Friday, June 15, 2012


I headed out this evening on my bicycle to go hear Lewis Lapham speak. I've been a huge fan forever - what would life have been like these last thirty years without Harpers magazine and Lapham's clear-eyed editorial writing about politics and life?  He was as interesting and clear and fruitful in person as he is on the page.

But I have to say that the guy interviewing him on stage did a terrible job. It was so frustrating! .The guy's an editor at Walrus magazine. He may be OK at his job, but he sure should stay away from doing interviews.  His deafness to Lapham's answers and thinkings-out-loud was shocking. And enraging too, he wasted all kinds of opportunities to take the conversation to interesting places.

Why am I going on and on about this?  Well perhaps because it was a reminder of how often people screw up for similar reasons: because they are so busy wanting to seem clever or hard-working or otherwise impressive that they are blind and deaf to the situation or to the person they are talking to or whatever.  And so it was here.  The interviewer had his little prep sheet with facts and figures and preset questions and he worked his way through it, oblivious of all the lovely pathways that Lapham's answers opened up.

You get the same obtuseness in very different circumstances - I'm thinking about how people act around the subject of death or when someone is dying. When death is around, often people say to themselves or others,"I don't know what to say" or even "I'm so embarrassed, I don't know how to behave". Talk about self-centred and hopeless.

If we stop worrying about how we look to others, if we stop being so ridiculously self-conscious about our own status and appearance, then we can start to tune in. And otherwise, we can't and don't tune in. We get in the way. We parade our "knowledge" (as the guy Kyle did tonight) rather than being attentive to the situation or to the other people involved. We stay hung up on our own appearance, on how we might appear to others.  What a waste.

Lewis Lapham said many things this evening. I wish I'd taken notes. But one area I do remember: he talked about the fearfulness that is in the US; he said that the war on terror has been lost, for everyone in the US is fearful. They're afraid of death, he said. And that's because they go through life as if the government was a luxury resort. "We lack the sense of the tragic in everyday life" he said.

And if daily life is about accumulating treasures and wealth, and about pretending that death can be prevented, that it's something that happens to other people, then life is one big playground and people have no context, no sense of the tragic, and no sense of history.

Afterward the friend I went with this evening said, but surely every culture worth the name has a sense of the tragic in everyday life. Art, music, literature: all of them create worlds where the tragic is waiting every day.

The evening ended with some very good questions from the audience. Lapham's final comment was about capitalism: I feel happy he said, and relieved, by my study of history. Everything is born, peaks, and then tails off and dies.  This includes capitalism, which arose in Holland in the fifteenth century, peaked in the Industrial revolution in the UK and US, and will come to an end sometimes this century.   hmmm

Lapham's an optimist after all. He's clear that right now the world is going to hell in a handbasket made of lies. (He says for example that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy:"Government by the rich, of the rich, for the rich").  But he can also take the long term view: eventually things will change, and he sees renewal not as a loss of the old but a needed growth of the new.

Here as we head into the solstice week, it's a good time to think about renewal. I've been bitten by some renewing bug, I must confess. I've done a purge of cookbooks, organised those that remain, cleaned and painted and rearranged much of the ground floor...oh and started a new invigorating and demanding regimen of exercises from the great Rafi.  Perhaps the exercises have led me to this energised take on chores? Who can tell? But whatever the explanation I am loving the results. The walls are clean and bright and smooth downstairs; everything looks refreshed.

Another marker of change and renewal happened earlier this week with Ian's graduation. He lived in this house for three of his five years of undergrad at U of T. Now it's hard, seeing his confidence, to remember the shy first year student he was so long ago. His family came down from Grey County for the graduation and they came bearing gifts: paper bags of freshly picked shiitake mushrooms, grown on maple logs in their forest.

I've had two big feasts of them, each time sliced, sauteed in the cast-iron pan with some garlic, a dash of wine, then with whisked eggs added to make a mushroom-loaded omelet. Tonight before going out to hear Lapham, I included some chopped tender broccoli raab and garlic scapes in the frying. Nothing better. And there were tender mixed leafy greens to have alongside, also grown in Grey County, dressed with the lightest dash of olive oil, local cider vinegar, and salt.

Solstice, new life in the garden, a transformed cleaned-up house, good friends and good health, clear skies and sharp breezes, and engaging thinking from a visiting public intellectual: it doesn't get better than this...


Traca said...

Naomi, so much here to consider...but for now, I'll leave you with this terrific talk about the Art of the Interview. I appreciate his frankness--especially when things didn't go well. While interviewing is definitely an art and I admire those who can do it well, I aspire to engaged listening...and questioning as a daily practice.

naomi said...

I just watched the TED talk by Pachter that Traca linked in her comment above. He makes some very interesting observations, esp the idea that everyone is waiting to be asked the questions that will enable them to explain how they came to be who they are.