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Month: July 2012

Goodreads

I finally created an account on Goodreads not long ago, so if you’re ever wondering what I’m reading or what page I’m on, you can find out there on my account. I’m usually reading multiple books at a time, and I’m a slow reader, so it can take me a while to get through just one book. I’ll be interested to see precisely how long as Goodreads helps me keep track. You can also see most of the books I finished reading since middle school, at least the ones I remember, and some of the books I’m planning on reading at some point. I know the world is very interested in this information, so there it is.

A couple interesting books coming

Here are a couple non-fiction books I’m looking forward to this fall:

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

antifragile

Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan (if you don’t have them, I order you to go buy them and read them now), finally has his new book ready.  Antifragile looks like it will continue Taleb’s variations on the theme of living among complex systems, this time perhaps attempting to answer the question: how can we use randomness (unpredictable chaotic systems) to make our lives better?  To make our lives stronger?  To make our systems non-fragile, that is, “antifragile”?  Looks like a very interesting book; I look forward to seeing what Taleb has to say on the subject.

Mastery
by Robert Greene

mastery

Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power (if you don’t have it, I order you to go buy it and read it now), at long last returns to the bookstore bookshelves with a new book.  Amazon’s description reads:

What did Charles Darwin, middling schoolboy and underachieving second son, do to become one of the earliest and greatest naturalists the world has known? What were the similar choices made by Mozart and by Caesar Rodriguez, the U.S. Air Force’s last ace fighter pilot? In Mastery, Robert Greene’s fifth book, he mines the biographies of great historical figures for clues about gaining control over our own lives and destinies. Picking up where The 48 Laws of Power left off, Greene culls years of research and original interviews to blend historical anecdote and psychological insight, distilling the universal ingredients of the world’s masters.

There’s a [stupid] line in the film Good Will Hunting in which Will says something like: “Beethoven looked at a piano and could just play.”  Mastery of a craft can often seem like some inborn natural talent.  In fact, that’s where the word “talent” comes from.  But, as books like The Genius in All of Us (another book I highly recommend) and The Talent Code show, no one is just born with innate expertise; it all must be learned and practiced.  (Sometimes the experts themselves have trouble explaining how they do things, which perpetuates the myth that it’s just innate.  Even as I type here on a keyboard, I could not explain “how” I type; I just do, and my motions have become automatic with practice.  That doesn’t mean I was born with any innate abilities that lend themself to quick typing.)

Anyway, I’m hoping Mastery will not just be a variation on The Genius in All of Us.  But even if it is, I’d love to read it.  Definitely looking forward to this one.

Dragon catching

I started a new blog called Catching a Dragon, which is where I’ll start posting anything having to do with my adventures in writing fantasy. It’s very much a branding decision. If I ever have the slightest possibility of getting a middle-grade fantasy novel published, would I want potential readers coming here, where there are random philosophical essays on morality and controversial blatherings on the state of public education? It might be wiser to have a site dedicated completely to the fantasy writing part of me. So that’s what I’m going to start doing. Not that I’ll abandon this blog, but I might take my name off it so that Google will eventually point to the other blog if some potential reader Googles my name. And when I give up on writing, I’ll just delete that blog. But that’s never gonna happen…

Quick novel progress update

I’ve got 11 more scenes left to write for my middle-grade fantasy novel. (Browsing the bookstore today, I concluded that my book is definitely more for the 7-13 year old audience than the teen audience. The main character is twelve years old, and I think the worst thing that happens to him is him getting kicked in the mouth in an early chapter. No violence any worse than that, and no real romance. No teen angst. (Well, Thravien has some angst, but I don’t think it’s exactly “teen” related.) So middle-grade it is.) I’m at about 60K, which might already be too long for a middle-grade fantasy, but I know I’ll be cutting stuff in my first revision, so I’ll worry about it then. Getting closer and closer… hope to finish the first draft in the next few weeks, or at least before the end of the month; there’s really no excuse for not finishing before then unless something really unexpected comes up.

