Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (1-10)

divine retributionLetter 1 – On Saving Time

Recently we were in a bar, and he was telling me about this girl who seemed like she liked him, but wouldn’t let him ask her out, and puts him through all sorts of confusing games—they’re both PhDs working for maybe the best known company in the world and in their early 30s. My response was—doesn’t she know she’s dying? 

Why piss away your time on amusements unless you’re examining the hell out of them. Again, that’s the purpose of this blog in the first place, because too often I enjoy reading, and since I don’t think I should be spending time doing things just for the sake of relaxation, I began trying to examine them so at least I could look back and say ‘oh, right, I got something from that.’

Seneca:

“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”

One of the messages of this chapter is: stop procrastinating. You’re going to die.

Reminiscent of Franklin:

“I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man.”

Letter 2 – On Discursiveness in Reading

In short, a painful lesson for someone who keeps this blog, Seneca suggests—don’t read lots of different authors and works…just focus on a few, revisit them, and digest them fully.

Of course, returning to Letter 1, I procrastinate now that I’m married, and I haven’t finished a real book in many years, so perhaps it’s not really an issue for me.

Letter 4 – On the Terrors of Death

Seneca:

“It is not boyhood that still stays with us, but something worse,–boyishness. And this condition is all the more serious because we possess the authority of old age, together with the follies of boyhood, yea, even the follies of infancy. Boys fear trifles, children fear shadows, we fear both.”

Letter 5 – On the Philosopher’s Mean

Seneca:

“Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.”

 

“We do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past. Many of our blessings bring bane to us; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched.”

IX – On Philosophy and Friendship

“The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself.”

This is the concept that I’ve tried to follow more than any other I’ve learned, but likely not to the extent that I ought—because I try following it to a single end, and not as a continual end within itself.

X – On Living to Oneself

“’Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.’ . . . ‘Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.’”

This calls to mind our thoughts on Yom Kippur—that we find repentance for our sins easier when we’re asking God for forgiveness than when we’re asking people for forgiveness. I don’t believe divine forgiveness is easily bestowed, which I can only assume means that I rarely deserve it because I don’t know how to repent, and also because I’m not sure which things I do are good and which are bad. One year I called an old roommate and apologized on his voicemail for letting the air out of all his tires and drawing a penis and writing DICK on his car with shaving cream to discolor the paint. Even now, I feel kinda proud that I went and did that, right? I mean, there was injustice to me, and I took it upon myself to exact retribution in some unequal fashion—which I couldn’t even convince him I did—but, bottom line is, I don’t feel badly enough. And why don’t I feel badly enough? Well, perhaps because somewhere inside me I don’t believe that God punishes the wicked. But I do believe this—don’t I? That in one’s own lifetime, you’ll be punished or rewarded as you deserve. I must not truly believe this if I take it upon myself though, right?

Well, for instance, let’s say the girl who lives downstairs is making the entire stairwell stink of her child’s feces. My retaliation is that I don’t mention ‘by the way—if your daughter grabs the bathroom sink, it’s going to tip, fall and crush her.’ The truth is that perhaps it’s better to just leave retribution to the divine, and then, in this situation, to paint the stairwell with ammonia on a daily basis until our eyeballs all melt.

It is so difficult to even try to be a good person. I need to try better.

