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Maira Kalman on Identity, Happiness, and Existence

“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?”

In this wonderful short video, Maira Kalman — the remarkable artist, prolific author, unmatched storyteller, and one of my favorite hearts and minds in the world — shares some wisdom on identity, happiness, and existence. Watch and take notes.

The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say, in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?

Speaking to the fluidity of character and the myth of fixed personality, Kalman observes:

How do you know who you are? There are many parts to who you are, so there isn’t one static place. And then, the other part of that is that things keep changing.

Here are some of the beautiful, poignant quotes Kalman reads and shows from her published works.

From And The Pursuit of Happiness:

From The Principles of Uncertainty:

How do you know who you are?

How are we so optimistic, so careful Not to trip and yet Do trip, and then GET up and say O.K. Why do I feel so sorry for everyone and so PROUD?

What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me DEAD in my tracks a DOZEN times a day. Do you think I remain FROZEN? NO. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.

BP

The Probability That You Are Dreaming Right Now? 1 in 10.

Navigating the maze of dream-decisions, dream-consequences, and the invariable world of experiences.

The fabric and nature of reality has long been the subject of science, philosophy, media propaganda, and even entertainment, in films like Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) (remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky). In Reality: A Very Short Introduction (public library) from Oxford University Press, philosophy professor and metaphysics researcher Jan Westerhoff explores the enormously difficult, yet enormously alluring question of what is really real. Among the book’s most fascinating mind-benders is this passage on the probability — the jarringly high probability, if all the math and hypotheticals check out — that you are dreaming right now:

Contemplating the possibility that you are dreaming right now is certainly very perplexing. You might think that it is also exceedingly unlikely, something in the same ballpark as hitting the jackpot in a lottery or suddenly dropping dead. There are various things that are theoretically possible, even though their probability is very low (such as a monkey randomly hitting on a typewriter writing out the complete works of Shakespeare, or the sudden disappearance of objects to an effect called ‘quantum tunnelling’). If you don’t worry that this book might suddenly disappear from your hand due to some bizarre quantum effect, why worry that you might be dreaming right now?

The reason why you should worry is that the chances of you dreaming at this very moment are far, far greater. Let’s do a quick calculation. We optimistically assume that you get eight hours of sleep a night, which leaves sixteen hours during which you are awake. Sleep researchers have found out that there is a strong correlation between dreaming and being in so-called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by rapid movement of the eyeballs; the brain is highly active, its electric activity resembles that of a waking brain, but the sleeper is more difficult to wake than during slow-wave or non-REM sleep. We know that between 20% and 25% of our sleep is REM sleep. Taking the lower value and assuming that you always and only dream during REM sleep, this gives us 1.6 hours of dreaming every night. As there are therefore 1.6 hours of dream consciousness for every 16 hours of waking consciousness, this means that your chance of dreaming at any given moment is 1 in 10. This quite a high probability — for comparison: the chance of winning the jackpot of a typical lottery is about 1 in 14 millions (this means that if you bought a ticket every week, you will have one win on average every 250,000 years); the chance of the author of this book dying in an accident within the next year is somewhat less than 1 in 2,500.

So there is a significant chance of you dreaming right now. But does it matter? To be sure, we can’t exclude the possibility that this is all a dream, but as long as it continues, it will not make the slightest difference to how we lead our lives. Even if the £5 note in my pocket is just dream-money, and the strawberry cake I buy with it is only a dream-cake, I can still have the sensation of eating the strawberry cake as a result, and what more can I want? Even if I am dreaming right now, I will still be able to plan my life, cause will follow effect, and actions will have consequences. Of course, these consequences will just be dream-consequences, but given that we have assumed earlier that I would not be able to tell ‘from the inside’ whether I am dreaming or not, why should I worry about this? The world of experiences is still the same, and this is all that counts, after all.

Perhaps Susan Sontag was right, after all, when she grimly observed that “[the] intellectual is a refugee from experience.”

BP

Tchaikovsky on Work Ethic vs. Inspiration

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

I recently stumbled upon a recurring theme articulated by both Jack White and Nick Cave, a concept that flies in the face of our cultural mythology about how creativity works — the idea that just showing up and doing the work, or what Jonah Lehrer calls “grit,” the same quality that Ira Glass says separates mere good taste from great work and Anne Lamott believes is the secret to telling a good story — is just as important as the notion of “inspiration” in the creative process.

All of this reminded me of a beautiful letter the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893) wrote to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, in March of 1878, found in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library | public domain).

37-year-old Tchaikovsky writes:

Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write to-day will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation, if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.

Here is Jack White, echoing — unwittingly, no doubt — Tchaikovsky:

Inspiration and work ethic — they ride right next to each other…. Not every day you’re gonna wake up and the clouds are gonna part and rays from heaven are gonna come down and you’re gonna write a song from it. Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.

Complement with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul.

BP

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