Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man – Brain Pickings

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from ‘The Human Body,’ 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronoun “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from ‘Man Meets Woman,’ a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.


For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:


Read more …Source: Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man – Brain Pickings

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A Feminist Army

Utterly brilliant.


I have been taking some time out to reflect upon the last three years, to process what has happened because, of course, some experiences are difficult to process when they are happening. By some experiences I am referring primarily to the work we have been doing to try and expose the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within universities. That work is work we share with many others. After I made public the reasons for my resignation, I was overwhelmed by the feminist solidarity and support I received. Each message brought a message home to me, one I have been trying to write about: living a feminist life is about how we connect with and draw upon each other in our shared project of dismantling worlds.

It is slow and painstaking work but, chip by chip, we chip away. In my killjoy survival kit I discuss how feminist killjoys need breaks from killjoying (yes it…

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The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life – by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.

But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.

How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

Oliver writes: It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Read more of this entrancing piece..

Source: The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life – Brain Pickings

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How Libraries Save Lives – by Maria Povova, Brain Pickings

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries. “If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed,” Joseph Mills wrote in his ode to libraries. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians.

A beautiful testament to that emancipating, transformative power of public libraries comes from one such troubled little girl named Storm Reyes, who grew up in an impoverished Native American community, had her life profoundly changed, perhaps even saved, by a library bookmobile, and went on to become a librarian herself.
She tells her story in this wonderful oral history animation by StoryCorps:

(go to the site)

The piece was adapted into an essay in Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) — the collection of tender, touching, and deeply humane stories edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay that also gave us pioneering astronaut Ronald McNair, who perished in the Challenger disaster, remembered by his brother.

Here is Reyes’s story, as it appears in the book:

Working and living in migrant farmworkers’ fields, the conditions were pretty terrible. My parents were alcoholics, and I was beaten and abused and neglected. I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle.

When you are grinding day after day after day, there’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. You may walk down the street and see a row of nice, clean houses, but you never, ever dream you can live in one. You don’t dream. You don’t hope.

When I was twelve, a bookmobile came to the fields. I thought it was the Baptists, because they used to come in a van and give us blankets and food. So I went over and peeked in, and it was filled with books. I immediately — and I do mean immediately — stepped back. I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things minimal. Of course, I had read in the short periods I was allowed to go to school, but I’d not ever owned a book.

Fortunately, the staff member saw me and waved me in. I was nervous. The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” He explained there was no catch.

Then he asked me what I was interested in. The night before, an elder had told us a story about the day that Mount Rainier blew up and the devastation from the volcano. So I told the bookmobile person that I was nervous about the mountain blowing up, and he said, “You know, the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanoes. Then I saw a book about dinosaurs, and I said, “Oh, that looks neat,” so he gave me that. Then he gave me a book about a little boy whose family were farmers.

I took them all home and devoured them. I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find a place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word.

When I left, I went to vocational school, and I graduated with a stenographer’s degree. Then, when Pierce County Library had an opening, I applied and was hired. I got to spend thirty-two years helping other people make a connection with the library. I have a deep, abiding commitment to them. Libraries save lives.


Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly humanizing Callings with Thoreau on the sacredness of public libraries, Robert Dawson’s photographic love letter to public libraries, and Maurice Sendak’s forgotten, fantastic vintage posters celebrating libraries and reading.

Check out the short video animation by Reyne.. her story..

Source: How Libraries Save Lives – Brain Pickings

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memoryslandscape: (Oh, heart, I would not dangle… | Thrive

(Oh, heart, I would not dangle you down into

the sorry places, but there are things there as well

to see, to imagine.)

Mary Oliver, from section 2 of “Gravel,” The Leaf and the Cloud: A Poem (Da Capo Press, 2000)

Source: memoryslandscape: (Oh, heart, I would not dangle… | Thrive

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The Wild Harmonic Adventures of Liszt’s Concert Study No. 3, “Un Sospiro” | The Listeners’ Club

-Timothy Judd

On a technical level, Franz Liszt’s Concert Study No. 3 in D-flat Major, “Un Sospiro” is a skillfully delivered magic trick. Its score sprawls onto three musical staves and it sounds as if it requires, at minimum, three large and dexterous hands. But all of these voluptuous tones are played using an amazing slight of hand. The melody line alternates between the pianist’s left and right hands while the surrounding arpeggios remain smooth and flowing. As the piece progresses, the voicing gets increasingly complex. Listen to the sparkling splashes of color in this passage.

Maintaining all of this with a sense of ease pushes the pianist to the technical brink, and of course that was Liszt’s point. But Concert Study No. 3 is much more than a dazzling technical exercise. It’s also an atmospheric character piece which takes us on some wild harmonic adventures. It goes without saying that Franz Liszt’s innovative harmonies were shocking and way ahead of their time when this music was written in the mid-ninteenth century. Just listen to this passage in which dominant seventh chords from two competing keys momentarily clash. Or listen to the dark Romanticism of the piece’s lamenting final bars. For a moment, a harmonic sequence set on a descending bass line feels poised for a brave new modulation- something like this surprise key change in Liszt’s orchestral tone poem, Les Preludes. There’s a hint of the Dresden Amen, which plays such an important role in Wagner’s opera, Parsifal, completed nearly forty years later. As the final resolution draws near, it’s easy to sense that this is music which doesn’t want to find an ultimate rest. To the end, it’s trying to pull away to some far-flung harmonic world.

And if that’s not enough harmonic adventure for you, listen to Liszt’s alternative ending (not heard in the clip below), based on a descending whole tone scale. As one voice rises, the other falls, while our perception of the home key is temporarily suspended. (Similar ear-twisting chromaticism occurs in this passage from Liszt’s Faust Symphony). Andrew Lloyd Webber pays homage to this kind of mystery-evoking chromatic progression in the final chords of The Phantom of the Opera, which happen to be in the same key as Liszt’s Concert Study.

The subtitle, “Un Sospiro,” (“a sigh”) should be taken with a grain of salt. It was not Liszt’s title, but was later added by an editor in an effort to make the score more salable. Concert Study No. 3 is filled with bold Romanticism- the kind of swashbuckling bravado we hear in much of Liszt’s music.

Here is a performance from William Wolfram’s 2004 Naxos recording:

Source: The Wild Harmonic Adventures of Liszt’s Concert Study No. 3, “Un Sospiro” | The Listeners’ Club

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Indian Roots of Tibetan Buddhism

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By Theodore Roszak

In The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak sought to formulate some general principles that might guide both environmentalists and therapists in their common project of defining a sane relationship to the world around us. The essay that follows has been adapted from the version that appears in the book.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, there are scientists who believe we may be within sight of a Grand Unified Theory that will embrace all things, all forces, all time and matter. But will such a theory of everything, if we find it, do justice to the very act of seeking for that theory in the first place? Will it explain how a supposedly once dead universe gave rise to this single, burning point of conscious curiosity called the human mind? Certainly no scientific theory we inherit from the past…

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Can Really Bad Poetry Save the Prairie? Or, Let Bad Poetry bloom in every Ditch. 

Utterly brilliant musings by an astonishing writer. I should cut and paste at least one short poem before publishing this to my blog, but I’m afraid I may forget, and it definitely shouldn’t be missed.
Read on…

Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher, nature writer, public speaker, and defender of all that is wet and wild.

Source: Can Really Bad Poetry Save the Prairie?

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“Self Portrait” – David Whyte


Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need to change you.
If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

David Whyte

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