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A Backwards Glance

She said, “I don’t think people know what I need to survive…I need to be constantly working on something larger than myself, I need that stability, I don’t need to be creative anymore, if everyone else around me is creative and I can be part of that, I don’t need to be also,I just want to be okay, and live my life beautifully. You don’t have to write poetry to live poetically, and I think that disturbs a lot of people, even to the point that they BEGIN writing poetry in an attempt to live poetically! If you weren’t so concerned with how this all looks, you’d be much more beautiful. People are mostly a let down, life is mostly trying to mitigate the chaos. The people who say I’m not living for myself, I say, you don’t know me, I love people, and I care, and if you don’t like that, then go write another failure play. Life isn’t beautiful, it’s a horrible thing to be soldiered through, yet people in sophisticated society, I say sophisticated! The native americans, sophisticated, they know to respect elders, not because they’re old, but because they’ve survived all life’s curveballs. Everyone wants to masquerade themselves as that, but they’re not. You need to come from a certain sort of civility to achieve that. And most people never will.”
“Do you know why I haven’t spoken to you for all these years?”
“Yeah.”
“No, I’m asking you, do you know why?”
“Oh, no.”
“That summer, in Kentucky, you got all mature, talking about law, about giving up writing and creativity, about growing up. I thought I’d lost you. You didn’t say all the things you said now. You didn’t express that you were developing, that you were maturing, that there was a connection between who you were and who you’d decided to be. But now you’ve explained it. Now everything you’ve said to me makes perfect sense. I understand. And I regret that decision. I misunderstood. I’m surprised you even speak to me now.”
“Well, how can I not? I didn’t even think about it. It was a surprise to see you calling, you know me, time doesn’t exist for me, there was no space in between. We only ever met once…but who can remember that? It sort of emerges from time, it’s separate from time. We only met once, and we’re still talking after all these years.”
“Only once? I hadn’t remembered that. Anyway, I’m glad you’re still you.”
“I’m still me. So…moral of the story: I love you back.”
“You said it! I love you too! You only sound like yourself when you’re miserable.”
“Perhaps that’s true. Where are you?”
“The studio.”
“What kind of studio? Are you making music?”
“I was, yeah. You’d think, you’d think that all the other things that hurt would be cause to write a song, right? I sit back for years waiting for some sad episode to inspire me. So, last week I go to a show. I hate concerts. I avoid them at any cost.”
“Me too! You understand!”
“Yes! Good. I hate music that I haven’t heard before too.”
“Yes! Yes! That’s how I feel! I can’t admit that to anyone!”
“I went to this concert though, and I’d never heard the band, and it blew me away. It was so stunning, and…I wanted to write songs again. For myself.”
“People who don’t know what it is to feel pain constantly, the first time they feel it it’s sort of a big event, and it becomes their one talking point of pain, and feel the need to express whatever’s happening to them. But for people familiar with pain , sorrow, so many other emotions worse than sunshine, it’s not like that, misery is a deadening experience, you don’t find inspiration there, you just live in hurt, I understand what you’re saying, it’s so exquisite to hear someone say it. Are you there? I’m pissing, if that’s what you were wondering.”
“What? Yes, I’m here, I hadn’t even noticed the sound, I hear it now, this is just like old times, hold on…I’m typing this…”
“You’re typing what?”
“What you’ve been saying.”
“You do that?”
“What? Of course. I used to do it constantly during all our conversations. You say such brilliant things, you’re drunk, you’re not going to remember them.”
“Wow! You really listen to what I say!”

The conclusion we reached though, was that we need people who are emotional equals, but otherwise entirely different. Not for the sake of completion, but for the sake of…augmentation. “You amaze me,” she said, “because you do so much with what’s around you. You condense things into what makes perfect sense to me,” as I thought to myself, how does she continue to speak with me, doesn’t she hear how much eloquence I lack, how much slower my thoughts move than hers do? How do we continue these conversations? Could she possibly feign interest for four hours at a time so many times? Augmentation. She speaks a million words, circles back to her original thought, and admits defeat…she doesn’t know what she means, is unsure of what she means. And with all the words she’s given me, I give my small answer, and somehow those are the final words she was missing.

“Apparently it’s time for me to go to bed.”
“Are you alone right now?”
“I slipped down to the basement, but apparently I have to go to bed. You understand what I’m saying.”
“I understand what you’re saying.”
“That it’s not my choice.”
“I understand.”
“This is what I’ve been…told. I have to go to bed. Apparently.”
“We’ll talk soon.”
“Yes.”
“You always do this, Stephen, you always say, yes, yes, yes, and then there’s nothing but silence from you. Not even a text. Don’t be a stranger.”
“This time’s different. You’ve made it clear that you’re you.”
“Yes. Don’t be a stranger.”
“We’ll talk soon. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.”

Kenny Loggins: “Heart to Heart” (1982)

“Halfway” is relative ’round here. If you broke in right now, you’d note, firstly, that I must have run out of the house halfway through doing my laundry. I did. And this and that are halfway from one place to another, but I don’t want to leave them in my car overnight, or just forgot them, and so I’m sitting beside a Casio keyboard from around 1992. I know this is true because I used it in 5th grade during show and tell to teach the class how simple it was to play Ace of Base. Pre-programmed drum beat. Pre-recorded backing track controlled by left hand. Melody on the right. Everything but the history as a neo-nazi.

But it was just a toy. It wasn’t at all like my piano. Until 1996, which, while only four years later, is about a million years when you’re that age. What happened was I decided to start my first band, based on John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles “were just four guys who decided to start a band.” What he didn’t mention was that they also knew how to play instruments. No matter. I got the neighborhood kids together and Doug wrote the first song, “Playing With My Puppy” — entirely literal — about how all the time he spends with his girlfriend is taking him away from time with his dog. There’s a lot of wisdom in that concept.

