Hit by a Hard Word [Free Verse]

How is being hit by a hard word
 different from being hit by 
  a brick or a bat?

To burn, the spark of a hard word
  must find some kindling inside
   the recipient, elsewise it can't ignite. 

If someone points at me and screams:

"YOU ARE SUBPAR AT ALGEBRA!"

I remain unwounded.

[I'd like to say that it doesn't burn
  simply because it's true, 
   but the truth or falsity of hard words 
   is -- perhaps sadly -- not a major
   ignition factor.

 The kindling is a thing that sits inside one --
  something that makes one care,
   probably a complex mélange of factors.

 The truth of hard words? 
   That is an outside factor.]

Even if I were to discover that,
  to the person who issued the insult,
   there is no greater disparagement 
   than to cast aspersions upon a 
   person's middle school-level
   mathematics competency, 

I would remain unwounded. 

If I were to feel any sort of way
  about uncovering that knowledge,
   it would be to feel sort of bad 
   for the person who issued the taunt.

Now, how to burnproof one's soul,
  that is the question?

Jung Limerick

There was a psychiatrist named Jung
 who thought the Unconscious was far-flung --
  like Sandman's "The Dreaming"
  that you've seen on streaming:
 farfetched and fictional -- with heroes, unsung.

Freud Limerick

There once was a psychiatrist named Freud 
 who thought all were obsessed with filling a void...
   a void in the pants!
   Though some looked askance,
 and those whose cigars weren't cigars were annoyed.

PROMPT: Quote

Do you have a quote you live your life by or think of often?

Four, actually:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Plato (attributions vary)

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare (in HamLet)

Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.

Epictetus

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.

James a. Michener

The Most Important Lesson in All of Human Living [DAILY PROMPT]

Describe something you learned in high school.

A Psych teacher told us a story of what he called “a gestalt of expectations.” A man from a city in the East is driving out West, and he passes a gas station – despite being low on fuel. (He’s used to gas stations being everywhere.) Anyhow, he runs out of fuel. He can’t see anything around except desolate desert bisected by a line of asphalt. He decides to walk back to the gas station he passed ten miles back. There is no one traveling on this remote stretch of desert road. As he’s walking in the intense heat, it comes to his mind that the employee at the service station is really going to gouge him on the price of gas and a jerry can. As he walks and walks, skin prickling with the heat, he keeps thinking about how he’s going to get screwed by the gas station attendant and also how he’ll be chided and ridiculed for running out of gas in the middle of the desert. He imagines it in great detail. Finally, bedraggled and with heaving breaths, he arrives at the station. The gas station attendant rushes out to help this poor man, and the man punches the attendant square in the nose (for all the offenses taking place solely in the man’s mind.)

In a broader formulation, I think this is the most important lesson any human can learn. Our personal perception of what we experience is not equal to what it is that we experience (the exterior world.) This is why some people dealt a crappy hand can turn it into a wonderful life, and also why some people who seem to have it all commit suicide in the prime of life.

I could be angered or dismayed that the single most important lesson I learned in secondary school was via off-curriculum ramblings during an elective class, but I choose not to. Instead, I’ve been trying all my life to make that bit of knowledge into wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

The Meaning of LifeThe Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“What is the meaning of life?” This is the question thrown at anyone accused of being a philosopher – professional or lay – though mostly in jest. In the present day, that is. In centuries past, large portions of the population took for granted that it was a question that had a knowable answer (one dictated by religion.) But as that answer became decreasingly satisfying to an increasing portion of the populace, people began to see the question as both fundamentally unanswerable and as a means to chide / test individuals who claimed wisdom or had the claim thrust upon them.

In this concise guide, Eagleton takes on the question, beginning with consideration of whether it is even a sound question. (Or, is it a question like: “What is the meaning of cabbage?” or “What color is a hypothesis?”) After considering many of the problems with the question, from the meaning of “meaning” to the presumptions about what a life has (and what it is) the book also considers some of the post-Nietzschean answers to the question and the challenges that confront them. [One that I hadn’t thought much about criticizes that many of these recent attempts are individualist (i.e. find your own meaning, one consistent with the peculiarities of your own unique life.) Is it reasonable to think that the question can only be answered at the level of granularity of the individual? Maybe, it can only be, but I did appreciate that it gave me something to think about.]

