CURIOUS CATS

Cats are curious.  Their antics, drawn from that need to nose about, are what draw us to them and flood YouTube.  We non-feline folk can be curious cats, too.  We love a mystery, thrill to intellectual problems and delight in investigating, well, damn near anything that intrigues, infuriates and challenges.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio, in a new book entitled Why?, cites psychologist Daniel Berlyne’s contention that curiosity has two essential dimensions:  perceptual (piqued by sensory anomaly) and epistemic (driven by intellectual pursuit).  Without that framework, Berlyne says that curiosity can be specific or diversive, i.e. either raised by a nagging question (the former) or aimlessly exploratory (the latter).

Berlyne further suggests that curiosity can, in some instances, be infuriatingly unpleasant until the curiosity-inciting anomaly is resolved.  But, as in purely intellectually-driven curiosity, it can also be rather enjoyable, rather as one might enjoy the chase of a treasure hunt while the game remains afoot.

A pair of profiles highlight his exploration of curiosity:  sculptor-artist Leonardo di Vinci and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (who once said, “Science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.”).  Both men cast their nets of curiosity wildly, almost willy-nilly (not to be confused with that beer commercial’s tag line “Dilly dilly”).  Berlyne concludes that “a necessary condition for keen curiosity appears to be [a superior] information-processing ability.”  As Walter Isaacson’s new biography of di Vinci notes, the artist famously wanted to know what a woodpecker’s tongue was like.

That, for me, embodies the essence of curiosity:  Go wherever the inclination leads.  One never quite knows what unintended consequences, what new and fertile field of exploration might be opened by this question, that hunch.  It is almost certainly true that, for example, di Vinci’s interest in literally exposing the muscle and sinew of cadavers gave him the depth of knowledge and experience to paint the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile in such a manner that, to this day, we continue to debate just what the young woman was thinking.

Berlyne says that different areas of the brain provoke different sorts of curiosity, that folks will willingly endure physical pain (even die) to gain some sorts of new knowledge, that we’re more likely to investigate areas we know something about than entirely new areas, that curiosity decreases as we age, and that sometimes we prefer depth in one area over a more eclectic experience.  (He’s obviously discounting ADD as a motivating force.  But then he says that ADD is simply curiosity in overdrive.)

What is fundamentally interesting is that it was curiosity that drove evolution, from the mastery of fire to expanding the nutritional value of our food groups, which in turn led to bigger brains . . . and additional questions.  Most intriguing is the historic interest of some in restricting curiosity and knowledge (various religious and political entities) and our pervasive and instinctual need to countervail those sources of repression.  Asking “Why?” may be the single most innate aspect of our humanity.  As the Irish novelist James Stephens says, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

The final fact of the matter is this:  Interesting people are interested people. Curiosity keeps us young and vital.  What’s more fun than listening to a five-year-old’s questions?  Why is the sky blue?  Where do volcanos come from?  Why do girls laugh at boys?  A curious, cat-like mind is a youthful mind, so stay curious and stay young, my friends.  Think.  Ask seemingly frivolous questions.  Explore.  There’s an entire universe out there, under your feet and above your cranium, awaiting your queries and your explorations.  Go for it.  Dilly dilly!

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

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ONE WORLD

We understand the concept.  We’ve had the United Nations since 1945, after all.  But it still hasn’t convinced us of the need to see the planet operated under a single political entity.  And here’s the kicker:  Our failure to do so may cost us the whole shebang.

I was jotting down notes on priorities the other day.  You start with the usual:  healthy food, comfortable housing, meaningful employment, good relationships.  Those sorts of things.  But when you step back far enough to gain perspective, you return inevitably to the sense that none of those work without a sustainable habitat.  The Mother Ship.  Gaia.  Home.

Give it any name you like, it doesn’t work as an entity if the air is foul, the oceans dirty and the dirt dry, barren and fruitless.

Nearly a half century ago I saved and scrimped to take a trip to London.  For the theatre.  For.  The.  Theatre.  Hey, this was important stuff!  At least one performance each day, walking to the theatre district from my bargain basement hotel, The President.

But the highlight of my first trip overseas was a visit to the medieval town of Bath to meet Gilbert Young, founder of the World Government Party.  I had read about him and his quixotic quest in The Christian Science Monitor.  I was intrigued.  So, on a freezing Sunday morning in January of 1971 I took the 0845 train from Paddington Station to Bath.  Crossing the moors—awash with pheasant hunters—it took a bit more than two hours to reach the coastal town where Edgar was crowned King in the tenth century, a bit less than a hundred years before the Norman conquest.

