Wisława Szymborska

Joy of the Day 31/365:  Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) was a Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. While I'm not the biggest poetry-watcher, I'm slightly proud of seeing a Polish person do well. Plus, I'm often amused by her occasionally comical levels of cynicism and overall unflinching approach.. Here's one of my favorites from her:

In Praise of Self-Deprecation
by Wisława Szymborska

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer whale's heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

Here's a story of one more Szymborska poem well worth the time.

Correction Fluid & Work Precision

Joy of the Day 29/365:
Today I went to take a test for a job at the State of Illinois. I was at the front desk of the employment center, and this worker was filling in some paperwork for me. She misspelled a word, took out some white out, and carefully corrected it while I watched.

I wanted to say something to her about how awesome I thought it was, but I didn't know what words to say. There was too much to explain: When I lived in Bangladesh, one of the worst things that I saw and experienced was corruption that crushed work ethic by making it an act of stupidity to work with any kind of sincerity. The pervasive lack of integrity among the professionals I knew, and the resulting lack of quality in work output, was demoralizing and depressing in a way that lingered in my life for a long time.

And here I am in Chicago, and we have what feels to me like an enormous privilege: the ability to work sincerely and have that work rewarded well enough that we end up doing precise little things like putting correction fluid on misspelled words on not-terribly-important forms.

It's hard to explain it all in just a few words, but it made me happy today.


Joy of the Day 27/365: Eating garbage candy

My good friend in Norway, Kristin Hestmann Vinjerui, sends me presents at my birthday (and I send ones to her). This year my gift to her was The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is either resonant with her current work or redundant on it, because she is a medical doctor and a doctoral student in public health.

Her gift to me arrived today, a month after my birthday, with a note that said she originally bought it in April but ate it in June. :-) I don't blame her. It's candy, and it's awesome.

And if "resonant or redundant" is this year's birthday gift theme, then this is exactly right. It's "søppeldynga godteri," which translates as "rubbish-dump candy." "Do you really like a leaking garbage bag?" the packaging reads in Norwegian. "In 'søppeldynga' you can root around in your favorite waste: rotten fish, sewer sludge, dog mess, and much more. Delicious quality waste from Bonbon."

It IS delicious. It is basically regular mixed hard candy, but has the salty flavor that I love and seem to find only in Norwegian sweets. Kristin is my oldest friend -- we're friends for over half our lives now -- but this manages to reach back to the part of my life she wasn't there for. It reminds me of similar stuff from when I was a small kid that I found deeply amusing and compelling.

... Actually, my impression hasn't changed. I have been eating it compulsively since it arrived.

Now I am snacking on a few more while watching a live stream of an awards ceremony for a kind of fiction (sci fi) that I never read, solely because there is a very silly, slightly trashy kind of controversy in this ceremony this year, and I have taken an interest in it for a weird emotional reason of my own. This thing is as intellectually nutritious as candy is physically nutritious. It is the garbage candy of TV.

So, in short, this gift is a reiteration of what came before. And it resonates quite well with this present moment, too. It is great. Thank you, Kristin.

A Day Well Spent

It started off with a career counseling session that gave me real hope.

Then I narrowly dodged a huge rainstorm that came out of almost nowhere. (I happened to be under the eaves of the City Hall, and could duck into their lobby to wait out the cloud burst.)

Then I had a kale salad with mango and edamame for lunch, and if that's not nice, I don't know what is.

Then a few hours studying Italian, then a long walk up the Magnificent Mile in the sunshine.

I stopped for a taco -- with egg, bacon, and tater tots, plus salsa -- essentially a nice salty heart attack on a plate. Then I walked it off with another four-mile walk up the length of Lincoln Park, and through the part of the city that is all narrow streets and old houses, like Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Then I stopped in a cafe and ended up writing 1,800 words, before getting on the el to a bookstore where two poets read their mildly famous, thoughtful work.

Joy of the Day 26/365 is a day well spent.

A Better Shot at Justice

Joy of the Day 25/365: After noticing how the statute of limitations permitted Bill Cosby to escape jail time for the rapes he committed on some three dozen women, the California Assembly voted to remove the time limits on rape cases.

I can't say I'm joyful about anyone needing to use this law. But for those who do, this change is a big step towards to getting justice to occur. And it's also a way to validate that the issue is being taken seriously, and that has value too. 

Joy of the Day is a sense of relief.

Can't-Be-Enhanced Inanity

Joy of the Day 24/365 EARLY EDITION: inanity 

There is a Twitter account called "NYT Minus Context" that attempts to clip inane phrases out of the New York Times in a way that makes them funny unto themselves. It's not a bad gambit, and when it works it's weirdly surprising ("People need to smoke more marijuana") and imagination-fueling ("the kind of man who offers clanging sex in a restaurant kitchen").

But it sort of works only half the time. Sometimes it's just like a string of the random words that might pass through the head of a bored teenage girl. Whoever writes it is kinda young, I gather.

But the other reason why it doesn't always work is way better, and it's this: if you wanted to make a NYT Minus Context tweet out of this NYT article, which phrase would you choose? All of them? This piece is about the inane self-sufficient perfection of a certain kind of bad junk food, and it's kinda meta, because the article is self-sufficient, inane and... well, bad, at least in its conclusions. (Cheddar and sour cream chips? Ugh.)

Also, there's untweetable oddities here. For one, stop to contemplate that there is a food designer and/or photographer and/or artist, and perhaps two of the three, who got hired by the prestigious Grey Lady to lay out cheddar cheese chips on a pink background and snap images of them, or use Photoshop towards the same end. Imagine that being your job, and try to feel the prestige. Yeah, no.

And, bonus again: read the sidebar. Here, I'll do you a f(l)avor and post it here:
Actual entries submitted to Frito-Lay’s 'Do Us a Flavor' contest:
Haggis and watermelon
Toothpaste and orange juice
Diet Mountain Dew
Green juice
Benedict Cumberbatch

Try to make that more inane by cutting it down into a tweet. "Haggis and watermelon, regret." Psssh. Hardly different. Barely better. Can't be done, I say. Whatever is funny about it is already there in the original, perfect with or without its context.

The Joy of the Day is perfection in inanity.

The Bees Are Here to Stay

Joy of the Day 23/365 is honeybees.

Remember a couple years ago when there were dire predictions that all the bees would die out in the world, and then humanity had only four years to live, because the bees' pollinating crops is so crucial to our food security?

Well, that turned out to be something of a false alarm. That's not to say the bees weren't in trouble -- they were. They still are at an all-time population low. But the threat of imminent collapse isn't so much a thing. The pesticides that were part of the problem have been banned, and other causes were shown to be non-issues. We could always do more to ensure sustainability. Nonetheless, the bees are back. Whew.

It's "Pat"

Joy of the Day 21/365: "pat"

...Sitting on the el train reading in a line in a novel that compares the name "Pat" to the sound of a rusty hammer banging, and thinking, "Huh, really?!"

Then, musing about how "pat" is like a soft tapping or petting motion, or a small piece of butter (yum), or a part of the premise of a terrible and now deeply outmoded 1994 SNL-derived movie about an androgynous person, which "has a rare 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes," per Wikipedia...

Thinking about how Pat is also the name of my older brother, who is happily totally unlike any SNL character -- but who, in our childhood, once used his own name as evidence that the annual local Saint Patrick's Day parade was "for him." (Unfortunately, he was also born on Independence Day, which led to this happening twice in a year.)

...Getting a bit amused by all this stuff about "Pat," and wondering how anyone could possibly get to the conclusion that the word is like a banging hammer.

Forgetting the book, getting off the el, and eventually going back to the story later and finding it's much better than that one goofy line would seem to indicate.


Joy of the Day 20/365: uncovering faces

This week, The New York Times ran a massive, 40,000-word story on the state of "the Arab World." I have read it and found it, if nothing less than adequate, lacking in some of the political and environmental information I had hoped for. In any case, it ends quite downbeat, with the author saying that his 16-month reporting sojourn through the region convinced him of its deepening crisis; he says that a separatist Kurd guerrilla whose views would have been "even fascist" in the past now sounds like a voice of reason. It's grim.

In that context, this story rings a note of hope. Manbij, Syria, has been liberated from ISIS after a 73-day battle, and in celebration, people have taken to the streets to cut off the Islamist-mandated beards and burn their Islamist-mandated niqabs. It's a nice flash of freedom in a time of repression, worthy of being called today's Joy of the Day.

The Perseids Meteor Shower

Joy of the Day 19/365: the Perseids meteor shower

They say that when there's a big meteor shower, like the one that occurred these past two days, what we are seeing is the debris from our planet's movement through a trail of debris left behind by a comet. But that debris is not from the comet's most recent passage by us, but rather the previous time it came by. Why this is, I don't yet know. But it means that this Thursday, me and my friend Kenneth were lying in a field outside Springfield, IL, watching the debris that the Comet Swift-Tuttle left floating above the Earth during the middle of the American Civil War (1862) hit our atmosphere and burn up.