It should be pointed out that Eagleton doesn’t consider himself a philosopher. He’s primarily a critic and English literature professor. This had its advantages. First, Eagleton drew upon works of literature that explore the question, which both made for some interesting insights while also breaking up dense tangles of philosophizing. Second, much of the book deals with linguistic issues. Are the words and grammar of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” useful, and – if so – how do we understand the nature and limits of the question?

I found this book intriguing and provocative. It does have thickets of dense language, but also has its fun moments as well.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Pocket Chögyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa

The Pocket Chogyam TrungpaThe Pocket Chogyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This pocket-sized guide consists of 108 excerpts drawn from the writings of Chögyam Trungpa, a prolific — if controversial — teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa may have been most famous in the West for coining the English term “Crazy Wisdom,” and for founding Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. [Note: while he coined the term “Crazy Wisdom,” he didn’t originate the concept, which existed already – arguably in multiple forms — in Vajrayana Buddhism from olden times.] Beyond basic Buddhist philosophy, he wrote extensively on Buddhist Psychology, Tantric Buddhism, and the Buddhist conception of warriorship.

The book is designed to be picked up at any point. There isn’t a formal grouping of concepts, but rather the book meanders around, revisiting ideas such as Enlightenment, Emptiness, emotional intelligence in multiple locations throughout the book. The entries are between a paragraph and a page long in most cases.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book and would highly recommend it for those wishing to dip a toe into the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa.


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BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t KnowTalking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book uses a model that Gladwell has employed to great success in many books. That model goes like this: 1.) find some research findings that are counter-intuitive or otherwise in opposition to the consensus view (and preferably not well-known outside academia;) 2.) carefully select some fascinating real-world cases that seem to highlight said findings; 3.) skillfully present the cases in a highly readable and evocative narrative form, making surprising reveals for maximum effect.

In this case, the beating heart of the book is research by a University of Alabama, Birmingham professor, Timothy Levine, that shows that people are bad at catching liars because we are wired to accept statements as true and that some portion of population present appearances out of kilter with their truthfulness. (i.e. Some people come across as liars — even when telling the truth, and others appear truthful with pants ablaze.) This contradicts earlier research that suggests liars always have tells. [Interestingly, if true, Levine’s research upends studies Gladwell used in his previous book “Blink,” research by Paul Ekman that suggested that liars have “leakage” of “micro-expressions” that reveal their true emotional state. Gladwell admits his views have changed on the Ekman work. It’s the price of dealing with ground-breaking counter-intuitive research: sometimes, it’s not going to validate as well as one would like – not unlike the controversy about the Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” that is the core of Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” and which seems much less robust in light of subsequent research.)

Gladwell employs a number of compelling stories to show how even individuals who should be the best of us at telling truth from lies (e.g. counter-intelligence officers, industry experts, and veteran law enforcement officers) do dismally at spotting lies and at grasping the true nature of what strangers hold in their hearts. [It should be noted that people are better truth detectors than lie detectors because of the aforementioned truth bias.] Readers also learn quirky facts such as why the sitcom “Friends” is insanely popular in many non-native English-speaking countries. (e.g. In Vang Vieng, Laos, I witnessed this myself, with several cafes and restaurants playing “Friends” on a loop all day every day.) The book also presents discussion of research overturning the idea that facial expression of emotions is universal.

I found this book to be an intriguing read and would highly recommend it for those interested in learning why it’s impossible to “read” strangers. I don’t know how well the ideas will validate, but the cases are interesting and compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.


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BOOK REVIEW: Identity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas

Identity: A Very Short IntroductionIdentity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores the slippery metaphysical concept of identity — not only as it’s presented in philosophy, but also in psychology, law, politics, anthropology, and literature. It begins with individual identity and expands outward to encompass gender, political, socio-economic, and linguistic identities. The aforementioned slipperiness of identity stems from the fact that we all have an intuitive grasp of identity that could be leading us astray. It tends to make us believe that aspects of identity are inherent features of the universe, when – in fact – they may be arbitrary designations – in which case, a given criterion or classification of identity may be chopped up in different ways than a given culture happened to glom onto.

I learned a great deal from this Introduction, and feel it was well organized and presented. How we see various dimensions of group identity (as well as how we weight them) has a lot to do with our social tensions and strife, and the issues around identity are worth dissecting — despite the fact that it might seem like a dry academic topic at first blush.

If you’re interested in learning more about identity, selfhood, and how various group identities feature in an individual’s overall identity, this book is worth investigating.


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