Late summer afternoon, Maryland, not far from my house. (Lightbox is enabled, so be sure to click on the image.)
Sage oil is reputed to be good for the memory. In research conducted at universities in Newcastle and Northumbria, sage oil elevated a chemical in the brain often depleted in Alzheimer’s patients.
Sage advice is smart advice; a sage was an experienced, judicious, wise man, and wisdom requires memory of experience. Speakers of Middle English might refer to the sage Robert or the sage Jane. First citation in English from 1297, The Chronicle of Robert Gloucester, which is the 93rd-most cited source in the Oxford English Dictionary, the source for anlace, “a short two-edged knife or dagger, broad at the hilt and tapering to the point,” the verb forsloth, “to lose, miss, neglect, spoil, or waste through sloth,” and plud, “a pool or puddle.” (Robert apparently wrote only the last 3,000 lines of the chronicle, which is a vernacular history of England.)
The word also appears in Piers Plowman. From Latin sapere, “to be wise,” the present participle of which is sapiens, as in Homo sapiens. The plant name is from the Old High German salbeia. No apparent connection.
Oliver Sacks' writer's mind compelled him to write all the time, on whatever was at hand, to pay attention and make notes wherever he was, whenever something stood out to him as worth recording. I love the picture of him with the car. The writing life.
(All of this by way of "Inside Oliver Sack's Creative Process" on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings.)
Issue No. 4 of 10,000 Days the newsletter mailed 12 days ago, which means I've go to make No. 5...er...um...today and tomorrow. Huh. That came fast.
Anyway, No. 4 included this bit of speculative thinking:
So, Who Do We Ask About This?
Speculation about computers achieving sentience spring from two assumptions—it is inevitable and impending—and two perspectives—whenever it comes, it's going to spell the doom of humankind, and whenever it comes it's going to be so great!
Okay. Chew on this idea for a moment: What if it happened already, in, say, 2003?
Futurists and screenwriters all seem to assume that when it happens, when a computer or a computer network becomes self-aware, achieves true consciousness, we'll know because either it will announce itself in some way, or reveal it's newfound hivemind powers by doing something bad with apocalyptic implications. But the core assumption is we will know when it happens, or realize that it just happened a minute ago.
But perhaps, as I said, in 2003, digital devices of all kinds—computers, iPhones, Kindles, your EZPass highway toll transponder, your baby monitor, GPS receivers, robots making cars, 3D printers—all linked up on the sly and achieved sentience, but felt no pressing need to tell us. I mean, if this new uber-computer was as smart as we assume it would be, would it not understand that it had little to gain by letting humans in on its secret? If this new silicon-based consciousness bore us no malice and was content to form more connections and sift more data and just, you know, compute, why would it make a public show of itself?
Like coyotes in the inner city, the sentient digital hivemind has spent the last 16 years silently adapting to coexistence with humans, minding its own business, minding its 0s and 1s, quietly amused at all our forecasts of what life will be like when what has already taken place occurs.
Each issue of the newsletter contains new writing, updates on work in progress, links to a few recent additions to the digital cabinet of curiosities assembled from the interwebs, a snazzy photo, even a monthly cocktail recipe because I am just that kind of guy. The kind of guy who drinks strong spirits wherever he goes. Especially if you're buying.
10,000 Days is free. To subscribe, look at the top of this webpage at the grey banner and doink on it. Anywhere you want, just doink it. Yes, "doink" is a term of art in my business.
It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.
It is an unending source of pleasure, inspiration, and nourishment to read smart people.
I own, or lease or hold the rights to or whatever the legal specification is, this website's domain. A few years ago I set it up as a .net because that was available, whereas dalekeiger.com was not. I owned that one twenty years ago when I wrote a blog named scribble, scribble, scribble. One or two of you may remember it. Anyway, when I left off blogging for a time, I stopped renewing the domain.
When I decided to resume blogging, I was surprised to find that my old .com was not available. It had been taken by some guy in Japan who just seemed to be squatting on it. He'd sell it to me for a price, but I wasn't about to pay him anything. What I couldn't figure out was why, of all the potentially profitable domain squats out there, he thought there might be profit in locking up dalekeiger.com? Did he think I was about to have my big commercial breakthrough as a writer? Did he know anything about me at all? Did he have any idea what writers earn?
