Tuesday, July 2, 2013

There Are Millions of Suns Left

Two of my lonely books
I'm gonna go ahead and put this out there: I don't enjoy reading. Although I spent the majority of my youth reading anything and everything I could get my hands on (including "The Joy of Sex," which my parents thought they'd hidden in the linen closet), sitting down with anything other than a cook book lost its appeal for me somewhere between pregnancy and medical school. So far, only Hemingway, Lao-tzu, Alan Watts, and Jack Kerouac have re-ignited my interest, and that's been spotty at best. I've tried so damn hard to get through Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," a book which really blew my mind when I started reading it two years ago, but have never been able to finish the last fifth of it. It's sitting patiently on top of my nightstand, bookmarked and collecting dust, along with a copy of "The Complete Poems" of Walt Whitman.

My colleagues are incredulous when they find out that I'm a writer who doesn't read. I suppose that blogs, cook books, fitness magazines, and an occasional anesthesia-related periodical don't really count as self-edification, do they? Yesterday, a friend of mine posed this question on Facebook: "What's the best book you've ever read? Your favorite author?" The answers were pretty diverse, ranging from classics we had to read in high school, such as "Moby Dick" and "The Old Man and the Sea" to  mysteries like "The da Vinci Code" to popular fiction du jour, e.g. "Fifty Shades of Grey." My answer? "Pretty much anything by Dr. Seuss." Not especially dignified-sounding, but it is poetry. Maybe it's true that all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.

This qualifies as literature, right?
Funny thing is, I consider myself a pretty well-read person. I can't quote literature or regurgitate famous sayings off the top of my head or engage in witty, incisive historical and political dialogues, mostly because none of that interests me. Being booksmart doesn't make one intelligent. Nor does having an opinion. The most heartless, ignorant people I know are also the most highly educated. They take themselves very, very seriously. They're sure they're right about everything, their main source of ammunition being something someone else once said somewhere. In a book. In other words, they're incapable of formulating their own original ideas. Ideas like that don't come from books; they come from experience. I have my own experiential understanding of things, yet I don't feel constrained by opinions, mine or anyone else's. I agree with Lao-tzu: "The more you know, the less you understand."


Lilly & Simon, taking a breather
On most days, I take my dogs on hour long walks. I live inside the city of Atlanta where there are lots of quaint old neighborhoods with narrow, buckling sidewalks. Sharing them with other dog-walkers, runners, bikers, and baby carriage-pushers has proven insightful in understanding the rigid social conditioning that's so ingrained in us humans. For instance, since Simon and Lilly are quite large and I walk with them at my left side, it makes sense for me to keep to my left, too. That way, the dogs are walking on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and curb, freeing up the other half to two-thirds of the sidewalk to my right. What I've observed is that this throws people off. It's sort of like the scene in "Midnight Express" where mental patients are circling a column clockwise, and Billy Hayes, in an attempt to preserve his sanity, starts walking in the opposite direction. His non-conformity greatly disturbs the other patients, and also makes him a Communist. I get an equally reflexive response on the sidewalk. The further left I veer in my attempt to make more room for oncoming pedestrians, the further to my left they go, until we're practically dancing to get around each other.

My son, Rory, was being cross-examined by a leftward-leaning musician acquaintance on Facebook the other night. Apparently, this guy had taken issue with Rory's status update that "all presidents suck." This prompted a lively and somewhat heated discussion between me and said musician about reconciling one's individuality against the confines of the social contract during which I was reminded, "It's not all about you." Yawn. To think there has to be a compromise indicates a lack of regard for anyone but oneself. How so? Well, it's pretty strong evidence of the moral superiority and lack of humility that accompany the hypocrisy of self-sacrifice, the goal of which is to be rewarded. It's the failure to understand that nature isn't cruel, it's selfless, and that the social order is what's cruel and unnatural. Why else would mankind need  its sacrificial lambs? Real selflessness isn't a product of self-denial, it comes from self-acceptance, recognition of one's limitations, and detachment from outcomes.

