Day of thanks

I am thankful to be living in a place where, ostensibly at least, my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are considered inalienable.

And at least I can point to a piece of paper and a common culture that says that’s so.

Even more important perhaps is the tradition that we are born with these rights – they are not handed down by some beneficent leader and, in fact, we are said to have authority over our rulers themselves. They are “public servants,” servants of “the public,” although therein lies the rub for someone who postulates there are no masses.

I am thankful in any case for a roof over my head, to love and be loved by a beautiful partner, for a Creator who only makes good stuff, and for a belly full of nutritious food.

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Unplugged and loving it

[Found in notebook, written April 20, 2011]

In his influential book Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money (I describe it as influential because it has influenced me so deeply), Rabbi Daniel Lapin encourages his readers to make goals and delve into their life’s purposes but not before spending two or three days avoiding all electronic screens. Those brightly colored images have a mesmerizing effect, much like a deer confronted by headlights, Lapin said. Better to clear the mind before focusing on weighty matters.

As I pen these words (literally, pen to paper), I am one-third of my way through my first day of avoiding screens. The impact is uncanny. The urge to flip on the computer or the television is occasionally overwhelming, like the urge to take a drink must be to an alcoholic.

But the difference in productivity is astonishing. Without the ability to switch gears and multitask, I’ve filled six pages of a composition book in little more than an hour, preserving in a flurry thoughts that had been bouncing around unfinished in my mind for days.

As I’ve been writing, no email popping into my mailbox has diverted my attention. The urge to Google the information I need to insert into my essays has gone unfulfilled and, with it, the impulse to wander to other familiar Internet haunts to see if anything has changed since my last visit.

Lapin is an orthodox Jew who takes the Sabbath seriously and literally. His family abstains from work from sunset Friday through Saturday for a time of worship and introspection.

In this plugged-in and hectic era, a regular sabbatical makes a great deal of sense. Even a few hours into this unplugged exercise, I find myself tapping into reservoirs that have been neglected – not just stopping to smell the roses (difficult anyway after a spring snowstorm) but assessing where I am, what I’m doing and why. Too often the quotidian (i.e., the everyday routine) drags us along and we hardly have time to think – and making an appointment with ourselves to take the time to think is essential, lest we collide with life the way a deer collides with an oncoming car.

And so I put pen to paper, I play with the dog, I prepare a meal, I read books, I perform chores that have been neglected – in short, I do everything except fire up the computer or television. I will cheat for a time tonight when Red and I meet our weekly appointment with American Idol. That will be a setback of sorts, but the achievement of spending an unplugged day or two has already begun to bear fruit.

What will I learn from this exercise? We shall see.

But it has given me time to contemplate questions that deserve answers. What will you do with the time that’s left? Why are you here? What is the best use of your gifts? How can you make the world a better place? How can you make your life a better life? What makes you happy? What makes you free? What gives you life?

A ride on the time machine

We had a substitute teacher that day. She was older than our regular fifth-grade teacher at Elementary School No. 1 in Little Falls, N.J.

A little after 1:30 the principal, Mr. Laux, unexpectedly poked his nose into the room and announced that President Kennedy had been fatally shot in Dallas.

Everything went kind of numb then. The substitute teacher was sad and a little upset, but she told the story of when she was a little girl walking past the train depot and someone shouted down that President McKinley had been shot.

They let us out of school early that day. I remember riding my bike home and how bright the sun was and how the shadows of the trees stood out against the library on Warren Street. There’s something about the death of someone important that makes you appreciate being alive, I learned that day.

That’s pretty much the entirety of my memory of Nov. 22, 1963.

Just on an impulse I Googled Mr. Laux and found his obituary – he died only last year, August 2010, in Portland, Maine, of all places. He retired in 1972 and lived to be 91. He was responsible for kindergarten through fifth grade, I believe, and most grades had at least two sections so he had to make that little speech in the neighborhood of a dozen or more times. That must have been a tough day.

It’s hard to believe that was 48 years ago now – who in fifth grade thinks they’ll ever be able to remember things that happened a half-century ago? That was why it was so impressive for that teacher to tell a story about 63 years earlier.

And now here I am passing along to you the story of a little girl walking past a train depot and hearing that the president had been shot 111 years ago. I wonder if that memory will be preserved again in another 48 years.

W.B.’s Book Report: Letters of a Self-Made Failure

Here is a timely relic from nearly 100 years ago. Maurice Switzer wrote a series of 10 letters, ostensibly from a man who took a circuitous route to contentment and addressed to his younger brother, who is newly embarked on this adventure we call adulthood.

From a note of congratulation and advice upon the occasion of “Bob” landing his first job in January 1912, “Jim” writes his brother every two or three months through January 1914. He admonishes Bob through the mistakes common to an overconfident young businessman, and eventually the lad starts to learn from his mistakes and apply the lessons.

“Experience is a mighty good thing, but it’s like an automobile. To get it you have to pay the top price, and when you want to sell it you can’t collect twenty-five cents on the dollar.”

“Instead of trying to earn more than I could spend, I should have simply spent less than I was earning.”

“Be as ambitious as you like, but remain within the limits of your talent and capabilities.”

“Obstacles are very often discouraging, but surmounting them is good exercise.”

“In heaven’s name don’t provide yourself with a set of ready reasons against possible failure.”

