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American literature conflict creativity English literature French literature friendship generosity retirement social media wisdom

how not to despair, or dialog with a tech guy

An exchange of letters between a CIO of a large agency and a lit professor, both recently retired, who are wondering what the world is becoming as their two worlds collide with consequences no one can predict.

1/23/2023

Dear Julia,

I am reaching out to see if you might be willing to continue our brief conversation since some of what we discussed touched on a problem I have been trying to work through.

While serving as the information officer for an agency with about 1,500 employees, it was necessary to struggle with the introduction and then overwhelming increase in digital information assets.

I am using some of the time available with retirement to question the general presumption that information technology specialists are the sole authority for solving the mysteries of how best to adjust our information ecology – which was developed during what might be characterized as the age of written memory.

I have looked for clues in the transitions from mimetic communication to spoken language, and also from spoken to written language. Given the critical role of literature in all of them, it strikes me that specialists in literature (is the proper term philology?) need to be included in the conversation.

Would you have any interest in chatting with me about this?

Dan

1/24/2023

Dear Dan,

Your email has stayed with me all night and generated the following thoughts which I am putting into writing so I can get on with my day!  It is a fascinating inquiry and a question for which I have no big answer, only an extremely modest proposal for local action.  Ideally, a local kind of action which would allow people like your former colleagues to interact with people like my former colleagues and students, and children everywhere, eventually!

Meetings—better yet, true communion enacted over time through lasting, deep friendships created during these meetings–between people engrossed in creating new technologies and people involved in sustaining the written word, or the spoken/written/taught universe of literature and language, seems increasingly crucial for the wellbeing of our planet.

The two books that have been swirling around in my mind are Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (aka “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”), especially the chapter entitled “Ceci tuera cela” (This Will Kill That, in other words, the printed word—unleashed by the printing press which was newly invented in the fifteenth century, the world depicted in his novel[1]–would kill the stained glass windows of Catholic cathedrals and their  monopoly on public story-telling and provision of visible narratives that give meaning to human life).

Here are my morning thoughts:

Now that humankind has (or is in the process of) switched from reading paper to interacting with screens, what is lost?  How to retain our humanity in this new environment? Of course, the issue is not identical to the one raised by Hugo in his 1831 book.  Stained glass windows only represented the Christian perspective, one set of stories, and you could only see them in a church. The printing press unleashed all kinds of perspectives and a potentially infinite range of stories.

But the new printed world excluded the illiterate or made their lives worse, by magnifying the divide between written and oral information systems. At the same time, moveable print made possible the deep learning and idea generating that led to the enormous “progress” in technology, medicine, and the democratization of knowledge which describes the past few centuries since the Renaissance.

In one way, digital technologies return us to a preliterate age, via the growing use of images—emojis, symbols, cartoon faces—instead of words, and the appeal of photographs. Yet forgeries are harder to spot. Photos may be prettified or altered from the real sources. Computers can now generate texts that seem to born from a human imagination. Now it is not only one church whose influence is fading; we may be witnessing the rise of a new superpower that humans no longer control: computers. Especially since computer science is dominated (or seems to be) by a certain kind of people: the new priests of the 21st century, who dictate the inner workings of those vast circuits, and seem to ignore what the consequences may be. Well, we are all ignorant of that.

But so far, the signs are worrisome. Shorter attention spans. Increased forgetfulness. Indifference to other peoples’ feelings, or unawareness that they even exist. Atomization, loneliness, despair.   

And at the same time, vast potential. Instant data retrieval, communication in real time with people far, far away. Alas, much of that communication is “spied on” (or could be) by humans with algorithms, so that predators can maximize details of their interest by selling analytics to advertisers, or compiling data banks to exploit for selling or influencing people. Still no one is “in charge.”

And we can all feel the burned-out sensation of too much screen exposure. Is it analogous to similar concerns over too much reading, from earlier times? Think of The Female Quixote[2] or Don Quixote himself: those novels were meant to depict a danger arising from too much of one kind of reading (novels). Too much imagination can lead one to hold unreal views and harbor expectations ungrounded in reality: disappointment, social ridicule, ostracism may ensue. Love remains out of sight, sadness and loneliness may befall the uncritical novel reader.

Too much screen time, esp. with violent video games, may do a similar trick on the mind but with a difference: instead of seeking and not finding love, one may seek to annihilate people perceived as “enemies” to the self. Even without such violent exposure, one attuned to screens may reduce people to targets or transactions, so that the self continues to feel strong and powerful, as it does on screen.

Spatial relations fade when the experience of walking, doing sports, or navigating a new place with a map are no longer common. Our world becomes an image on a screen with a dot for “you are here” which may be magnetized 1,000% or minimized into insignificance, instantly, with a flick of the thumb.

Communion through idea sharing, mutual experiences, sharing reactions to powerful writing, music, or art—therein lies our humanity, our greatness and our joy. What is the point of thinking, if all your thoughts are private property to be shared inside your head alone? Or posted online and forgotten seconds later by you and never read by anybody during your life?

Writing is still the most profound way to communicate and focused reading remains the best mode of activating thought.

Events that are local, in real time, with small groups of highly literate people (or children/teens/adults who are open to becoming such): that is the kind of event that I have discovered as a college teacher and which I now seek to propagate around me in West Seattle. That kind of event works, is remembered, and is cherished by humans. It is in a way a medieval model, except with no Church to coerce us or for us to serve. It is not “scalable” except in multiplying the model in locales worldwide.

Then what?

Therein lies the mystery.

Does it matter?

But I will seek ways to help create communion as long as I am here. Give hope, encourage, commiserate.

Thanks for asking!

Julia

p.s. Below I’ve pasted a flyer for one of my latest efforts. Pass the word to any kids you know!

“Write YOUR Story” now enrolling for Spring 2023!

Free Writing Workshop for people ages 8-12

Meets on Thursdays, February 2 – May 4, 2023*

4:30pm to 5:30pm,

High Point Community Center: 6920 34th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98126

Taught by two West Seattle writer/professors                               

TO ENROLL:  Contact the High Point Comm. Center (206) 684-7422

Website:  http://jdouthwa.wixsite.com/writeyourstory1                

*(no class on 4/13 and 4/20)


[1] In Germany, around 1440, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, which started the Printing Revolution.  Wikipedia.

[2] The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella is a novel written by Charlotte Lennox, pub. 1752, imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615).

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Honey Girl Books and Gifts humor meditation retirement wisdom work

a zinger about ambition, from Seneca (ca. 4 BC-AD 65)

Reading Seneca this morning, I had the feeling of being with a shrewd friend who was laughing at me! And I had to laugh along, because there was a lot of truth in what he said.

“We commonly give the impression that the reasons for our having gone into political retirement are our disgust with public life and our dissatisfaction with some uncongenial and unrewarding post. Yet every now and then ambition rears its head again in the retreat into which we were really driven by our apprehensions and our waning interest; for our ambition did not cease because it had been rooted out, but merely because it had tired–or become piqued, perhaps, at its lack of success.” Letter LVI, p. 111-112, in Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, ed. Robin Campbell (Penguin ed., 1969.

HA! just see all those books on my bibliography about Buddhism, alternative economies, compassion, and “letting go” etc., as contrasted with the exuberant posting when I made a sale on Etsy! We are all the same.

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we do not achieve things …

by way of proclamations and slogans

but through

persistence,

effort,

and

enthusiasm.

“May 15” in Path to Peace by Shi Wuling.

***

The venerable Shi Wuling once came to South Bend, IN, and it is from her that I first learned about Buddhism. Lately I’ve delved into Tibetan Buddhism with Lama Surya Das’s audiobooks, Buddha Standard Time and Buddha Is as Buddha Does. Perhaps it’s working, because I finally feel more at home at home. It’s almost three years since we moved. Since I left my identity at the curb and took on a new everything. (Well not quite everything. The husband and dog are the same.)

And I swear we’ve both lost 10 years in attitude-drag. To see him on his e-bike & going to the gym, and me with my regular T’ai chi and Aikido sessions, we are both way more disciplined and physically fit than we were in our 50s. We’re also cheerful now. I think we are actually happy, most of the time. Pretty amazing in comparison with the stressed-out wrecks we used to be!

Funny, what you realize when you have the time to realize stuff.

Creating intricate quilts with symbolic meanings and diverse textures continues to be my passion and way of communicating with the world. Above and below you’ll see some pics of my latest work, the “Respect” and “RARE” quilt projects, which have drawn me to connect with people of color from all around the USA and increasingly, here in my hometown. That development–and the chats, smiles, and thank you letters I’ve received–give me great pleasure and life satisfaction.

Thinking it over as I work in silence, I realize that these projects are a continuation of friend-making I learned to do in France. After years of feeling estranged in my beloved adoptive country, and never really connecting in a long-term way with a French person, I moved to France again in 2001. We would be there for two years, so I needed a friend. One day, I put up a card in the library, asking basically if anybody felt like being friends. Or at least talk once a week. Then 9/11 happened the very next day. And on 9/12, two French women called. It worked. Life-long friendships were born there in the Bibliothèque anglophone on rue Boisnet in Angers, France.

Now I’m trying to reach out, or deepen friendships, with people from a different population–namely my fellow citizens. Through the “Respect” quilts, I seek to support and celebrate people of color in the USA. And make friends, if possible. As a very white person living in a very white city, it is not that easy. But little by little, what do you know? The same technique seems to work. People like people who like them. A smile begets another. Hope begets hope. One person’s search meets another’s.

These latest quilts are for inspiring Black women who live in the Seattle area, a top-echelon hospital administrator (and a friend, whose name starts with “J”) and an award-winning high school student.

Drop by West Seattle Grounds coffee shop during the month of June and you will be surrounded by my handiwork. I’ll be there in person smiling at everybody, and hosting the “Make a quilt” game, during the West Seattle ArtWalk on June 10 from 5-8pm.

On another note, it would be amiss of me to neglect mention of Taiyaki, a Japanese delicacy that I discovered today after T’ai chi class. (Which was fantastic as always.) The taiyaki truck Bean Fish parked right behind me. When I smelled that good smell and saw the truck sitting there, I thought: “If this is not synchronicity then I don’t know what is!”

Wow! Good call. I highly recommend the Food Truck, Bean Fish, for these deliciously comforting treats. I had an “original” with red bean paste and loved the warm, crunchy, gushy sweet combo of flaky crust, soft inner layer and perfectly textured bean paste (very important). Plus the adorable fish’s face and cute scales! It made me quite content, all the way home.

(Or for the rant version: all the way through the convoluted Pioneer Square detours, past the rude/terrifying speeders who zoom by and/or cut in on the highways, and behind the long lines of patient neighbors working our way back to “Vashon East”, otherwise known as West Seattle, cut off from the mainland since 2020 when our bridge broke.)

Either way, it was an excellent Saturday morning.

FYI: The Bean Fish truck is parked across the street from the busy and amazing Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, for your shopping convenience.

Long live Seattle’s International District and Chinatown, for bringing the tastes, sounds, smells, and arts of Asia to the West!!

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creativity friendship wisdom work

day 19: a kinship of intelligence

It’s a nice grey Tuesday out here in Seattle, a good time to be quiet and work. A Meditation:

“When you are troubled about anything, you have forgotten … how close is the kinship between a man and the whole human race, for it is a community, not of a little blood or seed, but of intelligence.  … every man lives in the present time only, and loses only this.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, 26.

Yesterday’s production lies below; and off we go for more mask creation!