LA Observations III: The Illusion of Perfection

On the Thursday morning of my visit to Los Angeles, I made and drank my morning cup of coffee, and walked out on the beach to the water’s edge.  The ocean this morning had an impressionistic sheen to it, due, in part to the lovely, unbroken sets of small waves that rolled in, broke modestly, and were soon replaced by their equally comely twin sisters.  Most only measured from 3 to 4 feet, trough to crest at their height, but often the unbroken curl would extend more than 50 yards across.  Watching them, I remembered the stirring Henry Moore Sculpture Garden on the grounds of my hometown museum, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, and wondered whether Moore had ever attempted to replicate, in his own language, the grace of these gifts of nature.

As I walked north, toward the pier that separates Venice Beach from Marina del Rey, my eyes were drawn incessantly to the ocean and the aesthetic treat that world was giving me.  I also noticed that, as the minutes moved on, the waves began to increase in size, but not dissolve in form.  Before long, these breathtaking sets were 5 or 6 feet high, noisier in their breaking, and attracting surfers with waxed boards and glistening wetsuits to join them.  Within a few minutes, perhaps a dozen surfers, a sentinel line out past the break, sat on their boards, legs dangling on either side as shark bait, waiting.  For what?  One or two actually caught a wave, and I’m sure it gave a satisfying, though brief, experience.  The rest waited.  Eventually, as with everything in nature, change occurred.  The waves got smaller.  Within 45 minutes of my arrival, they were back to 3 feet in height, and the surfers had left the water, most having done nothing but sit 100 yards out and wait.  Apparently the Godot of surf is as punctual as that of Beckett.

It would be easy to blame Bruce Brown for this.  His idyllic movie, “The Endless Summer,” placed in our collective consciousness the idea of “the perfect wave.”  He, and his surfing friends, whose names I once knew like those of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, found that perfect wave at Cape St. Francis, South Africa; rode it, filmed it, rhapsodized it, and gave it to all of us.  And maybe that’s where the trouble started.  The dozen or so surf squatters on Thursday morning were waiting, in all probability, for the perfect wave.  But in doing so, they ignored some otherwise beautiful, shapely, small-scale masterpieces, marred only by their lack of perfection.  I wondered if they were passing a joint back and forth, an activity not unknown in the surfing community, and were distracted by the comradeship and its effects.  But their boards were not within arm’s length and they hardly seemed to communicate at all.  In addition, perfection, American style at least, appears to be focused on individual effort.  Of course, there was that Miami Dolphins team of the ’70s, and I once heard what I felt was a perfect performance of the tone poem by Richard Strauss, “Ein Heldenleben,” performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan in the Kennedy Center in 1977.  But most attempts to grasp perfection are individual, not team attempts.

As an old body surfer I can tell you that surfing, whether on a board or not, is a matter of the moment.  You seize what nature gives you, experience it as intensely as possible, or you sit on your board, pissing and moaning about the shitty conditions.  Thus, an imperfect attempt to grasp the gist of the two earlier LA blogs and form a rough continuity.  The pursuit of perfection I have observed in others has almost always demanded of them that they jettison any attempt to live in the moment as a disutility.  Or, at least, they seemed to interpret that as the sacrifice required in order to participate seriously in the illusory pursuit of perfection.  But there are at least three illusions connected with that pursuit.

The first is the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy.  Most people who engage themselves in the pursuit seem to think that failing to reach the goal is utter, general, personal failure.  There is a continuum between total failure and the triumph of perfection, and within that continuum there is a wide range of satisfactions and fulfillments.

The second is the belief — and it is a belief based on the same kind of reasoning as religious belief is based — that perfection is attainable by finite beings.  While I tried to pin that on Bruce Brown earlier, that will hold for a shorter time than I could stay vertical on a board on the North Shore of Oahu.  As a philosopher, I could prod the grave of Plato and disturb his Forms, or the perfect certainty that beset Descartes, but this is a blog by a philosopher, not about philosophers.  The  western edge of the capital city of the Domain of Perfection was at my feet as I had these thoughts: Los Angeles.  In southern California, no one’s boobs are big enough, no one’s teeth are white or straight enough, no one’s abs are rippled enough, no one’s ass is shapely enough.  This is the epicenter of the destabilizing belief that we can become perfect, given enough money, focus, time, or fanaticism.

