Live an examined life

If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to watch. Think about that for a moment. The capacity of the human brain to store data would take almost four lifetimes to view if it were a film. With all that data, how does anyone organize it?

Note-taking is a practice. Maybe an art form. Possibly a lost art form. Here are some handwritten scrawls I found in my notebooks:

  • abiding by one’s principles is getting more important
  • a marketers job is to manufacture consent
  • to be a successful business guru: use faux scientific terms, command attention and speak with confidence
  • “Your head is a crappy office. . .”

Some of these are quotes, paraphrases and scribblings in the fashion, or after the manner, of a commonplace book.

Notes.

From time to time I review these notes and weigh their merit. How does the old expression go? Eat the meat and spit out the bone and gristle. Or, as I suggested earlier, thistles and wild flowers. Some ideas are rubbish. A couple of these notes I have considered off and on during the last couple years. One of these big ideas is productivity and time management. Another concept that captivates my thoughts is guiding principles.

Many business books explore the topics of productivity, time management and purpose. A lot of business books seem full of great ideas. Some are useful. But after a few critical passes a lot of these business and marketing books melt away like cotton candy. Nothing left but a stale after taste.

Weeds & thistles.

One such business book offers the thesis that leaders should ask why their company does what they do. This starts out well. Purpose is offered. But not principles. Is a purpose-driven company wrong? No. Everything has a purpose. But what about a plan? Is it Benjamin Franklin who wrote: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail? Many business leaders implement ideas suggested in books without considering the consequences. Is purpose and plan interchangeable? What about a triumvirate of purpose, plan and principles? Plans change. Marketplace adaptation and other factors. Purpose is shifted due to internal and external needs. Principles. Principles are value statements. They are core business doctrines.

Wild flowers.

Many years ago, possibly fifteen years, I read that an international news magazine avoided presenting their news on their web site because the editorial leadership found no reason for it. (Keep in mind this was before the disruption of mobile phones and social media.) The subscriber-based magazine found no need to compete with itself on two platforms: print and digital. When the global market crashed in 2008, a lot of magazines and newspapers ended publication. Permanently. But this international news magazine increased its circulation during that time period. Their guiding principles were not compromised in spite of competition rushing to publish content online free of charge. To paraphrase their mission: you’ve seen the news, now read the story. The editors did not ask, why aren’t we on the internet like everyone else? When the time was right, when the method fit their mission, then they provided content online, in audio and video, on a mobile app as well as their legacy product — a weekly printed magazine.

One of those handwritten notes mentioned earlier was a quote from David Allen. He pioneered a system called getting things done (or GTD). The method offers a plan of how to get stuff out of your head and in to action. The goal is productivity. Each task should have three general responses: do, delegate or defer. Decisions are based on variables like time, energy, resource and others. While listening to one of his GTD audio podcasts I noted: “Your head is a crappy office. . .” A cluttered mind is a cluttered life. One of the practices of the GTD system is to unclutter your mind by capturing data outside the head. Whether you write notes or lists on paper with pencil or pen or email or text message yourself, the goal is to clear the mind. A clear mind provides space for planning, examining purpose and establishing principles.

Closing thoughts.

In the first draft of this piece (which was crafted nearly two months ago), I wrote: “A clear mind provides space for meaningful purposeful actions.” In the margin I noted: “What does this mean? Define the term meaningful. Define purposeful. Rewrite this line. Be clear, direct and to the point. No room for squishy platitudes.”

This is an example of why it is essential to re-examine the notes and ideas presented. A noble task is to live an examined life. The amount of data in a human brain is expansive. If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to view. Ultimately, how does an individual bring order to the chaos from the stream of cerebral activity?

An acquaintance, many years ago, mentioned that keeping a diary or journal was useless if you did not review it periodically. In other words, it is a good discipline to glance at the rearview mirror of commonplace books, diaries and journals before returning your focus to the front windshield and the task at hand.

Gathering flowers, my mountain flowers


What are the names of the flowers and blossoms that edge the late August roadsides of rural Wisconsin? Cornflower? Goldenrod? Queen Anne’s lace? Or wild carrot? Maybe this is botanical contrafact.[1] Same road progression along corn and soybean fields, but new melodies and arrangements of purple, white and yellow. Weeds and wild flowers remixed along country roads.