Mr. Young was then a past-middle-aged gentleman who was promoting the need for a single political entity to bring together the widely disparate needs of the hundreds of countries on the planet.  We sat in a pub and drank a “bitter,” then had dinner with his wife Ettie (roast chicken and potatoes, with blueberry pie and cream for dessert) at his modest home at Number Four Alfred Street.  His arguments were sound, and I left agreeing with his premise.  The only daunting aspect of our conversation was the salient fact that his World Government Party had less than £100 in its banking account.

So, Mr. Young was a dreamer.  But he had the right dream.  We must not discount that.  In fact, we must embrace that dream.  We must make more of the United Nations or, if that be not sufficient, scrap it altogether and come up with some new universal political entity—bankrolled with more than £100—to put the planet on a unified course to end war as a means of conflict resolution, clear the air, cleanse the oceans, convert to renewable and clean energy sources (better for the planet and the economy), sustainably farm the land, more efficiently distribute its fruits so that everyone can feed their families, find shelter from the storms, and have purposeful work to salve souls, minds and bodies.  That is what Life is supposed to be about, but it doesn’t work if we’re all aiming in different directions.  One planet, one government.  It’s just a dream now.  But even the tiniest notion starts with the dream.  And this one’s a doozy.  But the potential results make it worth any and all effort.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

A DAY CAN BE A LIFETIME

It’s partly a question of attitude and perspective, but each day can be taken and created as a lifetime.  You see, by recreating your life anew each morning, you can build a life more suited to your needs—rather than allow your life to merely follow the dictates imposed by others.

What’s required is nothing more difficult than a series of “be’s” that you set out in front of you as beacons to guide the course of your “new life” each morning.  The wonderful thing is that, as you create this new, working, functional, satisfying life each day, it slowly builds into an entire life that is useful—to you and to others—and that you can be justly proud of.

  • BE FRESH Being fresh is nothing more complicated than beginning each day anew, utterly without regard to what happened yesterday, the day before, the month or year before.  The key aspect of being fresh is laying aside the negative drag factor of guilt and allowing yourself to begin your new life, you new day with a clean slate.  It was newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck who once characterized guilt as “the gift that keeps on giving.”  Well, that’s one gift you don’t need when you’re creating a new life, fresh each morning.
  • BE BOLD When you’re playing minor deity and creating life, there’s no point in being niggardly or coy about it. Jump in with both feet and take some chances.  Take a class that sets a new direction for your new life.  Climb that mountain you’ve always wanted to ascend.  Imagine what major regrets the 75-year-old future you would have, and then write up a checklist that will shift those regrets into the “been there, done that” side of your new life’s ledger.  Embrace the attitude that failure is nothing more than feedback.
  • BE OPEN This “be” might be considered a subset of Be Bold, but it’s as important to keep your mind open to the full range of possibility as it is to be bold once you’ve decided which fork in the road to strike out upon. A major part of being open is allowing yourself to accept options that present themselves, even if they seem to be coming from the strangest reaches of left field.  As novelist Alice Walker counsels, “Expect nothing; live frugally on surprise.”  (And what’s more entertaining than surprise?)
  • BE STRONG Little of the above is fully possible unless you keep your mental, physical, social and spiritual “selves” nurtured, fed and exercised. The Limelighters old throwaway line “Sound mind, sound body, take your pick” was cute, but misleading.  It is not only possible to keep all four selves strong and sound, but utterly necessary if you are to function effectively in an increasingly competitive world.
  • BE PRESENT Being fully aware, fully present in the moment is the best means of truly appreciating the new life you are creating. One exercise that will help you to focus on “the moment” is the practice of living a week (or a month) as if you were a terminal patient and had only that week (or month) to live.

I recall a tennis match in which my partner and I were down five games to love.  Had we focused on the whole seven games we needed to capture that set’s victory, it would have been far too great a task to grasp.  But by staying in the moment, by playing each point for its own individual value, we were able to string those seven straight games together, point by point.

It’s a nice memory, but it’s far more valuable as an example of one of the five “be’s” by which we can, each and every day, build better, more fulfilling lives.  One day at a time.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

FEELINGS ARE HARD

The heightened sensitivity given me by the family gene pool can be particularly painful at times.  I feel slights where they do not exist, I hear things that others do not pick up on, and I am constantly in touch with the pain of others.  But that is a plus for the creative side, so you live with it.

There was a letter the other day to Dear Abby that practically had me in tears.  From “Shy Lesbian in Michigan,” the 30-year-old writer (the same age as my twins) bemoaned an unspoken love she had been silently living with since childhood.  “I’m afraid if I tell her how I feel I’ll lose our friendship.  Should I take a chance and tell her?”

Jeanne “Abby” Phillips rightly encouraged her to be open with her friend.  “If that’s the end of your friendship, it would be better for you than what you’re experiencing now.  If your friendship is strong, it should survive even if your romantic feelings are not reciprocated.  If your friend doesn’t share your feelings, you will then have to decide whether hurting inside the way you are is emotionally healthy for you.”