The third is the belief that pursuit of this metaphysical abstraction requires that we abandon the concrete elements of our lives that give it savor and immediacy.   It seems improbable that the headlong runners of the first LA blog, prisoners of their timing devices, their expensive shoes, and the cocoon in which they place themselves, would think to listen to the cadence of the surf just to their west, or appreciate the aroma of the ocean’s complex stew.  Nor would they ever interrupt their obsession to dig their toes into the wet sand, as I did with great joy each morning, feel the skin’s varied responses to the warm sun, the cool water, the refreshing breeze, all simultaneously.  Some of us were living life while others were pursuing a destructive ghost.

Finally, love is not perfect either, though we’re told it is.  While that slander did not originate in Hollywood, that’s its most effective agent.  I am not a disillusioned cynic about love, though I might have the creds to warrant that attitude.  I am a naive realist about love. I like the way Archibald MacLeish described  it when using the metaphor of a torn leaf reunited.  “Two imperfections that match.”  Note that he didn’t describe love as two imperfections that make a perfection.  Just two imperfections that meld and do the right things together to make them flourish.  The way I see it, love is just human life with an elevated heartbeat.  We bring our imperfections into this imperfect world and find a way to make ourselves hum without destroying the world that brings us love.  One could discover worse things in LA.

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LA Observations II: Still in the Moment

The beach, and thoughts from the beach, still remain.  For me, it is the one of the most rewarding places to experience just as an experience, with little else expected of it.  But maybe the runners of resolve don’t have that kind of attachment to it, and maybe that’s why they can see it as a kind of neutral ground upon which to be self-absorbed.  Perhaps I should cut them some slack, particularly if each of them has a place where outer goals and drives are submerged under the inner need just to revel.  Consider the slack cut.

A few months ago on Facebook, I posted the thought that there was a fine line between improvisation and dementia.  Maybe the same comparison could be made between being in the moment and being disoriented.  If being oriented means being focused on something identifiable, either inside or outside the self, and resisting the distractions that might deflect that orientation, then sometimes being in the moment reflects that.  But not always.  I might be in the moment but focused on a set of waves forming, rolling, breaking, dissolving at my feet.  I am both oriented and appreciating the experience just as an experience.

I bring these distinctions up because it occurred to me, as I walked on the last day I was there, that my teaching style is somewhat in the moment, but never disoriented.  The original question about improvisation and dementia came from the recognition that I improvise a lot during the process of teaching philosophy, and it’s a part of the process that makes teaching both fun and a challenge.  As I age, but continue to teach, will I or my students be alert to the transition, if it occurs?  And will it matter to either of us? I’d like to think it would matter to me, though I’m guessing that severe enough dementia would render me beyond thinking anything mattered.  That state doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.

Of course, I don’t wing entire semesters, pulling lectures and questions out of the aether and referring seldom, if at all, to the reading assignments.  Students charged with understanding Plato, or Descartes, or Machiavelli get my best attempt to open the door to those, and other texts.  But I never teach them the same way twice.  The content remains, the process changes.  I test, more or less on the content, remembering that philosophy is primarily a process-driven discipline.  That means I also test on the mechanics of the process as well as their ability to use that process.  But the teaching process is a different process, and it’s a part of what makes me feel a tingle of excitement at the start of each semester.  But if I couldn’t savor teaching by making it alive for me each time I did it, I’d be retired truly now.

I suppose I’ve found a way to combine a satisfying goal with a way of doing it that incorporates a satisfying process.  In that, I am truly fortunate.  But sometimes I just want to pause and watch the wild turkeys meander across my path in the woods rather than keep my eye on the stopwatch.  The beach is my ultimate place to do that.  But nothing is perfect, not even a beach.  My final entry from LA will also be a reflection from the beach, and the pervasive Cult of Perfection.

