Philosophy Friday: On Logic
Logic is the beginning of wisdom…not the end.
- Spock, "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"
Today marks the end of this life for Leonard Nimoy, a man most famous for his portrayal of Spock -- the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer of Captain Kirk on Star Trek. I'm certain that many fans and non-fans alike responded to the news with some variation of "how sad." I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this is an illogical response.
It is not sad that he has passed on; you may feel sad.
The fact is that everyone dies. The fact is that he was an 83 year-old man. Eventually, whether it be today or 10 years from now, he would have died. Logically speaking, there is nothing "sad" about this.
For a man whose primary contribution to the arts -- Spock -- was the personification of such logic, I felt inspired to do a brief riff on the philosophical implications of logic on our world. Some say acting through pure logic trivializes emotions and, thus, humanity. I argue the opposite. Logic breeds compassion, because it is only logical to care for others. Let me explain.
Supporters of logical thought come from many creeds, time periods, and locations. Vedic traditions in India (3500-1500 BCE) were known for valuing the logical path in life. Buddhism adapted logic as one of its primary tenets. Aristotle, the father of Western logic, included it in his classical trivium, a trio that also included rhetoric and grammar. If you know me, you can see how highly I must value this concept.
Yet it's something we do not see enough of in our contemporary world. So often we are urged to do what we feel like or what we want rather than to do what is logical.
Let me give you an example: Have you ever approached a traffic light while driving on a multi-lane boulevard, only to see that a person near the front of the line has decided at the last minute to turn left instead of going straight? This person might angle their vehicle at a diagonal, turn signal flashing, as they block 3/4 of the lane from which they are trying to escape. The end result is that each and every person behind this car must suffer -- at the very least -- a brief delay and -- at most -- an accident that could lead to injury… all because the person wanted to turn left at that particular light instead of make a U-turn up ahead.
What about a husband who abandons his wife and children for a fling? Sure, the new girl might be younger. Maybe the sex is better (often "newer" is confused with "better"). But most often, the decision to sacrifice the feelings of people who previously relied on you is not done to serve the greater logical good -- it is done out of desire. He wants to feel the pleasure of someone else instead of upholding his commitment to family.
The decision by the driver and the philanderer are both grounded in entitlement. Logic would dictate doing what helped the road function more efficiently, what helped the children and mother thrive. Yet these types of events occur every single day.
Some say that the opposite of logic is emotion. Those responding emotionally are supposedly incapable of adhering to true logic. To a certain extent, this is undeniable. One of the glories of Star Trek was watching Kirk come to his final decision on matters of life and death as the humanitarian Bones screamed emotionally about what was moral while the unflappable Spock detailed the logical implications of any action. Interestingly, though, the right tack often proved to be a healthy combination of the two.
How could that be? How can combining opposites bear a fruitful solution? Shouldn't that create discord? Shouldn't they cancel each other out? ISN'T THE NOTION ILLOGICAL?
To account for this, I propose something else altogether. Perhaps the two aren't, in fact, "opposites." As the two examples above seem to indicate, illogical decisions often reflect an element of entitlement. A delusion of grandeur, if you will. It's as though the agent of illogical acts believes his/her own needs are more important than the needs of those affected by the action. Therefore, I contend that entitlement serves as perhaps a more effective opposite -- if not in literal definition, at least in practice -- to logic.
Buddhism preaches the concept of "no-self." It is one of the prerequisites for a bodhisattva, or one whose purpose in life is to serve for the benefit of all beings on Earth. While these amazing people may not earn much money (if any at all), somehow they find compassion to be enough payment to live a satisfied life. Almost anywhere you look, you'll hear similar stories of contentment through serving others. Yet people still spend their lives going after money, stocking up, protecting their own desires. Logically, wouldn't being compassionate bring greater joy in life?
In that way, logic is truly the most compassionate, human trait.
Rest in peace, Mr. Spock. I'd write more about how the world will miss you, but realistically, your contributions will outlive your presence here. You gave logic a face for so many years, so wouldn't it be most logical, rather than saying "We'll miss you," to merely say, "Thank you"?
Inspired by a Mistake
I certainly don't need to be working at Starbucks anymore. My day job of teaching at San Diego colleges and universities pays the bills and fills my time. But I keep my one shift per week because I enjoy the interactions. Well, that and the free coffee.
Every now and then I'll have a reminder about why working in the service industry gives you such a unique insight into humanity. At times, that insight is negative.
There was Gary, the regular, whose cup was given to me one day with "A," "lt. rm" on it. That means "Americano, light room." I made the drink as written down. Gary came back within seconds of receiving it and said, "Hey, buddy. I asked for two inches of room. Does that look like two inches to you? YOU ARE THE BIGGEST IDIOT I'VE EVER MET IN MY LIFE!" Okay, so maybe I added that last part. But you get the point. I hadn't even made a mistake -- the person who wrote the drink down did -- yet I still was treated poorly because Gary hadn't gotten what he wanted. Maybe he was just having a bad day, but it certainly reminded me that people had a bad habit of misdirecting their rage. (After fixing the issue, I handed him his drink back and said, "I hope your day gets better." He probably wants to kill me.)
But for every "Gary," I get several more people who are truly thankful, grateful, and kind. There's Lu, Michelle, Mike, Rich, Jeff… the list goes on. They always smile, they're always pleasant -- even if things don't go their way.
Today, I had another such customer. This woman had a particularly large order, and she had tasked one of our newer employees with the food items. He got everything right except for the fact that he gave her a Turkey Bacon Sandwich rather than a Bacon Sandwich. This honest mistake could have sent her into a hissy fit.
Instead, she merely smiled.
"I think you guys sliced up the wrong animal."
I laughed as I went over to attend to her needs. Naturally -- as we are taught to do in service -- I apologized. But this woman simply shook her head.
"Listen," she said. "I've managed Costco stores for 25 years. I haven't forgotten humanness. Mistakes don't bother me."
Such a minor interaction. Such an important statement. If only more people would connect "mistakes" to "humanness" rather than to "laziness," "stupidity," or to the delusion of grandeur that thinks "I don't deserve your mistakes." What a wonderful world we could have!
Be human. Make a mistake today. And then enjoy it.
The mixture of my readings today include:
- "The Travels of Fa Hien" (Chinese Buddhist monk from the 1st century CE)
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (for a class I teach on satire)
- "Why Did Human History Unfold How It Did Over the Past 13,000 Years?" by Jared Diamond (a speech summarizing his main arguments from his groundbreaking book Guns, Germs and Steel)
- Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
- Any article related to the plight of adjuncts, since today is National Adjunct Walkout Day
It's true, adjunct professors have it tough in a lot of ways. I know, because I am one. We tend to have heavier teaching schedules than our full-time and tenure-track colleagues. We often have to travel to many campuses in a single day, and we make significantly less money to do so. Out here in California, we have it good -- I can actually pay my bills with the money I earn. However, in other parts of the country, people are making $1,500 a class (or less). Do the math. Teaching a full 5-5 load, an adjunct would make $15,000/year on that sum. I'm not exaggerating.
My Fall Semester entailed traveling to San Diego State University from 2 pm - 10 pm each Monday, then teaching an 8:00 am course the following day at SDSU. After meeting with students in my office hours, I would drive to a second campus for a 12:30 pm course at Mesa (15 minutes north), followed by more office hours before a 6:00 pm course at UCSD (15 more minutes north). I would get home between 8:30 and 9:00 pm -- just enough time to get my materials ready for the following day.
Rinse, repeat every Tuesday/Thursday.
I worked roughly 50 hours a week before factoring in grading. Giving a conservative 20 minutes to each student's paper (because, after all, my job is to make them better students), multiplying that by the 120 students I have, three to four papers per class in the semester… I won't bore you. We work a lot.
It's a double-edged sword, though, because for many of us, our passion is teaching bright young minds on college campuses. I don't want to find another job -- not because I'm lazy, but because I truly love spending my days on a college campus. Being surrounded by people who truly feel that the next phase in their life will be better than the current phase is a unique and beautiful privilege. It brings me great joy to meet, work with, and get to know my students academically and personally. I cherish those connections.
But the only way things will get better for adjuncts is if we do not make it so easy for administrators. I wish I had muscle, clout, whatever. I don't. I just have a small voice that is good at inspiring students to think. Unfortunately, in a capitalistic society, thinking is worth $0.00.
Until we can convince the leaders of our government, of our educational institutions, and of our world that education simply is more valuable than the profit margin, this industry will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And make no mistake -- education is more important than money.
I have a feeling that things will crash before my time is up. Student loans will continue to default. Colleges will close. The job market will become so overcrowded that they will be able to hire professors on food stamp salaries. Or close. But the point is that anyone out there reading this who has a say -- say something. Work to help some of the most dedicated, big hearted folks in our nation get their recognition.
And maybe -- just maybe -- a livable wage.
He loved the soft baritone of Dean Martin in songs such as "Oh Marie" and "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)," and in many of his own early recordings you could hear the influence of Dino on young Elvis.
Time went on, as it does, and both found their fame -- Elvis in music, Dean on television. Rarely, though, did they cross paths, until one day in the early '60s when Dean was able to introduce his young daughter Deana to one of her idols: the King.
According to Deana, Elvis extended a hand to her and said, "They may call me the King of Rock and Roll, but your dad is the King of Cool." From that, a nickname was born.
Dean and Elvis stayed loosely in touch as the years went by. Ironically, though he respected Elvis, Dean Martin resented rock and roll. When the Beatles came to the USA and revolutionized the industry, Dino's distaste grew larger. Both Dean and Elvis were having trouble climbing the charts, and in a now-famous exchange Martin famously told his son -- an avid Beatles fan -- "I'm going to knock your pallies off the charts." Martin, more competitive than people realized, did just that. In 1964, "Everybody Loves Somebody" supplanted "Hard Day's Night" as the #1 song on the Billboard charts.
The next day, Elvis Presley received a telegram from Dean Martin that simply said: "That's how you do it."
The King of Cool, indeed.
The Beauty in Rejection
After having a successful opening to 2014 where four of my first six story submissions were accepted for publication, I have challenged myself to submit to journals of higher prestige. The result? A big, fat 0-fer. A symphony of NO.
Since May of 2014, I've heard the word "no" more than any other word regarding my writing. It has come from sources far and wide: literary agents who feel my manuscript isn't quite what they are looking for; small journals that insist my writing will find a home; large journals that claim to have read more than the first paragraph even though my friends received the exact same rejection letter; and the ever-so-kind folks at McSweeney's -- an online publication I couldn't recommend enough (their rejection letters are personal, honest, and funny; they clearly read your work and have a sense of humor about telling you it's not right for them).
I'll admit, it gets hard sometimes hearing your work isn't "right" (i.e., "good enough"). At times, it makes a writer bitter. The world doesn't know good literature anymore! When you get past the ego, it makes you feel hopeless. Maybe I'm just not a good writer. I'll never make it. Some people never make it past these two phases.
But recently, I have embraced a new aspect of rejection: self-reflection. It's somewhere in between disappointment and hubris. It is deeper than my writing sucks, and smarter than constantly hitting the "send" button on a piece that isn't getting accepted.
At first, I thought I was already aware of this somewhat obvious notion; however, it is only in recent weeks that I've been able to reflect with enough HONESTY to see that my pride and ego were still getting in the way of true self-reflection.