“No doubt there is a short cut to most places we are trying to reach, but the days we waste and the energy we expend in seeking it are a greater loss of time and effort in the end than if we had struck out boldly through the underbrush.”

And those are just some of the gems I found paging back through the first half of this little book.

Switzer occasionally sound a bit creaky – as when he assures his reader that he’s not advocating the radical idea that women be allowed to vote – and the language is, of course, that of the early 20th century. Still, he offers advice that remains sound 97 years after it was first published.

A theme he repeats several times is especially timely: Save a substantial portion of your earnings; spend less than you make. Coming just a few months after the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which launched the concept of ever-increasing debt as a national policy, Switzer wrote words that, if heeded then, might have made our contemporary economy significantly stronger.

Letters of a Self-Made Failure is available as a free ebook in a variety of places online – such as this one.

W.B. at the Movies: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

Tinseltown has wanted to make Ayn Rand’s dystopian epic for a long time. The proposals included and all-star love story in the 1970s, with Faye Dunaway as Dagny Taggart, Robert Redford as John Galt, and Clint Eastwood as Hank Rearden. Most famously in recent years, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wanted a crack at the story of an overbearing government and its corrupt corporate co-conspirators living parasitically off the creativity and labors of the true innovators and entrepreneurs among us.

It’s fitting that the film – now available on DVD – was finally produced independent of the film industry establishment. The denizens controlling that industry routinely cast ambitious business people as villains; what ghastly concoction would they make from a novel where business leaders are heroes and the villains are the government that would rein them in?

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, was produced on a wing and a prayer using a cast comprised largely of somewhat familiar character actors and unknowns. Filmed over a matter of weeks to avoid losing the movie rights, the film arrived last April 15 with what could charitably be called low expectations.

To ask “Did they manage to make a good movie?” is the equivalent of asking in the context of the story, “Is Rearden Metal a pretty decent product?”

The philosophical concepts are there. The performances are there. The production values look far more expensive than the meager (by Hollywood standards) $10 million budget. The screenplay seizes all of the essential elements from a complex and busy novel and tosses them up on the screen. The story is compelling and 102 minutes race by like a bullet train.

Taylor Schilling has a short resume, but it’s hard to imagine the more familiar Dunaway or Jolie owning the role of Dagny Taggart more convincingly than Schilling does. She leads an ensemble cast that does justice to Rand’s novel and then some. Sharon Howard-Field and Ronnie Yeskel deserve a standing ovation for their casting prowess. If some scenes seem melodramatic, well, guess what folks, Rand wrote a melodrama, a cracking good melodrama that has been turned into a cracking good movie.

Under the circumstances those of us who admire the novel would have been satisfied if this film was good enough to reflect its story and its themes. But one of those themes is that “good enough” is not good enough. These filmmakers clearly aimed for excellence, and against all odds they hit the mark.

Occupy your life

I am not one of the 99 percent – and neither are you.

I am not one of the 1 percent – and neither are you.

The masses are an invention. There are no “masses.”

We are each created equal – but we are not created the same. Neither are we created as a mass. The act of creation did not produce dozens of you; it created only you (or in very rare cases, it created you and your twin, or your fellow triplets, etc. – but even then, it did not create you exactly and precisely alike).

What does this mean?

It means that no generalization can be made about any single individual. You may make the observation that most people who believe X also believe Y, but you cannot conclude that just because a person believes X that it follows he believes Y. You may collect information that most people with dark skin believe A, but you cannot conclude that the dark-skinned person you have just met believes A.

We are not part of a mass. We are individuals. We are not factory-made components. We are snowflakes.

We are connected, but we are not machines – nor is any one of us merely a cog in a machine.

It is easier to deny this and turn responsibility for our lives and decisions over to a collective unit or a corporate entity, but to do so is to let our lives become less than they can be.

It is easier for me to deny your individuality and to make assumptions about you based on what group I have lumped you into, but that is a way to avoid the work of getting to know you and understand you as the unique being we both know you are.

Each of us is a singular work of art, singular in the sense of being one of a kind. Each of us has within us the potential to make art, a special art that no one else can achieve quite the same way or with quite the same perspective.

This, by the way, is why war is such a waste: Because thousands of artists and artwork are destroyed.

The scrap of dialogue that defines the lead character of my novel in progress

“But they’ll kill you! You’ll die!”

“I’m going to die anyway, someday,” replied Raymond Douglas Kaliber. “So I may as well do the right thing until then.”

—–

KALIBER’S TENETS OF COMMON WEALTH

1. Love your neighbor as yourself.
2. Interact with love — not force or violence.
3. Give more than you receive.

And, as one final teaser, The Imaginary Revolution will open with this quote:

It is because peaceful agitation and passive resistance are, in Liberty’s hands, weapons more deadly to tyranny than any others that I uphold them, and it is because brute force strengthens tyranny that I condemn it.

War and authority are companions; peace and liberty are companions.

The methods and necessities of war involve arbitrary discipline and dictatorship. So-called “war measures” are almost always violations of rights.

Even war for liberty is sure to breed the spirit of authority, with aftereffects unforeseen and incalculable.

Benjamin R. Tucker
Liberty, Vol. IV, No. 7
July 31, 1886

It is my fond hope to have this book, which has been bouncing around my brain for four or five years, in your hands early in 2012.