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LA Observations I: the Beach

For most of last week, I was visiting a very sick friend and his wife in Los Angeles.  I think it’s right to keep them in the background of these reports, though I cannot overstate how generous they have been to me in the 30+ years of our friendship, and how that has continued on this visit.  But, because they live in a condo on the beach in Marina del Rey, let’s start with the beach, because that was where I started each morning of my stay there.

You need to know this: when I was born, my parents lived in one of the great beach counties of the world, Cape May County, New Jersey.  I have been a beach boy since then.  In the Air Force, a lot of my enlistment was spent at Eglin AFB, Florida, just north of Fort Walton Beach.  Our duty day was from 3:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M., 7 days a week, and after it was over our little 6-man squadron rode the military bus to the beach, there to remain until sunset.  The beach there was like the world’s largest sugar bowl in color and texture, though the Gulf water was usually placid.  In advance of a storm or even a hurricane, a few Hawaiian guys and myself would venture out and body-surf in the rambunctious breakers while the sun bathers stood at water’s edge and shook their heads.  Then there was the nearly 4 year time in Redondo Beach, California, one block from the beach, plus 2 years on Wake Island, a place where no part of the island is more than 600 yards from the Pacific Ocean.  The last 35 years in Kansas City has sometimes seemed like a cruel nightmare that never ends, and never permits me to live the life my inner self agrees with.

The first thing I noticed on this LA beach was that I was just about the only person without shoes on.  And that was consistent with the next observation; most everyone else had an agenda, or a specific goal in mind being there.  They were intent on making forward progress at some prearranged pace and nothing would dissuade them.  In retrospect, there was only one other solitary person who seemed as aimless as me.  I should have proposed to her on the spot.  There were a few families, mostly speaking Latin-inflected languages, and they were also aimless, and I thought of them as my comrades in some way, and always paused to watch them play by the water.  Maybe they didn’t know that I was playing, too.  Mine are the inner games of an old person who still loves to splash and taste the saltiness, but there’s more to the game now.  Those lucky kids are forming the self that will never forget and never disavow the feelings and sounds they are unknowingly absorbing now.  They will be a part of who they are forever, just as they are with me.

The runners in the $200 shoes and the $100 earbuds and music systems are only coincidentally at the beach, at the edge of the world’s greatest ocean.  They could be at a track or on the street or on a treadmill.  Running 7 miles faster than the last time is the only meaningful experience worth noting.  Gloria (the wife of my stricken friend, and a very dear friend in her own right) and I had a brief talk about this before my first morning’s walk.  Her therapist thinks it would be useful for her to do things just for the experience of doing them, and nothing else.  He called them, “being in the moment.”  Of course, that is exactly what I wanted from a walk on the beach, but Gloria is something of a worrier.  Walking along the beach would just be a wet place to fret.  She could do that in the shower, and get clean as a bonus.  I realized at that moment, and continue to realize in the days since, that my life’s strengths or weaknesses, and I’m not sure which, are described by my willingness to enjoy the moment as it presents itself and ask for little more from it.  As I sit alone, eat alone, drink alone nearly every night, maybe that one aspect of my character has hidden antisocial, or at least antiromantic, aspects that send women running in the opposite direction.  It would be a crushing realization to discover that one of the things that most truly make you who you are and brings calm and balance in your life  also sends women shrieking and guffawing toward some lummox with a 6-pack of Bud Light and a KC Chiefs cap.

More from the beach later in the week.

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Rage Against The Machine

Before there was Rage Against The Machine, there was Dimitri Shostakovitch.  Unlike contemporary members of RATM, Shostakovitch was up against a real machine that killed you if you were critical of it, not permit you to live a lavish life of ingratitude.  Stalin ran this machine, and millions of unmarked graves testify to the consequences of even appearing to, or being mistaken for, raging against his machine.  These thoughts arose Sunday afternoon as I was snatched out of my humdrum life by a performance of his 5th symphony, the final notes of the 2013-14 season by the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern.

