Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

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Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

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I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

◊◊◊

Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

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The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

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I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

◊◊◊

Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

◊◊◊

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

Late Night Thoughts: Socialism, Theresa and Carlos, Kindness and Tragedy, Poems, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Thunder has been rolling off the mountains since the afternoon.  The breeze has carried the scent of rain for hours, but there’s been no rain.  It’s once again warm enough to leave the doors and windows open to the night air.

◊◊◊

Someone was telling me that judgmental people are always jealous people.  If that’s so, I haven’t noticed it.  But it sounds like something that could be true.  And if it is true, I wonder if the converse is also true: Are jealous people always judgmental people?

◊◊◊

Waking Up in a Coffee Shop

The sun slants geometric on the floor,
Van Morrison drags the air,
Serbian troops surge forward,
And two old women sit and tell
The lives of relatives —
Their jobs, their marriages,
Births and deaths
Recounted at a trot
With shoes kicked off —
Statistics on estrogen.

The cup of Kenyan is just enough
To provoke the thought Don and Becky
Like the smell of leather better than most religions
And a good walk better than the rest:

Then it’s time to do the laundry.

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I might have been 14 or 15 the first time I heard that socialism fails because people are not equal in their abilities.  Of course, the truth of the statement, “people are not equal in their abilities”, is indisputable.  But does any prominent socialist assert that people are equal?  Not that I know of.  The argument seems to be a straw man.

So far as I know, socialists only assert that people should have equal economic, social, and political rights and liberties — not merely in theory (as under capitalism), but in practice.

Nor do socialists typically hold that everyone should receive the same compensation for their work as everyone else.  Rather, compensation typically varies according to the principle, “To each according to their contribution”:

The term means simply that each worker in a socialist society receives compensation and benefits according to the quantity and value of the labor that he or she contributed. This translates into workers of high productivity receiving more wages and benefits than workers of average productivity, and substantially more than workers of low productivity. An extension of this principle could also be made so that the more difficult one’s job is—whether this difficulty is derived from greater training requirements, job intensity, safety hazards, etc.—the more one is rewarded for the labor contributed. [source]

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Surely, a sense of humor has prevented more murders than a sense of morality.

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As I understand it, there are four major religions that contain within them some kind of a fundamentalist movement: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  According to one scholar at least, the four fundamentalisms are united in that each is a reaction against modernity.

That would seem to make sense to me.  But I would go a bit beyond that to speculate that the fundamentalisms are also rooted in the same psychology as political conservatism.  Over the past several years, a growing body of psychological research has demonstrated that liberals and conservatives tend to have differences that run deeper than mere politics.  That is, their differences tend to be rooted in their psychologies.

For instance, studies have shown that conservatives, when compared to liberals, are among other things:

  • More orderly
  • More anxious
  • More attuned to threats
  • More self-disciplined
  • Less open
  • Less novelty seeking

One seems to find the same pattern in the four fundamentalisms.

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Some years ago a friend of mine, Theresa, saved enough money while working as a $1000/night erotic dancer in Los Angeles to start her own small import/export business.  For a reason I no longer recall, she specialized in trade between the US and Costa Rico.   It was in Costa Rico that she met her husband.

Theresa is athletic and is in the habit of running every day, regardless of where she is in the world.  Consequently, when she was getting her business up and running in Costa Rico, she would run each day, taking the same route, at about the same time in the morning.  As it happened, her route took her by a bank.

Working at the bank was a young man who I’ll call Carlos here because I’ve forgotten his real name  (Sorry, Carlos! But I’m bad with names — even though I recall how handsome you are!).  One day Carlos noticed a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  But it wasn’t just her beauty that stopped him in his tracks.

Carlos, you see, had had a dream in which he’d seen a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  In fact, it seemed to him that the woman he was watching run past the windows that day was the very woman of his dreams.

He soon became aware of Theresa’s routine and began watching for her around the same time each day.   A month went by.   Then one day, Theresa was not there!

Carlos looked for her the next day, and the day after, but she no longer passed the bank each morning.  What Carlos didn’t know is that Theresa had found a local partner, and had consequently returned to the US.

Seven very long years went by for Carlos.  His friends and family worried he would never get married.  They — especially his mother — put pressure on him to find a woman.  But Carlos resisted.  It was not that he was waiting for the blond woman, though.  Carlos had given up all hope of seeing her ever again.

Instead, the blond woman had made such an impression on him that he didn’t feel any other woman he met during those seven years quite measured up to her in beauty or physical grace — and for Carlos, those were deal breakers.  He wondered if he would every feel differently, but he was adamant not to marry a woman he didn’t want at least as much as he had wanted the blond woman.  That would not be fair to any woman, he thought.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Theresa had long ago cashed out her share of the import/export business and was now a partner in an L.A. restaurant.  One year, though, she decided to take a vacation, and what better place to take it than the lovely country of Costa Rico?  She arranged a month long lease on a house there.

Carlos looked up from his desk one day to see the blond woman running past his bank’s windows!  He was so sure it was her that he didn’t hesitate even a second. Instead, he dashed out the door after her.

Theresa realized someone was calling after her to wait up, but when she looked, it was a stranger, so she kept running.  He couldn’t possibly have any real business with her.  Nevertheless, the man caught up with her.  As they ran side by side, he begged her to stop.

She didn’t stop.

So he sputtered out his story as he ran beside her.  She was the most beautiful girl in the world!  Theresa rolled her eyes.  He just had to meet her!  Theresa picked up her pace.  She was the girl of his dreams!  Theresa pushed herself even faster.  She must stop for he could not bear to lose her for another seven years! Theresa suddenly thought he must have known her from years ago — and remembered her!  Curiosity brought her to a jogging standstill.  She turned to face him.   “Who are you? Have we met?”

The two were married within a year or so.

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Kindness is our most powerful rebellion against tragedy.  – George Wiman

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The Hands Remember

The hands remember
More than the mind your skin

They think of their own will,
“This was the shape of her”,

When they find themselves cupped
Or curled in a certain loose way

Around the curves
Of you no longer here:

The left hand
Especially so.

Yes, I know
now
My left hand
Knew you one way,

While my right hand
Knew you another.

Was either best?

◊◊◊

Once upon a time, a god wanted something to laugh at, while a goddess wanted something to weep for.  The two created humans, and both were satisfied.

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Hi Don!  It’s Paul!  I’m calling to see if you want to go to lunch today?”

“Sure.”

“Great!  Can I come along?

“Don?  Are you still there, Don?”

“Yes, Paul, but now I wish I wasn’t.”

And Though We Love Imperfectly

(About a 3 minute read)

And Though We Love Imperfectly

It was passing strange how we met:
She handed me a cigarette,
Then apologized for her ignorance
Of our ways and manners
Before declaring herself a spy
From a constellation in the sky
And could I spend the time of day
Revealing all to be revealed,
Leaving nothing significant concealed,
Of our species’ secrets:
“What makes us different?”

Well, I thought her quite insane,
But I admired her cheerful countenance.
And her pink hair, brown skirt,
Yellow shirt, and red socks
Made me sense she could not be bought,
So I thought her perhaps true to herself,
And vowed to humor her a bit
While the sun sat down from the sky
And the moon rose to sing to the stars.

Leaning to her ear I said,
“It is our species’ curse
That we often destroy ourselves
For our minds run far before us,
But our wisdom lags far behind,
For our hands fashion weapons
That our commonsense does not confine,
For our hopes create mirages
That our desires believe are real,
For our leaders practice falsehoods
And from the people steal.

After that we sat a while in silence,
Human and alien side by side.
“That my friend”, she said at last,
“Leaves me tasting dust.
I believe you’ve spoken truly
But I wish you hadn’t those facts to state,
For your words reveal so cruelly
The insanity that is your fate.
No other kind among the stars
Shares this burden of yours
Nor carries on its wandering road
So heavy a tragic sadness.
Is there nothing your species claims to possess
That redeems you from your madness?”

“We love”, I said, “bright and brief
As fireflies flickering in the dusk,
Luminous as the moon
Shining on a meadow path,
Passionately as a lightning storm
Crashing on a mountainside,
And sometimes as stubbornly as a weed
Rising amidst concrete,
And though we love imperfectly,
Our love is quite as beautiful
As the sun dancing on bright waters,
For that love has the power to affirm
Even our tragic lives,
And that love has the power to gift
Us with the magic of rebirth.
So don’t think that you must mourn
Our tragic insanity
At least not until you have loved —
Loved as wild and free.”

With that she said, “I thank you friend,
Your species is both cursed and blessed.
If you someday grow to reach the stars,
You’ll find you’re not like all the rest.
For like your rising weed,
Something in you pokes through the cracks
And you, O human, have a greatness
That all the others lack.

Signaling Jupiter

(About a 2 minute read)

Signaling Jupiter

Her parents had cruelly raised her to believe
She was the adopted child of wandering space aliens,
And not their own flesh and blood, which led her
From an early age to spend nights at her window
With a flashlight signaling Jupiter.  Years later
I found her, still not disillusioned by then, working
The streets as a freelance jumper-cable consultant
Who for a fee would tell you which cable went where.

By then I couldn’t save her from her entrenched insanity,
But I brought her home anyway under the pretense
Of needing a house maid when in truth I was looking
For cheap labor to help me genetically engineer the cats
That I planned to sell as designer pets — once I had
Gotten them to glow in the dark like jellyfish.

Yet, it was not until the months had leaped past nearly a year
Before we became friends, for one night she came to me
Dressed in her tragic aluminum foil hat and pajamas to ask
If I wanted to stay up and signal Jupiter with her.  Better yet,
I said, let’s coax the moon to look in through your window
And upon your white sheets where we’re making love.

The happy years rolled by then
Like plump sausages off an assembly line
Until the day I lost her when
Her aged parents returned to claim her as their own.
And the last I ever saw of my love was her wave to me
From the ramp of her family’s saucer.

The Dedicated Blogger

(About a 1 minute read)

The Dedicated Blogger

While visiting late one night,
She was overcome by the fumes
Snaking out of my empty beer cans,
And tearfully confessed:
Her career as an important social critic
Specializing in scathingly witty and erudite
Twenty-seven word essays on contemporary trends
Meant nothing to her
If she could not satisfy her lust for a man,
For she’d been raised unholy to think
She was incomplete, scarce half made up,
Without a companion.

Though my heart surged and boiled
Like whitewater at the least thought
Of entwining her nubile body with mine
I could not bring my tongue to speak,
Nor open my arms to embrace,
For I was possessed by a fierce desire
To render the moment as a captivating
600 word blog post, and by the time
I’d written, edited, and published,
She was gone.

Tara Lyn

(About a one minute read)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tara Lyn

Love sometimes is
Too softly spoken
To be heard
Above the wind

Hearts sometimes are
Too softly broken
To be heard
Tara Lynn

Love sometimes is
Like a dance
We don’t think
We’re in

Hearts sometimes
Dance apart
Tara Lynn.


Originally published March 11, 2007 on this blog.