Bravo!  I wanted to stand up and clap.  That is exactly the answer to everything:  Be open and above board and let the chips fall where they may.  We all come up against similar problems and we should know from experience that trying to hold emotion in only causes it to metastasize and fester which, in turn, leads to ulcers and lots of antacid pills (not to mention that ugly, viscous, pink liquid stuff).  Ugh.

Exposing our feelings to the light of day, on the other hand, allows the possibility of positive resolution.  Remember the basic rule:  If you don’t ask, the answer is “no.”  If you do ask, the answer might be “no,” but then again it might also be “yes.”  It’s the old “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” truism.  Always better to know than to not know.

I am relatively new to social media.  Didn’t have a clue as to what Facebook was about until several months ago, when I tentatively joined in.

The thing that most surprised me—a subject line that amped up a bit during the just-ended holiday season—was the near-constant references to low self-esteem and the notion of suicide.  There are a disturbing number of young people out there who either embrace the drama of talking about killing themselves or, worse, who are seriously contemplating same.

Look, everybody has a day or three when you feel out-of-sorts, when you short-change your value on the “people” market, when your raison d’etre feels more raisin than top shelf wine grape.  We know the importance of “mission” and “purpose” to our lives, but some days the impetus toward meaningful engagement with the world just doesn’t show up.

My heart hurts when I see people demonize themselves, denigrating their value to the planet and its inhabitants.  But this particular planet is a big place and it is not vital that our existence satisfy every one of its critters.  It’s okay to give yourself a day pass every now and again.  Really.

Keep in mind, during this exercise—it’s all an exercise—that no one is allowed to take away from your existence or worth without you’re allowing them to do so.  That’s the one arrow we need to keep in our quiver at all costs.  You and only you hold the right and the power to determine your response to anything short of a kill shot.

So, yes, feelings are hard.  But they are also everything.  Embrace them and make them yours or you’ll be left holding an empty bag.  And the pain will still be there.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

I LOVE WOMEN

I have always had female friends.  I’ve been lucky enough to nearly always have remained friends with ex-girlfriends, a tricky proposition at best.

I think I know why this is:  I have always liked girls and women.  I believe that is because I can identify with them, be compassionate with them.  And I think that is because I have a strong feminine side.

Don’t kid yourself.  Nobody but a true freak is one hundred percent male, or one hundred percent female.  Too much of an outlier.  We all have a little of each gender in our overall makeup.  (Although, to be completely honest, here, I very rarely resort to makeup.)

Gender is a continuum.  Gender is mostly grey, and that’s the good news, because who would want to be defined by the farthest reach of either side.  You would be, quite literally, a caricature.  The funny would quickly fade to farce, the farce to freak and pathos and worse.

The upside is that we have the greater opportunity to empathize with one another, we have more chances for condolence when things are tough, and shared elation when things go swimmingly.

Thus, there is good news to reap from the pathetic and vicious revelations of sexual harassment that have swept the headlines for the past months.  In the first instance, these predators no longer have the cover of darkness and intimidation to hide behind.  People are speaking out and speaking up and the perpetrators are being increasingly held to account.

In the second instance—and this is likely to be even more far-reaching than the first, as significant as that one is and will be—women are signing up to run for office in numbers too great to ignore.  The entire face of the political map is likely to change forever.  That means elected officials with greater empathy, greater sympathy for other women, for minorities, for the poor, for the otherwise disenfranchised.  This is a sea change.  This means that equal pay for equal work is back on the play list.

As Rebecca Traister notes in New York magazine, it isn’t just about sex, it’s about sexism and a more equal distribution of power:  “But in the midst of our great national calculus, in which we are determining which punishments fit which sexual crimes, it’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether: that this reckoning is not, at its heart, about sex at all—or at least not wholly.  What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and, more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do that work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.  Sexual assault is one symptom of those imbalances, but not the only one.”

Only good can come from women acquiring an equal voice in the way things are run.  A searing example of this comes from the 16-year-old girl, Starr Carter, the protagonist of Angie Thomas’ brilliant first novel, The Hate U Give.  Starr is the only witness to a white cop gunning down an innocent, un-armed black teen.  She undergoes a ground-glass-tough catharsis before deciding to testify in front of a Grand Jury, saying to herself, “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”  (On a sly side note, her father’s name is Maverick Carter.  The real Mav Carter is one of the most successful black businessmen in our country . . . and personal manager to LeBron James.)

Most things, in the end, come down to power and money and the access to and use of that dynamic pair.  I’ve never understood why any society would willfully discount one half of its natural resources.  Perhaps now we are on the brink of the greatest opportunity of all, the chance of using every last bit of our national talent and brilliance.  I’ve never liked and loved and rooted for women more.  Go get ‘em!

