Monday, April 27, 2009

Another Sunset

The sun, that seemed so mildly to retire,
Flung back from distant climes a streaming fire,
Whose blaze is now subdued to tender gleams,
Prelude of night's approach with soothing dreams.
Look round;--of all the clouds not one is moving;
'Tis the still hour of thinking, feeling, loving.

William Wordsworth, On a High Part of the Coast of Cumberland...

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Old Man’s Wish

“I govern my passion with absolute sway,
And grow wiser and better as my strength wears away.”
Walter Pope (1630–1714)

I know an old man who is making his way out of a long and happy life. The end won’t be dignified or even terribly coherent: the later being the saving grace offsetting the former. The cobwebs of confusion are replacing the wisdom of age, just as the wisdom once replaced the grace of his youth. Sooner or later, whether our lives are long or short, they end in darkness. There’s no way out of here alive.

In response to a question about what he feared most, another wise old man once replied – dogs, Dutchmen, and the gathering darkness. That man was Abe Simpson, shuffling slippers, enigmatic response, and mumbled phobias about Dutch people. Abe teaches me that life is too short to take the gathering darkness too seriously.

Meanwhile, I struggle to govern my passions, if not with absolute sway, then at least with a nudge or two of reason. For now, I have the time and presence to pay attention. I have the wit to see things clearly rather than seriously. But as I age, I realize I’m growing too damn slowly into the wisdom my creaky diminishing strength entitles me to. At this rate, I’ll be wise about an hour and forty-five minutes after I’m dead.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guest Ultracrepidarian Musings

This reaction became too long for a comment, thus the guest posting.

"Authoritative but stupid opinions" have been much in the news lately. For example, a recent Nick Kristof column:
"Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff? One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. The 2005 book 'Expert Political Judgment,' by UC-Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock, is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts' forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about. The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses. The only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones."

They did so because they were over-confidant and so ignored all facts that might contradict their opinions. Remind you of any recent federal administrations?

Wired reports on another study: Expert Financial Advice Neurobiologically 'Offloads' Financial Decision-Making under Risk" by Engelmann, Capra, Noussair, and Berns; Public Library of Science ONE, March 24, 2009. Conclusion: Given "Expert" Advice, Brains Shut Down. This study "and another on hormones and day trading (testosterone is good for individual traders, but possibly bad for everyone else), have cast scientific doubt on a central tenet of free-market fundamentalism. Contrary to neoliberal economic theory, markets are not always driven by individuals acting rationally in their own best interests."

Then there's my favorite book by George Lakoff, The Political Mind. Although we grew up with an Enlightenment view of reason — that it is logical, universal, unemotional, and interest-based — recent brain research (especially that facilitated by functional MRIs that show in which areas the brain is active during tasks) has conclusively demonstrated that the dichotomy between reason and emotion is false. We think we can divorce reason from emotion because most (an estimated 98%) of reason is unconscious. Our ancestors didn't have time to reason consciously about the best thing to do, so we've evolved to think and behave reflexively. They do experiments (see Restak's The Naked Brain) to show that your body reacts before your brain has received the nerve inputs on which to base a conscious decision. Our cognitive unconsciousness is really running the show.

We are making very complex and subtle assessments all the time of which we are not consciously aware. Our reasoning is more like after-the-fact rationalization of decisions we've already made. Now, I do think that that more information makes for better decisions, but both research and the results of "negative campaigning" show that our "free will" is more limited than we like to think. We use the emotional subtext in our decision-making because we can't not do so. And these kinds of subconscious evaluations have been shown to be surprisingly sophisticated.

So, iBRAIN by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan has me worried about a loss of skill in gut-level assessments. Their thesis is that "these kids today" never tear their attention from their phones and computers long enough to hone their ability to "read" people. If our young are losing face-to-face cognitive skills due to immersion in technology, that portends poorer decisions by future voters. If they don't look people in the face anymore, they either never make or gradually abandon the neural pathways allowing them to assess expressions with any validity. Does that mean that our subconscious judgments about who we can trust not to betray us are becoming less reliable? Does it offer some explanation of the popularity of affable empty suits like [insert your favorite populist here]?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ultracrepidarian Musings

“It is a happy thought to believe that our gardens smile at us and hold for us a genuine understanding. At the same time, we must not forget that of all the humorous things in a garden, we who pretend to be gardeners, are the funniest.”
Louse Seymour Jones, Who Loves a Garden

Here’s an adjective you might not know you needed. But you do. Ultracrepidarian: of a critic, giving opinions on something beyond his or her knowledge. Example: I have a relative whose ultracrepidarian pronouncements on subjects ranging from antelope colostomies to zebra vasectomies belie his/her almost total ignorance of the subject at hand.