What’s wrong with you (and me)

Forgive me if this seems a preachy post. It is part confessional, as everything mentioned here are things I struggle with, so it’s not as if I am spouting some dark judgment upon the rest of the world from some lofty superior position of perfection. But we can’t get past our faults if we’re too afraid to even look them in the eye.

This is obviously not a conclusive list, but it’s what comes to mind at the moment. You’ll probably also notice that they’re all related to each other in some way.

Wanting stuff

Ah, the smell of a new book! A new blu-ray! Ah, too look upon my collection of books on the bookshelf! Perhaps small compared to many others, but much more than most people who’ve ever lived ever had. Oh, but I would like more! Yes, my Amazon wishlist is bountiful. And when I see pictures of laptops and gadgets and huge-screen TVs, how my mind doth dream. And, when I get really daydreamy, how attractive those mansion photos seem. Ah, to live in luxury!

But such desires can never be fulfilled. There will always be something else. And when I am lost in a daydream, a daydream of pure desire, I am gone from the moment. I cannot deal with what is now, and I paint it all black, as if the now is dreadful darkness undeserving of my mental presence. I ignore my present fortune, especially my very existence in the first place. I make them worthless to me.

Solution: I’m sure I’ll still buy stuff. And I’m sure daydreams will still creep into my mind when I’m not paying attention. But no more entertaining them. No more getting lost in them. It is rotten.

Caring too much about self-image and worldly success

I must be a better person. I must be successful. The world already told me that that is the best thing to be. “You’ll go far!” they told me. “You’re talented! You’ll be something! You’ve got gifts! You’ll be rich!” They told me I was creative! “Remember us when your famous!” they said with a smile.

What do they want me to do? Actually become famous? Make tons of money? Win a prestigious award? Were they just mocking me? If they don’t really want me to want that stuff, why do they glorify it? Why do they make me feel as if that’s what I must achieve to be “successful” to them?

Wikipedia doesn’t have a page on me yet. I guess I’m not successful. And if I’m not successful, I guess I’m not “worthy” yet. Worthy of what? The love of the world? The love and respect of even myself? I must do some specific something to be worth something to myself? I must have some great honor of wealth or fame bestowed upon me from smiling approving older people? I must have been places and have known famous people? I must have interesting things to say on social occasions?

I must achieve something, hurry! I must hurry up with writing that book! I must consume all books and media I see that look half-interesting! I must be an expert on something! I must have other people say about me, “Yes, that guy is smart!” Every moment I should be working on something, working towards some goal, and every moment that I’m not, I should be ashamed of myself for having wasted time! I must treat myself harshly, and stress myself out.

Solution: The world was wrong. They burdened me with their own daydreams, and I thought they were worth carrying. I thought if I could give them what they wanted, I’d become something greater in their eyes, as if they had something else to offer, a gift of some greater love they were holding back on until I proved myself worthy. I held it back from even myself. But they were wrong. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to be a millionaire, I don’t have to become famous, I don’t have to win some award. I don’t have to write a book, or direct a movie, or make some great discovery. I don’t need a Wikipedia page. All those things will turn to dust in the end. Why burden myself with building the perfect snowmen when they will melt away? The love that’s worth the most to me is the love that’s offered completely free. Unearned. Otherwise it’s not a gift, and cannot be love.

Being afraid

Sure, there are the natural fears, the stimuli that make the heart beat faster. Heights, fights, bees, and pain. Pointy things coming at me fast.

But more deadly are the mental anxieties. Will I ever “make it”? Will I have everything I need, and not have to work too hard for anything ever again? Will I have enough money? Will the ones I love keep loving me? How do I fare in God’s eyes?

And death! Oh, to wake up in the darkness of the night, to feel my chest rise with my breath and to know the clock is ticking. Someday this body will decay. How will I die? Where will I go? What will I be?