The expression “gathering the flowers” originated from a Latin phrase, florilegium.[2] The idea and practice of gathering flowers was to record quotations, excerpts and selections of literature, sketches and observations. Often religious and/or philosophical. These thoughts and ideas collected in a common place[3] provided a field of potential cross pollination. Hence the term commonplace books from the Latin “loci communes.”[4]

But tonight the poetry of Li Po, commonplace books and conversation at the dinner table collided. It is a practice in my home to share dinner together with the entire family. Good food and lively conversation abound. Tonight the topics included rhetoric definitions, friendship, loyalty, virtue, astronomy, Taoism, Christianity, providence of God, Li Po, coffee, heavy metal music, hairless rabbits and so on. Weeds and wild flowers distinguished throughout the animated discussion.

After the conversation subsided, the table cleared and dished washed, I reflected on a poem by Li Po. In the poem he referred to himself and a hermit friend as “mountain flowers.” Remixing gathering flowers and mountain flowers intrigued me. One of the children placed John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Art Tatum records on the stereo.

John Coltrane’s “26 2.” Charlie Parker’s chord progression from “Confirmation” reimagined with Coltrane’s melody and arrangement. Later, I borrowed Li Po’s four-line structure and motif and added my own melody, images and theme. Gathering flowers and blossoms. Poetic contrafact.

NOTES:
[1] Discovering Jazz, Episode 46, Stolen Chord Sequences (Jazz Contrafacts), accessed September 7, 2019. https://player.fm/series/discovering-jazz-2150622/archives-episode-46-stolen-chord-sequences-jazz-contrafacts
[2] “Florilegium – gathering literary flowers,” August 27, 2019. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2019/08/27/florilegium-gathering-literary-flowers/
[3] Loci communes: Not an easy Google search, but an example of its usage is here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loci-communes-rerum-theologicarum. Additionally, here are some Latin root words that make up Loci communes.


[4] Commonplace books is a subject explored here. “Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook),” December 31, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/12/31/best-reads-of-2014-or-what-i-found-in-my-notebook/

Florilegium – gathering literary flowers

Ever have one of those moments when you realize you are not what you claimed or thought you were? Where an illusion of yourself, either self-imagined or externally imposed, dissipates.

Well, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to the Intermodal Station. While I had thirty minutes to spend, I lost my way through the labyrinthian shelves of Downtown Books in search of a Latin dictionary. Instead, I found a used English dictionary.

Knowing that half of the English language is built on the foundation of Latin, I found a delicious word: florilegium. Culling flowers is the literal definition. But “a volume of writings” reminded me of something else. The idea of gathering literary flowers or collecting the flowers of one’s reading. Somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance the practice of writing quotes and excerpts from other texts began. Later it manifested itself in European culture as commonplace books.

For years I considered myself a modernist of sorts. Writing down quotes, excerpts and notes on or from influential artists like Jackson Pollock, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound. But there I was, standing in Downtown Books searching a dictionary for English words with the Latin root word “loci.”

When did this happen? When did I begin act and resemble a classicalist? Maybe this is part of the great conversation. Connecting the dots. Reading the ancient writers. Comparing them to modern literature. Maybe this is part of gathering literary flowers. Legacy informing legacy.

I boarded the train. Found a seat. Opened a copy of Gary Snyder’s Left Out in the Rain. And gazed out the window at the setting sun.

Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook)

BestReads2014_DSCN2263When I read and write, I connect dots. Maybe you do too. Earlier this month, I noticed — and commented on — a Facebook post that linked to an article on how writing thoughts, ideas and quotes into notebooks makes one smarter. That article reminded me of how commonplace books house many notes and quotes from books read. [Link to article on commonplace books] The art of notations in commonplace books has been a practice of mine for decades. Whether it makes me smarter is yet to be evident.

Connecting some dots. Last week I came across a tweet that read:

“Ranking artists and making lists is a dead culture’s version intellectualism.”
@marcmaron

Considering this originated on twitter, I am inclined to disregard it. Yet, oddly, it resonates with me on some levels. Maybe it is because of the blogs I follow that list and present authors’s reading statistics (examples here and here).

Connecting dots. Over a year ago, sitting in front of the large windows of the Pack Library, I pondered the best of lists of 2013. My response is documented in this post. In brief, I listed my best books I read during the year — that were not printed in 2013.

Should I do a list for this year, 2014? The Seattle Times published their 2014 list. The Economist presented their austere list of best reads of 2014. Of course, the New York Times presented there top books of the year as well as a number of other publishers and blogs that try to capitalize on the posting their lists in time for holiday purchasing.  

For 2014, allow me to open up the pages of my commonplace book — a thick red daily reminder journal used for both a calendar of events and appointments and day book — and share with you some of the notes and quotes found therein. Starting in March there is an entry on the following book:

Nobel Lecture: Czeslaw Milosz by Czeslaw Milosz

Found a hardcover, bilingual edition at the public library. That edition appears to be out of print based on internet searches. (If you find a first edition, hardcover edition please let me know.) Here are a line I wrote in my commonplace book/day journal:

“Two attributes of the poet, avidity of the eye and desire to describe that which he sees.”

And this one:

“In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion. Moliére becomes a contemporary of Napoleon.”

Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture by Seamus Heaney

“Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of the water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.”

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

“The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day — every morning or every evening, whatever time it is that you have.”

And…

“The process… is… a journey by boat…. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination…. The journey is your narrative.”

A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile by James Alan McPherson

From the opening paragraph, this book drew me in:

“In 1974,… I lived in San Francisco, California. My public reason for leaving the East and going there was that my wife had been admitted to the San Francisco Medical Center School of Nursing, but my private reason for going was that San Francisco would be a very good place for working and walking.”

What other reason is there to move, right? Here is another selection:

“Friendships grounded in mutual alienation and self-consciously geared to the perception of others are seldom truly tested. They lack an organic relationship to a common landscape, a common or ‘normal’ basis for the evolution of trust and mutual interest.”

More along the theme as well as reference to Ralph Ellison:

“It was Aristotle who thought the most deeply about friendship as a moral virtue. He [referring to Ralph Ellison] distinguished between friendships grounded in pleasure and utility, which friendships last as long as pleasure and usefulness last. These two grounds of friendship are common. For Aristotle, the best of all grounds for friendship was what he termed ‘perfected friendship.’ This degree of friendship obtains when one person wants for the other what is good for him simply because it is good for him. He believed that only people with comparable virtues could sustain this kind of friendship. Aristotle did not mean equality of virtue; he meant proportionate virtue. He meant that each is prepared to render to the other what the other deserved.”

Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son by Tony Woodlief

There are so many selections written in my journal that I turned it into a book review and later featured it in a podcast. Listen to it here.

One for the Rose by Philip Levine

This is another jewel found in the public library. Again, it appears out of print according to online retailers and first editions seem to be rare. (Contact me if you find a first printing of this one.) Here are two excerpts of poems from this collection of poems:

“I was born in Lucerne
I faced the longest night
of my life with tight fists and closed eyes
beside a woman of independence and courage
Who sang the peasant songs of her region.”

And

“and I could sit for a moment
remembering what it was
to rise slowly to a world
that seemed at peace on the long
Sunday mornings of lonely first manhood
when I knew nothing
except there was no work that day”

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth

This book drew a lot of ink into my daily journal. Here are two samples I wrote during the summer:

“and I still cannot believe you wouldn’t
give me a job when I needed one so badly”

And

“Old men converse across the abyss of time
on a hot evening in elusive light—”

Okay, one more…

“Somehow his eyes get lost
in the words and the snow”

Pigafetta Is My Wife by Joe Hall

This is a book I struggled with. A lot. Eventually it won me over and — ahem — became my wife. You will have to read it to understand the allusion. Here is a couple lines to entice you:

“I need to stop imagining that
some straight lines connect us”

Finding the Islands by W. S. Merwin

At some point in autumn, I realized I had written down some many lines from this book I practically transcribed the book into my journal. One day, during the noon meal I quoted a few lines from the book. Everyone at the table went silent. Here is an excerpt that still haunts me:

“How time disappears
while we live under
the big tree”

The Name and Nature of Poetry: and Other Selected Prose by A. E. Housman

What can I say about this book? Well, read some of the things I copied into a commonplace book:

“We should beware of treating the word poetry as chemists have treated the word salt…. If we apply the word poetry to an object which does not resemble, either in form or content, anything which has heretofore been so called, not only are we maltreating and corrupting language, but we may be guilty of disrespect and blasphemy.”

And

“Man had ceased to live from the depths of his nature; he occupied himself for choice with thoughts which do not range beyond the sphere of the understanding; he lighted the candles and drew down the blind to shut out that patroness of poets, the moon.”

There are more notes and books referenced in my commonplace book/day journal that are not included. May this inspire you to connect dots, make notes and start a commonplace book of your own.