Ready (or Not) for Surprise

[See the note at the foot of this post for information about this video.]

From whiskey river:

I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. There’s a certain humor in realizing that. I can never figure out the kind of tie to put on in the morning. I don’t have any strategy or plan to get through the day. It is literally a problem for me to decide which side of the bed to get out on. These are staggering problems. I remember talking to this Trappist monk in a monastery. He’s been there twelve years. A pretty severe regime. I expressed my admiration for him and he said “Leonard, I’ve been here twelve years and every morning, I have to decide whether I’m going to stay or not.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

(Leonard Cohen, 1988 interview with Jon Wilde in Blitz [source])


Solitude (I)

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

My name, my girls, my job, all
slipped free and were left behind, smaller and smaller,
further and further away. I was a nobody:
a boy in a playground, suddenly surrounded.

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew — making more room for me —
stretching huge as hospitals.

I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.

Then something caught: some helpful sand
or a well-timed gust of wind. The car
snapped out of it, swinging back across the road.
A signpost shot up and cracked, with a sharp clang,
spinning away in the darkness.

And it was still. I sat back in my seat-belt
and watched someone tramp through the whirling snow
to see what was left of me.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])


There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.

(John Green [source])

Not from whiskey river:

I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it as, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared, I did wish I had some company…

…after a long time I heard the clock away off in the town go boom—boom—boom—twelve licks—and all still again—stiller than ever. Pretty soon I heard a twig snap, down in the dark amongst the trees. Directly I could just barely hear a “me-yow! me-yow!” down there. That was good! Says I, “me-yow! me-yow!” as soft as I could, and then I put out the light and scrambled out of the window onto the shed. Then I slipped down to the ground and crawled in amongst the trees, and sure enough there was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.

(Mark Twain [source])


Parable of the Hostages

The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home, back
to that bony island; everyone wants a little more
of what there is in Troy, more
life on the edge, that sense of every day as being
packed with surprises. But how to explain this
to the ones at home to whom
fighting a war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one’s capacity for diversion
is not. Well, this can be faced
later; these
are men of action, ready to leave
insight to the women and children.
Thinking things over in the hot sun, pleased
by a new strength in their forearms, which seem
more golden than they did at home, some
begin to miss their families a little,
to miss their wives, to want to see
if the war has aged them. And a few grow
slightly uneasy: what if war
is just a male version of dressing up,
a game devised to avoid
profound spiritual questions? Ah,
but it wasn’t only the war. The world had begun
calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s
loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens.
There on the beach, discussing the various
timetables for getting home, no one believed
it could take ten years to get back to Ithaca;
no one foresaw that decade of insoluble dilemmas — oh unanswerable
affliction of the human heart: how to divide
the world’s beauty into acceptable
and unacceptable loves! On the shores of Troy,
how could the Greeks know
they were hostages already: who once
delays the journey is
already enthralled; how could they know
that of their small number
some would be held forever by the dreams of pleasure,
some by sleep, some by music?

(Louise Glück [source])


About the video: A trefoil knot (that’s one over there at the right), says Wikipedia, is

…the simplest example of a nontrivial knot. The trefoil can be obtained by joining together the two loose ends of a common overhand knot, resulting in a knotted loop… The trefoil knot is nontrivial, meaning that it is not possible to “untie” a trefoil knot in three dimensions without cutting it. From a mathematical point of view, this means that a trefoil knot is not isotopic to the unknot.

(Not isotopic to the unknot: uh-huh. One suspects Wikipedia’s editors of having us on a little…)

Imagine the path that a tiny (subatomic?) particle might travel around the surface of a trefoil knot. It would describe a sort of super-trefoil knot, no? The thing is, it would keep going, never concluding its orbit as it zoomed around in ever tighter, ever more knotty loops… That’s what “mathematical artist” Jos Ley has depicted in this animation. The New Scientist site, where I saw this, says that “if it were allowed to continue growing, it would eventually fill the whole of 3D space.” Zowie.

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  1. First, enjoyed the video. That probably doesn’t surprise you.

    Second, something about these quotes reminded me of the ongoing discussion I’ve been having with one of my classes about American families and how we expect our kids to leave home at 18. I didn’t exactly agree with their characterization of it, but we’ve had a lively discussion–in which I never figured out how to explain my own thoughts.

    Anyway, your post made me think of the debate differently. Instead of trying to explain parents, I should’ve just explained my own experience leaving home and what that experience meant to me. I know your post isn’t about that, but it made me think about it.

  2. Wrestling the tiny kindle keyboard to send hosannahs in the highest for this one. I, too, have known almost 64 years of cluelessness. I did recently figure out that the clothes currently in my closet will outlive me, so there’s that.

  3. When you start out with the poet laureate of despair I know we’re in for a ride. (A joy ride? Ha!) So, is this what will be left? Spaghetti monsters?

    I watched a video of Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures this morning, and despite the fact that I thought them quite amazing, I wondered if these “animals” would be all that’s left of us some day. But it might be best, yes, to ignore any possibility of human oblivion. Or, maybe spend some time in a Buddhist monastery. ;)

  4. Aha – mathematic (or semantic?) quibble!

    I don’t believe it can “fill up the whole of 3D space” unless the spaghetto (I believe that’s the singular; I’ve never had occasion to use the form before) has three dimensions, i.e., it has some width or fatness. If it’s just a line – one dimension only? – it can’t fill up anything, no matter how busy it gets. If, however, it does have the extra dimensions of a rotund cross-section, it’s pretty soon going to block up the spaces within the loops of the trefoil and be unable to pass through any more.

    I was never much of a mathematician, but I am a world-class nit-picker.

  5. By the way, I assume you are familar with the Pastafarian Church?

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