Solution: “Why worry if you can do something about it; and why worry if you cannot do anything about it?” There is no logical reason to be afraid of anything. It is a complete waste of energy. Nothing is gained. Like the wrong of wanting stuff, being afraid depends upon being lost in destructive daydreams that do little more than paint the present moment in shades of black. What do I want that I should be so afraid of not getting anyway? Unfortunately, I’m going to worry. But no more entertaining the worries. Pray them away. I’m not going to ignore potential problems, or stop planning ahead. But no more getting lost in worse-case-scenario daydreams. It is now, and there are much more interesting things to think about now.

On desiring happiness

This is, in part, a reply to this post made over on the Bad Catholic blog.

While I agree with the conclusion, that God exists and that our life in this world is not the sum of all our life will ever be, I must admit that I do not quite understand the argument. As atheists have asked in response to C. S. Lewis’s thoughts, how does a yearning for something imply the existence of something else? The statement that “I yearn for the eternal” implies no more to me than what it states. To make the argument valid, you’d first have to show how yearning for something implies anything else. And saying “well, people yearn for food, and food does exist” does not help. That’s just an example that fits the model. Hunger doesn’t itself imply the existence of food just because food actually does exist. (You could argue the matter on biological and evolutionary terms, but if you intend to then speak in terms of the spiritual, I’m not sure what the point would be.)

What, then, are we to make of the desire to be happy?

Isn’t that missing the point? Why do we have to make anything of it?

What are we to make of the existence of dirt?

The real question is: how do we find happiness?

When you’re hungry, you don’t sit there thinking: “Gee wiz, I’m sure hungry. Hey, wait! That means there must be food! Well, that’s comforting to know.”

No. Ya get up, ya find food, and ya eat it!

While eating, you don’t say: “Hey, wait. After eating this and getting full, I’m just going to be hungry again later. What’s the point of this? I guess I’ll just stop eating and never eat again.”

No. You eat until you’re not hungry anymore (hopefully not until you feel like barfing), and then you eat again later. Your stomach isn’t going to have an existential crises just because the cycles of digestion are never ending until you die.

(The atheist, on the other hand, says: “Gee wiz, I’m sure hungry. But that doesn’t imply there’s food. Or that the hunger is even real. In fact, I’m not even hungry anymore. Guess I’ll just sit here, the noble accepter of truth that I am.”)

I would also claim that we don’t want eternal happiness. We want present happiness. It’s not about what we’ll feel tomorrow versus today, as if our happiness is the sum of dots mapped out on some timetable. The now is all that matters to happiness. Reminding ourselves of yesterday’s sadness does not destroy a wonderful present, nor does reminding ourselves of yesterday’s fortune overturn a present despair. The experience of anything is always in the now. This is what wanting eternal happiness means; it means wanting happiness now, which exists eternally. (It is always now.)

So the question becomes: How can I be happy now?

“Well,” a faithful servant of the Lord might say, “you can’t be completely happy now. You will have to wait until you die and go to Heaven!”

OK. Thanks. Way to not answer the question. Let me rephrase: How can I be as happy as I possibly can right now?

“Um,” says the determinist, “you already are!”

Oh, you determinist, always making jokes!

“Oh, I just had to!” the determinist replies.

But seriously, what’s the answer?

I hope you will forgive me, but I will save an attempted answer for a later blog post, for it is late, and it would very much please me to go to bed now.

On donating

Donating stuff to the poor is not in and of itself a good deed. Caring about other people is the good deed, and so giving something to someone else because you care is a good deed. If you don’t have anything to donate, you can still care just as much. (Similarly, if you donate a billion dollars with contempt, you haven’t done anything good. Abu, the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin, gives a small loaf of bread to poor orphans out of shame. This is not a good deed. Of course, monkeys don’t have Free Will, so who cares.) You don’t need to be a billionaire to care, nor are billionaires capable of caring more just because they have more money.

So forcing other people to help each other, such as by taxing them and redistributing their money in the name of moral goodness, or just bothering them by showing them pictures of miserable poor people and asking for their money, does not equal a moral goodness in and of itself. In fact, you can never force someone else to do good. That misses the point of what it means to be good.

“A care with a prayer is worth more than a curse with a purse.”