Thoughts (not mine) over coffee before 7AM

My wife and I just got a heart-warming email from an old friend (who shall remain anonymous), with just the sort of thoughtful, soulful reaction to my book that I was aiming for when writing it:

Wow. Just read the Salon bit. Had me crying and laughing. (I was reading it over morning coffee before 7 am, when I am prone to be emotional.)

I have to admit, for these several years, I never quite “got” what Andreas was on about with this whole Hannibal thing. And now, in those Salon paragraphs, it has all become so damn clear. Through Andreas telling that individual, personal narrative, seeing it reflected in my own life, and then seeing up, with ever greater reverberations, expanding out to the great truths of all lives.

Been thinking a lot about the narratives of my own life these days. A lover of nature. A scientist. Successful conservationist. […] Failed Buddhist. Living in the heart of a loving community of friends, even if it is a geographically dispersed community of friends. Me not maintaining that community of friends as much as I used to, as much as I should. Me craving romance, yet terrified of sex, terrified of intimacy. Neurotic, bordering on psychotic.

What are my successes? What are my failures? Has one come at the cost of the other?

Chogyam Trungpa once said something about how our brilliance, in that Buddhist, primal human sense, is the direct result of our neuroses. It is not despite our neuroses that our most beautiful and generous properties come, but because of them. In Kipling’s terms, “brilliance” and “neurosis” are two imposters, to be treated the same…

Dealing with disaster

Shackleton

Chapter 7 in Hannibal and Me is titled “Dealing with disaster”. So, how does the Hannibalic story tell us to deal with it?

First, a reminder about the premise of my book: I use stories of real people to make universal points. Put differently, I use the people in the stories to personify lessons (but you, the reader, ultimately have to adapt the lessons to your own life.).

The first personification of responding to disaster in life is named Quintus Fabius Maximus. (From the picture above, you may have guessed that by the end of the chapter he will have a “twin” in Ernest Shackleton, as I explain below).

As I introduce Fabius on page 144 ff., he

came from one of the oldest and noblest families of Rome, the Fabii, who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to Hercules. But Hercules was not exactly the first image that came to mind when looking at Fabius himself. When he was a boy, one of his nicknames was Verrucosus — “Warty” — because he had a big wart on his lip. Another nickname in his youth was Ocivula, “Lamb,” because he had an unusually mild temper for an aristocratic Roman boy. He did everything slowly. He spoke slowly, walked slowly, learned slowly. He was bad at sports in a society that was all about athletic, virile, and martial games. Young Fabius was in almost every way the exact opposite of young Hannibal. …

And yet the Romans gradually changed their minds about the warty, lamblike Fabius. As the boy grew into a man, that same slowness began to look like steadiness and prudence…

He was already in his forties when [the Romans] first elected him consul. As senator or elder statesman, five times as consul and twice as elected “dictator,” Fabius remained one of the republic’s leaders for the rest of his life.

By the time the young and dashing Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy, Fabius was already in his sixties. … Fabius had never encountered such an enemy. What, Fabius reflected in his slow and methodical way, should he, and Rome, make of Hannibal?

And then, of course, the disasters began. Battle after battle in which Hannibal routed Roman armies that outnumbered him. Rout is the wrong word. Hannibal exterminated Roman armies, he depleted the Roman population of men, of senators, of sons, of fathers. From the Roman point of view, Hannibal represented the extinction of Rome.

How Hannibal did that — how he won those battles — I deal with in the preceding two chapters. But in Chapter 7, I’m looking at these events purely from Fabius’s side, so that we can understand how to deal with disaster.

And Fabius offers us a psychologically layered answer. Page 146:

… The younger Roman leaders found this hard to admit, but Fabius simply accepted that Hannibal was superior on the battlefield. That premise led Fabius to a simple but shocking conclusion: if going to battle against Hannibal meant losing, it was clearly not a good policy to go to battle against him at all. …

In these extreme circumstances, Fabius decided, the strategic definition of success was no longer victory but stalemate. In his slow and methodical way, Fabius thus determined that Hannibal’s stunning triumphs on the battlefield might yet lead to nothing. They might be impostors.

So what were the elements of his response, of “the Fabian response” in the language of my archetypes?

Page 153:

There are two aspects to a Fabian character that make it resilient and that you might remember if ever disaster should strike you. The first is the ability to accept reality for what it is. The second is the ability to stop resisting reality and instead to flow with it until circumstances begin to change.