Um, I know somebody like this. Don’t we all? They’re probably the people who would order bacon yogurt from this menu.

Immediately before they express an authoritative but stupid opinion, these people typically say: “You know… (insert something you presumably don’t know)…” On second thought, perhaps my anonymous relative is a mere crepidarian, (rather than the superfluous conjugate) seeing as how he/she often begin conversations propounding on topics he/she clearly knows nothing about with: “I could be wrong, but…”

Everybody has an opinion once in a while, even, surprisingly, me. I’ll even concede that some peoples’ opinions are sometimes based on their life experience as minor characters in the reality show I star in. Other times, well, let’s just say such people apparently live in a world where they are seemingly the only people who know not to touch the fire on the stovetop, and it’s their mission to save us all from burning our fingers. Of course, you can’t reason with such people. You’re more likely to win an argument if you make shit up and change your position with impunity as the argument progresses.

So, why haven’t I learned not to participate in such conversations? These days, too much of my energy is devoted to maintaining a white-knuckled grip on the throat of my own reality, leaving me little energy to spare arguing with morons, let alone trying to shine the clear light of my reason into the dark corners of their paranoia.

Which is where my garden comes in. That, and my twisted sense of humor. Judgmental, ultracrepidarian opinionated, know-it-alls probably also know more about gardening than I do. They know why one design scheme failed, why my pepper and eggplant seeds never germinated, what kind of caterpillars munched my fennel into skeletal stems. At times like that, I remind myself that I’m only pretending to be a gardener. What I’m really doing outside in the back yard is cultivating my own peace of mind.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Ideal Life

YANG CHU said: "Yuan Hsie lived in mean circumstances in Lu, while Tse Kung amassed wealth in Wei.
"Poverty galled the one, and riches caused uneasiness to the other.
"So poverty will not do nor wealth either."
"But what then will do?"
"I answer enjoy life and take one's ease, for those who know how to enjoy life are not poor, and he that lives at ease requires no riches."
Yang Chu's Garden of Pleasure
Chapter VI, The Ideal Life

Enjoy life and take one’s ease. Sounds great. And yet…

I just came in from sowing the last of my seeds. I wasn’t planning on doing that today, but I left the box of seeds out in last night’s unexpected (by me) shower, and they needed to be planted. Why is it that whenever I’m in the yard it’s because I’m working or performing some maintenance task? I can’t seem to sit still and enjoy the garden because it only takes about sixty seconds of trying to meditate before I see something that needs deadheading, or a weed that needs removing, or something that I have to tweak into perfection.

I have finally decided that performing such minor tasks is a way I maintain the “flow” of enjoying being in the garden in a sort of mental neutral gear where I don’t find myself flitting from one thought to another – which is what happens when I try to sit still and watch the bees playing tag around the shallow end of the pond.

For me, enjoying the garden means being active, even if it’s only a little bit. I envision how I want this corner to look in 10 years, or that planter to look in the next few months. I have a tiny loquat given to me in a 2” peat pot by a friend. I put it in the ground, but then put a plant stand and plant overhead to protect it from direct sun while it settled in. It’s been there through one summer, so I’ve now moved the shading pot. Someday, this tiny plant will shade a part of the garden now in 6-8 hours of sun a day, but if you saw it today, you’d see a 4” tall anonymous green stick with a few jaundiced leaves.

I’ve decided this endless tinkering is the closest I will get to the ideal life in my garden: perfectly balanced between all my “amassed wealth” and “mean circumstances” I find the ideal life at ease in my garden.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sistertrip V

“You know I never like to interfere… but…”
Anonymous In-law
I recently returned from a 4-night trip with several of my sisters. This, our fifth biennial sister trip, was in Ventura CA. (For the archivist: Traverse City, MI, Harper’s Ferry, WV; Santa Fe, NM; and Savannah, GA.) Thanks to one sister’s timeshare, we enjoyed sunsets over the ocean as we sat and read our various books and newspapers, drinking good red wine and looking up to chat briefly about whatever we were reading. With four of us, we could enjoy a single conversation, whereas when all six of us get together, conversation groups generally break down into smaller units.

We had time to whine about our various family and home trials and tribulations, to discuss the amazing (and not-coincidental) differences of political opinion between us sisters and our brothers and boy cousins whose opinions range from uncompassionate conservatism to wacko conspiracy theories. We spoke about our various states of health, getting old, dying, shepherding aging pets and elderly in-laws “across the rainbow bridge” and toward the light. For several days, it didn’t suck at all to be me.

Here’s the thing about spending time with sisters. We easily slipped into intimate conversations, tapping the same veins of family history, dumb jokes and reminisces to provide context. Some things you can talk about only with people who understand on such a deep level you don’t have to qualify your statements with “I love ____, but…” We shared our favorite punch lines like “Liquor? I hardly knew her!” and “Do I remember the minuet? I don’t even remember the men I f*&%ed!”

We waited too long, drinking mimosas, for our overpriced lunch at an otherwise delightful sidewalk café in Santa Barbara. We exercised our privilege as white women of a certain age and laughed too loudly, shocking the locals. When I got a box for my leftover lunch, I took the “complementary” tiny metal sauce dish that came filled with cream cheese. Well, I’m never going back there.

We (I) drove our rented Chrysler PT Cruiser over several curbs, while lamenting the awful turning radius. The hatchback trunk smelled like pot, you could see daylight between the closed passenger side door and the frame. The final insult was that the electronic key had a dead battery, and I was inconvenienced by having to actually use the key in the actual lock. How primitive! Can you blame me for punishing the car by driving into curbs?

While I’m casting blame, I also blame M1 for nixing the red Mustang convertible we could have had in lieu of the PT Cruiser. I have to assume it would have had a tighter turning radius and/or a functioning remote key. I blame Tech Support Guy for not letting us use the Prius with gps navigation, causing me to mistakenly enter Camp Pendleton Marine Base, where we were waved through by the 12 year old Marine guard at the gate who didn’t bother to notice we didn’t have a base parking sticker. I’m also pissed at Huntington Library for being closed on Tuesdays, as was the Norton Simon Museum and the Gamble House all in Pasadena. The picture of the Gamble house front door (below) was taken through the window on the patio behind the house.

We shared our favorite vulgar and unladylike synonyms for manure, or at least my sisters did when remarking upon the quality of my driving. We agreed that if, in any given conversation, the speaker forgets a crucial noun, the words “werewolf” or “tugboat” would suffice; and to our considerable surprise, this shortcut made conversations much more interesting. We visited the Mission in Santa Barbara and mused over the sanitized history of how the devout friars committed genocide on the natives in the name of the Lord. I scored the most tasteless souvenir: a credit-card sized 3-D picture of Christ on the shroud of Turin, that morphs into a lovely white man’s face – presumably that of an alive Christ - when you wiggle it in your hand. Priceless!

I wore my cheap pedometer all during the trip and logged 5k steps each day! Then I lost it – the pedometer, not the steps. Then I found it folding laundry this morning – it had been washed and dried and seems to be fine: 298 steps so far today. All in all, a very good sistertrip.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Adventures in Planting Seeds

“There was a small girl of Leeds
Who planted what she thought were seeds,
These she watered each day
But I’m sorry to say,
They never came up, they were beads!”
- Louise Seymour Jones, Who Loves a Garden

Failure already? Four entire seed packets (2 eggplant and 2 peppers), planted March 4 and nothing to show. How is this fair? Then there’s the thunbergia and sacred lotus, planted a mere week ago, and still nothing. I soaked the thunbergia and lotus seeds overnight in water with a little inoculant added. I even drilled tiny holes in the lotus seeds: shaped like black marbles and let them soak overnight before planting. I did the same with some seeds of Kapok (Ceiba pentandra) a friend liberated from the specimen adjacent to the Huntington Garden mansion. I expect the big and/or thick shelled seeds will take more patience, but it’s still discouraging to see several trays of peat pots looking empty as the day they were planted.

My home-made potting mix was probably infected with damping off. Or despite being covered with a plastic shower curtain on cold nights, the warm-season seeds were probably scared to death of the cold. Or perhaps I planted beads. I might as well have for all I have to show.

I’m having more luck in the real garden, where mustard seed sprouts already fill a large pot. I’ve got sprouts in the herb garden, but won’t know what they are until they’re a bit more grown-up. I think one of my hop vines is sprouting, but it could be a purple hyacinth bean, put in the same place at the same time.

I make no pretense of having a green thumb. Just because I like to garden doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. I can’t cultivate lush tropicals because I’m just too negligent. Exotic flowers don’t survive my benign neglect. While I no longer murder plants that don’t belong in my Zone 9 yard, I tend to push the envelope, with the degree of success a 15year old with a learner's permit would have in trying to jump their car over 6 school buses. I don’t have tall shade trees beneath which I can plant understory forest plants of my childhood: violets and lilies of the valley. I tend to (un-humbly) blame my environment for my gardening failures, making me slower to learn the horticultural lessons I most need to master.

Enthusiasm takes a gardener only so far. Cultivating patience probably takes one a baby step farther down the garden path. After that, a certain amount of skill is required – or at least a minimum of horticultural knowledge, and humility in the face of Nature. I expect I’ve got more in common with the small girl of Leeds when it comes to gardening savvy than I do with a genuine gardener. Now that I think about it, those lotus seeds did look an awful lot like beads…