Culture’s Pendulum Swing – The Horrific Vs. The Stupid

Scales of History
The Scales of History – Sublime to Stupid in Only 100 Years!

The Pendulum Swings

I just finished reading the first chapter of Juan Chang’s Wild Swans and was still shaking my head and grimacing over the view and treatment of women in China barely a hundred years ago. A woman’s only real value was in pleasing men and bearing children. Anything else, even a word or a glance, could be grounds for expulsion from the family or death. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine such a world.

Then the pendulum swung far to the other side.

An organization called Campus Reform, who claims to be ‘America’s leading site for college news’ reports that just up the road at Clemson University, profs will be taught that expecting someone to show up on time is a racist position. Different cultures have different ideas about what ‘on-time’ means. So even though the class schedule says that Art History 101 begins at 0900 on Tuesday, there should be no expectation that people will actually show up at that time. To do so is a racist: you fail to recognize the wonderful characteristics of other cultures who don’t give a rat’s patootie about your time and effort.

Those Silly People Who Pay Your Wages

But I wonder if professors have to accommodate the lateness in their teaching and meetings? Or will it be up to students to figure out what they missed? I doubt it. To do so would be falling into the trap that college students desire to put forth effort for their education. The odd thing, unaddressed here, is the workplace. My employer has funny ideas about time. In fact, just about the only way I can be fired is to falsify a time sheet. So for the ethics philosophers out there: is it unethical to mark down that you started work at 0900 when in fact you showed up at 0920 based on your cultural view of time? I notice, too, that the Clemson profs will receive two email reminders take the inclusion class – isn’t that expectation exactly like expecting people to be on time?

Scales of History
I don’t know – it’s about 200,00 BCE?

On the topic of China, I have a boy who lived in Hong Kong for a year during college. He said that Chinese student culture is crazy. No one makes any real friends – you are in abject dog-eat-dog competition with every other student in the nation. He said that most people he knew are studying by six AM and will be at it until midnight. Every day. And everything else is secondary to school.

Welcome to Welfare!

So if you saunter into class or a meeting fifteen minutes late because that’s your cultural prerogative, I guess that will be fine at Clemson. But be prepared to be steamrolled in life by people who really, really want your job.

That different peoples have different ideas about time is well known and is a staple of International Studies programs. Read a brief overview here.


Three American Vices – Which Are You Addicted To?

So Said a Wise Man

My old pal Lin Yutang is lost in the shuffle these days. He was a lovely Chinese man who cultivated the wonderful art of laziness. He was smart as a whip, and successful by any measure, but extolled the art of lallygagging as a way of life.

In his book The Importance of Living (get a copy if you can find it), he notes three things under the heading of Three American Vices. He found (in 1937 no less!) that Americans worship

  • efficiency
  • punctuality
  • achievement

He makes no bones about it – it’s these things that “make the American so unhappy and nervous.”

They steal from their inalienable right of loafing and cheat them of many a good, idle and beautiful afternoon.

Lin Yutang - The Importance of Living
The Master Lin Yutang

As is my wont, I wonder why there can’t be a happy middle between efficient and lazy? Believe me, we extol Lin’s three vices where I work. And why shouldn’t we? The business serves the public and these three things make our product, electricity, cost-effective and something people can count on. People like it when they flip the light switch and the lights go on. For much of the world, this isn’t a defacto reality by any means. And Lin’s homeland has done quite well for itself in the century since he wrote these words by adopting many of these vices.

I tend to carry these vices home, though. My days off are typically spent on punch-list items that I want to get done. I catch myself weighing silly things in my head: should I swim with the kids or install that new door knob? A new door knob is nice but the one there now will open the door. But how long will the girls want to do stuff with their old dad? So I’m taking Lin’s advice to heart at home. Read more. Lay about more. Maybe have someone over to dinner. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even take a nap?

It’s an area that I can improve in. Gladly, I have my wife whose expertise is in marital prodding. If I don’t make the right decision on my own then she helps me recognize my error and sets me on the right path. I’ve always argued that boys are stupid and freely admit that I’m a boy so it’s good to have help in this area.

I think it’s a win for everyone.


Lin Yutang - The Importance of Living
The secret to contentment


Your Private Escape – Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut

Roald Dahl’s Man Cave

Roald Dahl Writing Hut
Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut

I’ve always had a little hideaway where I can plink away at whatever I chose. When I was a boy, I had a corner slice of the garage that Dad let me have for my own. Lord knows, he didn’t need it. Even at eight or nine, I was the fix-it man around the house. So I set up a small desk and hung my three or four tools on the wall and mostly lolled about and took broken things apart. On rare occasions, I put broken things back together.  Today we have elevated this space and call it a man cave. There is something noble in the name. It sounds tribal, like a place where men retreat to touch their spirit animal. To align with ancestral truths. To pray for the kill. In reality, I think the wife is just happy to shove the beer-swilling lout outside so she won’t have to clean up after him one more time.

Roald Dahl's Writing Hut
So much magic from such spare surroundings

But Roald Dahl carved out a wonderful little place in the world. His goal wasn’t a tribal dance or a tattoo. No. He wanted to be six years old again and to write about the world from those eyes. He obviously did it well. (Go here for his Amazon page). I can imagine his long days plopped into his chair. Writing, reading, and then writing some more. The room is spare with a few mementos. He preferred artificial light and lit the space with one bulb and a lamp. He used a kerosene heater to fend off chills. On cold winter days, he would ‘sit with a rug over him and his legs in a sleeping bag’. His hut was more than just an escape from cooking and kids. It was integral to his writing as he explains here:

“It’s really quite easy,” he would say. “I go down to my little hut, where it’s tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again.”

Your Private Space

Roald Dahl's Writing Hut
Dahl’s collection of stuff

I like this whole idea and hope that you have a little private place where you can retreat to. Maybe it’s a desk. Or a corner of the garage. Maybe it’s as small as a computer keyboard or notebook that knows your hopes and dreams? What mementos do you keep there? What special things?

Another take on private space in front of the camera: Francesca Woodman’s photography

Read Dahl’s daughter’s interview here.
Road Dahl’s Hut and the Case of the Dippy Adults, New Yorker
Picture Gallery
The Roald Dahl Website here.

Roald Dahl's Writing Hut
The genius at work

Francesca Woodman – A Life In-between

Art As The Good Life

Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman – always in-between

Certainly, art is a part of the Good Life. It challenges us to see things in different ways and lets us peer into the world through someone else’s experiences. Or see things through a historical lens. While my first love is evolution and biology, I was, for a time, an ardent art history major. True enough, the two disciplines are just about as far as you can get but there it is. For reasons that I probably shouldn’t explore, my favorite photographer is and was Francesca Woodman. She died young and sadly and never really crossed the line into a professional art career. Her work spans her young life as a student beginning with a self-portrait at 13.

Art of the Absurd

Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman. Coming or going? I never know.

Somehow – and this is the wonder of art – she captures something that I don’t see on my own. Her photographs are typically of herself.  She is often nude and often out of kilter and out of focus. There is always a faint coloring of the absurd. Looking at her photos reminds me of watching The Blair Witch Project: you know from the outset that it’s a ruse but you are still drawn in and tempted to believe. There is a pervasive sense of the in-between. Is she coming or going? Is she moving or is the photo blurred? Is she in or out of the wall or the window. In all cases, the lines are blurred between what we see and what we know to be real.

It’s known that she was burdened. I don’t know how her illness tied to her art but confusion is evident. She attempted suicide, spent time in therapy, and then, finally, leapt from an upstairs window.


Francesca Woodman

Here is her Wiki entry.

Here for a NYT review of her life and work.

Good Gawd – I Discovered The Best Deal At Starbucks

Gaga at Startbucks. Photo from Starbucks.






The Best Rewards Card Deal, Hands Down

If my wife ever leaves me any Starbucks reward stars, I trade them in for my regular and boring tall drip. If I’m feeling especially plucky I’ll make it a grandé blonde. But I was in the Big City a week ago and strolled into Teavana at the Mall. I was sniffing here and there and one of the salesfolks asked if I had a Starbucks reward card? Of course I do. Sheesh. I’m from Seattle. She explained that I could use 125 stars to get an ounce of tea. This is about a seven dollar purchase. I had no idea. So I traded in 250 stars – which would get me two cups of coffee – for an ounce of Black Dragon Pearls and an ounce of Creme Earl Grey. That would be a fourteen dollar purchase on its own. This has got to be one of the best buys from all the reward cards I’ve ever used.



The Beatles from Worst to Best – One Opinion – What’s Yours?

The Beatles Rated
My Aunt bought me this when I was six. Soon thereafter she was buying me Zep and Black Sabbath.

If you’re as old as I am you’ll know all 213 of these songs. Some are true transcendent gems and some are B-sides that should have been D or F sides. I’m not a Beatles uber-fan by any stretch. If it’s the sixties you want, I’m much more prone to listen to some Stone’s dirty guitar or The Kinks or even Argent. But every soul alive on earth at the time was touched by the Fab Four so this is a fun list to go through. Where does your favorite land?

The Beatles from Worst to Best – One Opinion – What’s Yours?

Go here to see the article. Written by Bill Wyman for Vulture.