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

BACK TO THE BASICS

The beginning of a new period of day-counting is as good a time as any to re-evaluate where you stand (or sit, as the case may be).  A review of the “basics,” as it were.

For me, I start with my four “selves,” the physical, mental, social and spiritual selves that are in constant need of nourishment, exercise and, most importantly, good use.  If I can get all those entities up to speed and efficiency, I should be able to contribute something worthwhile to the commonweal.  And that ought to be our aim, after all: to have a purpose and to exercise same for the greater good.  Be useful.  Be productive.  Be positive.

That is the most basic question of life, isn’t it?  Why are we here?  What we going to do to give meaning to our existence?

To do that, we’re going to have to come up with some precepts that will guide our efforts into useful, helpful pathways.  At this point I always revert to the Wallace Shawn character in “The Princess Bride,” who tonelessly reminds us to “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”  (Mandy Patinkin, in a recent interview, noted that everyone remembers his character for the lines upon catching up with his father’s killer: “My name is, Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”  But he then said that the line he most carries with him from that film comes at the end, when his character bemoans, “I’ve been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”)

Knowing what to do with your life is at the heart of living that life well and satisfactorily.  I know, for example, that I got a lot of satisfaction out of urging people to trust their own palates and drink wines that they enjoyed, and not wines that others touted.  I know for certain that I got immense satisfaction out of creating an exquisite relationship with my wife and, together, raising a of couple of delightful and worthy children.  Relationships—family and friends—are essential ingredients to an enjoyable life.

There was a posting on Facebook yesterday citing the difference between how Hillary’s daughter and Donald’s daughters spent their New Year’s Eve, the former donating gifts to Puerto Rican children, the latter pair partying hearty.

As for me, I do not do resolutions, exactly.  But I have recently penned a new note to myself at the top of my ever-changing To Do list.  It reads, “What can I do to help?”  That’s all.  A small and gentle reminder to think of others.  (That said, it is equally important to take care of yourself as well, because if you fail at that you have nothing useful to offer unto the others.  All four of your “selfs” need to be seen to.)  That’s one thing the Holy Bible got right: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.  That one’s easy to misplace—meditation is a good reminder, here—in this hectic world.  Don’t forget to breathe.  Just breathe.

©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle

NO PLAN B

Let’s be clear about this.  There never was a Plan B.  Once I came to the wrenching decision to quit law school—I had wished to practice criminal law ever since the age of seven or eight, when I discovered the unmitigated joy of arguing any side of any issue merely for the pure delight in the mental exercise—I knew that I was going to be a  writer.  What I didn’t know then was this:  How, exactly, was I going to accomplish that goal?

There is no easy path to becoming a writer.  It ends up being like any other profession, in that, to borrow from Phil Knight (Nike), you just do it.  You sit down at a typewriter (then) or computer (now) . . . and write.  And the writing, it turns out, is almost the easy part.  Because selling what you’ve written is a royal pain in the backside.

The most essential, the most basic rule of life is this:  Everything has a price.  Working forward from that point, then, you come inevitably to the fundamental question of life, which is this:  You willing to pay?  When I put the law behind me, I knew that writing was it.  So I made a simple pact with myself:  I was going to give myself five years to get to the point where I was earning a living at my new craft.  And, if I hadn’t gotten to that point . . . I was going to give myself another five years!

That was the deal.  One way or the other, I was willing to pay any and all prices to achieve my goal.  Whatever that cost, whatever that would amount to . . . I was willing to pay.  It became the simplest of equations:  what I put in was what I was going to get out.  Nothing in, nothing out.  All in, the world and all its glories were at least possible.  What’s the old saying?  “All things come to he who waits”?  Yep, so long as he’s working his or her fanny off while waiting!  That’s the real contract and its terms.  Bust your butt and you’ve got a shot.  (Optional listening point while reading this paragraph, “My Shot” from the exquisite musical “Hamilton.”)  Stand on the sidelines and the best chance you’ve got is being a spectator.  And that’s fine for some, but not me.  Prepare yourself, and take your shot.

In the end, it turns out that I became a writer because I wanted to know what I fully, all-in thought and believed . . . and, more importantly, why I thought and believed those things.  It was purely accidental that I ended up with a profession that transformed my reckless, often aimless ADD from impairment to advantage.  When your mind bounces, helter and skelter from one notion to the next—rarely in any observable or sequential order—you never know what delectable, delightful diamond nugget you’ll unearth.  That sort of omni-directional exploration has been ultimately rewarding to me in so many ways.

And so I repeat:  Take your shot.  And be all-in with it.  It’s the only way to fly.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle