Sunday, April 29, 2012

Francis Fukuyama!

If you didn't know (and I myself know these things, I guess, because I'm more or less a lifetime subscriber to The Atlantic), Fukuyama is a brilliant political scientist. I went to hear him speak tonight at Town Hall.

What is the word for the feeling of elation you get when you hear a talk by somebody really smart? It's a kind of euphoria, but shouldn't there be a more specific term? I can't name it, but I'm feeling it.

His latest book is The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. (Volume Two, in the works, will be the 19th century and beyond.) Based on a review of history and human nature, he says political order occurs when three conditions are met. First, you need a state, a legitimate monopoly of force over a particular territory. Second, the rule of law, generally accepted and binding on everybody, even the leaders. And third, political accountability, some insurance that leaders are acting in the public interest. In a democracy, elections serve this function.

He said a lot more, of course, but think of applying just that base to what you know about India and China and the United States at its current political standstill and with our reigning national attitude of disdain for it all.

Anyway, I was excited. I once read in The Atlantic, but was never able to find it again, a reference to a book that examines whether democracy can ever be successfully exported. So I asked Fukuyama, what are the chances of American "state building" actually succeeding? He said he had discussed this with his friend, Condee Rice, in the run-up to the Iraq War. She said it worked in Japan and Germany after World War II. He disagrees: the US did not bring political order to those countries; we simply helped reestablish it. He said political order/democracy doesn't get successfully exported by a country as impatient as the US, though you could argue that Britain's willingness to spend decades in its colonies has left a legacy of political order. In India, say.

Anyway, it was a great thrill, I actually bought his book, and he signed it for me. Town Hall comes through again.

Funny, though, it's not a good place to meet guys. Before I moved to Seattle, I imagined it would be perfect.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Art of Fielding

Okay, having mentioned last post how avidly I was reading Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, I have to admit now that B R Myers, writing about the novel in the Atlantic, is right. The Harbach novel kept me interested -- I read it in 24 hours -- but it is slight. At the end, I'm not even exactly sure who I'd say the main character is. Was there even one character I'd want for a friend? Is there any consistency or obvious growth in them? Not really.

And Myers' point is: This is what we call literary fiction? He says, "As long as the classics remain more deeply relevant to our lives than the novels our own time produces, we should remain 'untimely,' in Nietzsche's still-dangerous sense of the word."


Friday, April 27, 2012

The Aging Athlete

My old bike buddy, whom I found online in 2009, said I met so many of his criteria, and I, of course, said, "Such as?" And what I remember is, he said he was looking for an athlete.

"I'm an athlete?" I was thrilled. I'm an athlete.

So it cracks me up to think of my recent Amazon order. One 25" foam roller for working the kinks out of my muscles. One set of mini-clips to replace my SPD pedals, which cause me the only injuries I ever have on my bike, including my current broken wrist. And one copy of Aging as a Spiritual Practice.

Which I may particularly need because I'm trying to decide whether to cancel the bike tour which begins June 7 with an 80-mile ride and 5500 feet of climbing, or to go along, as they're encouraging me to do, and face the far bigger challenge of getting off my bike and into the van when necessary.

I just spent 15 minutes on the indoor trainer my bike is set up on, in my dining room. I have been scouting home-spinning videos on YouTube. I'm kind of astonished at the ones I've found. That is spinning?! There isn't any music fast enough for that! I've never spun that fast in my life.

Is spinning going to get me ready for a big bike ride three weeks after -- I hope -- my cast comes off? No, but I can tell already that I'll learn a lot and build some muscle and lung.

My bad news is, I was prematurely excited at how well my feet were working. I guess that walk to church last Sunday, with all the up and down hill work, was a bit much for my Achilles tendons, which I've been icing ever since.

The good news is, it was like Christmas at the library when my holds arrived. This week I read Hilma Wolitzer's An Available Man. Most thrilling bit: 58-year-old woman, when asked by 63-year-old widower if she's lonely, says she is sometimes, but there are advantages. "You can sing loudly and, in my case, off key. You can hog the bed. I wear a ratty old nightgown that I still love."
Pages later, the widower is fondly picturing Olga, "lying in the middle of her bed in a tattered nightgown, singing at the top of her lungs." Fondly picturing.

Then I read Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, which is epic, Big Pharma meets Heart of Darkness.

And I'm a third through Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, even though  B R Myers slammed it in the Atlantic. (Okay, maybe it's not War and Peace, but it's sure a good read. And Myers doesn't like Franzen either.)

And so far, I can still dance.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


the sun did come out in Seattle!
Unfortunately, it went in again. But hey, that's why we take photos!

And aren't I fortunate to have this windowbox full of tulips, and neighbors with lilacs and blooming cherry trees?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rainy Day, Broken Wrist Poem

Sorry it's so hard to read. Try this

The Willpower Instinct

My Bainbridge friend had a new book called The Willpower Instinct. I think there are a couple new books on this topic. I wasn't that interested, really. I told her I think my willpower is pretty good.

But she was busy with stuff, and I started thumbing through, and I got intrigued by how our self-control is manipulated by marketers (Chapter 5), so I went back to the beginning, and now I can't put this book down. (Well, I couldn't if I were any less willpowered!)

Author Kelly McGonigal divides things up into I will, I won't, and I want, three categories of self-control. So, you might resolve to floss daily -- a will, to stop smoking -- a won't, and to file your taxes -- a want. Even this little change in how you think about things is helpful. Do you have a won't challenge, you versus the doughnut? Or a want challenge, that you want to be size 6 and healthy? Easier to resist the doughnut when you can keep your eyes on the body goal.

No wonder I like my willpower: I already do quite a bit of what she says works. For example, even teeny bits of meditation help, five minutes of watching your breath. I've been off my meditation routine lately, but now I'm back on!

I keep thinking of others who would benefit from this book, naturally. Not because I think they're so out of control, but because they'd see how willpower is less about people being bad or weak than about being too optimistic and looking at the wrong piece of the puzzle. She teaches a 10-week course at Stanford where students are asked to pick a challenge to focus on. She says what helps is learning how and why you lose control, so they view the matter as a science experiment, as readers are asked to do.

It's a really good book. Check her out. Her website (above) has video.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Spring Break

You've gotta have a job to love spring break. Well, I guess you gotta have a job to even get spring break. But I do, and I do.

When I was married, my ex was sort of sneery about my desire to make even a vacation as good as it could be. He thought vacations were more about kicking back. And of course, they are. But I want, at the end of my spring break, to be able to look back and say, Oh, that was so much fun when I ... whatever. They say time flies when you're having fun, but it also slows down when it's packed with event. How does that work, anyway?

My last teaching day until April 23 was Thursday, and I went immediately to the ferry and my friend's place on Bainbridge Island, for two days. We cooked and ate and walked and played Scrabble and watched a DVD of Erin Brockovitch, one of Julia Roberts' finer performances.

Good start. So it was Monday morning that I sat at my breakfast table and titled a sheet of lined paper, Goals for Vacation Week!

1. Do paperwork.
2. Try zumba, maybe do a zumba "bootcamp"?
3. Something art-y?
4. Something vacation-y? Duck Tour, posh meal out, new museum, old museum?

So yesterday I went to zumba. It was fun, except for the sweat dripping off the ends of my hair! And I felt pretty good about my form, since I'm a dancer. I'll probably go again tomorrow. In the afternoon, I walked down to my library, and went dancing last night.

More important were the plans I made. I talked with an artist friend, and decided to do some sketching and maybe watercolor stabs at representing tree trunks. I'm going to UW tonight for a lecture, Town Hall tomorrow, and Town Hall again Thursday for not only the lecture with EO Wilson, the famous biologist, but I've been invited by a friend to come to the reception as well. I may shake his hand as the crowning achievement of my spring break!

I still need to figure out a Seattle tourist thing. Any ideas?

Friday I'm meeting up with a long-lost bike buddy, then watching a documentary at the central library on undamming the Elwha River in my old Olympic Peninsula stomping grounds, then to Group Health where I expect them to tell me to go ahead and ride my bike with my cast on. Then zydeco dancing that night.

This morning I almost went to zumba again, but my old ex is right: you need some kickback time on spring break.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Instant Mindfulness

So, after I wrote that post about aging as spiritual practice, I jumped on my bike and rode to school. Beautiful day. Rode home a slightly different way, through pretty parts of Capitol Hill and over the U Bridge. Then up Fremont Av, almost home, where I misjudged the light, stopped dead on the steepest uphill, and fell over sideways. Broke my wrist.

And boy am I mindful now! This was Tuesday. Finally managed this morning to get a mango sufficiently peeled to eat it. But today is much better than yesterday. They started me out with a cast so fat and up over my elbow that only one shirt would go on over it. I couldn't bend my arm enough to take my earrings out. I wasn't sure I'd be able to fasten my bra.

Then my doc called yesterday and said they would put a daintier cast on me, freeing my elbow, slimming the whole contraption. Whew! Earrings no problem. The cast comes into my hand and over my thumb, and any squeeezing or lifting pressure hurts, so mangos continue to be a challenge, but my mantra from the get-go was "slow down." I just know every old automatic thing is now going to take longer and possibly require new thinking.

I put a plastic newspaper bag over the cast this morning to take a shower. But how to squeeze the shampoo into my hand and put it on my head? No way. So I just squeezed the bottle onto my head. Blow-dry hair? Well, you can blow it, and you can style it, but not both at the same time. I'm not sure anybody but me notices my "styling" anyway.

It's a fracture with no displacement. At first, we thought I'd certainly have to cancel my June bike tour, but now, there's hope. I'll know next Friday whether to  get a spin class plan underway to train.

So I can't bike, but my walking is way better than last summer, and I think I can dance, clunky cast on the shoulder of my partner. I'll find out tomorrow.

I'm reading Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon's book, Imagination First. "Practice 9: Renew Your Narrative. Ask whether your story still serves you." So I'm thinking, What's my story? It's not Tough Guy and it's not I Don't Need Anybody. I asked for help when I fell. My neighbor took me to the doc. Another opened my wine bottle and twisted off the ibuprofen cap. Jonathan peeled my orange yesterday at lunch.

I like to think my story is, I rise to the occasion.

We shall see.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aging as a Spiritual Practice

At Town Hall on Wednesday, April 11, Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond will be speaking about his latest book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His previous book was Work as a Spiritual Practice, which simply points up the truth that everything, rightly observed and experienced, is grist for the mill. If I were him, I'd have manuscript pitches lined up already for Eating, Bathing, Housecleaning, and Napping.

I'm thinking, before I go hear Richmond, I want to write my own mini-spiritual-practice guide to aging. I'll write about paying attention, and gratitude, and being in the now, and non-attachment, and stuff like that.

But as I took off on my bike the other day (after the momentary disorientation where I thought I was surely hallucinating, given the blueness of the sky and the brightness of the sun here in -- really? Seattle?) I was thinking the guide I need is a book on disability. There must be books for people with disfiguring burns, say, that make people look away when you appear, and disabling diseases like MS, books for blind people and deaf people and folks who've lost limbs. Because in a way, that's how aging looks to me. Things are starting to go.

My biggest question is, How far can I push me? If I decide it's too much to walk to the library after a bike ride and before the dance, am I being a wienie or prudent?

Actually, that's only my main socially-acceptable concern. As my bike buddy said the other day, the first thing we say to ourselves really about getting old is, "At least I don't look as bad as so and so."

But we're ashamed of ourselves when we think this, as we should be. Do we get any spiritual points for that? Or maybe we get points for being the people other, better folks get to look down on?

I recently watched the DVD of Mask, the old movie with Cher and Eric Stoltz about Rocky Dennis, the teenager with a disease that disfigured his face horribly. It made him a better person. I was thinking too of the woman I see on my bus in the International District, with a huge tumor stretching one side of her face all out of proportion, like the pictures I get on my newsletter from Mercy Ships about surgery needs in impoverished countries. I thought of Ted Prim, a Stanford law school classmate of my ex who was not only impressively smart, but utterly without self-pity, and usually had the rest of us rolling in laughter at his white-cane antics and stories. I thought of a beautiful red-haired woman I met years ago at church in Inverness, CA. She had MS, and that embarrassing wobble it gives you. I asked her how she could bear it, and she said it was the best thing that ever happened to her. How I wish I could ask her exactly what she meant!

What I guess is, she meant having MS put everything else in perspective. I think of how often I sit on the bus and wonder who is looking at me, and who isn't, and why and why not. When something awful is wrong with you, I'm guessing you get over that pretty quick, because everybody looks at you, and probably most of them look scared or shocked or even annoyed.

I've been so lucky in my life, not to have 'enjoyed' the personal growth that comes with suffering this way. So I'm thinking maybe aging is the time when all us lucky folks have to come to terms with things. We get uglier and feebler and people ignore us or get impatient. And we get personal growth! A spiritual practice.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jesus is...

Have you seen this campaign? Bumper stickers and billboards? Usually there's just a blank, and I'm not sure what you're meant to do with it, but this is the way it got filled in near the laundromat in upper Fremont. I like it. 

Scrabble Thrill

I was playing a quick Scrabble turn online this morning with my friend Kathy in Chicago, who always wins. I had my usual mishmosh of letters with no helpful vowels like e's. I pushed the "shuffle" button a couple of times, and then I saw the letters formulate into o-c-a-r-i-n-a. Hmm. Something was clicking in the old brain.

Because this is a friendly game, I just pulled out my Scrabble dictionary and checked. Yup, it's a word! It's a wind instrument.

Not only that, I actually found a place to play it. 67 points. On a Monday morning! I'm getting a good feeling about this week.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Love You Make

My youngest sister, Marty, sixteen years younger, was here in Seattle last weekend, with her husband Bart. They'd been to Hawaii on business(!) and stopped to see me on the way home. (Imagine the contrast. Anyway.)

We had a great time: Happy hour at List in Belltown, Anne Lamott at Seattle First Baptist on Capitol Hill, Moisture Festival at Hale's Paladium, even a sunbreak long enough to sip champagne on the porch stoop. It took us two tries to make it to Seattle Art Museum -- the first time, we were diverted by the Cuban sandwiches at Paseo, which we could smell so compellingly from the bus stop -- but we did it.

They left yesterday morning. For the first time in days, my breakfast was accompanied by reading instead of conversation. The latest AARP magazine has an article on estrangement within families, and how to repair it. We've had our problems over the years in my family, but I think we'd all agree that getting over it is a bedrock family value.

It was interesting to hear my sister and brother-in-law talk about how their kids, a boy and a girl, ended up at the same college and spend a lot of time together there. And they're really different from each other.

Marty and Bart said they had consciously fostered the connection. The whole family loves to play together, and is famous for inventing weird variations of, say, whiffle ball. But in addition, the parents put their minds to making sure the kids ended up friends and allies. Miranda went to every game Roman played in. Sometimes on vacations, Marty would hand one of the kids a ten and say, Go do something with your sister/brother.

I've often been impressed with how Marty and Bart think about how they want things to turn out, and then make a plan. It fits with my favorite Beatles' line, which showed up on this crazy poster in the bathroom stall of the art building at UW this weekend when I took my guests to see the cherry blossoms in bloom on campus.


All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies