of not having a career. […] And though many of my friends aspired to be artists, not many of them had the will, talent, luck, or stamina to stick at it. Some of them were just too lazy.

In many of his nostalgic pieces there is an undercurrent of melancholy. Consider this section from his essay "On the Roof" where he wonders about what must have happened to all the people that he used to hang out with in the early 80's, the friends that he no longer kept in touch with:

The same things that happen to everyone: home ownership, marriage, a kid or two, disappointment, divorce, cancer scares, worsening hangovers, death of a parent or two, qualified success, school fees, depression, sudden rejuvenation following the discovery of Ecstacy, holidays in India or Ibiza, telly watching, coming out (as homosexuals), coming in (as heterosexuals), going to the gym, more telly watching, new computers, bad knees, less squash, more squash, more tennis, rewriting (and downplaying) of earlier ambitions to diminish scale of disappointment, fatal breast cancer, less sleep, less beer, more wine, more cocaine, hardly any acid, frightening ketamine overdose, total breakdown, more money, discreet tattoos, baldness, stopping going to the gym, yoga, even more telly watching…

The book has five sections, titled Visuals, Verbals, Muscials, Variables and Personals. After wowing the reader with his breadth of expertise, in the section titled "Personals" is where he becomes himself, descending from the super-human perch I had placed him on after reading the earlier sections of the book. He writes about growing up in the UK in a middle-class family with its economizing ways, and how he found a way out by becoming a "scholarship boy."

Geoff is very humorous and often self-deprecating in a confident way. Here he shares an exchange with a librarian at the exalted Institute of Jazz Studies in Rutgers, NJ, where the librarian gets to wondering about Geoff's audacity at writing a jazz book.
"So what are your credentials for writing a book about jazz?"
"I don't have any," I said. "Except I like listening to it."

Given where I am, there are many sentences and sentiments in the book that resonated.

[On his thoughts on getting a Ph.D as opposed to being interested in everything]: "Post-graduate work takes you down a path of greater and greater specialization (culminating in the supreme pointlessness of a Ph.D.)"

[On acquiring a taste for idleness]: "If Oxford had given me a taste for idleness, living on the dole in Brixton refined it still further."

[On choosing autonomy]: I have done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find it's own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn't. I've not always been happy – far from it—but I have always felt responsible for my happiness and liable for my unhappiness.

In short, Geoff Dyer's Otherwise Known as the Human Condition delighted me while also making me ponder about many things that I haven't thought deeply about.