As someone who's never been particularly interested in patriotism, politics, money, or imposed morality, I've managed to function in society without buying into it hook, line, and sinker. Sure, I pay my taxes and contribute to charity and whatnot. I've never viewed social responsibility as a big threat to my independence. Selflessness is a no-brainer when you're not at odds with Nature or seeking recognition for doing what comes naturally. I don't view the universe as me against "it." I am with it, of it. It's not a causal relationship. I'm not orphaned by it; I am its expression. Society and its demands don't interfere with my individuality because I'm not subjugated by them. I mean, without individuals, society wouldn't exist, right? If your plane is going down and the oxygen masks pop out, you affix your own first before trying to assist others. That's not being selfish. It's the applied practical understanding of the way the universe works, otherwise known as common sense. 


Boris, the epitome of Tao
For me, flying under the radar is about following my own heart and doing what comes naturally, instead of feeling constrained by social mores and norms or being imprisoned by opinion. It's entirely possible to be a free spirit, even in society that isn't really free. And, being free from one's own ideas is where real freedom lies. That's probably why I'm not a big fan of rules, micro-managing, or know-it-alls. I've yet to meet a person who actually likes being told what to do or think. If moderation, compassion, and patience were the rule instead of the exception among people, maybe self-responsibility would obviate the need for self-serving self-sacrifice. Laws, social contracts, and altruism would be obsolete. Subversive-sounding, huh? Looking after others and looking after oneself aren't mutually exclusive in nature, except among humans. The fact that society operates on ghost power doesn't deter me from tapping into nature's spontaneous immaterial wisdom. 

Me (on right), flying under the radar as Mrs. Cowbell (1973)
The conversation ended with his assertion that "none of us can blissfully fly along 'under the radar' unattached for long. It's not in our natures, nor is it in our reality." I suppose there are grains of truth in that. But, that "either/or" reasoning that says we can't be a part of things without losing ourselves is counter-intuitive, unless one views life as a continuum, not a cycle. Detachment isn't isolation or laziness; it's indifference to  the extremes that disrupt simplicity and moderation. The Puritan work ethic is a perfect example of one extreme creating another. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The harder he works, the harder he has to play, burning the candle at both ends. Eventually, something's gonna give. Being consumed by one's work isn't an asset; it's a liability, just another vice. 

Me, my favorite rockers, & my gravity-defying silver disco boots
Our difference in opinion boiled down to his belief that "if you give up your small amount of control over your environment, someone else will take it and do their will" and mine that control, other than that which we have over ourselves, is more or less an illusion. "Nice lecture, bad reality," he responded.  I wasn't aware that reality had a value or that Nature obeyed contrived moral laws. Here I was, thinking that Nature controlled itself like I control me. As far as reality goes, I'll grant that people (including myself) do seem to have their own subjective interpretations of reality, which is what makes discussions about it so interesting, but  to contradict yourself by sanctimoniously invoking the theory of gravity as an illustration of practical reality while in the same breath yammering on about the control you have over your surroundings is  pompous and hypocritical. Gimme a break, man! That's basically what happened next, and as far as I'm concerned, his argument lost any validity it might have had at that point. 

Wooden gymnasts, embracing the mystery (of the chopstick)
I don't think reality and fate are mutually exclusive. They might even be the same thing. That poor Cirque du Soleil performer who fell 50 feet to her death a couple of days ago exemplifies just how little control one really has over one's external environment. Despite a highly developed set of skills and rigorous quality and safety assurances, her safety wire snapped, its tensile strength overcome by the weight of  her and other aerialists whose job it is to entertain us by simultaneously tempting Fate and defying gravity. I have to think that gymnasts possess an exceptional grasp on their physical limitations and the uncertainty of chance,  that embracing the mystery of the unknown, instead of fighting it, keeps them balanced. Otherwise, they'd all be choking on fear. That wouldn't be very good for ticket sales, now would it? 

A few weeks ago, I gave a legal deposition in a malpractice case. (No worries, I'm not being sued). One of the questions put forth to me had to do with whether or not it's possible to erase the "retrospectoscope" of hindsight. To clarify, the retrospectoscope is medicine's equivalent of Monday-morning quarterbacking in which causal relationships are implied through a provocative association of events. "Shoulda, coulda, woulda" is always crystal-clear after the fact. Outcomes that have already happened are easy to predict. The scope of hindsight transforms the ho-hum into heroic, slip-ups into sin, and duty into disillusionment and doubt. It occurred to me that relying on history to interpret and manage the conditions of today could be equally misleading. 

Does history really repeat itself? Or was Mark Twain right when he said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme....To wit-no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often."? Certainly, past experience provides opportunities for change and growth, but recycled knowledge seems an awful lot like the retrospectoscope. Maybe that's why scholars, philosophers, and historians are so smug. The brain power required to draw conclusions from historical events is approximately zero, yet they've managed to convince everyone that they're brilliant. 

Society's got it all wrong. Relying on intellect, instead of the innate intelligence we're all born with--compassion, self-mastery, and contentment--is precisely why people are so divided. Real intelligence can't be learned or measured. Real intelligence doesn't come from a book: it comes from the heart. Real intelligence is a lot like common sense. It's practical wisdom. This is why I find conversations about social contracts and governance so superfluous and unenlightening; they keep missing the mark, the root of the problem. As silly as it sounds, the world would be a lot better off if we were the persons our dogs think we are. Believe me, I spend a lot of time with my dogs and cat. With the exception of their knack for vomiting on a certain area rug, there are plenty of days where I find their behavior preferable to that of most people. Maybe if we all spent more time reading and writing poetry, the language of the heart, we'd experience a collective return to intelligence.

After ending my rather exhausting Facebook conversation with Rory's friend, I did just that. Weirdly enough, Uncle Walt was calling to me. So, I opened up his dusty book of poetry and randomly selected a page.

Not surprisingly, this resonated with me, especially the part about not feeding on "the spectres in books." The "dumbing down" of America that everyone loves to complain about comes from too much knowledge and too little intelligence. There's little that's new in the way of knowledge. It's like being served up a continuous loop of leftovers. Dogma in, dogma out. Knowledge isn't power, it's pretense. Knowledge only empowers those who don't think for themselves. Freedom from ideology, that's where it's at. The poets all know it. Lao-tzu thought having an empty head and an open heart was the way to roll. In a way, so did Dr. Seuss. I think that's exactly what he meant when he said, "It is better to know how to learn than to know." And, good old Walt was definitely onto something, too. Indeed, there are millions of suns left.



  1. Okay, I have to admit, walking on the other side of the sidewalk would throw me off balance. Haha. One of the reasons we moved to Wyoming was to take one day at a time and not sweat the small stuff because there are millions of suns left. Great, incite-full post. BTW...LOVE the boots!

    1. Kristina,
      As much as I love the convenience of living in the city, sometimes I wish I lived in the country for the very reasons you mentioned. Those boots were quite a challenge to dance in, but I sure did feel like a rock star. That picture was taken a couple of years ago, after my sons and their friend, Willie, helped me with a recording a song I wrote for an educational video. It was a real group effort, and such a fun experience.

  2. The more I read about you, the less I know. (With apologies to Lao-tzu)

    1. LOL, Uma...brilliant! I think Lao-tzu would be pleased.

  3. Another great article Kris,

    I have a hard time communicating with people who not only live inside societies box, but can not imagine a world outside of it. A small percentage of us have walked around the box a few times, looked at it from afar, and know both what is outside and inside, as well as the walls themselves. I would very much like to take some of those people outside the box for a while and show them around, but they never seem to be able to comprehend it, and tell me I am "out there" which I gladly am.

    Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance was the hardest read I ever had, I found myself nearly silent for a week after finishing, just thinking about everything, it is worth finishing. Funny thing is that I only started socializing again when a man came up to me who saw me with the book, and asked if I liked it, to which I said "Yes", he said "When I finished it I didn't talk to anyone for a few days either." Which kind of snapped me out of my meditative state.

    1. Scott,
      "I have a hard time communicating with people who not only live inside societies box, but can not imagine a world outside of it." Yes, I struggle with that, too. It's like being on completely different wavelengths. But, I'm finding that because I no longer take myself (or anyone else) as seriously as I used to, it's become less of a challenge. Today's a yucky rainy day, and i have the day off from work. Maybe I'll sit down and try to finish ZAMM. I almost feel as if I need to start from the beginning, though.

    2. I do not think you need to start over, the story is not as important as all the philosophies inside it.

    3. Whew! Ok, thanks for that insight, Scott.

  4. I love that Doctor Seuss book which, I'm sure you know, is one of the best graduation speeches ever. I understand your left-leaning dog walking and laughed thinking about the human pile-up that would occur on the crowded NYC streets around me. I'm happy there are a million suns left. More fun to seek them out than try to win a FB debate. Has anyone ever changed anyone's mind there? Although I admire your patience for even trying :)

    1. Gina,
      It is a wonderful book, packed full of encouragement and good common sense. Yeah, I realize my left-leaning dog walking wouldn't go over too well anywhere else, either, but in my defense, I'm a left-hander living in a right handed world. As for FB debates, they are such a different animal from the discussions we have on BC. More reactionary, I think.

  5. Damn, Kris, this was a deep read first thing in the morning here. I waited your whole post for a simple statement and you pretty much hit the nail on the head. The line about knowledge only giving power to those who don't/can't/won't think for themselves. It's a double edge sword for me since I try to only conform to society just enough that I am seen, flying just above the radar in plain sight. My favorite sheeple on the planet are the ones that follow all the rules, conform to all the needs/wants of others, and can't/won't/don't make decisions for themselves. They paint themselves as the ones who are in charge and I always have to ask what they are in charge of because they make it obvious that they are not in charge of their own lives.

    I really like this post Kris, I am bookmarking it to come back on those days when I am having trouble believing that people can think for themselves. As I get older I wonder if the "masses" will ever just go ahead and choke on the bull$h!t they have allowed themselves to be fed their entire lives.

    You are a deep writer with a very deep soul, reading should be for self preservation not trying to keep up with the Jones'. Stay Strong!

    1. Steven, I think you and I function very similar within society. I guess it doesn't matter if you fly above or below the radar, as long as you're not drawing attention to yourself while living life on your own terms, and not what's dictated to you by society. I agree with you about reading. I don't think I'd do too well in a book club because I don't like dealing with deadlines, and that would take any pleasure out of reading for me.

  6. Excellent rant!

    "being free from one's own ideas is where real freedom lies. " ---brilliant! can't agree more!

    Once I called myself a knowledge lover, and after all these years, I found useful or valuable "knowledge" I gained come from my own heart. lots of people believe I read lots of books, but truth is, I have not, at least not read that many as they thought. I read books only when I found intriguing stories or, those who could answer my questions.

    I forgot who said this, probably Zhuang Zhi (one of Taoists, and student of Lao Zhi- Tao De Ching's author), "knowledge ("books" in original texts) is a boat that helps us to pass the water, as soon as we reach the shore, we just dump it."
    Now I even believe, those who are real strong can just swim to the shore.

    btw, you look super cute in the picture of 1973, so are other kids, and super cool with the gravity-defying!

    1. Yun Yi, your comments are always so insightfully articulated. The analogy of books as boats to be abandoned once we reach the shore of knowledge, and your thought that those who are strong enough can just swim to the shore are elegant in their simplicity, but really hit home. Clearly, you don't believe there's a box to think inside or outside of, which is why your insights resonate with me so much. It's funny because 1973 feels like it was just yesterday! :-)

  7. Overwhelming as always, Kris. Your torrent of insights pours down on me like the rain we've had this past week. It always amazes me how people will trust what they read in books and not their own senses or experience. That's practically the whole history of the human race. If they're not quoting the Bible, they're quoting Einstein or Picasso. I'm the worst offender when it comes to quoting, but I know it's only a game, an amusing social game to bring people together. There's no ultimate significance to it. Like I've said a million times: "Life is simple. You just have to stop trying to figure it out." Joy is what matters, joy and love, and getting enough to eat. The rest is vanity and vexation of spirit.

    1. I agree, Marty. My gut feelings (which I think are based in sense and experience) have kept me out of trouble innumerable times. Following one's heart is the way to roll, IMO. You hit the nail on the head about people quoting what they believe to be the "truth," instead of recognizing that truth isn't a universal or a given...they take themselves and what they read too seriously. Yes, joy, love, and getting enough to eat are what really matter in life. That is something that I do "know."

  8. Absolutely “there are millions of suns left.” Love this post, Kris! I don’t read nearly as much as I did when I was younger. I love books; I love the thought of books and I love collecting books (especially old books). Books are like old friends to me but not because I have to read them all (and I haven’t), it’s because they are there if I should “want” to read them. Reading should be something we do for pleasure and not because society or anyone expects it of us.

    Frankly, I think your writing is so pure and authentic precisely because you are not influenced by other writers. I love that about you!

    Dr. Seuss is fabulous reading. When one of my nephews was young and lived nearby, I read Dr. Seuss to him all the time. “Being booksmart does not make one intelligent,” so true. Lao-tzu was right: “The more you know, the less you understand.”

    Thinking about that scene from “Midnight Express” and your left-leaning dog walking had me laughing out loud, I can just picture it! People do get thrown off by non-conformity. Real selflessness does come from self-acceptance. I am not a fan of micro-managing or know-it-alls, and no fan of the Puritan work ethic either. That reality and fate might actually be the same thing is a deep thought to ponder. Very well could be.

    Kris, you nailed it when you wrote that relying on intellect instead of our innate intelligence is why people are so divided. Exactly! “Real intelligence doesn’t come from a book; it comes from the heart.” Well said. That Walt Whitman prose is so insightful and relates so well to your post. (Amazing how you picked that one at random!) Yes, Whitman, Lao-tzu, Dr. Seuss, they all knew it, there are millions of suns left.

    Those are some classy disco boots, and a great photo with your favorite rockers! Nice photos of Lilly, Simon and Boris. You are so cute and look so happy just holding your cowbells in that Mrs. Cowbell photo. :)

    1. Like you, Madilyn, I have lots of books that I keep around in case I want to read or refer to them. They are like old friends. I've always loved Dr. Seuss. His writing was pure poetic wisdom, enrobed in zany silliness and imagination. About the dog-walking, our trainer taught us to walk them to our left, but I guess she didn't intend for me to take it so far as to walk on the left side of the sidewalk. That's what happens when you're a left-hander in a right-handed world. I really like what I've read of Walt Whitman so far, and am keeping that book close at hand. Re: Mrs. Cowbell, I have no idea where we came up with that game, but it was a lot of fun, and my younger siblings all got in on the cowbell action!

  9. Same here Helena. I've never really been into reading books but it's just so funny how after I began to blog, I believe I've read quite a few books if you add it all up.
    I think it's because you can read a blog and interact with the writer and you can't do this with books (obviously).

    Oh how I love dogs but I'm the mental one who has to determine in a matter of seconds whether I should walk past someone with a dog, as not all owners know how to handle their own dog. And round where I live some of those big vicious looking dogs look as if they are taking their owners out for a walk :(

    I've always had a hard time with societies rules and regulations. Don't get me wrong, I do think we need boundaries but some boundaries need to be challenged/knocked down, destroyed and/or rebuilt. I really struggle with those who won't even take a look at a different way or point of view but will stand fast to something that they learned from someone else without doing the necessary checks and balances. 'Where there is no vision the people perish' - and that's fresh from the good book itself (bible). So, I guess those who believe should be thinking outside the box too (my personal little dig).

    Our brains were created for so much more, so I intend to use mine as much as possible. I've not read the books you mentioned so can't comment on them. Maybe one day. Deep thinking post Helena.

  10. I've never thought of `clever' as being by default a better class of person. Your comment about being happy to pay your way Kris bought back memories of sermons I've heard by some high fliers bragging about how little tax they pay!

    I too see the sense in supporting an education system for example, even though I have no kids. Why can't people see we share the same future?

    & I too have no time for blind patriotism.
    Cheers, ic

  11. I'm back to your page after quite some time, Kris. Apologies. This piece of writing is very very original; but of course, you're USP seems to lie in dissecting subjects that are so fundamental in nature that most of us hardly give a thought to them. It was a good read.

    I used to be an introvert bookworm in my school days. And then my world grew beyond books. To explore the many faces of relationships seemed a worthier investment of time. Books were the trusted friends who could be kept infinitely on stand by and beckoned back at my free will - or so I thought. And I was wrong. After being detached from the habit of reading for a period of 7-8 years, the inner friction/apathy/impatience/lack of focus I experienced while trying to follow the lines of a sizeable work of fiction sincerely (without giving in to the temptation to skip through the pages) was extremely difficult to overcome. And once I DID overcome, I realized what treasure I'd been missing for the past few years. I believe that reading is a constructive pastime. It hones your imagination and widens your range of thoughts. It allows you to peek into the rich thought world of people from different times, societies and civilizations - and in that, it opens you up to different points of view. But obviously, this doesn't imply that a person who doesn't enjoy reading will be devoid of these qualities, or that all avid readers constitute a superior class of people. There are people who read classics or the works of certain esteemed authors in order to fit into certain circles, or to stand apart from what they call 'the crowd'. There are people who expect 'intellectuals' who hold certain opinions about the works of certain authors/directors/painters - and are dismissive of all who don't fall in line. God help these self-proclaimed judges of human intellect. And God help those who bother to mold their activities/choices in order to earn a pat on the back from the aforementioned class.

  12. Hi Kris,
    So many points for discussion in this comprehensive and thoughtful post. I'll just confine myself to two small areas. 1. I also must make the confession that I'm not (and never have been) a great reader of books. When I just graduated I only used to read Psychology journals and things on the occult. It was my wife who got me onto reading fiction. I did love and consume most of John Fowles and got right into Nelson DeMille, but these days I read so much biographic material, I simply don't have the time to read a whole piece of fiction. However blogs like yours have helped me reignite my interest and of course I do study writer's lives. 2. Yes, I absolutely agree that free will and determinism (or fate, or simply your date with statistically unlikely events) are not at odds with each other. In philosophical terms that makes me a compatibilist and I have written about practical demonstrations of this in 'The Life Cycles Revolution'.
    Thanks again for the effort you put into these posts and my apologies for not visiting more frequently.

  13. "Too much knowledge and too little intelligence" -- I like that. You sure said a mouthful in that post! I always hate "I'm right and you're wrong" conversations. They are exhausting and no one ever wins -- as if there always has to be a winner. Like you, I'm a little more free-wheeling. I do like to read, though. For me, Motorcycle Maintenance was a chore to read and I LOVE Dr. Suess!

  14. Kris,

    I believe that I am on the same boat at you: I am not much off a book reader. I am however a fan of articles, which is probably I like blogs so much. I also love Dr. Seuss and I read at least one of his books with my son at least 1-2 times a week.

    I must say, youre a better person than I to even entertain that gentleman and engage him in a political debate. I usually find in such situations that people aren't necessarily trying to have an open discussion, but rather have the full intent on jamming their point of views down your throat.

    In any case, another wonderful article! Thank you!