1) Acceptance

From page 154:

Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance: these are the stages that make up the human “grief cycle” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a twentieth-century Swiss doctor who spent her time caring for dying people…

Losing your job, losing your house to foreclosure, being diagnosed with cancer, getting divorced — any bereavement, failure, or other disaster triggers the psychological responses of the grief cycle. But people move through the grief cycle in different ways. Some progress swiftly, others get stuck at one stage, and yet others cycle back and forth through them. …

Page 157:

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

I illustrate this wrenching process in this chapter by looking at Eleanor Roosevelt, who suffered through the grief-cycle after discovering the love letters between her husband and their secretary, Lucy Mercer. Roosevelt literally cried and raged it out, while sitting for hours and days and weeks in a park, gazing at the female face of a statue called … Grief.

2) Flowing (or “non-doing”)

As Fabius himself said (to a consul who would soon be killed because his co-commander refused to heed this advice): “Can you then doubt that inactivity is the way to defeat an enemy?”

Page 158:

One translation of Minucius’s [a Roman rival to Fabius] taunt about Fabius’s do-nothing tactics into Chinese is wu wei, which means “nondoing” or “doing by not doing.” Wu wei happens to be a central concept of “the way,” the Tao, in Chinese philosophy. This Taoist notion of wu wei, nondoing, is often mistaken for passivity, which it is not. Instead, nondoing is really a very active way of letting inevitable things happen without wasting energy resisting them, instead bringing one’s own position into harmony with this flow of nature. The principle of wu wei might say, for instance, that is is better to use a rushing stream to spin a wheel and transfer its energy than to block the stream and try to make it stop flowing. Or it might say that a skipper is better off tacking through the wind than trying to go against it, which would be futile. Indeed the best skippers often look, as Fabius did, as though they were “doing nothing”….

I then illustrate this point by looking at Ernest Shackleton, who (page 161),

decided to cross the entire Antarctic continent on foot. It was as daring in 1914 as it had been in 218 BCE for Hannibal to Cross the Alps…

But, as you all know, Shackleton failed at his quest, when his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the ice.

Page 162:

Shackleton’s first reaction was to order his crew to do what heroes normally do: fight. The men climbed onto the ice and hacked away at it with picks, trying to open a sea-lane. But it was useless…

They now spent the Antarctic winter on their ship, which was frozen into its ice pack. No light, eternal darkness. All the stages of Kübler-Ross’s Grief Cycle.

Then the ice crushed the Endurance, and the men watched as their ship sank. Page 164:

Suddenly, the men were all alone, floating on ice somewhere near the South Pole.

Shackleton announced new plans of daring and heroic resistance: they would march, while dragging their own life boats, across the ice toward an islet, covering roughly the distance from San Francisco to Loas Angeles. Page 164-165:

After three hours of hard toil, they had moved one mile. It began to snow. The next day they tried again, but the snow was like glue. … The next morning they tried again. Shackleton went ahead and scanned the ice. He saw pressure ridges where colliding ice floes had formed mountains that looked as forbidding as the Alps.

Shackleton turned around and walked back to the group. He took deep breaths of the icy air and prepared to announce his decision, which he knew was probably the weightiest of his entire life. At first, he had thought that attacking the enemy was the best thing to do, both for morale and for their chances of survival. But he now thought that he might have been in denial. During the night, he had accepted reality, and seeing the endless ice mountains around them had confirmed it. Instead of attacking and wasting caloric energy to make at most a mile  a day toward who knew where, they would instead … do nothing.

And to understand why this saved him, why this turned his disaster into one of the greatest triumphs in human history, you have to know something about the ice. For that, you’ll have to read the book.

The ice … the Tao.

Fabius, Roosevelt, Shackleton … you. 

To be continued.

Silver in the mine, jade unpolished

For the holidays, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is by Benjamin Franklin:

Genius without education is like silver in the mine.

And because all grand thoughts are timeless, they must re-appear in an eternal return.

So this quote, too, must have antecedents. Let’s work backwards in time, to savor even more of the same wisdom:

First stop: Song Dynasty

From my daughter, who is currently reciting the 13th-century Sanzi Jing (the Three-character Classic, a Confucian poem-treatise), I hear the beautifully rhythmic:

Which means (Number 7 here):

Jade that has not been polished

cannot be used.

