On the edge

Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. Big, undreamed-of things—the people on the edge see them first.

~ Kurt Vonnegut

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Two things

This sudden loss has gotten me to face my own death this week. I know it is coming, just not when. I rarely think about it, because life is so in-my-face, but it’s there, waiting. Tyler’s death is such a stark reminder that we never know how much time we have left.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/liberation/

There are exactly two things about my life of which I am certain. I was born, and I will die. I spend a lot of time contemplating my end; Not in a fatalistic, “come at me bro’!” way, but rather with the intention of reminding myself to make the most out of every moment.

There are many moments where I’m unconscious—quite a few of those moments are while I’m sleeping, but also there are mindless moments aplenty throughout my days. But there are increasingly more mindful moments every day.

An extremely fast way to get to mindfulness—this is the fastest way I’ve found so far—is to think: This may well be the last time I do this. The last walk. The last boulder I scramble upon. The last conversation with this person. The last conversation ever. The last word I type. The last sentence I jauntily scribble with a pen. The last time I drive a car. The last time I ride a bicycle. The last time I wrench my back shoveling snow. The last time something scares the crap out of me. The last time I laugh until I lose control of my bladder. The last time I’m stuck as part of the traffic. The last time I’m part of the solution. The last time I’m the source of the problem. The last time I smash the hell out of my toe on something.

In every one of those cases, I can now enjoy it… if I can manage to remember: This could be the last time I get to experience this.

I’ve even decided that if I can manage it, my last words will be: “Well, if that wasn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” (And just maybe with a literal hat tip to Vonnegut.)

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Gone already?!

I just want to say that sometimes the things we do online have outsized consequences in the real world. It’s easy to forget that there are real people behind every screen. I forget about that almost every day but better people than me provide some good reminders.

~ Gabriel Weatherhead from, http://www.macdrifter.com/2021/09/thank-you-this-will-be-rough.html

My title refers to the fact that it’s only been four months, and this link has already rotted. In September 2021 I marked this for later reading, (note the /2021/09/ in that URL,) and I only just got around to reading it. I read it as a locally-cached copy in my read-later software, and then realized the link was dead when I tried to write this blog post… :(

I’m so sorry. It was a nice piece about how he had reread some Vonnegut over the pandemic year and… and… it’s already gone?!

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The Ice Age persists

The algific talus slopes where relic species persist are steep, built atop limestone—itself a relic from a time, half a billion years ago, when a shallow tropical sea covered what’s now the Driftless. The porous limestone is easily eroded by even slightly acidic water, including rain. As a result it holds numerous caves, sinkholes, cracks, and fissures. These networks of open spaces deep in the hillside were never compromised by glacial steamrollers, and are crucial for the “breathing”—slopes’ respiration.

~ Gemma Tarlach from, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ice-age-midwest-driftless-geology

There seems to be something special about Iowa. Pockets of Ice Age biodiversity, and Vonnegut, must somehow mean something. Atlas Obscura started as an ecclectic collection of interesting points scattered about the Earth. It’s grown to—in my opinion—rival Wikipedia in the context of places. And then it started producing these place-specific, in-depth articles.

In the endless sea of click-baity, bullet-listed, double-spaced individual sentence fragments posing as a “post” on some social network… because, honestly, a paragraph block of text just scares the shit out of too many people, so we’ll just

space out the phrases

so our feeble minds understand

what the bite-sized thoughts are supposed to be.

I digress. Over decades, I’ve found sources on the Internet that are continual fonts of wonder and joy. I follow them using RSS, and I’m better off for it.

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Genius working alone

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail. The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

~ Kurt Vonnegut, from Bluebeard

Meta: Copy-paste-and-search if you want to read the entire, surrounding passage. As a creator of content myself, I decline to copy and paste the much longer passage as many others have.

This passage from Vonnegut is brilliant, but it makes me a little nervous. Am I the genius? …or more likely, the lunatic? Perhaps I’m one of the other two specialists. Or worse, I’m not any of the three.

Suddenly

I remember why I keep bourbon on hand.

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It’s only five sentences!

As Vonnegut said, if you can’t write well, you probably don’t think as well as you think you do. There was something about a particular project that wasn’t clicking for people. I couldn’t describe what was wrong—why I couldn’t communicate clearly. The more I talked to key confidantes, the more I tried to explain it, and the more I listened, the more convinced I became that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t have something straight in my thinking. So I asked for a meeting of minds to craft a clear explanation. To write it clearly, I believed I would need to clarify my thinking.

Four people sat down to write a better description of a project. It took over four hours to write five sentences. They’re not particularly complicated sentences. The affect—the change in my perspective, the things I now see have been done wrong and need changing… The affect is vertiginous. I’ve begun sharing the sentences with key confidantes. I’m letting them set and I’m picking them up at intervals to see if their power persists.

Forget about my five sentences.

What’s something you could solve, improve, or take to a new level if you sat down and crafted five perfect sentences?

Could you do it in four sentences? …how about three? …two? …what about one?

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The shape of stories

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’

~ Kurt Vonnegut from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/11/26/kurt-vonnegut-on-the-shapes-of-stories/

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First, note that by “shapes” he literally means figures, graphs—drawings of the shape of the story.

Second, although I’m unsure wether or not I’m “old,” I am sure that I’m starting to get some perspective. A few posts back I was talking about there being a horizon-of-self: Once my experiences are far enough in the past, I lose any true sense of who that self was. Vonnegut’s point—to me anyway—drives home the fact that I don’t even truly know who I am right now.

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Vonnegut in rare form

When I taught in Iowa, University of Iowa, I had a writers workshop… Is I’d tell my students to go to the public library there in Iowa City and take out a novel that hadn’t been taken out for twenty years… And geezers they found some knockouts. It doesn’t surprise me at all.

~ Kurt Vonnegut from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&time_continue=9&v=crPrPpAaRXo

…and when I say “in rare form,” I mean that literally. This is a YouTube video, of a live interview in Second Life on NPR’s “The Infinite Mind.” The video is of two avatars, (in front of a live audience of avatars,) having a virtual, live interview… and it’s all Vonnegut gold.

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