It was bad-ass.

Springfield: I realized that this was happening this week, and then checked out a map of light pollution in Illinois, which turned out to be pretty much one giant red zone, mostly centered on the exact place I live (Chicago). But Springfield, that half-shuttered, one-horse town, is relatively dark -- especially if you drive out of the city towards an unusually rural part of the state. I was overdue for a visit to my buddy Ken, who works for the Illinois legislature. So I got a train down, and late in the evening he and headed out on his motorcycle through nearly-nowhere Springfield to its really-nowhere outskirts, and found a field where we could see the whole sky. Meteors: redeeming the parts of Illinois Chicagoans like to pretend don't even exist.

The newspaper headline lies -- the show didn't "rival the stars in the sky," at least not where we were. In an hour of watching, we saw maybe 20 to 30 meteors, mostly in randomly scattered ones and twos that lasted only a few seconds each. In one thrilling moment, four bright ones streaked across the center of the sky in one minute -- giving just a taste of what a truly dazzling, 200 meteors-per-hour shower might be like.

Nonetheless, it was one of the best things that happened this year. When you get away from city lights and let your eyes adjust to the night sky, there is a surprising rich display of what you've been missing. An endless number of stars emerge from the sky's dark background. Constellations that have been in the mystifying if-you-say-so category begin to make sense. And there is a sense of something classical, and even eternal -- not only because you are watching debris from 1862 (or from the comet's previous passes, in 1479 and 1079), but because all this light has traveled across multiple light-years to reach our eyeballs, and because the business of naked-eye astronomy that you are practicing in your own amateur, uninformed way last left its mark on science in the 16th century, the time of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Also, it feels mysterious: why is it that we are only seeing the comet's debris from its next-to-last visit, and not its latest one? What the hell does the gravitational pull of Jupiter have to do with it? There is so much about science that the average person (like me) doesn't really know, and a lot of it is pretty amazing.

Plus, it makes your mind quiet to sit and look at at the whole sky for a whole hour. Even after six months living in a Buddhist temple, it's easy to say this was the best Zen thing I ever did, for real.

After Thursday's good but not great show, we were planning to go out again on Friday. But in the end, it was good we hadn't waited. That night, a drenching rain fell for hours. We ended up ordering pizza and watching movies. Nice enough, but nothing you'd remember for life.

The meteors, on the other hand: they were unbeatable.


Joy of the Day 18/365: Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore is perhaps the most revered poet, songwriter, and artist of the Bengal Region. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913), and wrote the national anthems of both Bangladesh and India. "The fragrance of your mango groves makes me wild with joy," go the lyrics to Amar Sonar Bangla ("My Golden Bengal"), the anthem for Bangladesh.

I'm not that wild for mangoes, but after my time in Bangladesh, I am deeply infected with Tagore-love. I could go on for a long time about him. For now, lacking time, I will just add a quote that I ran into again yesterday by him:

I slept and dreamed that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

The Secret Softness of the Schadenfreudelympics

Joy of the Day 16/365: a terrible diving team and the art of failing right

So, apparently, the Filipino National Diving Team is terrible. A brief video circulating the internet shows their pre-Olympics qualifying event, during which the team's two divers not only mess up their dives but seem shocked when they hit the water. Both manage to earn scores of perfect zero.

They're not in the Olympics (surprise!), but people would love to see them. "Does anyone know when the Filipino diving team is on again?" one dude tweeted. "Can't-miss television." No kidding -- it's the kind of thing that makes you laugh out loud, even if you feel guilty doing it. It's a reminder that Schadenfreude means "shame-joy," emphasis on "joy."

After watching it a couple times, I realized that it was funny not only because of shame, but because of relief. The Olympics are fascinating because the athletes seem all but perfect. When Wu Minxia and her Chinese fellow divers dominate the competition with dive after flawless dive, they seem almost superhuman. 

Behind that appearance is incredible, almost self-destructive levels of dedication. "At the London Olympics, it was only after... Wu Minxia won yet another gold that her father admitted to her that her grandparents had died and that her mother had struggled for years with cancer," a Time story mentions, after describing five-year-olds with callused palms who chirp, "I enjoy eating bitterness," a Chinese idiom for persevering through suffering.