[a] Person who has not studied

cannot know righteousness.

Second stop: Rome

By Rome I mean Latin. Let’s see: to educate = ex-ducere = to lead out

Lead out? As in: get out what is already there, as in silver or jade? Where might that idea have come from?

Third stop: Socrates

We haven’t talked about Socrates for a while here on The Hannibal Blog. (Here are all my old posts about him. He is not in my book, by the way).

The old man had his own silver/jade/education theory: He called it (in the Meno and Phaedo) “anamnesis”. And he demonstrated it by … helping a slave to remember (= “teaching”) that the blue square below has twice the area of the yellow square:

The lesson

And now for Kluthian axiom number whatchammacallit:

It’s in there. Get it out.

Happy holidays.

Life reversals: the case of the White Moustache

And now: something completely different, and much more important — indeed, rather uplifting, in the spirit of the season.

We are, obviously, talking about … yogurt.

Way back in May, I wrote a story in The Economist called Red Tape in California: Beware of the yogurt. The title says it all, really. But if you need additional context, my favorite line from the article is:

The tale thus went from Kafka to Catch-22.

In a nutshell, it is the tale of a Zoroastrian father-daughter team (pictured above) in Orange County who make fantastically good “artisinal” yoghurt — or would make it, if it weren’t for California’s bureaucrats. Go read the rest.

Why do I bring this up now? Because there has been an epilogue, which is unfolding still.

A few weeks after the article appeared, Homa (the daughter) emailed me that

… we were requested by two news sources a Chilean newspaper “Las Ultimas Noticias” (a conservative daily based in Santiago), and Fox Business News “America’s Nightly Scoreboard” to give an interview…. We were written up in HaAretz, an Israeli paper, which was basically a translation of your article, except with the headline: “U.S. against Iran– now the scene of yogurt”… A film-maker has asked us for the movie rights, he wants to call the documentary: “The Curdled Crusaders” — Catchy. Tons of people have commented on our FB page and send individual e-mails of support. A few consultants who want to help us more to other states (Tennessee, Texas, Mexico). Some wanting to know where to buy the yogurt (clearly, they didn’t pay attention to the article).

Pretty good, don’t you think?

And now, just the other day, Homa emailed again:

Dear Andreas,

I hope this letter finds you well. There have been quite a few developments for us (specifically in the last three weeks) which most definitely relate back to the piece you wrote on us. Most pleasantly, Secretary of State for Oregon Kate Brown read The Economist piece in November and thought “This shouldn’t happen. Let’s get her to make it up in Oregon.” And so she invited me up, introduced me to regulators and business recruiters and even though their regulations are similar to California, their attitude has been: How can we make this happen for you?” It has been such a nice change.

Also, nine months of begging for an audience, Karen Ross of The CDFA has finally agreed to meet with us (today!) and tell us what exactly the public risk is of using already pasteurized milk.

Ironically, I’ve only made yogurt twice in this whole time. An ideal time, I figured, to experiment with the paleo diet.

Best,

Homa

Bill of Rights for Friends of Authors

1) Thesis

I was talking to my boss the other day about my imminent book launch. After a few glasses of wine, and in the company of other writers, he, an accomplished serial author with a very British sense of humor, told me, claiming to speak from experience, that

the only thing you’ll ever regret is that you didn’t prostitute yourself more.

He meant, of course, that I (and all authors) should, at least this once, get over the discretion that is native to people of manners, and just … market (verb). Because if we authors don’t, nobody else will, and we authors will be angry with ourselves later.

2) Antithesis

On the other hand, I have been around some authors who, for a period lasting months, turn into book-marketing robots, to the point where I can no longer have a normal conversation with them.

And so I understand fully the humanitarian need for limits.

3) Synthesis

So, in the spirit of mutual empathy between Authors and Friends of Authors, I (pictured above, seated) hereby promulgate a Bill of Rights — nay, a Magna Carta — to protect … you.

(Whoever you might be. But especially if you happen to be somebody I know, like, owe, am married to, have fathered, have been friends with…..)

Rights:

  1. There shall continue to be, as there have been since time immemorial, topics of conversation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Author’s Book, and the Author shall respect said topics as such — ie, as inviolable.
  2. If the Author happens to moderate a panel about an interesting (or even a boring) topic unrelated to his Book, the Author shall refrain from name-dropping his Book in introducing the Panelists or while moderating their debate. If the Author violates this rule, the Audience shall be within its rights to boo Him off the stage, with the physical assistance of the Panelists.
  3. If thou had, in thy previous dealings with the Author, the sort of relationship in which thou could call Him a wanker, or to cast other aspersion upon Him with impunity and to humorous effect, thou shalt retain said privileges in perpetuity, whether that friggin’ Book of His is a hit or a flop, because that’s really not thy problem.
  4. When meeting the Author socially, especially if the meeting involves a Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, thou mayest, with impunity, assert thy right to have a pleasant evening without being reminded of the darned Book at all.
  5. Thou shalt not blame, loathe or disdain the Author merely for marketing His Book to Others, being mindful that the Author is a prostitute only temporarily and on good advice, as wouldst thou be in His stead.
  6. Finally, thou hast the right, should thou find the Author’s presence insufferable nonetheless, physically to evade the Author for a period not exceeding the two months around the launch date, provided thou welcome the Author back into human society after the whole silly spectacle passeth into oblivion (which, remember, is a lot sooner than the Author thinks).

Audacity, Freedom, Captivity

Thank you to Jim M., a regular reader here, who emailed me a link to something that I had written but completely forgotten. It is this, which is itself part of this.

Here is how that came about: About a year ago, my publisher asked me to meditate, in less than 500 words total, on people in the news at that time, in the style of Hannibal and Me. The idea was not to regurgitate anything from the book, but to extend the approach as one might in casual conversation. The exercise was meant as a teaser for book professionals.

So I banged out three haikus, each with a theme, a person in the news, and a person from the book:

  • Audacity – Sarah Palin – Sempronius/Flaminius/Varro
  • Freedom – Hillary Clinton – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Captivity – Larry Page – Albert Einstein

(Just to be completely clear: Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Larry Page are not in the book. My publisher and I were just having a bit of fun.)

Here goes:

Audacity

The best defense is a good offense, and Sarah Palin has adopted this principle as her own. Wherever she appears, she attacks. When she feels cornered, she attacks harder. Palin might want to study the Roman generals Sempronius, Flaminius, and Varro. Each was ruined by this strategy when he met a shrewder opponent, the Carthaginian Hannibal. All three had only one approach: audacious attack. All had a history of success. But this made them inflexible. Hannibal turned this inflexibility against them. In three separate battles, Hannibal goaded them into attacking, then waited until their forces, through their own momentum, lost their balance. When they did, Hannibal fell upon them.

Freedom

In one of her debates with then-candidate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton said, “Everyone here knows I’ve lived through some crises.” She could only have been referring to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That humiliation could have shattered her marriage to Bill Clinton, his presidency, and her own life. That it didn’t and instead helped launch her onto a new path suggests that Clinton’s psychological journey paralleled that of another former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1918, Mrs. Roosevelt discovered love letters between her husband, Franklin, and her secretary, Lucy Mercer. She plunged into a deep depression. But in her rage and sorrow, she discovered a feeling of liberation. The Mercer affair freed her to redefine her life’s meaning and her options. It also freed her to view her husband honestly, and the two formed a new, very different but ultimately stable bond.

(Click for credits)

Captivity

At age thirty-eight, Larry Page takes over as chief executive of Google. He cofounded it with Sergey Brin when they were both twenty-five and students at Stanford, after Page invented his revolutionary PageRank search algorithm. In 2001 they hired an older man to be CEO, but ten years later the apprenticeship is over: It is Page’s turn to run the company. He might want to review what happened to Albert Einstein at the equivalent juncture in life: At twenty-six, Einstein had produced four short but revolutionary papers that transformed physics. Einstein then kept refining his insights until he was thirty-eight, when he discovered general relativity. Although he did not know it then, this was a turning point. His imagination became a prisoner of its very success. A perplexing conservatism seized Einstein’s mind and never let go. Page must make sure that this does not happen to him—or to Google.

The brain: How body makes spirit

We Westerners have traditionally viewed mind as separate from matter, spirit as separate from body. This assumption started with Plato and culminated in Descartes, who drew the sketch above. And the notion trickled down from the various philosophers into what we consider “common sense”. In the Graeco-Roman “leg” of our heritage, spirit and body were seen as equal in stature (hence Juvenal: “mens sana in corpore sano“). In the Judeo-Christian leg, body was seen as inferior. But the essential dualism between the two was mostly taken for granted.

Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, by contrast, have traditionally viewed body as arising out of spirit. So pure energy or collective spirit, Brahman, might take the form of individual spirit, Atman, and become the body of something, through the magic process of Maya. (Recall that the Sanskrit word Maya is the root of magic.) That magic could work in both directions, but the essential monism of spirit and body were and are mostly taken for granted.

Modern neuroscience lets us correct and refine both of these views. And this is the first of my tentative conclusions after studying the brain for the past year. We now understand that something as simple as a thought or an emotion or as complex as “consciousness” is an emergent phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.

Those events are action potentials, electrochemical signals that propagate through one neuron and jump across synapses to other neurons. The mechanics of such propagation inside each individual neuron and of the “hop” (or the non-hop) across the synapses are fascinating. But the magic, the Maya, arises — or emerges — when those patterns of action potentials become self-aware. And not just self-aware but “happy”, “aroused”, “aggressive” and so forth.

Dualism, in other words, is wrong. Monism is right, but runs in the opposite direction. Not from spirit to matter and back, as in the Vedantic model, but from matter to spirit and back again to matter.

This insight, once one gets used to it, is merely the beginning of a cascade of radical questions. Such as:

  • What is “personality”? Why and how is your emergent magic different than mine?
  • Do we have “free will”? When, and how much?

Those have to wait for their own posts.

Lessons in meritocracy from Gadaffi’s son

At a very stimulating dinner the other day, somebody told me an anecdote that happened to him “at Davos a few years ago”, when he was chatting (as one does) with one of the sons of then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

(I should say that the topic of conversation at the table was “meritocracy”, and whether the Chinese Communist Party might, surprisingly, be better at fostering it in its internal ranks than America’s allegedly transparent and hyper-democratic electoral systems.)

In any case, Gaddafi junior (I don’t know which one), said something like:

Do you want to know why Israel wins all the wars against Arabs? Because the Israeli army is meritocratic: they pick the generals that will win wars. In our armies, we pick the generals that will be the smallest threat to the boss.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it? And is applicable to a lot else, isn’t it?

The benefits of a blogging holiday

Without even having planned it, I have just taken a one-month blogging holiday. By which I mean: a holiday from blogging, not a holiday spent blogging. And what a healthy thing that turned out to be. I recommend it.

That the hiatus occurred during the dog days of August was pure coincidence. It was neither heat nor languor (in excess of the usual dose) that kept me from logging on. Instead, it was that larger category of reasons which we might call “life happens”. When life does happen offline, it’s sometimes best to stay there (ie, offline).

Only twice in the past month was I tempted to break this online fast by posting:

Once, when I read something that so outraged and offended and mystified me that I at once unsheathed my blogging sword to slice and stab and slay. This resulted in a long draft saved in my WordPress account that will probably never see the light of day. For I showed it to a family member or two, and these confidants — though agreeing with, and liking, my polemic — asked sensibly whether I needed to pick this particular battle just now, just so, or indeed at all. No, I didn’t, I realized. After all, picking one’s battles well is the secret to strategy as opposed to tactics (which, in a way, is the thesis of my book in one nugget.) So this particular battle will not be fought. (Except perhaps posthumously, as Twain might say.)

The second instance when I was tempted, I produced another draft, less controversial and quite entertaining. But I now felt that it was — in comparison to the polemic just left unpublished — banal. Why bother? Back to life.

So here I am again. The break allowed me to reflect where I want to take this blog in the coming months.

Recall: I started the blog rather prematurely three years ago, to write about my book. My editor subsequently urged me rather passionately not to divulge much from the book before publication. That left my blog without a purpose. So I began goofing off intellectually, with threads on:

and so forth. None of those had much to do with my book at all. I was just amusing myself.

So, in a couple of months, I’d like to return to this blog’s original purpose: as a journal in support of, and about, the stories in my book.

In the meantime, I might just tie up a few of the loose “threads” from the past three years. And I might just indulge myself with one new one.

(That’s because, for the past year or so, my new hobby has been to study the brain — human and animal, male and female, old and young, happy and depressed, criminal and healthy, et cetera. So the new thread would be about brain science and its implications for life, justice, love and everything else.)

But then, at the latest in December, it’s all book, all the time, for any of you who will still be around for the fun.