14. See the World, Part 2

A lot of people proudly claim to love the city they live in, or the one they’re originally from. In general, I am not one of those people – and having lived a lot of places across America, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to make that visceral connection. Yes, I’ve appreciated the history, architecture, planning, flora, and fauna of physical places. There is something about the way a place smells, the way its natural element presents themselves both visually and orally, its latitude, altitude and distance from large bodies of water, the way the stars (including the sun) are arrayed at specific geographic locations, that make each village, hamlet, town, city, and metropolis different and unique.

I understand a deep and abiding connection with land. I’m of Swiss, German, and Irish stock. That connection is part of my heritage, part of my cultural consciousness. I recognize this, in part, because when I traveled to Bern Canton in Switzerland, where my paternal grandmother’s family originated, I recognized a landscape I had never before seen, experienced a “homecoming” if you will, a sense of deep understanding when I walked down narrow city streets, crossed Alpine meadows, and stared up at snow-covered Alps. I’ve not really had that experience anywhere else; I’ve not traveled to Strasbourg, Germany, Cork, Ireland, or any other family originating points for comparison. I’ve had other physical memory of places: for example, I was born at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Watching a movie about Jack Kevorkian almost 45 years later, I felt a physical sensation of recognition when they showed scenes at the hospital. I’ve also felt a sense of loss, rather than belonging, when happening by former addresses in Ohio, California, Boston, Memphis, Seattle, and New Orleans.

But that doesn’t seem to me what people feel when they say, for example, that they “love New York”. Maybe it’s a PART of it, sure, but I don’t believe just connection to a physical place is the whole of it. That’s like saying that the physical act of sex is the whole of loving a person.

There are a number of factors that tie us, directly or indirectly, to a place’s physicality. Logistics, convenience, knowing where things are, having the interstate system memorized, understanding and appreciating landmarks necessary for navigation, social interaction, and safety – these are indirect physical attributes of a place. But honestly, I’ve accumulated systems encompassing these factors for most of the places I’ve ever lived. Yeah, some places are better, or easier, or faster, in terms of their layout and features. But usually some part of that set compensates for other parts. It all balances out, in the end.

The rest of what makes a place a place, though, is its people. The actual individual people who live and work in a city. The infrastructure supporting those people – the education, culture, spirituality, politics, diversity, and so on. And that infrastructure affects still another set of indirect factors contributing to love: security, privacy, safety. Those things are indeed derived from a place’s people, not its physical attributes.

I’ve liked and loved a lot of people, wherever I’ve lived. And whether they were natives or transplants to those locations, a lot of what they were was the result of how they grew into or adapted to those locations. Some of those people, if you moved them somewhere else, would not have been so lovable or likable. Others that I didn’t really appreciate where they were, might have become MORE interesting. I’m definitely not sure that if you took everyone I loved across the world and put them all in the same physical location, that they would either get along, thrive, or survive relationship with me.

Have I been different people, in each place I’ve lived? Sometimes, sure. It’s a social necessity to adapt, to conform to certain norms in order to establish each two-way definition of equality required to affect communication between people. Are these mere externals? I’m again not sure. Like when you move where a different language is spoken, you have to learn to think in that language to really absorb it, sometimes the energy of a place, by changing the way you do things (e.g., travel, shop, eat, split indoor v. outdoor time, entertain yourself or others), can change who you are – or at least who you THINK you are.

The point is that where I’m at in my life, right now, what attracts me to a city, a physical place – other than its striking physical beauty, particularly if its a geographical experience I’ve not had before – is less WHAT I can experience there, as much as WHO I experience it with. And the presence or absence of that connection (including the presence or absence of the possibility of connection) is what makes a place alive, to me. To find the right balance, to seek beauty that is alive, and life that I find beautiful: that is the quest, right?

The Secret Undertown Ministry

“FROM THE DARKNESS, A VOICE SINGS OUT: I disagree, I disagree – I cannot understand at all; Which doesn’t mean I cannot understand it if I tried to understand it but I cannot stand to stand and understand it when it hurts to stand beneath it, when it falls and cannot stand under its power.”

So here’s a holiday offering for those who are interested in such things. In 1994, when I was 29 years old, I wrote a semi-autobiographical, cut-up, stream of consciousness novel called “The Secret Undertown Ministry” – much of it made up of pieces written for or around the Thursday night open poetry readings at Java Cabana Coffeehouse in Memphis. I originally distributed it to a number of close friends, but otherwise serialized portions of it to various blogs and other websites. It’s never been assembled in its complete form – UNTIL NOW. Anyway, for those who ARE interested, here’s a link to the novel in PDF form: http://www.radicaldruid.com/PDFs/TheSecretUndertownMinistry.pdf. Good luck!

Americans Undecided for Apathy

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM A CAMPAIGN SPEECH WRITTEN BY GRAVITY PUSHMAN AND DELIVERED TO THE ‘AMERICANS UNDECIDED FOR APATHY’ RALLY HELD ON DECEMBER 12, 1994 IN CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK. THE SPEECH WAS DELIVERED VIA AN ANONYMOUS TAPE VOICE BROADCAST OVER A REALISTIC (RADIO SHACK BRAND, A DIVISION OF THE TANDY CORPORATION, LOCATED SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS (one of the United States referred to in the next item), THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE, THE PLANET EARTH, THE SOLAR SYSTEM – the solar system: isn’t it really A solar system? Isn’t that like saying THE human race when there could in actuality be three or four dozen spread out over the cosmos like so much lox on a half a dozen day-old salt and onion bagels?, THE MILKY WAY (same comment), THE UNIVERSE (and again, and again) PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM WHICH HAD A MAXIMUM PER CHANNEL WATT RATING OF 40 RMS. THE ATTENDING CROWD (EXCLUDING CURIOUS PASSERBY JOGGERS, MUGGERS, FILM CREW STAFF, DOCUMENTARIANS, TRASH COLLECTORS, RECYCLING NUTS, HORSEBACK POLICE, SEVERAL THOUSAND PIGEONS, A RANDOM WASP COLONY, TWO BUTTERFLIES, SIX POINT EIGHT BILLION DUST MITES, AND A DISCARDED WRAPPER FROM A PAYDAY CANDY BAR THAT HAD OVER THE COURSE OF ITS SHORT LIFE ACHIEVED SELF-SIMILARITY, NUMBERED EXACTLY THREE PEOPLE. ONE OF THEM WAS THE SOUND GUY.

I had a dream – no, it was a nightmare. I dreamt that the only references I had to the 1970’s were from bad cultural definition films. I didn’t know about Watergate, the end of Vietnam, the bicentennial celebration, the assassination attempt by Manson’s children (and also by the Nation of Islam) on President Ford (who, by the way, was the only person in the history of the Executive Branch of the United States Government to serve in office, both as Vice President AND President – without being elected to either. Nixon appointed him when good old Spiro had to fly the coop, and then the man who played too many games for the University of Michigan without a helmet, whose forehead somehow resembled the front grill of a ’57 Buick Roadmaster, was sitting in the oval office – pardoning the man who made it all possible).

I was aware only that rock and roll died in 1972, hard rock, that is – Zeppelin IV, Purple’s Machine Head, Sabbath’s Paranoid – these were the tombstones on the blues rock of the sixties. Hendrix died in ’72. The guitar hero became mythology. 1971 and Marvin Gaye put out What’s Goin’ On and Let’s Get It On and then it began, the movies, you know. Trouble Man, Black Caesar, Superfly, Shaft, and on and on and on. Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes, respectively. The stories weren’t even important, but the music, man, the music was right on. Yeah, and those expressions, like right on, what’s happening, fly, and on and on and on… remember, white man, if you want to learn to dance the dance, don’t learn your steps from Club MTV or John Travolta or a Billy Ray Cyrus Video – do yourself a favor and watch any selection of Soul Train episodes from 1975 to 1980. Or picture Muhammad Ali fighting, and not sounding a lot like Don Cornelius on helium (who can forget ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the great smell of Brut, and the punch of Ali?)
The seventies can be characterized by its prime time television – the variety show reigned supreme. Do you remember that these people had television shows – Mac Davis, Glen Campbell, Donnie & Marie Osmond, Sonny & Cher, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Tony Orlando & Dawn, the Captain & Tenielle, Flip Wilson. Not to mention the Jackson Five, the Harlem Globetrotters, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and the whole Scooby Doo trip (which wasn’t really a cartoon at all, but a ridiculous sitcom). There used to be television shows about poor people, too – All in the Family, Good Times, What’s Happening, Sanford & Son, Barney Miller, Chico & the Man. It just figures that they were all comedies. And look what’s replaced them: the Cosby show, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Married with Children, for Christ’s’ sake. The variety show was it, people, and the private detective-streetwise cop show – Mannix, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, Streets of San Francisco, Starsky and Hutch, SWAT, Columbo, McCloud, MacMillan and Wife (starring, of course, Rock Hudson and Susan St. James), Police Woman, etc., etc.

The Ramones first album came out in 1974. The Pistols ended in 1979. Post-punk emerged and then died (and how can something as undead as gothic vampire thrash ever die) in 1983, when Bauhaus split because they were becoming ‘popular’. Remember when punk meant trying to be an individual, before you could buy the hair color at a salon or the clothes at a chain store on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood? Here’s to Darby Crash, the lead singer of the Germs, the first person in Los Angeles to wear a Mohawk (which, my mother tells me, is something of a misnomer, because the Mohawks didn’t exactly wear their hair like that, but Mohawk is much easier to say fourteen times fast than Iroquois.

Besides, there was nothing else really going on in this country – the seventies belonged to Elton John and David Bowie, on the two British polar extremes, and to all those sappy self-searching singer-songwriter guys (think of how bad it really was – imagine David Soul from Starsky and Hutch singing “Don’t Give Up on Us Baby” all over again – yetch!).

Apollo-Soyuz – the joint Soviet Union American space linking thing, man, that was something – somebody had it going on, ’cause they played “Why Can’t We Be Friends” over the space link and the whole world was listening. And the hostages in Iran, that was something else; but Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977, and in my personal opinion, it caused Elvis Presley to die of embarrassment. He was the only one wearing a white suit at the time, after all, and where do you think those moves came from? Do you think Vinnie Barbarino invented them? Yeah, right. Reality check, welcome back. Rock and roll was really over, you know. And by the way, take a look at Six-One-Six or Red Square (prime examples in Memphis, Tennessee of disco so vintage it’s retro) some night and tell me that the Disco Sucks movement really had an impact. Maurice White is sitting somewhere playing a kalimba in the moonlight laughing his ass off. The three most sampled bands in the history of rap – James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, and War. I’ve seen all three. There ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

The movie version of Hair came out in 1977 or 1978 – I guess that was the first indication of how ridiculous a flashback to the sixties looked out of context. Don’t look now, but Scorpio’s in retrograde motion. Here we are, and Sun Yung Moon is in his seventh house; M & M’s have merged with Mars; love still drives a ’68 Plymouth Galaxie, and the media sells us our stars. This is the dawning of the age of Aquariums – we are living like goldfish looking out from behind the Plexiglas – our eyes bulged, our little flippers pushing us through water murky with our own shit. Let the sun shine, and skin cancer be damned!!!!

What ever happened to rock and roll singers that didn’t look like waifs, that sang with low voices? Did Robert Plant really have that much influence, or did the sensitive male step in to fill the gap between Otis Redding, Joe Cocker, Jim Morrison, and now the only things left – Lemmy Kilmeister, Glenn Danzig, and James Hetfield? Gimme a break, man. And I’ve got nothing against Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots, but if you take Jim Morrison, subtract the acid and Bushmill’s and leather, and substitute Xanax and Thorazine and flannel, and what do you have – Eddie Vedder? I’m not sure.

Remember the campaign slogan for Carter-Mondale – Fritz and Grits? ‘Nuff said.

Fortunately, I woke up, and found out that I had actually lived through the seventies. I was wearing platform shoes and wide collars and all those obnoxious jackets and leisure suits and polyester nightmare designs the first time around – you can wear them again if you want to, but the seventies is something I’d like to try to forget, thank you very much. If you think I’m kidding, take a look at the best example of ’70’s culture in the ’90’s – Meatloaf, and laugh if you can. I remember when his FIRST album came out, and I hated it then, too. Remember, as I first said in August of 1994, I’m not funny, you’re not laughing, and that’s the way I like it. Thank you for coming out and pretending to support my campaign. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like coming, so you’re there making complete assholes of yourselves without my immediate help. Have a nice day, and don’t kill anybody on my account. Thank you. Thanks for nothing.

Now, if I may close with something quite dear to my heart, I would like to play for you a recording made by a dear friend of mine, Homespun Gravity, with his band ‘The Undertown Minstrels.’ It is a song he wrote that pretty much sums it all up for me, as far as songs go, and it didn’t offend my mother all that much, so that should tell you pretty much where it stands as far as a rock and roll number; pretty much shit out of luck as an anthem for this, its own, or any generation. But nevertheless, it’s kind of catchy and makes you hum and tap your foot if you’re absolutely tone-deaf and have no sense of rhythm.

THE SOUND OF FUMBLING WITH A RECORD NEEDLE, A FEW OBNOXIOUS SCRATCHES, AND THEN A SLIGHT HISS. THE SONG BEGINS. LOW MUSIC BEGINS IN THE BACKGROUND, THE SOUND OF TWO GUITARS HOPELESSLY OUT OF TUNE ATTEMPTING TO FIND HARMONICS ON THE SEVENTH AND TWELFTH FRETS, RESPECTIVELY. WITH A SUDDEN LURCHING, WRETCHING CRASH, THE DRUMS AND BASS ATTEMPT TO JOIN IN TO PROPEL THE SONG AWAY FROM THE CRASH-LANDING IT APPEARS TO HAVE EMBARKED UPON. A VOICE, HOMESPUN’S VOICE, IS HEARD WHISPERING-MOANING-SINGING-SIGHING THE FOLLOWING:

No way home
World is in a spiral
I don’t know
Where I’ll be tomorrow

Still I go
’round the endless circuit
Look out below
Found the brake but I can’t work it

Out into the night I’m going
Where I can at least forget my name
and remember that there’s no one left to blame
buried in eternal shame
can’t tell the candle from the flame
and in the end it’s all the same.

No way in
World is just illusion
I don’t know
Can’t tell my dream from my delusion

Still I float
’round and round the axis
Look outside
I’m through the egg between the cracks, and

Out into the void I’m falling
Where I can at least forget my fate
and remember that there’s no debate
born before my time too late
can’t tell the mirror from the lake
and in the end there’s no mistake.

THE CROWD IS MESMERIZED; WELL, AT LEAST THE PIGEONS HAVE ATTEMPTED TO CONTROL THEIR BODILY FUNCTIONS LONG ENOUGH TO COMPLETE A SORT OF HELLISH CHORUS TO ACCOMPANY THE MUSIC, WHICH IS MUCH LOUDER NOW THAN IT WAS, THAN IT EVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN, AND (according to memorandum G-47-B18, City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York, New York, dated December 18, 1994 and signed by a Mr. Reginald Moss) LOUDER THAN IT WILL EVER BE AGAIN IF ANY MORAL CREATURE HAS ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT. STILL, DESPITE ALL THE BAD PRESS FROM THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, CAN’T TEACH, CAN’T FAKE IT, CAN’T AFFORD TO RUN FOR PUBLIC OFFICE, AND SO THEREFORE ARE RELEGATED TO THE ROLE OF CRITICAL OBSERVERS, THE MUSIC GOES ON. Rock and roll can never die, as Neil Young once said. As the Rolling Stones have failed to prove.

No way out
World is locked inside a system
I don’t know
Can’t tell the maya from the wisdom
Still I try

’round the circle I keep turning
Look at me fly
While my wings are slowly burning
Out into the world I’m sliding
Where I can at least forget my pride

and remember that there’s no free ride
paid my fare somewhere outside
can’t tell the mountains from the tide
and in the end we all collide.

1994 from The Secret Undertown Ministry

16. Philosophize Only By Accident

Despite what you may think, and what they themselves might to try to convince you, philosophers and other professional think-o-logists for thousands of years have tried to answer just a couple of basic questions.

These are often hard to recognize, certainly, being cloaked in more buzzwords than a Silicon Valley initial offering, and as hard to isolate free-hand as any number of radioactive isotopes, but honestly, the real questions are but a few.

The first is of course Who am I? – although only in the past five hundred years or so has it so explicitly selfish, directed inward in this way. More likely, the more modest (or merely more vaguely indirect) ancient philosophers queried, Who are We?, and then once having determined that “we” could passably be assumed to be of the human species (depending of course on how widely and in which directions you chose to cast that net of we, then some eventually got around to What is a Human? or to an even more intellectually divergent What Does It Mean to Be a Human?. At that point, the more esoteric then make the first leap into an almost magical absurdity, asking things like Why Are We Here? or Why Am I Here? or What is My or Our Purpose in Being? (if of course, the condition of being, specifically being human, is considered possible and to some degree achieved).

Of course, those questions are more or less satisfactorily answered, schools of philosophies founded, conquerors, dictators, and other world leaders inspired (or made dejected), courses of history irreversibly altered, cultures steered, and young minds melded or melted, either positively or negatively depending on whose side of the causal font you’re drinking from.

When I was 13 or 14, my dad become involved with an organization out of Waco, TX called the Success Motivation Institute. Its founder, Paul J. Meyer, said all kinds of things like “If you are not making the progress you feel you should be making, or that you are capable of making, it is simply because your goals are not clearly defined.” Phrases like “crystallize your thinking” and “you need a POA [Plan of Action]” became commonplace around my house. Of course, because I was an obvious underachiever not living up to my potential, I was required to listen and read along with hours of self-help instruction: Blueprint for Success, The Dynamics of Personal Leadership, and so on. My father, born in Toledo, OH, the same place where Normal Vincent Peale cut his journalistic teeth on the Toledo Blade was of course intoxicated by this stuff. He already had a library full of Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Oz Mandino and others. There was nothing that a PMA [Positive Mental Attitude] couldn’t fix. At one point, he became an SMI Distributor (and mind you, this was WAY before Tony Robbins started doing his thing). We nearly moved to Waco before I started high school to facilitate greater growth. Fortunately, my dad made a trip there in the summer of 1978, was not all that impressed with Waco, and continued onward to Phoenix to visit with his aunt Alice. After experiencing the dread, dead heat of August in Phoenix, he wisely sojourned further west to California, where he answered an advertisement from a San Diego firm who didn’t need anyone for that office, but were looking for a General Manager for their Long Beach location. And so, in the summer of 1979, we moved to Torrance, California (for that perfect balance of great schools, marine layer-induced sunny calmness, and reasonable real estate in near proximity to Long Beach).

I mention this because a key phrase in the Blueprint series was the “will to meaning”. When I later read Nietzsche I immediately recognized the idea. Meyer suggested that harnessing this “will to meaning” was all you really needed to get yourself and your life in gear – that it was the difference between a shining knight of industry standing proudly atop the sprawling corpses of the competition, and the grubby, friendless poet dying of starvation in a ghetto sublet.

What philosophers of the greater order attempt to convince you is NOT to answer the initial identifying questions of who you or we are. No, the great grey matter shysters go one further. They insist that the most important question is not who we are, but why it matters and why anyone really should give a damn (except of course to buy their books and attend their lectures).

I wonder, however. If you answer the first question (i.e., Who am I?) you’ve already assumed there is an answer to this higher question. Perhaps, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, existence really DOES precede essence. It’s not really a chicken and egg dilemma, where potentiality must and always precedes actuality (unless of course, some divine energy simply poofed a chicken out of midair, fully grown and ready to produce eggs). But it is a dilemma – because you can in fact spend your entire life trying to figure out who you are. They call it “finding yourself”, but it’s really more about making it up as you go along, isn’t it?

8. Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop

It used to be that men had studies, libraries, dens, offices. Now there are “man caves”. As if the whole of the outside world isn’t already about patriarchal, testosterone-driven, sports metaphor-laden male dominance, for better or worse. Honestly, anyone who feels they’re being deprived of their manhood in today’s uber-macho, Art of War, Machiavellian study in pissing contest one-upmanship has no idea what being a man entails. Or maybe I don’t. That’s probably more the case, as I feel I’ve been disconnected from what society calls “masculinity” for almost my entire life. When I think of a private room, I envision a place to think, to read, to create – to work. I think of my father’s office, lined with books; and his workshop, filled with tools, various and sundry hardware, and projects in various states of construction or completion. I think of a garage or shed for doing your own auto repairs. Not a place where you can retreat from the female kingdom of your home – the kitchen, the bedrooms, the children’s rooms, the “parlor”, and gather with your so-called adult male friends to drink beer, eat junk food, and participate vicariously in simulated war games called sporting events, all the while avoiding either direct parenting, spousal interaction, or being forced into watching “chick” flicks or the Disney channel’s constant repetition of episodic inanity. That sounds like the modern equivalent of the Little Rascals, building a treehouse and then hanging a sign reading “No Gurls Aloud”.

What is this conception of manhood that always must include some minimum level of physical intimidation, hyper-competitiveness, vulgarity, and ultimately anti-social behavior – and often, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, an illusion of superiority, and a chance to unveil the worst of ourselves as humans: our resulting bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and innate mean spiritedness and poor sportsmanship? Even male nerds, geeks, and dorks participate in these rituals, at least privately, while publicly claiming abhorrence for them. By the way, for the purposes of this discussion, there is an easy way to discern between the intelligentsia’s nerd, geek, dork caste system. I call it the LOTR, or Lord of the Rings test: anyone who has read and can quote portions of the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy can be assumed a nerd. Any nerd who can quote, read or write those portions in the Elvish language may be considered a geek. Any nerd who has on more than on occasion donned a pair of Elf ears, or otherwise actually imagined themselves an elf (or hobbit or dwarf, although there are limits) is probably best classified as a dork. Me? I am only a nerd. But then again, gaining eyeglasses, braces, and violin lessons at age eight probably predetermined that result.

6. Use Little Tricks

Every mystery or philosophical tradition from the beginning of time has invented mechanisms to help adherents pay attention to the right things, or stop paying attention to the wrong things. I’ve always been fascinated by Zen koans, Sufi teaching stories, and parables of all kinds. After all, that everything that is communicated contains messages at more than one level, geared especially for those at each level who can grasp the meaning, has always been more appealing to me than the idea that there is hidden knowledge out there in the world that requires learning specific hand signals, and paying certain club dues, to learn. Of course, the big thing you learn after investing in any system of this kind is that NO KNOWLEDGE IS HIDDEN. If it’s actual and real knowledge, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and right there in constant view. Again, we return to perspective. You wanna know how small and unimportant you are, and how ultimately ineffective you are likely to be in this lifetime, go out every day to the beach, find and examine the same single grain of sand each day – if of course you can even find it. You can after all only be humble by practicing humility. For years, I’ve practiced imagining looking down at myself in space, starting from just a few feet away, and gradually pulling away, seeing my house, the neighborhood, our town, the state, the continent, the Earth, slowly becoming smaller and smaller and ultimately lost in the everything else that there is. Having a GPS system and playing with the zoom gives you a taste of that. I mean, where ARE you as far as the universe is concerned? And why even bother considering the universe? There are so many infinitely closer and more immediate things that are so much bigger, and grander than we are.

An interesting little trick that is worth trying is the Stoic imagining of the happy death – to imagine yourself on death’s doorstep, imminently departing this mortal coil. With what in your life are you satisfied? What mistakes would you rectify? Most importantly, what that you could have done have you left undone? Whether there is a judgmental overseer to be faced at the portal of the next Bardo is irrelevant. To appease an unfair or despotic deity is no great show of worthiness; likewise, to bully your way past an ineffective and less than omnipotent ruler with an excess of bravado or cash shows no surplus courage or chutzpah. So stripping it down to the bare bones, to the essence of the thing in itself, life, what use have you made of it? Montaigne suggested that a true Stoic approach would be to approach death believing that you either did everything you could, and lived that life to its fullest, wearing it out, in which case you have nothing to regret and can leave this world satisfied – or if you did not fully life, to realize that the opportunity was lost, and that the life was wasted on you in the first place. In either case, no cause for sorrow, no occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are of course little tricks you can play every day. One I recently noted was that every night I go to bed hoping to be happy to be alive when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes that works; so I keep doing it. Of course, they are all games we play with ourselves – and often with those who live with us. You say, “good morning” even if you don’t believe in either goodness or the state of the current day. Just like so many “religious” people keep icons, guru pictures, shrines, and happy little “churchy” slogans or out of context Bible verses strewn profusely around their houses to “remind” them that they are “good” people and will act accordingly, the games we play with partners, lovers, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and incidental strangers on the street help us maintain a premise (usually only shared in part with others) not about how the world actually is, but how we believe it should be, or could be.