Reading some of my pieces has shown me a few things about my own work. First, I can be a lazy writer. What I mean by this is that some of my scenes -- those that I find less interesting than others -- can rush to a finish. Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action." Sometimes I violate this rule in the interest of "getting the damn thing finished." It's no wonder The Kenyon Review didn't want the story about the time machine that gets built in less than one page...
Second, I can be a bit of a show-off (big surprise, I know). My friend, and talented author, Renee Swindle pointed this out to me after reading the first chapter of my current finished manuscript. Her words, paraphrased, were: sure, it's funny -- but I don't know why I care about any of it. In other words, I was so focused on impressing the reader with my wit and flash that I never considered the notion that maybe my characters, my plot, and my story hadn't reached out to my reader yet. Again, it made total sense why literary agents wouldn't want to jump on board with my writing -- all they could process was what is on the page, not what is in my head.
Rejection isn't easy; rejection is necessary. It can be hard to hear face an unpleasant truth about yourself. The good person, though, accepts it, faces it head on, and finds a way to get a little bit better.
Shouldn't a good writer do the same thing?
Philosophy Friday: On Ownership
I often wonder about the first object owned on Earth. Mainly, I wonder what it was. Was it a tangible, physical article? A rock or a stick of some sort? Perhaps it was spatial, a cave or a tract of land. It’s bewildering to think about, because ownership as we know it in 2015 is intrinsically connected to money – something that didn’t exist when the first being took private possession of whatever it was. That means someone just looked at another person and – in whatever language available to him – said, “You cannot have this anymore.”
He wanted to secure something for his perpetual use. For his security.
Have you heard of the “tragedy of the commons”? To put it succinctly, it is an illustration that, in nearly all instances of “give a little for the benefit of society,” there will be at least one person who tries to eke out a slightly better situation for himself, which will lead to distrust, which will lead ultimately to unwillingness to cooperate.
An illustration: If four shepherds have 20 sheep each to graze on the same patch of grass, there will eventually become a shortage of grass for the sheep. So the four shepherds agree that each will limit their herds’ access, sending only five sheep per day. According to this theory, however, there will come a day when one shepherd thinks, “But look, grass is still in abundance, so it won’t harm anyone if I send one extra sheep.” At first, he’s right. A single transgression doesn’t clear out the field. But then another farmer may say, “Well, if he’s going to get an advantage over me, I’ll send an extra one for a day.” You can see where this is going.
Ultimately, over time, each person – in an effort to either better his situation or to “keep up with the Joneses” – depletes the supply more and more until there simply is not enough grass anymore. What began as a situation where everyone had enough for contentment but no one had enough for excess has turned into a struggle for all. This is the human way, when it comes to ownership.
We fear that others may have more than us or that we may not have enough. This drives us to hoard, to store, and to do whatever it takes to make sure we are okay.
In that sense, can ownership have been borne out of anything other than fear? The first “owner” must have feared that, whatever the object was, he may lose access to it and, thus, sustainability of some sort. We own because we are afraid of what might happen if we do not have.
Take a moment to truly reflect on the core purposes for the things you own. Sure, it’s easy to say that society has been built up to necessitate such a concept as personal ownership. You wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s still the cosmic, ultimate truth that all of the items we claim as our own goods are maintained out of the neuroses that our wellbeing, our personhood, or our existence may be threatened without it.
I own a condo with my sister. Why? Because it’s an investment. Why does an investment matter? It helps earn money. Why do I need money? To pay for a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clothes on my body. Why do I need all of this stuff? So I don’t freeze or starve. Should these happen, I would die.
I own an automobile. Why? Because I need to commute distances that are impractical to walk and I can’t afford to take a cab every single day. There aren’t available jobs closer to me. Without a job I cannot earn enough money. See above for the end of that line of thinking.
My glasses. My television, My computer. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere at the core of my ownership is the fact that, without it, I feel threatened in some way.
So that’s why we own things. Because we are afraid. Kind of seems silly when you put it that way. After all, if the biggest fear is death – and none of us has died enough to know whether or not it’s really so bad – then what are we so worried about?
In searching for a "theme" for each day of the week that I blog, I've landed on the following trajectory:
- Mondays will be related to writing or teaching
- Tuesdays will be related to crooning, jazz, and the "good old days"
- Wednesdays will be What I'm Reading Wednesdays
- Thursdays focus will be inspiration of any kind
- Fridays will be Philosophy Phriday, when I take my exhausted, loopy mind and pretend to be Jean-Paul Sartre for a few paragraphs
Much like the Dalai Lama's advice for living, I'm going to stick to this structure until it no longer serves me. Then I will adjust. That might be in a year, it might be in a few minutes. Either way, it will be fine.
So, without further ado: Inspiration.
Last night I was inspired by a lovely woman named Renee. Older than me by somewhere between 30-40 years, she has the type of face, the type of smile, the type of attitude, and the type of grace that make you all but certain she was an absolute knockout in her hey-day. She's still beautiful, in fact.
The first time I met her was probably about a year and a half ago at Bistro 60 in San Diego. We were both there to listen to jazz and to sing a few tunes with the band. After she heard my first song, she came to me and asked in her velvety voice if I knew a song called "It's Impossible." I had never heard it. When people request songs that I don't know, I often smile, admit my ignorance, thank them for their support, and forget the title. But something about Renee stuck with me. I went home and searched for the tune.
I went months without seeing her at all. I never sang the song in public. It sat in the back of my mind, though. When the pretty girl at the Red Fox asked me to learn "Summer Wind," I didn't. When a close friend asked me to learn "My Funny Valentine," I didn't. So why was I remembering the request of a complete stranger?
In any event, last night I was at the same restaurant listening to my good friends Paul Gregg and David Shaw play some fine jazz music. I got up to sing a few songs when I noticed Renee in the back of the room, eyes sparkling, smile gleaming at me. I hadn't seen her in quite some time -- nor had I practiced the song since the first week after we met -- but something told me to sing it. Somehow, I didn't miss a word.
So what did I find inspiring? As I mentioned before, her grace. Her overwhelming warmth. Our strange acquaintanceship helped me see that simply being genuine with others, being genuine with yourself, and being present in the moment can influence so much around you. She was genuine and present the night we met -- and it influenced what was a 28 year-old narcissistic crooner to go out of his way to do something for another person. While I can't say that my transformative experiences of trying to better serve the world around me come directly from Renee, I can definitely say it is people like her who make it all seem worthwhile.
I hope I can sing to Renee again soon.
"And tomorrow, should you ask me for the world somehow I'd get it,
I could sell my very soul and not regret it,
For to live without your love? That's just impossible…"
Wednesday Workday Reads
Considering that life is often filled with undesirable responsibilities, I have to write down how lucky I am to be able to read so many wonderful texts every day of my week. Among the texts for this week:
- Still on the Kama Sutra. I plan on practicing some real world application after this "Classical and Modern Traditions" class sets me free… LADIES.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- "Terrorism Works" by Hamilton Nolan
- For the Benefit of All Beings by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce
How about you? What are you reading and what should I read next?
For many years, Dean Martin was America’s favorite drunk. I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: he didn’t drink all that much.
According to the biography Memories are Made of This, written by his lovely daughter Deana Martin, the shtick was just that – an act. Truthfully, Dean’s drinking was rather tame. He’d sip on a glass or two of wine before going on stage, begin his act with ginger ale, have a single J&B on the rocks halfway through his act, and then head home before any of the parties began. After all, the avid golfer he was, Dean had to make his 6:00 am tee time.
In fact, there’s a famous anecdote that truly exemplifies Dean’s distaste for gratuitous partying. The story goes that one night after a show at the Sands Hotel in Vegas, Dino snuck away from a party with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and many others. Before leaving, he leaned in to a friend and said, “Tell them you saw me here.” With that, he headed upstairs to his room to partake in his favorite pre-bed ritual: watching old spaghetti westerns.
About an hour into his movie, he heard a knock on the door. Upon answering, he was greeted by a bellboy who bluntly said, “Good evening, Mr. Martin. Your presence has been requested downstairs by Mr. Sinatra.”
Being the clever man he was, Dean pulled out a $100 bill, handed it to the bellboy and said, “Take this and tell Frank you couldn’t find me.”
The bellboy hesitated, before looking back at Dean Martin regretfully.
“I would, Mr. Martin, but Mr. Sinatra gave me $500 and told me you would say that.”
Such was the real life of Dean Martin – the drunk on stage, but the early-to-bed-early-to-riser in truth. He didn’t do it to deceive people; rather, he discovered the act was what people wanted. He never felt the need to “fake it” offstage, but was more than willing to “do the dance” when the lights were on.
That’s what I’m learning about living in this life. Principles are wonderful – necessary, in fact. But there is a time and a place to “do the dance.” I avoided blogging, tweeting, Instagramming (whatever the verb is) for years because it didn’t fit into my worldview. I believed that being present in a moment was impossible if you took a photograph to share with friends. It shattered the stillness of existence, broke the nowness of it all.
I still believe that, but I’m learning that when moments have passed, there’s nothing wrong with giving the world a glimpse of the images they want to see. Living is important, but bringing satisfaction to others can be a major part of life. In other words, you don’t have to sacrifice your true self and your values in order to socialize with the many loving folks who want to support you. Dean found a way, so why can’t I?
That’s why I have folded and joined social media. People want to see fun pictures of the coffees that inspire me to write, the bourbons that inspire me to croon, the typewriters that capture my thoughts, and the nature that stops me in my tracks – so I’ll oblige. I promise it won’t rule me, and I promise to laugh at myself any time I begin taking it too seriously. We all should laugh at ourselves as often as possible.
Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, once sang of life, “You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go. Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” It is a show. Might as well keep ‘em laughing as you go.
In Appreciation of Bad Writing
The more papers I read this semester, the more I see with clarity the mistake in calling all poor writing "bad." I am learning to distinguish between actual bad writing and obtuse writing. I'm also learning that I don't mind bad writing all that much.
Obtuse writing, however, holds a special place in the sixth circle of Hell.
Bad writing, is when a person, puts commas, wherever he wants without regard, to conventions. It is when a writer gets so excited about an idea that he just want to say it all in one sentence even if that sentence goes on for several lines without punctuation or purpose and then he uses semi-colons incorrectly; to introduce incomplete clauses. Bad writing is when he introduces a quote without a lead in. "A day of bad writing is better than a day of no writing" (Don Roff). I am learning to tolerate, if not appreciate, bad writing.
Obtuse writing is far more excruciating, though.
The obtuse writer is either smarter than he writes or stupider than he looks. Obtuse writing begins when a person ignores all of the lessons about proper structuring of ideas. Oh, he remembers that a thesis must appear as the final sentence in an introduction, but he decides it fits better elsewhere. He has been told a million times how to introduce a paragraph with an arguable claim, but he'd rather state an obvious fact. After all, it is fact. No analysis needed. In conclusion, this is why obtuse writing drives me insane. He also lacks discernible logic in his paragraphs. Why, for instance, would something like "in conclusion" be written halfway through a paragraph? It doesn't really matter to the obtuse writer. The obtuse writer knows the paper is supposed to be four pages at minimum, so he hands in 3 3/4… while skipping lines in between paragraphs. The goal of the obtuse writer is to complete the assignment. Beyond that objective, all other potential benefits of writing are extraneous.
But most of all, the obtuse writer drives composition instructors to find excuses to avoid grading and, instead, to write a ridiculous blog about the differences between bad writers and obtuse writers.
Thank the heavens for bad writers.
Decent writers, good writers, and great writers aren't so bad either.
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