The Filipino divers seem to be going about it another way. Watching them, I began to think of another sport, and the humanizing, kindhearted ethos of falling it has developed.

Check out this video, for example.

I don't know who Christian Flores is; he seems to be just some random guy. There are skaters who have won big in the X-Games, which is the nearest thing skateboarders have to the Olympics. Google results don't imply that he's among them, or professional, or even a dude who gets free shoes from a sponsor. 

He's just this guy who keeps trying. 

Over video of him attempting a trick, he says he's made the effort for two years, visiting the spot about ten times each year and making about a hundred attempts per time. That's roughly 2,000 tries.

From what he says and does, it would seem 1,999 were failures.

He doesn't walk through each of the falls on the video -- there are too many for that -- but what he's doing is so common that another skateboarder, Bret Anthony Johnston, has written that "skateboarders [have] developed a crude taxonomy; there are ‘scorpion falls,’' belly flops so violent that your back arches and your toes nearly tap your scalp; ‘Wilsons,’ in which the board shoots forward and you loop backward like a cartoon character slipping on a banana; and ‘credit cards,’ which find the tip of your board securely slotted where the sun doesn’t shine." Most falls don't hurt, Johnston writes, but over visuals of tumbling, rolling, and screaming in frustration, Flores says, "I went to the hospital twice."

Whether or not they hurt, both skaters agree that the effort is worth it. "The trick, as it were, is to reach a détente with falling: to accept its inevitability while refusing to see it as a setback," Johnston writes in fancy, New York Times-worthy prose.

In softer words, Flores says, "I don't think it matters how much you tried something, I think it only matters how hard you went for it. And even if you didn't do it, but you still, like, tried your heart out, that's so amazing that you had the determination to try it, in my eyes."

The sweetness of that impressed me more than seeing perfect dives at the Olympics, actually. It seems more honest and more useful -- even at elite competitions, where most athletes will inevitably fail, of course.

Both things make me think of the Filipino diving team, who beef their dives, score zeros... and slap each other casual low-fives as they towel off afterward. Their détente with falling badly seems pretty much perfect. Good for them.

As for Flores, his persistence pays off. Halfway through the video -- right after puking on camera -- he lands his trick. The friend behind the camera gets so excited he jumps into his arms, hooting for joy.

It's not exactly equanimity, of course. But I couldn't help but feel joy with them.

Joy of the Day Gets Meta

Joy of the Day is a tiny personal project that aims at bolstering well-being in a tough year by taking note of one joyful thing per day, 365 days in a row.

Joy of the Day 15/365 is meta, with a quote from poet Jack Gilbert that I like particularly well: 

"We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world."

To that I'll add the song I've been listening to early this morning while reading the excellent The Death of Cancer by Vince DeVita, a book that illustrates stubbornness in the face of a ruthless disease. This song was just right for focusing. Mmmmmm. Berlin DJ + biological science = risking delight for sure.


Joy of the Day 14/365: SolarBeat

In the past year or so, I've been reading a lot about astronomy. For reasons that will enter into some future essay, the collaboration between Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler grabbed me, first because it was an interesting story and later because I noticed their struggles mirrored a tension that I'd felt in my own life (although in very different circumstances). I find both the history and the hard science fun to read about.

When I read and write, music tends to run through my head. Sometimes this offers a certain insight into what I'm doing -- because either the lyrics capture an idea I should consider or the mood of the music is somehow relevant to the words in front of me -- but sometimes it is mere distraction. When I read about astronomy, I kept hearing a sort of repetitive tinkling of bells. For a while, I thought of that as meaningless mental flotsam and jetsam, a sound in the mere distraction category. But then I remembered the source.

SolarBeat is a project of a guy named Luke Twyman and his company White Vinyl Design. It uses the real orbital frequencies of the planet in our solar system to make the internet equivalent of a musical mobile. (See it here.) Planets moving around a sun make sounds like bells as they pass a line signifying a completed orbit; the result is a kind of slow pattern of bells that each sound in their own rhythm. A counter details how many orbits each planet has completed, which is an enlightening view of how much longer outer planets take to complete a full circuit compared to those closer to the sun.

SolarBeat first came into being -- and I first found it -- back in 2010, before I took much of an interest in reading about outer space. It has lingered in my head ever since, and tends to come back unbidden when I read about astronomy.