I suppose the question I am raising is whether that symphony by Shostakovitch represents a rage against the criticisms written against him by the Stalinist press, a capitulation to it, or neither.  And maybe the further question about whether raging against any machine makes a lot of sense.  During his lifetime, the stirring and heroic-sounding 5th symphony must have sounded like a capitulation, or at least a canny heeding of the criticisms raised in the middle 1930s about his use of excessive dissonance and unwillingness to demonstrate “socialist realism” in his works.  In this symphony, and also the 10th, I hear bitterness, despair, and deeply hidden mockery, but not open defiance.  Stalin’s machine would have preferred cheerleading of the glorious socialist ideals, and its glorious leader, but, failing that, would settle for morbid resignation, which was not likely to provide a ticket to the gulags, in most cases.  In his posthumously published autobiography, Shostakovitch sets the record clear about the symphony, and his decision to choose satire and subterfuge in certain of his compositions, while providing the requisite claptrap in others, such as the bombastic 7th symphony meant to celebrate the heroes of Leningrad, though written in advance of the famous 900-day siege of the city in World War II.  And even in that symphony, meant, in parts, to depict the brutality of Hitler, it is open to interpretation whether the actual brutality to which Shostakovitch refers is that of Stalin.  So maybe we should conclude that Shostakovitch chose to Snark Against The Machine.  Does that make him morally suspect?  Are the only options open rage or whimper?

The authority of Dylan Thomas seems to imply that, and clearly sides with rage.  In the case of old farts like me, rage, rage, against the dying of the light.  Well, I don’t know about the rest of you old farts, but I don’t like some young drunk telling me that I am required, for the good of my soul, to rage at evening’s end.  I know the light is fading, in a way that Thomas probably did not.  I’ve lived 73 years through growing light and growing darkness.  It makes as much sense to rage against the dying of the light as it does to rage against the tides,  or ad hominem fallacies (I threw a nice one in a few lines up to see if any of you was paying attention).  The machine of nature is something only immature romantics or contemporary Republicans seem inclined to rage against.  It’s a losing proposition, and if rage is intended to have any consequences beyond one’s own self-righteousness, an act of futile narcissism, like starting a blog at the end of one’s life, there ought to be some realistic wager that changes will proceed.

Personally, I am glad Shostakovitch didn’t rage against the machine.  Had he done so, he surely would have disappeared and left us devoid of the chilling 10th symphony, most of the preludes and fugues, and half the string quartets.  The expressive content of the 20th century would have never had those gaps filled by Sibelius or Copland.  And, like Mozart and Schubert before him, we would have wondered what startling, or moving, or redundant sounds might have issued from the last half of a life cut short; a premature exit into that good night, like that of Thomas himself.

But maybe the larger question concerns when rage is something that makes sense.  And if it doesn’t, should we indulge it anyway?  This is not the blog of a young man, so this will not be the answer of a young man, even the young man I was a half-century ago.  I think Shostakovitch gives us the answer — my answer — and Thomas does not.  And that answer is consistent with the Stoicism of the philosopher Epictetus I have come to admire in the past twenty years.  Rage against the processes of nature is foolish futility.  Learn about nature, accept its direction, come to grips with its verdict.  And you will come to love it, as you may be able to come to love the dying of the light.

However, you might ask, what about Stalin and his machine?  There was nothing natural about that, and I would agree with you.  Then why not rage?  Two reasons, one from Epictetus and the other from Shostakovitch.  The former cautions us that the activities of another person, while mutable, are not mutable by me (or you, reader, unless they are your activities).  All the rage against Stalin did not change what Stalin was intent upon doing.  All the Rage Against The Machine by RATM did nothing to derail whatever the machine is against which they directed their rage, though it did leave all the band members financially secure while the machine continued to widen the economic and political gap between those who are helpless and those who are not.  Affect what you can affect.  What is that, then?  What is inside you.  And that is the lesson of Shostakovitch; don’t rage against the machine, create against the machine.  Creation is not capitulation.  Capitulation is a term favored by those who also favor the fallacy known as False Dichotomy.  Creation is in a different category from wins and losses, except that it might be claimed that one who creates always wins.

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