Archive for Health

Delights

If you have yet to read Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights (2019), here is an invitation to pick it up. A collection of 102 brief essays he wrote over the course of a year, the book is about the possibility — the necessity — of attentiveness to joy in the world. We live in dark times, and the book does not ignore that. Gay’s sense of delight is capacious, including appreciating beauty, understanding fear, enjoying music, considering the insights gained from pain.

Let me give you an example — one I have shared with many friends, since first I read the book back in March.

The phrase “communities of sorrow” does not appear in Gay’s The Book of Delights.  But the idea does.  Gay writes:

     Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
     And what if the wilderness — perhaps the densest wild in there — thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) — is our sorrow? Or, to use [Zadie] Smith’s term, the “intolerable.” It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we are all afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. In this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
     Is sorrow the true wild?
     And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that?
     For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
     What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
     I’m saying: What if that is joy?

I find myself drawn to this because I’ve come to really appreciate sadness. Sadness connects us to others. As Gay suggests, it binds all of us humans together because we all carry within us sadness and pain. It is an affective opening-up, and in this sense sadness is the opposite of depression. When I mentioned this idea to my therapist, he said that there are many flavors of depression, and that I was describing anhedonic depression.  So, revise the previous sentence to say that anhedonic depression is an affective break with the world, an inability to feel.  But sadness offers — or, at least, can offer — a deeper connection to the world, and to our fellow humans.  On the Venn Diagram of emotions, sadness overlaps with love.

The previous paragraph is one of my delights. Since reading Gay’s book, I have been trying to be more attentive to delights. After mentioning this to Mark Newgarden in New York, in May, he asked was I writing these down? I was not. So, in June, I began keeping a kind of diary. I call it “Daily Delights,” even though I don’t write in it every day. Here are four more.


From 26 June, Manhattan, Kansas. Upon finishing my swim, I pulled myself out of the pool as another swimmer — who had just arrived — remarked to the swimmer in the adjacent lane that she knew she wouldn’t need to wait for a lane because I was predictable.  Smiling, I said, “What do you mean? I warmed up the lane for you.” After a brief, good-natured conversation, I wished her a good swim, said that I was glad to be so predictable, and began to amble off to the showers. Worried that she may have insulted me, she walked a few steps with me to explain herself. I assured her that I understood and that I was indeed predictable.

Our conversation prompted this reflection. “Predictable” is one of those few words that renders a negative judgment both as itself and as its negation. To say that a person is “unpredictable” conveys the notion that he/she is unreliable, potentially volatile, emotionally unstable, or even unhinged. Though it should be complimentary, “predictable” — when applied to a person — generally means “boring.” If we want to compliment someone’s predictability, we instead say that she/he is reliable. Or, if we want to praise unpredictability, we may call a person surprising or, perhaps, exciting. And, yet, of course, we are all of us a mixture of predictability and unpredictability. I may reliably swim for 40 minutes at the same time of the day or typically jog the same two routes. But I also embrace the unpredictability of travel, where my jogging route is not the only thing that changes. Life is a balance between the need for surety and enjoyment of change, the comfort of the expected and of finding joy in what we did not anticipate.


From 7 July, Berlin. I often say that time abroad affords me a much-needed mental-health holiday. Which it does. And lately I’ve taken to joking that I’m hiding from the U.S. — that’s why I’m traveling to so many places. I have to keep moving!

It would be more accurate to say that time abroad grants perspective. It gives me space. It provides a distance from which I can think. It allows me to reclaim my mental space more fully.

Donald Trump is a parasite who colonizes human consciousness. Placing an ocean between myself and the parasite diminishes its power. Temporarily.

It’s a bit like putting some distance between yourself and King Leck (in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels). In the case of Bitterblue and Katsa (though few others in the realm), the distance — and ultimately, the death of Leck — helps the fog lift and clarity return.


From 27 July, Vienna, after spending a long time staring at Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (c. 1666-1668) in the Kunst Historisches Museum: There should be a term for the experience of looking at realistic paintings after seeing a Vermeer. The (unfair) comparison makes everything else feel a bit flat. You feel that you could step into a Vermeer, as if what you have seen is not just canvas but window or portal. I spent more time looking at the Vermeer than I did any other piece of art in the museum. I had a similar experience with Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, on display at the Alte Pinakothek in München in the fall. The experience of looking at a Vermeer is almost hypnotic. And you need to be there, in the gallery, looking at it. No reproduction of Vermeer has quite the same effect.


From 7 August, Edinburgh. Days are so full of thoughts and impressions. Impossible to note even just the interesting ones and keep experiencing the day. I had that thought this evening, darting between and among the umbrella’d and the uncovered, as the rain fell, but more lightly than earlier in the afternoon/evening.

Or, more succinctly: It is impossible to both live life and chronicle it fully.


In conclusion, I’d say this: inasmuch as it is possible, do not let malevolent leaders, oppressive systems, collapsing climate, etc. rob of you your own capacity for joy. I realize this is hard — and harder for those who are the direct targets of the regime’s* cruelty. I am grateful for — and acknowledge my own privilege in having — business, family, and friends that enabled me to travel this summer. I should also add that there are also more troubling thoughts chronicled amidst my delights — omitted from this narrative, even though making sense of my tangled mind is in fact one of my delights. OK. That’s all. Find delight where you can. Take care of yourselves.


* I am thinking of Mad King Donald’s regime, but feel free to insert any of the many others we have to choose from: Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and now — it seems — Boris Johnson…

Leave a Comment

The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise noted):

Comments (4)

Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

Comments (5)

Crockett Johnson for the American Cancer Society, 1958

Courtesy of Mark Newgarden, it’s Crockett Johnson advising you to get a check-up so that you don’t get cancer.  Johnson created this 1958 pamphlet for the American Cancer Society, and I strongly suspect that he designed it, too.  (Clicking on each image will produce a larger version.)

Crockett Johnson, pamphlet for American Cancer Society (1958): cover

Unfold to the left, and see:

Crockett Johnson, pamphlet for American Cancer Society (1958): first, unfold to the left.

Next, unfold to the right, for:

Crockett Johnson, pamphlet for American Cancer Society (1958): next, unfold to the right

When you click on the above (for a larger image), you’ll see the Crockett Johnson aesthetic at work — a clear line, with small changes from panel to panel (recalling his Little Man with the Eyes in this respect).

When the pamphlet advises, “Know these warning signals may mean cancer,” I can’t help but think of Crockett Johnson’s death from lung cancer, 17 years later.  Which signals prompted him to go to the doctor in early 1975?  And, as a lifelong smoker, did he already suspect what was wrong with him?

In my Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming this fall), I reproduce a full-page magazine ad Johnson did for the American Cancer Society.  But I’d never seen this pamphlet until Mark sent it to me.  Had we time and were there interest, it’d be fun to collect all of Johnson’s advertising work and publish it in a small book.  I doubt there’d be much of a market for such an item, but it’s a nice idea to imagine.

Crockett Johnson, pamphlet for American Cancer Society (1958): back cover

Leave a Comment