Most marvelous of all is how it changes when I think of, say, the Tychonic (geoheliocentric) model of the universe, which alleged that planets rotated around both the sun and the Earth. Thinking of that as a pattern of sound calls to mind something like the polyrhythmic drumming of the asafo, the local drums corps of the Ghanaian village where I once lived. Picturing movement in the musical style of SolarBeat also tends to let me mentally animate 15th-century diagrams I find recreated in books on Brahe and Kepler, making them fresh and engaging in a way no black ink on flat pages could do. 

I feel a special affinity for space because of my grandfather's role in NASA, but his administrative work didn't really bring to life the movement of planets themselves. SolarBeat did that. On his website, Luke Twyman says, "I'm probably most proud of [my work] getting shout outs from several departments over at NASA, including Hubble." He doesn't mention if any administrators' grandkids did the same -- but if not, well, cross that one off your list, Twyman, because SolarBeat is the Joy of the Day.

Knitting the Ravelled Sleave of Care

Joy of the Day 13/365: Sleep.

Sometimes even feeling sick can be a good deal. I have an allergy problem, and when I eat certain foods I can feel pretty sick. Yesterday, I ate at a cafe and realized that I didn't feel so good. Usually that means the next day is a day of fatigue.

So today I was tired, stayed in bed a little later than I thought I might, took a three-hour nap in the afternoon. I was lucky to be able to get away from responsibilities to do that, and even luckier, because that sleep was fantastic.

It was "sleep that knits the ravelled sleave of care," as Shakespeare once wrote, because it was a bunch of dreams that took me back to times my mind is still working on. I dreamed of people I know in real life, but here things were resolved: I caught two brothers stealing from me, threw them out and locked a door; I saw a friend who in real life is struggling mightily and had a chance to converse with the old, calmer version of him; I talked to an old supervisor and told her that I was fine, I had regained all my confidence, but would not be returning to the work we'd done together.

I woke up feeling like lying in bed was a highly productive thing to do. Then I realized that in some ways that is always true.

Pretty good day.

Galway Kinnell's "Last Gods"

Joy of the Day 11/365: "Last Gods," by Galway Kinnell

I have realized recently that I will quite likely never write anything about a certain part of my private life in any public setting. Since I don't write fiction or poetry and have no ambitions to start, that means I'll write essentially nothing on this topic, at least as it regards specific individuals or explicit depictions. And I'm not excited about it as a topic of reportage, either. 

That said: I think there's a certain need for people to be able to read depictions of sexuality. It has the same importance as any other media representation can have for one's life, in this case a complex and private part of one's life, with the added value of having public health dimensions, too. It can make a person normal, more realistic in their expectations, and sometimes harder to exploit.

Plus, it is fun.

"Last Gods" is one of the most romantic things I have ever read. It is sexually explicit, but so sweet. Plus it has nature in it. And Galway Kinnell was a serious bad-ass at his work, and is a name people should know.

So this is pretty much perfect. 

Joy of the Day once for a great poem, and twice for someone else doing genius work at a necessary task that I myself am not well-positioned to do.


Joy of the Day 10/365: Cheese on fire

You know how when you go out to a Greek restaurant in America and order saganaki, and the waiter will bring out a little metal plate with a slab of cheese on it, pour alcohol over it, light it on fire, yell "Opa!" and then put it out with the twist of a lemon?

Well, that's not quite a Greek thing.

Saganaki -- which refers to serving hot cheese on a metal dish -- is a classic Greek dish. (Depending on the region of Greece and the preference of the cook, the cheese can be kafalograviera, halloumi, or various other kinds of cheese.) But the business of lighting it on fire in front of the diner is a Chicago invention. Greek food became a trend in the city around 1968, when a local named Chris Liakouras opened a restaurant called the Parthenon. A string of Greek restaurants along Halsted Street followed, which helped make Greek food a widespread culinary trend. Liakouras allegedly invented the Chicago way of preparing saganaki after a customer suggested it -- and from there it spread across much of America. 

I'm from Chicago, but these days I'm not particularly proud of my city. I remember coming home from Asia in the autumn of 2013 and randomly running into people I knew on the street, four days in a row. But those days are gone, I guess. After a rough experience with a renowned Chicagoan about a year ago, I've come to feel unwelcome here. Friends have moved away, I've lost touch with most of the communities I was once part of, and I rarely go out. So much for Chicago pride.

And yet: cheese on fire. It's undeniably a Chicago thing. And it's so useless, so lunkheaded, so colossally stupid, that it always makes me smile.

Opa to that.