SNIPPETS : “Misery made me a fiend”

I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

— The unnamed monster, from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’m rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in preparation for the upcoming adaptation by Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios. (Cue the excited screaming!) This is my first time back in this book since college, and a part of me is kicking myself for having decided all those years ago to toss out my lecture notes because I’m really curious as to how my professor analyzed and interpreted this book. (I can’t remember a thing. Ugh, count on me to forget.) But I do remember—however vaguely—the famous speech that the monster delivers to Frankenstein, his creator, a portion of which I chose to post for this week’s edition of Snippets. I was intrigued by the monster’s claim upon Frankenstein, and how he repeatedly references Adam’s relationship to God. I was also struck by what he said towards the end: “Misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” One of the major questions that the book brings up is nature vs. nurture. Are we who we are because of genetics, or an inherent, predetermined nature? Or does circumstance mold us into the people that we are? The monster believes it’s entirely nurture, but I think his “fiendishness” and “virtue” aren’t so much sides of his moral nature as it is behavioral reactions to how people treat him. If they’re good to him, he’ll return in kind. And likewise with those who mistreat him. His moral nature is actually very human—he gives what he gets.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.”

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. *

I had never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church—was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow—anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

— Scout Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m re-reading To Kill A Mockingbirdagain, ha—and loving every minute of it. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I just love Scout. She’s a girl after my own heart with her scrappy, tomboyish ways, her intelligence, and especially her love of reading. I’ve no doubt that it’s to do with what I’ve read and learned from Proust and the Squid, but I’m only just now realizing how reading is nothing short of a miracle. For most of us, reading is so second nature, so instinctive. And yet it’s crazy to think back to a time when we actually had to be taught how to do it, when written words—and even letters—were foreign concepts to us, just funny squiggles on a page that only grown-ups knew how to decipher. Reading is such a huge part of my life now, that I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I never learned how to read. So much of who I am as a person is thanks to the books that raised me. They taught me about life, how to deal with difficult situations, what is right versus what is wrong. They challenged me to think, and led me into worlds and lives I would have never had access to otherwise. And they almost always came into my life exactly when I needed them. They still do.

* I can’t seem to find the original source for the above image. The best compromise I can provide is this post from the blog Awesome People Reading.

On technological shinies and the thinking brain

[…] “Her mother and I didn’t want to get her a feed at all. I did not have one. Neither did her mother. I said none for our family.

“Then one day, when her mother had left, and I needed work, I was at a job interview. I was an excellent candidate. Two men were interviewing me. Talking about this and that. Then they were silent, just looking at me. I grew uncomfortable. Then they began looking at each other, and doing what I might call smirking.

“I realized that they had chatted me, and that I had not responded. They found this funny. Risible. That a man would not have a feed. So they were chatting about me in my presence. Teasing me when I could not hear. Free to assess me as they would, right in front of me.

“I did not get the job.

“It was thus that I realized that my daughter would need the feed. She had to live in the world.”

— Mr. Durn, from Feed by M. T. Anderson

This passage came to mind the other day as I was reading a particularly interesting and thought-provoking passage from Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. In that passage, Wolf walks her readers through Socrates’ three-fold objection towards the written language:

  1. You cannot dialogue with a written text. (To put this in context: Socrates prized active, verbal discussion. He firmly believed that it was the only way for individuals to truly learn, and to understand an idea. He also believed it invaluable to society. To quote Wolf, “only the examined word and the analyzed thought could lead to real virtue, and only true virtue could lead a society to justice and could lead individuals to their god.”)
  2. Writing interferes with an individual’s memorizing skill, and consequently, as Wolf writes, “the individual’s internalization of knowledge.”
  3. Writing presents no accountability or control  for its contents. To quote Socrates, “Once a thing is put into writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parents to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.”

His objections are well-argued, but what I found interesting was that it wasn’t writing, or even reading, that Socrates had an issue with, but rather what a written language would do to the way people think and used their minds. He believed very firmly that the dependence upon a written language—as opposed to dependence upon human memory and oral tradition—would cause society to, basically, get dumber. Which immediately made me think of what people—myself included—have said about humankind’s growing dependence upon things like the Internet, Google, and how our stuff is just becoming increasingly automated so that we ourselves are doing less and less. I used to think that the rapid surge of technological advancements in our society—like the infamous Google Glass—was completely unprecedented and utterly unnatural. But after talking about the matter with friends, I conceded that the aspect of technology progressing is old, old news. Throughout human history, technology has always been improving and changing. This is why we aren’t using bronze weaponry anymore, why we aren’t reading from scrolls, why we aren’t getting around town in a horse and buggy. Wolf says as much in her book:

[…] there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge. Socrates could no more prevent the spread of reading than we can prevent the adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Our shared human quest for knowledge ensures that this is as it must be.

But what still irks me about new technology is not so much that they exist, but that there is a lack of pause to consider the ramifications—cerebral, socially, culturally—of their consumption. I don’t think we should be decrying the Internet, or smartphones, or Twitter, nor should we ban people from using them. But I think we ought to be more mindful of how we use these resources and tools. If I’ve learned anything from Proust and the Squid, it’s this: that our brains wire itself according to what we feed it, sensorially and intellectually. It’s an impressive testament to the human brain, how it’s wonderfully complex, intelligent, and adaptive. It’s also a sobering reminder of what we might make ourselves into if all we’re doing is passively, apathetically consuming.

Going back to the passage from Feed—it reminds me of what Wolf said about the inevitability of technological progress. The world has and always will shape its infrastructure according to new inventions and innovations. We can’t detach ourselves from using new things if we still expect to be a functioning member of society. But we can and should take more ownership in how much we saturate ourselves, knowing that by doing so we have a direct effect on the sort of thinking people we become. The young characters in Feed live in a future plagued by political turmoil, environmental disasters, and impending war. But they are too distracted by the feed implanted in their brains—which flood them 24/7 with the equivalent of the Internet on crack—to care about the world outside of their hamster balls of comfort and entertainment. I already see that happening, in myself as well as the children and adolescents of our time. And I worry that if we don’t change the way we consume and utilize the technological tools available literally at our fingertips, we’ll end up just like Titus and his friends.

The buoying lift of their numbers

Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the water—naturally as many healthy fish are raised as possible—she is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. This is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not “one of them” but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.

How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests and fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school themselves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn’t it be the truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds are not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?

I find myself returning again and again to this passage from Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea. I’m enamored with the mood of it, the tranquility that these divers experiences while swimming with their fish—a tranquility that, I’ve realized, doesn’t stem from an absence of danger. They know that their work as divers isn’t immune to accidents. They know that some among them have died during their routine submersions. The tranquility, rather, comes from an acceptance of their place amongst their fish—swimming with them, feeling almost as if they are of them. And it seems the fish feel the same way. It’s an interesting relationship, a sort of symbiosis I think. As much as the divers take care of the fish, the fish also take care of their divers, if not in physical nurturing then emotional. There’s a reassurance in numbers, a sense of safety and belonging that taps into what makes us innately human.

SNIPPETS : Washington was such a stud

[…] [Washington] was one of those rare few who, under fire, were without fear.

/

In 1759, […] [Washington] married Martha Dandridge Custis of Williamsburg, an attractive, extremely wealthy widow with two children, to whom he gave full devotion. The children, John Parke Custis and Patsy, were treated quite as though they were his own. Indeed, one of the worst tragedies of Washington’s life had been the death of seventeen-year-old Patsy of an epileptic fit in 1773.

/

That Washington was known to hunt up to seven hours straight, riding as close to the hounds as possible, “leaping fences and going extremely quick,” and always to the end, to be in on the kill, was considered not only a measure of his love of the chase and his exceptional physical stamina, but also of his uncommon, unrelenting determination.

/

The Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, who had been a guest at Mount Vernon in 1772 while painting Washington’s portrait, described how he and several other young men were on the lawn throwing an iron bar for sport, when Washington appeared and, without bothering to remove his coat, took a turn, throwing it “far, far beyond our utmost limit.”

/

[Washington] was a builder by nature. He had a passion for architecture and landscape design, and Mount Vernon was his creation, everything done to his own ideas and plans. How extremely important all this was to him and the pleasure he drew from it, few people ever understood.

/

That [Washington] was also serving without pay [for his post as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army] was widely taken as further evidence of the genuineness of his commitment [to the revolution].

— Excerpts from David McCullough’s 1776

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But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honored with.

— Washington, upon being named Commander-in-Chief by Congress

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I admit, it’s a weird time to be patriotic given the hullabaloo that was raised over the recent Snowden incident. But with July 4th coming up in a matter of weeks, I thought now is a good a time as any to brush up on some American history à la 1776 by David McCullough. So this is me being anti-mainstream, I guess. The rest of y’all can read your 1984. I’ll be another 200 years back.

I’m only on the second chapter, but I’m really enjoying this book. Particularly the bits about George Washington, whom I will admit to having something of a crush on. However, the fact that he was a plantation owner and did own slaves during his lifetime still makes me feel incredibly confused, so I dunno.

The fact that I had the original of this Instagram as my cellphone background for weeks last year doesn’t really help either.

Taken at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon.

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Readers — What have you been reading lately?

SNIPPETS : #11 — A man of paper

I discovered the scrapbooks when I’m eight, wedged in a cabinet beneath the bookshelf. They are my father’s life, created by his mother. The books stop when he marries my mother. From boyhood to newspaperman, his mother kept the evidence of a life lived. First-grade report card. Cub Scout awards. Elementary-school class photos. Ticket stubs for football games (the scores noted on them). Birthday cards. Mother’s Day cards he made for her. High school prom photographs. The first stories he wrote for the Tribune. Stories about him from the Omaha-World Herald […].

What will be left of us when we are gone? My father? Bits of faded newsprint amid sheaves of crumbling construction paper. Serrated-edged black-and-white photographs shot by Kodak Brownies. A boy of six, on his back porch, hugging his black dog, squinting in the great American Dust Bowl sun of 1939. A book of scraps. Brittle pages. It was left to me to reassemble him. I learned to make sense of the remnants, to find meaning in the missing pieces. A man of paper.

After Visiting Friends, by Michael Hainey

I couldn’t help but see the double meaning in Hainey’s words, a man of paper. His father, to whom Hainey is referring, was a newspaperman—a journalist of the written medium. As a child, Hainey’s father dreamed of writing for the newspapers. As an adult, he wrote for the newspapers. Now, deceased, his life is preserved by paper—by the pages of a scrapbook, by photographs, by clippings of articles that he had penned. His life, from birth certificate to death certificate, was defined by paper. He truly was a man of paper.

SNIPPETS : #10 — Survival of the busiest

As “neurons that fire together, wire together,” the jobs we have and the company we keep are rewiring our frontal lobes—and these same frontal lobes are, in turn, making our decisions in the office and on Saturday nights. Back and forth it goes, as work and love and the brain knit together in the twenties to make us into the adults we want to be in our thirties and beyond.

Or not.

Because our twenties are the capstone of this last critical period, they are, as one neurologist said, a time of “great risk and great opportunity.” The post-twentysomething brain is still plastic, of course, but the opportunity is that never again in our lifetime will the brain offer up countless new connections and see what we make of them. Never again will we be so quick to learn new things. Never again will it be so easy to become the people we hope to be. The risk is that we may not act now.

In a use-it-or-lose-it fashion, the new frontal lobe connections we use are preserved and quickened; those we don’t use just waste away through pruning. We become what we hear and see and do every day. We don’t become what we don’t hear and see and do every day. In neuroscience, this is known as “survival of the busiest.”

— Meg Jay, The Defining Decade

As someone who is well into her 20s, working a dead-end job and feeling frustratedly stuck in life, I consider Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade to be an absolute godsend as well as a very startling wake-up call. (Not unlike Jimmy Kimmel’s by Michelle Obama.) Jay has thoroughly convinced me that the twenties are an absolutely foundational period in life, and as such should not be spent thoughtlessly as unfortunately so many of us do. (Myself included.) One of the most striking things that I’ve read so far is the passage above. Jay explains that much like an infant, a twentysomething’s brain undergoes a growth spurt. But instead of growing in size, it grows in neuron activity. This growth actually begins in adolescence, and fades by your 30s, which is why wise people have told us time and time again to take advantage of our youth by learning as much as we can during this time. While it’s true that the human brain is still capable of learning new things all the time, it’s unquestionably harder as we grow older. Jay underscores this when she says, “never again.” It’s also harder to change as a person when we’re older, as habits have solidified by perpetual practice during our ‘teens and 20s.

I admit, I was really emotional after reading the above this morning. But I’ve since calmed down, replacing my initial despair with the resolve to revitalize my life. I’m 26 this year, turning 27. I’ve already lost more than six years to laziness and distraction. But I still count myself lucky. I have a little more than three years left, and I’m going to use them well.

Some initial goals that I’ve drafted up:

Read widely & with purpose — Instead of reading purely for entertainment, which has been my mindset for many, many years, I will read with the intent to actively learn. I will include more non-fiction into my diet, as well as foreign fiction, and challenging novels that I used to shy away from.

Practice & improve my Mandarin — Although my boss thinks otherwise, my Mandarin really is atrocious. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted that I firmly believe a 5-year-old Chinese native would be able to hold a better conversation than me. Since I can’t stand c-pop, I’m thinking of watching Chinese and Taiwanese films, as a way to give my ears more exposure to the language. I’ll also need to find people with which to practice. Parents, definitely. Friends, maybe.

♦ Embrace small talk — Ugh, small talk. I hate it. I never saw the point to it. But I do realize now that it’s necessary to engage in sometimes. Therefore, will need to embrace it and practice it. This is another motivation for consuming more non-fiction. There’s only so many questions that you can ask a person before the conversation begins to uncomfortably resemble an interrogation. And really, who the heck cares about the weather? We’re in California; it’s temperate year round! Better to say, “So, I was reading the other day…” and introduce some tidbit you mined from a book that you think might interest the other person. Boom, conversation! Plus, cool points for reading something interesting.

Travel — This is more of a wish than a goal at this point, since the bank account right now can’t exactly afford the luxury, but I’m putting it here anyway.

Get back into the hunt — For jobs, that is. My work situation isn’t going to change until I change it. And I can’t change it if I don’t put in the necessary elbow grease. It’s tedious, yes, and discouraging most times, but I have to do it, and I have to KEEP on doing it. No buts.

* * *

Readers — Have you read The Defining Decade? If so, what did you think? Or has there been anything that has really challenged you, or changed the way you’ve thought about something?