Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Surfing: an old dilettante's adventure

Somewhere recently I read that surfing the internet is good for old people because it stimulates their brains. Or something to that effect. It can also be a way of getting drowned, losing one's way (or mind) or feeling overwhelmed. My husband would add "wasting time" to the previously mentioned bad outcomes.

But let's stick to the positive.

Experts do say that stimulating the brain is a plus when it comes to staving off the ravaging effects of Alzeimer's disease. Apparently learning creates new neural networks in the brain and when the dread disease shuts down or clogs up some neural networks, the constant learner has more activated areas to back up their functions.

Whatever! (an insolent expression some think but a good way to cut to the chase; how about 'Well, anyhow?'...).

The fact is I'm genetically pre-disposed to surfing the web. It's my curiousity or what my father mislabelled my "dilettantism." Before there was an internet, when I was writing papers in college, I always prolonged the ordeal by going off on tangents during the research process. This was done the hard way with dictionaries, encyclopedias and the indices of books. At times -- many times -- this would lead to confusion and/or exhaustion. I would lose focus on my topic, forget the connections between ideas and facts and more or less wind up feeling like a failure. And I was always turning in late papers.

The internet makes things easier. Because it's so fast I get lost less frequently. If I do get lost there's always that trail of cookie crumbs (Firefox calls it "history") to follow out of the woods and back to the beginning. The so-called beginning.

The other thing is that as a retired old person I do not face the deadlines, restrictions and fear of negative judgments which plague college students or high school students for that matter. Fear is not conducive to clear thinking or writing.

Another good thing about being old is the confidence that comes from experience. Over time I have learned to trust my brain or rather I've come to respect my process of thinking. I've seen that my mental side trips, chasing of rabbits and other forays into the "not obviously related" are often quite productive. Either I learn something new that relates to another thing that puzzles me or I find that my intuition is right and what seemed merely tangential is not only relevant but central to my pursuit of understanding the original topic. Quite often I reach dead ends, but so what? It's no big deal. No one's going to punish me. Unless I do it myself and I try not to do that.

Well, I started off here with the idea of detailing a specific surfing adventure and I guess I got off track. Maybe I'll do that next time. Ciao.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Scots novelist Mina provides 'unlikely' heroine for our time

He stepped towards her, raising his hand
above his head and brought it down hard
on her face. Maureen's teeth sliced into her cheek,
her left eye flashed blankets of white light
and her mouth was suddenly filled with salty blood.

A heavy hush descended in the pub
as each man computed the difficult equation
of why a small woman with blood dripping
from her chin was nothing to do with him

Denise Mina, from her novel, Exile
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2001, p. 304)

I found out about Denise Mina through National Public Radio. (WLPN, 90.3, here in Nashville). A month or two ago NPR was doing a series on writers whose fiction is set in real cities which are as indispensable to their stories as plot, protagonist and other characters. Mina's city, the setting for her detective novels, is Glasgow, Scotland. Most particularly, it is the Garnethill section of Glasgow, a rough working class area which fell on very hard times as a result of Margaret Thatcher's "economic revolution" in Britain.

By the way, Thatcher, a rigid free market ideologue, was a great pal, political and economic soul mate of Ronald Reagan. The economic policies of these two leaders, often called "supply side" or "trickle down economics" here in the U.S., set the stage for the global financial meltdown we are currently experiencing in part because they insisted on no government regulation. Wiklopedia's entry on
Thatcherism explains these policies and their effects quite well.

I was so impressed by Mina's NPR interview that I quickly ordered her debut novel, Garnethill, from ebay's After finishing that, I ordered Exile from Abebooks. These are detective novels, the first two in what she has called the Garnethill trilogy. The next one is called Resolution. Though my reading habits are quickly changing, I've never been a great reader of detective fiction but I'm pretty sure Maureen O'Donnell, the amateur detective of the Garnethill trilogy, breaks all the molds when it comes to crime-solving protagonists.

In fact, Maureen who is getting beaten up so ruthlessly in the excerpt quoted above has many of the personality characteristics of the classic loser. The words outsider, scapegoat, outcast also come to mind. She is a victim of sexual abuse by her father, a former mental patient, an anorexic chain smoker and a depressive who cries almost around the clock and contemplates suicide regularly. She is also a heavy drinker who appears to be on her way to becoming an alcoholic like her mother. And she curses like a sailor (or like an alienated working class 20-something from any urban wasteland on the planet).

You got to love her, right? Not exactly. I mean all the above traits might summon pity or even sympathy but not admiration. What is so attractive, captivating in fact, about Maurie is that she is still in process; she's still growing and learning, still growing up. Like so many young adults she's still an adolescent emotionally. With good reason. But wounded and miserable and worldly-wise as she is, she has the wisdom of one who is unable or unwilling to deny her feelings. As a result, she is spontaneously compassionate, completely unable (or unwilling?) to write off or abandon the other loser outcasts that come into her life.

I think Denise Mina's Maureen O'Donnell is a novelistic hero for our time which is to say that I think Mina is a novelist for our time. In my first post here on The Postmodern Dilettante, I wrote some of the things that give me heart. When I spoke of
"the voice of a writer, the strength and certainty beneath the words, something about the sound, the quiet sound of the storyteller's voice" I was thinking of Denise Mina. She's written several more novels since the publication of the two I've spoken of here. She's been described as a writer in the tartan noir genre of fiction which is supposedly reflective of Scottish history among other things.

I can see that. Mina's sex abuse victim cum (no pun intended) crime-solver Maureen O'Donnell displays the same stubborn sense of justice, the same bravery bordering on foolhardiness and the same spontaneous courage that characterized the two Scottish heroes portrayed by Liam Neeson in Rob Roy (1995) and Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995).

The late architect Buckminister Fuller, one of my personal heroes, once wrote the following:
You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Let's say that quote from Exile at the top represents an existing reality, one in which we humans are prone to behave as those men in the pub who sat quietly by while a big bully beat up on a tiny woman. Well, in Maureen O'Donnell, Denise Mina has offered a new model of social behavior for a world desperately in need of one.

Isn't that what heroes and heroines are supposed to be? Desperately needed models of behavior? Said another way a heroine models specific behaviors which reflect the values a specific culture or civilization needs to act on in order to be decent, healthy and good.

And don't be confused here: the specific worthy behavior which Mina's Garnethill heroine models is this: because of her concern for others and despite her loser habits she transcends her victimhood and through the 'adventures' of caring for others discovers herself.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Travelling through time

My father once called me a dilettante which my very old Webster’s dictionary defines as 1.a person who loves the fine arts or 2. a person who follows an art or science only for amusement and in a superficial way; dabbler ; trifler. I knew Daddy was thinking along the lines of that second definition although I never felt his judgment of me was quite so harsh.

I didn’t take the criticism seriously. Dilettante is, after all, such a pretty word. It comes to the English from the Latin (by way of Italian, the most beautiful language, I think) delectare, to charm, delight.

As an adolescent, first, and then as a young woman, I wanted to understand things. I indulged in dilettantism because of my insatiable curiousity; at 65, I find my curiosity is unabated. Indeed, it has become obsessive. But why?

I have always been more observer than participant. At least, that's how it seems to me and it's not something I'm proud of or even happy about. Too much cognitive dissonance in general interrupted by moments of profound connection... With what?

And then the other things, the occasional recognition, for example, of another consciousness, another pilgrim in the way, an exemplar or a witness. Or the title of a book, or a stranger's face or the voice of a writer, the strength and certainty beneath the words, something about the sound, the quiet sound of the storyteller's voice.

Everything is so tentative and time is moving so fast...

Perhaps I am not a dilettante. At least not according to the dictionary cited above. A more recent edition even reverses the order of the two definitions giving more emphasis to superficiality than to love.

If I am a dilettante, it is only in the following sense: I have no expertise, no academic discipline, no mastery of craft or technique.

I am just a human being. I am a sojourner, a traveller through time; I want to know, I want to find, I want to see.

What is Real?