Thinking It Through and Station Eleven

Catching up on old issues of The New Yorker, I came across Joshua Rothman’s essay in the Annals of Inquiry – Thinking It Through – examining rational decision making and how well it works. Although I tend to overthink my decisions and try to research every angle of possibilities, more times than not, it is my intuition or gut feeling that weighs in the most. Maybe that’s not so bad, according to Rothman.

Throughout the essay, Rothman compares rational thought to impulsive decisions, pointing out how much harder it is for an emotional and impulsive person to make the right choices – or is it? Although examining, dissecting, and comparing choices in life – become an English professor or an economist, rent or own – many of us do make life altering decisions based on our opinions of what we think is best and our views of what is right.

Having lived through gut wrenching worry over what to do, I wondered if Rothman was about to advise and conclude that only rational thought could direct all successful actions, but then he offers scenarios where it is intuition that guides to the better path. Nothing should be done on a whim; on the other hand, not everything can be calculated precisely. Life just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve torn out the last paragraph of his multi-page essay to slide into the side pocket of my wallet, and may reread it the next time I am in a quandary – probably soon – again. Here it is:

The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of fact, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time – sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.”

Station Eleven

Although Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was published in 2014, years before our current familiar crisis, her novel is gaining new readers with its view of life after a pandemic. I have not yet read the book but am following the HBO series based on the book, and am so gratified to know Shakespeare’s plays can survive, even after the apocalypse.

In Writing “Finding Joy Through Art at the End of the World in ‘Station Eleven” for the New York Times, Alexandra Alter quotes chief television critic James Poniewozik – “{Station Eleven} is the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.”

I’m not sure if I will read the book – of course there are differences, some sanctioned by the author, but I will continue to watch the series, looking forward to an ending where stories and Shakespeare stand the test of time and anything else the universe throws at us.

Solutions and Other Problems

Having finally finished Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe (taking almost as long as reading The Splendid and the Vile), I found myself happily ensconced in an easier path to philosophical thinking with Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.  If you have read her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, you will recognize her cartoonish characters combined with serious thinking. I like books with pictures but tend to shy away from graphic novels. Brosh, on the other hand, offers her heavy insight mixed with a light touch.  It was easy to transfer Bakewell’s evaluation of Sartre to Brosh’s world of grimly smiling characters.

Brosh’s book is full of her own story as she navigates through her sister’s suicide and her traumatic health scare and includes a plethora of sublime and funny vignettes from childhood through her thirty year old self (notice I did not say adulthood). She draws herself as a frog-eyed and neckless stick figure with a blonde shark fin of a ponytail protruding from her head.   She explains why:

“There are a lot of distracting things about humans,” she says. “There are ways we’ve learned to interpret each other, based on all these outside clues. Drawing myself in this spastic, animalistic way allows me to communicate more directly about the things I’m trying to talk about without using this confusing [human] vehicle as a medium.”

Her style works to simultaneously provoke humor and pathos, drawing the reader into funny situations with thoughtful outcomes. Brosh adds her quirky art to a humorous angst reminiscent of David Sedaris talking about his childhood or his favorite pants. Allie Brosh transforms simple stories about her cat, her childhood, and her anxiety into humorous lessons. Some are just laugh out loud funny but others will have you connecting to your own experiences.

Best of all, by exposing her own idiosyncracies, worries, and insecurities, she gives the reader the freedom to admit to some too, and, in the end, become your own best friend. Maybe Solutions and Other Problems was not written to draw us out of our social distancing doldrums in a pandemic, but reading the book sure does a good job of it.

The last line in the book:

Because nobody should have to feel like a pointless little weirdo alone.   Especially if they are.



Finding Inner Peace – The Path by a Harvard Professor

9781476777832_p0_v2_s192x300Would you enroll in a class with the daunting title Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory?  What if it promised to “change your life” ?  Harvard professor Michael Puett condenses his lectures in his book The Path, offering Chinese philosophy to live a better life.  Citing Confucius’s Analects, the Mencius, and the Daodejing, Puett suggests ways to apply the teachings to daily practice. 

Addressing universal themes – how to be a good person, how to create a good society, and how to have a satisfying life – Puett suggests the practice of exhaustingly researching and thinking about plans in order to decide (as I do), is precisely the wrong way to make important life decisions. The Chinese philosophers say this strategy makes it harder to remain open to other possibilities that don’t fit into that plan. 

So for those of us who like to dissect, analyze, and synthesize – what to do?  Puett offers a few suggestions:

  • Attend to small practices; they can change everything.  

Mencius, a late Confucian thinker taught that if you cultivate your better nature in small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence. So…hold that door for someone, smile at the early morning walker you pass as you jog by, take time to have a conversation with a good friend – not just texting.  

  • Instead of choosing between mind  (the rational) and heart (your gut) when you make a decision, go with both.

Become more open to experiences. Research shows our unconscious awareness of emotions around us are actually what drive the decisions we believe we are making with rationality. “One study showed viewers who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively.”  So, go ahead – smile at someone – even if you don’t feel like it. It will improve the other person’s day, and it might make you feel better too.

  • Try something new.

“We are what we do (Aristotle)”  and effort counts more than talent or aptitude. Puett suggests going outside your comfort zone, trying new possibilities will open up a whole new world for you – so what if you have to work a little harder to get there.

Sounds like common sense mixed with a little shmaltz – but then Confucius always seemed so to me.  Nevertheless, the idea to focus on the little things to make life better seems doable. A quick read – not as fast as a fortune cookie – but worth a look.

In the words of Disney’s Cinderella – “Have courage and be kind.”







The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

For Montaigne, it was getting rear-ended by another horse that started his twenty year journey of introspection and observation.  He had started to write for himself about death but, from 1572 to 1592,  he wrote and gave his opinion on anything and everything – horses, thumbs, death, fear, education, cannibals, smells, liars…

In How to Live – A Life of Montagne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell writes a painless tutorial of a best-loved philosopher.  In a conversational style, she introduces Montaigne and explains his approach to life through a series of simple questions that would make the master proud.

Each chapter addresses the question – “how to live?”  and in Montaigne’s style offers a selection of twenty answers  that framed his life.  A sample:

  • How to live?  Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.
  • How to live? Do something no one has done before.
  • How to live? Be ordinary and imperfect.

Don’t be fooled by Bakewell’s simplistic phrasing.  She uses each chapter answer to describe Montaigne and how he used everyday incidents to examine life – and write about it in his famous Essays.  Her organization allows Montagne to emerge effortlessly from the pages, but this is not an easy read.  Be prepared to delve into French history and Greek schools of philosophy.

Once started, I found the book hard to put down – educational and informative -although I admit I did not read every chapter studiously.  Bakewell sprinkles the narrative with Montaigne’s quotes, using them as a frame of reference in telling his biography, for example, the poor memory attributed to Montaigne prompted this line…

“unless a man feels he has a good enough memory, he should never venture to lie.”  

The chapters on Montaigne’s early life, political leanings, and the death of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie are methodical, but the pace picks up a little with a chapter on “little tricks and the art of living” and the beginning of “question everything”…

“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that.”

Montaigne’s ideas are timeless, and Blakewell knew how to draw from them.  Take from her book what you will, as Montaigne would advise; it’s not necessary to read everything – unless you want to.

Interested in the primary source? Read some of The Essays 

or another book on Montaigne with a great title…

Skip Breakfast – Walk into a Bar

Are you up on your Greek philosophers?   The big three – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have lately been the focus of irreverent books trying to elucidate.  For a condensed ID:  Socrates is the one who drank poison (hemlock); Plato, his student, wrote down all those dialogues that gave us the Socratic Method – always answer a question with another question.    And, Aristotle brought us logic and the scientific method.

Breakfast with Socrates could give you indigestion. The subtitle offers to take you through An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day, and includes chapter titles from “Waking Up” to “Falling Asleep and Dreaming” with sprinklings of so many others, including “Shopping, Taking a Bath, and Going to the Gym…”

The writing is heavy with references for the mundane – “The point of getting clean in the morning is to create a blank canvas on which something better than yesterday can be painted and more life can be lived…” in case you needed a reason for taking a shower.   I skipped over the chapters on “Reading a Book” and “Watching Television,” fearing knowing the reasons why might take away the fun of doing.

Read Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar by Cathcart, Klein, and Heller instead if you want a quick review of philosophy and a good laugh at the same time.   This  is a short book   – all in corny joke format.   Here’s one to tease you (on Aristotle’s essential properties)…

When Thompson hit 70, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so he could live longer. He went on a strict diet, he jogged, he swam and he took sunbaths. In just three months’ time, Thompson lost 30 pounds and reduced his waist by six inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it off with a new haircut.  Stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.  As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”   And a voice from the heavens responded: “To tell you the truth, Thompson, I didn’t recognize you.”

Have this quick snack and skip breakfast.