Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thinking Like a Baby Potato

tl;dr: Yesterday I biked 12 miles rt to check out an interesting library book from a branch I'd never been to.

Exercise + Adventure + Thinking + Luck = Happier 
The Allure of a Really Good Question

Wandering around online, reading about mid-life drift, I came across Alison Gopnik [her site], a child-development psychologist whose midlife depression was alleviated when she found a really good, broad question to investigate. 
When her life fell apart at fifty, she tried Prozac (hated it), yoga (bad at it), and meditation, which she liked because it was interesting:
"In fact, researching meditation seemed to help as much as actually doing it. Where did it come from? Why did it work?"
Studying Buddhism is beside the point, supposedly: it's a practice, not a theory. But for some people, thinking may be a spiritual practice--Karen Armstrong writes about that being the case for her, in The Spiral Staircase, which I just reread.
"Armstrong says [in an interview] her spiritual practice is now study, which she likens to the practices of Benedictine monks. When I'm sitting at my desk, I will get moments of awe and wonder and transcendence'…" 
Q: What verb do you think best captures your relationship with God? 
Armstrong: Seek. I seek and will seek forever without possibility of finding the clinching moment. 
Anyway, as Gopnik looked into it, Buddhism reminded her of one of her favorite philosophers, "the neurotic Presbyterian teenager,"18th century Scot David Hume.

She explains:
"Here’s Hume’s really great idea:
Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter.
Experience is enough all by itself.
What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”?
The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game."

Here's the question that got her up and running again:
Could Hume have been influenced by Buddhism, little known in Europe at that time? 
I'm not, in fact, particularly interested her question. 
What excited me was the reminder that throwing your net wide into life and getting curious about what you haul in is what I love too, and when I feel impeded from doing it [a complicated thing], I can fall into a slump.
Or, wonderful reminder, the other way around---if I'm feeling low, it helps pull me up.
Gopnik wrote, "Instead of going to therapy, I haunted the theology sections of used-book stores and spent the solitary evenings reading." 

And she found that yes, Hume could have learned about Buddhism through the nearby Jesuit college. In the 1700s, Gopnik writes, "Those creaky wooden ships carried ideas across the boundaries of continents, languages, and religions just as the Internet does now (although they were a lot slower and perhaps even more perilous)."
(Though it wasn't necessary that Hume knew about Buddhism–– Descartes & Enlightenment Co. coupled with his own teenage existential crisis being sufficient inspiration for his breakthrough.)

The rest of the story is here: "How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis: David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment", (Atlantic, 2015).

The Espresso of the Mind

This process of casting + curiosity seems to be what babies do intensively, according to Gopnik's amusing TED talk "What Do Babies Think?"

"Babies and young children are like the research and development division of the human species. …When children do experiments we call it 'getting into everything' or else 'playing.'
…So what's it like to be a baby? It's like being in love in Paris for the first time after you've had three double-espressos. "

The Internet helps adults think like babies again, eh? It's easy to feel overwhelmed, disoriented, and delighted, like babies must often feel.
Gopnik has written several books about babies & childhood for laypeople. In her latest The Gardener and the Carpenter she talks about how children thrive more if you let them ramble like plants than if you structure them like lumber.

The Unexpected Potato
That's great advice,  so far as it goes, to pay attention to your kids and to love them; 
but what does it mean to "love them"?
Easy to answer, maybe, when kids end up producing the flowers or fruit the parents expect. 
But what if they don't? 
How do you love your kid who kills the cat? Or who simply asks different questions than you do?

I haven't read her book, but the Guardian's review of it recommended pairing it with Andrew Solomon's
Far from the Tree (2012), about families in which the children are very different from their parents in various ways; they're deaf, prodigies, criminals, dwarves, transgender, etc.
Solomon himself is gay, dyslexic, and lives with depression, which is where he starts his investigation---with his own experience of being a child very different from his parents.

This sounded great, so I looked it up and the closest library where it was checked-in yesterday was a branch I'd never been to, 6 miles away. 
It takes a couple days to get a request filled, so I decided to bike there. I took a busy street with a bike lane, and I realized I was much more interested in my surroundings than I am on off-street bike paths. 

I stopped at a Goodwill and bought a pair of jeans, and on the way back I ate lunch at a Best Steak House I never knew existed. I was so happy to find it.  

You know those old chains? 
When I was a kid it was my favorite restaurant because you could see your food cooking on the grill, you got to dress your own salad, and––I don't even like potatoes, but––you got YOUR OWN WHOLE BAKED POTATO! 

It's all exactly the same, still---greasy yet fluffy Texas toast, and a refrigerator case of woven wood bowls filled with iceberg lettuce. 
I was so happy serving myself Bak-O bits and French dressing,
I didn't even mind when it started pouring rain; I was only about 3 miles from home, and it was fairly warm out (70º).

I took a hot bath and spend the solitary evening happily reading on the couch.
via tumblr
What About Breakfast

Solomon also wrote the Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) and I just read the transcript of his TED talk on depression–– "Depression, the Secret We Share" [transcript or viewing options].
It's good, and I recognized lots of it––not for me (I just ("just") get sad & blue, not clinically depressed––this bit, for instance [boldface mine]:

"People who are depressed will also say, 'No matter what we do, we're all just going to die in the end.' Or they'll say, 'There can be no true communion between two human beings. Each of us is trapped in his own body.'  

To which you have to say, 'That's true, but I think we should focus right now on what to have for breakfast.'"

I remember saying exactly that sort of thing to my mother:

"Think about the table, the teapot in front of you, maybe that'll replace the Holocaust for a little while."
But it's like pulling a boat through mud, when you have to focus like that on every miniature action to keep the mudslide away.

And Solomon says that too:
"Depression is so exhausting. It takes up so much of your time and energy, and silence about it, it really does make the depression worse."

He talks about what works too, which varies hugely:
"My favorite of the letters that I got was the one that came from a woman who wrote and said that she had tried therapy, medication, she had tried pretty much everything, and she had found a solution and hoped I would tell the world, and that was making little things from yarn."
This makes me laugh. Sewing clothes for bears! Investigating David Hume! Biking on busy city streets! 

Whatever helps. 


Dad Update

Thanks to those who asked. ---My dad is back home, very much better after his heart attack, and well looked after. He starts cardio rehab this week.


ArtSparker said...

Dog cafes are good too.

Frex said...

Yes! We don't have dog cafés that I know of, but we have off-leash dog parks, and I've sometimes gone on purpose to watch the dogs play.

ArtSparker said...

I don't know if it is officially, it is a bar mostly but they serve coffee in the morning and dogs are welcome (though possibly not legal).

Laura B said...

I love reading your blog! Thank you for doing it...

Frex said...

Thanks, Laura, I really liked writing this post.

Frex said...

SPARKER: Bob's, the motorcycle coffee shop allows dogs---I think it is not legal either, but yesterday I met Beatrice, a pug-beagle mix here.

ArtSparker said...

Just reading the current New Yorker, by the way, you might want to check out the interview with Ursula Le Guin online if you haven't seen it. These crises of temperament seem to recur for those of us ensconced in the imaginative life.

Frex said...

Thanks for the tip, Sparker---I just read the article. I havent' read Le Guin since my 20s---makes me want to catch up, especially with her nonfiction.