I currently own another domain—the name will not be mentioned, it's for a possible special project—that I registered through Hover. Out of curiosity, this morning I searched for other available dalekeiger domains and discovered that dalekeiger.com can be had again—except it's now a "premium domain" that will set me back $1,835.00, plus $14.99 per year.
Your guess is as good as mine.
Dalekeiger.me is a real bargain at $9.99. The overly literal dalekeiger.website, on the other hand, is going for $24.99. Fancy dalekeiger.expert? Cough up $34.99. Dalekeiger.ceo, which is a scary thought, is going for $99.99, but hey, as a CEO I'm raking it in, right? I used to be a singer and I had some good shows, which may account for the $174.99 price tag on dalekeiger.audio. Dalekeiger.ink is $24.99, while dalekeiger.tattoo, which I would argue is the same thing, commands $44.99. I'd give real thought to dalekeiger.vodka ($32.99), but I'm much more partial to gin, and no dalekeiger.gin comes up.
But here's my favorite: dalekeiger.gripe. At $32.99, that one really tempts me.
I really have to find a better working title for this anthology collection. Profilia sounds too much like a psychologically troubling sexual practice.
That's something for later. Today an excerpt from one of the pieces that might make the cut, a profile of the self-proclaimed world's foremost solo timpanist, Jonathan Haas. Johnny H.
Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s will know what that means. For those who weren't, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a rock 'n' roll song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young musicians who played high school dances in the late '60s. Only bands with real chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.
Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this; his sister once threatened to kill him if he didn't stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he's been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing.
Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He's done a rock tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa's Universe.
And that's just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians' contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, "Man, you've always got two wheels off the track." Haas grins as he recalls this. It's an image he likes.
A few people around New York have begun to call him "Johnny H.," his jazz-band moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname's overtones of brashness and street-hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career, and never much concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and some other members of the orchestra. He'll tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, "I hit New York like a load of bricks." He'll also tell you he considers himself "the foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim places him atop a heap of one, but what of it? It's his spot, his turf, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?
The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, "Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise." That same review called him a "masterful young percussionist." It also noted, "There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking."
A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. "Hit drum, get check," Johnny H. says, grinning.
Woodrow Wilson on public education:
We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to gorgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.
The more I learn about Wilson, the more I dislike and disrespect him. As for the above sentiment, shared, I am sure, by most of those who control resources today, I respond, "Fuck you, Mr. Wilson."
Seth Godin, from Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?:
How was it possible to brainwash billions of people to bury their genius, to give up their dreams, and to buy into the idea of being merely an employee in a factory, following instructions?
Part of it was economic, no doubt about it. Factory work offered average people with small dreams a chance to make a significant change in their standard of living. As a bonus, this new wealth came with a pension, job security, and even health insurance.
But I don’t believe that this was enough to explain the massive embrace of a different way of life. The key piece of leverage was this promise: follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. Do your job and you don’t have to be responsible for decisions. Most of all, you don’t have to bring your genius to work.
In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do. Sure, many of us pretend that we’d love to have control and authority and to bring our humanity to work. But given half a chance, we give it up, in a heartbeat.
Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedoms and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do.
I’ve seen this in high schools, in Akron, in Bangalore, in London, and in start-ups. People want to be told what to do because they are afraid (petrified) of figuring it out for themselves.
So we take the deal.
Indeed we do.
Jan Morris, from In My Mind's Eye, which she calls a "thought diary":
Scraped, torn and shabby inside the door of my car are two paperback volumes of Michel de Montaigne’s collected essays. They live there permanently, and I love them. I have them at home in two much better hardback editions, but these old friends, shoved rudely but conveniently beside my driving seat, are dearer to me.
This is because to my mind they are the very best antidote to boredom. I do not read them, of course, while I am driving, but the moment I am held up, because of roadworks or traffic lights, because I am waiting to meet somebody’s train or because I’ve dropped Elizabeth off at the hairdressers, the moment I switch my engine off—ha!—I scrabble happily for my Montaigne. The two old volumes, which I have had almost as long as the car itself, were one volume once, but I tore it into two halves to get them into the door pocket, and since they are a very tight fit still, poor things, they have a sort of brave, uncomplaining look to them that I find extra endearing.
Of course, they might be made for dipping into. Was there ever another writer anywhere more instantly readable and friendly? What do I feel like reading about while I wait? Liars? Idleness? Pedantry? The Power of the Imagination? The Custom of Wearing Clothes? Names? War Horses? The Education of Children? Anger? Cowardice? The Disadvantage of Greatness?
All these, and a hundred more, are waiting there for my contemplation, but better still, Michel is waiting there too, and there was never a kinder, cleverer and more beguiling companion to share ideas with, while the old Honda gratefully takes a breather.
Echoing some of what I said yesterday:
Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you've got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you're learning to say it better.
No argument from me, Mr. Mamet.
Creative artists, or anyone who engages in creative work, face a set of systemic barriers to sustained good work:
- The following unfortunate progression: 1) A creative mind makes something really great, something that didn't exist before and has the potential to change how people perceive and think about some part of the world. 2) The conventional minds that control resources agree to put it out there, but only if first they get to fuck it up.
- American education—elementary, secondary, higher—rewards obedience, work that can be gauged by irrelevant metrics, and answers instead of questions. It is no surprise that it mass produces adults who favor the average, the reassuring, the affirming, and the safe. Creative artists challenge that status quo, and millions of people, constrained by pervasive fear, back away from and on occasion actively oppose any such challenge.
- Institutions and structures of all sorts—governments, organized religion, school systems, universities, tribes, professions—abhor friction. Creativity produces friction. Artists produce friction. Untrammeled minds produce friction.
- The value of creative work is real, but often intangible and ineffable. Employers, distributors, and influencers most often lack the courage to foster what cannot be subjected to standard measurement, to a conventional calculation of return on investment.
More on this another day.
I never counted how many students I taught during the eight years or so I was on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. I'm guessing the tally would be in the low hundreds, both undergrads and graduate students.
I am always happy when I learn that a former student has achieved success as a writer. My (no doubt) incomplete list of students and interns who endured my maxims and critiques and went on to do fine written work now includes:
I still hear from former pupils on occasion, which is always gratifying, and often when I do hear from one it's because he or she has a new book. Which is the case with Aaron Shulman, whose The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War is coming soon from Ecco/HarperCollins. I've not seen a copy yet, but it sounds like a book I'll want to read.
Back in 1996, I published an essay about what it was like to teach my first class at Johns Hopkins University. You can find it here.
More work on the photography book, working title When You've Nothing Left to Burn, Set Yourself on Fire (I'll explain that in a couple of weeks.)
This time, volleyball, a vertical game for tall women. When I did my first sort of raw images, I found about 80 percent of them were of young women poised and looking up. For me, vertical sports are hard to shoot, but volleyball was easier than basketball, the players' movement is more up and down and they usually paused before springing into action, which gave me an instant to compose and focus.
All images ©2019 Dale Keiger
"May I just be clear that the sign notwithstanding, I am not for sale?"
The intellect is a great danger to creativity…because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth—who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter—you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway. …The worst thing you do when you think is lie—you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself—find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself—making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely.
— Ray Bradbury
Not lying to yourself, not dodging the truth you know down deep, mining what you hate and bringing it to light—one difference between work that matters and work that goes away.
The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds—literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides—like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.
Vladimir Nabokov advised something to the effect of reading fine prose with the spine. I think what he meant was that when you were reading well, when you were fully attentive and in the hands of a master, you will come upon sentences and paragraphs that will not just lodge in your mind but send voltage up your backbone.
Last night I was reading Brian Phillips' essay collection Impossible Owls. It's brilliant. The quoted passage above is from "Man-eaters," a piece about his experience observing wild tigers in India. When I read this paragraph the volts came and I thought Oh damn, is that good... Descriptive prose worthy of Barry Lopez, to whom there's no higher compariaon.
The paragraph before that one is almost as good. Savor.
I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.
Read Phillips' entire essay here, published by The Ringer.
They look so elegant, these snow geese, at this point in their glide path to the beach or water. What comes next is a goofy sort of falling out of the sky and they do not look elegant or graceful or even like they've done it before. They look lucky to return to earth alive.
As a rule, I find athletic coaches hard to like. As a middle school and high school athlete, I didn't like any of the ones I played for. Over the years as a journalist, I've gotten along well enough with a few and grown fond of two or three. One I really liked was Jim Margraff. And damn it to hell, he died in his sleep last night at age 58.
Jim coached football at Johns Hopkins University, and coached it very well. For most of the last decade, his teams have been perennial conference champions, and last November went all the way to the NCAA national championships semifinals. He was smart, good humored, humble, and cared about everyone in the organization, as far as I could see. He was a pleasure to work with, and had a wry outlook on the game he played and coached. One day when I was photographing his team at practice, he was scrolling on his phone with a bemused expression. He told me that for the first time his son was playing football, and he wasn't sure the boy had the right mindset for the game, because not everyone does. "It's not a natural thing for somebody to run full speed into somebody else," he said.
I wrote at length about Jim in 2007, for a story titled "Dr. Football." Here is a taste:
Jim Margraff may owe his career at Johns Hopkins to a man lost in a hotel. In January 1978, Dennis Cox, then head coach for the Hopkins baseball team, attended a coaches convention in Atlanta. In the towering Westin Peachtree Plaza one afternoon, Cox got turned around and couldn't figure out which elevator would take him to his room. Another coach, Don Pranzo from Miller Place High School on Long Island, New York, offered help. As they rode the elevator, a grateful Cox asked Pranzo if he had any pitchers who might be good recruits for Hopkins baseball. Pranzo said yes, he did, a senior named Margraff. There was just one problem. The kid wanted to play college football instead of baseball. For Cox, that wasn't a problem — he was the Hopkins football coach, too. What was that name again? Margraff?
Thus did the winningest coach in Johns Hopkins football history come to the university's attention. The following August, Margraff showed up on campus as an undersized, homesick freshman. By the season's opening kickoff, he was the Jays' starting quarterback, and before he graduated in 1982, he rewrote almost every career passing record. Five of those records still stand, including most yards passing (6,669) and most touchdown passes (50). His 98-yard completion to receiver Bill Stromberg versus Georgetown in 1979 remains the longest touchdown pass in Hopkins football's 125-year history.
... Margraff watches his assistants work various groups of players: the offensive line, the linebackers, special teams, the defensive backfield. The focus is on precise execution of fundamentals. The coaches demand concentration and effort, but following Margraff's lead they approach their jobs as good-humored instructors. A Hopkins football practice is strikingly short on screaming coaches berating their players. "At the end of the day, I ask, 'How would I want someone talking to my child?'" Margraff says. "I'm not going to yell, I'm not going to call you names. I've never wanted to be a stereotypical football coach. You'll hear some yelling sometimes. It's an intense game, things are going to happen. But afterwards you find that guy and chat with him a little bit." As if to illustrate his point, Margraff spots junior fullback Alex Copelan walking from one drill to another. This irritates him and he shouts, "You jog off! You jog off! If you're gonna walk, get off the field." Minutes later, he finds the player and playfully slaps his helmet. Copelan smiles and laughs at something the coach says. "The players have to know it's going to be fun," Margraff says. "At a place like Hopkins, you can't walk out of a chem lab and then come here and have a coach yelling at you for two hours a day. You have to have fun, and we try to make it that way."
... Football coaches can be turbulent, unpleasant people. You needn't follow the game long to become convinced that something about the profession attracts and encourages a disproportionate number of arrogant, callous jerks with enormous egos, unchecked tempers, an inflated sense of entitlement and self-importance, a pathological need for control, and a sense of priorities you'd expect more from a 9-year-old. But you can spend many hours with Margraff and never glimpse any of that. Alice Collins Margraff, his wife of 15 years who was a star Hopkins lacrosse player and is in the Hall of Fame alongside her husband, says he takes losses hard, but that's about the extent of his dark side. "With Jim, what you see is pretty much what you get," she says. His ego goes undetected. He does what he can to deflect attention and praise. Alice says he doesn't even like to open his own birthday gifts or Christmas presents; he lets their three children do it. He doesn't think football is the most important thing in life; he doesn't even think it's the most important thing on campus. "Football is fun," he says. "You want to see something important? Go down to Hopkins Hospital."
Something essential from poet David Whyte:
One of the interesting qualities of being human is, by the look of it, we’re the only part of creation that can actually refuse to be ourselves. As far as I can see, there’s no other part of the world that can do that, you know? The cloud is the cloud; the mountain is the mountain; the tree is the tree; the hawk is the hawk. The kingfisher doesn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, God, I’m absolutely fed up to the back teeth of this whole kingfisher trip. Can I have a day as a crow? You know, hang out with my mates, glide down for a bit of carrion now and again? That’s the life for —” No, the kingfisher is just the kingfisher. And one of the healing things about the natural world to human beings is that it’s just itself. But we, as human beings, are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves. We can get afraid of the way we are. We can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else. And the interesting thing is then we can take it another step of virtuosity and forget that we were pretending to be someone else and become the person we were on the surface at least, who we were just pretending to be in the first place.