I was talking with my girl. Drinking coffee with my girl. But the only thing I was not doing was playing with my puppy. I see her sad eyes every day. I want to be with her night and day. I don’t have a choice between my job and my girl, I want to live in a dream world. Playing with my puppy.

There’s more lyrics than that, but those are all I can remember offhand. It should be noted that Doug was 9 years old when he wrote these. But since his parents let him watch R movies he had a better grasp on reality than the rest of us. Anyway, we recorded it and it completely sucked. I spent some days reconsidering the whole plan…we didn’t sound anything like the Beatles! And then I brought the group together again for a second try, and had a revelation. This time I produced the track myself, changing the structure, adding multiple vocal parts, drums, guitar…it was brilliant. Mostly it was brilliant because without knowing anything about songwriting I knew to add the middle eight. And even if the song sucks, anyone would listen to it and recognize that it’s structurally perfect.

Anyway, the drums were played on this keyboard. And a year later, much more mature, I’d taught Brian how to play drums, we were now a duo, I’d accidentally scratched the paint off Doug’s guitar when he let me borrow it one night, so I quickly sold it on eBay for twice the amount he’d paid for it and “bought” it off him, pocketing the difference. Business! But no guitarist anymore. Those were, in retrospect, perhaps the happiest days of my life. Because everything was simple, and everything felt possible, and all life was ahead of us, all our dreams might still come true.

Fast forward a few years and you know that your next relationship is probably the one during which you need to pop a few kids out because you’re already slated to be the oldest father in the kindergarten class.

But, back then we didn’t even know we could catch flying tits on the scrambled porn channels.

I was at a bar mitzvah party and won some contest, the prize being the single “Character Zero” by the band Phish. I remember sitting at one of the long tables, feeling very grown up, clutching my prize, wondering what in the world it might sound like…CD’s were very hard to come by…well, money was hard to come by. I’d selected it because Emily Eaton, my first real crush on a woman, a 12 year old woman whose passions included the film Clueless, “going out” with boys, and the Beatles, had told me about drugs and Phish. I wanted to impress her. So, Phish.

The song begins with some acoustic bit, and then a bum-bum-bum-bum bum-bum-bum-bum leading into the main song. My mind was blown. I’d never heard anything like this intro before. It doesn’t take much.

Zipping across the bridge on the way to the studio, this Kenny Loggins song began to play. I knew I owned a copy of his hits, but I hadn’t listened to much of them except the ones I’d known in the first place. But it blew my mind. Here’s what goes through my mind:

That initial bass/piano run. What the fuck is that? How can the drums be so sparse and hi-hat do so much since bossa nova? The pre-chorus, still sparse, what’s the pad under his vocals? The chorus…what the fuck! the bass doesn’t even play anything but accents! And is that Michael what’s-his-face singing harmony? No. Way. Kenny can sing soulful like this? Oh shit! In the pre-chorus listen to how he’s using the divisions between vocal registers artfully! I’ve gotta hear that again. Brilliant. And what’s that chord progression of the last four chords before the chorus? A 2-5-1’s dropped in there, hot damn! First note of sax solo–is Kenny growling underneath it? The sax is too smooth to make that sound. “For-ev-er” phrasing while moving down the melody is really tough! 

And then I hit repeat. About ten times.

At the studio for the first time in ages to actually work on music. Not to be creative. But to force myself there for my new schedule. Just to be there. As far as creativity goes, Nathalie asked me to write an English “story” to go along with her new photograph. I wrote it over the course of an hour and…surprised myself. I’ve still got my style. I can still hold command over my language. She may or may not use it, translating it to the French may prove impossible, though I learned how to use commas from Proust. But I never explained what I was getting at. She takes a photograph of a woman and all I can focus on is the wallpaper. An hour practicing something I’d seen a drummer doing–keeping the rhythm of the high-hat with his foot the moment his hand isn’t there anymore. And then monkeying with strange chords on a Wurli, chords that are mostly great for color, a la Kenny Loggins, but useless to put a melody over. Hours developing some tracks that lead me to believe I’ve gotten better with time, tracks that will inevitably sound muddy next time I sit down there, and fall apart when I try to make them better. But, Kenny Loggins drove me home, everyone is standing at the Chinatown bus station, just like they did before all the Chinatown bus accidents, and I bought some new milk.

A perfect word: immure

Immure: to confine within walls.

I first encountered the word “mur” at the site of Jeanne d’Arc’s death. This is a perfect example of a perfect English word, and I love when they are made like this. A word that says what it means. The beauty is that it takes a word from the French and gives it extra meaning for which we don’t really have a common word, which can then be extended, as in Proust,

[he] found himself immured for life in a caste…

If you want to know what I think is gorgeous. This is. Gorgeous.