10. Wake From the Sleep of Habit

I suppose one could take this advice two different ways: to wake from the sleep of habit, but also to wake from the habit of sleep. That is for the former, to be aware of everything you do by rote, simply going through the motions without conscious attention to the details; for the latter, to work in Ben Franklin again, to refrain from idleness, sleep only enough to replenish your batteries, and avoid lounging around altogether.

One could argue however there are good habits and bad habits – to which I think at least Montaigne (and perhaps Lao Tzu) might counter, since we can’t accurately discern between the two subjective extremes, it might be better to leave off all habits, regardless of their moral superiority. Cigarettes, lack of punctuality, procrastination, voting strict party candidates, prejudice, daily reading, obsessive social media checking – all habits by that standard of comparable if not equal import simply because they tend to take up little bits of time, here and there, that do not seem consequential when looked at as individual moments, but when accumulated can represent some pretty large chunks.

There are of course energy cycles in everyday life. My own approach what used to be called manic-depressive, but of course the height and depth of any cycle just as subjective as anything else, and just as subject to both internal and external perception. Any cycle flattens over time: what seems very high today may be only average for the course of a month. The severity of a habit, like a risk, matters to its overall impact only as relates to its likelihood. You probably could manage them similarly. Some habits eat up a lot of time, certainly. But if they achieve something “positive” (again, highly subjective), then they can be preferable to another activity that is more likely to result in a “negative”. It is not because it’s better to be constantly positive that so many philosophies talk about balance. It is because that is reality. It is not possible to be “up” all the time, any more than it is possible for any habit, when indulged to excess, to always be a good thing.

Mystics from both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions naturally wax philosophically on doing exactly what Montaigne suggests, stated quite simply: pay attention. Awareness of what you’re doing as you’re doing it is the antithesis of habit – unless of course your habit involves becoming so absorbed in the execution of each component of even the simplest tasks that you maintain no forward motion, no momentum or velocity whatsoever. There is a thin line that runs the spectrum from habitually obsessive to obsessive-compulsive to habitually compulsive. The serenity prayer remedy for such a spectrum might as well be “give me the serenity to let go of the things I cannot control, the courage to unwillingly accept control of the things I can, and the wisdom to recognize control itself as a complete illusion.”

So perhaps again mindfulness is the answer. Unless mindfulness is itself your habit. What is it that Hamlet quipped, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.” What he’s suggesting is that there is a precipice at the extreme edge of paying attention. Once we become (and believe me, I’ve been there) a “man who thinks too much”. As the Bard again suggests, in a different context altogether, such men are indeed dangerous. Not just to ourselves, but to others. The wormhole of overthinking can suck in the innocent bystander just as easily as the thinker themselves. The Skeptic position to doubt everything is good up to a point; but you’ve got to put your feet down somewhere if you’re going to walk at all.

One of the nastiest habits to overcome is the insistent need for justification before acting. When I would tell her the long-drawn-out story of one of my current dilemmas, my dad’s bookkeeper used to tell me, “Do anything – even if it’s wrong!” There is the danger of taking the wrong step, wrong turn, certainly; but there is an equal and perhaps greater danger of doing nothing at all, of falling into wrongness simply by losing the opportunity to act.

So, where is the “happy medium”? And is there actually such a thing? Part of the problem in even answering that question lies in the highly subjective definition of happiness – as either an end or a journey. Does the medium, moderate, middle way imply stagnation or gestation? Is it that state when the door is closed between two rooms? Is stillness or movement the habit? Newton suggested that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, where an object at rest tends to stay at rest. He then proved through the demonstration of gravity that nothing, absolutely nothing, is “at rest.” It’s all movement.

Who is the weak, and who is the strong, when the river’s still flowing but the mountain’s gone?